What organisations can learn about performance and health and safety from the Paratroopers
Helmet, reserve, chest strap, leg straps ... man in front of me ... static line left, elastics, two outer pack ties. The dispatcher nod knowingly and shouted "Stick tell off" From the back of the plane the last man started sounding off 18 ok, slapping the man in front of him on the right shoulder the cue that you're next. 17 Ok, making its way down the stick of paratroopers 16,15,14,12, until it was my turn. The man behind me slapped me on my shoulder and I shouted 1 okay ... stick okay, my hand straight in front of me thumps up indicating all okay. The command came to stand in the door. Without hesitation, I stepped forward and into the door, my face in the breeze and my heart in my throat, this was it. The big moment. Go! the dispatcher shouted, and into the slipstream, I went, as if I'm dreaming. Without thinking I started counting one thousand, two thousand three thousand check. I looked up. Above me a perfect green round canvass. It is almost silent. In the background, I hear the hum of the Hercules and above and behind me I hear the sound of parachutes opening. A beautiful sight 17 canopies fully inflated. I didn't have much time to take in the sight. The ground was fast approaching. I had no idea what landing will feel like, this was my first jump. I remember thinking that this was actually way easier than jumping out of the parachute outside trainer at 44 Parachute Brigade of the South African Army.
Four weeks earlier, 7 of us from 7 Medical Battalion Group an elite unit of the SADF tasked with providing medical support to the South African Special Forces arrived at the Parachute School. In front of us was Jump School but first, we had to complete a 3 day (72 hours) physical and even more mentally challenging selection course. For 3 days we hardly slept or ate. We had one 24 hour ration pack per man. The next three days consisted of a series of physically challenging exercises. One exercise consisted of carrying an 85 kg stretcher made out of steel. The handles would be excruciating to carry as the thin pencil-like handle cut into your hands. We were not allowed to raise the stretcher to our shoulders. The instructors would encourage us to quit. A promise of a warm bed and a warm meal. All you had to do is give up your selection number on our sleeves each trainee candidate had a unique number. By the end of day 3, there were only 4 of us left. And in a total of 600 candidates who started the selection course 96 of us would qualify as paratroopers the golden wings on our chests 4 weeks later. Very few candidates would actually be injured during this whole 3 days of selection and another 4 weeks of jump training. This despite the selection involving a series of obstacles. One obstacle was called the Elephant (Olifant) This obstacle was the mother of all obstacles. The soldier had to climb to the top approximately 8 meters high. When at the top the soldier had to commando crawl over from one side to the other. Another 8 meters. This particular exercise is a challenge and must not be confused with the demonstrations by Bear Grills. Unlike Bear, the soldier is weighted down with full battle kit and a rifle. I have never heard of a serious injury sustained whilst scaling the Olifant I may be wrong but I stand corrected. This exercise involving the entire obstacle course of a few hundred meters had to be undertaken 3 times consecutively with the third against the clock.
Immediately following selection the 4-week hangar or jump phase starts. On day one we were taken to the parachute packers building to load parachutes and other gear. We also had an opportunity to look at where the parachutes are packed. In the passage, I read the packer's code. I can remember the words "I promise I will pack each parachute as if my own life depends on it" We watched how parachutes were packed and saw that a senior packer checks each step the packer makes. Back at the hangar, we were shown a demonstration of how the parachute works. The Colonel going through the whole process of the static line pulling the cord, the outer pack ties that break and finally the parachute pulled out of the bag and into the slipstream. He said that these parachutes are designed to open and that it is actually very rare for a full malfunction. In most cases, there will be some kind of canopy above you which will slow your descent. If memory serves correct the physics was that a paratrooper will on exit accelerates at 1 meter per second per second. This I would experience in freefall a few years later. But first I had to complete this course and gain at least 50 static line jumps. The time it would take a para from exit to landing with a fully inflated parachute would be approximately 45 seconds. If you don't have a parachute it would take about 7 seconds before the earth will come up and smite you he said. We were jumping at about a thousand feet which equates to around 364 meters above the ground. I think at this stage we were all motivated.
Over the next few weeks, we would do hundreds and hundreds of exits, landings, parachute drills, flight drills and emergency drills. It become drill after drill after drill. And then just like that, it was JUMP DAY. On the way to the airfield and the Drop Zone (DZ). (The DZ was actually right next to the airfield making it very efficient for a parachute course.) In the back of the army trucks we were all quiet there wasn't much talking and bantering. Each jumper in his own thoughts about mortality. We were serious, the instructors were serious although they tried their best not to show it. We packed our parachutes out in rows and started to inspect the parachutes as we have done countless times in training. This time however we were making sure that we actually look at the detail. Was there a pin in the hook? At the command fit chutes, we donned equipment and the dispatchers gave us a final check. The dispatcher then went through the inflight, emergency and landing procedures next were told to sit and wait. The aircraft arrived, we sat and waited whilst the pilots went through their pre-flight checks, our dispatchers were ensuring that all the cables etc in the aircraft had been inspected and they had a briefing with the pilots. We sat as the DZ safety officer measured the wind speed. Finally, we got the command to in-plane. This was it the moment of truth. Stand up hook up, the safety pin inserted into the hook. One last check by the dispatcher and the command came to tell off. One okay stick okay! Out of the door and into the wind. The ground rushed towards me and my training kicked in. I executed a perfect side of the boot left landing and it was all over. The next few jumps would be what were called qualification jumps. Each jumper gets evaluated. If there is any doubt of the jumpers capability in terms of aptitude to execute a safe parachute jump, then the jumper would be RTU'd (Return to unit).
A few weeks later 96 paratroopers received the coveted wings which we could proudly wear on our left chest. This is why we were there. The honour of being a part of the airborne brotherhood, our why. To qualify as a paratrooper we had to complete 7 jumps. Two of them would be night jumps and two of them with full battle kit at night. In total, over the next 4 weeks, the total course would roughly complete over 2500 jumps in total on average 20 jumps per jumper and not one serious injury. We had a handful of malfunctions and each time the paratrooper was able to swiftly deploy the emergency chute and land safely. Sure we had a few rolled ankles, knocks and bruises but nothing serious. Throughout my time with the paratroopers not once did we use the term Health & Safety. Other than the DZ Safety officer there was nothing which was talking about safety. So why the low injury rate and why do military parachuting have such a good safety record? The answer lies in the system, from the first moment at jump school, the moment you go through the gates you know that there is something special about this place. Paratroopers don't walk somewhere they double-quick march everywhere. There's not a paper out of place, neat as a pin. The vehicles are spotless and so are the jump boots of the paratroopers. It's a culture of high performance where mediocrity leads to casualties in training so as in battle. Paratroopers train to fight and fight to win. The winning culture can best be described in the motto of the regiment Ex alto vincimus (We conquer from Above).
Every paratrooper, packer, medic, pilot, instructor, the dispatcher etc has a role to play, each as important and as crucial as the next. Each cog in the wheel knows that one mistake would mean certain serious harm. The culture of the paratroopers is one of winning. Every man or women are motivated to mission success. Drills become muscle memory, safety is just how we do things around here but it is not called safety. What organisations can learn about performance and health and safety from the Paratroopers? To develop a high performing safety culture give people a why and the right tools and training, then performance is the result and safety comes naturally.⚔️