Never eliminate the safest option
“But gravity always wins” Fake Plastic Trees, by Radiohead
A series of unfortunate events in early 2022 resulted in me breaking my back while paragliding (and yes, it’s almost always a series and not a single event). In this article, I’d like to explore the mistakes and insight gained from the accident. Hopefully there is something here that will help fellow or future pilots from making the same or similar errors.
I’d been flying for just under a year, but due to the wonders of remote working, a flexible schedule, and an obsession with the sport, I managed to clock in many hours (121 hours and 6 minutes, to be precise) and long distances (a personal best of 120km XC), spread over 185 flights.
I’m definitely still a progressing newbie, and I consider(ed) myself quite risk-averse, conservative, and safe in my flying. These perceptions of mine clearly needed some recalibration, as I’ll explore further down.
(Note: I sent an update request to Sahpa, which was added to the report but not visible in the PDF, after I debriefed with multiple pilots and instructors, eliminating wind shadow as probable cause*.)
I had flown the Franschhoek site ten times before. I’m aware of the sensitivities with the residential estate (between takeoff and landing, where you need to log an incident if you can’t make landing and have to land short), so I’ve always had a hard (and stupid) rule in my head: “I will never land in the estate”. †
After about thirty minutes of flying, the pilots who I’d been flying with and I started sinking out a bit. Once I reached the road (the R45 that runs parallel to the mountain), I used it as the cutoff marker for pushing out to landing.‡
I realised that I was sinking faster than planned, and to make landing I will either need to get some lift, or come up with an emergency landing. I decided that the best place would be to the right (north) of the estate: an uncultivated mess of trees, scraggly brush, and a small clearing that will require finesse but one I’d “definitely be able to make”. After losing hope of further lift (at around 60m AGL), I decided to make a last minute beeline to my emergency landing.
In the final minute, my suboptimal decisions compounded: with the tailwind my ground speed increased which added another layer of pressure and I braked far too aggressively in response. This led to a canopy with little pressure (close to the ground) and then by adding another overly aggressive input (turning too fast with additional brake input), my glider collapsed and I went down. §
Some of my glider still (must have) retained shape, as it’s very unlikely that I would have survived a 42 metre free fall (as calculated with the cheery climbing “splat calculator”, it puts you at the same gravitational force as being hit by a car/object going 110km/h). ¶
As I flew in a pod harness, I was in a seated position, and honestly the last remaining scraps of mental energy went into trying to recover the wing and brace for landing. There was just not enough time to get into a parachutal landing fall (PLF) position, nor to throw the reserve in time. #
I hit the ground with a loud thud, and a blinding bolt of pain shot through my back. After slow and painful grasps for air and too hurt to get up, I crawled into a patch of shade and communicated to the other pilots by radio about my situation.
(Feel free to skip this section, it’s just about my personal injuries and recovery, added for completeness’ sake; but don’t miss the lessons and insight gained, further down)
A combination of things made the rest go as well as you could hope for (recommended reading: my wiki article titled Emergencies**, with some things you can do to make your life a lot better post-accident).
The eyewitness first responder on the scene was able to quickly dispatch the local paramedics (and even took a little memento photo for me, thanks again, René!).
After a dose of morphine (I politely declined the ketamine) I was loaded onto a gurney and hauled off by ambulance to the orthopaedic division of the Stellenbosch Mediclinic.
The first round of x-rays didn’t find anything, and the doctor said something to the tune of: “Looks like you got lucky, why don’t you get up and have someone pick you up and go home?”. Beaming, I got ready to sit up (I had been flat on my back all the time since the accident). I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried.
My smile dropped and I was sent off for more intense and detailed CT and MRI scans. The two page report had scary sounding phrases like "anterior and central deformity of the superior endplate of T10" and "fracture line involving the vertebral body but not the posterior cortex" and "tear of the inter spinous ligament between T9 and T8 spinous processes".
In simpler English: I had broken my back and needed to go under the knife. It’s a very sobering thing to hear a surgeon tell you how close you came to being paralysed for the rest of your life ††.
After some messages with friends and family that evening (there is a small but not insignificant chance complications during surgery and I’d end up in a wheelchair) and with my ever-patient partner waving me off, I was wheeled out for surgery.
The operation was a success and five shiny screws (with a supporting “bridge” between them) will stay in my body until the day I become worm food in the ground; hopefully not creating a scene each time I pass through airport scanners.
Whereas I couldn’t get up (or imagine doing so) on the day of the accident, I managed to stand up, mostly unassisted, the next day. Even though I could get up, I couldn’t imagine walking, but the next day that “impossible” thing followed. The next day (previously unimaginable) stairs. And after four painful days I hobbled out of the hospital.
