How Dangerous is Powered Paragliding?
2017 June 29 (updated from 2010) Is our sport truly dangerous? |
Is Equipment Safer?
When an onlooker says "aren't those things dangerous?" We should
really think about our response.
Are they? Although the article below is about hang gliding it's just
as applicable to us.
Every activity has risk and a small amount is beyond our control—it's
just plain luck. A safe driver can be blindsided by a red-light running
truck. A careful biker can have a wheel fall off due to manufacturing
defects. A paramotor pilot can be surprised by unexpectedly nasty air.
We can minimize risk, of course, quite a bit, mostly by choices of when
and where we fly.
By virtue of operating in the invisible, sometimes turbulent ocean of
air, there's an element of chance. Motors grant us the luxury of
choosing benign conditions which is why paramotoring seems to be safer
than free flying. For most pilots, though, it will only be a matter of
time before they accept some weather condition that's not the perfectly
smooth, benign forecast, slice of stillness they hope for. Such is our
We've talked about experienced pilots and margins and so forth but
sometimes, even withOUT pushing the margins, there's unavoidable risk.
The article below (Here
is the Original) presents an interesting angle on safety and such
Mike Meier is a California Wills Wing (hang glider maker) designer,
test pilot and originator of USHPA's Safe Pilot award. This article
first appeared in USHPA's magazine and is presented here with
Why Can't We Get a Handle on This Safety Thing
by Mike Meier, Photos by Jeff Goin,
reposted with permission
If I were to ask you to characterize the view
that the "uninformed public" has of hang gliding, what might you say?
You might say that they think of hang gliding as a "death sport," or, at
the very least, an "unreasonably unsafe activity."
You might say that they think hang glider pilots
are "thrill seekers who recklessly disregard the inherent risks in what
they do." You might say that they are under the mistaken impression that
hang gliders are fragile, unstable flying contraptions blown about by
the winds, only partially and inadequately under the control of the
If confronted by a spectator with this attitude,
how might you respond? You might say that once upon a time, in the very
early days of the sport, it was true that gliders were dangerous, and
pilots behaved in an unsafe manner. You might point out that in recent
years, however, the quality of the equipment, the quality of training,
and the level of maturity of the pilots have all improved immeasurably.
You might point to the fine aerodynamic qualities of today's hang
gliders, the rigorous certification programs in place for gliders,
instructors and pilots, and you might give examples of the respectable
occupations of many hang glider pilots--doctors, lawyers, computer
programmers. You might make the claim that hang gilding today is one of
the safer forms of aviation, and is no more risky than many other
Later on, you might laugh about the ignorant
attitude of the "wuffo." Or, you might wonder, "Why is it, after all
these years, that the public still doesn't understand? Why can't we
educate them about what hang gliding is really like, and how safe and
reasonable it really is?"
So now let me ask you another question. What if
they're right? What if they're right and we're wrong? And what if I can
prove it to you?
Actual Accident Rate
Let's take a look. First of all, you have to
admit that year after year we continue to kill ourselves at a pretty
depressing rate. Anyone who has been around this sport for very long has
probably lost at least one friend or acquaintance to a fatal hang
gliding accident. Most of us who have been around for more than 20 years
have lost more than we care to think about. It's true that we have
seemingly made some improvement in the overall numbers in the last 25
years. Between 1974 and 1979 we averaged 31 fatalities per year. Since
1982 we've averaged about 10 per year. In the last six or eight years,
we may have dropped that to seven per year. On the other hand, what has
happened to the denominator in that equation? In 1978 there were 16 U.S.
