2001 Paragliding Accident Summary

by Jim Little

USHGA received 80 reports of incidents and accidents this year. This represents a substantial increase from the 43 reports received last year, which appears to be due to improved reporting by pilots and not an increase in the accident rate. 29 of the reports (36%) were about incidents. Incidents are broadly defined as any outcome of a flight that was not intended by the pilot but did not result in an injury. 51 of the reports (64%) were for accidents, which are defined as any incident resulting in an injury to the passenger or pilot.

Paul Klemond, the prior paragliding accident chair for USHGA, previously had estimated that only one in four accidents are reported to USHGA. It is clear that under-reporting continues to be an issue. Accidents that result in serious injury are more likely to be reported than accidents with minor injuries, or incidents where injury is avoided. Because of this, the annual accident summary likely overestimates the severity of injuries received. In medical research this is known as reporting bias. Pilots who are involved in incidents or minor-injury accidents are encouraged to report these, even if they seem inconsequential, so we can develop more meaningful statistics regarding types of injuries and severity.

Phase of Flight

Analysis depending on phase of flight (noting that new categorizations were added in 2001):

Phase

2001

2000

1999

1998

Kiting

1%

2%

8%

6%

Launching

32%

20%

27%

23%

Takeoff

24%

--

--

--

Departure

8%

--

--

--

In-Flight

29%

52%

27%

26%

Aerobatics

1%

--

--

--

Landing

38%

25%

39%

45%

Approach

19%

--

--

--

LZ

19%

--

--

--

In prior years, the phase of flight was limited to kiting, launching, in-flight, or landing. Kiting means the pilot is clipped in but did not intend to leave the ground. This year, an attempt was made to classify Launching accidents by whether they occurred during the takeoff phase (set up, building wall, kiting, and launching) or Departure (from leaving the ground until established in flight). Landing accidents were also classified based on whether they occurred as a result of problems during approach, or problems occurring in the actual LZ. A separate category also was added for accidents occurring during intentional aerobatics. Only one report attributed the primary reason for the accident to aerobatics. Several other reports made by witnesses or pilots implied that intentional aerobatics were a contributing factor.

The increase in in-flight accidents in 2000 appears to have been spurious, although redefining the categories to include "departure" and "approach" accidents may account for some of this variation. Of the in-flight accidents, at least 19 (83%) happened when a collapse occurred and the pilot was close to the ground. Several of these pilots stated in retrospect that they knew they were flying too close, and felt the collapse would have been easily recoverable if they had had been at a higher altitude.

Of the accidents occurring on launch, 19 out of 25 (64%) occur while the pilot is on the ground or immediately after lift off. The primary cause of 75% of the accidents occurring on launch was a poorly inflated launch. Launching in strong wind or cross wind are common contributing factors (see discussion of factors below). Two launch accidents were reported by pilots who stated lines snagged on leg-mounted varios. Pilots should take precautions to prevent their vario or other equipment from catching lines during launch.

Landing accidents account for 38% of accidents, and are evenly divided between those occurring due to problems during approach or failure to plan the approach, and those occurring on landing in the intended LZ. The most common factors in landing are: collision with obstacles in the LZ; poorly planned approach; landing outside the intended LZ; turbulence or thermals on approach; and turning low to the ground (see below).

Nature and Severity of Injuries

Here is the breakdown of injuries for the past several years:

