Wikipedia defines target fixation as “an attentional phenomenon observed in humans in which an individual becomes so focused on an observed object (be it a target or hazard) that they inadvertently increase their risk of colliding with the object.”
Motorcyclists, automobile drivers and even fighter pilots flying strafing runs during World War II have focused so intently on an impending hazard that they actually maneuvered directly into it. And skydivers fall prey to the phenomenon, too. Just recently, target fixation was the likely cause of two accidents in which jumpers flew their parachutes into obstacles that were surrounded by clear space. While one landing resulted in no injury to the jumper (although the parachute draped over a spinning propeller of an airplane), the other resulted in fatal injuries (when a student landed on the roof of a barn and then dropped to the ground with a mostly uninflated parachute).
Researchers have conducted lots of studies on target fixation, which is tied to the basic function of the brain that leads humans or other mammals to respond with “freeze, flight or fight” when encountering a dangerous situation. You can find lots of in-depth reading material that explains how humans react to fear and stress, but the essential for skydiving is this: You flew your parachute into the side of the car without steering away because of deeply rooted neurological functions. However, your Safety and Training Advisor doesn’t want to hear that as an excuse and will want to know what you are going to do to avoid obstacles in the future.
Each skydive requires a continual mental and physical process: plan, execute, observe, interpret, adjust and observe again. If something does not go as planned, it is essential that you recognize what has occurred and react accordingly. A good example of this process is the parachute descent that you make on every skydive. You plan the descent and landing based on the conditions for the particular jump. There are always dozens of variables that affect each skydive, requiring you to constantly evaluate the situation, observe what has taken place and make adjustments as necessary. After opening, you find another jumper is at your same level. Are they descending faster or slower than you? Do you hold in brakes or spiral to get below them? You have to observe what is happening and take action to change the situation.
As the ground gets closer, your options for everything become a bit more limited. Hopefully you planned and executed a descent that allows you to be in clear airspace without any other canopy traffic to worry about. It is always safer and easier to land your parachute without having to deal with others nearby, but if there are, you have to remain vigilant, adjust your flight path as necessary to avoid the traffic and make slight corrections to land in a clear area. If you encounter a nearby parachute and focus entirely on it, you just might run into it! This has happened many times, even when there was a clear area for landing available. Instead of focusing on the obstacle, focus on finding clear airspace and adjusting your flight path.
The more experience you have as a skydiver, the easier it will be to manage situations that require quick thinking and last-second adjustments. Students and novice jumpers should progress carefully while under the watchful eye of someone with more experience. Regardless of your experience level, you must always be prepared to react to an ever-changing environment to help ensure you make it to the ground safely on every skydive.
Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training