Above: Correct routing vs. incorrect routing: When the chest strap is correctly routed, the friction-adapter hardware will appear to show a “C” (for “closed”), while only the top and bottom of the hardware will show if the strap is incorrectly routed.
Recently, a Safety and Training Advisor at a busy drop zone caught two misrouted chest straps in the loading area inside of one hour. In both cases, the chest strap was routed through the elastic keeper but not through the buckle’s friction adapter. In both cases, the S&TA asked the jumper to perform another self-check and they still did not notice the misrouting. The S&TA then pulled on the chest strap, loosening it to the point where the folded-over end came up against the buckle. In both cases, the jumper looked confused and immediately pulled the chest strap tight again without understanding what the issue was. The S&TA had to explicitly state the problem and direct the jumpers to properly route their chest straps. Both of these jumpers were experienced skydivers with their own gear.
How can jumpers miss such a critical item … not only during the initial gearing up but in subsequent checks?
Distraction—Jumpers may initially misroute their chest straps because they are distracted by either external or internal factors. To avoid this pitfall, your gearing-up process should be conscious, deliberate and complete. It helps to have an order or routine to follow. If you are interrupted, you should go back to the beginning of your routine and check what you have already done then continue the routine until it is complete. Absent external distraction, if you are unable to focus well enough to be deliberate in your gearing-up process, you are too distracted to skydive.
Automaticity—This is the psychological phenomenon in which tasks that we repeat often enough become automatic. The gearing-up process becomes automatic very quickly. When an activity becomes automatic, you need to make a conscious, deliberate effort to maintain awareness. If you don’t stay deliberately aware of the steps, you will not realize that you’ve made a mistake.
Expectation Bias—How is it that a jumper does not see that their chest strap is misrouted, even when someone points it out, and that others on the load don’t notice it or other gear errors? It’s a combination of automaticity and expectation bias. When your gearing-up and gear-checking processes become automatic, you are more likely to “touch without feeling and look without seeing.” Expectation bias—the cognitive bias whereby we see what we expect to see—then leads us to believe that everything is correct even when it’s not.
How do you counter the insidious effects of automaticity and expectation bias? First, you have to be aware of the processes in the first place, and then you must act to short circuit them. To counter automaticity, take your time when performing a gear check on yourself or others. Be conscious and deliberate. Use multiple senses—touch and vocalization, as well as sight—to help you remain engaged with the process. If you catch yourself glossing over an item, stop and recheck it.
To counter expectation bias, look for things that are wrong when you perform a gear check. The S&TA who caught the misrouted chest straps was not stationed in the loading area; she was just passing through. Yet she saw the misroutings immediately. She had trained her eye to stop on buckles that did not have a certain appearance rather than just scanning to see if everyone’s chest straps appeared to be fastened. A correctly routed harness strap will have three sides of the buckle visible: the top and bottom of the square base plate and the friction adapter. These three sides form a “C” (think “C for closed”). So, look for items that do not conform to the correct configuration rather than those that do: pilot chutes that are not fully seated, bridles that are not properly covered, RSLs that are not attached, 3-rings that are not correctly assembled and wrists that are lacking altimeters.
It is logical to expect that all skydivers will ensure their gear is properly configured for a safe jump, but the truth is that any jumper may make a potentially life-threatening mistake. Misrouting the chest strap can result in the jumper falling out of their harness on deployment. Be conscious and deliberate in your gearing-up and gear-checking procedures. When you check yourself or others, do so deliberately and with your attention oriented toward finding things that may be wrong rather than confirming that everything is right. The life you save could be your friend’s or it could be your own.
Erin Orwig | D-35756, AFF Instructor, Safety and Training Advisor and FAA Senior Rigger