Nature of Injury

2001

2000

1999

1998

Qty

%

Qty

%

Qty

%

Qty

%

Head

0

0

--

--

--

--

--

--

Face

0

0

--

--

--

--

--

--

Neck

1

1%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Back

20

25%

12

38%

12

29%

5

23%

Chest

3

4%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Abdomen

3

4%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Pelvis

0

0

4

13%

3

7%

3

14%

Arm

11

14%

2

6%

3

7%

5

23%

Shoulder

3

4%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Forearm

1

1%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Wrist

3

4%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Leg

27

34%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Femur

1

1%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Knee

1

1%

2

6%

4

10%

2

9%

Tibia/Fibula

6

8%

--

--

--

--

--

--

Ankle

8

10%

7

22%

7

17%

4

18%

Foot

4

5%

5

16%

7

17%

5

23%

Severity of Injuries

2001

Qty

%

Fracture

33

65%

Sprain

10

20%

Laceration

3

6%

Bruise

11

22%

Minor

1

2%

Unknown

4

8%

Dislocation

3

6%

Again, we have tried to add more detail to the statistics this year, by specifying more precisely which body part was injured. Totals given for arm and leg injuries exceed the numbers reported for specific parts because some pilots did not specify the exact location of the injury. The severity of reported injuries is likely overestimated due to reporter bias (see discussion above). Many pilots do not report minor injuries such as cuts, bruises and sprains. There were a total of 51 injury accidents reported. 35 pilots (44%) sought care in the emergency department or from their physicians, and 23 accidents resulted in overnight stays in the hospital (29%).

It is remarkable that no serious head injuries were reported this year, and 100% of the accident reports stated the pilot was wearing a helmet. Good work pilots! This is a testament to the benefits that using appropriate safety equipment can have.

Paragliding accidents result in an unacceptably high number of severe back injuries. Twelve of the 20 back injuries reported this year resulted in fractures (60%). While most of these spine fractures do not result in permanent neurological damage, they are painful, expensive, and involve long recoveries. Some of these accidents resulted in prolonged hospital stays, neurological damage and long-term disability to the pilots. Pilots, equipment manufacturers, and instructors should make reducing back injuries our highest priority. Prior studies by equipment manufacturers and DHV have shown that wearing a foam back protector reduces the frequency and severity of back injuries. One accident report noted that a student in training injured his back using a harness with a rigid back protector. Pilots and instructors should be aware that rigid back protectors have been shown to increase the risk of spinal injury. These back protectors should be replaced with the soft foam type.

Leg injuries were the second most common types of injuries. Twelve of the 27 leg injuries reported (44%) were fractures. Fractures of the talus and calcaneus (bones in the heel) and complex tibia/fibula fractures accounted for prolonged recovery in several pilots. These types of fractures may require multiple surgeries and extended time in a wheelchair or crutches to heal. Studies of footwear by military skydivers show that the severity of foot and ankle injuries can be reduced by proper footwear with adequate lateral support. One pilot who fractured his ankle reported that the injury occurred in tennis shoes and may have been avoided with correct footwear.

Studies by sport and military skydivers have consistently shown that correct PLF technique can reduce the frequency of back and leg injuries. Several injured pilots reported that they landed with legs extended, and others commented that a correct PLF might have prevented their injuries. One very experienced instructor pilot walked away from an accident on mountainous terrain after a correct PLF. Pilots should be prepared to PLF with every landing, and should practice the technique frequently to ensure that it will be done properly and instinctively when necessary. One resource for information about PLF technique is: http://safety.army.mil/messages/parachute_landings.html

Fatalities

There were no paragliding fatalities reported in 2001 due to unpowered foot-launched flight. This continues the downward trend since 1998 for paragliding fatalities.

Year

# Fatalities

2001

0

2000

1

1999

1

1998

4

1997

4

1996

4

There was one fatality reported to USHGA this year involving a paramotor pilot. Since paramotor accidents have not been previously included in the overall accident statistics, this fatality is not listed in the table above. However, the contributing factors of this accident are worthy of mention. The fatality occurred when the pilot locked into a spiral dive while doing intentional aerobatics at low altitude over water without a rescue boat or flotation devices. The pilot was unable to escape from his harness after hitting the water and drowned. This pilot had reportedly attended a maneuvers training clinic, and several witnesses who knew the pilot said they had warned him about doing aerobatics at low altitude without proper safety equipment. Aerobatics appear to be growing in popularity among paraglider pilots, and this fatality imparts several important lessons: aerobatics close to the water or the ground, without attention to proper safety and rescue equipment, can be fatal.

Unfortunately, as of April 2002, there has already been one fatal paragliding accident in the United States. Let's do our best to make that the only fatality this year.

