Blue Skies, Gray Hazards: Mitigating Risk in a Dangerous Environment
Safety & Training | Jul 28, 2023
Blue Skies, Gray Hazards: Mitigating Risk in a Dangerous Environment

Brian Riley

Above: Photo by Norrman Kent.

Skydiving and the military have a lot in common. Beyond the shared development of equipment and the evolution of training procedures, their cultures stem from a common reality: the challenge of operating in a dangerous, uncertain environment. Although the source of the danger is very different, both groups recognize the value of training their members to respond in a uniform way. The skydiving community has done an incredible job of creating and enforcing standard operating procedures that transcend borders and languages. Just think how impressive it is that jumpers from around the world can show up to a boogie and immediately understand how to safely navigate a sky filled with people they have never met.

Although the two communities have similar methods to manage the black and white hazards, there is a notable difference in how they address the gray areas. In skydiving, if a situation is not explicitly addressed in the Basic Safety Requirements or the Skydiver’s Information Manual, then the tendency is to defer to the person with the most jumps. The concept of risk mitigation often feels like a crowd-sourced answer to the question, “Is this a good idea?” The military, on the other hand, has a formal risk-mitigation process designed to deliberately identify and reduce the gray-area hazards. When planning each jump, skydivers can easily use an informal version of this process to reduce risk in the sky, but first we need a common understanding of the terminology.

Two Types of Hazards

There are two types of hazards relevant to skydiving: inherent and unique. Inherent hazards are consistent across all skydives. They include an aircraft accident, equipment malfunction, canopy collision and hard landing. These hazards are baked into the sport and eliminating them would mean not participating, so we reduce them by using the BSRs, SOPs and emergency procedures. For example, we mitigate the inherent hazard of a canopy collision with the universal SOP “turn right to avoid collisions.” Unfortunately, inherent hazards apply only to the most basic skydive—a solo jump with a standard landing under perfect conditions. Skydiving is obviously more fun when we add complexity, but each factor beyond a basic skydive adds  hazards. These hazards are limited only by the imagination and can never be fully captured in the rulebook. Instead, we need a structured framework to address the gray-area hazards on each jump. For that, we can borrow a method used in the military.

During the mission planning process, military leaders are required to develop a risk-mitigation plan that strictly assesses unique hazards. They already expect to encounter inherent hazards during the mission, therefore the planning process focuses on factors that are unique to that specific mission, factors that may catch the team off-guard. Although this process does not eliminate the hazards, it forces the planners to thoroughly scrutinize the gray areas, identify the unique hazards, and develop a plan to reduce the associated risk. As skydivers, we expect to encounter inherent hazards like equipment malfunctions, which is why we constantly review our SOPs and EPs. The goal with this risk-mitigation process is to identify and reduce unique hazards before they surprise us in the sky. 

Of course, we could remove all unique hazards from skydiving and still have something that resembles a basic skydive; however, we accept that having fun and progressing in the sport are valid reasons to take additional risk. As responsible members of this community, we should each take a deliberate approach to making decisions in the hazardous gray areas where the SOPs and EPs fall short. This four-step framework, adapted from the military, can be used to mitigate risk well before takeoff.

 

1. Identify Unique Hazards

The first step requires a conscious review of the plan to identify hazards that are unique to a specific jump. This includes obvious things like night jumps, intentional water landings and jumping with costumes. It also includes things that many of us take for granted, such as jumping in a group and doing high-performance landings. Non-skydiving factors, such as work or relationship issues, should also be considered unique hazards as they may distract you during the jump. Anything beyond a basic skydive is a unique hazard.

2. Assess the Hazards to Determine the Level of Risk

This part is more of an art than a science. Risk level is determined by assessing a combination of probability and severity. For example, if you assess the probability of occurrence to be occasional and the severity of the outcome to be critical, then you are dealing with a medium risk level. The chart below will help you visualize the problem, but it’s not meant to precisely calculate risk. It just gives us a tool to conceptualize how probability and severity affect the risks we take. The real challenge, though, is estimating probability and severity. A good approach, regardless of your experience level, is to share your plan with a trusted, experienced skydiver who is not participating in the jump. Fostering a skydiving culture of sharing our plans and trading unbiased opinions can help us pause and re-evaluate the plan without feeling like we are ruining the fun.

3. Adjust the Plan to Reduce the Risk

Most risks in skydiving can be reduced with small changes to the plan that do not require scrapping the whole thing. There are two ways to reduce risk: reduce the probability of occurrence or reduce the severity of the outcome. Are you bringing a new jumper on their first 4-way? Increase the breakoff altitude to reduce their probability of going low. Are you visiting a new DZ for the first time? Before joining a big-way, do a hop-and-pop to familiarize yourself with the airspace, the landing pattern and the outs to reduce the severity of the outcome if you have to land out. Small adjustments can have a big impact on probability and severity.

4. Decide if the New Risk Level is Acceptable

We each have a personal tolerance for risk that is shaped by our values and life experiences and  it can change over time. People get older, they have children, they lose friends, they experience close calls. Regardless of where we are on the spectrum of risk tolerance, we should periodically reflect on our goals and what we find meaningful about this sport. Do you enjoy the rush of high-performance landings? Do you dream of sunset landings on a beach? Are you driven by social media glory? Those can all be valid reasons to accept risk, but we need to consciously recognize the hazards we are adding to each jump and consider if there are ways to achieve the same goal with a lower level of risk.

 

Most skydivers follow a subconscious version of this checklist without even realizing it, but there is value in making it a conscious part of your pre-jump preparation. Before every jump, ask yourself, “What unique hazards have I added and how can I reduce the probability of occurrence or the severity of outcome?” A quick pre-jump pause to mentally review this checklist can help fun jumpers fight the creeping complacency and normalization of deviance that often accompany increasing experience. It can help instructors manage risk throughout a busy day of work as each student and training level presents a unique challenge. And it can give students a framework for understanding how to make decisions in a high-stress environment. Whether you just got your A license or are training for a world record, every dirt dive should include a deliberate risk assessment and mitigation plan to reduce the gray-area hazards.

 


About the Author

Brian Riley, D-35412, is an Air Force Reserve officer with more than a decade of experience in the search-and-rescue community. He is a former tandem and AFF instructor who is currently a student at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

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