Paramotor Safety

Fatal Turbulence and Collapse

Analysis of fatal paramotor crash involving turbulence and its improper handling.

A fellow lover of flight went out one day to pursue his passion. He did not return—an incredible tragedy for the loved ones he leaves behind. We can only hope to learn from this tragedy and help those of us willing to heed its lessons.

On a moderately windy evening, not long before sunset, this pilot launched, probably to check out the air. It's something I've done many times before, including once at Monument Valley where it turned out to be extremely turbulent aloft. I will now think harder before just "trying the air."

By all accounts the reasonably conscientious pilot wasn't afraid to land if conditions were sporty. Unfortunately, he was willing to launch in marginal conditions to "check it out." He got into turbulence and decided to shut off the motor. The wing surged forward and one side collapsed, causing an immediate and rapidly increasing spiral. Although the collapse was coming out, it was too late. The investigators didn't think a reserve would have made any difference but there have been successful deployments as low as 100 feet so it's hard to say.

He had not likely developed active flying techniques since most of his plentiful experience was in generally smooth conditions. Active flying skills are like any other, comprised of reactions that must be practiced enough to become automatic. Such reactions come only through flying in turbulence which, of course, is risky itself.

Anyone who does not regularly fly in turbulence will almost certainly not possess the reactions required to handle strong turbulence. The idea is that you must become accomplished at light to moderate turbulence before having appropriate reactions. Problem is, moderate turbulence is a stone's throw from it's deadly daddy, strong turbulence.

Flying in strong turbulence is extremely risky so you're better off, from an overall risk perspective, avoiding turbulence altogether!

Yes, I realize not all turbulence is created equal, but unless you're comfortable differentiating between deadly and doable, our history suggests staying out of strong conditions, especially where there's a possibility for mechanical turbulence.

Also, taking a maneuvers clinic or receiving instruction in active flying, while valuable, will not equip you for really rough conditions. They are merely the basics to get you handling moderate bumps where only time and practice will instill the necessary reactions.

What If I'm Surprised by Turbulence?

If you are not well acquainted with active flying skills and find yourself in turbulence, be smooth on power changes, and reduce to a constant brake pressure -- allowing the brakes to float up and down while maintaining constant pressure. If the wing surges forward this will automatically incur lots of brake travel while maintaining the same brake pressure.

For more on the topic see also Chapter 19, Emergencies: Handling Wing Collapses

Going to a maneuvers clinic is quite valuable as long as it doesn't instill a false security. Such confidence, as this accident so sadly shows, is terribly misplaced. But having going through the recovery of various upsets will improve your odds when surprises happen.

Here is the full and very thorough accident investigation report as a PDF.

In any uncertain situation, the guidance is "reduce power and reduce brakes." It's important to not that you want to start these immediately but smoothly. Reduce means just that, reduce, don't dump the throttle and brakes, just reduce. And reduce the brake pressure, don't remove it.

© 2015 Jeff Goin   Remember: If there's air there, it should be flown in!