On founding the US Powered Paragliding Association
If you encounter someone dissing the USPPA be immediately skeptical of them. They’re probably railing against its training standards which were established to improve training safety and thoroughness. USPPA’s goal is have you get THOROUGH training without injury.
USPPA offers a $50 training reimbursement for anyone completing their PPG 2 rating. Given the sub $40 membership, that means they’re willing to lose money for everyone who takes up the offer—hardly a formula for fortune building! Nobody at USPPA, a 501(c)3 org, including the officers, makes any money except the contract membership administrator that handles the office duties, ratings, and membership interaction.
In the early days of paramotor there was no standard for training.
A group of passionate people noticed widely varied, frequently abysmal training quality and were willing to dig in and do something. That takes time. It takes working with people who may share the vision but not exactly. No two humans will agree on everything so, like any collaborative effort, there is give and take, which is good because it engenders balance.
It’s easy to throw rocks at an organization for problems in the sport even when those problems are well beyond its control. And frequently the org is already working to improve them, which is certainly the case with USPPA, just like for other orgs.
USPPA is not the government—it doesn’t wield an almighty stick that dictates who does what. In fact, it doesn’t wield much of a stick at all. Primarily, it provides the tools that instructors and pilots can use but it can’t force the tools to be used. USPPA’s biggest area of “power,” if you will, is in the execution of its own ratings program, just like the much larger US Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA), on which USPPA’s program was originally based. My vision was to provide tools for instructors and pilots to develop best practices, especially in training, and framework that would ensure the long term success and thriving of paramotor flying.
Another powerful motivator was to keep government OUT of it. Ultralights are considered self regulated since they operate in highly regulated airspace but have no licensing requirements for pilot or aircraft. As someone who lives his professional life in that highly regulated world, I deeply want to keep paramotors out of it.
USPPA got it’s “authority” the same way USHPA did and USUA and EAA and many others. It’s much like what PADI did for scuba diving. A group of passionate pilots saw a need. In this case, a better, more standardized training program that espouses practices that work. Practices that reduce injuries. And to give a present a unified voice to government. So these people they got together to make it happen. Eventually the org became recognized by a majority of its instructors and now by the federal government, both the FAA and the IRS. USPPA’s first meeting was in the office of Southern Skies, at the base of Moore mountain in North Carolina. It was adjourned when we saw that soarable conditions existed and we all went flying.
These people were already involved with paragliding and were some of paramotoring’s most prolific teachers and pilots. All were members of the USHGA (which is now USHPA). More on that below.
My background is professional aviation. So when I set out to learn powered paragliding in 1999 I knew enough to seek a recognized, thorough, paramotor training program. There was none. So I took the next closest thing which was the USHGA program. It was a great course but didn’t have anything for powered flying. So when I bought a motor, I made sure motor training was included. Good thing, too. I recognized there would be significant differences in flying the motor and indeed there were, some of which came out later. Many free flight instructors thought of powered flying as only a launch skill, and a few still do. I eventually learned there’s a lot more to it than just strapping a motor on. Looking at the accidents of motor pilots and the accidents of soaring pilots bears that out.
Soaring had been a passion since I started flying sailplanes at age 13. So soaring with a paraglider was a welcome similarity. Through the process I continued with free flight (and still do), eventually earning my P4 paraglider rating.
Two years after I started powered paragliding, I saw the benefit of powered flyers and instructors having similar standards and training as the USHPA. When the North American PPG Association failed to take hold, I got with several other USHPA pilots, two of them advanced instructors, and started the USPPA. It’s first president, Alan Chuculate, was also an official with USHPA and held their highest instructor ratings, including tandem. These pilots were among powered paragliding’s most talented, dedicated and prolific trainers.
Clearly these were well qualified individuals.
At the time USPPA was forming, there were some who felt that its program was way too difficult, especially for instructors. The org wove a fine line of requiring too much to get anyone to participate and being too easy to be meaningful. It was a lot harder to earn USPPA Instructor certification than it was for the other orgs and those orgs granted tandem rights.
In 2002 USPPA filed for a Tandem exemption that was based on the USHPA’s with dramatically higher requirements than what was needed at the time. 100 hours or 300 flights for USPPA as opposed to 25 hours for the other orgs. That tandem exemption finally approved Sept 2008. In 2018 it got authorization to do tandem certification for wheel launch, too.
The goal wasn’t to be “exclusive,” it was to recognize the significant skill in safely conducting foot-launched tandem flights. But it’s amusing to hear the org decried for making its program TOO approachable since some people complain it’s too difficult although less so as people realize that it really is quite difficult to be sufficiently competent for tandem flight.
To relate accidents to a failure of the org is ridiculous. Accidents were already happening which is part what motivated me: many of them would be preventable through quality training. That’s why USPPA stresses the importance of thorough training, ratings and using the syllabus along with best practices for teaching. But it can’t force pilots to get ratings or instructors to give them.
USPPA even puts its money where its mouth is by reimbursing pilots for getting rated. How many orgs do that!?!? It can afford this because expenses are low and it has gotten tax deductible donations. Policies are continually being modified to further the effort at improving the lure of quality, thorough yet realistic training. The syllabus itself is a result of preventable training accidents and incomplete training that pervades the sport.
