Why Can’t We Get A Handle On This Safety Thing?

If I were to ask you to characterize the view that the “uninformed public” has of hang gliding, what might you say?


This article appeared in the September 1998 issue of Hang Gliding magazine.

This article is also available in German

You might say that the uninformed public think of hang gliding as a “death sport,” or, at the very least, an “unreasonably unsafe activity.” You might say that they think hang glider pilots are “thrill seekers” who recklessly disregard the inherent risks in what they do. You might say that they are under the mistaken impression that hang gliders are fragile, unstable flying contraptions blown about by the winds and only partially, and inadequately under the control of the occupant.

If confronted by this attitude in a spectator, how might you respond? You might say that once upon a time, in the very early days of the sport, it was true that gliders were dangerous, and pilots behaved in an unsafe manner. You might point out that in recent years, however, the quality of the equipment, the quality of training, and the level of maturity of the pilots have all improved immeasurably. You might point to the fine aerodynamic qualities of today’s hang gliders, the rigorous certification programs in place for gliders, instructors, and pilots, and you might give examples of the respectable occupations of many hang glider pilots; doctors, lawyers, computer programmers. You might make the claim that hang gliding today is one of the safer forms of aviation, and is no more risky than many other action oriented sports.

Later on, you might laugh about the ignorant attitude of the “woofo.” Or, you might wonder, “Why is it, after all these years, that the public still doesn’t understand? Why can’t we educate them about what hang gliding is really like, and how safe and reasonable it really is?”

So now let me ask you another question. What if they’re right? What if they’re right and we’re wrong? And what if I can prove it to you?

Let’s take a look. First of all, you have to admit that year after year we continue to kill ourselves at a pretty depressing rate. Anybody that’s been around this sport for very long has probably lost at least one friend or acquaintance to a fatal hang gliding accident. Most of us who have been around for more than 20 years have lost more than we care to think about. It’s true that we have seemingly made some improvement in the overall numbers in the last twenty five years; between 1974 and 1979 we averaged 31 fatalities a year. Since 1982 we’ve averaged about 10 per year. In the last six or eight years, we may have dropped that to seven per year. On the other hand, what has happened to the denominator in that equation? In 1978, there were 16 U.S. manufacturers viable enough to send teams to the manufacturer’s competition in Telluride. Today we don’t even have a manufacturer’s competition. My guess is that the fatality rate hasn’t changed much, and almost certainly hasn’t improved in the last ten years. I’d guess it’s about one per thousand per year, which is what I guessed it was ten years ago.

So the question is why? The equipment gets better and more high tech every year, we know more about teaching than ever, we’ve got parachutes, rockets to deploy them, full face kevlar helmets, wheels, FM radios for emergency rescue. We’re all about 20 years older, and commensurately wiser and more conservative. How come we’re not safer?

I’ve been asking myself variations on this question for as long as I can remember. Three years ago I had an accident, and in thinking about that accident I thought that maybe I had stumbled onto some little insight into the answer. I’ll share it with you.

Here’s the story. (If you don’t like reading “there I was” stories, or other people’s confessional accident reports, skip this part. I won’t be offended.) We were out doing some production test flying at Marshall Peak in San Bernardino. For those of you who haven’t flown there, Marshall is a rounded knob in the middle of a 2200′ tall ridge in the foothills along the northern border of the east end of the Los Angeles basin. It’s a very reliable flying site; probably flyable 300 days a year and soarable on most of them. It was July, in the middle of the day, but the conditions were not particularly strong. We were landing on top, which we do whenever conditions are not too rowdy, because it vastly enhances efficiency. I was flying a Spectrum 165, and setting up my approach. I’ve logged about 100 top landings a year at Marshall for each of the last 15 years. Even so, I know for a fact that at the time, I was not complacent. I know because I have a clear memory of what I was thinking as I set up my approach. In two weeks, I was due to leave on a three week family vacation abroad, and I was thinking, “You damn well better not get yourself hurt before your trip or your wife is going to kill you.” At the same time, I wasn’t anxious. I was flying a Spectrum, the conditions were only moderate. I’d made lots of successful landings on more difficult gliders in more challenging conditions. I hadn’t had an unsuccessful landing attempt in longer than I could remember. I was relaxed, yet focused. My intent was simply to fly a perfect approach. Such intent is always a good idea when top landing at Marshall; the landing is challenging, and a sloppy approach can quickly get you into trouble. I knew exactly where I wanted to be at every point in the approach, position, heading, altitude and airspeed. I executed the approach exactly as I wanted to.

