Paragliding Accidents and how to avoid them
Judith Mole broke her back in a paragliding accident in March 2013. The accident was entirely her fault and was caused by over-confidence, complacency and a desire to impress the new boyfriend. Understandably she has since been mulling over how to be a safer pilot. Here she shares some insights and tips. What you will read in this article isn’t anything new or revolutionary, but might be a timely reminder of something that has recently slipped. Hopefully reading it will keep you just that little bit safer.
There are two ways of avoid accidents. 1) don’t launch, 2) if you do launch, don’t hit anything. It’s that simple, isn’t it? Since most of us do want to launch, there are a few ways to try to minimise the chances of hitting something – be that the ground, someone else or something else. If we take it as a given that canopies these days are safe – and they are, if flown in smooth conditions – then what makes the difference is the actions of the thing dangling underneath.
If you want to be a safer pilot, then the first thing to do is a self-assessment. Here’s a few things to think about:
Apart from not flying kit that is completely unsuitable for you (like a CP pilot flying a comp wing), you should spend some time looking over your equipment and considering whether there is something you can do to improve it. For example, is your speed bar set up so you can get your foot tangled in it on launch or landing. If yes, go buy a different system, or fit some elastic to the edges to make it retractable and get it out of the way. Is your harness set up to get in and out of it easily? Similarly, do your gloves often get caught in your risers when using As & Cs for launching? Are your boots slippy? New gloves or boots don’t cost that much – is it worth a potential dragging?
When setting up your kit it is essential to develop a routine and to follow this strictly. On a hang glider this is easier because mostly the thing won’t assemble properly unless you’ve followed the steps to rig it in the correct sequence and then it’s up to the pre-flight check to make sure all the bits are in the right place. With paragliding, it is easier to get away with rushed assembly of the canopy and harness and you can also often get away with little mistakes – like having a brake twisted through the lines, or wrapped around the riser. A quick let go of the brake and fiddle will remedy it, but is it a good idea to be without your brake and fiddling just after launch?
You are safest when you follow a routine, so you know everything is in the right place and ready before you launch. There is nothing wrong with using reminders – like fitting some red tape to your flight deck to remind yourself to check that you have done up your leg loops.
Talking of kit… don’t make things more difficult than they already are. Adding camera mounts or extendable poles might make cool footage to show your mates, but less cool when they record your crash. Any additional item that can snag in your lines, trip you up or cause you to be less observant is a ticking time bomb…
Many accidents in the UK are caused by changing conditions – usually wind picking up or changing direction. Because paragliders have improved in performance in recent years, it is possible to fly them in higher wind strengths. However, they still have an upper limit – particularly lower-rated paragliders. While it is tempting to take off in 20mph when others are flying, how sensible is that on a DHV1 wing? Not very.
So an assessment of your knowledge at this stage is useful. How good is your met knowledge? Can you spot an approaching warm front – not on a chart or on the forecast, but on the hill, when it is actually happening? Do you know what will happen to the conditions when it does arrive and what the time-scales on the changing conditions are? Not sure? Best to talk to someone or get that Met book back off the shelf.
How much knowledge do you have of your canopy and how it works? E.g. point of spin and stall? What the trim speed of your canopy is? Thinking through what you know and (more crucially) what you don’t know will help you to decide which gaps need to be filled.
The key to becoming a better pilot is to want to improve – all the time. If you look at top pilots you can see that they’re brilliant at ground handling, thermalling, assessing when to launch and go over the back, etc. They weren’t born with these skills… they put the time in. Goal setting is one way to check your current skills set. Think about where you want to be at the end of the season, in one year, in five years. Break down the skills needed to get there and then think about what you need to do to get there. Simple really. Then write yourself a list of the skills you need to practise and stick it in your flight deck and try to work on one each time you go flying. Oh, and book that SIV course.
