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British Airborne Forces and the Film Industry

  • Posted on 21 Apr 2024
  • 46 min read

Part 2

By Mark Briggs CMIOSH

In Part 1, we looked at the early days of the involvement of British Airborne Forces and veterans with the film industry.

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British Skydiving: anti-military? Ian Marshall thinks so

Storm clouds were gathering over British Airborne Forces’ relationship with Hollywood and Pinewood. Ian Marshall, a Golden Lanyard holder who served with 2 PARA, Pathfinder Platoon and the Red Devils before entering the film industry, recalls: “On several projects over the years, production directors approached me and said: ’I have spoken to British Skydiving and they say that you, meaning me and other ex-Airborne Forces parachute coordinators and consultants, are not qualified and that it is illegal to jump military-style round canopies in the UK.’  In retrospect, this was obviously a problem long in the making. And now, we are starting to see the results as film producers pull out of the UK.”. Ian Marshall was a BPA/British Skydiving director for twenty-seven years.

The British Parachute Association’s founder members in 1961 were mainly serving and retired Army and RAF officers and NCOs with parachuting backgrounds. In other words, they were government-trained and qualified paratroopers, parachutists and instructors. Incorporated in 1966, the BPA, now rebranded and trading as British Skydiving, was appointed in 1996 by the Civil Aviation Authority quango to oversee the sport of parachuting in the United Kingdom. However, British Skydiving has significantly pushed the boundaries of its remit as an amateur sports body and is now impacting upon professionals working in the commercial sector.

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Die Another Day: former paratrooper Alan Hewitt doubles for Toby Stephens

Allan Hewitt told HERMES: “The situation is well-known amongst many USA film directors and stunt coordinators so the UK sector is losing out on a lot of potential work due to the rules and restrictions being dictated by British Skydiving.“. Hewitt, who doubled for James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan and also for Toby Stephens in the sequence where arch-villain Sir Gustav Graves parachutes onto Buckingham Palace in Die Another Day, continued:

“I gave up on requesting anything through British Skydiving many years ago. My only option is to deal directly with the CAA; this is also not without its problems. The only realistic alternative left is to take the film companies to Spain, Denmark, the Czech Republic or Slovenia, which I have had to do many times so I can get the job done in time.”.

During one of the safety audits conducted on the Mission Impossible 7 parachute-related work, an American specialist instructor engaged to train Tom Cruise in BASE-jumping skills and techniques asked: “I don’t understand what British Skydiving have to do with filmmaking and movie parachuting work. Aren’t they just a sports club? Why am I forced to join this organisation to work in the UK? Who gave them control?”.

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Pierce Brosnan: advised by British Airborne veterans

Ian Marshall told HERMES: “One of the projects that may be affected is Freefall, about the legendary Nish Bruce, who was my best friend. It is worrisome and upsetting. This isn’t about the money. It’s the principle. Most of us knew and served with Nish. It should be us involved with the filming of the parachuting scenes as we were the people there, alongside Nish, at the time.”.

Airborne Forces veteran Ian Robinson BSc (Hons), who also worked as a Local Authority Principal Officer, said: “It is an extraordinary situation wherein an amateur sports body with a well-documented, dreadful safety record –– averaging two fatal accidents per year over a long period of time –– can describe itself as ‘world class’ and ‘gold standard’ whilst dismissing the real benchmark of excellence: British Airborne Forces and No 1 PTS at RAF Brize Norton. I am totally disgusted that the Authorities permit this situation to persist.”.

In a Special Parachute Permission issued to Paramount Studios by the CAA on 21 July 2020, Item 3 (c) on Page 2 of the document stipulated: “All operations of the Team shall be conducted in accordance with relevant provisions of the British Skydiving Operations Manual for the time being in force and which has been submitted to the Civil Aviation Authority and the applicable requirements stated in CAP660.”.

The term ‘in force’ seems to seek to give the impression that CAP 660 and the BS Operations Manual are primary law –– overriding Statutory Instruments such as the Health and Safety At Work etc Act 1974 –– and that British Skydiving is in effect a legislative body and Enforcing Authority within the UK constitutional framework. However, British Skydiving is not a recognised awarding body. It could be described as a private members club of self-gratifying sports amateurs in the context of the current legal framework.

