|"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)?
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.
WEATHER : 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 180degrees 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 5km/h 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
WING : 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.
SITE : 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.
GEAR : 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.
ABILITY : 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'.
KNOWLEDGE : 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.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER : 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.