An instructor recently reported a non-fatal but very serious student incident that emphasized the importance of ensuring that students are proficient with their emergency procedures and are capable of performing them under stress. The student also generously shared her side of the story so that others may learn from it. Taken together, the stories show that just asking a student if they feel comfortable with performing their procedures after they practice them is not enough to ensure proficiency.
In this case, the student was able to jump only every two to three weeks and would occasionally lose currency. She had already gone through three first-jump courses while pursuing her A license. On this jump, she was working on Category F with an instructor. She had reviewed emergency procedures in a training harness two weeks before.
The jump proceeded normally until about 6,000 feet, when the student’s goggles, which she wore over glasses, began to ride up on her face. As she was trying to fix them, she reached 5,000 feet, locked onto her altimeter, began neglecting her body position and went head-low. She threw her pilot chute at her assigned altitude, but it was a weak throw and her right leg was out of position. Her pilot chute wrapped around her leg and the entanglement rolled her to her back.
The student later remarked, “I lost all altitude awareness as soon as that thing wrapped around my foot. I looked at my handles and froze in panic. I can't believe it, and I'm angry about it, but honestly, I could not remember which one to pull first. I was about to pull the reserve and panicked because, ‘What if I pull it first and don't cut away? Can I still cut away? What if they tangle?’”
The AAD fired the reserve somewhere around 700 feet, and the instructor, who was then under canopy, radioed the student to head toward an open field. The student recounted this part of her experience, saying, “Awareness of my surroundings came back. I didn't have time to find the toggles; I just grabbed the risers, turned to keep off power lines, aimed at grass and pulled down as hard as I could. I believe I felt the second parachute inflate right as I began to flare. I threw myself into the best roll I could to spread the impact.” The only injury she sustained was a cut to her elbow that required five stitches.
This jumper’s stress level, already high, became unmanageable once she realized she was entangled. She entered a “flight, fight or freeze” state, which is a natural unconscious reaction. Instructors can never be sure how a student will respond under extreme stress. Will they be distracted? Will they lose altitude awareness? Will indecision paralyze them? History shows that jumpers perform better the second time they face a situation, but students don't have to actually experience a problem to prepare.
The main lesson this incident has to teach is that students (and really, all jumpers) need to practice emergency procedures beyond just feeling comfortable with them; they must practice to the point where they are automatic. Instructors who teach and review these procedures should impress this upon their students: Drilling to the point of feeling comfortable is only the first step toward ingraining a procedure.
Fortunately for the jumper, this incident had a happy ending. And fortunately for the skydiving community, she and the instructor decided to share it. Fatalities can teach us a lot, but the skydiving community can learn just as much, if not more, from non-fatal incidents. As the student herself said, “If it can save a few from getting complacent in their emergency procedures practice, it is well worth spreading this story.”
Ron Bell | D-26863
USPA Director of Safety and Training