Safe Flying Guide
by Had Robinson with the help of many other instructors and pilots, including Ken Hudon-Jorgensen, Chad Bastian, and Stewart Midwinter
updated March 28, 2023
Do you want a long and safe flying career with maximum fun? Here are some suggestions. Why train? Why spend the money? Why learn how to understand the air? I hope the answers to these questions are obvious but, for some, they are not....
Many of us are fortunate enough to survive accidents with minimal injury. The longer you fly, the more likely you will experience a cascading, one-in-a-thousand event, as the writer of this essay has.
A pilot and his family narrowly escaped death when he attempted to launch an overloaded Piper Mirage. Another accident case study from the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) is one of their best because it reveals how a prominent orthopedic surgeon and experienced pilot ended his own life from a series of bad decisions, including the effects of pride. These accidents are typical of cascading events, including "get-there-itis" and the deadly effects of pride, no matter what type of aircraft is involved.
Ignorance of how a flexible winged glider (a paraglider) functions is the second major cause of serious accidents and deaths. Just because you are well trained to fly a Chinook, an A10, or a King Air does not mean you are competent to safely fly a paraglider in the many different conditions we often encounter. Our little aeronautical vehicle has unique problems when entering rowdy air.
At times, an incorrect response can lead to an unrecoverable event that is unique to paragliding, such as nearly happened to this experienced and skilled pilot at an SIV clinic. The pilot was flying a C class high performance glider and was performing a full stall. Why the instructor of the SIV permitted full stalls in such gliders raises some questions. Full stalls should be first done and then mastered in A class gliders. The pilot here had not mastered full stalls yet and it was dangerous for him to attempt it in a C glider. He was fortunate that he did not get cocooned. A reserve toss when cocooned may not save the pilot – and another reason some instructors and schools, especially in the EU, do not recommend full stalls, even at an SIV clinic. Pilots are routinely killed, injured, or become so terrified that they quit the sport. Unfortunately, SIV clinics have no regulation or standards whatsoever and any (and everybody) can host them.
Thorough training by a competent instructor, who puts safety first at all times, is essential. Sadly, the goal of too many is to graduate as many pilots, and as fast as possible. The latter paradigm is due to giving the school balance sheet a higher priority than pilot safety.
There are USPHA instructors that rate pilots based solely on a questionnaire without ever having witnessed the required tasks. It is a great way to make $100.
Stewart Midwinter suffered a serious accident at launch with permanent injuries that was entirely his own fault. He relates how he and others who have had similar experiences want to be treated: just like other pilots -- not to be pitied or treated is some special way. All of us must respect that. It's tough for those who have experienced severe accidents because deep down they are still pilots who love flying, just like us who still can fly without help. He writes about what is a good attitude we can have towards pilots who have been injured,
"Hey man, it must be really tough for you at times. I'm here for you. Let me know if I can help in some way."
He had a bad asymmetric collapse off launch and lost control which resulted in a serious injury that left him a quadriplegic. In this Cross Country Magazine interview, he relates some facts that contributed to his accident. It is a very tough read. He writes that at times he wanted to kill himself -- but he was not able to do it because he could not because of his injuries. He relates how important "being" is.
If you are "off", you cannot fly safely.
He also notes that he started flying EN B wings before his accident to increase his margin of safety. But it wasn't enough to prevent his accident. We all appreciate his love of flying and sound advice on how to better survive our sport.
GET PROPERLY TRAINED BY A PASA SCHOOL (PG) OR A USPPA SCHOOL (PPG)!
Your chances of surviving our wonderful sport will be better. There are some very good schools that are not PASA due to the insurance costs. If pilots want to know which schools these are in your region, please contact us.
Ozone also has this great set of instructions for having a long flying career.
1. MENTAL ATTITUDE
If you are not 100% confident that you are ready to launch, DON'T! Pay no attention to anyone else, including your instructor (he should know this anyway but many do not). If you do not feel right about flying, pack up and help other pilots, if they request it, or hang around and enjoy the view.