manufacturers viable enough to send teams to the manufacturer's
competition in Telluride. Today we don't even have a manufacturer's
competition. My guess is that the fatality rate hasn't changed much, and
almost certainly hasn't improved in the last 10 years. I'd guess it's
about one per thousand per year, which is what I guessed it was 10 years
So the question is why? The equipment gets better
and more high tech every year, we know more about teaching than ever,
we've got parachutes, rockets to deploy them, full-face Kevlar helmets,
wheels, and FM radios for emergency rescue. We're all about 20 years
older, and commensurably wiser and more conservative. How come we're not
I've been asking myself variations of this
question for as long as I can remember. Three years ago I had an
accident, and in thinking about that accident I thought that maybe I had
stumbled onto some little insight into the answer. I'll share it with
Here's the story. (If you don't like reading
"there I was" stories, or other people's confessional accident reports,
skip this part. I won't be offended.) We were doing some production
test-flying at Marshall Peak in San Bernardino, California. For those of
you who haven't flown there, Marshall is a rounded knob in the middle of
a 2,200-foot-tall ridge in the foothills along the northern border of
the east end of the Los Angeles basin. It's a very reliable flying
site--probably flyable 300 days per year and soarable on most of them.
It was July, in the middle of the day, but the
conditions were not particularly strong. We were landing on top, which
we do whenever conditions are not too rowdy, because it vastly enhances
efficiency. I was flying a Spectrum 165, and setting up my approach.
I've logged about 100 top-landings per year at Marshall for each of the
last 15 years. Even so, I know for a fact that at the time I was not
complacent. I know because I have a clear memory of what I was thinking
as I set up my approach. In two weeks I was due to leave on a three-week
family vacation abroad, and I was thinking, "You damn well better not
get yourself hurt before your trip or your wife is going to kill you."
At the same time, I wasn't anxious. I was flying a Spectrum and the
conditions were only moderate. I'd made lots of successful landings on
more difficult gliders in more challenging conditions. I hadn't had an
unsuccessful landing attempt in longer than I could remember. I was
relaxed, yet focused. My intent was simply to fly a perfect approach.
Such intent is always a good idea when top-landing at Marshall; the
landing is challenging, and a sloppy approach can quickly get you into
trouble. I knew exactly where I wanted to be at every point in the
approach, position, heading, altitude and airspeed. I executed the
approach exactly as I wanted to.
You top-land at Marshall half crosswind, gliding
up the backside of the hill. You come in hot, because the gradient can
be extreme, and there's often some degree of turbulence. The time
interval from 40 mph dive, through round-out, to flare is very short. I
was halfway through this interval, past the point where one is normally
rocked by whatever turbulence is present, when both my left wing and the
nose dropped suddenly and severely. I went immediately to full-opposite
roll control, and managed to get the wings and nose just level when the
basetube hit. Having turned 90 degrees, I was traveling mostly downwind,
at a ground speed of probably 30 mph. The right downtube collapsed
immediately, and the right side of my face and body hit the ground hard.
Very briefly I thought I might die. For a
slightly longer time I thought about paralysis. Within a minute, I knew
I was mostly okay. In the end, I got away with a slightly sprained ankle
and a moderate case of whiplash. I had three weeks to think about the
accident while I bounced around the rutted dirt roads of East Africa
trying in vain to keep my head balanced directly over my spine to
moderate the pain.
Was it "Dangerous?"
The thing was, I never considered at the time of
the landing that I was anywhere near "pushing the envelope." I've done
dozens of landings at Marshall during which I did feel that way. All
during the previous two summers I had been top-landing RamAirs at
Marshall in the middle of the day in much stronger conditions. I never
crashed. I couldn't even remember the last time I had broken a downtube.
I tried in vain to think of a clue I had missed that this was going to
be a dangerous landing.
Finally, I was left with only one conclusion.
What happened was exactly what could have happened during all my prior
landings in similar or more challenging circumstances. It was a
dangerous landing because of what could have (and did) happen. The
corollary, of course, is that the other landings I had done on more
challenging gliders, in more challenging conditions were also dangerous.
(In fact, they were more dangerous.) And they were so in spite of the
fact that no bad results ensued in any of those landings.
And suddenly I felt like I was beginning to
understand something that I hadn't previously understood.
Overriding Determinant of Pilot Safety
You see, here's how I think it works. The
overriding determinant of pilot safety in hang gilding is the quality of
pilot decision making. Skill level, experience, quality of
equipment--all of those things are not determinants. What those things
do is determine one's upper limits. More skill gives you a higher limit,
as does more experience or better equipment. But safety is not a
function of how high your limits are, but rather of how well you stay
within those limits. And that is determined by one thing: the quality of
the decisions you make.
