This article appeared in the September 1998 issue of Hang Gliding
If I were to ask you to characterize the view that the "uninformed
public" has of hang gliding, what might you say? You might say that they think
of hang gliding as a "death sport," or, at the very least, an "unreasonably
unsafe activity." You might say that they think hang glider pilots are "thrill
seekers" who recklessly disregard the inherent risks in what they do. You might
say that they are under the mistaken impression that hang gliders are fragile, unstable
flying contraptions blown about by the winds and only partially, and inadequately
under the control of the occupant.
If confronted by this attitude in a spectator, how might
you respond? You might say that once upon a time, in the very early days of the
sport, it was true that gliders were dangerous, and pilots behaved in an unsafe
manner. You might point out that in recent years, however, the quality of the equipment,
the quality of training, and the level of maturity of the pilots have all improved
immeasurably. You might point to the fine aerodynamic qualities of today's hang
gliders, the rigorous certification programs in place for gliders, instructors,
and pilots, and you might give examples of the respectable occupations of many hang
glider pilots; doctors, lawyers, computer programmers. You might make the claim
that hang gliding today is one of the safer forms of aviation, and is no more risky
than many other action oriented sports.
Later on, you might laugh about the ignorant attitude of
the "woofo." Or, you might wonder, "Why is it, after all these years,
that the public still doesn't understand? Why can't we educate them about what hang
gliding is really like, and how safe and reasonable it really is?"
So now let me ask you another question. What if they're right?
What if they're right and we're wrong? And what if I can prove it to you?
Let's take a look. First of all, you have to admit that year
after year we continue to kill ourselves at a pretty depressing rate. Anybody that's
been around this sport for very long has probably lost at least one friend or acquaintance
to a fatal hang gliding accident. Most of us who have been around for more than
20 years have lost more than we care to think about. It's true that we have seemingly
made some improvement in the overall numbers in the last twenty five years; between
1974 and 1979 we averaged 31 fatalities a year. Since 1982 we've averaged about
10 per year. In the last six or eight years, we may have dropped that to seven per
year. On the other hand, what has happened to the denominator in that equation?
In 1978, there were 16 U.S. manufacturers viable enough to send teams to the manufacturer's
competition in Telluride. Today we don't even have a manufacturer's competition.
My guess is that the fatality rate hasn't changed much, and almost certainly hasn't
improved in the last ten years. I'd guess it's about one per thousand per year,
which is what I guessed it was ten years ago.
So the question is why? The equipment gets better and more
high tech every year, we know more about teaching than ever, we've got parachutes,
rockets to deploy them, full face kevlar helmets, wheels, FM radios for emergency
rescue. We're all about 20 years older, and commensurately wiser and more conservative.
How come we're not safer?
I've been asking myself variations on this question for as
long as I can remember. Three years ago I had an accident, and in thinking about
that accident I thought that maybe I had stumbled onto some little insight into
the answer. I'll share it with you.
Here's the story. (If you don't like reading "there
I was" stories, or other people's confessional accident reports, skip this
part. I won't be offended.) We were out doing some production test flying at Marshall
Peak in San Bernardino. For those of you who haven't flown there, Marshall is a
rounded knob in the middle of a 2200' tall ridge in the foothills along the northern
border of the east end of the Los Angeles basin. It's a very reliable flying site;
probably flyable 300 days a year and soarable on most of them. It was July, in the
middle of the day, but the conditions were not particularly strong. We were landing
on top, which we do whenever conditions are not too rowdy, because it vastly enhances
efficiency. I was flying a Spectrum 165, and setting up my approach. I've logged
about 100 top landings a year at Marshall for each of the last 15 years. Even so,
I know for a fact that at the time, I was not complacent. I know because I have
a clear memory of what I was thinking as I set up my approach. In two weeks, I was
due to leave on a three week family vacation abroad, and I was thinking, "You
damn well better not get yourself hurt before your trip or your wife is going to
kill you." At the same time, I wasn't anxious. I was flying a Spectrum, the
conditions were only moderate. I'd made lots of successful landings on more difficult
gliders in more challenging conditions. I hadn't had an unsuccessful landing attempt
in longer than I could remember. I was relaxed, yet focused. My intent was simply
to fly a perfect approach. Such intent is always a good idea when top landing at
Marshall; the landing is challenging, and a sloppy approach can quickly get you
into trouble. I knew exactly where I wanted to be at every point in the approach,
position, heading, altitude and airspeed. I executed the approach exactly as I wanted
You top land at Marshall half crosswind, gliding up the back
side of the hill. You come in hot, because the gradient can be extreme, and there's
often some degree of turbulence. The time interval from 40 mph dive, through round
out, to flare is very short. I was halfway through this interval, past the point
where one is normally rocked by whatever turbulence is present, when both my left
wing and the nose dropped suddenly and severely. I went immediately to full opposite
roll control, and managed to get the wings and nose just level when the basetube
hit. Having turned 90 degrees, I was traveling mostly downwind, at a groundspeed
of probably 30 mph. The right downtube collapsed immediately, and the right side
of my face and body hit the ground hard.
