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Paraglider Accident Report 2005

This should give you an easy grasp of the lessons to be learned from the official paraglider accident statistics in the U.S., for paragliding during 2005.

Oh, and all this does not relate to powered paragliders! So if you're a purist and curious about the real safety levels in this wonderful sport, read on.

I'll do away with long lists of percentages this time, and just note the interesting conclusions. Well, there will be some figures.

We'll look at the big picture, focus in on 2005 and then have quite a good look at what can be gleaned from the 2001 to 2005 paraglider accident data.

The Big Picture

Here are some figures from a 15-year period from 1991 to 2005 inclusive. There were 53 known paragliding fatalities, but 1991 to 1993 were rather risky years to fly.

Formal training was almost non-existent back then and the wings were crude and unforgiving by today's standards.

The average fatality rate per thousand USHGA members per year over this 15-year period was 1.33. However, that figure improves markedly to just 0.88 when those initial years' figures are removed from the calculation.

You're very unlikely to have a paraglider accident in a tandem. Tandem paragliders have had a very good safety record, in fact there has been only one tandem fatality in the U.S. over the 15 year period. It's not hard to figure out why the figures are so good for tandems.

Tandem paragliders are mainly used for passenger flights, in which case the pilot is experienced and weather conditions most likely fairly mild. Similarly, when tandems are used for training, an instructor is in charge. Unless the student is taking an advanced mountain flying course or something like that, conditions are sure to be bori.. I mean safe. Plus tandems are like most training aircraft with 2 seats, being designed to be forgiving and very stable.

Focus on 2005

Only 50 reports were received in 2005, the lowest number for 5 years. However, all fatalities and most serious accidents get reported, so the records of trends for these are quite accurate regardless of reporting apathy.

Only 3 people died in a paraglider accident in the U.S. during 2005.

This is down somewhat on the previous few years. Good to see. The same can't be said of Europe recently, with 50 fatalities in the Alps. Many people put this down to an unusually strong year in terms of thermal activity over Europe, plus of course the much greater numbers of people flying over there.

This data reinforces the caution that should go along with flying in strong conditions! Flying paragliders in strong convective air has been compared to being launched blind-folded into the surf in a small light dinghy. It appears that at times, the very strongest conditions are simply too much for even the latest and safest paragliders. Will this situation change? I don't know, flexible wings will never compare to a rigid wing in rough conditions in terms of inherent safety. Best of all of course is a reserve parachute, which has been proven in many a paraglider accident!

In 2005, 32 pilots or passengers suffered paragliding injuries in the U.S., 15 of them requiring an overnight stay in hospital.

Five Years from 2001 to 2005

It is apparent that you are most likely to injure your leg or ankle in a paraglider accident. These account for 32% of total injuries. Not surprising, really. Next comes back injuries at 29%, not a nice thought. So don't spare any expense on back protection, there are some good devices out there. Your face and neck are relatively safe, at 2% and 3% of total injuries respectively.

In terms of the severity of injuries in a paraglider accident, fractures are the most common by a big margin, at 68% of all injuries reported. Other lesser measures of severity are cuts, bruises, sprains and lacerations. However, those lesser injuries are definitely less likely to be reported at all, so in reality 68% is too high a figure.

Have you noticed how high-profile aerobatics has become? I read the other day about an acro team that will put on a spectacular show, for a price of course. Certainly, more people are aware of this kind of flying now, and it seems many Daring Young Men In Their (flexible) Flying Machines are giving it a go. Even the schools in some parts are offering instruction in this area.

Anyway, surprise surprise, there has been a marked increase since 2001 in the number of accidents suffered as a result of doing aerobatic flight in paragliders. In 2001, only 1 paraglider accident out of 81 was due to a pilot doing aerobatics. That's 1.2%. By 2005, this had increased to 7 accidents out of a total of 50, which is 14%. Not good, plus 2 of them were fatal.

If you've ever wondered what kind of factors contribute to a paraglider accident, the past 5 years' data gives us a good idea. I know I promised 'no lists' earlier on, but here's a short one listing all factors that account for more than 10% of all reported accidents:

  • Thermal Turbulence: 18.25%
  • Strong Wind: 13.76%
  • Asymmetric Deflation: 12.70%
  • Too close to Ground: 12.17%
  • Rotor: 11.90%
  • Outside LZ: 10.58%
  • Poorly Inflated Takeoff: 10.32%

Interestingly, the top 2 relate to 'decision to fly'. Or perhaps in some cases, awareness of changing conditions while in flight. The bottom one, Poorly Inflated Takeoff, would seem to be very preventable type of paraglider accident. Perhaps inadequate training in some cases, a little over-confidence and/or impatience in others. And of course, inferior old wing design must be a factor with some people as well! Maybe they got it cheap on eBay...

I'll quickly mention all the other factors reported, just for interest. They are, Stall, Under Instruction, Obstacle in LZ, Spiral Dive, Aerobatics, Negative Spin, Turning in LZ, Preflight Error, Blown Back, Hill Collision, Power Lines, Turning into Ridge, Line Tangle, Lack of Pilot Currency, Panic, Mid-Air Collision, Dragged by Wind, New Equipment.

To quote directly from the Good Doctor from USHPA (emphasis added), 'The most commonly occurring accident scenario is an asymmetric collapse leading to a spiral while flying close to the ground during takeoff, landing, or ridge soaring.' So there you have it. Don't spend any more time than necessary close to the ground, unless conditions are harmless.

During the five-year period we're looking at, pilots threw their reserve parachute in 39 of the reported accidents. That's 10% of the total number of accidents reported. In 27 cases, the reserve deployment didn't result in much damage to the pilot at all. Minor or nil injuries. So it's definitely worth carrying a reserve! Just don't wait too long before you throw it, if at low altitude. No-one hurt themselves at all in the 3 reserve deployments that were reported in the U.S. for 2005.

The Source of the Figures?

This paraglider accident page is actually a summary of a summary. The much more official original document, with graphical plots and all, is available here. As with my other accident page, the source is USHPA (United States Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association).

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