The more experienced a pilot gets, the more he will have the "I-don't-feel-quite-right-about-this" moments. These feelings can result from a subconscious assimilation of facts that give the pilot warning in advance. Trust your instincts. If the site makes you afraid, stay on the ground because your mind is not ready to fly. There are plenty of sites packed with pilots when the current conditions are dangerous – and people launch anyway, getting hurt or killed. I've seen it again and again and again. Do not browse the internet for videos of paragliding accidents and tragedies before you fly (anyway, most of them are not for the purpose of educating other pilots but to show-off or boast). Instead, guard your mind and put in it the important stuff like asking yourself "what is the weather up to?"
Are you an experienced pilot? Comfortable complacency, aviation's most common vice, is another deadly hazard for pilots. This attitude causes us to relax about the dangers of what we do when we should have the opposite attitude: vigilant at all times, especially during launch. The AOPA made an accident safety report of an experienced and well trained pilot who was too relaxed, letting his guard down concerning the danger of icing. His failure to heed reports of icing and follow the aircraft's operations manual killed him, his family, and a friend.
It sounds simple but do not launch until you know where you will land. That is, have a flight plan. If something happens, like a wind change, make sure you have an emergency (bail) LZ that will work i.e., have a "plan B". The bail must be within an easy glide. If it is not, you are accepting substantial risk, as the pilot in this video discovered. Fortunately, a dead tree branch did not puncture an artery and cause her to bleed out before any help could reach her.
Did you personally go to the bail LZ and check it out? What are the hazards? What if you have a cascading event, like a cravat at launch? What sort of things can you hit if you are unable to turn safely? What will the air be like at the LZ where you plan to land? At a major launch site in Colombia I purposely made my first flight to the bail-out LZ. The LZ was dangerous, filled with hazards, including high-tension power lines on the approach. I should have checked it out first on the ground. I assumed people with sense (including my host) checked the LZ and made sure it met reasonable standards. Instead, it was a P4 LZ. I did not fly the site again. Lesson: do not assume anything or trust anyone.
3. Pre-flight check
Failure to do a proper pre-flight check is extremely dangerous.
Memorize 123ABCD (what we teach) or something similar given by your instructor. Always setup in the same way. Carefully check that your brake lines go straight to the pulleys and are not wrapped around the risers, as happened to one of our students resulting in an accident. There are too many unnecessary accidents that occur and all of them have one thing in common: pilot error. All it takes is one problem accompanied by another, and then another. These are the ingredients for disaster (see the above photo and put yourself there in the wheelchair – who will take care of your personal hygiene? Think about it.
You must have a thorough pre-flight check list/routine that you do EVERY TIME before launching.
I repeat: If you ever have any doubts whatsoever about flying at a particular site and/or time, DON’T!
If there are chatty people around and you have moved into the launch area, politely tell them to shut-up.
Preflight and launch are LIFE and DEATH situations that require 100% focus by the pilot. Flight crews (operator certificate holders) must observe sterile cockpit rules during critical aspects of all flights and the risks caused by non-essential conversation is no different for ultralight pilots at those times. Obviously, if you see something dangerous about to happen to another pilot and he is not yet past the point of no return, yell, "Abort! Abort!" Lives have been saved by this being done. If you made an error DO NOT APOLOGIZE! Better for the pilot to attempt another launch than to wind up in the ER.
Just a month ago (Feb 2019) in Colombia, a pilot was injured because of a glider collapse. He threw his reserve but it was disconnected from his harness and it went sailing away while he went straight down. Fortunately, he hit soft ground just right and was not injured. The cause was that he was interrupted while installing the reserve the day before and did not connect the harness bridle to the reserve. This is why Sup'Air recommends that pilots get in a simulator and do a practice throw (where it does not actually deploy but correctly comes out of the harness compartment) after they install their reserve. Even Master pilots who know the sport cold are at risk at launch doing Q&A with others.
4. Weather – DO NOT FLY WHEN CONDITIONS ARE TOO STRONG
Make sure you understand how to check the weather. Ask yourself, should I stay out of the air today? This linked page includes an account during the 2016 season in Colombia by a friend who had to throw her reserve, barely escaping a likely fatal crash into the ground by a few seconds. She is an expert pilot and was badly shaken by her near encounter with tragedy. Flying should be fun and not terrifying. You decide what it will be.