The most important factor by far in staying safe is your attitude. Have a look around you and assess which pilots are the good ones in your opinion… who do you aspire to be like? The balls-to-the-walls-fly-in-any-old-crap bravado merchants, or the quiet safe ones that know something, can pick the good days and stay up in nothing? There are people in every club who are accidents waiting to happen and we all have an idea who they are. They usually have the following characteristics:
- think they know it all
- fly in completely unsuitable conditions, get away with it and claim it was ‘peachy’
- unwilling to learn/listen
- accidents or potential accidents are never their fault.
A safe attitude isn’t about only doing ‘boring’ flights. It’s about watching, listening and learning all the time. Trying to improve skills and knowledge and pushing your envelope when you are ready to do so, i.e. when your skills and knowledge allow you to do this in a safe manner.
How current are you?
Paragliding doesn’t have to be an extreme sport, unless you make it so! The best way to stay safe is to practise, practise, practise. Like other sportspeople, we have to train to improve. If you fly a lot, your glider handling skills will improve, your muscle memory will increase and you will be more relaxed in the air. All helpful in avoiding accidents.
Learning from near misses
Everyone has near misses in flying. Some are more serious than others. The key is to see them as welcome warning signs which help you assess the gaps in your knowledge, skills or concentration. If it’s a near miss caused by poor pre-flight checking or equipment failure, go back to the first paragraph of this article. If it’s to do with flying too close to others, landing in the wrong place, landing badly, etc. then don’t just write it off or dismiss it. Think about the causes and do something about it!
Landing in the wrong place is a classic example… it’s not an accident, but it is indicative that something is amiss. Making excuses like “I couldn’t get down” or “It was a bit windier than I thought” shows that you don’t know how to assess wind or do an effective landing approach (so you may need to look for clues/look at your GPS/learn more descent techniques). Use these things as a learning experience and it will pay off in the end.
Analysing accidents – Not your fault? Give us a break!
So you’ve had a minor or major mishap. Now you need to analyse what happened so it doesn’t happen to you again or is more serious next time. BHPA accident statistics show again and again that one of the most common causes of accidents is errors in judgement. That is our judgement of the weather conditions, position, awareness of what’s going on, misjudging the airflow around the terrain and glider control. Yet some pilots blame external factors, but evidence suggests that there are hardly any accidents caused by faulty kit (that can’t be traced back to bad maintenance or lack of checking). Denying that the cause of the accident was most likely you is not making you any safer. All the judgement issues listed above we have some control over. If you are not sure about meteorology, go learn some more. If you are not sure how wind works then re-read your CP notes.
Showing off is quite likely to end up in some sort of crash sooner or later. Don’t do it. Nobody is impressed with a badly executed wingover or splat slope landing. In the long-term your mates will be more impressed with your unblemished accident record. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that you are more likely to have an accident if friends and family are watching. They’ve come out to see this amazing sport you have decided to do and it would seem bad to disappoint them when they have waited on a cold and windy hill all day. You are more likely to be distracted in pre-flight checking if you have friends and family with you. Be aware that this situation requires you to be extra vigilant and if necessary, ask them to come back another sunny day.
What accident are you going to have?
You can play a simple game to improve your self-evaluation skills. Pick a pilot who you think is an accident waiting to happen and make an assessment of what accident you think they are going to have. Do they always launch in too strong winds? Don’t keep a good lookout? Then play the game with yourself. What aspect of your flying is most likely to cause you to have an accident? Bad landing approaches? No good at strong wind launches or slope landings? Whatever the answer is, make that your first priority to work on!
And if you are an experienced pilot, don’t assume that just doing an SIV course will prevent an accident. When you have been flying a long time, it can be the simple things that catch you out – not the big collapses. Over-confidence and complacency are some of the biggest causes of accidents.
It goes without saying that you should have insurance. If you do have an accident and need extensive medical care and rehabilitation, then the insurance cost will be the best money you ever spent. And a tip for something to do on a Sunday afternoon…video yourself walking from all sides. If you have an accident that involves a spinal injury, your physios will really appreciate seeing how you walked before.
