Analysis of Joe Parr’s Accident at Valle de Bravo

by Had Robinson
updated January 22, 2024

Below is the link to the original video of this accident about 20 years ago which I obtained from Joe.  It is terrifying to watch because the pilot did not know what to do, thanks to incompetent instruction.

Watch it carefully and see if you can count how many mistakes he made.  It is a good test of a pilot's knowledge of thermalling and its hazards that we can experience.  If you can find (5) errors, you are on your way.  If you can find at least (10) errors, you have been properly trained and have plenty of experience.  Further down is a thorough analysis of the accident.  Howerver, first do your best to see how many errors you can find.


The paragliding community is very thankful that Joe made it available.  Providentially, he did not suffer any injuries – it was a miracle.  It is one of the best training videos we schools have because it shows the most common errors pilots may make when thermalling.  What is unique about this accident was that Joe was under the direct supervision of an instructor and it was he who was responsible for the accident, not Joe.

A similar accident happened in Van Buren, Arkansas recently where an uncertified, untrained "instructor" killed the student pilot.  Why he was not prosecuted for non-vountary manslaughter is a mystery.  I was able to interview the pilot's mother a few months after the accident.  I can't tell you how her life was turned upside down.  The fiance of this recently mustered out Army soldier was so distraught that she could not give an interview.  Such was the swath of collateral damage that these so-called instructors leave behind.

Because of lax FAA regulations with regards to ultralight operations, the incompetent and careless continue their rampage among the uninformed public.  Anyone can hang out a shingle advertising paragliding or hang gliding training, take people's money, and then injure or kill them.  There is no connection between a pilot's skill and his ability to train others.

Good schools can only warn the public: MAKE CERTAIN YOUR INSTRUCTOR IS CERTIFIED BY USHPA.

Even then, there are no mechanisms in place where graduates of ultralight schools are evaluated by a third party.  Over the years, Southwest Airsports has encountered certified pilots who lacked the basic skills to safely fly a paraglider.  It is a free-for-all that continues.

A recent YouTube video of Joe's accident replaced the original, uncut version of the accident that is given in the link above.  This new YouTube includes an analysis but it is inaccurate, has a bad attitude towards the accident (Hey-look-at-this-survivor!), bad-mouths Valle de Bravo, and – worst of all – removes the evidence and ignores the culpability of the instructor who permitted Joe to launch in the first place.  We all wondered why the new video was extensively redacted and who did it?

I have flown safely at VB for many years.  If you want strong conditions, go late in the season, if you want modest conditions go early e.g., November.  Launch early in the day and land before noon for a great introduction to thermalling in the mountains.  The "Hey! Look at this!" attitude of the new YouTube is a disgrace. There is nothing in the new video that analyses the accident except "Don't fly at Valle de Bravo!"  In any case, VB is not a site for beginners!

It begs the question: what was Joe doing there in the first place as a new student?  How could he know what he didn't know?  How could he know that his instructor was incompetent?  Who is watching out for the public who want to learn how to fly?

Joe has not been an USHPA member for at least 10 years and he is not likely active in paragliding.  Sadly, near accidents like this with death frighten pilots out of the sport – he had good reason to quit flying.  Having nearly drowned twice at SIV clinics as a new pilot was a wake-up call to yours truly that our sport needs more regulation.  I have witnessed over a dozen examples of people being killed, hurt, or terrified by incompetent or careless  instructors.

Students should only enroll in an USHPA approved school in order to minimize their risk of injury or death.  However, some USHPA schools do not meet USHPA standards.  It is a good idea to ask a prospective school for a few references from former students who are active pilots.  If needed, we can recommend outstanding schools e.g., Eagle Paragliding, Fly Above All, River Valley Paragliding, among others.  This is extreme air sports and it requires extreme instruction.

Here is an analysis of the accident.  If you see or think of something else, please let me know.  Safety in our sport is a group effort.  References are made to the Pilot’s Training Manual (PTM) which is no longer published and may be difficult to find.

  1. Did not operate within the limitations of his personal skills and knowledge:  “[Sharon] is a much better pilot than I am – she can handle [the sharp edged thermals today]."  Why did the instructor have Joe launch in conditions that he could not handle?  See p. 228 of the PTM)
  2. Flying deep in the brakes:  He was flying a good Gin glider and his hands were at the Gin label which is about an inch above the karabiner loop in the riser.  PTM p. 180, “If you try to maximize your climb rate by all the time flying around the edge of stall while doing turns in thermals, you will eventually go too far and enter a spin.”  He wasn’t even turning in the thermal and did not need to be deep in the brakes?
  3. Failure to watch his wing when it was in trouble:  The pilot was looking at everything else instead of looking at his wing to attempt to fix the problem.
  4. Failure to realize that flying deep in the brakes will cause a stall:  The video shows the D risers of his right wing go slack just as he enters the thermal.  By now, it’s too late.  He would have felt the pressure slacken before they went completely slack.  He should have immediately let up on the brakes at that time which would have lessened the severity of the stall.  PTM p. 153 “If you ever feel the brake pressure start to decrease then immediately back out a couple of inches.  Softening of brake pressure is an indication of an approaching tip stall.
  5. Failure to dampen the surge after the stall occurred:  The right side (at least) of the wing stalls and then restarts.  It is likely that the left side is also stalled but we can’t see it to be sure.  His hands are everywhere.  He does not dampen the surge of the right wing tip and it darts forward and he enters a spiral dive to the left.  He could have entered a full stall at this point to reset the wing (bury his hands and hold them until the wing stabilizes over his head and do the normal things necessary to safely exit the stall).  See full stall recovery on p. 149 of PTM.
  6. Did not exit the spiral dive:  He failed to let up on the inside brake, apply opposite weight shift, and apply outside brake in order to exit the spiral dive.
  7. Failed to disable the glider once it started re-flying after the reserve was deployed:  He could have executed a B-line stall or reel in a tip in order to disable the glider.   Note that the wing was fine – no cravats, no twists in the risers, etc.  PTM p. 165 “Disable the main canopy by pulling in on the B or C risers.
  8. Did not properly deploy his reserve:  The pilot threw his reserve but did not let go of the deployment bag.  The handle in the pilot’s hand and the bag are visible.  His comment about being hurt was probably the yank on his arm when he failed to let go of the bag.
  9. Failed to secure himself to the tree and let go of the brakes once he landed:  Pilot should have grabbed any branch in sight and pulled himself to the center of the tree and secured himself with a rope in order to prevent any subsequent fall.  Why was the pilot still holding the brakes?  PTM p. 162  “Let go of the brakes immediately after you contact the tree and make every effort to grab the largest branch you can get a hold of.

Had Joe received competent instruction, he would not have made so many mistakes.  A competent instructor would have ensured that he was ready to fly a challenging site like Valle de Bravo.  Then he could have safely tackled VB under the watchful eye of a resident instructor like Jeff Hunt of Fly Mexico.