Raymond Caux has been hang gliding since 1984, French team member in three world championships from 2003 to 2007 and team leader from 2007 to 2011. He has been involved in safety concerns since 2007 and CIVL Safety Officer from 2012 to 2017. Here he proposes a track to improve further our safety.
So what? After reading all these articles, what remains for one’s everyday practice? The aim of this text is trying to pick the essential points in safety advices to build a usable down-to-earth (or up-to-air) strategy.
- – Mike Meier states that external observers may be right thinking our sport is dangerous. Being complacent towards our practice, we become dangerous too.
- – Greg Hamerton proposes a competitor strategy: cut the situation to assess into slices, raise the level for each slice and then the overall safety is improved.
- – David O’Hare explains that in the long run, the human nature can not be changed and human mistakes will happen with absolute certainty.
- – Brian Germain says we should consider our stay in the sport otherwise. Instead of focusing on medals or results, value more just a lifelong enjoyment.
- – Bert Willing analyses what goes wrong with our behaviour and wonders why champions kill themselves? He shows we deal quite poorly with stress.
- – Vic Napier tells there is a hope: we can educate our risk assessment means to have them react in a better way when needed, in extreme situations.
- – Bruce Schneier, Ian MacCammon and Vic Napier somehow destroy our self-confidence, showing how easily we are trapped by our own flaws.
Some points are common in these texts. At first the readers have become interested in that matter. Maybe after some close call, they start having doubts about their own strategy and look for litterature. Since aviation and psychology are already quite old, the articles presented in this section are only a set among a huge resource of very serious articles, studies and essays.
There are also common ways of sorting safety issues among airsports. Usually one considers 90% of accidents come from human factor and 10% from equipment; in those 10%, some may still come from human factor, someone else’s. Anyway it is clear humans represent a decisive part in the accidents causes. A Lufthansa study says airliner pilots make one mistake every hour. Those are professional pilots, logging more than 10.000 flight hours, regularly trained with all possible simulators, both individually and as crew, and still they make mistakes.
Recreational pilots are far from reaching this experience, but still in sports like general aviation, gliding or skydiving, they practice in structures where safety information is displayed. It is different for isolated hang glider or paraglider pilots, who may fly during long periods totally alone in remote places. Therefore it is particularly important they learn a good framework and a good mindset.
Until now, only the human factor is referred to among safety concerns in the learning syllabus. The purpose of the articles mentioned above is to open a door toward better understanding our tools to deal with risk and safety. A typical problem anyone can feel is “accidents happen to all”. We all agree it is true in principle, but without admitting it, we think at the same time they are general words, and in our own case we have our magic armour: “I’m carefull, I wouldn’t make such a mistake”. During mandatory safety briefings in world championships, pilots usually do not listen. These briefings are long, boring, “they” always repeat the same things, actually “they” are obliged to. Like the life jacket briefing in a plane, oh no, not again…
So we are in this mindset: airsports are dangerous, but if we are cautious and do it seriously, we will get through. Most accidents tend to enhance that, because there was a mistake, we would not have made it. Very seldom, the victim was a champion who did not make any visible mistake. Then we start having doubts. Some stop flying or change airsport. Some stop only for a while, some do not. But a new question appears: “It went wrong with this very good pilot, known to be careful, it could have been me“. This is the key point. The difference is essential, because our mindset has now changed. We are now sincerely believing it can happen to us if we keep on with complacency. Then we will start looking with new eyes at our strategy, equipment, movements, decisions, like watching ourselves from outside. We become less confident in ourselves, we check everything twice.
From another perspective, the magic armour is what it is called, magic: an illusion. Accidents happen only to others, not to us. But all those who died from an accident were thinking that too. It has even a scientific name: the optimism bias. One among many flaws in our brain, and it is important to become conscious they exist. Murphy’s law for airsports could be: if it can fail, it will fail, and kill. If we do not believe in magic, we must check every step of our learning, of our procedures, every mm of our equipment, and seek how it could fail. We must change for clean behaviours and equipment, we must learn from our (not own but as a community) mistakes. Donald Berwick (USA, medicist) says: “Every system is perfectly designed to achieve exactly the results it gets”. It means that accidents result from the system’s operation and were predictable from the beginning. System can be translated here as organization, procedure, equipment or all that together.
The event that triggered my switching process was forgetting to hook in during a competition in 1992. I had an infallible procedure, never move my glider unhooked and watch the carabiner before launching, but that time, for very good reasons, I skipped both steps and was just lucky someone told it before I ran. Rollin Fairbanks (USA, another medicist) says: “Human component is the least reliable component of any system”. When we understand we make such big mistakes too, then we can start assuming definitely what we really are, especially in panic… Any procedure will be followed by a human, precisely the least reliable part of our aircraft. We should search more foolproof strategies.
Another way to see it is to consider luck. There are many hot events each year, or in a pilot’s career, some incidents, and few accidents. An accident is basically an unlucky incident, luck or unluck being more or less the only difference between the two categories. Now let us, on the contrary, consider incidents are lucky accidents. There are many incidents and even more events, meaning that we are often lucky, huh…
Luck and Miracles
A new example, true story of course: in the northern French (or Basque) Pyrenees, south-north ridges coming down from the Spanish border toward the flatlands, ten pilots fly with a 40km/h west wind forecast. Eventually the wind comes in, one pilot lands hanging under his chute, the other ones land more normally. With the usual point of view, he was unlucky to tumble and break his rigid wing, but with the “lucky accidents” way of thinking, there were ten miracles in one single day. That is a lot.
In an article about choosing skydiving equipment, Bill Booth (USA, inventor of not less than the hand deploy, 3-ring release and all-on-the-back harness design) states: “So many fatalities occur because of decisions jumpers make before even getting in the airplane”. In other words: fail to plan, plan to fail.
And we must stay aware that our wing loading is among the lowest of all aircraft (the birds also, but they have others tricks), leaving us very much like a cork in the swell. It can happen (and unfortunately happens) that a shear be stronger than any quick or good or strong pilot’s input, just because the airmass not always respects our gliders’ limits. In this type of situation, the only safe option would have been not to fly. Those cases are so rare we feel that we can overcome any weird event, but that is just wrong. A joke among paraglider pilots is: “What is the hardest in paragliding? – The ground…”, by the way it is true for all aviation.
To sum up, as long as we are self-confident, we may be complacent with our equipment, analyses, decisions, and when we begin to doubt, we are probably organizing better for our safety. What Greg Hamerton says about the layers between us and the ground can be transferred to our whole practice: let us add layers between us and the accident. Let us go back to school to improve our skills (a good landing is not an achievement, it is only normal with the right moves…), choose a glider suited to our level or below, have a well serviced equipment, glider, harness, rescue parachute (right size), helmet, check the weather, and be ready to do something else and “fly another day”.
Our body is fragile, only a 20km/h shock against a wall does not forgive. Our marvelous brain is fragile too, so easily fooled by false all right feelings until it is too late. Let us not only agree with “accidents can happen to us too”, but accept it deeply and take it into account to change our behaviour. It is an essential step to become still safer. Flying is a miracle, but life is still a greater miracle. Even the best run out of luck sometimes. Let us leave luck in peace.