How good do those decisions have to be? Simply
put, they have to be just about perfect. Consider the types of decisions
you have to make when you fly. Do I fly today? Do I start my launch run
at this time, in this cycle? Do I have room to turn back at the hill in
this thermal? Can I continue to follow this thermal back as the wind
increases and still make it back over the ridge? Each time you face such
a decision there is a level of uncertainty about how the conditions will
unfold. If you make the "go" decision when you're 99% sure you can make
it, you'll be wrong on average once every 100 decisions. At 99.9%,
you'll still be wrong once every thousand decisions. You probably make
50 important decisions per hour of airtime, so the thousand-decision
point comes every 20 hours, or about once or twice a year for the
So, to be safe you have to operate at more than
99.9% certainty. But in reality, 99.9% is virtually impossible to
distinguish from 100%, so really, for all intents and purposes, you have
to be 100% sure to be safe.
Have To Be 100% Correct
And now I think we can begin to understand the
problem. Let's first consider this: We all have a strong incentive to
make the "go" decision. The "go" decision means I launch now, relieve my
impatience to get into the air and avoid the annoyance of the pilots
waiting behind me, instead of waiting for the next cycle because the
wind is a little cross and the glider doesn't feel quite balanced. It
means I turn back in this thermal and climb out above launch and stay
up, instead of making the conservative choice and risk sinking below the
top and maybe losing it all the way to the LZ. It means I choose to fly
today, even though conditions are beyond my previous experience, rather
than face listening to the "there I was" stories of my friends in the LZ
at the end of the day, knowing that I could have flown but didn't, and
knowing that they did and were rewarded with enjoyable soaring flights.
So the incentive is there to choose "go." The
only thing we have to counter this incentive is a healthy respect for
the possible dangers of failure and our ability to evaluate our
prospects for success. And here's where we get caught by a mathematical
Let's say I'm making my decisions at the 99%
level, and so are all my friends. Out of every 100 decisions, 99 do not
result in any negative consequence. Even if they're bad decisions,
nothing bad happens. Since nothing bad happens, I think they're good
decisions. And this applies not just to my decisions, but to my friends'
decisions as well, which I observe. They must be good decisions; they
worked out didn't they? The next natural consequence of this is that I
lower my decision threshold a little. Now I'm making decisions at the
98% level, and still they're working out. The longer this goes on, the
more I'm being reinforced for making bad decisions, and the more likely
I am to make them.
Eventually, the statistics catch up with me, and
my descending threshold collides with the increasing number of
opportunities I've created through bad decisions. Something goes wrong.
I blow a launch or a landing, or get blown over the back, or hit the
hill on the downwind side of a thermal. If I'm lucky it's a $50 downtube
or a $200 leading edge. If I'm unlucky, I'm dead.
If we can agree at this point that making 100%
correct decisions is the only safe way to fly, it then becomes
interesting to consider, as an aside, what the sport of hang gliding
would look like if we all operated this way. Pilots would choose to fly
in milder, safer weather conditions. They would operate much more
comfortably within their skill and experience limitations. They would
choose to fly more docile, more stable, easier-to-fly gliders. Landings
would be gentle, and under control. Hang glider manufacturers would sell
two downtubes and one keel for every glider they build (the ones that
come on the glider) instead of three or four replacement sets like they
do now. There would be far, far fewer accidents. (As it is now, there
are about 200 per year reported to USHGA.) There wouldn't be any
fatalities, except maybe for one every couple of years if a pilot
happened to die of a heart attack while flying (it's happened once so
far that I can remember).
Since this isn't anything like what the sport of
hang gliding does look like, we might conclude that hang gliding, as it
is presently practiced, is an unreasonably unsafe activity practiced by
people who lack a proper and reasonable regard for their personal
safety. In other words, we might conclude that the "uninformed public"
has been right about hang gliding all along.