Statistically, How Safe Is Powered Paragliding?
Is paramotoring safe? How does it compare to other types of flying? Driving? Motorcycle riding? Skydiving?
Numerical Analysis is tough but I suspect that we can get within an order of magnitude. Yes, yes, it’s as safe as you make it but lets take an objective look. If you fly a powered paraglider, what are the chances you’ll die doing it? I don’t address the much greater risk of injury because data is even sketchier. Of course you can improve your chances—dramatically it turns out—but I’ll approximate the overall odds.
Lets start with the year 2007 estimate of about 3000 active pilots (those who fly 5+ times per year—see sidebar) in the U.S. We’re averaging 1 fatality every 8 months. So we can say there are about 1.5 fatalities per 3000 participants per year which is 0.5 per 1000 participants. I use the per participant numbers because flight hour numbers are even harder to estimate. The comparisons below assume that average participants engage in the respective activity about the same amount per year.
- Compared to motorcycle riding. In 2003 the National Center for Statistics and Analysis reported about 0.7 fatalities per 1000 registered motorcycles. I’m assuming that anyone bothering to register their bike is probably active. Some bikers ride all the time and others just keep them registered with very occasional use. Same with PPGers although the avid riders take their bikes to work every day—PPGers can’t do that. So, although it appears that PPG is about 30% safer than motorcycle riding, the number may easily be skewed more than others. Here’s a 10 year reference report that shows more on motorcycle fatality rates per 10,000 registered vehicles. Graph at left is from the listed report.
- Compared to paragliding. The U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA) has about 10,000 members of which approximately 4500 are paraglider pilots. To be conservative, I’m assuming all are active (at least 5 flights per year). Over the past 5 years they have experienced about 3 fatalities per year. That’s about 0.7 fatalities per 1000 participants—almost identical to motorcycle riders which means that paragliding is about 30% more dangerous than powered paragliding. Given that its entirely possible that paraglider pilots have even fewer yearly flights (they are more weather dependant) than paramotor pilots, paragliding could easily be far more dangerous than this suggests.
- Compared to driving. Unfortunately, driving to the field is much safer than paramotoring. The NTHSA report used above (to compare motorcycle riding) finds that driving is 16 times safer than motorcycle riding so we can infer that paramotoring, which is 30% safer than motorcycle riding, is about 12 times more dangerous than driving.
- Compared to flying light airplanes. According to Flying Magazine, a light airplane pilot has 10 times more likelihood of dying on a personal flight than on a drive—about the same risk as paramotoring.
- Compared to flying light helicopters. Yes, this is a ridiculous comparison but, since I fly a helicopter, wanted to quell the common accusation that they are highly risky. Helicopters can land safely after an engine failure and, in fact, have a nearly identical risk of fatality, per hour, as light airplanes. That means helicopter flying is about as risky as flying paramotors.
- Compared to Sky Diving. Not surprisingly, sky diving is incredibly dangerous! It’s a skydiver myth that flying up in the airplane is more dangerous than the jump out. According to the U.S. Parachute association (USPA), a sky diver is 4 times more likely to die on the jump out than the flight up. That means that sky diving is about 4 times more dangerous than powered paragliding. 4 paramotor flights is the same death risk as one skydive. That is, in fact, how I decided to go skydiving—I decided the fun factor would equate to 4 paramotor flights. Risk and reward.
But I Don’t Do Risky Things, Am I Safe?
Once you’ve been trained and have achieved approximately PPG2 skills, the risk drops dramatically. Then, if you start exploring steeper maneuvers, flying low or accepting stronger weather conditions and tighter sites, the risk goes back up just as dramatically. Avoiding those things keeps your risk low.
This isn’t a preachy “don’t do such-and-such” but rather a point-out to where risk lies. Hey, we accept x amount of risk just by strapping these things on, but lets know when we’re hanging it way out there.
The motorcycle rider can do only so much because he’s dependent on others. Multi-vehicle crashes produce nearly half of all the motorcycle deaths. But if we die, it’s probably our own doing.
