Become a Safety Activist

Managing your personal safety in paragliding and hang gliding includes all of the things we do for ourselves.  After learning the basics, safety is enhanced by recognizing that the process never ends.   When you think you have it all figured out, something comes along and surprises you, hopefully, not the ground.  Practicing launches and landings and wing management will help you improve your safety.   Having some tempered caution and never flying because of desperation is a good way to help your personal safety.

Beyond personal practices, there is another form of safety that we can contribute to.   Safety applied in a community sense is a conduit that connects you to and enhances safety through communication.  The way we interact within the flying community has many factors that we can take to heart.  There is great power if we consciously add emphasis to how we interface with our fellow pilots and the community.

Social ways to work together with the goal of reducing accidents:

  • Report accidents or incidents so that we can have a more accurate view of the causes and correlations involved. (more below)

  • Keep an eye out for other pilots.   Once in a while, all of us have the potential to miss something in our connection or wing checks.   I have seen many times a pilot notice something and help a pilot or friend out.

  • SIV clinics can really help you learn how to handle critical flying situations. This is both a personal and social event.   Naturally, throughout clinics, the whole point is learning how to handle the critical situations.   On the social side, pilots often learn as much from watching others and discussing each task and learning how the pieces fit together.

  • Mentor programs can be a good way to ramp up new skills as you grow as a pilot.  On the other side, more experienced pilots can  volunteer to be a mentor to help the newer pilots out.

  • Know that you can be the next accident victim if you let your guard down.   Having some fear is the primary motivation for risk management.  Socially, we need to know when to execute caution and should feel good about promoting this attitude.

  • Get involved and discuss any accidents or incidents with your community.   This can be clubs, friends or any connection to other pilots.  When there is an incident or accident, this is one of the best times to figure out what went wrong and what solutions are possible.   There are some situations where there is no good solution.   It is critical to learn what these are.   (More below)


Reporting Accidents and Incidents

As the paragliding accident review chair, I get to see all of the results and observations from incidents and accidents that are reported.    With some of the reports, the details are easy to analyze.   On some reports, even with additional analysis and research, the conclusions are not as clear.   If multiple reports come in, it is easier to piece together the similarities and have a more accurate picture. This is not to say that everyone at an accident scene needs to report it, but that ensuring at least one report from the best observer is necessary and that if more than one report can come it, it is more helpful.

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions that prevent more reports from coming in.   Most of us have egos and might feel a little ashamed when we have a crash or an incident.   I have seen some communities where there is even an undertone that says, “what happens here, stays here”.   In the past year, there were at least 4 or 5 pretty serious accidents/incidents in my area.    By the way almost nobody knew about them, I am certain they got hushed.   A couple of these were reported to USHPA, but several were not.  Simply put, we need to rise above this and remember that this information might help someone out there avoid the same mistake.   It can help the community as a whole know what needs improvement.

Incidents where there is no injury get submitted from time to time, but we could do a lot better.  I think a good rule to use in deciding what to report and or not report is simple.   When there is an injury, a report should always be submitted.  Equipment failures should also all be reported.   When an incident had potential for serious injury, it should be reported.

Among the incidents, the more important ones to write up are the closer calls.  For example; if a pilot got into a spin in a paraglider at 1,000′ AGL and properly exited quickly,  a report would not be needed.   If a pilot got into a spin and landed on their back with no injuries, this would be one that should go in.  Here, the potential for serious injury was high.    In hang gliding, it gets a bit more tricky.  Broken down-tubes happen a lot with mis-timed landings.   A broken down-tube on a launch is much more clear that it was a blown launch and needs to be reported.   Again, if any injuries take place, we need to hear about it.   If a broken down-tube happened from a ground loop and the pilot luckily escaped any injuries, yes, it would be good to get the skinny on the contributing factors.  If push comes to shove, the incidents are not as important, but they can only help USHPA get better information for the community.   In the end, we can all help.  If you are aware of an accident, unless you are positive that a report has been submitted, write one up.

USHPA and the Safety and Training committees are investigating a new online accident report form so that he process will be much more user friendly.   If possible, there may even be a super short option that will allow for a quick description of the event.   More data can only help, but I would rather get that short form in and at least know the most basic info than lose a report because the form looked too time consuming.  We really need to increase the reports submitted and this information should help us better track trends.  There is no hidden agenda and every piece of information that comes in is used for one thing and one thing alone, to help us learn what accidents are happening out there.  We can use this information to learn what mistakes are common and what teaching practices to improve on.  From improvement in our report rates, we can work together to improve our information dissemination.

All too often, pilots hold back and feel like their reputation will be tarnished just by it being known that something happened.  Whenever there is a bad one, every member of the local community will hear about it in almost all cases.   Most of these get reported to clubs and or USHPA, but not all of them.   Information is powerful.  The larger we can get the sample rate up, the better we know what the commonalities are and what kinds of accidents there are.   One pilot might flat spin a paraglider and have life threatening injuries while another might have a similar spin and land/bounce in a way that there are no injuries at all.   The point is that for the better picture, it would be very beneficial to hear about the ones with no injuries too.

Again, we are discussing how you can help promote safety through community means.   Any pilot that has information about an incident should send in a report even if they are pretty sure that someone else might already have done so.

Discuss and learn from any accidents or incidents

Every time there is an event, tragic or lucky, it is good to chat it up with your community to learn from what happened.   Instructors often use stories from past events to emphasize a safety concept they are trying to teach.   With our sports, there are so many topics that are critical to safety, every little bit of info needs to be absorbed.

