Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Thunderstorm Flying

It has certainly been interesting to be a spectator here in Manilla with so many paragliders in the air. Having been here during the thunderstorm flying event that has now made world news, it amazes me to see the contrast between the news reports and reality. Some of the errors are due to the reporter’s lack of knowledge about the sport, but you can also see the spin that has been injected into the news by the parties that have a vested interest. The whole thing just sickens me, and I feel that I can no longer refrain from commenting. In the unlikely event that you haven't already seen news coverage, you can find the stock story here.

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.

The day of the incidents I was on the mountain watching the competitors launch. These were not pilots “practicing for the worlds” as most news reports have stated, but instead it was the first day of an Open XC competition. In this competition format, each pilot chooses their own course, and they receive a score based on the distance that they fly. Many of these pilots would be flying in the worlds, but this was also a competition open to less experience pilots who were here for the opportunity to fly with and learn from the best.

Tall cumulus clouds had started forming early in the day – an almost sure sign that there would be overdevelopment and rain later in the day. It was a pattern that had already been established for several days during the hang gliding competition that had just finished. Some days the hang gliding tasks were designed specifically to direct us away from storms, and on the last day the task was stopped due to thunderstorm development.

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 Kari Castle. Kari is the top US women’s paraglider pilot and former Women’s World Champion. She chose to land near Baraba before reaching the storms; her comment afterwards when she saw gaggles of pilots continuing on was “What do they see that I don’t that makes it OK?” Here you have one of the best pilots in the world questioning her judgment because so many others are exercising poor judgment. I definitely think that “group think” must have played a role. Pilots looked around and saw other pilots continuing, so they figured it must be OK.

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 United States I am sure there would already be a call for legislative action to prevent similar incidents in the future. This is exactly what we claim we don’t want or need. As soaring pilots I believe we need to prove that we can be responsible in our actions and make it clear that our culture doesn’t embrace irresponsible behavior. I just hope that’s true.


Tom Lanning said...

Thanks for the taking the time to share your thoughts. I have also been surprised about any real discussion of why this happened and what pilots should have done to avoid it.

Dave Cameron said...

It is amazing to me as well. One other pilot here pointed out, however, that most pilots can read between the lines to what really happened, and most non-pilots only want the "reality show" version of events. So why bother trying to explain? I guess I feel an obligation to my family and non-flying friends to provide some analysis. Also, after spending an entire season here watching various events unfold, and then reading about the same events in the OZ report and wondering "Was I there?" I think the flying community back home needs another viewpoint. Anyway, this was mine.

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis of the events out there Dave. My disbelief at how the pilots involved have come out of this as being described by one media report as "inspirational to others" is tempered only by how bad free flying would look should the media spin have gone the other way. I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that the sport came out looking relatively good.
I find that the low levels of regulation that we enjoy is one of the main attractions of our form of aviation. We need to accept that if we are to maintain this we must fly in a responsible manner and consider the impact of our actions on other aviators and how the media loves to make us look like cowboys should anything untoward happen. If we don't fly responsibly we'll end up having some beaurocrat regulate our flying for us.
Andrew Carswell

Dave Cameron said...

Thanks, Squeak. You are absolutely right about the attracton of the sport. I think the fact that we are able to "play" in the air without a lot of regulation is key to our fun loving culture. When people start to get hurt or when regulations turn us all into traffic cops it loses a lot. I don't mean to be a moralist, and I don't want to be policing my fellow fliers. From that point of view you are absolutely right that we are lucky that the media spin went in favor of the fliers. We may not be so lucky next time.

By the way, if you get a chance fire me off an e-mail so I have your address. Thanks, Dave C.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave! Thank you so much for your post re: the paraglider incident. I had been expressing similar frustrations about the media coverage and of the pilot's apparant lack of insight. Coupled with the relative dismissal of this incident by our local paragliding/hanggliding forum, it seemed like only a very few were bothering to bring up how much pilot error went into the makings of this "accident". Well said, as always Dave.

Welcome home... Janet