Small cargo plane, paraglider collide

by Had Robinson
updated March 15, 2022

On December 21, 2021 a first of its kind tragedy occurred 1.5 miles southwest of Fulshear, Texas USA when a small cargo transport airplane (Cessna N1116N) and an ultralight powered paraglider collided mid-air.  The pilots of both aircraft were killed.

Cessna pilot: Robert Steven Gruss, aged 35
powered paraglider pilot: Kenneth Joel Tuttle Jr, aged 51

This section of the current aeronautical chart shows how busy the airspace is where the accident occurred.  If needed, please refer to this legend for detailed information on the symbols and what they mean.

collision of airplane - paraglider

The light blue line with the red arrow is RNAV route V407, an established low altitude airway used by aircraft flying between navigation beacons.  The Cessna was traveling at 186 mph and the paraglider was traveling about 21 mph when the collision occurred.  The Cessna was heading southwesterly in the left lane of the RNAV.  It is not clear at this time what direction the PPG pilot was flying in the RNAV but it would not have mattered anyway.

The airplane symbols show IFR (instrument flight rules) routes and the altitude where aircraft may be found.  The magenta, solid and dashed blue lines show Class E, B, and D airspace, respectively.

Here are some links with additional information of the accident:

NTSB Preliminary report note: the paraglider wreckage and its pilot landed in different locations and not the location given in this report.

AERO-News report

Flight Aware track log of the Cessna

FAA procedures for Air Navigation Routes

The powered paraglider (PPG) pilot hit the right wing leading edge of the airplane 10 ft from the tip and this outboard section of the wing separated from the rest of the aircraft inflight.  Here are some the details of the paraglider from the preliminary NTSB report.  We are still waiting for their complete analysis of the accident.

The individual flying the powered paraglider and the paraglider’s engine were found about 0.7 mile east northeast of the Cessna 208B main wreckage. The individual and the paraglider engine had separated from the seat harness. The paraglider airfoil and harness were located about 3.9 miles south of the Cessna 208B main wreckage. The paraglider harness exhibited tearing and impact damage. The paraglider airfoil remained intact with minor tearing of the lower airfoil surface. The emergency parachute was found deployed, with no evidence of damage. There were two video devices recovered near the body of the powered paraglider pilot, which were submitted to the NTSB Vehicle Recorders Laboratory for possible data download.

My analysis of the accident

At first this seemed like a "one-in-a-million" event.  But as I thought about it, that does not seem correct.  Traveling at 186 mph, the Cessna pilot had less than 4 seconds to see and avoid an object (the paraglider) that would only begin to become clearly visible about a 1,000' away.

The visual angularity at that distance is less than 1 degree so the paraglider pilot would be about the size of "." and the glider would look an eyebrow seen from 30' away.  This photo is what the Cessna pilot might have seen moments before the collision:

paraglider 1000' away

First question: what aircraft pilot would immediately recognize a paraglider if he saw one?  The Cessna was traveling southwesterly in an established route from Bush airport (IAH) in Houston, TX.  At the time of the collision, he was under ATC direction and visible to them on radar.  How could the tower know that the PPG was directly in front of the Cessna?  If Mr. Gruss had been staring dead ahead or scanning the horizon, he might have seen the paraglider.  The airspace around that portion of the RNAV had multiple symbols indicating ultralight and glider activity but the Cessna was not in these areas.

Second question: what was a PPG doing at 5,000' MSL in an RNAV next to one of the busier airports in the U.S.?

The paraglider pilot would have been unlikely to see an aircraft east of him at that time of day (9:30AM).

If Mr. Gruss had seen the paraglider, could he have changed course fast enough to have avoided it?  If, in the few seconds before contact, he had moved the elevator even slightly up or down, he would have missed the paraglider.  But how was Mr. Gruss to know which slight movement of his aircraft would have prevented the collision which was to occur in a few seconds?  Just like Captain Sully, was a few seconds enough time to size up the situation and make the best decision of what to do?  I doubt it.

A near miss still would have been dangerous for the PPG because the wake turbulence of the Cessna which would have likely collapsed the paraglider.  Would the PPG pilot have known what to do even if his paraglider had survived the wake turbulenc?  He did have a reserve but could he have deployed it?  Would the PPG pilot have known to shut the engine down before deploying the reserve?  We will never know.

If, by chance, the PPG had seen the aircraft, it is doubtful he also would have had enough time to get out of the way.  Even a full stall of the PPG might take a few seconds.  But, like the Cessna pilot, there was not enough time to evaluate the situation and start a plan of action.   Even if he had stalled his glider, powered paragliders are not designed to safely withstand the shock loads of a minor collapse much less a stall recovery (I know this from experience).

This tragic event could be similar to someone walking down the middle of one of the lanes of a lonely highway where it takes a sharp bend.  He may have the right to be there but so does a vehicle.  If a vehicle shows up, would either have the time to get out of the way?  If the pedestrian was struck, who would be at fault?  Something similar happened to me but, thankfully, it was not a person but a cow.  I was not cited by the authorities because I could not have seen the cow in time to do anything.

Thinking it all over, I would attribute the fault to the PPG pilot.

How is it safe to fly a slow moving ultralight in a Federal air route that is clearly marked on aeronautical charts?  Yes, ultralights can fly legally above the controlled airspace of busy airports but it is smart?  What if the engine dies?  Then what?  It would be an emergency but how many PPG pilots carry an airband radio?  How many would be able to retrieve their phone, find the airport tower's number, know their exact location so the tower could warn air traffic in the vicinity?  Because the tower's radar cannot see a powered paraglider (I know this from my work with the Army), what are they going to announce?

"A paraglider has declared an emergency somewhere in the vicinity of the airport but we cannot see it.,.."

I checked the records the U.S. Powered Paragliding Association and U.S. Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association and could not find any record of training for Mr. Tuttle.  FAA regulations (FAR 103) do not require any training whatsoever of solo ultralight pilots.  I do not think this is wise, not only for public safety but also for the pilot.  In general, self-regulation of our sport is becoming more spotty.

I contacted the FAA safety officer at our regional FSDO and he confirmed my general analysis of why the accident occurred.  It was also clear that the FAA is frustrated by the carelessness and irresponsible behavior of some ultralight pilots.

As a longtime USHPA and USPPA instructor I have too often observed PPG pilots flying in a manner that endangers themselves and others, mostly due to ignorance.  Years and years of instruction have taught me the adage, "You don't know what you don't know."

Most of the time, these pilots are only a nuisance, especially to the people they buzz and to angry GA pilots who have to dodge these floating bombs.  Large parts of the more crowded areas of the U.S., especially the northeast, are openly hostile to ultralights for these reasons.  Can you blame them?

Locally, we still face the horrific fallout from the senseless death of a young man who was towed up by someone who thought he knew how to do it.  He was untrained and not certified.  How was the towed student pilot to know that the tow operator was incompetent?  Should we require surgeons to have a license before they cut away on your vital organs?

Had Mr. Tuttle enrolled in a USPPA or USPHA school he would have received training on how to read an aeronautical chart, among other things, and he might have thought twice about floating around the edges of B airspace in an RNAV.  Education helps pilots fly safely.

Additional requirements would help.  Here are some suggestions:

What if Mr. Tuttle had collided with a Southwest Airlines jet full of people?