Qualifications of Injured Pilots

Rating

2001

2000

1999

1998


# incidents reported

% of total reports

# active USHGA members with rating

Accident rate (# incidents per 100 pilots)

% of total

reports

% of total reports

% of total

reports

Student/None

5

6%

N/a

--

16%

6%

--

P1

9

11%

648

1.38

9%

17%

5%

P2

29

36%

1969

1.47

25%

29%

39%

P3

14

18%

1142

1.22

23%

11%

27%

P4

12

15%

828

1.44

23%

11%

25%

P5

2

3%

32

6.25

7%

3%

4%

T3

4

5%

212

1.88

--

--

--

Unknown

1

1%

N/a

--

--

--

--

P2 pilots accounted for a greater overall percentage of the incidents reported this year at 36%. 17% of incidents involved student pilots, which is a decrease from last year. 12 incidents (15% of total) were reported to occur to a student while under instruction. Several instructors are very diligent about reporting incidents involving students, so accidents under instruction may be reported more commonly than accidents among certified pilots.

Unfortunately, we have very little reliable denominator data on which to base calculations of accident rates. Ideally, we would be able to calculate the number of accidents per 1,000 flights, or the number of accidents per flight hour. One statistic that is available is the number of active USHGA members holding each rating. Using this as a rough approximation, the number of accidents per 100 pilots with each rating was calculated. This reveals that the accident rates are essentially equivalent for each rating from P1 through P4. The relatively high rate seen for P5s is not statistically significant since there are so few P5s in the denominator. Or perhaps the aviation axiom holds true: "There are old P5s, and there are bold P5s, but there are no old-bold P5s"!

The average number of flights (when reported) for pilots involved in incidents was 280. The average number of hours of flying time was 139. The average number of years experience was 3.25.

Wing Rating

For the reports that included information about the wing, here are the DHV ratings for those wings:

Wing DHV Rating

#

%

1

9

11%

1-2

28

35%

2

16

20%

2-3

4

5%

other

9

11%

Since we don't know how many wings in each category are in use, or how many flight hours these wings flown each year, it is impossible to draw conclusions about the relative rate of accidents in each category. DHV 1-2 wings may be more likely than other types to be involved in accidents only because they are much more common or are flown more often.

Factors

Most accidents are the result of several contributing factors. Here is a summary of commonly reported factors leading to accidents in 2001:

Contributing Factors

Cases

%

Poorly Inflated Takeoff

16

20%

Strong Wind

16

20%

Asymmetric or Frontal Deflation

14

18%

Rotor

13

16%

Under Instruction

12

15%

Thermal Turbulence

11

14%

Hill Collision

11

14%

Obstacle in LZ

7

9%

Outside LZ

7

9%

Power Lines

7

9%

Blown back

7

9%

Lack of pilot currency/"stale" skills

7

9%

Preflight Error

6

8%

Panic

6

8%

Turning in LZ

6

8%

Stall

6

8%

Launch obstacle

6

8%

Tail Wind LZ

5

6%

Negative Spin

5

6%

Too close to Ground

5

6%

Gradient LZ

4

5%

No Brake Flare

4

5%

Crowded Airspace

4

5%

Dragged by wind

4

5%

New Equipment

4

5%

Cross Wind Launch

4

5%

Excessive Brake Flare

3

4%

Spiral Dive

3

4%

Line Tangle

3

4%

Unusual LZ

2

3%

Unknown LZ

2

3%

Aerobatics

2

3%

Turning into Ridge

2

3%

Failure to attach chest/leg straps

2

3%

Reserve Not used/too late

2

3%

Mid-Air Collision

2

3%

Mechanical Turbulence

1

1%

Valley Wind

1

1%

Equipment Failure

1

1%

Fatigue

1

1%

Wake Turbulence

0

0%

Gust Front

0

0%

Cloud Suck

0

0%

Flying in Cloud

0

0%

Water landing

0

0%

Several factors are common contributors to a large number of accidents. Poorly inflated takeoffs contributed to 20% of the total accidents, and were a major factor in nearly all the accidents that occurred on launching. Strong wind played a role in 20% of accidents, and 9% of accidents occurred when pilots were "blown back" after launching. In nearly all of the strong wind reports, the pilot or witnesses reported that they "knew conditions were too strong" or "other pilots weren't flying because of the strong conditions". Pilots attributed a few other accidents to causes other than wind speed, but their estimates of wind speed were in excess of 18mph on the ground at launch. It is likely that high wind was a factor in these accidents although the pilot may not have recognized that fact.