Wanting to fly again is enough reason to be careful but, for many pilots, there are even more compelling reasons.
Most FATAL PPG accidents have been related to:
- Training. Sorry to say but this is a dangerous phase. Make sure your instructor goes through the USPPA syllabus methodically, using a simulator and having you rehearse reaction to his instructions. THIS IS CRITICAL! If you have not flown, then your reactions must be made automatic. Just being told won’t cut it.
You must rehearse! The more realistic the rehearsal, the more it benefits.
Get a tandem or do hill flying before going aloft alone. Your life depends on it. A flight can go from fun to fatal in a matter of seconds with inappropriate control inputs. Towing is another way to get a flight before soloing with the motor but that has it’s own risk. One student has died during a towing accident—treat it with great respect.
- Water. Never, ever accept any situation where you could end up in water over 12″ deep if the engine quit. By avoiding the possibility of water immersion you improve your odds of surviving the sport by at least 25%.
- Steep maneuvering. Spirals are the worst because they can quickly cause pilot blackout which will almost certainly be fatal since steep spirals do not recover on their own. Wingovers are the next worst because they involve so much vertical and can easily result in wing collapses.
- Low flying. Wires pop up everywhere and, if you fly low enough, long enough, eventually you’ll run into one. When you do, there’s roughly a one-in-30 chance it will be fatal. Other risks of low flying involve being confused by the “downwind demon” illusion and whacking into something from inappropriate reaction. That illusion only causes problems when flying low.
- Weather. Fly within the first 3 and last 3 hours of daylight on days with benign conditions and no major changes forecast. If it’s windy aloft, it will soon be gusty and turbulent at the surface. Strong conditions have been a likely factor in three fatalities that I know about and overlap a couple others. Training in strong conditions, for example, is a particularly bad idea.
Some pilots seek out thermals to stay aloft. I have, too. This trades some safety for the fun of soaring and a reserve parachute is essential. It’s not uncommon for paragliding competitions to see several “saves” after pilots take large collapses in strong thermal conditions. A reserve is no panacea, though, top pilots have still died at the hands of strong conditions even though they carried reserves.
- Midair. If you fly with others you are at risk. If you hit someone there is about a 1 in 10 chance it will be fatal. “look, shallow, up/down, turn” means look in the turn direction, start a shallow bank while looking up and down in the turn direction and finally do your turn. It doesn’t take many pilots in the air, either. The one fatality I’m aware of happened with 4 pilots aloft and neither was in a landing pattern.
- Equipment. Using someone else’s equipment adds risk. A 2007 fatality happened to a pilot who took off in borrowed gear and got a brake wrapped in the prop. This is more likely in low hook-in machines but there likely other risks that apply to all machines.
If you have a low hook-in machine, make sure the cage has sufficient protection above and on top (covering the prop, preferably) to prevent a brake toggle from going in. It depends on the wing, too, since they have different brake pulley positions and some pilots have modified their brakes to hang below the pulley. Otherwise it will be up to you to insure it doesn’t happen. I’ve seen or heard of brakes going into the prop about 12 times and this is the second fatality resulting from it.
- Sites. Flying from tight or unknown sites has proven risky. Scope them out, walk them off, if necessary and don’t accept places where you don’t know how much wind may be present if rotor could be a factor.
- Landable areas. Landing in or colliding with a tree gives about a 1 in 50 chance of being fatal. Always have a safe landing option. This is painlessly easy to heed for most of us. In fact, if you land into the wind, out of any significant rotor and on dry surface, the chances of dying are very, very small (I don’t know of any). But don’t land in trees or water!
As to the risk of serious injury that’s a different story. Of course the fatal causes listed above can certainly also leave serious injury but there is one category that beats them all for non-lethal but debilitating injury: body contact with spinning prop. It’s dramatic, too. Even experienced pilots have been severely injured by getting body parts, usually an arm or hand but sometimes a leg or shoulder, into the prop. And it usually happens during engine start, especially if the engine is being difficult to start.
