Risk Management in Paragliding

By Irène Revenko

Introduction

Risk management is, in my opinion, one of the most important ground school topics in paragliding.  It is crucial to talk about it in order to create safe pilots and to improve the general safety level of the sport.  It is also probably the most difficult topic, as it involves fighting some human tendencies, accepting our limits, thinking for oneself instead of following the grou or trying to attract attention and admiration of other pilots and spectators.  It is all about attitude. 

There are rules, and the challenge is to follow them in a way that that even if you make a decision that turns out to be a mistake, you still have a margin of safety.  When we fly we need to take precautions to make the risks “as low as reasonably practical”.  It is always a question of balance between risks and benefits.  The figure bellow is a simplistic representation of how we take decisions that involve risk in general, not only in paragliding.

One of the reason it is difficult for us to follow the rules is because of the type of people involved in the sport.  I have collected some opinions on the web coming from people around the world answering the question: “why do people like to take risks?  The most frequent answers were referring to people who appeared to be:addicted, extremists, daring, enjoy the thrill, new emotions, love of freedom, not conservative, ignore the law…  Without discussing all of that in details, it is probably ‘safe’ (!) to say that paragliding pilots are independent people in general, selfish in some ways, who like challenges and like to share their exploits.  Marvin Zuckerman, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Delaware describes adventure/sensation seekers as people who lust after novel, intense experiences and are willing to take any manner of risk (physical, social, legal or financial) to satisfy their urge.

Definition of Risk
(from the article: Sport Parachutist’s safety journal, V2, #2, 1989)

Risk is a measured quantity.  It is the product of the probability of something happening and the severity of harm when it does happen.  In other words:

“how often” X “how bad”

Probabilities can be divided into 5 categories:
1-frequent
2-probable
3-occasional
4-remote
5-improbable

Severity can be divided into 4 categories:
1-catastrophic
2-critical
3-marginal
4-negligible

For example the risk associated with a having a “wing tip” while flying is “frequent and negligible”.  That’s the risk that pretty much every pilot is ready to accept.  The risk associated with a “cravate” is more like “remote and critical”.  All events in PG could be assigned some risk value based on data collected over many years, on large set of measurements and observations.

The problem is that it is difficult to predict the risk of having an accident because there are too many parameters involved between the conditions, the pilot and the equipment.  The other problem is that one flight cannot make you predict what your next one will be.  In statistic this is referred to “independent events”.  You can flip a coin 100 times, the next time you still don’t know what it is going to be.  You can have 100 great flights in a row; you cannot predict what flight #101 will be.  This is probably the main problem:  some pilots take some risks, they have no accident that day, so they think it is okay to continue taking the same risk on a regular base.  Until the accident happens.  Very often we hear comments like: “this is a great pilot”, meaning things like: “I am wondering what happened, it cannot be the pilot’s fault, it is bad luck”.

Risk Assessment / Perception

Risk assessment is often based on subjective perceptions of risk.  In an interesting article published in Psychology Today (March-April, 2002, by Farrin Jacobs), the author reported that the more experience adventure racers have, the more likely they are to take big risks.  But they no longer consider their actions risky.  In other words, the more they race, the more their perception of risk changes.  This is of course related to their level of confidence.  But it does lead to accidents in paragliding.

Prevention of Risk

Okay, now let’s imagine the perfect pilot, flying the perfect site (big launch, big LZ, no obstacles), in the perfect conditions.  It is someone who has a complete gear and in good shape.  She (it has to be a woman to be so perfect!) is in a good mood today, her ego in general is not interfering with her decisions, the weather is great and there are already some happy pilots in the sky reporting dream conditions with good lift, no turbulence.  So, here is our pilot launching, flying far from the ground.  What are the risks that an accident will happen?  Probably very low.  A very un-predictive turbulent mass of air that the pilot will encounter close to the ground, or a collision with someone flying to her from her back?  How often is this happening in reality? This is probably hard to tell, but probably not very often.  But, what is for sure, is that most of the reported accidents in PG have been described as a pilot error.  It used to make me feel better to know that, because then I would think “Of well, I would not have done that, not me”.  But after accumulating mistakes myself I had to become more humble.  The reality is that we all make mistakes, all the time.  So don’t use that as an excuse, it is the worse one.  “Oh, she had an accident because she made a mistake”:

The biggest mistake is to think that we won’t make any.  We all do.

There is no classification of risks I think, because they are all related to our behavior.  The most important fact, by far, is that risks of accidents can be reduced with the right attitude.  The main danger in PG is the pilot.

Here are the things that are important to decrease the risks in Paragliding:

1) Mental awareness:

• Acknowledge the risks, don’t deny them.

• Be aware of all the types of accidents that can happen, take all the preventions against them and more importantly admit that we all make mistakes and that’s why you need to follow some safety rules.

• Listen to more experienced pilots advices, pick a good mentor.  Chances are that your flying styles will match.

• Assess your mental and physical health

• Know your limits, ie. your level: always ask yourself : “what kind of pilot am I ?”

• Question yourself about series of incidents (forgot your helmet at launch, landed out, disgraceful landing…) and take them as warnings.  Make the effort to debrief.

• Listen to your intuition.  Get a sense of the site and the conditions for yourself.  When in doubt, don’t fly.  I think women are better at that.  Even though I was surprised to see that in France female pilots have roughly the same percentage of accidents then men (although for some reasons they are less involved in fatal accidents):

2004

2003

Total number of pilots

23242

24094

% female pilots

15%

15%

Number of reported accidents

328 (1.7%)

494 (2%)

Number of accidents involving female pilots

52 (1.5 %)

75 (2%)

Number of accidents involving male pilots

276 (1.3%)

419 (2%)

The following advice comes from Chris Santacroce:

• Be aware of your situation, there are some cycles in your enjoyment: you will have a series of good flights and then some bad flights.  Stay aware of where you are in this evolution

• The question is: what does it take to be in an accident?  What are the precursors?  It is actually not a mystery.  There are not so many unlucky accidents.  There are warnings, often a sequence of 3 (bad landing the day before, forgot to attach your speed bar, didn’t check the wind strength…).

• Cultivate your mindset, build it to take decisions and develop a way to prepare yourself.

2) Practical advice:

• Use the right equipment and check your equipment all the time.

• Know the preventive or corrective action plans.  Benefices of SIV clinics are obvious here. 

• Continuing education can only be beneficial.

• Fly far from the ground.  Terrain clearance is a key factor.

• Know the weather.

Note that the so-called “intermediate syndrome” is not an exclusivity of intermediate pilots!  At all levels we can think we are better pilots then what we are.

Conclusion

Knowledge, skills and attitude are key ingredients to make the sport safer.  It is about you as an individual.  Even though this is a dangerous sport, if you exercise your new skills and avoid your ego from stopping you in taking rational decisions, you can decrease the risks a lot. 

Circling Hawk Paragliding

© Circling Hawk Paragliding • Santa Barbara, California • Bo Criss • 805-403-5848 • Bo@CirclingHawk.com

 

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