During the summer of 1998 a friend of mine (and not the first) injured his spine in a paragliding accident. Then came the news that Willi Muller, a champion pilot known as the father of hang gliding and paragliding in Canada, died while flying his paraglider at Chelan Butte in Washington. This led me to another round of soul searching, during which I wrote the following article.
What If

When I hear about a paragliding accident, I try to understand what went wrong in order to avoid a similar fate. Every accident has a human factor. It's tempting to think that by studying accidents we can protect ourselves from others' mistakes.

Unfortunately, over the years I've seen much better pilots than me have accidents. I have had my own share of close calls too. I've concluded that the root causes of most accidents--human error and turbulence--are at some fundamental level random and inescapable.

If we can't eliminate the risks, how can we reduce them to a tolerable level? How can we justify participating in a sport in which we know that someday, something will go wrong? I'm not sure I have an answer. The best suggestion I can make is to always fly with a backup option. Always have an answer to the question, "What would I do if...?" This is the only approach I can think of to avoid a dead-end scenario.

Scenario 1: Launching. You're on a demanding launch and the wind is nil or cross. Normally, a running launch gives you the option of stopping if the glider doesn't inflate well. But this site has no room. It's fly or die. My feeling is that this sort of launch is not worth trying. It's better to wait for a day when the wind is more favorable.

High wind launches can have similar problems. If the glider doesn't inflate cleanly, does the site allow you to abort safely? Or will you be airborne as soon as the glider inflates? The latter seems too dangerous to me. I can't guarantee that my technique and setup are infallible.

Scenario 2: Scratching. We fly with reserve parachutes in case we hit unrecoverable turbulence. But a reserve requires some height to open. Perhaps you shouldn't try thermaling until you're far enough from the hill to deploy the reserve. This would minimize your time in the no-fallback zone.

Once you're working a thermal, you have to decide when it is safe to begin circling. What if you had a collapse or flew out of the thermal in the middle of your turn? Would you have enough clearance from the hill? If not, you're too low to be circling.

In smooth ridge lift, it might be okay to scratch low. But even then, a random gust or piloting error could cause you to hit the ground. As a backup, you need to fly upright, so you can tuck and roll if you come down hard.

Scenario 3: Flying over unlandable terrain. Some flights take you over terrain that cannot be landed safely, even under reserve. I've heard it suggested that you should maintain enough clearance over such terrain that you could execute a stall in that direction. That seems like a minimum precaution to me. Another suggestion would be to avoid thermaling over such terrain altogether.

Scenario 4: Blowback. You're ridge soaring in strong wind. What if the wind gets stronger? Does your glider have enough extra speed? Can you end-run the ridge to avoid the rotor? Are you high enough to turn and fly over the back? Never let these backup options slip away.

Scenario 5: Landing in turbulence. I'm surprised at how often I see pilots reclining in their harnesses until the last moment of landing. I try to be aware of several zones during a landing approach. Above a few hundred feet, I'm responding to turbulence to keep the glider flying properly. As I get lower, I start thinking about my reserve, since my response time is limited. Lower still, I rock forward in my harness and get ready for a parachute landing fall.

Scenario 6: Flying in traffic. What if the other guy doesn't follow the right-of-way rules? What if the glider you're thermaling near takes a big collapse? What if you hit a pocket of sink as you're passing over another glider? Do you have enough clearance for any of these problems?

These are a few scenarios to think about. Trusting the odds doesn't seem good enough in paragliding, because the consequences of losing are so high. Always having a backup option seems like the only way to stay accident free in the long run.

Lowell Skoog

The Alpenglow Gallery