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International, independent, e-magazine on skydiving, BASE & tunnel

The Safety Paradox

Risk vs Safety

There is an inherent need in humans to push the limits. This has advanced our sport fantastically but it also leads to the Safety Paradox – that devices intended to increase our safety actually pave the way for more dangerous behavior.

My eyesight gradually declined till the point I couldn't pretend it wasn't happening any more, so I got contact lenses. When I got back behind the wheel of a car I was amazed how far I could see and horrified I’d been driving with such poor sight. You’d think that this better vision would make me a safer driver, right? No, I just drove faster!

Then I got a brand-new company car, with power steering, ABS brakes and air bags, the latest safety innovations at the time. Did this make me a safer driver? No, I drove even faster! Such is human nature.

Safety Breakthroughs

In my skydiving lifetime I have seen countless major safety breakthroughs: -
+ Reliable AADs for experienced jumpers
+ Digital audibles providing far greater accuracy and reliability
+ Greater range of canopies – with better glide angles, improved flares, more consistent openings and greater reliability
+ Smaller packing fabric for main and reserve parachutes
+ RSLs, the Skyhook and other MARDS to deploy our reserves in the minimal time.
+ Wingsuits and tracking pants, with incredible flight capacity, giving BASE jumpers much more time and separation in freefall from an object
+ Canopy courses to teach us techniques of flying various wings in three dimensions and increase airmanship to improve safety in crowded skies

Every one of these innovations is a major safety step. Does this make the sport safer? Generally yes – but what does the individual do, thanks to these breakthroughs? Yes, he ‘drives faster’! Somehow we still need to push the limits. All of these safety features, in which manufacturers have invested years of research and development, are being used and abused, sometimes paradoxically to increase our risk.

flight paradox

Safety Paradoxes

AADs – A horrifying number of Cypres saves said they were unsure about deploying their own reserves and simply waited for the Cypres to go off. This is so wrong. An alarming number of the saves document people who had made no attempt to pull anything at all. Between 2006 and 2009 there were 32 recorded saves, compared to 54 in the same time period, 2012 to 2015, a seventy per cent increase. The sport has not grown proportionately in that time, suggesting an element of reliance on the AAD. (Note: this is only saves that were notified to Cypres so the data is a subset of the big picture.)
Audibles – Many people pull on their audible signal. This is generally poor practice. Better to train your eyes to know when to deploy. The audible should be a back-up device to your senses, not the director of your actions.
Canopies – When any given person has an inordinate number of sporty, fun, challenging wings to fly, why do so many choose a totally unsuitable parachute for their needs, experience and desires? If you’re not a professional skydiver or a competition canopy pilot, the latest, fastest wing is probably not the best choice.
RSLs and MARDS such as the Skyhook – the greatest life-saving innovation since the Cypres, yet many skydivers refuse to wear one – fine if a choice for a specialist type of jumping but questionable if for macho reasons.
Wingsuits These can make BASE jumping safer by allowing increased object separation but are being used for inherently risky proximity flights.
Fabric – PD made the Optimum out of low bulk fabric with a smaller pack volume, so it’s now possible to upsize your reserve in the same container. But how many people are taking advantage of this? It seems that skydivers are still buying smaller reserves to minimize the size of container. Surely a larger reserve is always preferable?
Canopy courses – People spend a huge amount in tunnels to improve their freefall skills yet hesitate to spend a fraction of that on canopy coaching, which improves survival skills.

I’ve never heard anyone say after a cutaway, ‘I wish my reserve had been a bit smaller’

Factoring it in

Sometimes you hear people say something like,
“Won't you hit your head on that exit?”
“That’s okay, I’ve got a Cypres”
Well if your plan is to hit your head hard enough to knock you out but not enough to kill you or cause brain damage, there are an awful lot of things that could go wrong! Not the least of which is, if you are unconscious, your Cypres can’t steer and you could land in the side of a truck as easily as somewhere safe.

Once you start to factor in a back-up safety device it is no longer a back-up. It’s no longer increasing your safety margin; it’s giving you a false sense of security and could have a negative affect on your safety. Why steal that margin of error? Instead, we could make some choices to accept the extra safety margin these devices provide.

Most skydivers who began without all this technology learned deep-rooted survival skills, so new devices add to their safety. Although it is also true that some of the old school jumpers refuse to embrace new technology like AADs and MARDS. The problem is, that some others who started with such technology have become reliant on it – complacent even, thus making them potentially less safe with under-developed survival skills.

Danger Zone

Altitude Awareness

My friend George Pilkington ran an ad for the Time-out audible where he forgot the punctuation. It should have said:

  • Set it and Forget
  • Altitude Awareness

Instead it said:

  • Set it and Forget Altitude Awareness
    Does this apply to you?

Learning Points

My points in making these observations are as follows:

1, Don’t Rely on Mechanical Devices

Don't become reliant on machinery (which can fail) at the expense of your own survival skills. If you have become even partially dependent, wean yourself off and work on improving your senses.

2, Don’t Steal the Margin for Error

The parachuting industry has worked very hard to bring us the safest, most reliable gear in the history of the sport. Don’t steal the margin for error provided – you’re only robbing yourself. Choose your equipment with a view to what could go wrong, rather than the most radical you could get away with. If you get a ‘wake-up call’ that says you’re pushing the limits, listen and back off, to get out of the danger zone.

3, Look for the Safety Paradox

Occasionally, ask yourself if you're using your equipment in a way that will increase your safety or your risk.