And Cleopatra, Queen of Denial
I hate to steal the name of a book to start my article, but since
the concept of the book gave me the idea for this article, I guess
I'll give credit where credit is due.
A wakeup call is where you are sound asleep and perhaps dreaming
and a pesky buzzer keeps going off in your dream calling you back
to reality. Well, we as hang glider pilots have been in a dream
where we think we have this sport in hand, and it no longer offers
the dangers it once did.
I have been in this sport a long time, and I have been, over the
years, keeping track of the friends and acquantences that I have
lost to the sport. A long time ago, the count was over 30 pilots,
and I occasionally wondered why I still was flying and bringing
new people into the sport. In fact, I sort of dropped out, racing
bicycles for several years, only maintaining my ratings and teaching
a few people how to fly who searched me out and twisted my arm.
When I came back into the sport seriously, in 1987, I noticed
that the yearly fatality count had subsided, and the gliders,
though sometimes harder to land were generally much safer to fly.
Towing, which was the way I had started flying, was also much
safer. We had new methodologies which allowed us to tow over land
instead of water. In the past, water had provided a sort of cushion
for our inability to tow perfectly safely by providing us with
a soft place to crash. Now, due to Donall Hewett, Jerry Forburger,
and his West Texas gang, and the various pervayors of the payout
winch, which, of course, preceeded the platform launch by a number
of years, we had methods which allowed us to tow safely over land.
Further, aerotow had developed from a rather scary concept of
the early eighties into a mature technology on which a number
of new schools and flight parks have been based.
Then, in a matter of weeks, I lost two friends to the sport again.
One in an almost incomprehensible aerotow tandem accident, and
another doing aerobatics in Colorado. Another pilot was hurt badly
in Texas in an unexplicable towing accident, and the years death
count has been climbing to the highest level since the seventies,
a large proportion of them towing accidents. I could hear a little
voice in the back of my head sayng, "Wake up, it's time to
get up, you've been dreaming." Yeah, but I liked that dream.
I liked being able to tell my students, pompously, "Yes,
hang gliding was the death sport of the seventies, but now it
is much safer than general aviation."
In the hang gliding community, a lot of pilots are saying, "It
can't happen here." "Or perhaps, I'm too good. It won't
happen to me." or perhaps, "We're as safe as we can
be. Any more safety precautions would just be a waste of time."
In the military, a series of accidents such as we have had, would
engender a task force to investigate the accidents, come to conclusions,
make proposals and impliment those proposals to improve safety.
So what can we do to create the task force to improve safety?
Well, the Dennis Pagens and G. W. Meadows can write another article
on safety, which is what I am doing here, though I hesitate to
elivate myself to the class of Gee Dub and Dennis. But, an article,
if just published to solve the problems of hang gliding is all
very nice, but solves no problems. It can be read, then the reader
nods his head in agreement, then puts the magazine away and goes
off to do the "Samo, samo"
We seriously need to rethink the concept of intermediate syndrome
or more to the point, advanced syndrome and reevaluate everything
that we currently think about the sport. For one thing, there
have been a number of articles published showing how safe the
sport is. Hey, throw that crap away. This sport isn't safe. A
late breaking email just announced that another member of the
BOD of the USHGA has been severly injured. Just among the august
body of the BOD, there have been two fatalities, and several severe
injuries since 1993. It's time that we realize that the sport
is a form of aviation, and punishes mistakes in judgement severely
and even more to the point, punishes pilots just for being there.
We need to develop better safety programs. The accident report
and accident review committee are good as far as they go, but
perhaps we need to go farther. Back in the old days, the regional
director was expected to investigate every fatality which occured
in his region. Perhaps, we need to take this a step further and
create a budget for someone to investigate every serious and fatal
hang gliding and paragliding accident in the U. S. with a view
towards getting very accurate data about the sport.
According to Mark Twain, there is the lie, the damn lie, and the
statistic. I hear people reassuringly state that statistically
the hang gliding fatality rate isn't so bad. Only half of the
pilots out there belong to the USHGA and so the fatality rate
is only half what it seems to be. I don't believe it. I think
that 90% of all pilots who fly regularly are USHGA members. If
there is a large contingent of non-member pilots then the fatality
statistics should show similar proportions, and in fact if our
programs are worth anything, and I think they are, the non-member
pilots should have a higher accident rate than the member pilots.
Hang gliding fatalities, as opposed to injuries, are usually well
reported, but there don't seem to be many non-member fatalities.
So maybe, we need to determine really how much flying is done
by non-members and what the real accident statistics are. I'm
not sure that this is data that we want known by insurance companies.
So what about Cleopatra, Queen of Denial. Denial is a pop pshchology
term for lying to yourself about the reality. A typical form of
denial is telling yourself that only car accidents which happen
on the highway at high speeds are dangerous so you really don't
need your seat belt on that trip to the corner market.
A pilot from near me, was hurt severely in a towing accident.
My first conjecture was that maybe we should consider using observers
more consistantly in towing. The response was that the accident,
while not actually seen by anyone, was not at all likely to have
been helped by the use of a tow observer. I, then asked, if a
towing observer wouldn't have helped, then what safety improvements
could be made to insure that a pilot could tow, without signifigant
chance of ending up a week in intensive care, or dead. The very
frightening response was, ...SILENCE... I took this to mean, there
is no answer but "We can not prevent this type of accident,
but it doesn't happen very often ." Or possibly, the thought
was, "I am a better pilot than the one who got hurt, and
so this can't happen to me."
"Yo, Cleo! I didn't know you were a hang gliding pilot."
I already published some articles on tow which outline principles
which I think will reduce towing accidents. We need to work on
principles which will reduce other types of hang gliding accidents.
First, we need to eliminate denial. We need to admit that 1. Hang
gliding is more dangerous than we generally admit to ourselves.
2. The person most likely to make a dangerous or fatal mistake
is me, not you.