Many weeks (and indeed, months) of rehab lies ahead. It’s incredible to think that for weeks on end I can still honestly say “well, today was better than yesterday”. The hope-crushing back pain is slowly receding. My painfully slow shuffles around the neighbourhood are turning into more confident strides along the promenade. I still can’t bend over and I haven’t had a night of uninterrupted, pain-free sleep (for three weeks), but hey: it beats being in a wheelchair.
A few months from now, unless I do something stupid, I should be able to return to hiking, trail running, and yes: paragliding. In the meanwhile I’m getting so much from the tiny victories in mobility, it’s really motivating stuff.
Lessons and insight gained
There’s a direct relationship between the quality of your decision making and the quality of flight you’ll have. Some of these decisions we make hours and days before flying.††
These might include an honest look in the mirror (or in the eyes of your family) and asking: “Should I fly at all?”. For me, that one is still a no-brainer, but it also includes things like:
- Are my wing and harness right for me (or am I trying to “grow into” something better)?
- Is it safe to fly today?
- Will it remain safe to fly today or what should be done to mitigate any changes in safety?
- Is it safe to take off within my abilities or am I hoping for a small gap amidst the dangers?
The thing is that there are so many external factors that add pressure on your decision making ability. No matter how calm and collected you are, every next high-pressure decision you make that is slightly suboptimal, will add more pressure on your next move.
Unless you have a lot of experience in, say, stalling your wing at 40 metres AGL (not something anyone in their right mind would recommend), you probably also won’t have the right amount of practice of getting out of that mess.
So, then: how’s about just avoiding it altogether? And instead of stating the obvious "Don't stall your glider", I'd rather say "Don't get lead down a path of suboptimal decisions that might result in a stalled glider".
Here are some lessons and insights that could have helped avoid my accident (or might help others avoid something similar).
I’d like to think of myself as mostly free-spirited and unconventional, but also somewhat rational and calculated. I love the liberty and freedom that paragliding gives, but I also feel that the best way for us to learn, if not from our own mistakes, would be to learn from others.
By contrast, some of the early pioneers of free flying (who deserve the credit for bringing us the sport), might have had a more restrained view of things than to bother with things like flight logs and accident reports. This unfortunately contributed to a culture of non-reporting, when compared to most other forms of aviation. The problem was exacerbated due to a culture of blame (asking “Who messed up?” instead of “How can we learn from and avoid this mess in future?”); something that will take time to change.
Sadly, by not logging and sharing our accidents and incidents, we just make it harder for newbies and other pilots to avoid repeating our mistakes. You don’t need to bare your soul (and share scans of your broken back); a mere incident report and chat with your flying buddies is already a step in the right direction. I feel I articulate best through written pieces like this; others host discussions at their clubs; others in unedited and raw videos recorded at home. Foster a culture of logging and sharing anything dodgy (no, make that over-logging and over-sharing) so more people can learn.
This touches on something related absolutely worth mentioning: the flying community has been incredibly supportive throughout the whole ordeal, offering everything from rides, meals, emotional support, recently legalised non-prescription painkillers (wink-wink), and a whole lot more. If you don’t reach out to them and share, they won’t know and you’ll miss out on a lot of kindness and insight as a result.
* Own your mistakes
I think this is human nature and perhaps (pardon the pun) a lack of backbone, where we’d like to blame external forces or other people when things go wrong. We say: “Oh, my motorcycle tyre slipped and lost grip on the wet road” (implying there’s nothing that could have been done or something else is to blame) and not “I was going way too fast in my turn in the rain, I should have been more careful” (I own my mistake and there’s something I could have changed).
I really, really wanted to say “I probably hit a wind shadow or rotor in my turn, my glider stalled, there’s nothing I could have done” (which was in fact in my original accident report and what I sincerely thought had caused the collapse), but the reality is that I messed up and I stalled my glider (due to a lot of other suboptimal decisions also attributable to me and only me).
I can personally gain a lot more from taking ownership of my mistakes than to try and blame it on some external force. That isn’t to say there aren’t external forces out of our control, but I feel much more empowered knowing that there are actions I can take in future (and actions I can encourage others to take) than to just say: “well, shit happens”.
† Never eliminate your safest options
This was probably the biggest lesson for me. It’s maddening to think that I made such a stupid and inflexible rule in my head (“I will not under any circumstance land in the estate”). This is especially grating, considering that I was chatting with visiting pilots and explained the sensitivities but told them “but of course you should land there in an emergency”. It drives me mad today to look at photos and satellite images of the beautiful, unobstructed road in the estate I could have had a perfectly uneventful landing on.
Your safety is more important than merely upsetting anyone else. And also, since I disregarded my own safety, I ended up being much more of an inconvenience to the local pilots and residents. Go figure.
