Emergencies

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As with all my content, this is my personal opinion, and I’m not an expert (in anything). Do proper and independent research.

Even though our sport doesn’t feel “extreme” (at least, not to us), it does come with a higher degree of risk. It’s important to do what we can to be safer in the sky, but we also need to make sure that we don’t burden ourselves, our friends, and our families with a crippling financial burden due to accidents and emergencies.

Pilots flying in South Africa (and SA pilots abroad)

It is important to understand the rules around the difference between Medical Aid (in South Africa; it might be called National Health, Healthcare, Universal Health etc. in other countries) and Medical Insurance (and all other kinds of insurance).

South Africa has world-class private medical services, which you can only access by:

  1. being a member of a medical scheme;
  2. by having health insurance that covers you for paragliding (more below); or
  3. by paying lots of money out of pocket (or having your loved ones do so).

If you don’t fulfil one of the three points above, you will only be able to visit a state hospital. The waiting times, quality of care, and facilities can be terrible. You’d rather not end up there.

Furthermore, there are important differences between medical costs, search & rescue (a.k.a. casevac) costs, and third-party liability costs, and personal liability costs that you might incur with a paragliding accident.

Below is a flowchart that gives a visual overview of what I’ll discuss and what you need to do. It’s mostly for South Africans, but pilots visiting South Africa should read this too, too.

First-aid kit

Before anything else: at the very least you should have one in your harness and it should include an emergency blanket. Not only does it make you visible during recovery, it is one of the few things that weigh less than 15 grams and cost less than a dollar that might just save your life by keeping you warm.

Other smart things include bandages and compression tape, 200-400 calories in energy gel packets, headache, and anti-nausea tablets. Keep it in a waterproof or zip-lock bag in your harness. The lightweight, rollable SAM splint (available in Europe and the US), is a great way to stabilise most types of broken bones. A course (or some browsing online) on how to treat serious sprains and broken bones might also be useful.

Other things, like always flying with extra water, food, warm clothes, and a charged (or solar-charged) power bank could save your skin on cross-country adventures.

Medical aid (South Africa)

You have medical aid coverage, which covers you for accidents (like paragliding accidents) if you are a member of any medical scheme in South Africa. Membership is usually restricted to citizens and residents. Medical aid schemes are very different from medical insurance. Keep reading.

The following applies to medical aid / medical schemes:

  • They are governed under the Medical Schemes Act
  • All medical schemes, no matter your “membership level” must provide, by law, Prescribed Minimum Benefits (PMBs) to all members. This covers:
    • All emergencies (including paragliding accidents)
    • A set of 271 medical conditions (including fractures, sprains, broken bones, torn ligaments)
    • 27 chronic conditions
  • They exist to cover all members for expenses related to medical care (whether once-off or ongoing)
  • Medical aid contributions are tax deductible (in simplest terms: you pay less tax / get money back from the South African Revenue Services)

If you are eligible to join a medical scheme and get medical aid in South Africa, do it now.

As above, medical schemes also cover you for chronic conditions like cancer, should you get diagnosed with them in future, but that’s outside the scope of this article. (In other countries this might be called “healthcare” or “national health”, again: different from insurance).

The Medical Schemes Act doesn’t allow discrimination on the basis of the cause of an accident, whereas the Insurance Act allows insurers to specify the events under which they will (and won’t) pay out. I am unaware of any South African medical aid ever refusing to pay out for a paragliding accident. (It would be unfortunate to sue them if they refused since, again: the law states that they must cover emergencies)

Note that some clinics or professionals may charge more than the government-mandated PMB rate. Say, you need surgery and the PMB rate is R50,000, but if you go to a clinic where they charge R55,000 for the procedure, you will i. either need to pay the remaining R5,000 out of pocket or ii. go to a clinic that will offer it at the lower rate or iii. you will need insurance (known as “gap cover”, that covers the gap). You will need to confirm that your gap cover insurance will apply for paragliding, since again: it is legislated by the separate Insurance Act. More below.

Insurance (in SA and abroad)

You can insure against a lot of things: getting sick or injured (usually called health insurance), theft (theft insurance), fire (fire insurance), flight delays (travel insurance, which might also cover you for getting sick), and more.

