A brief history of serial vs competition class paragliders

Flying Serial in Valle de Bravo

The ‘serial vs open class’ debate has been raging for well over a decade within the paragliding world. While the full impact of the change may not be discernible for some time yet, it is useful to review the history of the debate.

The 2012 CIVL Plenary determined that the year’s FAI Category 1 paragliding cross country competitions will be limited to certified gliders, a decision that is unlikely to be reversed for 2013 championships. However, we need to retrace our steps back to the 1999 CIVL Plenary in Copenhagen to find the early discussions at international level on ‘serial’ vs ‘open’ class paragliders in competitions. In those days ‘serial’ class was DHV 2-3 or Afnor Performance.

The debate was instigated by Robbie Whittall, a past world paragliding and hang gliding champion, world record holder and test pilot (Ref: XC Magazine article). The proposal did not succeed, largely because the PWC had already decided to trial the introduction of serial class that year. And although the trial had the full support of the CIVL Paragliding Subcommittee, Delegates chose to wait and see. Ironically, CIVL Secretary back in 1999 was Robbie’s father, Noel Whittall, who was himself reported to be frustrated by the indecisiveness of CIVL delegates.

Unfortunately, the PWC experiment was inconclusive. It was not popular with many pilots and consequently only lasted a year. On at least one site, it was reported, there were task setting concerns as the less performant gliders were low after they crossed the valleys. Barely 30% of pilots opted to fly serial class and were reported to be involved in more than half the incidents.

However, dating from around that period, several nations, including Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and Spain, have at various times been successfully running serial class only or simultaneous serial/open class events.

Continuing debate

At the 2000 CIVL Plenary, a proposal to run FAI Category 1 championships (Worlds and Continentals) as serial class only events was defeated. The subject has been raised at the CIVL Plenary virtually every year since, usually by the Nordic countries and Germany. In recent years, the EHPU (European Hang Gliding and Paragliding Union) has also recommended a move to serial class. Each year, the serial class proposals have failed, but often only just.

Safety and fairness are the primary reasons put forward by the pro-serial class lobby. Open class supporters argue that there are no statistics to prove that open class gliders are any less safe than serial class; that without an open class, manufacturers will push serial class design to the limits; and paraglider design and development will be restricted. In addition, they argued, it would be extremely difficult for competition organisers to determine whether a serial class had been modified, taking it out of certification, and creating an unfair advantage.

Its interesting to note that some European nations have taken a somewhat schizophrenic stance to the serial class debate. CIVL delegates (primarily concerned with competition issues) have voted against adopting serial class only events, while their counterparts in the EHPU (a broader based lobbying organisation) have been swayed by arguments concerning insurance and legal liability, and have supported the recommendation to CIVL to restrict Category 1 events to serial class only wings.

Radical design changes

By the end of 2009, paraglider design was evolving radically and rapidly at the high performance end of the market. Reinforcements had started appearing in the leading edge a few years prior, but now they were becoming more substantial, initiatiating the so-called ‘carbon debate’ on what might constitute a ‘rigid structure’ thereby contravening the definition of a class 3 paraglider. Today, these inserts are a nylon composite rather than carbon and are designed into not only the highest performing paragliders. This development has allowed a reduction of the number of lines, eventually to just two spans – the 2-liner. Drag has been reduced and top speeds have increased dramatically.

The number of incidents at the 2009 Worlds in Mexico (including one fatality) ensured that safety remained high on the CIVL agenda. At the 2010 Plenary, a move to serial class was still the preferred option for some. But the PG Subcommittee, which built on the Swiss proposal to set up a working group to establish homologation criteria for a competition class paraglider, won the day. Thus the Open Class Technical Working Group, chaired by Martin Scheel, was born. The first interim stage, required manufacturers to meet certain construction limitations and minimum test requirements for ‘open class’ gliders. Eventually, a new EN standard and certification system for ‘competition class’ gliders was to be developed.

Competition class is born…

At the weather-jinxed Europeans in Abtenau in 2010, it came to light that many open class gliders were not undergoing all the basic EN 926-1 structural strength tests required by Section 7b rules, in part because the new designs had become increasingly difficult to test. With this in mind, the OCTWG began the long task of developing the interim proposal. Many further discussions and some considerable work resulted in the definition and adoption in 2011 of CIVL’s ‘competition class’ paragliders. The rules included a revision of the tests that these gliders must undergo including the 23G line specification, the load test requirement, the basic flight tests on video, as well as written test reports outlining why this model would not pass EN-D. A primary aim was that new designs would be fully completed and tested in good time prior to a Category 1 competition, and in the hands of the pilots early enough to gain some air time before the Worlds. The systems to implement these rules were in place ‘just in time’ for the World Paragliding Championships in Piedrahita.  

