Wakeup Calls

And Cleopatra, Queen of Denial

Dave Broyles © 1996

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.

[Home] [Products] [Lessons] [Articles] [Images] [Gliderlinks] [Clubs] [Other Links]