Safety Check | Letter to Santa
By Ron Bell
My first year here at USPA as director of safety and training has gone by so quickly. I now understand why former Director of Safety and Training Jim Crouch’s last words to me as he walked out the door after 18 years of service were, “There was so much I wanted to get done here. Good luck!” (Note to self: Read between the lines when a job description says, “Ability to multitask required.”) I can almost feel Jim’s presence chasing me around the office as I jump from one project to another.
In 2018, Jim’s final year here at USPA, there were 13 skydiving fatalities in the U.S.—a 60-year record low. Although we’ve already surpassed that number of fatalities in 2019, it has still been a rather safe year with 14 skydiving deaths as of mid-October. (However, that number jumps to 25 if you include the unfortunate souls who perished in the Hawaii jump-plane crash.)
This year, my wish list is all about the basics that make skydiving safer. These are lessons that the incident reports—both fatal and non-fatal—show us need to be reinforced.
- I want skydivers to downsize gradually and only after receiving proper training and guidance on their current canopies. I want every jumper to be terrified by the words, “You are downsizing too quickly,” “You’re being too aggressive,” or, “You’re an incident waiting to happen.” These jumpers need to realize that no one is trying to hold them back, no one is trying to put them down. We want you to succeed and become the next famous canopy pilot, but we want you to do it safely and get there without injury.
- I want skydivers to understand the adage, “The Basic Safety Requirements are written in blood.” This saying expresses the truth that each BSR exists because blood was spilled, often with the loss of life. Deviation from these standards will lead to incidents … and often fatal ones. We have learned the hard way. Let’s not do it again.
- I want skydivers to understand that spinning line twists cause multiple problems for a jumper to deal with both before and after deciding to cut away. Don’t delay, cut away!
- I want instructors to finish parachute-landing-fall training with the phrase, “That was perfect,” not, “Close enough,” and mean it. With 100 percent of reported student injuries this year occurring on landing, PLFs do matter.
- I want instructors to include landing problems in every emergency review. This includes discussing half-braked flight and turns, drilling simulated emergency situations, rehearsing obstacle avoidance and practicing PLFs. To round out a complete emergency review session, instructors must go beyond high-speed malfunction and cutaway scenarios to include canopy emergencies that occur during the landing pattern.
- I want instructors and coaches to watch student landing videos together and discuss proper coaching techniques, focusing on radio commands and proper two-stage flares.
- I want skydivers to understand that the extreme circumstances we subject ourselves to when skydiving can affect the simplest of medical conditions, whether physical or mental. As jumpers, we endure these situations so often that we forget just how much we put our bodies and minds through when we jump.
- I want skydivers to actually see—not just glance at—their gear during gear checks. I want them to watch their automatic activation devices finish their setup cycles and thoroughly inspect all their gear, including accessories. I want them to fix deficiencies before they become a problem, not after they have caused a problem.
- I want skydivers to understand that cognitive tunneling (focusing on one thing and not seeing the whole situation when under stress) is a real phenomenon that can affect anyone. The only way for jumpers to prepare for this is to train and practice. They need to close their eyes and imagine a dangerous situation, mentally rehearsing the procedures necessary to get to the ground safely.
- I would like to see jumpers submit incident reports for every occurrence that warrants it. I would like to see every jumper review Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-8, a new section that explains the necessity of incident reports—both fatal and non-fatal—and the process for completing them.
- I want skydivers to stop normalizing deviant behavior and straying from established standards and procedures. Instead, I’d like to see them strive to normalize excellence.
So, there you have it, Santa. It’s not a long list, but it’s relatively comprehensive. If you could grant me these 11 items, it will not take another 60 years to break our record low fatality count that stands at 13. In fact, I’m confident that we could break it next year.
Each year, in addition to his wish list on behalf of skydivers, Jim asked you for a fast car. I see that you finally granted his wish with a Corvette. However, I hear he has been driving around in a little plastic Jeep these days. This job may have driven him a little nutty. It might drive me there, as well.
Ron Bell | D-26863
USPA Director of Safety and Training