Paramotor Safety

Is Equipment Better? Safer?

2017-06-27 A Question I Get Regularly | Is Paramotor Inherently Dangerous?

I get questions.

They are commonly about equipment—what's the best, what's the most reliable, etc., but recently one had a twist that made me think. It was essentially: "I'm looking into paramotoring but want to know what the best, safest motor is?"

Those are two very different questions—"have they gotten better?" and "have they gotten safer?" We'll consider wings, too.

Have Paramotors Gotten Better?

Absolutely, quite a bit, at least since I started in 1999.

Different makers have emphasized improvement in different areas, but overall they've added up.

The most notable area is power to weight ratio. A number of lighter weight machines have come out that pack a lot of punch with mostly the same reliability. Higher power versions sacrifice a bit in noise, vibration and comfort but, for many, that's a worthwhile trade for improved ease of launch and less strain on vertebrae.

Miniplane led the pack early on but only for fairly lightweight pilots. And it took a while to dial in the little 80cc motor but, by 2003 or so, it was as reliable as any. Air Conception has made much progress improving power-to-weight—-increasing thrust while keeping weight down.

Power has increased for the same weight but that's just another side of the power-to-weight equation.

Clutches on higher power machines have become more common. Some pilots like clutches because there is less chance for damaging lines on a blown launch. When launches go bad, pilots tend to throttle off but don't necessarily hit the kill switch. A clutch makes getting off the throttle functionally identical to killing the motor so lines won't likely become prop puree.

But clutches do NOT make a prop injury less likely!

 Mind you, I own clutched machines, and prefer them, but see no evidence that they're safer from an injury perspective. I see and hear of just as many prop strikes on clutched machines as others and I'm a big fan of relying on the best empirical evidence.

Flash and electric starters have made clutches on powerful machines possible. Before, belts were required to make the prop serve as a flywheel for starting. My observation, though, is that flash starters on average aren't there with reliability.

A common myth is that clutched motors take longer to spool up but I see nothing of the sort.

Portability has made good strides, led probably by Parajet and its ilk. Blackhawk's "suitcase model" was an early innovator here with legs that separated. These machines make it so the engine and center frame are the single biggest pieces, by volume, that go in a container. The smaller you can make it the better you can pad it, the more likely it will survive dedicated baggage smashers.

Comfort has definitely improved. Some machines have really excelled in this area with padding, smooth running motors, and ergonomic harnesses for both running on launch and flying. The only way to know, though, is to try it. There is no one element--it's the whole system. Two motors can look alike but not be very easy to launch, maybe because one pushes your legs out at liftoff. That's frequently because of setup, not brand. I've tried two motors of the same brand and hated one while loving the other. It takes some effort to dial them in.

Harness hang styles have improved in comfort and weight shift. The now-ubiquitous, gooseneck geometry, introduced in about 2005 for low hang styles, has become all but standard. It solves a number of issues related to thrustline and torque.

These little anti-torque tabs look ridiculous, like spoke cards on a kids bicycle, but they work.

Are Paramotors Safer?

This is an entirely different question with, unfortunately, an entirely different answer. No, they are not safer.

Twist

For starters, any machine that has a high torque twist (yaw) is unsafe no matter what the maker claims about crash survivability, especially for lighter weight pilots or beginners. It's like saying, yes, the car is dangerous to drive, and a crash is more likely, but it has better crash protection.

What's frustrating is that it's easy to fix—solutions have been figured out already. Years ago I flew a machine, built by Alex Varv in conjunction with Kangook, that controlled torque yaw so well I couldn't tell which way it twisted. He did it by offsetting the riser attachments vs the thrustline far enough, using both the engine/cage and the risers. That's all you need to do--just do it more. Other methods have come out, starting with the Scout, that redirects thrust, and that can work really well.

The ridiculous looking little tabs I tried on an Air Conception worked really well, too (pictured above). Of course there may be a small price in thrust but I couldn't tell. Maybe some day we'll get to see it on a thrust tester.

If a machine is going to twist, it's going to twist on me because I'm only 145 pounds. This is easy to understand if you go to a swingset: how much force does it take to twist an empty swing seat? An occupied one? My flight test is simple: go smoothly from idle to full power and see if the wing goes off to the side, or see if my feet swing left or right (yaw).

Notice the 2nd hoop? It's an add-on, sold by SkyCruiser Manufacturing and can be added to single-hoop paramotors for much improved hand protection. Google "Safety Hoop for a better paramotor."

