Military Aviation's Lessons for Skydivers

Every day, Naval aviators take to the sky to train for the time when they may have to fly into combat. Military and other high-performance aircraft operate at the edge of the envelope. Maximum performance comes from operating on the envelope’s edge, which means there is little to no margin for error. This has created the need for a robust safety system in Naval aviation. Other industries have adopted these principles and practices, and they are equally relevant to skydiving. Right out of the gate, the Navy indoctrinates its aviators into a safety culture. For good reason: Pilots die more often in training mishaps than from enemy actions. This safety training—which aviators learn and discuss throughout their careers—includes lessons on the Swiss-cheese-mishap model, normalization of deviance, complacency and risk management. But how does this apply to skydiving?

The Swiss-Cheese Model

The Swiss-cheese model for accident causation illustrates that many barriers of defense keep us away from accidents, but each of these layers has its flaws. Mishaps occur when these flaws align. Picture a stack of sliced Swiss cheese: Each slice represents a layer of defense, and the holes represent flaws. These flaws can be either active or passive failures. If enough holes line up, an accident can occur. This model visually illustrates how the different facets of safety programs work together to keep us safe.

In aviation maintenance, if aircraft need repair, qualified techs perform the jobs using standard checklists from which they may not deviate. After the techs finish their jobs, quality control personnel check off the work. Then, when pilots sign for their aircraft, they view their maintenance logs and see what work was done. This allows the pilots to be extra vigilant during preflight inspections to check for incomplete work or spare parts and tools left behind. In this system, all the people act together to prevent mistakes. Each person is like a slice of Swiss cheese in the model: If the holes line up (say someone installs a part incorrectly and the next two people don’t check) and a hazard makes it through, the pilot could take off in an unsafe aircraft and crash.

In skydiving, you can also guard against accidents by making sure the holes don’t line up. After a reserve inspection and repack, give your gear a thorough once over instead of assuming that the rigger did everything the right way. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust but verify.” Then make sure someone else gives you a gear check before you board the plane. The Swiss-cheese model applies in other areas around the drop zone, as well. If you see the holes lining up, do something. The wrong time to say you noticed a problem is after an injury or death.

Normalization of Deviance

When someone falsely attributes the absence of an accident as an indication of a safe practice, it is called the normalization of deviance. It all starts with a single act outside of the norm. With repetition, that single act feels less out of place and becomes the new norm. The Challenger disaster in 1986 is a textbook example of this phenomenon: Some scientists worried about faulty O-rings in the rocket boosters, but because previous flights were successful using the same O-rings, it wasn’t until after the explosion that anybody did something about them. 

Here’s a simple illustration from skydiving: “I didn’t wear my seatbelt in the plane on the last jump and nothing bad happened, so it must be safe.” This simplified example shows the rationalization and the thought process involved in normalizing deviance. Each repetition of the deviance builds the false confidence that everything is all right … until it isn’t. This process occurs on both the individual level and organizational level.

In the Challenger example, six months prior to the disaster, a memo from a scientist predicted that if something wasn’t done about the O-rig problem, NASA stood a good chance of “losing a flight along with all the launch-pad facilities.” Sadly, the deviation was already normalized within NASA, and the organization didn’t make any changes. At your drop zone, if someone brings up a safety concern, is it quickly brushed off with, “Well, that’s just how we do things here,” or would the drop zone take it seriously? Normalization of deviance can happen to anyone. Diligence in maintaining personal and drop zone safe practices keeps it at bay.


Complacency is one of the big killers in military aviation. Problematically, the exact characteristics that should prevent mishaps—high levels of knowledge, training and experience—are at the root of complacency. When a dangerous task becomes rote, deviations from best practices can seep in. Fatigue and stress can induce lax behavior, as can gradually accepting lower performance as acceptable and becoming overly dependent on technology … the list goes on. Complacent aviators have the ability to act competently, but they’ve let their guards down without knowing it. Any time situational awareness slips, pilots and jumpers are susceptible to making mistakes.

