The other day I found myself on yet another airplane crossing yet another section of the western skies. A younger middle aged man was sitting next to me making small talk, asking the same common questions regarding destinations, home, reasons for traveling, etc. It didn’t take long before we were talking about paragliding and his curiosity surfaced in a game of 20 questions. As paraglider pilots we are used to these questions and always seem to answer them in a positive tone with a smile on our face. It didn’t take too long to get to the most common question, as he looked over and asked “is it safe?”
Normally, this is an easy question and I have often heard pilots answer something like “it’s really safe…even safer than driving your car to work.” This has been a hot topic in my mind the last 18 months, so I decided to answer his question in a little different way. I said, “it depends on your risk tolerance.” I went on to explain that if you are an avid rock climber, road cyclist, backcountry skier, or sky diver then paragliding will likely be the riskiest thing you will ever do in your life.
This pursuit of flying a piece of fabric and string through the sky is risky business. If we do not already know that, perhaps it is time for a reality check. The last year or two there have been a rush of accidents and fatalities, which has caused me to pause and explore why. Has it always been this risky? Are pilots making the wrong decisions, or am I just more aware because I am a bit more seasoned? I believe every incident is unique and has its own set of variables and factors, so there is no one clear cut reason. The one thing that is clear cut, is that severe accidents and fatalities are a reality.
Historically, the best way to determine risk is usually to look at the numbers. I am an engineer by training and with post graduate degrees in applied mathematics, statistical analysis and an unhealthy appreciation for the laws of energy and physics. When things are unclear, I often turn to these scientific baselines for clarification. Let me try and use simple fifth grade mathematics to explain the risks of paragliding.
As of 2015 there were approximately 6,700 registered paraglider pilots in the US. That same year there were at least 8 fatalities that I know of nationally. Assuming that approximately 2/3 of registered pilots are active pilots (the larger demographic having accidents), simple math equates the annual risk of fatality amongst US paraglider pilots to be approximately 1 in 550. Keep in mind this is for trained, active pilots and members holding pilot endorsements under our national organization. So, how does this 1 in 550 annual fatality number compare with annually fatality rates of other pursuits? Skiing is 1 in 1,400,000 annually. Bungee Jumping is 1 in 500,000 annually. Road Biking is 1 in 100,000 annually and similarly Skydiving is 1 in 100,000 annually. Racing motorcycles is 1 in 1,000 annually. Climbing in Nepal is 1 in 145 annually. Finally, Base Jumping is 1 in 60 annually. Paragliding, a pursuit we so often proclaim to be so safe is actually pretty dangerous for us active, rated, and endorsed pilots.
Within our local community here in the Rockies, which is one of the most active in the country, I have noticed through the years a rate of about 10 serious accidents for every one fatality. A serious accident usually involves a broken back, broken legs or major trauma to the body thus landing oneself in the hospital for an extended stay. Mathematically, this leads to yet another statistical probability that as active, rated and endorsed paraglider pilots our chance of landing in the hospital with major trauma is 1 in 55 annually. That means I am 3 times more likely to break my back this year paragliding than die climbing in Nepal. I do not want to break my body any more than I want to meet my end on this earth, so 1 in 55 becomes an unacceptable number to me.
They say knowledge is power, and power creates change. Knowing now the statistical risks stacked against us as paraglider pilots does this then change the way we approach flying? It does for me. Free flight is a miracle, a pursuit that rivals only dreams and once you experience this new dimension of the world, it is difficult to give up. I would argue that we do not have to give up on free flight, but rather use the knowledge to manage the risks. How to manage those risks has been a healthy conversation the last 12 months amongst several of my mountain flying companions.
I will be the first to admit I am just a student of free flight, not a teacher. I do not pretend to know everything. I am also keenly aware I have made bad decisions in the past, decisions that required luck to be on my side. Unfortunately, I am sure to make some in the future. That being said, I thought I would share a few thoughts on how me, and a few of my fellow pilots do our best at managing some of those risks:
- Get SIV training. Although vital to ones development of skills many think of it as just a way to learn to get out of situations when things go wrong. The most important thing I learned from my first SIV training was that I NEVER wanted to have to do that stuff in the real world. It was a good reminder to make good decisions long before I ever had to call upon those skills.
- Never stop flying! Many pilots put their gear away for the winter, then dust it off in the spring and think they are still good, sharp pilots. News flash, you’re not! Spring is the most demanding and dangerous air of the year, and thus the time we see many accidents occur. You need to keep flying all the time in order to stay fresh and sharp. Besides, winter air will teach you more about how your wing flies than any other time of the year.
- Determine your risk tolerance. Everyone has a different tolerance to risk based on life status, responsibilities, age, health, goals, etc. Find out what your tolerance is and chose a group of like minded pilots who share that same tolerance level. Then use that group to hold each other accountable when making decisions. This has been very helpful to me learning and listening to my friends!
- Survey the conditions of the air and always understand which side of the energy equation you are flying on. If you do not understand how to properly survey the energy, talk to someone who does. In my mind, this is the most important assessment you can make before flying. Talking with many of my friends who have been injured, in almost all cases, they were on the wrong side of the equation. I have flown on the wrong side too many times in the past and am making a conscious effort not to do it again.
- Never feel bad walking down or choosing not to fly. That is one of the great things I have noticed about the mountain flying community. When you decide not to fly for whatever reason, nobody questions or mocks your decision. If you ever get that feeling you shouldn’t fly, then trust your gut and don’t.
I explained to the middle aged man seated next to me on the plane, that although paragliding appears risky, if you make good decisions, chose the right group of pilots and approach it more like aviation rather than sport, those risks can be managed. I shared a few photographs, stories and it didn’t take long for him to see this magic that paragliding offers. I still feel so lucky to have been touched by paragliding, by free flight and the experiences, friendships, and perspectives of this world it has offered. As we launch into another year of spectacular adventures, may we all work towards managing the risks both individually and as a community. Knowledge is power, and power creates change. See you in the sky, hopefully somewhere high above the mountains.