Accidents… and how to avoid them

Judith Mole | 27th December 2013

Judith Mole broke her back in a paragliding accident in March 2013. The accident was entirely her fault and was caused by over-confidence, complacency and a desire to impress the new boyfriend. Understandably she has since been mulling over how to be a safer pilot. Here she shares some insights and tips. What you will read in this article isn’t anything new or revolutionary, but might be a timely reminder of something that has recently slipped. Hopefully reading it will keep you just that little bit safer.

 

There are two ways of avoid accidents. 1) don’t launch, 2) if you do launch, don’t hit anything. It’s that simple, isn’t it? Since most of us do want to launch, there are a few ways to try to minimise the chances of hitting something – be that the ground, someone else or something else. If we take it as a given that canopies these days are safe – and they are, if flown in smooth conditions – then what makes the difference is the actions of the thing dangling underneath.

If you want to be a safer pilot, then the first thing to do is a self-assessment. Here’s a few things to think about:

 

Your kit

Apart from not flying kit that is completely unsuitable for you (like a CP pilot flying a comp wing), you should spend some time looking over your equipment and considering whether there is something you can do to improve it. For example, is your speed bar set up so you can get your foot tangled in it on launch or landing. If yes, go buy a different system, or fit some elastic to the edges to make it retractable and get it out of the way. Is your harness set up to get in and out of it easily? Similarly, do your gloves often get caught in your risers when using As & Cs for launching? Are your boots slippy? New gloves or boots don’t cost that much – is it worth a potential dragging?

When setting up your kit it is essential to develop a routine and to follow this strictly. On a hang glider this is easier because mostly the thing won’t assemble properly unless you’ve followed the steps to rig it in the correct sequence and then it’s up to the pre-flight check to make sure all the bits are in the right place. With paragliding, it is easier to get away with rushed assembly of the canopy and harness and you can also often get away with little mistakes – like having a brake twisted through the lines, or wrapped around the riser. A quick let go of the brake and fiddle will remedy it, but is it a good idea to be without your brake and fiddling just after launch?

You are safest when you follow a routine, so you know everything is in the right place and ready before you launch. There is nothing wrong with using reminders – like fitting some red tape to your flight deck to remind yourself to check that you have done up your leg loops.

Talking of kit… don’t make things more difficult than they already are. Adding camera mounts or extendable poles might make cool footage to show your mates, but less cool when they record your crash. Any additional item that can snag in your lines, trip you up or cause you to be less observant is a ticking time bomb…

 

Your knowledge

Many accidents in the UK are caused by changing conditions – usually wind picking up or changing direction. Because paragliders have improved in performance in recent years, it is possible to fly them in higher wind strengths. However, they still have an upper limit – particularly lower-rated paragliders. While it is tempting to take off in 20mph when others are flying, how sensible is that on a DHV1 wing? Not very.

So an assessment of your knowledge at this stage is useful. How good is your met knowledge? Can you spot an approaching warm front – not on a chart or on the forecast, but on the hill, when it is actually happening? Do you know what will happen to the conditions when it does arrive and what the time-scales on the changing conditions are? Not sure? Best to talk to someone or get that Met book back off the shelf.

How much knowledge do you have of your canopy and how it works? E.g. point of spin and stall? What the trim speed of your canopy is? Thinking through what you know and (more crucially) what you don’t know will help you to decide which gaps need to be filled.

 

Your skills

The key to becoming a better pilot is to want to improve – all the time. If you look at  top pilots you can see that they’re brilliant at ground handling, thermalling, assessing when to launch and go over the back, etc. They weren’t born with these skills… they put the time in. Goal setting is one way to check your current skills set. Think about where you want to be at the end of the season, in one year, in five years. Break down the skills needed to get there and then think about what you need to do to get there. Simple really. Then write yourself a list of the skills you need to practise and stick it in your flight deck and try to work on one each time you go flying. Oh, and book that SIV course.

