2015 was the deadliest year that our sport of hang gliding and paragliding has seen in decades. Ten of our members died in hang gliding accidents and another ten members died in paragliding accidents.
2016 has already brought another two hang gliding fatalities.
In pursuit of USHPA's mission—to ensure the future of free flight—USHPA provides tools for pilots to assist them in assessing the dangers involved in the sport to help mitigate those dangers to a level of risk deemed acceptable to the individual pilot. One of those tools is the information provided by the Accident Reporting Committee (ARC). Its mission is to help pilots derive lessons learned from the analyses of accidents that will help them more accurately assess the risks involved in their flights and avoid similar fates.
In August 2015 the ARC notified all pilots of the troubling trend in fatalities during the period from January 2014 through August 2015. That notice recommended that pilots consider three factors when making their personal flying decisions:
(1) Personal Risk Management; (2) Complacency; and (3) Encountering Turbulence at Low Altitudes.
Since that notification in August, six more of our members have died while flying, which underscores the necessity of continuing our efforts to learn from these occurrences.
As Pilots, we celebrate the fact that, under FAA Part 103, we are relatively free of governmental regulation of our flying. We enjoy this freedom of flight because, under the national standard of care established by the FAA, "The operators [of hang gliders and paragliders] are responsible for assessing the risks involved and assuring their own personal safety." This means that when we elect to fly a hang glider or paraglider, each of us is responsible to assess the dangers involved and each of us, by law, assumes personal responsibility for his/her own safety.
The FAA has advised us that the actions of the hang gliding and paragliding community affect the direction the FAA will take in implementing future regulations and that the safety record of ultralight vehicles is the foremost factor in determining the need for further regulations.
In light of these facts, USHPA encourages and challenges each and every one of our member pilots and chapters to consider the following specific ideas on what each pilot and chapter might do, before the spring flying season, to decrease the inherent risk of accidents in our sport. Each suggestion is derived from lessons learned from our accident reports, most significantly from the investigation of fatal accidents. Let’s call this “Spring Training.” The intent is similar to the “Safety Stand-Downs” many professional organizations conduct following significant accident trends. Please note that some suggestions are wing-specific, while others are applicable to all flying.
Each of our flights starts with launching. During this phase of flight, the goal is to transition from not-flying, to flying, in such a way that control of the wing is maintained, ensuring a safe transition. This transition requires adding energy into the flying system. The methods and skill sets required differ, depending on the type of launch, and are executed by using the muscle memory that we each developed through repetition, as we learned to fly.
After completing that early training and increasing our experience, we typically try to do one launch a day and stay up, soaring for as long as possible after that launch. Over the years (and perhaps decades), these launches are executed with more advanced equipment that is typically harder to launch (i.e., heavier and having higher stall speeds, more complex control input, harnesses that are harder to run with, etc.). As we repeat these launches that have been executed by the muscle memory developed using our novice equipment, we can deduce why we see poor launches that are far too common even among our advanced pilots. So we have devised some Spring Training suggestions:
- Review Cliff Launch (CL) and Flat Slope Launch (FSL) techniques. They call for different requirements and actions on how to add flying energy to the system to get the wing flying, including:
- Controlling the Angle Of Attack (AOA) during the walk, jog, and run that builds up flying air speed during a FSL, before attempting to have the wing support the full weight of the flying system.
- Maintaining a low AOA after your feet leave the ground during a CL that allows the air speed to build up to a fast enough flying speed to support the full wing loading of the pilot when leaving the ground.
- Conduct discussions on:
- The importance of wire crew / launch assistant choices (i.e., experienced pilots) and briefings that include precisely what communications and actions are expected.
- Evaluation of wind, thermal cycle, and turbulence before launching.
- The fact that it is always OK to back off launch and re-group, or “bag it,” if things aren’t feeling right. The mountain will be there tomorrow
- Build/regain muscle memory of how to add energy to the system while controlling the wing, by actually doing it on flat ground in no or light wind (and more than once!). Video review of this practice is invaluable, as it is the best way to convey technique errors to pilots.
Everything said above about muscle memory, equipment, and complexity on launching should be applied for landing as well. As we advance in our flying experience, the wings we fly typically require more/different skills to control, as we touch down. And that’s not the only concern: at this stage of our more advanced development, the landing we make each day occurs after having spent hours in the air, perhaps suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, and going into an LZ we have never even seen, as happens in XC. Spring Training ideas here include:
- Run a club landing clinic that includes:
- Discussion and video review of proper landing techniques including:
- Air speed control on approach, with emphasis on maintaining sufficient air speed for good control, through the likely wind gradient and thermal/mechanical turbulence near the ground, before bleeding off that air speed in ground effect to execute the touch down.
- Body/harness position transition techniques and glider control during approach.
- How to determine whether to run it out or flare the glider; this depends on the weather conditions (i.e., higher wind makes running it out preferable) and LZ characteristics (i.e., terrain obstacles might require a strong flare technique).
- What to do at the last second, if it isn’t going well (i.e., let go, ball up and let the glider take it).
- Approach decision-making, including where to more safely land, with regard to obstacles (i.e., cars, tree lines, spectators).
- Repeat actual landing practice, using training hill or tow. Again, video review is the most effective way to convince pilots that perhaps their technique isn’t the best and help them accept the critique of their peers on what can be done to improve. In our sport, the most effective way to learn or improve is by the repetition of maneuvers.
