1999 Paragliding Accident Summary

By Paul Klemond

Here is a summary of all paragliding accidents reported to USHGA and occurring in the US last year (1999.) The purpose here is to share factual information and interpretations that will help pilots improve their decision-making, thereby preventing future accidents.

USHGA received 55 reports this year, double the number reported last year. This does not necessarily mean that twice as many accidents occurred -- just that twice as many reports were sent in. This may be due in part to the coupon USHGA offered for each report. This year we are unable to correlate accident data with general membership data, as results of the membership survey are not yet available (March 27, 2000.) Based on past membership surveys, a good guess is that one in three or four accidents were reported last year.

Phase of Flight

Here is a breakdown showing the phases of flight and their relative likelihood of resulting in an accident during 1999:

Phase

1999

1998

Kiting

8%

6%

Launching

27%

23%

In-Flight

27%

26%

Landing

39%

45%

Kiting accidents are those in which the pilot is clipped in but does not intend to leave the ground. These accidents occur on both on level ground and on slopes, and usually involve unintended takeoff or falling and being dragged. Predictably these accidents are more likely to happen to student and beginner pilots. Some of these accidents occur to students under direct supervision of an instructor.

Launching accidents include any accidents where the pilot initiates a launch but does not leave the ground, or where the pilot does leave the ground but has an accident within 10 seconds or so, before stablizing in flight. Common launch accidents include losing control and being dragged while pulling up, and taking a collapse during or immediately after takeoff. Relevant factors include marginal conditions in which flight should not have been attempted, and incorrect or insufficient piloting input to prevent loss of control. Marginal conditions are sometimes detectable on launch, and were a factor in at least 20% (1 out of every 5) reported accidents.

One common launch accident involves a collapse before the pilot's feet have left the ground. Some pilots quickly blame turbulence, but often the pilot has failed to maintain load tension on the A-riser on the side that collapsed. One way to avoid this problem is to be aware of the height of your hips as you run off launch. If you feel loading/tension decreasing on your seat on either side, lower your hips such that your seat is always pulling downward and thus maintaining loading or tension on both of your A-risers. It can be challenging to do this while running or turning from a reverse launch, but it will help. Remember to simulaneously use brake pressure to "actively pilot" your wing even before your feet leave the earth.

In-Flight accidents are those in which the pilot launched successfully and did not intend to land, but lost control of the paraglider during flight. Common factors include turbulence-induced collapses, aerobatics or maneuvers, and reserve deployments (both accidental and intentional for training purposes.)

Landing accidents involve any situation in which the pilot has decided to land before the accident occurred, and the intended landing is imminent. This has consistently been the most hazardous phase of each paragliding flight in the US. Common factors in landing accidents include low-level turbulence and hazardous terrain obstacles, bad decisions while focusing on achieving a spot-landing, and inadequate flight planning resulting in a forced landing in an unintended location.

Nature of Injuries

Here is a breakdown showing the nature of injuries sustained in reported accidents:

Nature of

1999

1998

Injury

Accidents

%

Accidents

%

Back

12

29%

5

23%

Foot

7

17%

5

23%

Ankle

7

17%

4

18%

Other

7

17%

1

5%

Knee

4

10%

2

9%

Arm

3

7%

5

23%

Pelvis

3

7%

3

14%

Note that in some accidents the pilot sustained more than one of these types of injury. Back and pelvis continue to be among the most common and most severe injuries reported. Several non-injury incident reports indicated that foam back-protectors helped avoid serious back and/or pelvis injuries. The DHV recently concluded that foam back-protectors are the most effective type. See www.dhv.de for more information. Also the Sup'Air USA website has good (if not unbiased) information on this: see www.supair-usa.com for more information.

Ankle, foot and knee injuries remain common. Several such reports indicate that overweight pilots and tandem passengers may be at greater risk for ankle injuries during launching, landing, and landing following a reserve deployment.

Qualifications of Injured Pilots

Pilots of all skill levels are injured in accidents every year. Here is this year's breakdown by rating. The "Members" column shows the percentage of all USHGA paragliding members who have the rating shown to the left.

