by Richard Grant
Every time I hear of paragliding accidents that involve strong winds or rough air, I think of paragliders and rowing boats.
It seems to me that paragliders and rowing boats have a great deal in common. Like a paraglider, a rowing boat is something small and light enough to be handled and transported by one person. It goes on the roof of a car or even in the trunk. It is possible to launch a rowing boat almost anywhere and once at the waters edge, a rowing boat provides the freedom to leave the shoreline and all the picnickers behind and float free and easy around the lake or pond.
Such freedom and convenience comes at a price. You can't go floating on just any old water, it has to be fairly calm and there must be no prospect of sudden changes in the weather. The wakes of bigger boats pose a real danger and a current of more than a couple of knots would sweep the intrepid and startled oarsperson away.
All of these limitations and many more are happily accepted by most of those who go about in such craft and rowing is regarded as a safe activity. Nevertheless there are a few who have pushed the accomplishments of rowing boats way beyond the commonly accepted. People have crossed oceans in rowing boats and performed great feats of navigation with only the most rudimentary equipment. We admire and remember these people as courageous and daring, but few would consider trying to emulate them.
Danger and Stupidity
There is a vast difference between doing something dangerous and doing something stupid. Any dangerous activity can be made arbitrarily safe by taking suitable precautions and making adequate preparation. Crossing oceans in rowing boats is certainly dangerous but setting out without all the extensive preparation required for such a trip would be plain stupid.
Now it seems to me that paragliders are the rowing boats of the skies and I would ask those who regard paragliding as unsafe to reflect on this idea. I think it is time we looked seriously at just what a paraglider provides in relation to what it consists of and then realise that there are bound to be limitations to paragliding which we must accept in the same way that rowing boat owners accept the limitations of their small craft.
I expect most people can row a boat although a few just never seem to get the hang of it. Nevertheless the first experiences are likely to have been on some very calm and still water somewhere. Who would consider anything else? As experience and confidence increases we might be tempted onto larger expanses of water with small waves and a bit of wind about, but always within our proven capabilities. So far, so good.
Rowing Boats on the Ridge
Now suppose we live at a place where the most beautiful pool for rowing is found on a river just upstream of a large rapid or waterfall. The obvious danger would require some precautions and preparation. We would want to know exactly how fast we could row and exactly what the strength of the current was. Throw in a spare set of oars and an assurance that the current wasn't going to increase while we were out there and if our rowing speed is well above that of the current, we could set off and boat around in reasonable safety, always keeping well away from the waterfall.
Ridge soaring on a paraglider is analogous to rowing on a river just upstream of a waterfall and is probably the first soaring experience for most pilots. From our gliders we cannot see the waterfall nor can we hear the white water although we know where it is likely to be. When things go wrong and when people hear of another pilot killed or seriously injured after being "blown over the back" they take it as yet more proof that paragliding is an unsafe sport, but is it? How many pilots know exactly what their own top speed is? How many bother to get a forecast before taking off? Are these the same people who would attempt to cross the Zambezi River in an untried and untested canoe just upstream of the Victoria Falls?
Rowing Boats in Strong Thermals
There are plenty of stupid things that I could do with a rowing boat. One of then would be to pop down to the coast and try to launch my rowing boat into the Southern Ocean off an open beach. If I drowned in the attempt, you would call that very stupid. You would add even more adjectives if I waited until the middle of the day when the surf was at its highest and then attempted to launch blindfold, yet this is the analogy of taking our paragliders into strong thermals. We find paraglider pilots who wait around at launch for the thermals to really start booming before taking off into an invisible maelstrom of breaking waves, surges and rip currents. When their canopies collapse and spin them to the ground, we hear complaints of unstable, unsafe gliders, seldom a judgement about the sanity of the pilot. Sure there are rowing boats that go out through the surf, lifeguards use them. With knowledge, skill, experience and the right equipment, it can be done safely, but should we try such a feat until we know exactly what we are doing and the real extent of our capabilities?
No Paraglider Ponds
One big difference between rowing boats and paragliders is that when I take my rowing boat down to the local reservoir, I can be confident the water will be calm. If I want rough water, I know where to find it too. Yet for paragliders, everywhere is the big, wide, open ocean. There are no ponds and lakes. The Roaring Forties can come right to our kindergarten slopes. What is more, it's all invisible. Fortunately there are plenty of signs to indicate what is actually going on in the air around us, available to those who would look. If we do not or will not wait, watch and observe before flying, who is to blame if things get out of control in conditions that are too strong?