If you don't like that conclusion, I'm pretty
sure you're not going to like any of the coming ones either. But let's
first ask this question: If we wanted to address this problem of bad
decisions being reinforced because they look like good decisions, how
would we do it? The answer is, we need to become more critically
analytical of all of our flying decisions, both before and after the
fact. We need to find a way to identify those bad decisions that didn't
result in any bad result.
Let's take an example. You're thermaling at your
local site on a somewhat windy day. The thermals weaken with altitude,
and the wind grows stronger. You need to make sure you can always glide
back to the front of the ridge after drifting back with a thermal. You
make a decision ahead of time that you will always get back to the ridge
above some minimum altitude above the ridge top, say 800 feet. You
monitor your drift, and the glide angle back to the ridge, and leave the
thermal when you think you need to in order to make your goal. If you
come back in at 1,000' AGL, you made a good decision. If you come back
in a 400, you made a bad decision. The bad decision didn't cost you,
because you built in a good margin, but it's important that you
recognize it as a bad decision. Without having gone through both the
before and after analyses of the decision, (setting the 800-foot limit,
observing the 400-foot result), you would never be aware of the
existence of a bad decision, or the need to improve your decision-making
This was one of the main ideas behind the USHGA
Safe Pilot Award. The idea wasn't to say that if you never crashed hard
enough to need a doctor, you were a safe pilot. The idea was to get
pilots thinking about the quality of their decisions. Not just, "Did I
get hurt on that flight?" but, "Could I have gotten hurt?" During the
first couple of years of the Safe Pilot Award program I got a few calls
and letters from pilots who would tell me about an incident they'd had,
and ask for my opinion as to whether it should be cause for them to
re-start their count of consecutive safe flights. I would give them my
opinion, but always pointed out that in the end it didn't matter. The
important thing was that they were actively thinking about how dangerous
the incident had really been--that is, what the actual quality of their
decision making was.
Breaking Things On Landing Is Called
Looking back on it now, I would say that the
criterion for a safe flight (any flight which didn't involve an injury
indicating the need for treatment by a licensed medical professional)
was too lenient. Today I would say it shouldn't count as a safe flight
if, for example, you broke a downtube. A few years ago (or maybe it was
10 or 12--when you get to be my age it's hard to tell) we had a
short--lived controversy over "dangerous bars." The idea was that
manufacturers were making dangerous control bars, because when smaller
pilots with smaller bones crashed, their bones broke before the
downtubes did. (Today, most of the complaints I hear are from the other
side, pilots who would rather have stronger downtubes even if their
bones break before the downtubes, because they're tired of buying $65
downtubes, which they're doing with some regularity.) I have a different
suggestion for both of these problems. Why don't we just stop crashing?
Of course, I know why. The first reason is, we
don't even recognize it as crashing. I continually hear from pilots who
say they broke a downtube "on landing." (I even hear from pilots who
tell me--with a straight face, I swear--that they broke a keel or a
leading edge "on landing.") The second reason is, we don't think it's
possible to fly without breaking downtubes from time to time. I mean,
after all, sometimes you're coming in to land and the wind switches, or
that thermal breaks off, or you're trying to squeak it into that small
field, and you just can't help flaring with a wing down, sticking the
leading edge, groundlooping, slamming the nose (WHAAAAACK!) and breaking
We regularly observe our fellow pilots breaking
downtubes, which also reinforces our perception that this is "normal."
I'm going to go out on a limb here. I'm going to say that if you've
broken more than one downtube in the last five years of flying, you're
doing something seriously and fundamentally wrong. Either you're flying
too hot a glider for your skills, or you're flying in too challenging
conditions, or at too difficult a flying site.
Now let's ask one more thing. If hang glider
pilots stopped dying, and if hang glider landing areas stopped
resounding with the sound of WHAAAAAACK every second or third landing
(in other words, if hang gliding started looking like fun instead of
both terrifying and deadly), do you think maybe the public's perception
of the sport might change? (Not do you think more of them would want to
do it? In truth, no, they probably still wouldn't.) But do you think
maybe they'd stop thinking we were crazy for doing it?
Maybe they would. And maybe they'd be right.