Greg Hamerton writes fantasy novels and paragliding articles. He has been flying paragliders since 1992 and has flown over 100 wings. He prefers responsive handling and agility but rates passive stability highly as he enjoys taking photographs and snoozing whilst gliding. Here he analyses the components of risk and how to prevent them to reach the pilot.
"Keep a good margin of safety", the instructor advised. Great. But what does it mean? How can you reduce your risk when leaping off a mountain with a piece of fabric (and maybe some metal too)?
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 the pilot at one time.
To actively manage your risk, find ways to counteract the particular danger, trying to achieve a "green light" state in each segment. The closer the threats have crept in toward the pilot in the centre, the more "red light" warnings are lit, and the more cautious you should be with other elements. When too many elements are impacting the pilot with high risk, the inevitable accident happens, which is 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. By examining each element in turn, I hope to provide some insight into maintaining a good margin of safety.
No matter your level of experience, sudden bad weather can "take you out". It is the most important risk to manage. The first thing you can do to actively reduce the risk is to watch the weather forecast. It sounds simple, but it gives you an idea of what to expect. The weather forecast predicts a cold front coming through in the morning, with the wind swinging through 180° thereafter, and strengthening to 50km/h. If the day dawns with a light 15km/h, you already have the warning bells ringing. The more changeable the weather is, the higher the risk is, because the predictions and your own judgement onsite are less accurate. Right, so you're now on the hill. Put up a windsock. If it's ranging from left to right, the wind is variable, which increases the risk of turbulence. If the wind is gusting from 5 to 30km/h, the risk of turbulence is again higher than a steady 20km/h. Have a look at the average direction of the wind. The straighter it is, the more penetration problems you have when trying to escape from being blown over the back, thus your risk is higher if the wind is strong and straight. But if the wind is skewed to one side, the risk of turbulence increases, as your risk of being "blown over" reduces. Lastly, the wind strength is vital - the stronger it is, the fewer other risks you can tolerate, because things go wrong really fast.
Until you have attended a maneuvers clinic and you are familiar with the limits of your current glider, you're flying with a higher glider-risk than you need to, especially if it's a new glider, or you've upgraded to a new class. Try to choose a wing you will be happy on all the time, not only in the smooth conditions. The DHV or AFNOR class is a guideline, but doesn't show how often a wing collapses (paragliders, hopefully not hanggliders). Although manufacturers like to advertise their glider's top speed, useable speed is usually lower, and deteriorates with the presence of turbulence, especially on high-performance models. However, if you get to the slope and it's strong and smooth, look critically at the airborne gliders before pulling up your solid intermediate. The long-and-thin competition wings have the use of all their speed then, and might be flying when you can't. However, on the very turbulent days, your glider risk will still be manageable. Finally, a regular equipment inspection and yearly factory check will help to keep your glider risk in the green.
For a demonstration, imagine all five of your other risk elements "red-lining" for a moment. You have a cold and a hangover, and you have borrowed an aged 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 Föhn 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. When flying cross-country, you are coming upon a new site every five minutes, which is why it requires constant analysis, and lots of caution. A pilot ahead of you flies right up against the slope and seems to be okay. Should you follow? Well, ask yourself how experienced that pilot is. If you have less experience (or don't know), you would be red-lining to be flying as close. Position yourself in the safest part of the air where you can still fly, not in the quickest place to get up. This lowers your risk while you are building the necessary experience and ability.
Good old body armour. Anything you can put between you and the ground reduces your risk here, and it's as easy as pulling out your credit card. Defend yourself with fullface helmet, boots with ankle support, thick foam in the harness (especially at the base of the spine), knee and elbow pads. You can add an airbag to be doubly sure. You look like more of a dork in a hospital bed than covered in protective gear. Besides, they won't see you for long - you're not going to stand around on takeoff, are you? 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. Accidental deployments are risky moments. Also, 50% of reserve's I've handled during repack clinics have deployment problems, usually due to bonded Velcro strips, awkward harness designs, or incorrect elastics used on the nappies. Packing errors are less common, but it does highlight the need to understand the reserve before it can work for you and not against you. 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.
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're a reincarnated bird, 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. A quicker way to enhance your ability is to take your glider to a field or easy site and work on your groundhandling. Professional launching does wonders for risk management. It's all about flying when you want to, not when the gusts decide. When you're up in the air, be critical of your position relative to others. The higher your overall risk profile is, the further away from the ground or compression zones you need to be, just to keep yourself on a par with others. 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. This is another reason why you should be out in front of the ridge, ahead of the sports pilots and the skydogs who are going "over the back".
The best is the experience you build from airtime, so if you're not a local at the site you've chosen to fly, know that your risk is high, unless you've got hundreds of flying hours to draw upon. On the blown-out days, seek out whatever theory you can to boost your knowledge. 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. Just be aware that you will sometimes overestimate your knowledge - it's a symptom of being human. We always, always "blow it" at some point.
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.
Original article: http://eternitypress.com/freshair/risk.htm