I would not want to propose that the way to make the sport safer is to legislate or try to police who can fly where and in what conditions, but rather that pilots should be trained to have the right attitude to the sport and be able to read the conditions for themselves. Perhaps our instructors can learn a lesson from the teachers of the martial arts of the East. They inculcate a sense of mysticism, reverence and mental discipline in their pupils, who can then practice the most fearful ways of doing bodily harm to an opponent, with few getting hurt in the process.
It is a tribute to the human spirit that there are always people prepared to push an activity to its absolute limit. Think again about the great voyages undertaken by people in rowing boats in the past and their analogy, the accomplishments of some paraglider pilots far more recently. Consider for a moment what these achievements mean, given that a paraglider weighs about as much in relation to its pilot as a bird's feathers weigh in relation to it. The record for the maximum height gain currently stands at 4470m (14665 feet). Incredible! That someone can step off a hill or be towed up to a height of a few hundred metres in tropical heat, under a few kilograms of string and plastic and then ascend safely to altitudes where the temperature is below freezing and the pilot requires oxygen. What too of the distance record? A paraglider has been flown 336 km. (209 miles). Amazing! That someone can fly over 300 km on a pocket aeroplane with no power source of its own. What an incredible feat of skill, daring and endurance. Why wasn't this reported on the front page of every newspaper in the world? Why is it that some clot who has never had a lesson in his life and who kills himself trying to fly a high-performance paraglider is considered more newsworthy than these legends in our own time? Where are our priorities? Are we in danger of losing the appropriate sense of wonder about what we are doing? Is this a sign of the times, when we take health and comfort for granted and almost anyone can own a computer with more processing power than those which went to the moon on Apollo 11? Would an increased sense of reverence towards what we are actually doing when we fly a paraglider decrease the accident rate?
It seems people have a preoccupation with accidents involving foot launched flight. I think there are two main reasons for this. Firstly pilots love to talk about experiences which scared them. It makes them look strong and brave to any audience which is ignorant of the real nature of the sport. Secondly the horror stories are eagerly passed on by the many people who would dearly love to try foot launched flight themselves but who lack the little bit of courage it actually takes. I have lost count of the times I have started to talk about paragliding to a non-flyer, only to have the conversation steered within seconds to the subject of someone who knew someone who got hurt or killed. These people feel vindicated every time there is an accident or incident and their own pressure on themselves is eased for a while. So the stories go round and round while "fall" becomes "plummet" and "broke" becomes "smashed". Conversely, why do we see so little regular paragliding or hang gliding on our televisions? Is it because for the news teams, seeing what they have always dreamed of doing, being performed in perfect safety is more than they can bear? I think we do a great disservice to our sport every time we spellbind an audience with horror stories. If we can keep reports of accidents factual and informative to the extent that they will help other pilots avoid the same conditions, we can do much to remove the unsafe reputation some people attribute to paragliding.
Of course there will always be those who will call paragliding unsafe. That is their opinion and they are entitled to it. They had better be paragons of safety themselves though, if they are to retain a shred of credibility. They had better not smoke and their cars had better be outstanding examples of roadworthiness. They had better never drive when "one over the limit" or speed or go through a red traffic light or do any of the many stupid, life-threatening things that people do. They had better not throw stones at paragliding unless in their own glass houses all the appliances are earthed that ought to be earthed and an earth- leakage is fitted, tried and tested.
As for me, I can find nothing to make me believe that paragliding is unsafe. As for the structural integrity of the paraglider itself, this can be confirmed by a simple inspection, provided we know what to look for and carry out the same sort of regular checks that pilots perform on rigid aircraft. In this way we can avoid accidents due to porosity and UV related damage as well, since ample warning signs are there to be seen by all who would look. Of course we must always bear in mind just what it is we are hanging from and hanging by.
I will continue to take my rowing boat aeroplane down to the atmospheric ocean whenever conditions permit. I will endeavour to be as educated and prepared as I possibly can. I will remember how easily my little craft can be swamped or overturned and I hope I will continue to enjoy the freedom and excitement of paragliding flight for a long time to come.
I will continue to admire the deeds of those daring few, who with extensive preparation and all the appropriate skills and equipment, go out to set new records on craft similar to mine, but I will also keep in mind my own limitations and keep my personal attempts at record breaking in the realm of my dreams, from which I know I can always awaken safely.
I hope paragliding will always fill me with the same sense of wonder and awe that it does now. I hope it will for you too.
|Richard Grant is a South African paraglider pilot. This article first appeared on the Internet hang gliding mailing list (firstname.lastname@example.org) in 1992. Reprinted with permission of the author.|