Skydiving requires an action to survive. Freeze, fight or flight are natural reactions to stress but they do not work for skydivers. There is very little time to think about what to do next when the ground is approaching fast. Hence, our response must be quick. We can separate a human reaction into three process: perception, assessment, and execution. These processes happen consecutively. The faster we complete them, the quicker our response is to the changing environment. Let's examine how education and training affects these processes.
Perception is the process during which we become aware of information: we look at the altimeter to know the altitude, we look around to see if no other canopies are moving to collide with us, etc. Education and past experiences play a major role in a person's perception. We are not necessarily aware of what we look at. Education trains us to look for the right information in the right places. For example, if we do not look around after our canopy opens to see where the drop zone is, we will not turn to fly toward it. On the other hand, even if we see where the landing area is, we may not know how to detect if we can reach it. As a result, we may not make a turn to fly toward the landing area in time.
Books and instructors tell students where to look and what to see, while videos show us examples. However, once students are in the air, they must make a conscious effort to look in the correct direction and focus on the right information: "It's landing time. The ground is moving very quickly. It should not move so quickly. Ohh... I must look at the horizon, I must not look directly underneath." The goal is to make proper perception a habit, because conscious effort is slow. Habits develop with practice, and practice takes time. A student has not yet developed habits and may forget to think about what to pay attention to, but help comes from the instructor over the radio: "Prepare for landing flare. Eyes on the horizon..." One does not develop a habit by taking a class, reading a book or watching a video. Instead, these sources supply knowledge that can be used during practice, which eventually leads to habit. Simulation of a situation, on the other hand, does help to develop a habit, in a safe environment.
The emergency procedures that every jumper practices before every jump (you do, right?) is the example of a "simulation". In such "simulation" we create situations and responses ourselves. Another example of a "simulation" is hanging in a harness during a safety day. In this circumstance, an instructor creates an emergency situation for us. Dirt-dive is an example of a non-emergency "simulation". Airplane pilots take the concept of "simulation" further by using flight simulators (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_simulation). The military have used skydiving computer simulators (these are similar to flight simulators) for some time. Nowadays, computer parachute simulation software is available for everyone.
The second process in our reaction sequence is assessment - making a decision about what the acquired facts mean. We look at the altimeter and it's 2000 feet. Nothing to be done just yet, or maybe we still have a problem with the canopy, or maybe we see that we are not making it to the landing area, etc. Education has the largest impact on the process of assessment. We are taught what actions are required in different situations. At the very beginning, all we need to do is to pick the right action from the proffered set of actions.
Speed of the recall is important. Repetition is key for a quick recall. Taking a class, reading a book, or watching a video are good ways to refresh our memory (safety days help us do exactly that). The disadvantage of these methods is that they cover very limited number of situations and conditions. For example, we are told that to get back from a long spot we can use rear riser input, but that's only true for a certain ratio of your canopy forward speed and the speed of the wind. In some situations, we may have to use front risers or brakes. Now instead of a simple memory retrieval task, we have to do some reasoning. We may have all the knowledge to do the reasoning properly, but it's slow and error prone (time pressure and adrenalin rush do not help rational reasoning). Simulations offer an efficient way to condition memory by repetition. A computer simulation also allows for an infinite amount of situations with different conditions. It's easier to make a decision when we have already seen such a situation before.
Execution is the process of acting on the chosen response. Muscle memory allows us to speed up this process. Instructors, books, or videos can not help this process. Muscle memory is developed by repeating an action... but we already know that simulation is good for that! Pulling the cut away and reserve handles while hanging in a training harness or before your reserve is due for a repack are good examples of muscle memory training: we feel how hard we need to pull the handles, what the proper motion of the hands are, etc. Computer simulation can help as well, but it is most effective with a special hardware, which is not yet available at a reasonable price.
We have covered three processes that contribute to our reaction: perception, assessment, and execution. We repeat them over and over again. Every time we do something, a new set of conditions manifests itself. There is a dynamic and complex relationship between the situation and our responses to it. Instructors, books, and videos can only mention a very small set of examples. Traditional simulation methods (use of the imaginations or/and an instructor) are also quite limited. A computer simulation, however, provides real time feedback for all possible actions that we can exercise in the simulation. We can judge the correctness of our actions based on what happens next.
Simulation has always been an essential part of skydiving education and training. Computer simulation takes this concept further and allows for even better results. We have seen how it can help us when other means of education and training are less efficient or can not help at all. One may ask: "How good must a "computer simulation" be to be used for training?". A similar question would be "How good must a picture be in a text book?" The answer is "As long as it (simulation or picture) reasonably illustrates the required concepts." No educational tool can or should be used by itself. The purpose of the tools is to make a student think, ask the right questions, and develop the correct responses.
Given our limited attention span, it's always a compromise between focus on safety and focus on other things, especially for novice jumpers. The faster we get our habits and muscle memory developed, the safer our jumps become. This is why it's important to understand what tools are available to us, and what their limitations, advantages, and disadvantages are. In his book "The Parachute and its Pilot" Brian Germain phrased it this way "When we can acquire the right information, and access this data at the right time, we have a pretty good chance of walking away from sketchy situations." Our goal is "to acquire the right information." We can do this most efficiently when we understand what educational and training tools we have in our disposal: classes, book, videos, simulations, etc. The newest tool in the skydiver's toolbox is computer simulation software. This software greatly complements the other means of education and training. Which, in turn, will result in a safer and more enjoyable sport.
Alexander Shyrokov is the founder of Static Line Interactive, Inc.