Insurance policies –including health insurance– differ drastically from one provider to the next, and they are allowed to include and exclude coverage for certain things. For instance: one theft insurance company may not pay out if the theft was done by a member of the household, while another won’t have this rule. One insurance provider will cover you for accidents while paragliding; another won’t.

Insurance policies are governed under different rules than medical aid. Medical insurance in South Africa isn’t governed by the Medical Schemes Act, but by the Insurance Act.

Medical or travel insurance will usually pay out a once-off sum of money when you are covered and eligible (often you’ll need to make the payment to the medical provider and get reimbursed for the expenses later), whereas medical aid / national health schemes will provide ongoing care.

Risky sport, such as paragliding, is usually excluded from most health insurance (and travel medical insurance) policies.

Just because you have medical insurance or travel insurance or whatever-else insurance, doesn’t mean that you are covered for paragliding activities. It is crucial to read and understand your insurance policy and get things in writing to make sure you’re covered

Travel Insurance

“Normal” travel medical insurance

Travel insurance is, as the name says, policies that are focused on travellers and travelling: usually short-term events, but as more people live and work remotely this is slowly changing.

This may include things like lost luggage (including, but not always, sports gear like paraglider equipment, with a maximum reimbursement amount), flight delay reimbursement, hotel cancellation reimbursement, and most include some medical and accident coverage.

This usually covers things like if you were in a car accident or got hit by a bus, but not if you participate in high-risk sports like paragliding. I use SafetyWing whenever I’m out of South Africa for many months at a time (I repeat: not for paragliding coverage, but for “normal” travel and medical insurance: everything outside of paragliding).

“High-risk” travel insurance (that covers paragliding)

South Africans flying in South Africa

You generally aren’t eligible to get health insurance in your home country, so this doesn’t apply to you. But, again: if you are a member of any medical aid, you should be covered for paragliding accidents. You can consider a more “premium” membership (for a better choice of hospital) or you can add “gap cover” insurance (for added benefits).

Foreigners visiting South Africa

Foreign paragliders travelling to South Africa will not normally be eligible to join a South African medical aid scheme. You should therefore get travel insurance that expressly covers you for paragliding accidents and emergencies in South Africa.

These are the only international insurance providers that I’ve found that cover paragliding while you are in SA (at the time of writing; confirm in writing from the provider if this is still the case).

  • IMG Signature Travel Medical Insurance (website)
  • World Nomads with high-risk level 3 (paragliding) added (coverage page)

Note that these providers, at the time of writing, only cover you for medical emergencies and not necessarily for:

  • competitive events (so if you’re flying a competition, you may need something else, ask the comp organisers)
  • search and rescue (more on that further down)
  • repatriation (airplane or services to get you back to your home country, check with the providers)
South Africans going abroad

Medical Aid coverage generally only covers medical procedures in South Africa. You’ll need separate insurance (that expressly covers you for paragliding in the countries you’ll be visiting when you leave SA).

I have only found three options available to us:

World Nomads with high-risk level 3 (paragliding) expressly added during checkout (see coverage page).

IMG Signature Travel Medical Insurance (website), as above. Note that their policy states: “Benefits are not payable for any loss due to, arising or resulting from: 6. piloting or learning to pilot or acting as a member of the crew of any aircraft;”. I have emailed them for more information, especially since many paragliders recommend using them, and they said “If it’s motorized or requires a pilot’s license to operate, it is not covered”. For now, I assume that “pilot’s license” is “fixed with pilot’s license” and not “paragliding license”.

As a South African, however, you might find it easier to deal with a South African insurance company when making payments, getting reimbursed (or, in a worst-case scenario, taking a South African company to South African court for refusal of payment).

The only South African insurance provider I have found (and used, but also not needed to make a claim) that expressly covers South Africans when travelling outside of South Africa (and expressly includes paragliding) was the Travel Insurance with Sports cover, underwritten by Allianz. At the time of writing, if you don’t add the extra “sport” coverage option, you won’t be covered for paragliding. They are only available for shorter trips (less than 90 days out of SA) so it doesn’t always work for me, since I spend most of my time outside South Africa.

