A recent fatality in South Florida appears to have been structural failure. According to the accident report on USPPA.org all indications point to a riser failure. One riser broke and the pilot plummeted to his death. A reserve was tossed but not in time to open.
So how common is structural failure in paramotor flying?
Unfortunately, more than we’d like to admit. Thankfully, it’s rarely bad enough to cause injury unless the pilot is flying low and hard.
In this case, and probably many others, there were some warning signs. Abrasion may have been weakening his risers from rubbing against something on the machine, possibly due to a modification. Unfortunately the family won’t allow inspection of the craft, the Sheriff won’t release their pictures, and the FAA won’t file a report because it’s an ultralight–they don’t investigate ultralights. How for those of us wanting to make the sport safer.
Was it Preventable?
While riser failure is rare, carabiners do break periodically, usually on tandems, or during steep maneuvers, turbulence, or because they’re accidentally flown unlocked (strength is cut in half in that case). Those are mostly preventable by inspection, using strong-enough ‘biners, and periodic replacement. That’s all more important as load increases. If you do steep maneuvering the load on equipment can easily become 4 TIMES normal.
But risers are extremely strong as indicated by the rarity of their failure. If risers were indeed the failure point, what could have prevented this accident?
It was reported that the pilot had ordered new risers so he must have known about the problem but didn’t think it was enough to stay grounded. Therein lies the most important lesson: our life rides on these things. We should lean more conservative in structural matters. It’s sad, of course, but these accidents are how we learn, how we inform our decisions.
What DOES Fail Structurally?
Going on memory, injury-inducing structural failure in paramotor seems to come in the following order:
- Carabiner failure.
- Spreader system failure–swing arms, distance bars, weight-shift bars, etc. Nearly every paramotor is made with enough redundancy that this should NOT be a big deal but it has–primarily by inducing a turn, especially if the machine is already loaded.
- Wing failure. I’ve only heard of this happening on tired wings or during acro. As it happened I’ve watched one while out at point of the mountain and indeed it was someone doing a maneuver that ended up with the wing going limp, then when he reloaded it with a bang, some lines unzipped. He survived the reserve ride uninjured.
- Riser failure. The accident covered here is the only one I can think of.
Motor failure is not included because it’s a complete no-brainer for any pilot choosing to fly within reach of landable terrain. Even for those who don’t, landing under control at minimum speed rarely results in serious injuries and even less rarely fatality although there may have been one (possibly a drowning).
We brush off these things by saying “well *I* wouldn’t fly with a compromised xxx.”
The mighty “I wouldn’t…”
But everything comes in degrees. What if fuel got on the risers? Just a few drops? How much does that compromise them? What about UV? What if the wing has gotten old? What if you’re offered a wing that looks a bit dodgy? What if the wing simply hasn’t inspected in years? When was the last time YOUR wing was inspected?
I pose these questions because I’ve answered them all with various degrees of risk and strongly suspect that other pilots have, too. The gist is to move our collective needle, starting with mine, about what’s acceptable risk.
Which reminds me, I have a wing that hasn’t been inspected in too long.