Very briefly, I thought I might die. For a slightly longer
time, I thought about paralysis. Within a minute, I knew I was mostly ok. In the
end, I got away with a slightly sprained ankle, and a moderate case of whiplash.
I had three weeks to think about the accident while I bounced around the rutted
dirt roads of East Africa trying in vain to keep my head balanced directly over
my spine to moderate the pain.
The thing was, I never considered at the time of the landing
that I was anywhere near "pushing the envelope." I've done dozens of landings
at Marshall where I did feel that way. All during the previous two summers I had
been top landing RamAirs at Marshall in the middle of the day in much stronger conditions.
I had never had a crash. Thinking about it, I couldn't even remember the last time
I had broken a downtube. I tried in vain to think of a clue that I had missed that
this was going to be a dangerous landing. Finally, I was left with only one conclusion.
What happened to me was nothing more or less than exactly what the potential result
was, during any of the times I had landed under similar, or more challenging circumstances.
That was a dangerous landing because of what could have (and did) happen. The corollary,
of course, is that all the other landings I had done, on more challenging gliders,
in more challenging conditions, were also dangerous. (In fact, they were more dangerous.)
And they were so in spite of the fact that no bad results ensued in any of those
And suddenly I felt like I was beginning to understand something
that I hadn't previously understood.
You see, here's how I think it works. The overriding determinant
of pilot safety in hang gliding is the quality of pilot decision making. Skill level,
experience, quality of equipment; all those things are not determinants. What those
things do is determine one's upper limits. More skill gives you a higher limit,
as does more experience or better equipment. But safety is not a function of how
high your limits are, but rather of how well you stay within those limits. And that,
is determined by one thing; the quality of the decisions you make. And how good
do those decisions have to be? Simply put, they have to be just about perfect. Consider
the type of decisions you have to make when you fly. Do I fly today? Do I start
my launch run at this time, in this cycle? Do I have room to turn back at the hill
in this thermal? Can I continue to follow this thermal back as the wind increases
and still make it back over the ridge? Each time you face such a decision, there
is a level of uncertainty about how the conditions will unfold. If you make the
"go" decision when you're 99% sure you can make it, you'll be wrong on
average once every 100 decisions. At 99.9%, you'll still be wrong once every thousand
decisions. You probably make 50 important decisions for every hour of airtime, so
a thousand decisions comes every 20 hours, or about once or twice a year for the
So, to be safe, you have to operate at a more than 99.9%
certainty. But in reality, 99.9% is virtually impossible to distinguish from 100%,
so really, for all intents and purposes, you have to be 100% sure to be safe.
And now I think we can begin to understand the problem. Let's
first consider this; we all have a strong incentive to make the "go" decision.
The "go" decision means I launch now, relieve my impatience to get into
the air and avoid the annoyance of the pilots waiting behind me, instead of waiting
for the next cycle because the wind is a little cross and the glider doesn't feel
quite balanced. It means I turn back in this thermal, and climb out above launch
and stay up, instead of taking the conservative choice and risking sinking below
the top and maybe losing it all the way to the LZ. It means I choose to fly today,
even though conditions are beyond my previous experience, rather than face listening
to the "there I was" stories of my friends in the LZ at the end of the
day, knowing that I could have flown but didn't, and knowing that they did and were
rewarded with enjoyable soaring flights.
So the incentive is there to choose "go." The only
thing we have to counter this incentive is a healthy respect for the possible dangers
of failure, and our ability to evaluate our prospects for success. And here's where
we get caught by a mathematical trap. Let's say I'm making my decisions at the 99%
level, and so are all my friends. Out of every 100 decisions, 99 do not result in
any negative consequence. Even if they're bad decisions, nothing bad happens. Since
nothing bad happens, I think they're good decisions. And this applies not just to
my decisions, but to my friends' decisions as well, which I observe. They must be
good decisions, they worked out didn't they? The next natural consequence of this
is that I lower my decision threshold a little. Now I'm making decisions at the
98% level, and still, they're working out. The longer this goes on, the more I'm
being reinforced for making bad decisions, and the more likely I am to make them.
Eventually, the statistics catch up with me, and my descending
threshold collides with the increasing number of opportunities I've created through
bad decisions. Something goes wrong; I blow a launch, or a landing, or get blown
over the back, or hit the hill on the downwind side of a thermal. If I'm lucky it's
a $50 downtube or a $200 leading edge. If I'm unlucky, I'm dead.