You top land at Marshall half crosswind, gliding up the back side of the hill. You come in hot, because the gradient can be extreme, and there’s often some degree of turbulence. The time interval from 40 mph dive, through round out, to flare is very short. I was halfway through this interval, past the point where one is normally rocked by whatever turbulence is present, when both my left wing and the nose dropped suddenly and severely. I went immediately to full opposite roll control, and managed to get the wings and nose just level when the basetube hit. Having turned 90 degrees, I was traveling mostly downwind, at a groundspeed of probably 30 mph. The right downtube collapsed immediately, and the right side of my face and body hit the ground hard.

Very briefly, I thought I might die. For a slightly longer time, I thought about paralysis. Within a minute, I knew I was mostly ok. In the end, I got away with a slightly sprained ankle, and a moderate case of whiplash. I had three weeks to think about the accident while I bounced around the rutted dirt roads of East Africa trying in vain to keep my head balanced directly over my spine to moderate the pain.

The thing was, I never considered at the time of the landing that I was anywhere near “pushing the envelope.” I’ve done dozens of landings at Marshall where I did feel that way. All during the previous two summers I had been top landing RamAirs at Marshall in the middle of the day in much stronger conditions. I had never had a crash. Thinking about it, I couldn’t even remember the last time I had broken a downtube. I tried in vain to think of a clue that I had missed that this was going to be a dangerous landing. Finally, I was left with only one conclusion. What happened to me was nothing more or less than exactly what the potential result was, during any of the times I had landed under similar, or more challenging circumstances. That was a dangerous landing because of what could have (and did) happen. The corollary, of course, is that all the other landings I had done, on more challenging gliders, in more challenging conditions, were also dangerous. (In fact, they were more dangerous.) And they were so in spite of the fact that no bad results ensued in any of those landings.

And suddenly I felt like I was beginning to understand something that I hadn’t previously understood.

You see, here’s how I think it works. The overriding determinant of pilot safety in hang gliding is the quality of pilot decision making. Skill level, experience, quality of equipment; all those things are not determinants. What those things do is determine one’s upper limits. More skill gives you a higher limit, as does more experience or better equipment. But safety is not a function of how high your limits are, but rather of how well you stay within those limits. And that, is determined by one thing; the quality of the decisions you make. And how good do those decisions have to be? Simply put, they have to be just about perfect. Consider the type of decisions you have to make when you fly. Do I fly today? Do I start my launch run at this time, in this cycle? Do I have room to turn back at the hill in this thermal? Can I continue to follow this thermal back as the wind increases and still make it back over the ridge? Each time you face such a decision, there is a level of uncertainty about how the conditions will unfold. If you make the “go” decision when you’re 99% sure you can make it, you’ll be wrong on average once every 100 decisions. At 99.9%, you’ll still be wrong once every thousand decisions. You probably make 50 important decisions for every hour of airtime, so a thousand decisions comes every 20 hours, or about once or twice a year for the average pilot.

So, to be safe, you have to operate at a more than 99.9% certainty. But in reality, 99.9% is virtually impossible to distinguish from 100%, so really, for all intents and purposes, you have to be 100% sure to be safe.

And now I think we can begin to understand the problem. Let’s first consider this; we all have a strong incentive to make the “go” decision. The “go” decision means I launch now, relieve my impatience to get into the air and avoid the annoyance of the pilots waiting behind me, instead of waiting for the next cycle because the wind is a little cross and the glider doesn’t feel quite balanced. It means I turn back in this thermal, and climb out above launch and stay up, instead of taking the conservative choice and risking sinking below the top and maybe losing it all the way to the LZ. It means I choose to fly today, even though conditions are beyond my previous experience, rather than face listening to the “there I was” stories of my friends in the LZ at the end of the day, knowing that I could have flown but didn’t, and knowing that they did and were rewarded with enjoyable soaring flights.

So the incentive is there to choose “go.” The only thing we have to counter this incentive is a healthy respect for the possible dangers of failure, and our ability to evaluate our prospects for success. And here’s where we get caught by a mathematical trap. Let’s say I’m making my decisions at the 99% level, and so are all my friends. Out of every 100 decisions, 99 do not result in any negative consequence. Even if they’re bad decisions, nothing bad happens. Since nothing bad happens, I think they’re good decisions. And this applies not just to my decisions, but to my friends’ decisions as well, which I observe. They must be good decisions, they worked out didn’t they? The next natural consequence of this is that I lower my decision threshold a little. Now I’m making decisions at the 98% level, and still, they’re working out. The longer this goes on, the more I’m being reinforced for making bad decisions, and the more likely I am to make them.

Eventually, the statistics catch up with me, and my descending threshold collides with the increasing number of opportunities I’ve created through bad decisions. Something goes wrong; I blow a launch, or a landing, or get blown over the back, or hit the hill on the downwind side of a thermal. If I’m lucky it’s a $50 downtube or a $200 leading edge. If I’m unlucky, I’m dead.