 

Prop Injuries

Paramotors are certainly not safer regarding prop injuries. Single hoop cages with thin netting or large openings chop heads, hands, shoulders and legs at the same rate as always meaning that we're seeing these injuries more often.

What's sad is there are some simple fixes.

Add a second hoop, or on clutched machines use the rope trick, or a stand. Of course we should emphasize proper technique but we've been doing that for years and it hasn't helped. Read that again. Telling pilots how to avoid it doesn't help. Really experienced pilots have been, and continue to be, hurt by propellers.

SafeStart would all but solve starting injures, and Scout built one, but even Scout pilots seem to start their paramotors with it off, meaning there is no protection.

Drowning

One bright area of safety improvement is automatic floatation. Kudos to Agama for introducing a device, in maybe 2008, that has saved a number of lives. Drowning used to be the number one way to die in a paramotor but, among pilots using floatation, there has not been a single drowning to my knowledge.

That's exciting! We CAN make it safer.

Non-Equipment Causes

Steep maneuvering low to the ground, especially with a vertical component now provides the most common cause of death. They usually go in face down or on their sides where only airbags could possibly have made a difference. There is one paramotor with an airbag harness so maybe we'll eventually see how much it helps.

A Safer Paramotor?

Want a safer paramotor? Ask for a second hoop, ask for strong enough netting that covers even the bottom part where hands have gone in, use the rope trick, and make sure it doesn't have much torque twist. You'll hear one maker tout "crumple zone" but in my observation 1) all paramotors have a natural crumple zone due to structural requirements, and 2) I've seen no good evidence for differential injury rates due to it. Few serious accidents involve the pilot hitting vertically. Good hand protection, now that's a different matter.

Reality is that the market isn't demanding these things.

 

Are Paragliders Better?

Absolutely.

Namely they're more efficient, faster, and inflate easier in no wind. They have better handling, mostly a byproduct of getting smaller while keeping the same amount of lift. Tweaks improve handling, too, of course, but I have yet to fly a poor handling small wing. Different, to be sure, but nothing I would categorize as poor. And it's such a subjective thing. Plus, I wonder if I just adapt in ways that mask nuanced handling differences.

Are Paragliders Safer?

Unfortunately it's the same story. No, they're not safer, at least according to the evidence. Maybe they're inherently safer in some ways and we just push them further.

Paragliders for paramotors now go faster than in years past which is cool, and something I've enjoyed immensely, but it incurs tradeoffs in safety. Controls can more easily be misused in ways that make a collapse more likely. When going fast bad things can erupt in spectacularly bad fashion. A number of tragic accidents have taken experienced pilots who took these wings to their limits. Supercharged speed systems aggravated this fact.

Used properly the wings are fine. The problem is that we're human. In a system where simple errors can be a death sentence we shouldn't be surprised at deaths or other carnage. And sure enough, that's what we've seen.

The numbers are small, to be sure, and most maneuvering accidents are indeed pilots misjudging height, steepness, and recovery altitude. Modern wings don't change that.

Round spirals

Doing round spirals has a horrible record of killing pilots. Horrible.

They're easy, look cool, and once a pilot starts to blackout it may be too late to recover--he'll spiral, passed out, speeding into earth without knowing what killed him.

ALL WINGS ARE EASY TO SPIRAL! Larger sizes may require building up with wingovers, but they can be spiraled. This has not changed since I got into the sport. Knowledge has. I remember Chris Santacroce pointing out that they don't teach round spirals anymore because of the risk. But pilots still do them and they still die. Unfortunately, as best I can tell, there's nothing the paraglider makers can do about it. We need to collectively educate our friends.

Are There Safer Wings?

Yes, but mostly it depends on what you want to do with them. Training is a dangerous time that is much safer on an EN-A "school" glider of the proper size. If you get a fast glider it will almost certainly be a reflex and it must be flown according to the manual. That's true of all wings, of course, but the dark corners of reflex models are darker.

Far more important than wings is quality training. Really good instruction where students gain high competency at ground handling appears to mitigate much risk in training. Find an instructor that will spend time with you on ground handling, teaching reactions in a simulator, and who will let you build up to launch. That certainly excludes the ridiculous "free training."

Then fly your EN-A glider conservatively until you're willing to accept higher risk for higher performance. This CAN be among the safest forms of recreational aviation available but it's up to us.

 


© 2016 Jeff Goin & Tim Kaiser   Remember: If there's air there, it should be flown in!