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The CAA publication Code of Aviation Practice 660 (CAP 660), was revised and updated in 2020 (Edition 5) and now incorporates content lifted directly from the British Skydiving Operations Manual. The BS Operations Manual relates to sports skydiving rules rather than the regulatory provisions to which professional parachutists, who are at work, are required to adhere. CAP 660 has been described by several Chartered Health and Safety Practitioners and consultants as a codified exercise in the evasion of Health and Safety legislation and Health and Safety Executive oversight.

The CAA is only the Regulator whilst parachutists are aboard the aircraft; once a parachutist exits and clears the aircraft, it is in fact the Health and Safety Executive that is the Enforcing Authority. This supports the contention that the powers delegated by the CAA to British Skydiving are not in the CAA’s gift to begin with. As for the CAA, the Law limits its involvement in parachuting to an obligation to issue parachute permissions to any applicant whose arrangements conform to health and safety requirements as laid down in laws passed by Parliament.

Like most UK legislation, the Air Navigation Order (amended) 2016 is goal-setting in nature. Therefore, Article 90 – the only specific legal provision – provides that parachutists must be in possession of a permission issued by the Civil Aviation Authority for them to exit an aircraft and that the holder should comply with the terms of any such permission(s) and/or exemption(s).

Article 23 exempts parachutes from the remaining provisions of the ANO 2016, as a parachute is not deemed to be an aircraft in accordance with EASA Regulation 1139/2018 (the basic regulation), with the exception of Article 241; this simply requires person(s) not to recklessly or negligently cause or permit the endangerment of an aircraft, any person or property. The requirement, therefore, that parachute operations should be conducted in accordance with the overarching health and safety law is implicit.

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Article 90, Section (5) stipulates: “Every applicant for and holder of a parachuting permission must make available to the CAA if requested a parachuting manual.”. The parachute operations manual is only required to establish the on-board aircraft procedures, in accordance with Part SPO/NCO, as it relates to parachuting activities. This would normally be expected to include: manifest and loading; seat belts and helmets; jumpmaster and dispatching duties; aircraft emergency arrangements and briefings to parachutists but not the parachuting activity itself, as this falls under health and safety regulations.

Under UK law, the ‘Duty Holder’ is responsible, subject to risk assessment, for establishing suitable and sufficient arrangements to adequately control risk. There is no provision in the law allowing the imposition of or requirement to work under another party’s procedures, in this case the British Skydiving Operations Manual. However, as it transpires, any applicant who refuses to comply with the CAA requirement to work in accordance with CAP 660 and under the BS Operations Manual is unlikely to receive a CAA Parachuting Permission even though the Law requires the CAA to issue permissions to competent applicants.

In one well-documented case, a non-British Skydiving-affiliated parachute display team that applied to operate outside of this construct and thus in accordance with UK Law was met with demands from the CAA for upfront payment of £40,000 fees. Asked to justify these fees, the CAA failed to do so, prompting a number of observers to wonder if the CAA was acting to prevent exposure of CAP 660 and the British Skydiving Operations Manual as legally non-compliant documents by constructively obstructing the publication and use of Health and Safety-compliant operating manuals.

The CAA is not qualified or competent to regulate commercial parachute-related safety matters, as the CAA itself has admitted, which is why the quango turned to a third party to begin with in 1996. Nor, however, is its delegated overseer British Skydiving, an amateur sports body whose directors and executives, for the most part, hold no qualifications of any kind that are relevant to the safety of parachuting at work. Furthermore and in line with current Government policy, parachuting should have been deregulated like other air disciplines such as, for example, powered Paragliding.

Dave Brackwell MSc CFIOSH CFCIPD DMS PGCE RN, a Health and Safety Consultant and Royal Marines, Airborne Forces and PFA veteran said: “British Skydiving are an amateur sports body with no recognised qualifications and are certainly not competent to either control and oversee or comment upon professionals at work. In such circumstances when at least one person is employed or self-employed or otherwise at work, and/or the parachuting is taking place in association with a business undertaking, then the activity must be carried out under the Health and Safety At Work etc Act 1974.

“A comparable benchmark example would be the British Sub-Aqua Club. As an amateur sports body BSAC is totally excluded, the authorities would never tolerate such an organisation interfering with commercial operations and the activities of persons at work. The legal requirements and standards, onus obligations and incumbent duties are of a far higher level in relation to persons at work than the general duty of care pertaining to sport and leisure activities. The current situation with regards to parachuting and skydiving in the UK is absolutely astounding!”.

