Safety Check | 200—The Non-Magical Magic Number
By Ron Bell
Whether you’ve been in skydiving for decades or just started in the past year, you’ve undoubtedly heard some opinionated jumper state that the guidance on camera flying in Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 6-8, which recommends that jumpers hold a C license (200 jumps) prior to jumping with a camera, is no longer valid. The conversation usually goes something like, “That’s an antiquated rule written back when the cameras were huge and mounted on the side of the helmets. It needs to be updated, changed to 150 or 100 jumps.” However, contrary to what the bonfire pontificators say, the recommendation has very little to do with camera size and a whole lot to do with learning theory.
In skydiving, 200 jumps is a recurring theme. A jumper can start wearing a camera, start flying a wingsuit and get a C license at 200 jumps. What is special about 200 jumps? Is there some magic that happens that makes a jumper suddenly ready to take on new skills? Well, yes and no.
Let’s start by looking at the A license. It’s no accident that this license level requires a minimum of 25 jumps to acquire. Skills become grooved in the brain, building what is commonly called “muscle memory,” through trial and practice. Habits start becoming ingrained after someone repeats a skill a minimum of 25 times. Skydiving students build good habits over the first 25 jumps, at first under the direct supervision of an instructor and then under the guidance of a coach. These habits, combined with the knowledge and experience gained during the student program, provide a reasonable level of safety and enjoyment for the A-licensed jumper.
Over the next 25 jumps, a jumper works on honing the same skills but in varying environments. Now cleared to jump with other licensed skydivers, the jumper starts to gain proficiency in group freefall skills and hones the individual freefall skills learned in the student program. The jumper’s landing patterns get more predictable and accurate. The jumper increases their knowledge by participating in water training and a canopy course. At 50 jumps, when a jumper may apply for a B license, they have likely bought their first rig, downsized, experimented with higher wind limits and jumped in increasingly larger formations. All these skills—which introduce many new variables—require practice for the jumper to reach proficiency.
Over the next 50 jumps, a jumper continues to work on improving skills in a casual environment. By the time the jumper reaches 100 jumps, habits have become well established and the jumper knows how to conduct a skydive safely. The next step is for the jumper to learn how to keep others safe and to look around and anticipate problems before they happen. This is why USPA allows jumpers to take the Coach Rating Course at 100 jumps. A jumper spends three days in the coach course broadening their view of skydiving safety.
After 100 jumps (during which time a skydiver will have solidified their own safety habits), they spend another 100 jumps solidifying safety habits in general and assessing the actions of those around them. It’s when jumpers stop looking completely inward and begin looking outward. Just as it takes a jumper 100 jumps to solidify their own safety habits, it takes another 100 jumps to learn how to anticipate safety problems and to look out for others. By the time a jumper reaches 200 jumps, they will most likely have reached a proficiency level that allows the addition of other variables. (And it’s no surprise that it takes another 100 jumps with a camera before a jumper will likely reach the skill level to allow them to begin flying camera safely for tandems.)
So, as disappointing as it might be, there is no magic. Two hundred jumps is simply about the time when all the hard work starts to pay off, when habits become so ingrained that skydiving safely becomes second nature. At 200 jumps, the skydiver has reached a reasonable level of experience and proficiency to allow them to take on additional tasks such as camera flying or wingsuiting, which add yet another layer of complexity to the skydive.
Ron Bell | D-26863
USPA Director of Safety and Training