Eliminating the safest option (or rather, not doing so) touches so many aspects of flying and there isn’t a universal answer to all the options out there, no one-size-fits-all method to always be safe.
But even if I took the (suboptimal) decision to land where I did in the end, I would have flown there with it as part of my flight plan from the start, planning it properly in advance, doing the right setup, getting out of my harness early, and so on. All the things you normally do to keep yourself safe.
‡ Know thy glider
Sure, the road is a good marker for when you need to fly out to landing, but did you ever consider that your glider’s glide ratio will be different from another?
§ Speed is your friend
I’ve had more than ample opportunity to get to know my wing and how much brake (and other) input I should give to get a desired result. I didn’t, however, have much experience doing a frantic, last minute downwind dash to swoop into a tight landing spot.
In those high-pressure last few seconds I felt pressure to slow the glider down (“the earth is moving so fast below me, this can’t be right!”), so I hung onto the brakes for both the downwind stretch and in the final turns I was yanking down on them even harder to the point of collapse.
If ever you wanted clarification on what they mean when they say “speed is your friend”, this is it.
Additionally (and perhaps controversially), I’d say advancing pilots should consider practising downwind manoeuvres. This might mean putting on some tough overalls and doing the slowest of controlled downwind landings on the beach; or finding your stall point both upwind and down on your SIV course high above the ground. As someone else very eloquently sharpened my thoughts: “The only time when you do a downwind landing is when you have power lines on the one side and a crowd of school kids on the other and you simply have no other option. That's the wrong time to brush up on downwind landing skills.”
¶ Built-in safety, above all
Sure, we fly for different reasons and there’s a wing to match your preference. Some of us want to make a target in a competition, in record time before the others, and will need a different wing than the person who only does 20 hours of coastal soaring per year.
For me, the importance of passive safety became crystal clear that day. I fly an Advance Epsilon wing; one that is considered an “relatively easy mid-B”. If I had flown a hotter glider (or anything with lower passive safety), I could very well have been paralysed or dead, as the wing retained some of its shape.
As they say: only upgrade your wing when you get bored of it. At 185 flights and 120 hours, I’m not bored with mine at all. I can’t see myself getting anything more than another “relatively easy mid-B” rated glider anytime soon (and if mine got stolen, I’d buy the exact same one again).
There is no rush in the sport for me anymore. If I allow myself to have all the requisite hours (and yes, years) of flying, I have ages to improve my skills and decision making to become better and safer (and then reassess my choice of wing).
# Harnesses and hard landings
The benefits of a pod harness still outweigh those of a seated harness for me and my type of flying. That said, I’d encourage you to think about it long and hard before changing too soon, since you’re sacrificing on things like visibility, increasing the odds of riser twists, and I can tell you the reclined position makes for nasty low-level seated impact.
In a seated harness I would have been slightly more likely to land in the PLF position (a broken leg is a lot better than a broken back). This is obviously something that I could have better planned for and been in the correct landing position earlier and doing a proper setup.
‖‖ Have an emergency plan
As per my wiki article (Emergencies), the biggest takeaway is to have medical insurance (when travelling) and medical aid (in South Africa). As I limped out of the hospital, I asked the administrator to have a look at my expenses so far. It came to R103,238 (but will inevitably go up some more). Most of that (and potentially all of it) will be covered by medical aid.
If you can’t afford monthly medical aid payments, you won’t be able to afford the required medical care that could come with some paragliding accidents. (Rather ask your family to make the monthly payments than the fees they’d have to pay if you choose a private hospital over a zero-charge state one)
** Consider less-than-worst
This is maybe more of a revelation than a lesson, but I had honestly never considered that one of my favourite hobbies could lead me to being in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. It’s as if I had done the calculation and said: “yes, I’m okay with the odds of passing away” (or generally just thinking about death in a constructive way by having things like a testament in order), but not the other things that don’t include death, like paralysis.
†† Consider that you might have been wrong before
A sequence of sub-optimal decision making (starting with the elimination of the safest option) resulted in me breaking my back. The fact that I thought that my flight path and actions were even close to reasonable, only indicate one thing to me: I must have had a history of making sub-optimal decisions in the past.
The fact that nothing happened to me after those sub-optimal decisions doesn’t mean that they were right in the past; but the fact that they didn’t end in disaster means they continuously reinforced the crazy idea that they were in fact right (nothing happened, great, you were right!).
I highly recommend these two resources to dive deeper into that line of thinking, it was probably the most insightful thing other than my conversations with experienced instructors.
- Youtube video: Stopping the normalisation of deviance
- Article: Why can’t we get a handle on this safety thing?
Final thoughts and anonymous appendix
I learned so much from this accident; hopefully you gathered something useful from it too. If I missed something, or you’d like to add your own thoughts, please reach out. I can’t wait to return to the skies with a newly sharpened sense of staying safe.