Gap cover/gap insurance

If you have what is known as “gap cover” in South Africa, know that it is a form of insurance added to your Medical Aid, covered by the Insurance Act. If you were in a paragliding accident and, say, needed surgery, your medical aid should cover the expenses (as regulated by the Medical Schemes Acts and how much and when it should pay out as per the PMB “prescribed minimum benefits”).

Some clinics/care providers, however, may charge an amount higher than the regulated PMB. So, as an example: the PMB rate for back surgery might be set at R100,000 but your clinic may charge R105,000 for that procedure. Your medical aid will cover the PBM (R100,000) and insurance/gap cover could cover the remaining R5,000 (check your policy and get it in writing). If you don’t have gap cover, you’ll have to pay the difference. If you can’t afford it, you may be offered a payment plan by the clinic, or they may refer you to a more affordable clinic that will only charge the PMB rate.

Clinics generally charge below and up to the full PMB rate and sometimes in excess of the rate, but they will let you know.

You will need to find out if your gap cover insurance covers the gap for incidents and accidents that happened while you were paragliding.

Life insurance

Life insurance is an insurance policy that pays out a sum of money to beneficiaries, usually your family, upon your death. There are many exclusions when life insurance won’t pay out (like suicide and most high-risk sport like paragliding). You will need to confirm with your life insurance provider in writing if they will pay out during a paragliding fatality, and probably share the information with your family.

More important things about medical and accident insurance

Again, for the purposes of this article, the idea with medical insurance is that if you have an emergency (like a car or paragliding accident) where you need medical care, you’ll either get reimbursed or otherwise be directly covered for that emergency and not for ongoing care.

If you, travel abroad and find out you have a newly diagnosed chronic condition, like cancer, you are usually not covered with travel insurance, and you should go back home (where you hopefully have domestic medical coverage in the form of medical aid, healthcare, or national health, depending where you’re from).

Some travel insurance companies will pay for repatriation (an emergency flight back home, but not for medical care once you get back home), depending on the policy and emergency.

Some more things specifically about insurance:

  1. It is critical to have your insurance information readily available when things go wrong (in your harness, for instance, but also emailed to other responsible people) and to make sure that your co-pilots (or others who know where you are flying) can easily find it. Consider making a note on your phone (next of kin, medical insurance policy number) that you can send to your flying buddies before an XC trip (or to a friend / your hotel / Airbnb host when going out solo).
  2. The reason for the above is that you or someone with your insurance information should immediately contact the insurance provider after you’ve had an accident. They might have rules about which hospitals you can and can’t go to, if they will reimburse for an ambulance or not, and even rules about not reimbursing for anything where they aren’t notified in advance.
  3. If you are pre-paying and getting reimbursed (in the majority of cases this will be true, but some providers will directly settle with the clinic), ask for a final invoice or document with the sum of all the related costs in one document. You might see a physician and get medicine on day one, get x-rays done the next day, see a physiotherapist three days later, and so on. Sometimes, insurance companies will argue that these are considered separate incidents, thereby reducing the total amount they will reimburse you for (or charge an excess/deductible for each of the three visits). I would also ask the administration or doctor to write, sign, and stamp a statement indicating that all costs are related to the same incident.
  4. If you have a choice: go to the largest clinic or hospital around. This relates to the above, where everything (scans, surgery, drugs, rehab) can be done and charged by one entity in one invoice.
  5. Always, always, always review your travel insurance policy and confirm in writing/the policy that you are i) covered for paragliding ii) covered for the type of paragliding you’ll be doing (competitions/leisure) and iii) covered for the country you’ll be visiting and obviously iv) that you are covered at all as a resident / permanent resident of your country.
  6. If you’re, say, planning on taking a one-month holiday and you know you’ll only be paragliding for three consecutive days, it might be cheaper to buy normal travel insurance for the entire trip (which should cover you for “normal”, non-paragliding accidents) with one provider and get specific insurance that covers you for paragliding just for those other days.

Search & rescue / casevac

Let’s say you have an incident where your glider got tangled up, you threw your reserve and landed by yourself in the middle of nowhere. The logical next thing would be to safely get out of that area, especially if you are injured, hanging from a tree, have limited food or water, find yourself in inhospitable terrain, or another nasty scenario.

