launch at Valle de Bravo, Mexico powered paraglider launching from Evergreen Turf farms

SOUTHWEST AIRSPORTS

paragliding training center

Safe Flying Guide

by Had Robinson with the help of many others, including Ken Hudon-Jorgensen, Chad Bastian, and Stewart Midwinter

Do you want a long and safe flying career with maximum fun?  Here are some suggestions.

Some of us are lucky enough to survive accidents with minimal injury.  The longer you fly, the more likely you will experience a cascading, one-in-a-thousand event.  This writer has... but he was fortunate.  Not all are and it's really tough for them (if they lived) because deep down, they are still pilots who love flying, just like us who still can fly without help.  Stewart Midwinter relates that he and others in his situation want to be treated just like other pilots -- not to be pitied or treated like "cripples".  Inside, nothing changes.  All of us must respect that.  He writes,

"Hey man, it must be really tough for you at times.  I'm here for you.  Let me know if I can help in some way."

He had a bad asymmetric collapse off launch and lost control resulting in a serious injury that left him a quadriplegic.  In this Cross Country Magazine interview, he relates some facts that contributed to his accident.  It is a very tough read.  He writes that at times he wanted to kill himself -- but he was not able to do it because of his injuries.  He relates how important "being" is -- if you are "off", you cannot fly safely.  He also notes that he, himself, started flying EN B wings before his accident to increase his margin of safety.  We all appreciate his love of flying and sound advice on how to better survive our sport.

paraglider pilot Stuart Midwinter courtesy Cross Country Magazine

1. MENTAL ATTITUDE

If you are not 100% confident that you are ready to launch, DON'T!  Pay no attention to anyone else.  If you do not feel right about flying, pack up, and help other pilots, if they request it.  The more experienced a pilot gets, the more he will have the "I-don't-feel-quite-right-about-this" moments.  They result from a subconscious assimilation of facts that give the pilot warning in advance.  Trust your instincts!  If the site makes you afraid, stay on the ground because your mind is not ready to fly.

2. LZ

It sounds simple but do not launch until you know where you will land.  If something happens, like a wind change, make sure you have an emergency LZ that will work.  Did you personally go to the LZ and check it out?  What are the hazards?  What if you have a cascading event, like a cravat at launch?  What sort of things can you hit if you are unable to turn safely?  What will the air be like at the LZ when you plan to land?

3. Pre-flight check

Failure to do a proper pre-flight check is extremely dangerous.  Here is what can happen....

Memorize 123ABCD. This is the check-in routine we teach.  There are too many unnecessary accidents that occur and all of them have one thing in common:  pilot error.  All it takes is one problem accompanied by another, and then another.  These are the ingredients for disaster.

You must have a thorough pre-flight check list/routine that you do EVERY TIME before launching.

4. Weather – DO NOT FLY WHEN CONDITIONS ARE TOO STRONG

Make sure you understand how to check the weather.

Strong conditions mean thermals can have sharp edges with great turbulence, especially in the desert or dry areas.  Roldanillo (Colombia) had many accidents during the 2015 season because of the dry -- and very strong -- conditions.  One of the pilots in our group had to land in very rowdy air and narrowly missed slicing her popliteal artery (at the back of her knee) on an invisible strand of barbed wire in the field where she had to land.  At least four of the accidents involved serious injury.  During the 2016 season, another buddy of mine had to throw her reserve and barely escaped crashing into the ground by a few seconds.  She is an expert pilot and was badly shaken by her near encounter with death.  Flying should be fun and not terrifying.  You can decide what it will be.

Here is an accident report from a pilot in our region who pushed the limits, especially the time of day and the season, and experienced serious permanent injuries.  He thought he was paralyzed from the waist down.

The first few days were fickle but fun with some decent XC flight and some adventurous top landing in the big mountains. On the 3rd day the wind switched and we posted up near Eureka and envisioned a 200km flight north. The morning was challenging with 2 guys getting early bomb outs, 2 getting away, 1 (me) scratching and waiting for climb to get up and away. After a bit of scratching I found it was time to land. Below was a sea of waist high sage with a lone green spot as the obvious landing choice. It was turbulent and there was headwind moving toward the landing zone. Somewhere in the 200ft range the wind shifted 180degres and to make the Grass I would need a low 180 degree turn. Or I could land pretty much any where safely but certainly destroy some if not all of the glider in the sage. So I made the wrong call and went for the tight turn low. On a new wing. And I spun it. I swung trough the pendulum of the spin lacking the needed last 10ft of ground clearance. Or in other words I was in an accelerated pendulum when I hit the ground butt first. The price was steep. Dislocated left shoulder, 4 broken ribs, fractured sternum, badly bruised ass and tail bone and worst was fractured T8 and burst fractured T9. Upon impact I knew I had broken my back and thought I was paralyzed from the waist down. Fortunately feeling returned to both legs over the next few hours during the extraction efforts. 6 hours and a Helicopter ride later I found myself in SLC at the University of Utah Trauma Center. 12 hours after that I was having spinal surgery. T10-T7 have been fused -- 8 screws, 2 Pins and 2 rods. A week after the surgery I can walk and generally take care of myself. The pain is still high and movement for more than 20 minutes at a time is exhausting. I’ll be headed home this week sometime. Likely a month of doing not much but sleep and PT. [It will be] 6 months before a return to a mostly normal life. And a year before I can ski, fly or play sports. Didn’t get bit flying in big air on a gnarly site but landing on flat ground where the hazards are manifestly more psychological than real. Stupid.  I'll likely not respond on GroupMe for a while as it's a bitch to type or frankly do much right now but hope to see you all in a few weeks for some beers.