If we can agree at this point that making 100% decisions is the only safe way to fly, it then becomes interesting to consider, as an aside, what the sport of hang gliding would look like if we all operated this way. Pilots would choose to fly in milder, safer weather conditions. They would operate much more comfortably within their skill and experience limitations. They would choose to fly more docile, more stable, easier to fly gliders. Landings would be gentle, and under control. Hang glider manufacturers would sell two downtubes and one keel for every glider they build (the ones that come on the glider) instead of three or four replacement sets like they do now. There would be far, far fewer accidents. (As it is now, there are about 200 per year reported to USHPA.) There wouldn’t be any fatalities, except maybe for one every couple of years if a pilot happened to die of a heart attack while flying (it’s happened once so far that I can remember).

Since this isn’t anything like what the sport of hang gliding does look like, we might conclude that hang gliding, as it is presently practiced, is an unreasonably unsafe activity practiced by people who lack a proper and reasonable regard for their personal safety. In other words, we might conclude that the “uninformed public” has been right about hang gliding all along.

If you don’t like that conclusion, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to like any of the coming ones either. But let’s first ask this question, if we wanted to address this problem of bad decisions being reinforced because they look like good decisions, how would we do it? The answer is, we need to become more critically analytical of all of our flying decisions, both before and after the fact. We need to find a way to identify those bad decisions that didn’t result in any bad result. Let’s take an example. You’re thermalling at your local site on a somewhat windy day. The thermals weaken with altitude, and the wind grows stronger. You need to make sure you can always glide back to the front of the ridge after drifting back with a thermal. You make a decision ahead of time, that you will always get back to the ridge above some minimum altitude above the ridge top; say 800 feet. You monitor your drift, and the glide angle back to the ridge, and leave the thermal when you think you need to in order to make your goal. If you come back in at 1000′ AGL, you made a good decision. If you come back in a 400, you made a bad decision. The bad decision didn’t cost you, because you built in a good margin, but it’s important that you recognize it as a bad decision. Without having gone through both the before and after analyses of the decision, (setting the 800 foot limit, observing the 400 foot result), you would never be aware of the existence of a bad decision, or the need to improve your decision making process.

This was one of the main ideas behind the safe pilot award. The idea wasn’t to say that if you never crashed hard enough to need a doctor, you were a safe pilot. The idea was to get pilots thinking about the quality of their decisions. Not just, “Did I get hurt on that flight?”, but “Could I have gotten hurt?” During the first couple of years of the safe pilot award program, I got a few calls and letters from pilots who would tell me about an incident they’d had, and ask for my opinion as to whether it should be cause for them to re-start their count of consecutive safe flights. I would give them my opinion, but always point out that in the end it didn’t matter, what was important was that they were actively thinking about how dangerous the incident had really been; i.e. what was the actual quality of their decision making.

Looking back on it now, I would say that the criteria for a “safe flight” – (any flight which didn’t involve an injury indicating the need for treatment by a licensed medical professional) – was too lenient. Today I would say it shouldn’t count as a safe flight if, for example, you broke a downtube. A few years ago (or maybe it was ten or twelve, when you get to be my age, it’s hard to tell), we had a short-lived controversy over “dangerous bars.” The idea was that manufacturers were making dangerous control bars, because when smaller pilots with smaller bones crashed, their bones broke before the downtubes did. (Today, most of the complaints I hear are from the other side, pilots who would rather have stronger downtubes even if their bones break before the downtubes, because they’re tired of buying $65 downtubes, which they’re doing with some regularity.) I have a different suggestion for both of these problems. Why don’t we just stop crashing?

Of course I know why. The first reason is, we don’t even recognize it as “crashing.” I continually hear from pilots who say they broke a downtube “on landing.” (I even hear from pilots who tell me – with a straight face, I swear – that they broke a keel, or a leading edge “on landing.”) The second reason is, we don’t think it’s possible to fly without breaking downtubes from time to time. I mean after all, sometimes you’re coming in to land and the wind switches, or that thermal breaks off, or you’re trying to squeak it into that small field, and you just can’t help flaring with a wing down, sticking the leading edge, ground looping, slamming the nose (WHAAAAACK!) and breaking a downtube.

We regularly observe our fellow pilots breaking downtubes, which also reinforces our perception that this is “normal.” I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to say that if you’ve broken more than one downtube in the last five years of flying, you’re doing something seriously and fundamentally wrong. Either you’re flying too hot a glider for your skills, or you’re flying in too challenging conditions, or at too difficult a flying site.

Now let’s ask one more thing. If hang glider pilots stopped dying, and if hang glider landing areas stopped resounding with the sound of WHAAAAAACK every second or third landing, (in other words, if hang gliding started looking like fun, instead of looking both terrifying and deadly), do you think maybe the public’s perception of the sport might change? (Not do you think more of them would want to do it, in truth, no they probably still wouldn’t.) But do you think maybe they’d stop thinking we were crazy for doing it?

Maybe they would.

And maybe they’d be right.