Is paramotoring 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
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?"
Other safety related suggestions:
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
because they involve so much vertical and can easily result in wing
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.
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
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
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
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!
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
2007-08-15 Thanks to John Will & Mike Nowland for input and correction
on the fatality rate computation and units.