Or put another way: same pilot, different mind (and a handful of extra screws). See you in the sky soon again!
These are some passages that pilots sent me after reading this piece, with some very insightful and welcome comments.
Given the range of flying you've had and the regular airtime, I think it might be classic 'intermediate syndrome' ... where you progress fast to 100hours+ and become overconfident of your ability to go anywhere on your paraglider and therefore a bit complacent of the risks. A more nervous pilot / low hours would have assumed they'd f*k it up in the tree patch, and would have only seen the road as an option. You have to build in a safety margin in your thinking, which is the extra space in every flight path that allows for being human and performing worse than expected + not perceiving things. The tree field only works, if the airflow is undisturbed and you do the setup perfectly.
You have inspired me to submit my accident. Guilty, once again of non-reporting.
I have been a pilot for 10 years and over this time have seen many very avoidable incidents of varying degrees or many very close calls where the person walked away not even realising they were on thin ice. When there have been serious incidents, I have begged and pleaded for thorough reports to be released by various parties. I have usually been told that they don’t have the authority to release, or that they don’t want to affect someone’s insurance or they want to be sensitive to their families. I think a discreet report without identifying details would easily help others having the same incident. For a while i kept a log of similar types incidents which I put in buckets to try and share with newbies as I found most incidents fell in the same 4/5 areas. There are a few obscure ones but with newer pilots understanding 4/5 key areas, they can eliminate 90% of the risks.
You noted the reasons there is a culture of not sharing which I agree with. I also think pilots like to bury their head in the sand and don’t want to know of the risks. pilots often hear of an incident and simply dismiss it as “pilot error” somehow comforted by the fact that the guy made a mistake as if they never themselves make mistakes. They don’t take the time to understand and learn.
This may sound strange but I once heard, “Paragliding is not inherently dangerous, it’s just highly intolerant of mistakes.” Ie if done with correct decision making, you’ll have a long and happy time flying. There aren’t little gremlins or freak accidents waiting behind every gust trying to take you out.
I obviously can’t comment on your incident other than saying I have seen similar before based on what you describe. It does sound like the error happened well before your landing. I never want to make a landing using my best glide. One should always have sufficient height to scope out landing area, have alternatives if the area has dangers like power lines, and understand wind direction. You note you eliminated your safest option but also, if you felt this was really a no go option, maybe your cut off height to head for your chosen landing was wrong. This cut off should have margin built into it. I’ve so often been told, “I hit sink” and that’s why someone landed in a bush.
One can’t have so little margin that should you hit sink, headwind etc you have no plan B. So other than “don’t eliminate your safest option”, I would add, “have a plan B” and “have plenty of height to arrive, assess, setup and land. And preferably a plan B that was thought of prior to being put into decision hyperdrive where your brain gets overwhelmed. If you made your landing by flying downwind and only have 40m of height before cranking a turn, you left for landing a bit late.
In similar incidents I’ve seen, pilots often slow the wing down tremendously and then in order to turn, instead of raising one hand, they pull the other one even further down when near stall. If you have braked the wing to near stall, to turn one needs to let one break up and not pull another one further down. I also fully subscribe to speed, energy and pressure in your wing are your friend. I hate seeing pilots land and they have no energy to flare. More because if they hit any turbulence their wing is toast with no ability to catch it as it has no pressure to catch.
I have seen this a number of times with guys trying to topland, flying downwind at the mountain, trying to crank a turn (which relative to the air is very sharp but relative to the downwind ground isn’t turning fast enough). We’ve all seen out tracklog thermals not looking very circular compared to ground. and best case doing a massive hook turn wing over into the ground and worst case spinning their wings. If they had more height to play with, they would be travelling into wind for a substantial time before getting to landing.
What you describe has been done by us all and many have luckily walked away bragging to mates how they nailed this tight landing. I’ve done it once on a top landing and I was luck to walk away thinking I was a hotshot lander, I was also lucky it was early in my flying and I was lucky a senior pilot kakked me out from a dizzy height. I’ve never repeated that.
Too many people mention “freak accident”, like the tyre of the motorbike slipping. I personally will stop flying when I feel that I could be doing everything perfectly and a freak just swats me from the sky. Various people have also told me previously that they don’t release accident reports as they don’t want to scare newbies (aside from the other reasons they noted above). I think it’s far more scary to think there are freaks of turbulence waiting to swat you Vs controllable decisions. Many people in your boat would have said they hit freak rotor. You may well have. But if you had pressure in your wing, flying into wind, not slowing the wing down, etc etc, the freak wouldn’t have gotten you. Also, if the freak rotor was there, you probably missed wind direction and obstacles you should have been aware of.