Some pilots expected that manufacturers would register their current range of ‘open’ class gliders under the new ‘competition’ class rules. Many of these designs were barely a year old and many pilots had invested in these models the previous season. But only two manufacturers, Ozone and Gin, registered their previous models (Mantra R10.2 and Boomerang 7). In general, manufacturers, (plus Ozone and Gin) decided to concentrate on launching new models prior to the Worlds in Piedrahita.

As expected, some manufacturers were working right up to (and beyond) the deadlines set by CIVL. Some pilots were late receiving their wings, and many did not have enough opportunity to fly them extensively before arriving at Piedrahita. But this was already an improvement on past events, when some pilots typically received newly designed wings on the eve of the championship and were ‘tuning’ them during the competition.  

Nevertheless, with the shortened glider manufacturing cycle, it was clear that some pilots would be moving up to the new generation of ‘2-liners’ sooner than they might otherwise have done. This was further compounded by the fact that the performance of the new generation of gliders exceeded the previous 3-liners, and far outstripped the best of the EN-D certified gliders, which had the performance roughly equivalent to the 2009 competition models.

… and is banned

Following the double fatality on Task 2 at Piedrahita, compounded by the high number of additional incidents, the CIVL Bureau made its decision to stop the competition by temporarily suspending the certification of ‘competition class’ gliders in FAI Category 1 events. This factor, combined with the recommendation that NACs consider the situation for competitions held in their own territories, led many NACs to immediately follow suit, banning all uncertified gliders in Cat 2 and other events in their countries. Some quoted legal liability and insurance reasons. Some merely stated that their decision was on safety grounds, pending the outcome of further investigations.

It is noteworthy that NACs did not react when CIVL’s introduction of ‘competition’ class at the February 2011 Plenary, effectively banned ‘open’ class gliders from Cat 1 championships. There were no reports after the Plenary that NACs had followed suit for Cat 2s. Open class (uncertified) gliders were still being flown in Cat 2s in most nations worldwide at least up until the Worlds at Piedrahita.

The PWCA, debated the issue at length and made an early announcement just one month after Piedrahita, that the 2011 Superfinal, scheduled for January 2013 in Valle de Brava in Mexico, and the entire 2012 PWC tour (all Cat 2 events) would be restricted to certified gliders.

It was not the specific intention of the CIVL Bureau that uncertified gliders be banned for all Cat 2 events. But it felt it would be negligent if it did not point out the safety concerns to FAI members. The cause(s) of the accidents still had to be determined, and would be investigated by the Paragliding Competition Safety Task Force.

EN-D pushed to the limit

Yet even before the Task Force reported, manufacturers had started to react by trying to push their ‘competition’ class gliders into the EN-D certification class. Testing was extremely difficult, and this too, resulted in urgent discussions within the PMA.

Meanwhile, some manufacturers have stated that these new gliders are not to be considered as appropriate for pilots who normally fly ‘serial class’ gliders in the EN-D class. Thus, the fear, first voiced 13 years previously, that serial class glider design would be pushed to the limit, has been realised.

The reaction by recreational and serial-class competition pilots to this unintended (but expected) consequence has been almost as loud and negative as that of the top level competition pilots following the CIVL Bureau decision to suspend certification of ‘competition’ class gliders.

This brings us up to the preparations for the 2012 CIVL Plenary. This time there was no need for a specific proposal to move to Serial class, as that was (and is) the de facto position. However, the consequences seem to have made all parties realise that some sort of ‘competition’ class paraglider is necessary to avoid EN-D becoming the ‘competition’ class. Unfortunately, many believe that the EN-D class will not fully recover, and pilots must be made better aware of the performance characteristics of the gliders they choose to fly.

Moreover, one of the overriding themes from the detailed report of the CIVL Competition Safety Task Force, was that some sort of ‘competition’ class should be reinstated as soon as possible. The Task Force gave considerable attention to the possibility of splitting the EN-D class to differentiate these new gliders. The same discussion has been taken up by the PMA, and there appears to be no easy way to classify the wings.

Competition class reborn?

By the time of the Plenary, the PMA had issued a statement that it intended to work towards creating a new ‘competition’ class paraglider. The CIVL Paragliding Subcommittee, encouraged by the PMA’s intentions, recommended that CIVL review this work once it is completed. The PWCA backs the decision to stay with serial class only in the meantime, and had already announced that its 2012 tour would be serial-class only up to and including the Superfinal in early 2013.

Meanwhile, much needs to be done to ensure all pilots are fully aware of the skills required to fly the new generation of EN-D gliders. The PMA, following the recommendation of the CIVL Task Force, is working on developing an SIV-like training programme for competition pilots. Some NACs favour the introduction of making such courses mandatory for competitors (already the case in Switzerland). This is certainly going to be on the agenda of the next CIVL Plenary.

Our picture: flying Serial in Valle de Bravo, 2012 PWCA Final (Photo Lucas Bernardin).