Blaming accidents on the org is bizzare. Is USHPA responsible for the more-frequent paragliding accidents? Fatalities? Is As best we can tell, twice as many paraglider pilots die (per 1000 flights) as paramotor pilots. Is that because of the USHPA’s inadequate program? Hardly. Skydivers seem to die at an even higher rate (if one jump is equivalent to one flight). Is that because of the U.S. Parachute Association’s inadequate efforts? Hardly. I’ll bet the USPA discusses the risk in BASE jumping (where the jumper dives off a relatively low height without a reserve)but still BASE jumpers do it, dying at a horrendous rate relative to other air sports. No, the orgs provide guidelines, knowing that pilots ultimately want to make their own call on equipment, safety gear, and maneuvers. Likewise, USPPA puts out guidelines that are there for pilots to follow or not follow. Look at “USPPA’s top 10 Tips” from the home page.
Another thing, beating up on those who file accident reports is incredibly counterproductive! As one involved in airline safety efforts, I can tell you with certainty that shutting down the free flow of information is widely recognized as complete folly. We need to collectively encourage pilots to report accidents and not berate them or their equipment in a negative way. Suggesting improvements is great, damning equipment or flyers is utterly destructive, especially by virtue of decreasing motivation to report details of future accidents.
A quick digression on gear. There is room for improvements in equipment safety (see “A Better Paramotor“) but asserting the solution as buying one brand of machine or wing is ridiculous. Unrealistic, too. After all, a driver on the highway is safer if he’s driving a big, heavy truck. But some of us like lightweight simplicity and good handling like those who enjoy riding motorcycles. They may be more dangerous than the truck, but sure are more fun. I’m glad to have the choice and will work hard to protect that choice. Plus, experience has shown that nearly ALL paramotors provide some amount of crash protection.
Equipment certification is another area of misunderstanding. I’m a big fan of certification, in general, especially for beginner gliders, but after that, its benefit decreases. Any glider in its smallest sizes will not likely be certified for the weights it will be flown at. Plus, certification itself is hotly debated since it doesn’t recognize the passive safety offered in reflex gliders which essentially trade risk. They’re less likely to collapse but are nastier when they do, as will any wing at high speed.
An instructor gets certified for two reasons. 1) To show the world he’s got skills as demonstrated to a third party, and 2) to be able to administer officially recognized ratings of the organization. Especially now that the FAA has recognized USPPA as the only paramotor certifying org, that has a bit more weight.
A pilot becomes certified by demonstrating skills, passing the tests and getting recommended by two other instructors. Once he’s rated, it’s up to him whether or not he gives ratings and uses the syllabus. Just like USHPA. Just like FAA Instructors. What they do afterwards is largely up to them.
USHPA and USPPA don’t dictate the business practices of the instructor. For example, what if a student just wants to come for 3 days? Do you think the instructor will turn him down? That’s not enough for a PPG2, the basic pilot rating, so the instructor is left with a choice: decline the student and let him go elsewhere, or provide as much training as possible while explaining what’s required to set out safely on his own (PPG2).
USPPA and it’s material make it clear that the PPG2 rating is a minimum for a pilot to set out on their own. It’s up to the instructors, and to the community to get the word out. It’s up to the instructor to encourage ratings. USPPA has built the dinner table and put food on it, the diners have to come on their own.
As to revoking an instructors certification, that’s possible but, as USHPA found out, it takes a lot. Primarily, an instructor has to be issuing ratings without actually doing what’s required. There has to be written accusation, evidence, a meeting of peers, opportunity for rebuttal and finally agreement on action by the training committee. It’s a big deal. Of course if it needs to happen, then it must.
USPPA puts out a thorough pilot proficiency program and, although its use is increasing, most pilots go to instructors who do little more than show them how to fly and even then sometimes just barely. Some of these “instructors” are not certified by anyone. It’s a travesty, of course, and the organization has been working on ways to improve the benefit of giving ratings.
Tandem ratings are only for teaching and, as of Nov 2008, USPPA is now the only org certified to give tandem ratings. There are precious few instructors willing to do foot-launched tandems but that will probably change since it’s the only legal way to do tandem training.
Efforts have been going on for some time to increase the benefit to instructor’s who give ratings but much of it has to do with very basic issues of time. All changes require significant expenditure of time to implement. The volunteers all have real jobs and so changes have to work within the confines of that reality. First, everybody has to agree to the change, then all the documents and website have to be updated. Some changes were recently made by USPPA but they’ll take a few weeks get through the system and out to the instructors.
Again, throwing stones is easy. It’s also fruitless and destructive, too, of the only group trying to make realistic and lasting improvements to the training situation, to change the culture of “lets just throw them in the air” in an environment where that’s exactly what the low-cost competitor is likely to do.
In free flight, ratings are dramatically more relevant because they’re required for access to the limited soaring sites. You have to have a rating. Plus, it’s easier to apply peer pressure since the instructors tend to congregate at soaring sites and see each other (and their charges) in action. Motor instructors tend to operate out on their own.
Some new blood has come into the USPPA and will hopefully continue making improvements. These are respected pilots and instructors who want to better the sport and share a passion for making it safer while remaining a viable business for the few instructors who make it their livelihood or an adjunct to their livelihood.
Discipline of instructors is a tough issue and the USHPA has found out. Anytime an instructor’s livelihood is threatened, there is likely to be a severe reaction. So it cannot be taken lightly and that’s why the emphasis on improving the carrot rather than trying to swing the stick. At some point the stick will have to be used, but it must be done oh so wisely.
So don’t just throw stones, join those who dedicate their time and encourage participation in the ratings and who work on the committees. That’s by far the most likely way to make lasting changes.
And when you hear someone bashing any of the volunteer orgs that support your favorite form of flight, make sure to look at the big picture. You’ll find it’s not black and white and not even shades of gray. It’s full of colorful people and their passions that help make the sport so incredible.
Here’s to success!