This part, between “getting located, picked up, and taken to civilisation or a medical facility” falls under search & rescue (also sometimes called casevac). It is not (usually) part of medical insurance, nor medical aid, even though you might also need medical attention. This applies more, but not exclusively, to cross country and vol biv paragliding.

Mobile phone support

If you’ve landed in an area where there is mobile phone reception, you should be able to make a call, which is why you should always save the local search and rescue/emergency services on your phone. You should also have a data package on your phone.

If you were involved in or witnessed an emergency, you should also be able to locate your GPS coordinates on your phone. You can easily share your location in Telegram / WhatsApp with friends and the search and rescue team. Again, this will only work if there is actually mobile phone tower signal, which might not be the case on XC adventures.

Offline maps

Download an app that shows smaller hiking trails and then download the map for the area/state where you’re going to fly. Google and Apple maps usually need mobile phone data (and a strong tower signal connection) and they only show larger roads, not hiking trails.

The apps below can be downloaded and used without data/a SIM card. They will display your exact GPS coordinates (in DMS or decimal format) and can give you estimates on how far you need to hike to get back to civilisation (including elevation change).

Experiment with them and download your local area maps (before you go out), available on iOS and Android. I use them all.

  • Organic Maps
  • Windy Maps
  • AllTrails
  • WikiLoc

Satellite phones

Since I paraglide (and trek, camp, and trail run) in areas with limited cell phone signal, I purchased a satellite device for peace of mind. It’s an affordable way to stay in touch with my loved ones (a simple message like “Running a bit later than planned, but everything is OK”) and can make life significantly less stressful for everyone.

The main two hardware providers are SPOT and Garmin InReach. There are many different models: some with big colour screens and maps, others you can make actual phone calls on, others weigh only a few grams and you can only send and receive text/email messages.

With my Garmin InReach Mini’s $15/month subscription I can send an unlimited amount of three pre-programmed messages. My three messages are set as:

  • Starting my flying for the day.
  • Safely ended my flying for the day. All is fine.
  • Running late, but everything is OK.

In addition to those, I can receive messages (by someone sending me an SMS or email to my Garmin number) or send messages (which I can slowly type out on the device’s up/down buttons, or pair it with my phone via Bluetooth and type it in an app). I get ten free ones per month, but if used up it only costs very little to send or receive additional text or location messages. (I can also upgrade to the unlimited message plan — currently $35/month).

You can also get weather forecasts sent from Garmin, but I found the quality to be inferior to the Windy and RASP forecasts. Rather ask a friend to SMS/email you a short forecast to your satellite phone when you’re in the middle of nowhere (or write a simple program to send your InReach/SPOT an email with the paragliding forecast for the next day).

Satellite phones & SOS buttons

The big thing with SPOT and InReach, however, isn’t necessarily communication but emergencies. They all have an SOS button/feature that connects you to the emergency services in the country/area you’re in.

If you have an emergency, you should hit the SOS button. Period. That said, there are a few things to know:

  • When you press SOS, their teams will first try to contact you (by sending a message to the device) and also a trusted contact (to find out from them if you may have accidentally pressed the button).
  • Once they’ve confirmed the situation (or if can’t get a hold of you) they will contact the emergency and search and rescue partners in that country/area
  • Search and rescue will go out, find you, and get you to a hospital if needed, no matter what coverage/plan you have
  • Search and rescue services are free in some areas and countries, but they may be very expensive in others
  • Garmin acquired GEOS, which acts as insurance against search and rescue costs.
  • The GEOS SAR50 and SAR100 plans (which you can add when you first register your InReach device) cover you for search and rescue for things like hiking but not for paragliding
  • The SAR HR plan ($180/year) covers you for search and rescue that includes paragliding events

I’d encourage you to get the SAR HR plan (search and rescue can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), but that said, in some countries search and rescue is free (including South Africa), or you might already have search and rescue coverage via another type of insurance; you’ll need to find out.

On your InReach profile, you can set emergency notes. Here is what mine says:

Werner is a paraglider. SOS activation could mean a spinal injury. If SOS is activated in South Africa, contact Wilderness Rescue (+27219370300) to assist with search and rescue. Werner is a member of Genesis Medical Aid South Africa (+27861436374). ID number: xxxx; Medical aid number xxx; Allergies: none.

