A safe drop zone is a perpetual team effort…
Over the last ten years or so I’ve sort of become a loud voice about skydiving safety. After giving many safety briefings, writing articles and doing videos the idea developed of safety being part of the “DZ culture”. USPA President Chuck Akers and USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold also started using the phrase. Since I think I may have coined the term I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it means.
We’ve all probably heard, “If you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life.” Well, I beg to differ. You’ll probably work harder. But hopefully you’ll love every second of it. That’s how it is for me running Skydive Perris. I can honestly say I have the best job in the world and I still love every day at the DZ. I love seeing canopies fill the sky, jumpers laughing and celebrating after a great jump and students blown away as they learn to fly. And I love being a part of the amazing community that is us, that is skydivers.
One dark second…
As wonderful as the average day at the drop zone can be, in an instant it can turn into the worst day of your life. Fortunately, most newer jumpers haven’t seen their friends be critically injured or killed, not yet anyway. Well, I have seen enough for all of us. And I can tell you it breaks my heart beyond belief, it kills me. One minute we’re laughing, high fiving and giving a friend a hug. And then in seconds they’re gone. Gone, as in forever. It’s always something that didn’t need to happen, that could have so easily been avoided. But there we are. It’s over. They’re gone.
If it could have so easily been avoided then why wasn’t it? Skydiving training is excellent. We have well thought out safety rules and we enforce those rules. What else can we do? Well, there is more that we can do. And it starts with each one of us making the right safety decisions for ourselves before and during every jump.
During my first 15 years of skydiving I made about 10,000 jumps and was never injured. You want to know my secret, I got lucky, a lot. I sometimes skipped doing a gear check but didn’t have any gear issues. I broke off and pulled low but didn’t also have a malfunction. I came within feet of hitting another canopy and didn’t even see it coming. I exited too quickly behind the group in front of me and missed an open parachute by inches. I got open in the clouds with 20 jumpers but somehow we didn’t run into each other. I turned too low but managed to stab it out. I did a few demos from 1200’. I made a lot of really bad decisions but got lucky and got away with it. Rather than realizing how stupid I was, lucky I had been and getting smart, I felt empowered, like I could pull off anything. As bad as this sounds I actually wasn’t a particularly reckless skydiver, just the opposite, I was an Instructor, Rigger, Pilot DZO and pretty safety conscious jumper. I didn’t even realize how complacent I was being.
At that 15 year mark our daughter was born. As new parents do, I loved this little girl in ways I had never loved anyone. I was actually someone’s father and she needed me. My father died when I was almost 4 and I wasn’t going to let that happen to her. I was making about 1500 jumps a year at that time and every morning when I’d leave for the drop zone I’d promise her that her Dad would be coming home that night. I guaranteed her that I would land safely from every skydive I made and I was determined to live up to that promise. If I didn’t think I could guarantee my safety I would have stopped skydiving.
I re-examined every part of my safety preparation and only then realized how slack and complacent I had been. There were so many simple, basic things I wasn’t doing. I immediately started paying much more attention to each detail of my safety procedures, processes and attitude. Before and during each jump I thought about what I had to do next to guarantee I’d land safely. This included my choice of equipment, canopies, which jumps to get on, what weather to jump in, doing a good gear check right before I put my rig on, doing a handle check right before exiting, having better altitude awareness, pulling higher, dramatically increased freefall and canopy awareness, not just knowing my EPs but being really good at them, making the decision to cut away immediately if I wasn’t 100% sure I had a good canopy, expecting everything that could go wrong to go wrong on every jump, deciding where to land and the pattern to fly while still at a high altitude, sliding in or doing a PLF if I didn’t think I could easily stand up the landing, making sure the group exiting after me knew how long to wait before exiting… everything. I’ve made another 20,000 jumps since then I still have never been injured skydiving. But it hasn’t only luck that has kept me safe. On every jump I made sure I did everything I needed to be sure I landed safely and didn’t endanger anyone else.
If we want to build a culture of safety at our drop zones it starts with us. Each one of us is taking responsibility for ourselves. Every one of us needs to realize that we are all sometimes unintentionally complacent. We need to wake up and understand skydiving is not a safe sport. It is a dangerous sport that can be done safely. To do it safely each of us needs to take personal responsibility for making the right decisions before and during every jump.
But that’s just the start. We also need to look out for each other.
In 2011 we had several accidents at Skydive Perris. So many that I nearly quit the sport. I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t bear to see any more of our friends and family hurt or killed. After each accident I would be up all night thinking about what else I could have done. What could I have said? What example could I have set? What else can I do? What else can we do?
I decided if I was going to continue skydiving I had to make the same promise for our family that I had made for myself. I promised that anytime I had the opportunity to make a positive impact on the safety of others I would speak up. No matter how annoying it might be. You want to know why I would make this promise? Because I truly love my skydiving family, each and every one of you crazy assholes (not quite like my daughter but I do love every one of you). I know all too well that with the smallest mistake at the wrong time how quickly we could lose one of our own and the pain it causes. If I can do anything to avoid that pain I will.
