When the Required Training Isn’t Enough to Keep You (Entirely) Safe
Airborne and Special Operations Test Directorate
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
According to Army statistics, there have been, on average, 288 Class C and D parachuting mishaps annually over the past five years. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some hazards associated with inexperienced personnel on airborne operations. Jumpmasters and safeties can use this information and, with small modifications, control and reduce the risk.
An example to illustrate this relatively easy-to-achieve strategy begins with a newly assigned E5 on jump status. The Soldier just arrived on permanent change of station (PCS) orders to the unit, fresh out of Basic Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Airborne school is a TDY en-route qualification school, and the Soldier took an extended 30-day PCS leave on his way to the unit. Add two weeks to that for the in-processing and shuffling required to drop a new arrival in the company area, normal scheduling before the next proficiency jump (administrative/non-tactical) and a weather delay, and before anyone could stop to count, 60 days had passed since the last time the Soldier had been in a harness for an airborne operation. The unit standard operating procedure (SOP) doesn’t mandate basic airborne refresher training for anyone having less than 90 days from the Basic Airborne Course or more than 12 months from their last proficiency jump.
When the time finally came for the proficiency jumps, the preparation went as usual. The jumpmaster team conducted Sustained Airborne Training’s (SAT) three phases:
- Actions in the aircraft brief (SERJT/E) and mock door training
- Pre-jump training
- Parachute landing falls (PLFs).
The riggers issued the equipment to the Soldiers, and the jumpmaster team conducted the personnel inspections. All the routine safety and training activities happened just as everyone expected — until the new Soldier landed on the ground.
In the post-mishap interviews and statements, it was clear the jumpmaster and safeties knew the Soldier was an inexperienced jumper. He was not overconfident, and the supervisors were alert, active and doing their jobs. The weather was nominal. With hazards identified and controls implemented, what was it that went wrong? The short answer is jumper error — an improper PLF. When the Soldier reached the ground, he landed with his toes extended and feet and knees apart. He took the shock of the landing right through his feet without the benefit of dissipating that energy in a proper PLF. The cost to readiness was two broken feet, 12 days of hospitalization, a no-jump profile for another 45 days and medical re-evaluation.
Aside from the obvious lesson about the individual error and inexperience underpinning the root cause of the injury/mishap, what lesson does the airborne community need to draw from this for the development of better controls? The unit’s post-mishap review yielded two good controls and techniques to implement them. Control 1
Take the identified, inexperienced Soldier(s) aside after SAT Phase 3 PLFs for additional iterations of PLF practice. In a routine observation of a group conducting practice PLFs, it is likely one or two poor PLFs out of 30, 60 or 90 is lost in the shuffle. The key here is one-on-one practice to enable the new Soldier to demonstrate a level of comfort with the standards and to build his or her experience level. Control 2
The platoon leader or other senior supervisor conducts an airborne-focused interview portion of initial counseling with all new Soldiers during in-processing at the unit level. For inexperienced jumpers, where basic airborne refresher training is not required by rule, the interviewing leader will hand-carry that status information to the jumpmaster at the next scheduled proficiency jump. Then implement recommended Control 1. Conclusion
This incident was neither inevitable nor grossly negligent. Airborne operations are inherently dangerous. We have no shortcuts or controlled environments that can substitute for experience. What we do have are controls that minimize the hazards and leave the Army with acceptable risk. However, we can improve the controls and supervise additional training that is feasible at the Soldier level. Bring an increased emphasis on supervision that identifies, evaluates and controls hazards to the mission and let that focused attention drive down your mishap/injury rate.