What’s remarkable about this category is that it’s so preventable. The Safety ring or SafeStart would likely dramatically make machines safer but these technologies have not been adopted by the manufacturing community. Check out articles under Prop Safety.
How Many Paramotor Pilots?
My observation is that there are about 80 active pilots in the Chicago Metropolitan area with a population of about 10,000,000. That’s means that 0.0004% of the population flies PPG. That would be about 2800 pilots but there is a higher concentration in warmer states so I’m assuming there are about 3000 pilots in the U.S.
There are probably 10,000 paramotor units out there although many pilots have more than one and many units are languishing in storage. The sport is replete with those who have big intentions but falter when they discover it’s not so easy, especially without good instruction.
Thanks to John Will & Mike Nowland for input and correction on the fatality rate computation and units.
Paragliding safety – Is paragliding really safe
Is paraglading safe? This question is very often directed to our instructors, and the best short answer is: paragliding is safe with us. But let us delve deeper in this subject and give you a better insight in the safety of paraglading.
Safety in extreme sports
Paragliding is a one of the extreme sports, and like all extreme sports, safety is of a big importance. Extreme sports attract adventurists, people seeking thrills and who are always looking for ways to test their limits.
Although testing your limits makes you stronger, we have to remember why do limits exist in the first place and use our common sense. Just as you would not sit in a car for the first time and immediately go for the fastest quarter time, you would not rush things while doing extreme activities.
Basically, paragliding is safe as long as you make it safe. An experienced instructor will tell you that the most important thing to keep in mind when paragliding is not wind speed, air pressure, nor if there is visibility or not. In fact, not an external factor, but the attitude of a man and his preparedness.
Let us again make a parallel with learning to drive. Someone who has never sat behind the wheel, while having a good instructor who will train him to drive as safe as possible will drive with a lot more caution than someone who went through the entire training process with a very casual attitude.
If you’ve never practiced paragliding, there is always the option to fly in tandem with an experienced instructor. This is actually the safest solution, and our instructors take all measures to ensure your experience is nothing but remarkably and with maximum safety.
Advancement in paragliding equipment
The equipment now used for paragliding is much safer compared to the previous period. It is designed to allow easy adjustments on the fly in case of any discomfort. Regular checks of the equipment are also necessary. Most mistakes happen because of negligence, whether pilots do not check the equipment or badly asses weather conditions prior to flight.
Let’s have fun with the numbers, if you’re the type of person who prefers to quantify the risks undertaken. In countries where these statistics exist, they say that for every 11,000 pilots annually one person has an accident. When compared with regular car driving, where for every 10,000 drivers annually, one person has an accident. We can see that paragliding is safe as much as driving a car. Even when we compare with other ‘’extreme’’ activities data shows that horse riding is more dangerous than paragliding.
Adrenaline rush without danger
In paragliding speed is not what brings the excitement. For people who are addicted to speed, there are other types of extreme aero sports (gliding, speed flying). Imagine paragliding as a relaxing sail in the breeze while enjoying the view.
However, if you want a little more adrenaline, it is possible to perform stunts in the air that will definitely speed up the heart rate and provide enough adrenaline for an experience that you will long remember.
Fear is a good thing
Generally speaking, we say that paragliding with us is safe, ie. as long as you learn from or you’re with a good instructor. However, it happens that beginners become too relaxed and stop paying attention. So, if you want to have fun in the air, do not drop your guard just because everything is going smoothly. Keep a positive dose of fear that will keep you on your toes.
It is all up to the person
As we have already said, paragliding is safe until you are making it safe. People like to do irresponsible things. How many times have you seen those reckless drivers running the streets, this type of behavior is what leads to accidents. Reckless testing of your limits is not a challenge, but a threat. Before every flight be sure to check your equipment and assess weather conditions. Every action you undertake carries some risk, however it is up to you to assess the situation and to act in accordance with it.