The photo below is of a pilot who launched in late morning conditions (after 10AM) in the desert southwest mountains during mid-June.  The thermals coming up the mountain face were already strong.  Right next to this thermal was bullet sink – and he flew right between them.  The glider experienced a dramatic 50%+ collapse and the pilot was not able to maintain directional control.  The glider did a hard turn to the right and he went into the ground.  He was seriously hurt but has fully recovered, thankfully.  You do NOT want to be in a paraglider a.) that is near the terrain and b.) when conditions are strong such as during the summer months in the middle of the day.  Ninety percent of the time, you will be OK.  It is the ten percent that may get you.  This week (Jan 5, 2014) we had a convergence of high and low pressure systems that brought temperatures in certain parts of the eastern U.S. to -15 F and wind gusts of 60 mph.  It is the same with the air in the desert during midday in summer.  The terrain and intensely heated air can converge and form "sleepers" – intense movements of air that are geometrically stronger than average.  Why take the chance?

paraglider collapse

Many instructors, including this one, warn against flying in the mountains when both ridge lift and thermals are present for this reason.  They can combine to make the air dangerous.  It is another reason why we at Southwest Airsports train via towing in the flat plateau west of the Rio Grande river.  After adequate experience (and if the pilots are ready), we go to the mountains.

A nationally known pilot was scratching for thermal lift close to the ground in the flatlands of central Florida.  He had a bad frontal collapse on a competition (unrated) gilder and went in.  He experienced serious injury including a concussion the required brain surgery.  He was fortunate that he tucked as he hit. Those of us who saw the whole thing thought he was dead.  Scratching is not necessarily always a mistake but close to the ground with a comp wing?  Turbulence can change everything in a moment and you do not have the altitude to recover.

5. STAY AWAY FROM THE TERRAIN

Per the above incident, if the pilot had been 500' higher, the collapse would have been alarming but not dangerous.  He would have recovered just fine.  Pilots must never get a false sense of security from thinking "I'm close to the ground so I'm safe!"  It is a dangerous lie that we naturally have as mono-planar creatures.  Altitude is always safer and the more the better.  It takes mental training to learn this and apply it in all conditions at all times.

6. MAKE CERTAIN YOUR GLIDER IS PROPERLY INFLATED AT LAUNCH

I have watched – time after time – pilots launching in light winds at thermic sites.  This is exceedingly dangerous.  Valle de Bravo had a half dozen accidents during the 2008 season.  A pilot buddy of mine had problems inflating at launch but launched anyway.  He went into the trees and then fell, breaking his back in several places.  Fortunately, he was not paralyzed.  He admitted to me that his luck is running out....

Jeff Huey is an experienced and competent pilot and was participating in the 2006 competition at Valle.  In his case, he launched even though his glider was not properly inflated.  He wrote after his accident,

...a soft launch, collapse, then stall/spin overcorrection shattered c7, cord squished but not cut.  no feeling below chest but should return someday, good care in Mexico City, return to the States tomorrow.

Jeff never fully recovered from the accident and remains a paraplegic to this day.

My friend David McNulty suffered a pneumothorax and a hemothorax during the 2016 season at Valle from the same thing at launch that got Jeff.  If it were not for the expert help of host and instructor, Damien Mitchell, David might have died from his injuries.

Most of the time, a wobbly, partially inflated glider will get you away from the hill but when there are the other events, such as a gust or some other turbulence that complicates everything quickly.  No one wants a cascading event but they happen often enough that pilots should be certain everything is perfect before they commit to launch.

7. MAINTAIN TRIM SPEED IN YOUR GLIDER

Another common mistake is not flying at trim speed (the nearly hands-up position).  Experienced General Aviation (GA) pilots know that speed is safety and control.  An aircraft that has energy has more inherent safety.  It is a difficult thing for pilots to train themselves that speed is always good.  (Here are some brief summaries of GA pilots who died because they were going too slow, stalling their aircraft.)  Too many instructors (especially those who have been teaching for a long time without continuing education) tell students that flying with a good amount of brake will make their glider more stable, especially when they encounter turbulence.  This is largely untrue in modern gliders and has caused countless accidents.

A slightly more pressurized glider from applying a lot of brake has little effect when the glider is hit with air going down at 6+ mph.  This writer once hit descending air from virga and he was very glad he was flying at trim.  The free-fall was so fast and the re-inflation so sharp that the harness suffered damage, though minor -- this time.