(When I travel outside of South Africa, I include a line like “Werner has medical insurance and casevac insurance underwritten by Such-and-such (call +1555123456). Policy number: xxx Passport number: xxx)

Search and Rescue in South Africa

Many people in South Africa are worried about hitting the SOS button or calling for help, because of the fear of the costs involved in a search and rescue operation.

Search and rescue is free in South Africa.

(The truth is that nothing is free, but rather that the state or municipality or other entity will dispatch a medical or army helicopter and pay for it in an emergency. They then could try to recover the costs from your medical aid scheme or insurance provider. They don’t recover these costs from you.)

If you’re stuck high in a tree, don’t cut your lines (if there’s a risk of falling and injuring yourself), call for rescue. If you were forced to land on a part of a mountain and you can’t safely walk out, call for rescue. If you (or your flying buddies) are injured, call for rescue.

The fastest way to get search and rescue started in the Western Cape, South Africa is WSAR / Wilderness Search and Rescue / +27219370300. (Note that the name “Wilderness” here doesn’t mean the popular paragliding town of Wilderness…but they certainly will help with search and rescue in that area too). They are headquartered in the Western Cape, but will assist with search and rescue coordination everywhere in the country.

Additionally: The Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) is tasked with allocating state resources to respond to aviation accidents (including helicopters, microlights, light aircraft, passenger aircraft and yes: paragliding). If you are part of or witnessed an aviation accident that requires medical attention or emergency evacuation, call +27635054164 (24hr) / +27635055485 (standby).

I spoke to people from Wilderness Rescue. They had a few more important points to add:

  1. Save Wilderness Search & Rescue’s number on your phone (and give it to all your flying buddies) +27219370300
  2. Save the ARCC’s number on your phone (and give it to your flying buddies) +27635054164
  3. Always carry an emergency blanket. This helps you keep warm and is highly visible when people are looking for you.
  4. Initially, you can keep your glider open on the slope (this is the signal that you’re not OK, if you ever slope land and all is OK, bunch your glider so that other people know you’re fine)
  5. They’ll probably send an EMS or army helicopter if a normal ambulance can’t reach you directly. Helicopters create an incredible amount of wind and your glider can be life-threatening to you and to the helicopter/emergency team. Once contact has been made, bunch your glider up in your backpack, roll it in a ball and tie it down with the lines, or otherwise just get it out of the way. Other paragliders should also be grounded with their wings secured.
  6. Be patient. Search and rescue usually take many hours to coordinate. Have some water, eat some of your snacks, stay warm, and take care of wounds that need immediate attention.
  7. If you land on, say, the top of a building in a city, this is considered an “urban emergency”. Wilderness Rescue will still be able to help coordinate, but they’ll probably coordinate with the local ambulance. Any other mountain (including Lion’s Head and Table Mountain) or rural emergency is considered “non-urban” and applies to them.
  8. Since there are a limited number of emergency helicopters in South Africa, it may take significantly longer to coordinate a rescue in poorer and less-populated provinces (like the Northwest, Limpopo, the Eastern Cape etc.), contact ARCC.
  9. If you’re a witness to an accident or incident, don’t make life more difficult for them by also putting your life in danger by doing irresponsible landings. Land where it’s safe and act as the liaison between the injured person and the rescue party.

Once they get to you, the rescue team will do their thing: get to you up in the tree and safely lower you down; hike and carry you out in some places; evacuate you in the helicopter in others. They’ll generally have a medic in the search party and then get you to civilisation or an ambulance or hospital if needed (where all the rules about medical aid and medical insurance will kick in).

If you’re a foreigner visiting South Africa: consider still buying search & rescue insurance (below). South Africa is a middle-income country and these “free” rescues cost local municipalities tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to do. If you have search and rescue insurance, they will try to settle with your insurance provider at no cost to you.

Search and rescue/casevac around the world

In addition to doing your research and making sure you’re covered for medical expenses while paragliding abroad, you should make sure that the country you’re visiting either has i. universal and free search and rescue available (and give that information to your flying buddies, and family, and add it in your InReach emergency notes) or ii. purchase search and rescue insurance that covers you for paragliding.