Caring, love and zero tolerance
Safety has to be part of the core of the culture of every DZ. You can have good safety rules and armed DZ Sheriffs to enforce them. You can post USPA BSRs all over and strictly stick to them. But that isn’t what gets people to make safe decisions. Jumpers don’t try to get hurt. We get complacent, we take our eyes off the ball, we don’t think straight all the time. Often all it takes is a small, badly timed mistake that leads to an accident or fatality. All of us need to clearly understand the risks and what we need to do on each jump to minimize them. And we need to know that our friends care, love us and will be crushed if we get hurt or killed.
When I see a jumper make a safety mistake, regardless of if it’s a big or little mistake, I try to immediately go and speak with them. As they see me walking up they usually strike a defensive posture and start preparing their excuses (I’m guessing you know exactly what I’m talking about). The first thing I do is give them a hug. I’m so glad nothing happened, so happy to be speaking to them and incredibly relieved and thankful that I’m not calling 911 or doing CPR. Most of the time I’ve seen the same mistake they just got away with lead to horrible consequences, when the jumpers didn’t get as lucky. I hug them because I can, they’re alive! Sometimes they aren’t aware they had done anything wrong. But the hug almost always surprises them, they were preparing to be reprimanded. But they realize that I care! I’m speaking to them because I care. I know they don’t want to hurt themselves or anyone else. I make sure they understand how close they came, how lucky they got and what to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again because they might not be so lucky the next time.
I am far from perfect and I expect the same when I make a mistake. Just yesterday I was landing from a jump. Daniel McLaurin and Dave Hebert, two of Skydive Perris’ primary canopy coaches and our Ground Safety Officer Sean Hughley were in the landing area. I turned too low. It wasn’t terrible, I didn’t come close to hurting myself, but it was definitely lower than ideal. All three of them, in their own special loving ways, told me I was an idiot, to be more careful and get my sh-t together. It meant a lot because I knew they cared. I cared because they cared.
Funny this, but when we know people care we actually listen because the input is not coming as a police action it’s coming from a friend. This love for each other is at the heart of building a culture of safety at your drop zone. It starts with the DZOs, GSOs, Instructors, Coaches and Organizers. But it can’t be only them. They can’t be everywhere and see everything. It has to be all of us looking out for each other all the time. This includes new jumpers, experienced jumpers, students, everyone! When we’re in the loading area and see new jumpers ask them how they’re doing, if they need a gear check, if they know how long to wait between groups on exit. Scan each other’s gear for 3ring assembly, chest straps and handles. Watch each other on break off and let others know if they weren’t getting good separation or weren’t aware of the others while tracking. Talk to people after landing about how they flew in the pattern. Did they see everyone? Did they choose the right final approach? Did they flare well and collapse their canopy after they landed?
Very rarely, but every so often, there is a jumper who is entirely too cocky, refuses to recognize what they did wrong and obviously has no interest in making the personal safety changes necessary. While caring and love is truly at the core of the safety culture we want to create, it’s also zero tolerance. Someone with an attitude like this won’t be jumping at Skydive Perris. Hugs only go so far.
It’s just as important to point out when we people do it right!! We can watch canopies set up in the pattern and can tell in a glance if they’re all working together. It’s absolutely amazing to see everyone coordinating their canopy paths and landings together. The teamwork is incredible! Let them know how awesome they were! This is us caring! This is what we do when we are looking out for each other. This is building a culture of safety. Safety is cool. Safety is fun. Hurting yourself or endangering someone else is definitely not cool! You’ll be proud to be part of a community with safety at the core of its culture. We are all the safety officers. Together we all help each other to become old skydivers and to be sure every day at the DZ is a great day.
I’m often told by visiting jumpers that they love our dz and are so impressed with our facilities, pilots, airplanes, weather, staff and organizers. But what brings the biggest smile to my face is when I hear people frequently say, “This is such a big DZ but you make it feel like a small club, like a family. Everyone cares so much about each other.” It’s true, we really do care about each other. We care that no matter how experienced or inexperienced you are, or which discipline you enjoy most, that everyone is welcomed, feels included, has a good time, makes great skydives, learns and stays safe. We look out for one another. That is the culture we are always hoping to build here. At the very core of that culture is our love for sharing the sky together and for each other.
Please join me in helping to build a culture of safety across our sport by making these two promises to ourselves and our family.
- I promise to make the right decision to land safely from every jump and not endanger anyone else.
- I promise when I see anything that could lead to a dangerous situation that I will bring it up immediately and not wait until something worse happens.
- Be CALM! - 4th August 2022
- Let’s Talk About FEAR - 18th January 2022
- Take Charge! - 16th August 2021
- P3 Power Play 2021 - 15th July 2021
- One Big Family - 10th June 2021
- Let’s talk Canopy COLLISIONS - 18th May 2021
- Safety Culture - 29th April 2021
- P3 Winter Fling - 6th March 2021
Please check out my book 'Above All Else' here