A slower moving glider is more prone to stall and spin if the pilot encounters turbulence.  Also, if he sets up for landing with a lot of brake, he can be guaranteed to have a hard landing.  A glider flown with a lot of brake has minimal energy or, in another way, has minimal reserves if a recovery is needed.

A landing flare executed on a glider that already has lots of brake will have less impact than if the glider comes roaring in.  SPEED IS GOOD!  Pilots must tell themselves this continually.  The ONLY other time you want to be in the brakes is when you are well away from the ground, in completely dead air, and/or coring a narrow thermal.

When this writer lands, he has his hands almost all the way up until just before touching the ground.  So what if you are skidding along for a few feet?  You won't do a face plant – it's impossible.  What it will do is when you do bury the brakes, the glider will powerfully surge behind you, stop, and give you plenty of momentary lift.  If fact, if you are landing into moderate head winds, you might even be taken back up in the air.  This is why "touch and goes" (PPG only) are so important.  With PG you must be a site where you can safely top land.

8. PRACTICE KITING WHENEVER YOU CAN

This year (2013) at Valle de Bravo, a pilot was injured when she did a forward inflation at the main launch.  Running full speed, she brought her wing up just fine but failed to slow it down (check the surge) when it came overhead.  Naturally, the glider kept right on going.  It had a complete collapse causing the pilot to fall about 8' to the ground out in front.  She was fortunate and only experienced a concussion and a banged-up face.  Her first mistake was to not have the required skills to fly the site.  If she had spent time kiting at the LZ or some other safe location, she could have likely avoided the accident.  What in the world was she and her instructor thinking?  What is a new P2 pilot doing in the rowdy air at Valle?

In a forward inflation, only the best pilots can sense the condition and location of the glider.  Even for experienced pilots, forward inflations can be frightening which is why we never do them unless they are absolutely necessary.  (Generally, if you have to do a forward inflation at a mountain launch, wait for the air to pick up or fly another day.)

Another time, we had a visiting pilot here in El Paso – a P5 – who got in trouble at our most challenging site in the southwest, Lees Lookout.   He did a reverse inflation but turned immediately when the glider came up rather than stabilize the glider overhead and then turn and go.  The same thing happened to him as to the pilot above.  His glider surged overhead in front of him because of a sudden lull in the air coming in.  He went tumbling down the steep and rocky face of the launch site.  Luckily, only his glider was damaged.  Part of the problem was he was a coastal pilot and learning to fly in such places in like learning to swim with a life jacket on.  He rarely, if ever, flew at high desert mountain sites.

If you want to impress others at a launch site, get your glider up over your head, take 3 or 4 seconds to look at it, and then turn as fast as you can and go.  Other good pilots will recognize that you are not only competent but a safety-minded pilot and will give you an earned "nod."  However, most will not have a clue what you are doing....

9. Powered Paragliding Hazards

The USPPA has published this page with some of the most common causes of accidents and how to avoid them.  Is your PPG launch area as good as this one?  If it isn't, you are adding risk to your flying.  (This is farm #1 at the Evergreen Turf Farms in Santa Teresa, NM.)

ideal launch and landing area for powered paragliding

CONCLUSION

Do NOT take chances when you fly.  As Stewart Midwinter quipped about astronauts, ask, "How many ways is this paraglider going to try and kill me today?"  Assume everything will go wrong and you will be more careful.  Fly modest wings (EN A, A-B).  Experts, including Bruce Goldsmith, stress the fact in this article that flying EN A class gliders is smart, no matter how good a pilot you are.  I sometimes fly an EN C wing and the only important advantage I have is a little better glide and more speed but I pay for it with a wing that moves around a lot in the air.  Be extremely cautious near the ground!  This is what “gets” most pilots. Here are some words by some experienced pilots and instructors.

David Dagaudt, French Champion, designer, and Ozone test Pilot:

Spend flying time on the ground! Ground handling is the best way to develop a feel for a wing and an understanding of the machine. The level of ease with the wing you feel on take-off is a great indicator of the level of glider control in the air. …When you can do what you want with your wing on the ground, it will be the same in the air, and vice versa. If your take-offs are risky, then you can say that the main risk you face in the air is from the wing above your head!

Steven Roti:

A confident and competent launch sets the tone for the rest of the flight. The 15 Minute Rule: When you get to a flying site, spend 15 minutes watching the wind and the sky before making the fly/no-fly decision. If you see unsafe conditions, for example, peak gusts stronger than your personal limit, reset your time and spend another 15 minutes watching. Pre-flight Safety: Spend a little extra time on pre-flight safety rather than launch a hang glider with the strap unhooked or a paraglider with the leg straps unclipped.

Mike Steed:

Dust devils on hard ground are often invisible, and even a weak dust devil can be lethal near the ground. Don’t select an LZ – select the air you will be landing in. [When landed], disconnect yourself from the wing immediately before a dust devil sneaks up on you.

Wilbur Wright:

Practice is the key to the secret of flying.

vulture