British Skydiving’s well-known aversion to Health and Safety legislation was articulated in an open letter dated 8 February 2021 from the British Skydiving’s Chief Operations Officer, who described the prospect of Health and Safety Executive oversight of sports skydiving as “a danger”. In other documents and on their website, BS also refers to the HSE as “a threat”. British Skydiving Chair Craig Poxon and COO Tony Butler were sent drafts of this article for comment but neither gentleman responded.

Unfortunately, where there once existed a thriving niche sector, providing opportunities for military airborne veterans, we are now witnessing the destruction by British Skydiving and the Civil Aviation Authority of job prospects and reasonable income expectations for ex-military parachute professionals. Meanwhile, BS senior executives receive six-figure salaries whilst the organisation, according to records published by Companies House, rarely allocates safety-related annual expenditure in excess of £5,000.

Ian Marshall, who was also a British Skydiving director for twenty-seven years, stated: “I can assure you of the current management’s total antipathy towards the Military. The British Skydiving position is related to, in my considered opinion, its desire to maintain its lucrative monopoly over parachuting and to put anyone who wishes to work outside their control out of business. The Civil Aviation Authority is complicit in this by being obstructive in various ways – you must work under British Skydiving!”.

It is not only the film industry that is affected. Prior to the recent, tragic death of our Airborne sister RAF Sergeant Rachel Fisk whilst skydiving, a senior RAF officer stated in an email to the author: “RAF Weston-on-the-Green, JSAT sports parachuting centre, operates under the auspices of British Skydiving, the National Governing Body (NGB) who externally assure our parachuting activity.”.

However, Military personnel are deemed to be at work, even when carrying out adventure training parachute jumps or instructing at JSAT Centres. This was evidenced by the Improvement Notice served upon RAF Weston-on-the-Green by the Health and Safety Executive on 7 October 2021 in relation to Sgt Fisk’s death, quoting failures under primary health and safety legislation and associated regulations. On the same date, the HSE also wrote to the management of the RAF’s Robson Academy of Excellence. The letter identified contraventions, ordered that a Risk Assessment be carried out and that the letter be distributed to employees and posted on the notice board in line with Section 28(8) of the Heath and Safety at Work Act etc 1974.

These measures taken by the HSE against the RAF in relation to Sgt Fisk’s death further clarify that, despite the claims and assertions of various vested interests,  the HSE are in fact the Enforcing Authority in relation to parachuting being carried out in association with a work activity, as articulated on the HSE website.

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On 23 February 2022, various media reported the postponement by Oxfordshire Coroner Darren Salter of the inquest into Sgt Fisk’s death because of the ongoing Thames Valley Police and Health and Safety Executive investigation. Detective Inspector Mike Roddy told journalists from The Daily Mail and other media: “In line with normal work-related death practices, Thames Valley Police are leading a joint investigation with the Health and Safety Executive. An incident room led by a senior investigating officer continues to investigate corporate manslaughter, gross misconduct manslaughter and serious offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.”.

In 2019 the CAA issued a Special Parachute Permission to the Pegasus Display Team for its commemorative jump on the 10th Parachute Battalion Memorial in Leicestershire, unveiled seventy-five years after the Battalion’s destruction at Oosterbeek during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944. In line with the CAA scheme of charges for commemorative and charitable parachute jumps, the fee was waived.

In 2021, however, the CAA refused a Special Parachute Permission to the Pegasus Display Team for an Arnhem-related commemorative jump at MOD Abingdon. Was this refusal a vindictive reaction to the Pegasus Display Team’s ministerial level complaint against the CAA and British Skydiving over their attempts to pressurise the Team into working under BS and in accordance with CAP 660?

The question remains unanswered but it does seem that the Team is being penalised for, basically, refusing to become complicit in evasion of Health and Safety law, an evasion not just codified in the CAP 660 document but expressed in the description by British Skydiving’s Chief Operating Officer of the Health and Safety Executive as “a danger”. The said COO told a coroner in 2003 that he had managed inquiries into sixty skydiving fatalities as the British Parachuting Association’s National Safety Officer.

