Risk
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When you start paragliding, everything seems safe and fun. It might seems scary at first, even dangerous. But you soon find out that it is not scary at all. Even danger seems far away, as long as you refrain from doing silly things such as not listening to you instructor.

After a few flying weeks, you will have heard about pilots that got injured or died. Of course, these are just the occasional dumb-ass pilots that do not know how to fly. You know that paragliding is a safe sport, when performed properly. It will not happen to you or your friends, because you are learning the right skills at a professional school, recognized as such by your national free flight federation.

But after a few years of paragliding, you will have seen flying buddies landing in hospital. Not only the gung-ho pilots that you knew were bound to sooner or later, but also the risk averse ones. The ones you thought were flying safe. The instructor who taught you how to fly being among them. Suddenly, you start to realise that you could be next on the hospital's list. Even if you tried to fly safely all the time.

After a decade of paragliding, some of the pilots you have flown with are no longer around. Usually because of a stupid, avoidable accident. Even expert (test) pilots, flying hundreds of hours a year, are not spared this fate. They die too, just by making silly mistakes. Finally, you realize that you are on accident row, awaiting your final hour. The day that one of your incidents turns into a (nasty) accident.

You find this exaggerated? Then probably you have not been flying a long time. Or you and your friends have been flying very safely for a long time. Congratulations! You are the skilled exception to the rule. You know the limits and never cross them. But please read on. You still might learn from a less skilled pilot such as me.

Hovering over you all the time, this accident nemesis distracts from flying. By being constantly aware that an accident is waiting for you, you will be flying more stressed than needed and thus raising the chances of having one. But if you completely ignore the accident nemesis, you are likely to have one too. I could not find a law related to paragliding incidents and accidents, so I would like to state one:

The chances of having a paragliding incident that results in an accident approaches one, the longer you have been flying.

Basically, you take more or less the same risk every flight. You want to have fun. You do not want to get hurt or killed. You are more or less aware of your limits and do not intend to challenge them. But the risk, no matter how small, is always there. The more you fly, the more often you expose yourself to this same risk. Even if the risk in itself is small, you will encounter it one day when you fly often enough. And it is likely to hit you when you least expect it. Unfortunately, this risk can not be reduced by improving your technical flying skills. It is a risk that has nothing to do with your technical skill level in the absolute sense, only in the relative sense of going beyond it. An accident might happen because a beginner focusses on a tree while landing during an easy and calm morning flight. Or it might happen because an expert pilot has a small timing error during the execution of a complicated acrobatic manoeuvre. Flying 'better', in the sense of technical mastery, is no guarantee for safer flying. Even if you are an expert pilot, you are still bound to cross the line one day.

Plain stupidity aside, the major causes of paragliding accidents I have witnessed are fatigue and hubris. They diminish your capacity to observe, think, and act wisely. If you are tired, you will fly like a bag of potatoes. In ancient Greek times, the gods would show their presence to the folks below when they were either very pleased or very displeased with the situation downstairs. The pleasing situations usually involved one or more beautiful women (and less frequently men). Unfortunately, these situations fall outside the scope of the current issue, even though they can be risky at times (femme fatal, Ἴλιον). The most frequent cause for their displeasure was the human tendency of ὕβρις or hubris. The weakness of mere humans to believe they were gods, or even more powerful. Which fits in nicely with our current topic.

Sometimes a feel like a god, a sky god. There is nothing on earth, or in the sky for that matter, that is going to stop me. Stop me from making that near impossible transition. Stop me from flying over a valley full of trees and no place to land safely. Stop me from flying through a rotor. Stop me from ducking lightning strikes that a chasing thunderstorm throws at me. No worries! I am a sky god, remember? Precisely at such a moment, the real gods descent to teach me humility. To see and accept the real situation, the real risk, and act accordingly. I start to realise that that long transition is ridiculously long, especially when walking after hitting the deck. I realise that I have had a lucky escape after 'landing' with my feet on the ground, but it will take hours to get my wing out of those trees. Without any paths and roads, it will be a long walk to get out of this forest, out of this valley. I realise that passing trough a rotor has no use if it makes me land. I should have landed in the calm air, on the other side of the mountain instead of here. With a flash I realise that I have crossed the safety limits a long time ago, as the lighting strikes the earth just three kilometres away while I am landing.

Finally on the ground, it really sinks in what I have done. It does not make sense at all, especially in hindsight. Unless I would have been in control of course. Unless I would have been a god. I am not. I have no control over lightning or turbulent air hitting or missing me, other than to stay away from it. When the real gods descend upon me, the sky god, their sole purpose is to show me I am not a god. To make me feel human again, humble. And they usually succeed. I am not angry with them about this (you do not want to argue with the gods, unless you like being bolted by lightning now and then), rather thankful instead. They put my feet back on the ground, twice. They make me feel like a vulnerable human being again. And that is exactly the feeling you need to fly long, healthy, and safely.

By now, you are probably wondering what to do if even expert ('good') pilots get it (fatally) wrong sometimes. If flying safely has little to do with you skill level, then what can you do? Well, try and work on the characteristics of good piloting:

  1. Adequate observations
  2. Adequate conclusions
  3. Adequate actions
  4. Adequate margin in case one of the above turns out to be inadequate

Flying safely is about understanding your limits and the forces that nature enforces upon you. Mother nature makes us fly effortlessly, but she can deceive you just as easily. Your brain, however, is much more likely to deceive you. Especially when under stress, both negative and positive. Do not blame nature or others for your incidents, blame yourself. There is no freaky air that caused your incident. Turbulent air is more likely to have triggered it, but it is you who caused it by choosing to fly there. Ever since I started flying, I have not encountered a single incident where I was not to blame. And even when I am unable to explain the incident with my current knowledge, I am not inclined to blame nature for it. I know understanding will come later.

Try to understand nature, but specifically yourself. By realising that you are or will be flying close to or beyond your competence, thus sharply increasing the chances of an incident, you are more likely to abort your flight or even your intention to fly. It will make you a safer pilot. Much safer than any other safety device would. Be especially aware that as your skills progress, they are only shifting the risk, not eliminating it. Just try and move the safety border slowly, in order not to cross it accidentally. Increase your skills by little steps at a time and practice, practice, practice! Do not start running before you can walk, let alone stand. Make sure you have more than enough margin when you try something new. Prepare the conquest of new skills by listening and talking to other pilots. Try them in your head first and see if it goes well, before you try them in practice.

All the above is not likely to prevent you from getting killed or hurt. But if you have been reading it with an open mind, the chances of that happening will be smaller than when you started reading this page.

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2009-11-10