By Paul Voight, first published in Hang Gliding & Paragliding, March 2013
Fate is a hunter. Every time you choose to fly, you have a target on your back, and fate is hunting you. YOU control the size of that target with your judgment and decision making.
The above paragraph could easily stand alone, without any more writing needed. But that would be an awfully short article!
The quoted opening paragraph above was derived during a post flying day campfire chat. A local pilot (whom I consider a legend) was pontificating on the book Fate is a Hunter, and its applicability to our sport and safety. This was many years ago (about two-thirds of the way into my flying career), but it really struck a chord with me then, and sticks with me to this day. It changed my whole approach to flying. I present the concept at every lesson and clinic I give. It has morphed a few words here and there, but the current rendition is pretty solid.
I realize there isn't really a guy out there in the air "hunting" us. However, we do put ourselves into circumstances when flying that really do "put a target on our backs." It's a concept. Bear with me.
As soon as you launch, you expose the target on your back, and it remains a target until you land back on Earth safely. The more times you fly, or the more years you fly, the more opportunities fate is given to hit the target. Keeping this target tiny is your primary job as a pilot.
From my observations, fate is an inaccurate shooter. This is fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. I see many bad choices made, and poor judgment exercised, almost every flying day, most resulting in no negative outcomes. This is one of the most insidious forms of reinforcement in our sport. Pilots commonly draw the conclusion that their conduct and choices are justifiable because they "get away with it" (often repeatedly).
"Back in the day," when I was learning, I now realize I repeatedly enlarged the target on my back to gargantuan sizes. Somehow, through crazy good luck, and some acquired flying skill, I managed to come out unscathed. It's a miracle, really. In my (and other pilots of the times) defense, everybody was learning back then. We were mostly all self-taught, and the flying community didn't have the reserve of knowledgeable, educated, seasoned mentors and instructors that today's new pilots have available. You new guys are very lucky! Make use of (and listen to) those valuable resources.
The point of this article is to simply raise pilots' awareness of the direct effect they can have on their safety and on their longevity in the sport, by simply exercising good judgment and making good choices. More importantly, I hope some readers will realize (like I did) that they have all too often made large targets on their backs and fate just hasn't been able to nail them yet.
Trust me, if you repeatedly put a big enough target out there fate will hit its mark. It may result in just a big scare, or an actual incident. Take heed of those big scares. They are only a form of "good luck" (more accurately "coincidences with favorable outcomes" for those that don't believe in luck). Regardless, you'd be much better off not repeating those circumstances again.
Don't get me wrong. I do believe one of the more satisfying elements of flying is piloting our way out of the risky situations that we all find ourselves in from time to time. But my current opinion is that we don't have to instigate risky situations in order to experience them. They present themselves often enough on their own, enlarging our targets despite our best efforts.
No normal-size article can review all of the common ways to stay safe (minimize the target). Review the excellent safety articles that have adorned these pages the last few seasons.
I will review just the four major culprits that in my opinion cause a large degree of target-enlargement in our normal flying.
1) Choosing to fly. This choice in itself is huge. I know pilots want to fly. They drive long distances. Conditions aren't always suitable, or they deteriorate during setup. Choosing NOT to fly takes incredible discipline. Choosing to wait out mid-day conditions for more reliable conditions later in the day takes just as much discipline. If you show up at a site, and there are some pilots flying, but others are not, analyze who is NOT flying (yet), rather than who is. Often, the ones in the air are not the wisest decision-makers, or are skilled enough to fly, AND LAND, in those advanced conditions. Prioritize keeping your flying enjoyable and safe. Flying just because it was your plan for the day will certainly cloud your judgment, and eventually result in non-desirable results.
2) Avoid getting into situations that exceed your level of skill or your glider's performance range. It pains me when I see new pilots follow veteran pilots back into areas and terrain that they have no business being in, experience-wise or performance-wise. Similarly, pilots should learn spot landing and accuracy in the safety of their normal LZ before going too far from the LZ, going XC, or top landing. Build these skills BEFORE you find yourself needing them in dire situations. Venture, in small increments, and cautiously, into areas that are out of reach of the primary LZ.
3) Stay alert to conditions. Learn to recognize when conditions are getting worse and get back on the ground well before they actually get dangerous. A couple of my wildest (now considered dumb) flight stories involve staying up too long and barely surviving re-entry. It is not fun fighting conditions while trying to survive a landing.
4) Lastly, landing technique greatly affects your target size. When still well above your intended landing spot, make a conservative landing plan and approach. Other than pilots choosing to fly in inappropriate conditions, the most frequently repeated target enlargement I can isolate is simply poorly executed landing planning. Bad landings can maim or kill you. You should strive for near-perfect landings every flight. This topic is an extensive article all on its own, so I won't get into all of the details at this time. The crux of the matter is, remove low turns, traffic issues, low airspeed, late transitions, and high round-outs from your landing sequences and your target during landing will remain very small.
Why give fate any more of a target than you need to?