A vitally important program is the cell-phone based RadarScope. It is $10/year. – chump-change for a program that gives real time radar data about the gust front that is about to blow you into some high tension power lines. Unfortunately, it is only available in the United States.
Strong conditions (average thermal strength above 800'/min) mean thermals can have sharp edges with dangerous turbulence, especially in the desert or other dry areas. Roldanillo (Colombia) had many accidents during the 2015 season because of the dry -- and very strong -- conditions. One of the pilots in our group had to land in rowdy air and narrowly missed slicing her popliteal artery on an invisible strand of barbed wire in the field where she had to land. At least four of the other accidents that season involved serious injury.
Here is an accident report from a pilot who pushed the limits, especially the time of day and the season, and experienced serious, permanent injuries.
The first few days were fickle but fun with some decent XC flight and some adventurous top landings in the big mountains. On the 3rd day the wind switched and we posted up near Eureka and envisioned a 200km flight north. The morning was challenging with 2 guys getting early bomb outs, 2 getting away, 1 (me) scratching and waiting for climb to get up and away. After a bit of scratching I found it was time to land. Below was a sea of waist high sage with a lone green spot as the obvious landing choice. It was turbulent and there was headwind moving toward the landing zone. Somewhere in the 200ft range the wind shifted 180degres and to make the Grass I would need a low 180 degree turn. Or I could land pretty much any where safely but certainly destroy some if not all of the glider in the sage. So I made the wrong call and went for the tight turn low. On a new wing. And I spun it. I swung trough the pendulum of the spin lacking the needed last 10ft of ground clearance. Or in other words I was in an accelerated pendulum when I hit the ground butt first. The price was steep. Dislocated left shoulder, 4 broken ribs, fractured sternum, badly bruised ass and tail bone and worst was fractured T8 and burst fractured T9. Upon impact I knew I had broken my back and thought I was paralyzed from the waist down. Fortunately feeling returned to both legs over the next few hours during the extraction efforts. 6 hours and a Helicopter ride later I found myself in SLC at the University of Utah Trauma Center. 12 hours after that I was having spinal surgery. T10-T7 have been fused -- 8 screws, 2 Pins and 2 rods. A week after the surgery I can walk and generally take care of myself. The pain is still high and movement for more than 20 minutes at a time is exhausting. I’ll be headed home this week sometime. Likely a month of doing not much but sleep and PT. [It will be] 6 months before a return to a mostly normal life. And a year before I can ski, fly or play sports. Didn’t get bit flying in big air on a gnarly site but landing on flat ground where the hazards are manifestly more psychological than real. Stupid. I'll likely not respond on GroupMe for a while as it's a bitch to type or frankly do much right now but hope to see you all in a few weeks for some beers.
The photo below is of a pilot who launched in late morning conditions (after 10AM) in the desert southwest mountains during mid-June. The thermals coming up the mountain face were already strong. Right next to this thermal was bullet sink – and he flew right between them. The glider experienced a dramatic 50%+ collapse and the pilot was not able to maintain directional control. The glider did a hard turn to the right and he went into the ground. He was seriously hurt but has fully recovered, thankfully. You do NOT want to be in a paraglider a.) that is near the terrain and b.) when conditions are strong, such as during the summer months in the middle of the day. Ninety percent of the time, you will be OK. It is the ten percent that can get you. This week (Jan 5, 2014) we had a convergence of high and low pressure systems that brought temperatures in certain parts of the eastern U.S. to -15 F and wind gusts of 60 mph. It is the same with the air during midday in summer. The terrain and intensely heated air can converge and form "sleepers" – intense movements of air that are geometrically stronger than average. Why take the chance?
Many instructors, including this one, warn against flying in the mountains when both ridge lift and thermals are present for this reason: They can combine to make the air dangerous.
A nationally known pilot was scratching for thermal lift close to the ground in the flatlands of central Florida. He had a bad frontal collapse on a competition (unrated) gilder and went in. He experienced serious injury including a concussion and cerebral hemorrhage that required surgery. He was fortunate that he tucked as he hit. Those of us who saw the whole thing thought he was dead. Scratching is not necessarily always a mistake but close to the ground in thermic air with a competition wing? Turbulence can change everything in a moment and you do not have the altitude to recover.
