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PPG Safety: Incidents and Analysis

USPPA.org incident database | Chapter 19 for Emergency Procedures | Safer Paramotor | Airline Safety | Prop Safety

Is paramottoring safe?

By learning from others' mistakes we can make this sport safer by not repeating the causes of past tragedies. Its prevention through anticipation--what the airlines have done so incredibly successfully.

These accounts dig beyond the facts. I look at various incidents, distilling what happened into cause and correction. After all, the point is reducing recurrence. Frequently it's just good to be reminded of what's at stake and how quickly seemingly innocuous little decisions can so rapidly unravel our perfect plans. I'll try to include some principles that the airlines have put so effectively into practice.

See "But I don't Do Risky things?" below.

Other safety related suggestions:

A Better Paramotor for suggestions on Prop Safety, Hardware and other ideas to reduce risk.

Safety System Reviews for reviews of safety systems.

We take risk with every start of the motor and every launch then we add or subtract to it in various ways. The first accident I'll cover is one that could have easily been my demise. It's easy to pick on myself and, in some ways, quite revealing because I know what was going through my head.

I've had one seller tell me "Safety is Number 1!" Yeah right. Lets face it, this sport is inherently dangerous. Only our attention to survival makes it as safe as it's proven to be. Flying airliners is dangerous, too, yet they've achieved an incredible record by overcoming the obvious risk. An airline's mission, however, is safely delivering those seated paychecks while our mission is fun. We must strike a balance.

Some instructors recommend going to over-the-water maneuvers clinics, and they can indeed be beneficial. But if they induce overconfidence then your safety is decreased. Go here for an article on what to expect in such a clinic, the safety ramifications and the risk involved.

How Safe Is Powered Paragliding (PPG) in the U.S.?

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 intended to be a preachy "don't do such-and-such" but rather a heads up on what the risks are. Hey, we accept x amount of risk just by strapping one of these things on.

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.

Most fatal PPG accidents have been related to (remember, these are for fatal accidents):

1. 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.

2. 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%.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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!

Injury

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 Prop Safety.

2007-08-15 Thanks to John Will & Mike Nowland for input and correction on the fatality rate computation and units.

Wanting to fly again is enough reason to be careful but, for many pilots, there are even more compelling reasons to come back on your own two feet.

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.


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