 

Your attitude

The most important factor by far in staying safe is your attitude. Have a look around you and assess which pilots are the good ones in your opinion… who do you aspire to be like? The balls-to-the-walls-fly-in-any-old-crap bravado merchants, or the quiet safe ones that know something, can pick the good days and stay up in nothing? There are people in every club who are accidents waiting to happen and we all have an idea who they are. They usually have the following characteristics:

  • think they know it all
  • fly in completely unsuitable conditions, get away with it and claim it was ‘peachy’
  • unwilling to learn/listen
  • accidents or potential accidents are never their fault.

A safe attitude isn’t about only doing ‘boring’ flights. It’s about watching, listening and learning all the time. Trying to improve skills and knowledge and pushing your envelope when you are ready to do so, i.e. when your skills and knowledge allow you to do this in a safe manner.

 

How current are you?

Paragliding doesn’t have to be an extreme sport, unless you make it so! The best way to stay safe is to practise, practise, practise. Like other sportspeople, we have to train to improve. If you fly a lot, your glider handling skills will improve, your muscle memory will increase and you will be more relaxed in the air. All helpful in avoiding accidents.

 

Learning from near misses

Everyone has near misses in flying. Some are more serious than others. The key is to see them as welcome warning signs which help you assess the gaps in your knowledge, skills or concentration. If it’s a near miss caused by poor pre-flight checking or equipment failure, go back to the first paragraph of this article. If it’s to do with flying too close to others, landing in the wrong place, landing badly, etc. then don’t just write it off or dismiss it. Think about the causes and do something about it!

Landing in the wrong place is a classic example… it’s not an accident, but it is indicative that something is amiss. Making excuses like “I couldn’t get down” or “It was a bit windier than I thought” shows that you don’t know how to assess wind or do an effective landing approach (so you may need to look for clues/look at your GPS/learn more descent techniques). Use these things as a learning experience and it will pay off in the end.

 

Analysing accidents – Not your fault? Give us a break!

So you’ve had a minor or major mishap. Now you need to analyse what happened so it doesn’t happen to you again or is more serious next time. BHPA accident statistics show again and again that one of the most common causes of accidents is errors in judgement. That is our judgement of the weather conditions, position, awareness of what’s going on, misjudging the airflow around the terrain and glider control. Yet some pilots blame external factors, but evidence suggests that there are hardly any accidents caused by faulty kit (that can’t be traced back to bad maintenance or lack of checking). Denying that the cause of the accident was most likely you is not making you any safer. All the judgement issues listed above we have some control over. If you are not sure about meteorology, go learn some more. If you are not sure how wind works then re-read your CP notes.

 

Showing off

Showing off is quite likely to end up in some sort of crash sooner or later. Don’t do it. Nobody is impressed with a badly executed wingover or splat slope landing. In the long-term your mates will be more impressed with your unblemished accident record. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that you are more likely to have an accident if friends and family are watching. They’ve come out to see this amazing sport you have decided to do and it would seem bad to disappoint them when they have waited on a cold and windy hill all day. You are more likely to be distracted in pre-flight checking if you have friends and family with you. Be aware that this situation requires you to be extra vigilant and if necessary, ask them to come back another sunny day.

 

What accident are you going to have?

You can play a simple game to improve your self-evaluation skills. Pick a pilot who you think is an accident waiting to happen and make an assessment of what accident you think they are going to have. Do they always launch in too strong winds? Don't keep a good lookout? Then play the game with yourself. What aspect of your flying is most likely to cause you to have an accident? Bad landing approaches? No good at strong wind launches or slope landings? Whatever the answer is, make that your first priority to work on!

And if you are an experienced pilot, don't assume that just doing an SIV course will prevent an accident. When you have been flying a long time, it can be the simple things that catch you out - not the big collapses. Over-confidence and complacency are some of the biggest causes of accidents.

 

Insurance

It goes without saying that you should have insurance. If you do have an accident and need extensive medical care and rehabilitation, then the insurance cost will be the best money you ever spent. And a tip for something to do on a Sunday afternoon…video yourself walking from all sides. If you have an accident that involves a spinal injury, your physios will really appreciate seeing how you walked before.