5. STAY AWAY FROM THE TERRAIN
Per the above incident, if the pilot had been 500' higher, the collapse would have been alarming but not dangerous. He would have likely recovered without incident. Pilots must never get a false sense of security from thinking "I'm close to the ground so I'm safe." It is a self-deception that we naturally have as mono-planar creatures. Altitude is always safer and the more, the better. It takes mental training to learn this and apply it in all conditions at all times.
6. MAKE CERTAIN YOUR GLIDER IS PROPERLY INFLATED AT LAUNCH
I have watched – time after time – pilots launching in light winds at thermic sites. This can be dangerous. Valle de Bravo had a half dozen accidents during the 2008 season. A buddy of mine had problems inflating at launch but launched anyway. He went into the trees and then fell, breaking his back in several places. Fortunately, he was not paralyzed. He admitted to me that his luck is running out....
Jeff Huey, an experienced and competent pilot, was participating in the 2006 competition at Valle. In his case, he launched even though his glider was not properly inflated. He wrote this after his accident,
...a soft launch, collapse, then stall/spin overcorrection shattered c7, cord squished but not cut. no feeling below chest but should return someday, good care in Mexico City, return to the States tomorrow.
Jeff never fully recovered from the accident and remains a paraplegic to this day. Think about the disappointment, "feeling...should return someday...."
David McNulty suffered a pneumothorax and a hemothorax during the 2016 season at Valle from the same thing at launch that got Jeff. If it were not for the expert help of host and instructor, Damien Mitchell, David might have died from his injuries.
Most of the time, a wobbly, partially inflated glider will get you away from the hill but when there are the other events, such as a gust or turbulence, that complicates everything quickly and things can go tragically bad. No one wants a cascading event but they happen often enough that pilots should be certain everything is perfect before they commit to launch.
7. MAINTAIN TRIM SPEED IN YOUR GLIDER
Another common mistake is not flying at trim speed (the nearly hands-up position). Experienced General Aviation (GA) pilots know that speed is safety and control. An aircraft that has energy has more inherent safety. It is a difficult thing for pilots to train themselves that speed is always good. Too many instructors (especially those who have been teaching for a long time without continuing education) tell students that flying with a good amount of brake will make their glider more stable, especially when they encounter turbulence. This is largely untrue in modern gliders and has caused countless accidents like the one in the photo above.
A slightly more pressurized glider from applying a lot of brake has little effect when the glider is hit with air going down at 6+ mph. This writer once hit descending air from virga and he was very glad he was flying at trim.
A slower moving glider is more prone to stall and spin if the pilot encounters turbulence. Also, if he sets up for landing with a lot of brake, he can be guaranteed to have a hard landing. A glider flown with a lot of brake has minimal energy or, in another way, has minimal reserves if a recovery is needed.
A landing flare executed on a glider that already has lots of brake will have less impact than if the glider comes in at full speed. SPEED IS GOOD! Pilots must tell themselves this continually. The ONLY other time you want to be in the brakes is when you are well away from the ground, in completely dead air, and/or coring a thermal.
When this writer lands, he has his hands almost all the way up until his feet brush the ground. So what if you are skidding along for a few feet? You won't do a face plant – it's impossible. What it will do is that when you do bury the brakes, the glider will surge behind you, stop, and give you plenty of momentary lift. The skill here is how fast do you bury the brakes? It depends on a lot of things and is something all pilots must practice. In fact, if you are landing into moderate head winds, you might even be taken back up in the air. This is why "touch and goes" (PPG only) are so important. With PG you must be at a site where you can safely top land to do repeated launches and landings. Remember that glider class (EN A, B, C etc.) has a lot to do with how it flares during landing. The higher the class, the greater effect of the flare. But this is little reason to go to a higher class glider. Performance is better but passive safety takes a nose-dive.
8. PRACTICE KITING WHENEVER YOU CAN
In their wing manuals, Ozone has this superb advice,
Be prepared to practice as much as you can - especially ground handling, as this is a critical aspect of paragliding. Poor control while on the ground is one of the most common causes of accidents.
Critical aspect? When a flying buddy and I were in Colombia one year, we guessed the 80% of the pilots had little or no skills kiting a glider.