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A regimental journal that the MOD has forbidden us to identify published a detailed report about the ill-fated MOD Abingdon Arnhem Commemorative Jump in its December 2021 issue. The report recounted how the Pegasus Display Team had booked two C47 Dakota aircraft and how several aircraft lifts had been set-aside as a reward for serving paratroopers of 16th Air Assault Brigade returning from Operation Pitting, in Afghanistan. HM Government has recently approved an Operation Pitting clasp to the Afghanistan Campaign Medal.

The author of the report, who complained to the MOD when we credited him in an earlier edition of this article, wrote: “16 Air Assault Brigade were invited to join Pathfinder and the Pegasus Display Team to jump from these historic aircraft, both of which had dropped paratroopers at the beginning of Operation MARKET GARDEN in September 1944. […] The CAA states that an application for a special parachuting permission needs to be submitted 30 working days before the event.

“In this case, due to the late cancellation of the British participation in the Dutch event, the application was submitted to the CAA a couple of days short of the official 30 working day requirement. This was also due to the August Bank Holiday which, although falling on a Monday, does not count as a working day. The application to the CAA was refused on the grounds that it was not submitted in time, in spite of applications for film parachute stunts sometimes being approved in as little as five days. An additional reason for refusal given by the CAA, was that the fee for the Special Parachuting Permission had not been paid.

“They ignored the fact that fees for commemoration jumps are waived. Thus, it was, that for only the second year since September 1944 (the first time was 2020 during the pandemic lockdown), British Airborne soldiers and airborne veterans were unable to commemorate this iconic airborne operation with round parachutes in the sky.”.

The report concluded: “It is truly sad that the bureaucracy of a regulator has prevented serving soldiers and veterans alike from commemorating an operation that remains so important to so many people in this country and that contributed to the fight for the freedoms that we enjoy in this country today.”.

In September 2021, Transport Minister Grant Shapps MP announced plans to introduce an independent body to oversee appeals against CAA procedures or, in other words, complaints about CAA abuse of its powers. Mr Shapps told Pilot magazine journalist Eugenio Facci: “I don’t think [the CAA] should be the judge, the jury and the executioner”.

Mr Facci wrote: “Shapps said this needs to change, since ‘the appeal goes back to the same person who made the original decision. We want to make sure that there is a proper and fair execution of justice’ through implementing a new system, where complaints and appeals would go ‘an independent panel, not in the CAA.’ [sic]”.

When the Pegasus Display Team complained to the CAA, the CAA official who responded was, indeed, the same individual who had refused the Parachute Permission in the first place and who acts as the de facto liaison officer between the CAA and its parachuting overseer British Skydiving. The BS anti-military stance has been described on the record by more than one credible commentator including parachuting legend Ian Marshall, who was a British Skydiving director for 27 years.

It is reasonable to argue that the CAA has facilitated British Skydiving’s establishment of a commercial monopoly over the parachuting sector. It would logically follow that the CAA is also implicated in its delegated overseer’s documented evasion of health and safety law, as encapsulated in CAA publication CAP 660 and the CAA-BS Exposition. Thus, the CAA is highly likely to be regulatory compromised.

A draft of this article was provided to CAA Chief Executive Officer Richard Moriarty who responded through his Business Manager Philip Clarke. Mr Clarke wrote: “Thank you for your email of earlier today to Richard Moriarty, together with a copy of your draft article.  As you will be aware, Round Canopy Parachuting is permitted in the UK under CAP 660. The CAA will continue to support the activity for re-enactment and filming subject to a safety case.”.

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Tom Cruise: trained by British Airborne veterans

A request to Philip Clarke for clarification of Mr Moriarty’s comments, particularly in relation to his mention of ‘re-enactment’, drew a fresh response from CAA Head of Media Andrew McConnell, who wrote: “Thank you for your follow up email and your ongoing interest on this topic.  Your request has been passed onto myself as the Head of Media at the UK Civil Aviation Authority. Please see our response below – which we would appreciate you using in full.

“’We will continue to support the activity for re-enactment and filming, but any approval requires an appropriate application to be submitted to us. […] A Risk Assessment is required as part of the application together with operations manual, SOP and method statement. All the details are on the application form and in’”.

