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.

SIV
Training teaches you not only how to react, but gives a healthy respect for how quickly things can go wrong.

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.

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Too many friends from this historic picture have since been broken while paragliding…and it’s only 3 years old.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

20140802_10I 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.

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33 Comments

  1. Thank you for this Jeff! As I well not be able to fly until July this topic has been on me mind also. I plan to take refresher lessons and an SIV course and of course, fly with a good group on the right side of the equation.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on risk, Jeff. Paragliding is definitely the highest risk and highest reward adventure sport I have participated in. I love flying so much and want to do it until I’m an old man. I certainly struggle with the level of risk. And justify it by how rewarding flying is, and thoughts about training and making conservative decisions. But then another friend gets hurt, bad.
    We can do a lot to reduce the risk, but we can never get it down to zero.
    See you up in the air.

  3. Nice article. I agree with you, especially wgt SIV training and being able to walk down if your gut’s not feeling it. Risk homeostasis and lemming effect are big factors as well. Along with poor training and its resulting effect of pilots making poor decisions, not getting hurt and thereby thinking they made good decisions. Hopefully we have a better 2016..

    1. Hi Matt… Got intrigued by what you wrote… what means “wgt”? (sorry if it’s lingo, as English is not my mother tongue)
      And what do you mean by Risk homeostasis and lemming effect?
      I got a feeling i can learn a lot from what you mention…
      Fantastic point about bad decisions turned into good ones. Big problem indeed.
      Thanks!

  4. Jeff i commend you for this article it could save a life.
    I have always had the same thoughts and always fly on the side of caution. This sport can push you to take more risk than you need, forgetting the joy of the scenery and feeling that comes from flying. The friends that come from this sport is a joy in itself and know one as you say condemns you if you choose not to fly.
    Some people are very talented like any sport but we have a fine line being in the air. I would rather have my friends to fly with like you, than a risky friend that i worry will be on the wrong side of a desicion to fly and get hurt.. This is for fun , a good fun , not crazy fun. We wont build the community if we have a bad reputation either. Thanks again Fly safe, as always.
    Les

  5. There’s something vaguely “wrong” in this whole article. While your numbers are probably good (although a peak of 8 fatalities in one year doesn’t make for sound statistical material), and your conclusion (that paragliding is unsafe) is undoubtedly good, I don’t think your remedy is worth anything at all, or at the very least only very little. If you could show me numbers saying that the pilots who get hurt/die are the ones who haven’t done a recent SIV, or the ones who haven’t flown all winter, then that’d carry some weight – but I don’t believe that to be the case, and I have certainly never seen any numbers to give credit to that hypothesis.
    My personal impression is, accidents happen to people who are brought out of balance for some reason. If you’re stressed or tense or unbalanced in any way then there’s too much noise in your mind, and you won’t hear the alarm bells, and your body will be tense and binary in its reactions. Paragliding requires fluidity of body and mind (blabla) and that is reduced when we’re under stress. Ironically, reading articles on the Internet about just how piss-poor the odds are is something that will make a lot of people stressed…
    Those of you out there who are able to love flying, and not feel scared in spite of the poor stats, are going to be the safest overall. Once you start doubting that you’ll be OK the risk goes through the roof.
    So should we pretend it isn’t dangerous? The answer, as usual, is “it depends”. If you are a person who gets stressed thinking about the high risk then I’d say probably yes – but it’d be even better to stop flying. If you manage to persuade yourself that yes, it is dangerous but you can manage it then that’s obviously a more honest approach (unless your optimism is wholly unfounded – an SIV clinic may or may not help there).
    So on the whole, your premises are good enough but I don’t think your conclusions are,

    Best,

    1. I agree that SOME accidents are caused by a pilot getting stressed causing them to lock up or react in the wrong fashion to a situation. But other accidents I’ve witnessed occurred when pilots were not at all stressed, but were blithely unaware of conditions that should have caused them more stress!
      Stress can heighten ones awareness and reaction time, can heighten ones decision making process, or it can stifle both, depends on the person and the level of stress.