 

The anti-accident check-list

This is not fully comprehensive, but some pointers to get you thinking…

  1. Concentrate completely during your pre-flight check
  2. Have a set pre-flight sequence
  3. Don’t get complacent about any aspect of your flying
  4. Don’t compare yourself to others if they are not your peers
  5. Analyse conditions properly
  6. Build in margins – big margins.
  7. Don’t over-complicate things with extra bits of kit.
  8. Avoid surprises (especially met ones!)
  9. Learn to analyse your own accidents
  10. Learn to analyse those of others
  11. Never make excuses
  12. Heed warning signs – you only get so many chances!
  13. Fly the right equipment for your level/what you want to achieve in flying
  14. Improve your skills all the time
  15. Master the basics before you move on
  16. Check your attitude
  17. Practise, practise, practise
  18. Don’t fly if it’s not safe
  19. Live to fly another day – walk away if it’s no good for you.
  20. Mea culpa! Take responsibility for your actions

 

 

 

Your Comments

Judith Mole says:

One thing I forgot to mention in the article is that there is no such thing as a "safe" pilot, People called me that and unfortunately I believed the hype... as soon as you think you are safe (or really shit-hot) that's when you'll get over-confident or complacent and therefore likely to have an accident.

Posted 1393 days ago

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Phil Fouracre says:

Interesting, got to agree with pretty much everything you've said. Still recovering from my accident, and have spent a long time thinking about it, or, as much as I can remember. Not sure if I can add to the list, my problem being that I can't see what I could possibly have done to avoid mine. A low level collapse with no time to do anything - absolutely nothing you could do to avoid hitting terra firma very hard. The worst part for me was, having flown for years, and thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it, to come to the realisation that it can be a dangerous sport, even if you think you have taken every precaution you can possibly think of. Sad really as I seem to have spent a lot of time countering non flyers comments that this is the case.

Posted 1391 days ago

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Andrew Gaskell says:

From a pilot with metal in his back, yep, I've got to agree with you on the complacency front. I just stopped thinking when I took off before my incident, and anyway it was only going to be a fly down top to bottom so it wasn't like a proper flight, right? Incidentally the holiday insurance was the best £24 I have ever spent in my life.

Posted 1390 days ago

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Scott Dougall says:

I can confirm that you can miss rig a hang glider in subtle ways that you don't notice if you don't do a prefight check - a check you miss because you are - complacent - that is a big word in our sports...

For me I think what you say is exactly correct - have a method and stick to that method - question your gear and don't just let things go thinking it will be ok when a few minutes of effort will get you grippier boots.. great tip...

My accidents were odd in a way - I was trying hard was not being stupid but got caught out and suffered difficult injuries as a result. In my assessment I took myself to places where I did not have enough experience to cope so when I look now it was my ambition that got me.

Im left knowing that an accident can creep up and get you very quickly indeed - once you slip over that knife edge and are on your way to something happening then its fast... when you then listen to people talk about it after they have had time to think and others offer their opinion it often sounds like there was a narrative of thoughts and decisions that could be changed - what I like about this article is you clearly state a truth - you solve a lot of these problems make those decisions and adjust that narrative on the ground 'before' you fly - once you are in it and you are on your way to an accident its way to late to change your fate...

My accidents are here...
http://www.stovolando.co.uk/the-longest-flight/
then also
http://www.stovolando.co.uk/gemona/

Great article Judith

Posted 1390 days ago

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Simon Headford says:

Sorry if I missed it but, based on personal experience, something I would add is if you are flying as a group (competition, vol-biv, xc etc) make your own safety related decisions, don't leave those to others. Nobody is ever flying exactly the same bit of air that you are. One of the main reasons that I don't compete is that the competitive instinct can easily take you out of your comfort/safety zone suppressing or corrupting critical decision making faculty in the process. dgmw, I am quite happy push my boundaries in search of personal goals but only on my terms, not those of others.

Cheers... and fly safe

Posted 1383 days ago

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Judith Mole says:

Thanks for all the comments and the additional tips/advice. Please keep them coming. I have missed lots of stuff in the article...

And coming soon: two podcasts on safety with Tim Bishop and Tim O'Neill.

Posted 1368 days ago

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Dennis M says:

Isn't there supposed to be a german translation of this great (!) article?

Posted 1172 days ago

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Judith Mole says:

Hi Dennis,

Email me at [email protected] and I will send you a copy of the German translation.

Cheers,
Judith

Posted 1061 days ago

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