7 Protective Layers – Part Two

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Julian Barthel explains the final four layers in the Swiss Cheese Skydiving Incident model

The seven protective layers in the Swiss Cheese Incident Model
Infograph by FlyinMynd

Last week in Part 1, I discussed the Swiss Cheese Model, and the seven protective layers in skydiving:

  1. Mindset/Attitude
  2. Education
  3. Regulation
  4. Equipment
  5. Environment
  6. Human Factor
  7. Community

I gave some detail on the first three layers – Mindset, Education and Regulation, please read part 1 now if you haven’t already.

Now let’s consider the next four layers of protection:- Equipment, Environment, Human Factor and Community…

Layer 4: Equipment 

“It’s important to make yourself familiar with a wide range of equipment technologies”
Image by Instructors Academy

The gear we choose to use for whatever discipline we practice, and how we treat it, directly influences our safety. Good skydiving gear is not cheap, but the initial investment pays off a hundredfold in peace of mind. We should consult reliable sources before purchasing and test the equipment so we know what we’re buying and if it is a good fit for us.
It should go without saying that proper gear maintenance is imperative, our life literally depends on it. Learning to pack ourselves, as tiresome as it might seem initially, gives us the ability to monitor our gear hands on and monitor wear on all parts. The direct contact with our gear dispels the fear of the unknown. I also highly encourage everyone to watch at least once how your reserve is packed. it is eye-opening, to say the least.

Apart from the basic common mechanisms like the 3-Ring System or the RSL, we need to be familiar with technologies that serve similar purposes from different manufacturers, how they function, what the differences are, how they are installed, checked and operated correctly. Examples would be activation altitudes and speeds of different AAD types and manufacturers or MARD systems like UPT’s Skyhook and similar technologies from competing manufacturers.
Regularly reviewing all our emergency procedures will give us the peace of mind to enjoy our skydives and have the correct muscle memory in place when we need it the most and there is no time to think. A great practice to familiarize with the feeling of your handles and the strength required to operate them is to practice live drills, pulling the handles when your reserve is due for repack and you drop your gear off at your rigger.

“Practice live drills, pulling the handles when your reserve is due for repack”

As basic as it may seem, learning how to properly preflight our equipment and having a set routine to our gear checks at set points and altitudes during the jump preparation and plane ride as well as protecting our gear when moving during our ascent and climb out is a basic skill we need to practice religiously.
Lastly, we should strive to scan the gear of everyone else on our load as second nature. We need to watch out for each other and make the safety of everyone around us a shared responsibility.

We need to keep monitoring the changes of the weather during the day
Image by Rob Lloyd

Layer 5: Environment

By familiarizing ourselves with the environment and weather conditions we can greatly reduce stress and risk of injury during our skydives.
First and foremost, we should be familiar with the dropzone we plan to jump at:

  • The landing area/areas and their dimensions
  • Common landing directions and patterns
  • Dropzone-specific rules
  • No-fly zones
  • Hazards in the landing area
  • Out-landing options
  • Typical weather patterns for the season
  • Local weather phenomena
  • High risk areas for turbulence

There are several ways to go about finding all of these out. We can audit a dropzone and the surroundings using tools like Google Earth to scout hazards, pre plan patterns and approaches, measure the landing area and scope possible out landing options before even arriving. Typical weather patterns for the season can be found out via google search. Once we are on site, we then have an educated conversation with the locals to check our findings and find out more detail to be prepared before jumping.

We can audit a dropzone using tools like Google Earth before even arriving”
Image: Justin Price using Google Earth to scope out a DZ, see Tip Tuesday: Landing Patterns

On site we should check weather conditions in the morning before jumping and reconfirm with the weather board, the pilot or ground control. We need to keep monitoring the changes of the weather during the day, such as winds aloft and on the ground, as well as possible weather fronts moving in.
If the weather conditions become too challenging for our current skill level, we should never hesitate to stop jumping and monitor the development of the conditions, even if the jump limit permits us to go.

