Big kudos to this pilot for sharing his video. If only we could all be so selfless. Also, check out his composure while lying there on the ground with broken things—that’s one tough dude.

I got a question from a student learning to paramotor who is having second thoughts. He’s a 737 training captain, so risk is part of his repertoire as evidenced by his justifiable concern. The video shows a pilot who launched in calm air but soon encountered moderate turbulence a few hundred feet up. Since he was flying with his friend, he continued. When all hell broke loose in a largish asymmetric collapse, he spiraled into the ground. He had a reserve but didn’t throw because it felt like the wing was recovering. File that away—I will.

How Common?

This type of collapse is extremely rare for paramotor pilots because we mostly avoid strong conditions.

This is why.

He wasn’t flying at a bad time of day judging from the low sun, but it was clearly turbulent. It says a lot about our decision to avoid turbulent conditions: paragliders just don’t handle it terribly well. Doubt that? Look at free flight where flying in turbulence is required for staying up in thermals and these types of collapses are far more common.

Mind you, I love thermaling, have done a fair amount of it, and indeed have experienced a very few collapses all of which have been manageable. So I’m not saying “don’t free fly,” I’m just pointing out the risk. In the free flight organization there are about 1 in 1000 fatalities annually, some of those are experienced pilots who get whacked in turbulence. As best I can tell, we average less than 1 fatality in 2000 pilots every year here in the U.S. The takeaway? Favor mellow air.

What Happened

It’s hard to tell precisely but it’s consistent with a rapid, probably brief downward air gust that folded much of the left leading edge down. Relative wind caught that descending fabric and pulled it back into a 70% fold causing a dramatic spiral. It likely came out in some amount of cravat, where fabric gets caught in the lines, even briefly, presenting a huge resistance and causing a big spiral. There simply wasn’t enough room to recover from this.

Thoughts on Prevention

The best prevention is don’t fly if it’s very turbulent, either from wind-driven mechanical turbulence or thermals.

Some observations: he put the trims halfway out to penetrate and wasn’t holding much brake pressure. That’s a vulnerable place. In this situation, at least for most wings, when encountering turbulence (as covered in Chapter 4) it’s best to fly trimmed slow and with brake pressure around 2 unless it’s in reflex mode AND the manual suggests otherwise.

1. If you take off and it’s worse than you expected, bite the bullet and carefully land, generally keeping brakes 2-3 when power off. This is even more critical if you’re not yet confident at active flying. More on that below. There are very few pieces of air this bad: reduce exposure.

I’ve not followed this advice, getting “talked into” a flight that turned out to be my worst aviation experience ever. By writing this, I’m reminding myself to more highly regard my easily-overruled inner voice of reason.

2. Follow the turbulence penetration guidance in Chap 4 of selecting slow trim and holding at least brake pressure 2 (about quarter brakes).

3. Learn active flying which would have almost certainly prevented this. But trying to do it in rough conditions without having acquired competency could be worse than just following the chapter 4 advice. In Panama, during that “worst aviation experience ever,” active flying skill saved my life. An SIV clinic is good, and HIGHLY recommended, but realize that only the reactions born of practice will do much good.

4. Do the SIV clinic but don’t spend that experience on accepting bigger air unless you just decide to keep the same risk and broaden your acceptable conditions. How any of us spends gained skill is a personal choice.

Flying rocks, but when it’s too rockin’ it’s time for dockin’.