If we can agree at this point that making 100% decisions
is the only safe way to fly, it then becomes interesting to consider, as an aside,
what the sport of hang gliding would look like if we all operated this way. Pilots
would choose to fly in milder, safer weather conditions. They would operate much
more comfortably within their skill and experience limitations. They would choose
to fly more docile, more stable, easier to fly gliders. Landings would be gentle,
and under control. Hang glider manufacturers would sell two downtubes and one keel
for every glider they build (the ones that come on the glider) instead of three
or four replacement sets like they do now. There would be far, far fewer accidents.
(As it is now, there are about 200 per year reported to USHPA.) There wouldn't be
any fatalities, except maybe for one every couple of years if a pilot happened to
die of a heart attack while flying (it's happened once so far that I can remember).
Since this isn't anything like what the sport of hang gliding
does look like, we might conclude that hang gliding, as it is presently practiced,
is an unreasonably unsafe activity practiced by people who lack a proper and reasonable
regard for their personal safety. In other words, we might conclude that the "uninformed
public" has been right about hang gliding all along.
If you don't like that conclusion, I'm pretty sure you're
not going to like any of the coming ones either. But let's first ask this question,
if we wanted to address this problem of bad decisions being reinforced because they
look like good decisions, how would we do it? The answer is, we need to become more
critically analytical of all of our flying decisions, both before and after the
fact. We need to find a way to identify those bad decisions that didn't result in
any bad result. Let's take an example. You're thermalling at your local site on
a somewhat windy day. The thermals weaken with altitude, and the wind grows stronger.
You need to make sure you can always glide back to the front of the ridge after
drifting back with a thermal. You make a decision ahead of time, that you will always
get back to the ridge above some minimum altitude above the ridge top; say 800 feet.
You monitor your drift, and the glide angle back to the ridge, and leave the thermal
when you think you need to in order to make your goal. If you come back in at 1000'
AGL, you made a good decision. If you come back in a 400, you made a bad decision.
The bad decision didn't cost you, because you built in a good margin, but it's important
that you recognize it as a bad decision. Without having gone through both the before
and after analyses of the decision, (setting the 800 foot limit, observing the 400
foot result), you would never be aware of the existence of a bad decision, or the
need to improve your decision making process.
This was one of the main ideas behind the safe pilot award.
The idea wasn't to say that if you never crashed hard enough to need a doctor, you
were a safe pilot. The idea was to get pilots thinking about the quality of their
decisions. Not just, "Did I get hurt on that flight?", but "Could
I have gotten hurt?" During the first couple of years of the safe pilot award
program, I got a few calls and letters from pilots who would tell me about an incident
they'd had, and ask for my opinion as to whether it should be cause for them to
re-start their count of consecutive safe flights. I would give them my opinion,
but always point out that in the end it didn't matter, what was important was that
they were actively thinking about how dangerous the incident had really been; i.e.
what was the actual quality of their decision making.
Looking back on it now, I would say that the criteria for
a "safe flight" - (any flight which didn't involve an injury indicating
the need for treatment by a licensed medical professional) - was too lenient. Today
I would say it shouldn't count as a safe flight if, for example, you broke a downtube.
A few years ago (or maybe it was ten or twelve, when you get to be my age, it's
hard to tell), we had a short-lived controversy over "dangerous bars."
The idea was that manufacturers were making dangerous control bars, because when
smaller pilots with smaller bones crashed, their bones broke before the downtubes
did. (Today, most of the complaints I hear are from the other side, pilots who would
rather have stronger downtubes even if their bones break before the downtubes, because
they're tired of buying $65 downtubes, which they're doing with some regularity.)
I have a different suggestion for both of these problems. Why don't we just stop
Of course I know why. The first reason is, we don't even
recognize it as "crashing." I continually hear from pilots who say they
broke a downtube "on landing." (I even hear from pilots who tell me -
with a straight face, I swear - that they broke a keel, or a leading edge "on
landing.") The second reason is, we don't think it's possible to fly without
breaking downtubes from time to time. I mean after all, sometimes you're coming
in to land and the wind switches, or that thermal breaks off, or you're trying to
squeak it into that small field, and you just can't help flaring with a wing down,
sticking the leading edge, ground looping, slamming the nose (WHAAAAACK!) and breaking
We regularly observe our fellow pilots breaking downtubes,
which also reinforces our perception that this is "normal." I'm going
to go out on a limb here. I'm going to say that if you've broken more than one downtube
in the last five years of flying, you're doing something seriously and fundamentally
wrong. Either you're flying too hot a glider for your skills, or you're flying in
too challenging conditions, or at too difficult a flying site.
Now let's ask one more thing. If hang glider pilots stopped
dying, and if hang glider landing areas stopped resounding with the sound of WHAAAAAACK
every second or third landing, (in other words, if hang gliding started looking
like fun, instead of looking both terrifying and deadly), do you think maybe the
public's perception of the sport might change? (Not do you think more of them would
want to do it, in truth, no they probably still wouldn't.) But do you think maybe
they'd stop thinking we were crazy for doing it?