People can generally easily spot complacency in others but find it hard to spot in themselves. Feeling burned out is an indicator that complacency is at your door and that mistakes may soon creep in. One remedy is to create new goals. These goals should reignite passion for what you’re doing, whether that’s taking up a new discipline or making strides in a current one. Bringing the passion back creates a driving force that fosters situational awareness and attention to detail. Military pilots constantly practice different mission sets (for example, conducting close air support one day and armed reconnaissance the next). If you are getting bored, try some variation during your next trip to the drop zone. A couple of jumps doing something different than normal will refresh your lesser-used skills and your mind.

Squadron pilots take monthly written tests on emergency procedures to ensure they are ready and able to perform when—not if—an emergency strikes. An engine failure at night at 1,000 feet above the ground is not the time to brush up on emergency skills. The same concept holds true for jumpers. Are you reviewing your emergency procedures only on Safety Day or are you studying periodically to ensure that you can act quickly in an emergency? Are you throwing on your rig and skipping gear checks? Are you instructing your 500th tandem student with the same level of care and diligence as your first?

The cultural stigma against “sandbagging” (a term that comes from describing a pilot as “no better than a sandbag in the cockpit” because he neither pays attention nor helps others) emphasizes situational awareness and teamwork. In an environment with A-type personalities where trust is a critical component of flying and fighting together, no one wants to be branded a sandbag. The same should apply at the drop zone. No one should want to jump with the guy who isn’t safe, nor should anyone want to be the unsafe jumper.

Military pilots also combat complacency by reviewing mishaps on a regular basis. This allows pilots to recognize the contributing factors in their own or their squadron’s habit patterns and allows them to make changes for the better. Learning from others’ mistakes is essential in prevention. One way pilots learn from each other’s mistakes is through ready-room confessionals. During meetings in the ready room, pilots have the chance to stand up in front of their peers, subordinates and superiors and “confess” to something that happened to them and how they responded. These confessionals allow pilots to swallow their pride in a non-punitive setting and share the lessons learned to help others avoid similar mistakes. This occurs informally in skydiving. Everyone enjoys a “No s#!&, there I was,” story around the bonfire. But these stories are not only entertaining, they serve as skydiving’s ready-room confessional and give jumpers young and old a chance to learn from each other’s mistakes.

Risk Mitigation

Before each military flight, the crew takes a look at potential risks and analyzes them in two areas: mission and personal risks. Mission risks include items such as flight in a new area, use of night-vision goggles, weather, etc., while personal risks include fatigue, sickness, family or work stress, proficiency, currency and the like. Each item has a point value, and the mission receives a total score. Based on the score, the mission receives a low-, medium- or high-risk classification. Unless there’s a combat-related need, most squadrons won’t send out a high-risk crew. Instead, the squadron makes small changes to the plan to lower the risk classification.

In skydiving, how many risks are average jumpers willing to stack against themselves in one jump? Should four new skydivers do their first head-down jumps together at a new drop zone at night while simultaneously downsizing their canopies? Anybody within earshot of this plan would quickly jump in to suggest something different. Skydiving has inherent risks: Jumpers hurl themselves out into the relative wind with nothing more than a backpack full of nylon to slow them down at the bottom. There is no need to stack the odds in death’s favor. When you’re planning a jump, ask yourself beforehand, “Is this safe?” If the answer is no, or even if you just hesitate, take a few minutes and break down the plan to expose the risks. Then change the plan accordingly. The Skydiver’s Information Manual is an excellent resource for recommendations on downsizing, skill progression, etc., and your drop zone’s Safety and Training advisor can also help.

Safety Day is a great time to refresh the skills that keep us safe. But Safety Day shouldn’t be the only time of the year that safety is at the forefront. Be the person who offers gear checks. Remind everyone to buckle up in the aircraft. Evaluate the plan on every jump. Stay vigilant, stick to the rules and mitigate your risk. Like military pilots, jumpers everywhere should be vigilant in maintaining a safety mindset. Make 2017 the safest year in skydiving yet.

About the Author
Chet Boyce, B-44415, is a captain in the Marine Corps and flies the AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter. In addition to writing, he enjoys adventure sports. He and his wife, Chrissy, live in North Carolina, where he is stationed. They have two kids.


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