First, I must say that there are definitely a significant fraction of hang glider pilots who are vocally “anti-paraglider”. I want to make it clear that I am not one of them. I could easily see myself flying a paraglider at some point. I simply see it as another way to get in the air. Just as hang gliders are different from sailplanes, paragliders are different from hang gliders. They each have different performance envelopes, and different conditions in which they are appropriate to fly. I simply believe that for the type of flying that I like to do a hang glider is the best machine. In the future I may fly a sailplane or a paraglider.
By the time the main group of paragliders launched there were already two very obvious large storms to the north. These were not “freak storms” and they didn’t “develop suddenly” as some of the news reports indicated. They were already there before most of the field flew. What was amazing to me and to the other hang glider pilots watching was that of the 200 paragliders that launched it appeared that every one took off and flew directly towards the storms.
There are probably several reasons for this. Because it was an open distance format competition, each pilot had the goal of making the longest distance. Usually the way to fly the longest distance is to fly straight downwind. The main exception to this, of course, is if there is an obstruction downwind that must be avoided. Often during competitions we will fly dogleg tasks in order to avoid controlled airspace or some other undesirable feature. These storms were obvious obstructions that should have been avoided. From the point of view of a hang glider pilot, the storms were relatively close, and would likely shorten a flight made in that direction. Flying a cross wind dogleg would have been the obvious choice to maximize distance and remain safe. I can imagine, however, that due to the lower performance of paragliders the storms seemed relatively far away, and flying cross wind would possibly result in such slow speed that a flight made directly downwind, even if it ended before the storms, would be a better choice. In addition, because of the relatively slower speeds, there was more time for conditions to change on course, possibly improving, if one was flying a paraglider.
Even with these justifications, however, some very poor choices were made. Clearly, once the area near the storms was reached, many pilots chose to continue on. One who didn’t was
Again, contrary to what many news reports implied, it was definitely not OK. These pilots were putting themselves in a situation that was not safe, and often not legal, and all the signs were there ahead of time. Clearly, people make mistakes, and accidents happen. The troubling part about this to me is the widespread scale of the mistakes and the lack of acceptance of responsibility for them. This is particularly troubling since these are some of the best pilots in the world here to represent their countries in the world championships. I was not here for the second day, however, I was told that even after these incidents the pilot behavior was much the same; taking off and flying directly towards storms. This was such a problem that for the following days the meet organizers added mandatory turpoints that the competitors had to fly to in order to direct them away from storms.
The flying behavior of the pilots was not the only problem, however. I also see a huge lack of responsibility in how the incidents were handled after the fact. I heard one of the pilots who threw his reserve gleefully telling an audience of his fellow pilots about the entire heroic (to him, anyway) experience. I have not seen any acknowledgement from the pilot who survived that she did anything wrong – in fact those I have spoken to who have spoken to her indicate that she only feels that she was “unlucky”; an absurd viewpoint at the extreme. The main focus of this pilot and those around her now seems to be how to capitalize on the media attention. Of course we have no way of knowing what the pilot who died was thinking or how he felt about it. Perhaps he was merely naively following one of these other idiots thinking that “it must be OK” Surely if I was one of the foolhardy ones I would be wondering if I helped draw a fellow pilot to his death.
As with most accidents there is not just one thing that you can point to as a cause. Certainly the pilot’s lack of personal responsibility coupled with the open format of the competition contributed heavily. Had it been just one irresponsible pilot, however, I think things would have ended quite differently. Instead I think that it is a culture of irresponsibility that inevitably ended in this tragedy. Had this event (I still have trouble calling it an “accident”) occurred in the