With the season in full swing, we're feeling pretty 'on it!' Our turns are getting faster, smoother and more efficient, whether that's head-up, head-down, flat or under canopy. Maybe we’ve done a lot of tunnel time, been to a boogie or just got back from a training camp. We’re getting the hang of this skydiving lark and improving most of the time… But sometimes as we progress we can forget about the basics: fundamental life-saving skills that we were taught from day one but perhaps have never really progressed. I’m talking about situational awareness.
What is Situational Awareness?
Have you ever been on a jump when someone has asked you to look through the formation? To see what’s happening on the other side? To see what everyone else is doing? That’s all-round awareness; being aware of the situation. But take it a step further, situational awareness is not just about looking at what's going on around you. It’s about seeing, processing the information and using this to make an informed judgement. It’s about having that bigger picture and about mental clarity.
Have you ever been on a ski slope on a fresh powder day, the sun shining and the wind in your face, grinning as you carve down the slope? Then someone cuts straight in front of you – another skier who hasn’t got a clue what’s going on around them? Someone who is completely blinkered, so focussed on what they are doing they have zero awareness of anyone else? They destroy your line, forcing you into the side of the piste or even to fall. On snow it’s not so bad, a bit of fresh powder; you get up, dust yourself off, maybe a quick curse, and you get on your way again. Now imagine the same situation under canopy – if someone does that to you low to the ground there may be no getting up and dusting off – for either of you.
Why Do I Need Situational Awareness?
Ever been on a jump when your teammate has gone low? If you’re aware of the situation then you can help and get the formation down to that level. Skydiving is all about fixing problems. Now fine-tune this into every move you make and fix them all. If you’re fully aware then you can fix faster and turn more points. This article focuses on the life-saving skills of complete awareness under canopy but these same skills can be employed in all areas of skydiving – and life in general.
To Stay Alive
Ever been cut up under canopy, or cut someone up? Seen someone get close to you without them even realising it? Perhaps they are too fixated on the target? It was probably their fault but could you have helped avoid it? On our first jump course the instructor probably used a term such as ‘All Round Observation’ – they wanted us to avoid flying into another canopy. Yet later on we take this part of our flight drills for granted. You’re taught it right from the beginning because it is vitally important. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are – this weekend I saw a tandem instructor cut up an inexperienced jumper. The instructor was focussing too much on landing near the cameraman and had not seen the other skydiver. If we can steer clear of that other canopy, even if it is being poorly piloted, we can avoid being in an entanglement low to the ground which could have potentially fatal consequences.
Duty of Care
If not for you then develop your awareness for others. Maybe you have a death wish but please avoid putting others in a dangerous situation such as cutting them up.
How Can I Achieve Situational Awareness?
There are lots of ways to start to achieve situational awareness. We’ll never be perfect and everyone makes mistakes. But we’re going to try and minimise those mistakes and be as aware as we possibly can. Experience is key and not something that can be passed on by reading – you’ll have to get out there and do some more jumps! Confidence in your ability will allow you to open your mind and take in more information, so being a skilled jumper will make you a safer one – just don’t become overconfident.
Things to Think About
Here are some pointers of areas to consider:
Before the Jump
- Do you know how many people are on your load?
- Mentally estimate their abilities and experience?
- Clock the size of their rigs relative to their body size?
- Do you know anyone and therefore know how they fly?
- What is your flight plan?
- Where is the spot?
- Have you dirtdived your landing pattern?
- Have they?
- What is the landing direction relative to the sun?
These are some of the points you should consider to be pre-armed. To have an awareness of everything around you is nearly impossible, so try and make it easy for yourself by evaluating as many factors as you can before you jump, allowing you to prepare and mentally rehearse likely scenarios. You can estimate where you will be in the landing pattern, what approach you should consider adopting if you open slightly lower than planned or if the spot is off the wind line.
During the Jump
- Have you opened where you planned?
- Where are the people in your group?
- Can you see them all?
- What about the others on your pass?
- Are you a high canopy with a light wing loading? Perhaps this means you should ride your brakes to slot into the landing pattern
- Can you still see the others?
Keep checking. Continue to fly your pattern. Keep fixing depending on the wind and the locations of all the other jumpers. But don’t get too fixated on your landing – strike a balance.
After the Jump
Most of us talk about our jumps afterwards – include the canopy flight.
- Did you see someone flying close to you under canopy?
- Did they see you?
- Did everyone land in the same direction?
Perhaps one of you made a mistake (an apology goes a long way if it was you). Were they aware of it? Go and ask them. Make sure you put it across in a pleasant way – there are a number of skydivers with inflated egos who may take a gentle question as criticism, especially if they have more jumps than you. But the experienced skydiver who has grown out of that stage is likely to hold their hands up if they made a mistake or, if they’ve got a few minutes available, talk you through your approach so you can both learn.
I’ve seen too many pilots fixated on their target narrowly missing another jumper. Be aware. If you are keen to develop further then get some coaching. The instructors at your dropzone are likely to be able to give you a few tips, so ask advice. But if you haven't already, then get some coaching from a recognised canopy piloting school. Such coaching has developed significantly in the last few years so make the most of this and spend a few days working on becoming a better pilot. The higher your skills, the more processing space your brain will have available to be aware of the situation.
Please, stay aware – it might save your life.
Originally published in Skydive The Mag