There were seven collisions with power lines and one collision with a chairlift cable this year (10% of total reports). Two pilots were seriously burned and had prolonged hospital stays after colliding with high voltage lines. Four other pilots sustained less serious injuries. Six of the seven power line incidents occurred in strong conditions when the pilot was either blown back at launch or misjudged the glide on approach to the LZ. There have been two fatalities in the US in prior years from power line accidents. Paraglider pilots don't demonstrate adequate respect for power lines. Power lines are a permanent, immovable hazard that are present at many flying sites. We can safely assume that none of these seven pilots intended to land in a power line when they launched, yet these pilots all failed to provide an adequate margin of safety. Crashing into power lines also puts our sites, the financial security of USHGA, and our future as a self-regulated sport in jeopardy. At least three of the power line incidents were reported prominently on television newscasts and in local newspapers.

Most in-flight accidents that result in injuries are the result of turbulence and subsequent deflations occurring when flying too close to the ground. Although several pilots reported encounters with turbulence or deflations occurring at altitude, none of these incidents resulted in an injury. Unintentional deflations, stalls, spins and spirals played a role in 39 incidents and accidents (49%). Avoiding flying close to the ground provides a margin of safety when turbulence is encountered, and decreases your chance of encountering rotor from ground sources.

Midair collisions accounted for two reported incidents, but no injuries this year. One of these midair collisions involved a radio-controlled glider colliding with the lines of a paraglider. Anecdotally, other midair incidents are known to have occurred (including one other involving an RC glider) but were not reported to USHGA.

There were two reported incidents due to failure to buckle harness straps. This year, neither incident resulted in an injury. In past years, pilots haven't been so lucky and these types of accidents have accounted for several serious injuries and fatalities. One of these pilots reported that the newer "fail-safe" style of harness buckles that connects the leg and chest straps prevented an injury.

Seven reports attributed accidents to "stale" skills or lack of pilot currency. In future versions of the accident report form, we plan to collect data on the number of flights in the past 90 days to try and evaluate how significant this factor is in contributing to accidents. Statistics from powered aviation suggest that having rusty piloting skills is likely a contributing factor in many more accidents.

Obstacles on launch or in the LZ accounted for 13 injury accidents (16% of total). U.S. pilots who fly in Europe frequently observe that the launches and LZs are often larger and have had many more obstacles removed. In the U.S., landowner issues and liability often limit our ability to sanitize our sites of obstacles. The more we can reduce objects in launch areas and LZs, the less likely we are to be injured when a poorly inflated takeoff or turbulence results in a collapse near the ground.

Tandem Incidents

There were only four reported tandem incidents this year, with a total of 5 injuries to the pilot or passenger. One resulted in a fractured ankle for the student pilot, two resulted in minor cuts and bruises, and one did not result in injury. None of the tandem accidents involved a reserve deployment.

Please continue to report your incidents and accidents!

There has been a gratifying increase in the number of reported incidents and accidents this year, not because more accidents are happening, but because more pilots are reporting. The increased rate of reporting correlates directly with the implementation this year of an online form for accident reporting, now available at: (UPDATED 2016) http://airs.ushpa.aero.Sixty-four of the 80 reports received this year were electronically submitted. Thanks to Steve Roti, the new paragliding accident committee chair, for his work in developing the original online reporting form. 

One interesting phenomena was noted this year about accident reports. Pilots often report incidents publicly in various online email discussions or newsgroups. Several pilots claimed they had reported these incidents to USHGA, but no report was ever received. It is as if these pilots felt obliged to state that they had reported their incident. Perhaps they are acknowledging that reporting accidents is the right thing to do, but for some reason they failed to do so. Hopefully the new online report forms will make it easier for pilots to follow through with their promises to repor

Remember, the accident reports are confidential. The names of the pilots and reporters are optional. It only takes a few minutes of your time, and may help another pilot avoid the accident that you experienced. 

Thanks and have a safe and wonderful year of flying in 2002!

The USHGA Paragliding Accident Committee has reorganized for 2002. Steve Roti has taken on the role of Paragliding Accident Committee Chair. Pete Reagan continues in his role writing accident reports for the magazine, assisted by Tim Pfeiffer. Jim Little has taken over the annual statistics collection and reporting. Jim is a family physician and P3 pilot in Portland, Oregon.

SuperFly  

Kitty Hawk Kites
Eagle Paragliding
FlyTec