Free-flyers are exposed to a variety of risks, coming from different aspects of the environment. By identifying where the greatest risk for the day lies, you can make an effort to take precautions by increasing your safety margins in each of the other aspects. The idea is to reduce the number of risk elements that can reach you at one time.
Firstly divide the risks into six classes: Weather, Wing, Site, Gear, Ability, Knowledge. Try to achieve a ‘green-light’ state in each area. The more ‘red light’ warnings are lit, the more cautious you should be within the other risk classes. When too many elements are impacting the pilot, an accident is inevitable - a complete failure of risk management. You can usually handle one risk at a time, but when two or three threats compete, things get hectic.
Weather No matter your level of experience, this is the most important risk to manage. Watch the weather forecast, it gives you an idea of what to expect. If the weather is significantly different to the prediction, the risk is high, because it is changeable. Put up a windsock on the hill. If it's ranging from left to right, the wind is variable, which increases the risk of turbulence. If the wind is gusting the risk of turbulence is again higher. The straighter the wind is onto the hill, the higher the risk is of an increase in speed because you'll be pushed over the ridge sooner than if it was aslant. But if the wind is skewed to one side, the risk of turbulence increases. Lastly, the wind strength is vital - the stronger it is, the fewer other risks you can tolerate, because things go wrong really fast in strong wind. It's the most common cause of accidents in our sport.
Wing Until you have attended a manoeuvers clinic and you are familiar with the limits of your current glider, you're flying with a higher glider-risk than you need to. Try to choose a wing you will be happy on all the time, not only in the smooth conditions. Although manufacturers like to advertise their glider's top speed, maximum useable speed is lower and deteriorates with the presence of turbulence, especially on high-performance models. A daily equipment inspection and bi-annual factory check will help to keep your ‘wing’ risk in the green.
Site Imagine all five of your other risk classes ‘red-lining’ for a moment. You have a cold and a hangover, and you have borrowed an old competition glider for the first time. It only has an old canvas harness. You have no shoes or helmet. You don't know what weather was predicted, but someone mentioned strange conditions. The wind is strong, gusty, and crossed on launch. The hair standing up on the back of your neck yet? Good, now look at the new site before you, and all its nasties will jump up at you clearly. Consider yourself flying only half the wing, badly, and being thrown around unpredictably. Rough, rocky terrain increases the risk of turbulence, and limits your emergency landing areas. Small landing fields with critical approaches raise the risk again. If there are no visible wind indicators (lakes, fires, airborne gliders) the site risk is again even higher.
Gear Good old body armour. Anything you can put between you and the ground reduces your risk here. Defend yourself with a full-face helmet, boots with ankle support, thick foam in the harness (especially at the base of the spine). Reserve parachutes are a very good idea, but they do not reduce your risk just by buying them. You must learn how to use them, and check your system regularly. Keeping in touch with others via radio and cellphone means you can benefit from shared knowledge and team rescues. Finally, a GPS is a useful tool for XC flying, giving you a constant update on your speed over the ground, which reduces your risk of being blown over a ridge in wind you didn't recognize.
Ability Some pilots are naturals, others must learn the hard way. Unfortunately, it is human nature to think we are in the first group until we stuff it up. There's an easy way around this pitfall. Even if you think you're great, follow in the footsteps of the hard-learner (you can just do it better ;-). Aerobatics are best begun in a maneuvers clinic, but thereafter you can build your ability by practice, practice, practice - up high. The awareness and sensitivity you build up with your wing is invaluable. Take your glider to a field and work on your groundhandling. Professional launching does wonders for risk management. The higher your overall risk profile is, the further away from the ground or compression zones you need to be. When you're new to the sport, your ability to recognize danger is limited, so you only notice that you're in trouble when things are very bad, so you should be out in front of the ridge, in a safer zone than the experienced ridge-huggers.
Knowledge Experience is built from airtime, so if you're not a local at the site you've chosen to fly, know that your risk is high. On the blown-out days, seek out whatever theory you can. Many good books have been written on flying, the weather, and first aid. There are websites on flying, email forums, and even the war-stories in the flyer's pub contain a grain of useful truth. XC courses, SIV courses and competitions round off the picture. The more involved you become, the more your growing knowledge helps to reduce your risk.
Putting It All Together You've bought a new glider, one class up from the one you're used to. So your WING segment is red-lining (new glider + upgrade). What can you do to reduce your risk? Choose your elements carefully - go to the safest SITE you can for the day, be less tolerant of risky WEATHER than usual, pretend that you have less ABILITY than you know you have and fly accordingly, seek out as much KNOWLEDGE as you can about the wing, its DHV rating, and the site you're flying, put some extra GEAR between you and the ground.
It's all about making sure you have enough other ‘green lights’ on your panel at all times, so you've got that margin of safety.
Words © Greg Hamerton
Greg has been flying since 1992 and is a paragliding instructor and cross-country pilot from Cape Town, South Africa. His flying story Beyond The Invisible explores themes of fear and freedom within flying. His Fresh Air Site Guide is designed for pilots touring South Africa. The Riddler's Gift (2007) and is an epic fantasy novel .
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