If you have a Garmin Inreach, you can consider the Garmin high-risk SAR plan ($299 for the annual plan that covers you up to $100,000 in search & rescue costs). A cheaper alternative is getting annual AXA third-party liability insurance (tailor-made for paragliders) which includes either €2,600 or €10,000 in search & rescue costs (an absolute bargain at €70 – €90 per year, and covers you all around the world, other than the US and Canada). More on third party-insurance, below.

Obviously, search & rescue relates more to adventurous, cross-country, volbiv, and solo paragliding adventures. If you’re just soaring a gentle seaside slope you probably don’t need to go overboard with all of this. That said: in some countries, even if you’re flying locally and ended up in a tree next to the landing zone, you might still have to pay a lot of money to get safely retrieved, so the AXA option above could be a great additional peace of mind.

Third-party insurance

In addition to the topics of medical insurance, travel insurance, medical aid, and search and rescue, we need to cover third-party insurance. This is insurance that will pay out when you’re involved in a paragliding incident and you cause damage to others (property or people).

Third-party insurance in South Africa

It is illegal to fly in South Africa without valid SAHPA temporary (as a learner pilot permit or a foreign pilot permit) or annual membership (as a license holder), so you should already have this. If you don’t, you’re not allowed to fly.

By being a SAHPA member (student, temporary visitor, annual member), you get third-party liability insurance for things like flying into someone’s car and cracking the windscreen, damage to a farmer’s fence, someone else’s paraglider, or damage to government property like signs or telephone wires.

Sahpa has now published full details of their liability insurance on their website: https://www.sahpa.co.za/insurance/ 👏 (Updated: Dec 2023)

Third-party insurance abroad

If you damaged someone’s property (say, by flying into their BMW) or their person (flying into someone and injuring them), you will probably be liable for the damage. It is a requirement to have third-party insurance in some countries (like South Africa, as above, and Switzerland, among others).

Individual clubs and federations may be able to help you out with country-specific insurance, but AXA third-party liability insurance is tailor-made for paragliders and covers you up to € 1.500.000 in third-party liability claims. As above, it also includes some search & rescue insurance (at only €70 – €90 per year).

Incident reporting

After landing on private property or a new field, I always go and announce myself to the landowners (like the farmer or school staff). Most of the time we are treated as a curiosity, but sometimes land owners threaten legal action. In these cases, you might want to provide them with a follow-up declaration of what happened. Here’s a sample:

Dear sir/madam,

My name is _______ and I’m the paragliding pilot that made the emergency landing on your property on ______.

In summary: ______________________________________________ and I took the decision to make an emergency landing, which happened to be on your property. I apologise for that.

Note that paragliding (and all emergency protocols) are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), via the South African Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (SAHPA) of which I’m a member and licensed pilot.

For further review and for your own internal records, I’ve attached an incident report for you.

I’d like to apologise once more, hopefully, my landing wasn’t too much extra admin or bother. If there is anything that you’d like me to clarify, please let me know.

Respectfully,

_________

And then I attach this document with the basics of the flight. Note that in some cases it might be better or required to file an Incident Report with SAHPA.

In my experience, treating the landowners with respect (you did, after all, land on their property) and explaining the situation and sharing your experience with other pilots, will go a long way to maintain these relationships.

I’ve also started a “Friends and Foes” list of friendly and unfriendly landings in South Africa. You can see it on the Airspace page.

Emergency info

Lastly: I keep a small paper with all emergency information (my name, ID/passport number, nationality; medical insurance / medical aid policy and hotline; search & rescue insurance; third-party insurance; next of kin; etc.) in my glider bag.

I also have a copy of that saved in the notes app of my phone and will send an email or Whatsapp message to my flying buddies and retrieve driver with this information before I start my flying day.

In closing

You can’t eliminate (or insure against) all dangers in life; paragliding is no exception.

It is, however, a high-risk sport, and you need to decide if you accept the risk and find ways to mitigate against financial disaster.

There are many other things you can do to lessen the odds of needing emergency services, such as only flying in areas and on days that match your skill level, flying with friends, taking advanced piloting courses, not upgrading your wing too soon, and so on.

Happy (and safe) landings!

About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.