      I would welcome solid evidence that an SIV makes a pilot safer but I’m skeptical. I promote SIV courses to my students and I think they can have value, but they can also provide a false sense of security. For example, a full stall during an SIV course on an A or B wing requires a lot of brake and takes lots of effort when flying in calm air starting at trim speed over a lake. But put a little bit of brake on that same wing after a frontal collapse you did not allow to fully recover in turbulent air, and far less brake input can cause an unexpected stall.

  6. Congratulations to your care and share with everyone this amazing article.. If every pilot could be a little like this our loved sport would be greater and greater around the globe… Thanks.. GravityParagliding dot Com –

  7. Great article Jeff and thank you! I’m club safety officer for our local club and so love to see member of our community stepping up and using rational, clear thought to explain the idea of risk tolerance. I’ve done exactly the same statistical analysis as you and was shocked by the stats.

  8. Good article, and useful recommendatios.
    But you don’t explained the fatalities. I know this is not a funny topic, but we can learn a lot from others mistakes. Last year in september I whitnessed a fatal accident, because of a ground spiral gone wrong. Another pilot in december 2015 also spiraled to death. Analyzing the exact accidents, if it isn’t a huge amount, (ike you said in the US there were 5 fatalities) could be also instructive for other pilots. You watched it statistically what is a useful aspect indeed.

  9. Great article, but as a skydiver as well, I did a calculation for skydiving. In 2014, about 31,000 registered skydivers in US and 24 deaths that year. There were over 3 million jumps recorded in US (can’t remember the exact amount) but came to about one fatality every 130,000 jumps. An average USPA skydiver makes about 95 jumps per year, which came to 1 in 1,500 chance of death for every registered USPA skydiver.

    For skydiving, 1 in 100,000 annually may be per jump per?

  10. Great article. I am interested in using (translation) your article in our local free flying “magazine” (non comercial). Like Horatio, I am also wondering what do you mean by the energy equation. Did you mean to compare the energy of the air on a given day compared to the range of energy a pilot is able to safaley manage? Please confirm if I can use your article (with proper credits of course). Cheers

  11. I’d say it’s like crossing a road with a red traffic light. If you know exactly what you are doing it’s unlikely that something happens, however if you start taking risks by crossing roads that you’ve been at before a car can come out of nowhere and you’re done for. It’s up to you how much risk you are willing to take by choosing your glider and flying conditions properly in order to control the risk.

  12. Great article! In my opinion – it’s always the pilot’s fault, since he is the responsible one for taking care of the gear and his sanity. I especially liked the 5th paragraph. Very wise!

  13. I did a similar exercise a few years ago based on accident statistics from several European countries. I found about 1 fatality in 1000 licensed pilots as an average that was not greatly deviated from over the years or over the countries. That would mean about one fatality per 650 active pilots using the same assumption about active pilots. I can’t remember for sure, but I think this was statistics from about 5 years near the turn of the millennium.

  14. Regardless of arguable ratios, there is little doubt that the fatality demographic has been tilting toward the more experienced pilot for some time, now. (The same phenomenon is now quite apparent in skydiving, too.) I think it is very important for each of us to think through why the sport may actually become more objectively dangerous as we get more experienced. What (specifically) are we doing to cause this, and does it have to be that way?

    A great, thought-provoking piece, Jeff. Thanks for starting the conversation.

  15. I once saw a pilot fly with his small child- on a hangglider. It was a warm early evening, with mellow valley lift and both launch and landing as safe as it gets. And I realised one can probably fly very safely if only flying in those conditions. Instead, we all seem to use our increasing experience and skill to tackle ever more challenging and dangerous conditions, a manifestation of the ‘constant risk’ theory.

  16. Great story! Thank you for sharing. I do agree it depends on your risk profile. Next to the fact that I am skydiver (34 years) and hang glider (10 years) I am also a global project manager by profession. I googled on Risk Management (preparing for presentation at a PM congress here in the Netherlands) and decided that I will use some of your examples for this presentation about PM in a couple of weeks. Next to my work this gives also a good insight how to stay safe while practising my two passions. (www.wimdegier.com) Thanks again!

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