At times our wings can no longer be controlled in flight, due to the air we are flying in, equipment damage, or other problems. Although we all fly with parachutes, some accident analyses reveal that we are either reticent about, or not proficient in, deploying them. As our experience and flight time grows, we naturally lose the edge and the hyper-vigilance we once had. We tend toward believing this is either "not really happening to me" or "I can handle this." The reality is that sometimes we can’t handle it. Be aware that the window in which the option to save ourselves with a parachute ride is very narrow. The fact that this window gets narrower with decreasing altitude above the ground (AGL) should always be kept in mind. Be proficient and ready to throw the chute at any time and, if you are low, make that decision sooner rather than later. Consider:
- Having a club Annual Parachute Clinic that includes:
- Repacking chutes
- Hanging pilots in their harness’ to simulate the violence and disorientation that likely occurs in a loss of flight control, and then practice deploying their parachute, with a goal of less than 3 seconds from decision to having it out.
- Discussions on when to throw and how quickly that action needs to be accomplished in various circumstances
As a pilot and instructor who has done all sorts of towing, including designing, building and operating my own system (with the scars to prove it), please let me be very clear: towing a wing aloft is not simple. It is a complex operation that deserves our highest levels of respect, skepticism, training and continuing education. Towing can and has been done with very effective risk management, but each system is different and has its own unique characteristics of a host of variables that need to be fully understood and managed properly. One of the significant variables to be considered is pilot experience and skill, as this is a determining factor in the pilot’s ability to correctly respond to the complex factors in towing and, hence, how the tow should best be conducted. Suggestions for training and education include:
- Refresh yourself on tow force effects on a glider:
- Wing loading, climb rates, air speeds and attitude to horizon are all continuously affected as a coupled system during each tow based on the force applied by the tow rope
- Effects of immediate loss / removal of tow forces (i.e., weak link break or throttle off) at various points during a typical flight, with emphasis on the required pilot actions to reestablish controllable flight and land safely.
- Discuss the topic of bridle types and attachment points with other experienced pilots and how they affect a glider in flight (i.e., on-tow trim speed versus off-tow trim speed).
- Tow operator actions and expectations:
- Planning for the ability to see the pilot effectively during the whole flight.
- Appropriate regulation of tow forces during each stage of the flight (i.e., launch, climb, release) as appropriate for pilot skill level.
- Failure of tow system scenarios (i.e., failures of the release, drum/line, weak link, etc.) during each stage of the flight.
- Consideration of the creation and use of checklists for specific equipment and each of the personnel involved in the tow operation.
- Procedures to assess and monitor equipment condition and equipment maintenance.
Risk Management and Altitude
The analyses of many of our fatalities indicate that some of the pilots experienced glider control problems that they could not effectively deal with from a relatively low altitude before the fatal impacts. Although specifics of the issues vary among the flights (i.e. tumble/turbulence, equipment failure) there were decision-making opportunities earlier in, or before, the flights for risk management that might have mitigated or prevented the accidents. This Spring Training opportunity is best done in a club seminar where topics might include:
- Weather analysis and predictions:
- Wind velocity, direction, and trends for the day.
- Thermal strength and shear potential (tumble/collapse risk assessment).
- Overdevelopment potential.
- Site-specific scenarios of good places and bad places to be, given the weather conditions of the day.
- Site and common XC route analyses:
- Where and when to go and where and when not to go.
- Where and when not to get low.
- Have your own “Safe Operating Envelope” for the day (i.e., I won’t go lower than this before I head out to get more AGL or land).
- Camera use and its effect on concentration. Be alert to the danger of distraction and the acceptance of higher risk for “The Shot.”
- Risk management of the next generation of our pilots—our students. This important topic should acknowledge the fact that as we learn, we do not have the muscle memory or cognitive skills to react properly in new situations. This requires carefully considering all aspects of student flights, with respect to what they have previously demonstrated and what might be required to do in each of their progressive flights.
Complacency and Denial
If I had to pick just one factor that was most common in our accidents/incidents, I would choose Complacency. Complacency occurs when a pilot's hyper-vigilant, reflexive stance is replaced with the misguided confidence that “I can handle this,” based on the repetition of flight circumstances where the pilot did handle it—or perhaps, “got away with it.” Complacency is a companion to Denial, such as “This isn’t happening / can’t happen to me.” Both of these mindsets are understandable in an aging pilot population who have completed decades of flying, and perhaps these attitudes are inadvertently instilled in newer pilots by being around experienced ones.
Based on the analyses of our recent fatalities, complacency and denial affects (1) the amount of risk that pilots are willing to accept in the weather/turbulence/altitude in which they choose to fly; (2) an accurate assessment of what is required of their launch technique for the conditions; or (3) the decision to immediately throw a chute when they lose control of their wing.
The longer we fly, the more likely complacency tends to erode the margin required to deal with the almost inevitable circumstance where only decisive, immediate, and efficiently executed action leads to survival. Before each and every flight, remind yourself that flying has inherent risk and ask yourself and your buddies whether you are satisfied with what you have done to minimize the risk so this flight will not be your last. The Spring Training suggestion for this area is to re-read and share the above thoughts and know that it can indeed happen to you!
I look forward to flying with you all for decades to come,
USHPA Accident Reporting Committee Co-Chair (Hang Gliding)