“The Human Factor is our internal state which affects how well we perform any task”
Image: Hannah Betts by Mike Carpenter

Layer 6: Human Factor

The Human Factor is such a complex factor that it almost requires an article just for itself!
Very rarely are we at our 100% best, but sometimes everything just works and we enter in the flow state. Those are the amazing moments when everything just clicks and we wish it would last forever.

I define the Human Factor as our internal state which affects how well we perform any task at any given moment. It determines whether we are fully engaged, enjoy the challenge we are presented and are able to give one hundred percent, or if we feel overwhelmed and barely manage, or even crack under pressure and make a mistake that could have dire consequences.
The days we feel depleted, tired or are distracted with personal problems are the ones we need to be careful and choose our battles wisely.

The days we feel depleted, tired or are distracted with personal problems are the ones we need to be careful

Human Pillars

The Human factor consists of three pillars:

  • Ability
  • Psychological State
  • Physiological State


Our ability in any given moment is determined by the knowledge and education we have acquired to date, the skills we have learned and mastered so far in our jumping career and how current we are executing those skills.
It can be extremely dangerous to have someone who is completely out of their depth in a complex skydive. It can be equally treacherous to have an experienced but very uncurrent skydiver in the same type of jump, who is confident in his skills but rusty in judgement and execution.

Our mind can be our biggest ally or our worst enemy

“Our mind can be our biggest ally or our worst enemy”
Image: Ellen Brennan, in the perfect ability, psychological and physical state for her forthcoming BASE jump

Psychological State

Our mind can be our biggest ally or our worst enemy when performing challenging tasks such as extreme sports. Our current psychological state determines our ability to focus on the task at hand and has a direct and measurable influence on our performance. Gaining control of our mental state and the ability to focus on the task at hand can make or break the result. It’s not only a skill that helps us perform better in tasking situations, but can drastically improve how we deal with challenging situations in life outside of extreme sports.


Contributing factors are:

  • Confidence in our abilities
  • Performance pressure
  • Stress
  • Distractions (personal problems, worries, fears due to previous injury)
  • Mental toughness and the ability to deal with stress
  • Mental ability to reframe stress

How to control our mindset has been the focus of countless studies in recent years and definite performance benefits of simple techniques like meditation, conscious breathing, visualisation, anchoring and more have been proven over and over again.
One of the most common reasons why people are so drawn to extreme sports is the clarity and pure focus on the now that we experience when we practice them. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, when the ratio between skill and challenge is just right, we enter into optimal performance states, also referred to as flow, where time seems to go slower and everything happens almost effortlessly.
Like with most things in life, self-confidence and the confidence in our abilities are healthy to a certain degree, but there is a limit. If we get carried away, our self-confidence can turn into a massive ego and the urge to show off. In the best-case scenario, we get taken aside by one of our peers and get a reality check, in the worst-case scenario we end up seriously injuring ourselves and/or others.
When we are very current we need to be extremely careful not to get complacent. We enter in dangerous territory where we are so comfortable in the day to day of any high-risk activity that we feel invincible, to the point that we neglect basic safety tasks, for example equipment checks before every jump. If we become complacent it can be intimidating for people around us to approach us and address our behavior, especially if they have less experience than us. We must stay aware of the complacency trap and establish an honest feedback loop with our peers where it is ok to approach each other and state our concerns that come from a place of care, without blame or taking offense.

“Stamina fades especially fast throughout the duration of a jumping day”
Image: Stelio Jotti taking a nap between jumps at Skydive Klatovy, by Jurgen Klaus

Physiological State

Our physiological state or day form is the last of the three contributing pillars of the Human Factor. 

