How Do Parachutists Think About Risk?
By Jeremy Sieker
The question of how to best manage and avoid risk is at the heart of any extreme sport. For skydivers this takes many forms: “What are the highest winds I should jump in at this location?” “Should I be jumping with a group this big?” How a skydiver analyzes and responds to risk matters. You’d think that jumpers would get better at this as they spend more time in parachuting environments. However, incident reports show that it’s frequently the most experienced jumpers who die or are seriously injured, sometimes for simple mistakes.
As much as it can hurt to acknowledge, especially for those who have lost friends in the sport, complacency often leads to this outcome. One way to think about complacency is as the failure to conduct a rigorous risk analysis and then interpret it. Basically, failing to respect the risks presented by the environment may lead to a loss of situational awareness and an accident.
A research group led by skydivers and BASE jumpers at the University of California, San Diego’s Department of Emergency Medicine is working on a series of projects that tackle the questions of risk and complacency in the jumping community. The ultimate goal of the project is to create training resources in emergency management and basic wilderness medicine for skydivers and BASE jumpers, both of whom may be jumping in rural areas without quick access to emergency services.
The group’s first steps were to develop a baseline understanding of how the average jumper thinks about risk and distribute a survey addressing topics of risk analysis, jumping experience and emergency management training. One hundred ninety-four people with a median of 700 skydives and 200.5 BASE jumps responded to the survey. One hundred sixty-eight (86.7 percent) identified as male and the median age was 35. Although the survey respondents were all BASE jumpers (along with being skydivers), it is likely—although not certain—that the results also extend to skydivers who do not BASE jump. Even given this limitation, the lessons about risk analysis are relevant for jumpers of all sorts.
Self-Described Risk Tolerance
Do most jumpers tend to see themselves as conservative or risky jumpers compared to the average? In the UC San Diego survey, 70 percent saw themselves as more conservative (having a lower risk tolerance) than average, and 21 percent identified as average. Only nine percent of respondents described themselves as tolerating more risk than the average jumper, a far cry from the 50 percent of jumpers who statistically must be above average in their risk tolerance. Also, as one might expect, the survey showed that people with more BASE jumps and years in the sport had witnessed more fatal accidents and close calls and had sustained more injuries.
It’s typically considered a good thing to have a conservative approach to risk. But is it a good sign or a bad sign that 91 percent of those surveyed see themselves as at least as conservative as the average jumper? This survey result could be the result of either positive or negative factors.
The positive theoretical factors that could account for these data are:
- A positive attitude toward safety and risk management may have successfully permeated parachuting culture, causing the majority to practice their sports with safety consciousness.
- People may largely see safety consciousness as a positive trait, making that trait desired and admired and therefore something to work toward.
In other words, the respondents could actually be safety conscious or they could like to think of themselves as safety conscious (which are not mutually exclusive traits).
The less-optimistic explanations for these data are:
- The jumpers may be complacent and think of themselves as being safe without having made any real analysis of their behavior, tendencies or preparation.
- They may not know enough about safe practices to accurately identify what those would even look like.
In interpreting this information, it is also important to recognize that the survey could have been biased in its development, distribution or both. For example, safety-minded jumpers with low risk tolerance could have been more likely to respond to the survey. It’s also possible that the respondents’ perceptions of what constitutes average risk tolerance varied widely. It’s not possible to conclude which, if any, of these factors influenced the results, and other important underlying factors could have come into play. Regardless, it’s valuable for each jumper ask these questions:
- If I look at my actual behavior, what does my attitude toward safety appear to be?
- Do I look seriously enough at my own practices to identify unsafe practices if they are there?
- Do I have enough knowledge about good safety practices to identify what would be unsafe?
Emergency Planning Habits
The survey also asked how regularly the respondents developed emergency plans when jumping in new environments. Although geared toward BASE jumpers (who may be jumping in extremely remote locations), the question is also relevant to those jumping from aircraft. In the broad sense, it asks whether the jumper seriously considers how something could go wrong and what they would do about it, and it speaks to how the jumper engages with new and evolving risks. For a skydiver, this could include items such as how seriously they practice emergency responses to malfunctions, plan for unknown factors on a big-way or prepare to enter a new jumping discipline.
Only 18 percent of respondents to this survey question said that they always make emergency plans before jumping in new environments. Fourteen percent said they never make such plans, and the other 68 percent landed somewhere in the middle. (Bear in mind that the biases, positive factors and negative factors discussed earlier could also be relevant to these results.) We can identify and analyze the illusion of safety and safety lapses that emerge from complacency by asking the following questions:
- How thoroughly do I plan for when jumps go wrong?
- Do I know enough about my discipline to adequately analyze my practices for risk?
- Do I have appropriate mentorship or guidance to anticipate what problems will arise as I progress?
What Can We Do?
So, the average survey respondents see themselves as fairly risk-averse and sometimes plan for emergencies in new environments. (That’s over-simplified, but it covers the basic concept.) Here’s the kicker, though: Neither of these data points was significantly associated with the number of skydiving or BASE jumps the respondents had made. There were very safe jumpers in this cohort who always plan for emergencies and feel they have very conservative approaches to risk, but they were just as likely to be on their fifth jump as on their 5,000th.
The important takeaway here is that jump numbers and licenses themselves do not confer safety, an idea that is familiar but always worth restating. If you want to grow as a jumper in technical skill, risk analysis and planning, it is not a passive process. Experience means all sorts of things beyond jump numbers. Seek further training, get mentorship, go to Safety Day, get coaching, work with organizers, go to camps! Your jump numbers will not protect you from mistakes your experience and training didn’t teach you to avoid. In addition, intentionally uplifting safe behavior in our communities as a trait to be desired can have powerful effects, particularly among newer jumpers.
It’s important to have a positive attitude toward safety everywhere. Mentors and coaches, load organizers, Safety and Training Advisors, experienced jumpers—everybody—can drill safety lessons into newer jumpers. Importantly, drop zone leaders—those who other jumpers want to be like—need to recognize that people look up to them and then take that underlying responsibility seriously. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to kindly help a jumper understand an issue or reinforce something positive you saw a jumper do, but in the long run, little actions like this can help shape their attitude toward safety and seeking advice. This is a lesson that any jumper can take up. Even if you have only 25 jumps and a fresh “A” stamped on your forehead, there’s someone else who sees you as a seasoned veteran of the skies.
Although a simple survey can’t prove that anyone’s response correlates with responsible risk analysis, safe jumping practices or actual risk of injury or death, there are still lessons to be had. As the ever-improving safety record of skydiving helps to show, actions from within a community can address deficiencies in education and affect cultures and attitudes.
About the Author
Jeremy Sieker, C-45288, is a third-year medical student at the University of California, San Diego. He is part of the research group—along with Gary Vilke, M.D. and Jesse Brennan, M.S.—who wrote the academic paper on which this article is based. Outside of school, he is a wingsuit load organizer, licensed pilot, scuba diver, BASE jumper, sailor and rock climber.