In both email exchanges, the CAA omitted to mention that submitted documentation is passed to British Skydiving for approval. In other words, Parachute and Special Parachute Permissions issued by the CAA are only granted subject to imposed provisions that require applicants to work outside Health and Safety law, and under the control of British Skydiving and its legally non-compliant, irrelevant Operations Manual, which is not based on sound risk management principals and is certainly not fit for purpose yet is touted by the CAA as a benchmark ‘gold standard’.

The CAA’s references to ‘re-enactment’ recalled other, somewhat derogatory descriptions used by the CAA in relation to Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces veterans involved in commemorative and heritage display jumps, many of whom have seen combat in the service of their country. Mr McConnell duly received an email asking for clarification: “This is not the first time that the CAA has insulted HM Airborne Forces. On a previous occasion your Compliance Officer Jim Frampton instructed me that the Pegasus Display Team was not allowed to use the name ‘Pegasus’ as it belonged to British Skydiving.”. Jim Frampton appeared somewhat surprised by the robust rebuttal. Mr McConnell did not respond.

In correspondence dated 26 October 2020, Philip Clarke described British Skydiving as “a world class organisation” in the context of comparing British Skydiving to HM Airborne Forces. The record shows that more than fifty skydivers have been killed in the UK in the past 25 years, not to speak of the numerous life-changing injuries suffered.

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British Army PJIs: government qualifications not recognised by CAA and British Skydiving

The CAA continually refuses to accept the government-awarded parachute and instructor qualifications issued by the MOD under the Ofqual Regulated Qualifications Framework, preferring instead to approve the un-recognised attendance stickers and badges of the unqualified amateurs of British Skydiving. The CAA state that such approval is “not in the CAA gift” as it is CAA Policy to “only accept the recommendations of the CAA-approved Person – British Skydiving”.

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Ian Sandford in 3 PARA days

Ian Sandford remarked to HERMES: “As British Skydiving are constantly stating that they don’t recognise Government-awarded military parachute wings, and that it is they who are ‘world class’ and have placed themselves upon a pedestal, can someone explain to me why, every time there is a conflict or a trouble spot flares up somewhere in the world, the Government contacts the Parachute Regiment and SAS, not the lycra-clad self-styled sky gods of British Skydiving? I look forward with interest to seeing them jumping at 700 feet from a C-130, at night, with 120 pounds of equipment onto an unprepared drop zone.”.

In an email dated 29 March 2021 to a blogger whose pseudonym ‘Don Canard’ is French for Donald Duck, CAA Executive Director of Safety and Airspace Regulation Rob Bishton, referring to the blogger’s articles about the CAA-British Skydiving relationship, stated: “Executives of the CAA represent the CAA position and that which reflects government policy. I assure you that you will receive a reply in due course and after due consideration, given much of what is being referred to pre-dates [sic] those of us in office at this time.”.

Was Rob Bishton attempting to distance himself from a messy situation that he and his colleagues had inherited when they took up their posts? One thing is certain: the current CAA-British Skydiving construct falls woefully short of any adequate level of legal compliance and safety risk-management requirements in relation to person(s) at work. Instead, there exists bureaucracy and restrictive practice, overseen by self-appointed and unqualified sporting amateurs. There is a strong argument for deregulation of parachuting as present statutory provisions and benchmark processes already provide a suitable and sufficient framework, when they are appropriately applied, rather than being circumvented and evaded, as is currently the case.

It is now an imperative that the HSE, as the overarching Enforcing Authority, intervene to curtail any malpractice by British Skydiving and to stop these sports amateurs from acting as the de facto regulatory authority. Meanwhile, Britain’s standing in the international film and television industry is being damaged and Airborne veterans’ livelihoods and income are at risk, as are the taxable revenues their expertise attracts to the United Kingdom.

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Major John Horne: ex-Vice Chair of the BPA now trading as British Skydiving

The Parasafe consultancy has prepared a Code of Practice for professional parachuting and skydiving, addressing the relevant statutory provisions and required safety standards for person(s) at work; and has submitted the document to the HSE, MOD and CAA. The content is currently being further developed in consultation with relevant stakeholders and technical experts.

Major John Horne, who not only served as Chair of the Army Parachute Association but also as Vice-Chair of the British Parachute Association now trading as British Skydiving, told HERMES: “This isn’t the first time that someone has needed to step forward and tell the British Skydiving charlatans not to interfere in other people’s business affairs.”.

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