Stamina fades especially fast throughout the duration of a jumping day or an event due to:

  • Lack of general fitness
  • Lack of specific fitness
  • Insufficient rest
  • Dehydration
  • Malnutrition
  • Hypoxia 

Extreme sports, like any other sport, need a basic level fitness such as endurance, mobility and flexibility to prevent injury and exhaustion. It is important to recognize personal limits and what pace is sustainable over the course of a jumping day or event, and stay within those limits.

It is a good idea to have an overarching nutritional strategy in place to avoid malnutrition and dehydration, especially for longer, taxing events like skills camps, records or boogies. Availability of nutrient-rich food is oftentimes limited on dropzones and it is easy to forget to drink enough water over the course of a busy jumping day. Combine that with the lack of rest that often comes with attending events, we can slip into dangerous territories as exhaustion accumulates.
Hypoxia is especially dangerous since it is difficult to recognize its onset and the inability to solve even the simplest logical tasks once we are hypoxic. It leads to poor decision-making and decreased cognitive function and can be fatal after longer exposure. The fact that hypoxia can compound through repeated exposure to high altitudes over the duration of a long day of jumping makes it even more dangerous.
Once fatigue accumulates, our concentration fades and the likelihood of injury skyrockets. We need to educate ourselves to keep checking in on our state and maintain all these factors in check. It can be helpful to have a buddy system in place to make sure we give ourselves the biggest advantage possible through a feedback loop.

The eyes of our community are the last layer, and our last line of defense

Layer 7: Community

The last of the 7 Protective Layers in Skydiving is the Community itself.
We as a collective have a responsibility to act as a safety net and stop the trajectory of an imminent threat in case the other protective layers have either active or latent failures. It is quite possible we are the last line of defense before potential disaster. Each one of us is in a different state with active and latent failures poking holes in our safety layers, which results in a highly complex, ever-changing system. In order to reduce risk and the collective workload, each one of us needs to contribute by keeping an eye out for each other to the best of our ability.
As a community we need to establish and uphold a strong safety culture that starts with high educational standards and avoids shaming and blaming. By encouraging admitting to and learning from mistakes, we foster a reporting culture and prevent the normalization of deviance, which would inevitably lead to disaster.
It needs to be a collective effort to not only watch out for potentially harmful situations, but to be receptive and grateful for any input or question that is raised with the intent of keeping each other safe, especially when it comes from someone with less experience. This will foster responsibility and confidence in newer jumpers to speak up when they see something wrong and encourages dialogue and education.
Inevitably this type of culture will lead to uncomfortable conversations with individuals that get defensive or try to hide and deny mistakes. Maintaining a positive tone, staying respectful and making it clear that the conversation is in the interest of everyone’s safety is as difficult as it is important.

Establish and maintain a community that rewards open and honest communication
Image: Roy Little over Skydive Hibaldstow by Jack Davies


The 7 Protective Layers in Skydiving make up a complex and ever-moving system with individual and intrinsic layers, external and institutional factors and communal responsibilities. 

We need to train ourselves to stay aware of where we stand in our intrinsic processes, understand and uphold the rules, communication and practices that are in place to protect everyone and contribute to establish and maintain a community that rewards open and honest communication. 

If we manage to show up every day to the best of our abilities, we are contributing to the evolution of our sport and the amazing community we all love and cherish so much.

“Contribute to the evolution of our sport & the amazing community we love”
Image: Flocking over Empuriabrava by Roy Wimmer-Jaglom

Meet: Julian Barthel

Julian is a full time Tunnel Coach, Freefly Coach, Load Organizer, USPA Coach Examiner and Founder of FlyinMynd.
He worked in the sport as AFF-I, TD-I and Camera Flyer for 8 years before going freelance.
Julian loves Canopy Piloting and XRW.
He was part of the current National German Head down Record (38) and the European Head down Sequential Record (3-point 24-way) as well as the current European Head Up Record (43).
Likes: Canopy Flocking, Freefly, XRW, Canopy Piloting, Dynamic Flying.
Julian is sponsored by PD, UPT, Tonfly, Alti-2 and Cypres.

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