Paraglider harness safety

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Whereas there has been a lot of progress in the testing, certification of, and conversations around paraglider wings, I think that we’re not giving enough attention to harnesses safety. This could be due to a variety of factors: the R&D cost in improving harness safety, the low profit margins, and a consumer base that doesn’t really care about the safety results (over things like weight and XC performance).

lab-test

More efficient and faster cars aren’t of much help if they don’t also have any safety features like ABS, airbags, or seatbelts when the metaphorical wheels come off.

Most harnesses on the market today come with some certification: a basic level of quality and safety, where the equipment got stress-tested in the lab (similar to the crash tests you might find for cars).

Who does the testing?

Same as for the car industry –where manufacturers are better at marketing than objective testing– we have some independent testers that standardise things for us: Para-Test/Air Turquoise.

There are other places that may do certification but at the time of writing, Para-Test was the largest and most-established tester. It’s worth it to bookmark their website right now (and look up the results of your harness, wing, and reserve parachute later).

What gets tested?

The durability of the harness (can it handle the allowed weight under extreme conditions), impact (how much protection does it offer when you fall on your bum/back), reserve deployment (can it be reached and removed under stress and different angles) and more.

The testing is rigorous, but a bit limited, especially for (non-compulsory) impact tests, the focus of this article.

Impact protection

At the time of writing, the main back impact protection methods used are:

  • Soft protectors (like foam)
  • Hard protectors (that crumble upon impact, like Koroyd)
  • Air protectors (that need to be inflated before launch or self-inflate after launch)
  • None-at-all (as it’s not needed for all types of certification)

The two main standards are the EN standard (European Norm, developed by the European Committee for Standardization), which is the more commonly-known standard to certify paraglider wings; and the lesser-known, but more rigorous LTF standard (developed by the German Federal Aviation Office: Luftfahrt-Bundesamt).

(Note that Air Turquoise / Para-Test does both EN and LTF certification. EN standards don’t require a harness to have back protection to pass the certification test; LTF does.)

Here is a video of Gin that sort of shows impact testing done on one of their harnesses.

EN

The EN standard for paragliding harnesses is known as EN1651. Annoyingly enough, the document has copyright protection, so I can’t tell you exactly what the wording is and what gets tested, but you should be able to gather enough from the test report of your harness or just search and shop around online. For impact tests, it is the same as the LTF standard, below.

LTF

In 2009 the LTF testing standards, procedures, and requirements were updated and are known as LTF91/09 (or just LTF09). You can read it all in English here (PDF). As it relates to impact tests it says the following in italics (my comments in brackets):

The following limits may not be exceeded during back protector test: 

  • Maximum peak 50g, (This means that if a decelerating force that is 50 times the force of gravity (50g) is measured in the impact test, the harness will fail. When you experience 50g it is the equivalent of feeling 50 times your weight)
  • Maximum 38g for a period of 7 milliseconds (If the decelerating force measures higher than 38 times the force of gravity, it must only be felt for 7 milliseconds or less.)
  • Maximum 20g for a period of 25 milliseconds (If the decelerating force measures higher than 20 times the force of gravity, it must only be felt for 25 milliseconds or less.)

All three criteria must be fulfilled. (If it fails any test, it won’t pass LTF certification) 

In even simpler English: the lower the maximum measured peak of impact, the lower the g’s, the better.

(Sidenote: John Stapp kept doing tests in the 1950’s and set the record for the highest g-force someone got to experience and survive, voluntarily: 46.2g. These were accelerating forces, however; harness tests are for decelerating forces. During her fatal car crash, Princess Diana would have experienced an estimated decelerating force of 70g in her chest, enough to pull her pulmonary artery from her heart; whereas if she had worn a seatbelt it would have been around 35g and she may have lived)

More personal thoughts on impact tests

I am not an expert in these things, but in the same way that I don’t need to know exactly what the classification and deployment rate for my car’s airbags are, as a consumer I will “vote” with my money and pick equipment with more and better safety ratings over others.

To begin, I think that it is really important to fly with some form of impact protection for each and every flight, even dune soaring. We require helmets for each launch, but the odds of hitting your bum onto the ground are significantly higher (just visit any hill to see people getting plucked on launch; not to mention the never-ending sloppy landings). Size and weight are irrelevant excuses: even the lightest of hike-and-fly harnesses now have impressive airbag protection (usually as a paid add-on), and they fold down to the size of a light jacket.

Generally speaking, a larger protector (wider, longer, higher up your spine) should cover more of you at more angles, if you happen to fall more on your back or sides than squarely on your bum.

Here is an interesting survey by the DHV to pilots who experienced spinal injury due to paragliding accidents:

(I’m not saying that their protectors definitively helped them, but trust me when I say: you 100% look at back protection in harnesses after a spinal injury or hard crash, you might as well look at them before, too)

It doesn’t take great height or a particularly high force to break your back, either. In 2022 at a live Twitch event, adult film star Adriana Chechik,  ceremoniously jumped into a foam pit onto her bum (a drop of around 1.4 metres), not knowing how hard the foam and shallow the pit was (i.e. a high decelerating force). She shattered her spine in two places. Google for some articles (in private mode, she is/was a porn star after all, you don’t know what else might come up) or just watch the first 6 seconds of the video on Twitter here.

The shock absorption of your legs is better than any harness protection, so an upright, PLF position (for hard landings) is probably always going to be your safer bet. Get out of that harness early. Good ground handling skills and not flying when it is too strong or turbulent should mitigate the odds of you needing any sort of protection.

I like how we encourage and mentor pilots with less airtime and skills to stay in a lower EN wing rating (saying: ”Stay in your EN-A until you get bored of it and only then go to a low or mid B”). I would like it if we did the same for LTF impact tests (“Hey, best to stay in that sub-25g rated harness until you’ve gotten a few more hours in the sky, buddy”). It is nice to think about criteria for our gear for when things go right and during perfect conditions, but maybe it is useful to think about what we want when things go wrong.

These tests are done in the lab and real-world results will obviously be different, especially since they won’t happen at precise angles on smooth, flat surfaces. There are many variables that you can’t test for and many limits to the current tests, but rather than throwing it all out as irrelevant, we can help with the progress and evolution by talking about it and showing our support for the standards agencies, testing companies, and manufacturers working to make our sport safer. We don’t operate in a binary world where you will (or won’t) definitively be 100% safe, but a more fluid one where we can pay attention to things that may make our flying marginally safer (or less safe).

Consider raising this topic with your flying buddies, participate in online discussions, and hit me with a comment if you agree or disagree with anything!

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.