Pilot Rating

1999
Accidents

1998

Accidents

Members

Student

15%

6%

(unknown)

Beginner (P1)

9%

17%

5%

Novice (P2)

31%

29%

39%

Intermediate (P3)

13%

11%

27%

Advanced (P4)

20%

11%

25%

Master (P5)

0%

3%

4%

Tandem Instr. (T3)

15%

14%

N/A

Unrated/Unknown

11%

3%

N/A

Before you draw too many conclusions about which levels of pilots do or don't have the most accidents, bear in mind the above data only tell you which level of pilots report the most accidents. 

Fatalities

We had fewer fatalities in 1999 than in the three years before:

Year

# of Fatalities

1999

1

1998

4

1997

4

1996

4

The one fatality last year was unusual: the pilot apparently fixated on and landed in a somewhat narrow urban man-made waterway, was dragged in the current and drowned.

General Factors

Many accidents are attributable not to one specific cause but to a number of contributing factors. Here is a summary of factors involved in the accidents reported in 1999. It is difficult to identify all relevant factors for most accidents, therefore the numbers below should be viewed as bare minimums:

Factor

1999

1998

Cases

%

Cases

%

Strong Thermals

12

25%

4

13%

Collapse

12

25%

6

19%

Ridge Soaring

11

23%

(unknown)

(unknown)

Marginal Conditions

10

21%

5

16%

Flight Plan Failure

6

13%

2

6%

Competition Wing

4

8%

3

10%

Spot Landing -1

3

6%

(unknown)

(unknown)

No Hook-knife, Water -2

3

6%

(unknown)

(unknown)

Dragged

3

6%

2

6%

Aerobatics

2

4%

3

10%

Tangled Lines

2

4%

1

3%

Stale skills

1

2%

(unknown)

(unknown)

Equipment Failure

0

0%

3

10%

Mid-Air Collision

0

0%

1

3%

-1 Spot Landing: pilot made poor decision(s) in an effort to make a spot landing.

-2 Water Landings: pilot was flying near a body of water, but was not carrying a hook-knife, or did not use it. One report suggested that tandem passengers should have a hook-knife available to them for emergency use. This presents some interesting potential problems but would clearly have helped one particular situation.

Flying Near Water

Flying near bodies of water poses special hazards. Pilots flying near water should consider carefully the hazard posed by closed-cell-foam back protectors such as the Sup'Air "Mousse Bag", "Bump Air" and many others. These components cause the harness to float "butt skyward" forcing the pilot face down underwater. Even exceptionally athletic pilots have had great difficulty in these situations! Pilots are advised to seek alternative forms of back protection when flying near water, or to plan reliable harness escape techniques prior to launching. If you do attempt to jump from your harness before hitting the water, be warned that pilots have experienced an inability to perceive their height above the water, in order to determine when to jump safely.

Tandem Accidents

Eight tandem accidents were reported in 1999, up from 4 in 1998. This follows the general increase in reporting and does not necessarily indicate any change in the actual number of accidents occurring. There were no tandem fatalities in 1999.

Who Was Injured

1999

1998

Passenger Only

50%

50%

Pilot Only

13%

25%

Both Pilot and Passenger

38%

25%

Tandem: Phase of Flight

Phase

1999
Tandem

1999
Solo

Kiting

0%

8%

Launching

50%

27%

In-Flight

0%

27%

Landing

50%

39%

Tandem gliders are generally much more difficult to launch than solo gliders. Launch skills might be an area in which our tandem training program can reduce tandem accidents.

Instructors

Instructors as a group showed huge improvement in accident reporting in 1999. This is especially important since few students are familiar enough with the USHGA to even know that accidents should be reported, much less how to report them. Just a reminder to instructors: ICP administrators do not have access to accident reports. So please report your accidents to help us identify ways to improve the instructor program for everyone.

Please Report Your Accident

If you have or witness a paragliding accident, or even just an "incident" that others could learn from, please take a few minutes and report it to USHGA. All reports are anonymous. There are no risks or consequences for submitting a report.

Paul Klemond is the volunteer chair of the USHGA Paragliding Accident Committee

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