Gaggle Up

A Few Words on the RRG from Your USHPA President, Paul Murdoch

Above my head dozens of wings are rotating around an invisible hub. From this distance it looks like a serene maypole dance. Having been in many start gaggles, I know otherwise. The annual paragliding Rat Race is going off like an insect hatch on a trout stream. The excitement of carving circles in the sky with friends is palpable and contagious.

This excitement and camaraderie is why we do this. Not necessarily to compete, but to find those moments we’ll remember. Months of work around insurance and RRGs and fundraising and PASA certification has distracted many of us. It's time to remember what our flying is all about.

I sat down intending to write another article about the current status of our insurance and certification project. We have written so much on the details of RRG policies and regulations that it's become some degree of background noise. It was Friday afternoon and I had scrapped my previous draft, as much of it was already dated.

I realized that I was losing sight of why we take to the sky, so I set out to rediscover that.

As I said above, the Rat Race in Southern Oregon is currently underway. Multiple distractions kept me out of this year's race. I knew the pack would soon be returning from a long out-leg. I decided to pull a Rosie Ruiz and join them for their return leg to goal at Donato’s.

Lift was plentiful, as was sink. Afternoon winds made things much more challenging than anticipated. It was a struggle to get above ridgeline and stay there. Twice I turned for the LZ before finding that solid and steady tug that would take me above the valley winds. At 7000’ I turned for the race goal.

Along the way I found beautiful convergent lift lines. I got low and squeaked it out on some weak thermal that was wandering around aimlessly. I saw friend and Rat Race competitor Brian Thibault have his own struggles with the weakening lift on this final leg. Ultimately, we both cleared the final ridge and of course found massive lift over goal. Spiraling down, we were met by the goal crew with a cold beer.

This thing we do is fun. We are very lucky.

That passage was more enjoyable to write than one on specifics of the RRG. It may have been more fun to read. But on the drive back to HQ, I thought about how important the work is that so many are doing to save this activity. The RRG is staffed with pilots. All have day jobs. All would rather be out flying. PASA is staffed by more pilots. The details these people are working with are much less fun yet far more important than finding that one last thermal to get to goal.

Here is where we are at the moment. Our RRG is funded and is insuring sites. PASA is working through a glut of applications that came in this month. It is our nature to postpone unfamiliar tasks. Many of us waited on our site or PASA applications. There were some sticking points in getting all through the system. Both RRG and PASA have my undying gratitude for working through the pile of paper.

There are still concerns about the process, particularly from the instruction community. This is simply a new reality that means our activity will cost more. There is little joy to find in this scenario and its increased costs, but let me try….

First, it might initially be more expensive, but happily [we have the option]. The alternative was to be without insurance. That might be feasible for those willing to take the personal risk and who also have access to sites not requiring insurance. That scenario is vanishing. The vast majority of us work with landowners who want coverage. I am ecstatic that we can provide it.

Secondly, with each day I am more convinced that self-insurance is the path we should have been on all along. It is the hard path initially. But once established, it has such clear advantages. We have autonomy and flexibility to craft policies for our needs. We all feel more buy-in to this shared risk group. One can see that attitude shift already. Finally, with reduced claims we are on the path to a much better financial picture.

Currently, we are spending a great deal on reinsurance to cover us above $250K. If we establish a clean track record, the size, cost and necessity of this reinsurance diminishes. The result is a steadily improving financial picture. I firmly believe we will look back at this transition as an enormous turning point in our organization’s history.

But it is not all roses and kittens. There is still angst about the costs, mostly from commercial operations. That is very understandable. Some misunderstood the initial fundraising donation to be the extent of their added costs. It was not. That initial donation was simply a critical cover fee to get access to the party.

Details were initially scarce. We knew what we were aiming for but only with each step did we uncover firm data on costs. As they evolved, those costs settled well below what I thought might face smaller schools. That likely doesn’t make any school that is paying those fees feel better. But it speaks very well to the people in PASA and RRG who made that happen.

At this point, there are some other entities who offer coverage for outdoor pursuits. These alternatives can be appealing to those who were frustrated with the process and the new certification requirements. I certainly understand that.

However, they have reviewed these alternative school policies. They found gaps in coverage that leave the policyholder, the landowner and USHPA exposed. These are not trivial gaps. They include exclusions for aviation, bodily injury and for vehicles. There are exclusions for towing devices and for instructors that are hired as contractors. Some plans limit landowner coverage for commercial operations to just 25% of that provided for recreation pilots. There is an exclusion which limits coverage to H/P-4 pilots and above. This eliminates any coverage for beginning students through intermediates, thus undermining the main goal of a school policy. There are also issues with sub-limits. A policy might offer $1 million total coverage, but limit that to only $50K per incident. And finally, these “claims-made” policies will only cover claims [filed in the policy year], ignoring the fact that many claims don’t get filed until a year or two after the incident.

Understanding insurance terms can be a challenge. The fine print in the other policies we’ve seen leaves too many coverage gaps to be effective policies. The RRG will continue to examine alternative offerings, but I assure you, they are striving to provide the most comprehensive coverage tailored precisely to our activities.

Let me say this emphatically—if there exists an alternative policy for commercial operations that is equal to or better than the RRG's, then by all means present it to the RRG and they will do their best to match it.

The RRG has minimal profit incentive. It is required by law to be profitable. But that legal requirement is met with just one penny of surplus. Conventional insurance firms are much hungrier. It is only logical that, apples to apples, the RRG will be a better policy and a better price. The long-term hopes, with good returns and low claims, are aiming for a massive reduction in free-flight insurance premium costs, seven to ten years down the road. Our RRG is unique among the competitors in that it is literally set up to serve the interests of the sports long-term by fighting cases we should be contesting and settling the ones we should not, with the ultimate goal of accumulating capital to pay off the loans needed to start the RRG and then pass on deep discounts toward membership insurance premiums.

Here is why this is critical. The rewards of a successful RRG are returned to the group much sooner if we all participate. Everyone will benefit: chapters, individuals and schools. But we need to be all in to make that happen. Seeking coverage outside the RRG delays the benefits we will see from self-insurance.

In some ways it feels like being on that last glide—looking for a thermal to get us over the ridge. We’ve found one that will get us there. I'd love to see it develop into the boomer we seek to get us into goal with plenty of room to spare.

Gaggle flying is a cooperative endeavor. Each pilot plays a role. Operating at its best, the gaggle shifts to explore the air, finding and retaining the core. Good gaggles maximize altitude for all. At its worst, each pilot strives to get the best air for him- or herself. They cut off others, creating chaos. Ultimately, no one achieves maximum altitude. Perhaps one does reach that height, but everyone else scatters. Let's not do this with the RRG. Let's stay cohesive and achieve maximum benefit for all.

The flying season is upon us—let’s all go fly!

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