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