One of the few positive results of an accident or incident is that when discussion happens just after a crash, suddenly the ears start listening.   Many of the crashes that are or appear to be “intermediate syndrome” might be because a pilot did not personalize or take to heart a risk management topic that, in all likelihood, the instructor had covered well in a classroom.

If you like to write, you can write a story about a big lesson you learned and send it in to you local club or USHPA or perhaps I could use it in an accident review.   I think that the hindsight can be a wonderful panacea to aid prevention.  Hearing how a pilot overlooked a factor or or several facets of an accident can be a great way to get the listener to picture making the same mistake.   The key is to get the information ingrained into each pilot.   It all boils down to risk management, but having the information and using it all of the time is all too often the difference between accidents and accident prevention.  Stories of accidents and discussions of how to manage the risks are social behaviors where we can all be activists.

By the time I write up a review of an accident and it gets published, the import of such will have likely passed.   There is always enough information for a local discussion about any event.   Sometimes, only a few pilots were there and information might not be complete.  This is why the “hush thing” can be counterproductive.   Pilots involved or “in the know” should not hush the event.   A greater good than worrying about the pilot’s bruised ego is at stake.   Even when some information might not be complete, any discussion that centers on risk management has the opportunity to enhance safety information into other pilots heads.

Instructors do their best to instill risk management into their students.   We are well aware that intermediate syndrome has a very high rate in some of the tragedies and accidents.   The problem with intermediate syndrome is that it tends to be similar to hypoxia, the symptoms are self masking.   (Hypoxia is caused by low oxygen intake.   When flying at high altitudes the oxygen in the air is lower and the lack of O2 effects the brain.   Pilots get giddy, almost intoxicated and euphoric.  The euphoria blocks the pilot from recognizing the symptoms).   When a pilot starts to really expand their skills, sometimes their confidence supersedes the risk management.  Pilots need to keep safety as their priority regardless of any other factors.

Again, we are discussing how we can contribute to the larger safety cause.   When an accident with minor injuries or worse happens, the local community can use it as an opportunity to discuss the event and use this to promote any risk management that applies to the accident.   Ears magically listen in a different way when an accident involves a member of your community or even more so, a friend.

With any high risk sport, it is good to seek out some statistics or lists of accident reports and look for things that can go wrong.   Even more powerful is to be involved and learn if you hear about an incident.   Hindsight is 20/20, so you can learn a lot from the event when people discuss it.

When an accident happens, often the facts find their way out easy.   Sometimes the accident is pretty clear, other times there can be gossip.   In the end, if we are careful to make sure we can get the correct descriptions, we can help ensure that the right information gets to the community.  Witnesses or the local clubs often have the most direct information.   Ask questions and look for answers when a bad thing happens.   It helps us grow as pilots and has a unique way of eliminating the denial that we often feel that this would not happen to “me”.

Just looking for videos on the web can be productive.    You can find crashes and see what errors or events were involved in the accident.  Be a little careful here, it is good to have a healthy amount of fear, but not to divert yourself away from the fact that you can manage the risks correctly.

Show Dedication to Safety

We tend to copy what others in a our community do.   There are plenty of hot dog pilots in videos on the internet and sometimes in the pics in our magazine of pilots flying in sandals or with lightweight or even no helmets.   First and foremost, your personal safety choice to fly with harness with back protection (paragliding), wear boots and have a full face helmet should be up on your priority list.   I choose to only fly with a full face helmet and high support boots.   I do this for me, not for the community, but if this is the commonality it imparts to newer pilots.

There are physical things and creative ways we can help safety.   Perhaps you have some web developments skills and can create a site guide for a local flying site.  In  this modern world, you can grab pictures from Google Earth or other sources and point out hazards and other flight plan related points about a flying site.   If there is an existing site guide that could stand for a redo, step up and volunteer.   Or, physically, you can help work on launch bush removal other issues that can minimize hazards near a launch.

You can also lead by example.   If you are on a launch and everyone is excited about the potential to fly.   If the conditions are a little bit off, perhaps a bit gusty or windy, communicate this.   Most pilots do this naturally, but sometimes, others might have the same perception but just are not willing to speak up.  Egos get involved and pilots just get ready to fly and then take off.   If you ever feel in your gut that you are not comfortable, feel proud to sit one out.   Never launch just because the group has decided that it is a good day to fly.  Even this type of subtle, caution will pass to your comrades.

Deciding not to fly is a personal choice.   This can be extended by mentioning to your comrades that you are making this choice.   If you see something that others might be missing, here is an opportunity to bring such an observation to light.   This is not an obligation, but if there are more of us that do such, it might help the pilot that did not have their guard up.

As you can see, there are many ways we can contribute to safety outside of your personal motivations and choices.   We can do some personal research and be involved in discussions when things go wrong.   We can look for videos on the internet and see that there are a myriad of ways to make our sport more dangerous.

Risk management and risk awareness are tied.  To manage safety, the first thing you need to do is know what the risks are so that you can avoid them yourself.   This ties to the social side because you can enhance and personalize your awareness by involvement.   If we all push just a little bit of energy into becoming safety activists, I suspect it can make a significant difference.  Be proud to promote safety for yourself and for the community.   Participate in discussions, report accidents and fly high, safe and have fun.