In 2013 at Valle de Bravo, a pilot was injured when she did a forward inflation at the main launch. Running full speed, she brought her wing up just fine but failed to slow it down (check the surge) when it came overhead. Naturally, the glider kept right on going. It had a frontal collapse causing the pilot to fall about 8' to the ground out in front. She was fortunate and only experienced a concussion and a banged-up face. Her first mistake was to not have the required skills to fly the site. If she had spent time kiting at the LZ or some other safe location, she could have likely avoided the accident. What in the world was she and her instructor (who was present at the time) thinking? What is a new P2 pilot doing in the rowdy air at Valle?
In a forward inflation, only more experienced pilots can sense the condition and location of the glider. Even for experienced pilots, forward inflations can be frightening which is why we never do them unless they are absolutely necessary. (Generally, if you have to do a forward inflation at a mountain launch, wait for the air to pick up or fly another day.)
If you want to impress others at a launch site, get your glider up over your head, take 3 or 4 seconds to look at it, and then turn as fast as you can and go. Other good pilots will recognize that you are not only competent but a safety-minded pilot and will give you an earned nod. However, most will not have a clue what you are doing.
If you cannot easily kite in 12 mph winds, you are putting yourself at risk. Have you seen someone play “tag” with other kiters? (I am not referring to the dangerous game of "tag" in the air.) You want to be that good. If you do not have anyone else around, put out orange cones 20m apart in various formations relative to the wind. Learn how to kite from one cone to another.
9. DO NOT PERFORM ANY SORT OF STEEP MANEUVER (WINGOVERS, SPIRAL DIVES, ETC.) WITHOUT PROFESSIONAL TRAINING!
At Southwest Airsports we train pilots how to safely do maneuvers that increase your level of safety when flying. If you have a major event in the air (which will happen someday if you fly long enough), you will enter a spiral dive. What does it feel like? How can I help correct it? When should I throw my reserve? If the whole event is a complete surprise, you may throw your reserve unnecessarily. Then you begin the flight of your life: Descending through the air but 100% out of control unless you have a steerable reserve. Reserves are not backups – they are your last chance to live. I have never had to throw my reserve and I hope that I never have to.
10. Powered Paragliding Hazards
The USPPA has published this page and another page with some of the most common causes of accidents and how to avoid them. Is your PPG launch area as good as this one? If it isn't, you are adding risk to your flying. Virtually anything can happen at a launch like this and you will probably be OK.
Get properly trained. Do NOT take chances when you fly. As Stewart Midwinter quipped about astronauts ask yourself, "How many ways is this paraglider going to try and kill me today?" Assume everything will go wrong and you will be more careful. Fly modest wings (EN A). Experts, including Bruce Goldsmith, stress the fact in this article that flying EN A class gliders is smart, no matter how good a pilot you are. I sometimes fly an EN C wing (in benign conditions) and the only important advantage I have is a little better glide and more speed but I pay for it with a wing that moves around a lot in the air. Be extremely cautious near the ground! This is what “gets” most pilots. Here are some words by some experienced pilots and instructors.
David Dagaudt, French Champion, designer, and Ozone test Pilot:
Spend flying time on the ground! Ground handling is the best way to develop a feel for a wing and an understanding of the machine. The level of ease with the wing you feel on take-off is a great indicator of the level of glider control in the air. …When you can do what you want with your wing on the ground, it will be the same in the air, and vice versa. If your take-offs are risky, then you can say that the main risk you face in the air is from the wing above your head!
A confident and competent launch sets the tone for the rest of the flight. The 15 Minute Rule: When you get to a flying site, spend 15 minutes watching the wind and the sky before making the fly/no-fly decision. If you see unsafe conditions, for example, peak gusts stronger than your personal limit, reset your time and spend another 15 minutes watching. Pre-flight Safety: Spend a little extra time on pre-flight safety rather than launch a hang glider with the strap unhooked or a paraglider with the leg straps unclipped.
Dust devils on hard ground are often invisible, and even a weak dust devil can be lethal near the ground. Don’t select an LZ – select the air you will be landing in. [When landed], disconnect yourself from the wing immediately before a dust devil sneaks up on you.
Practice is the key to the secret of flying.