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Rules?, what rules?

I think most of you have read the story of my mid-air collision and reserve ride at Puli, so I’m just going to link to that and move on.

The rant this month is more of a list of things that piss me off about various attitudes both in this sport and in this country in general.

The rules don’t apply to me.

Many pilots have been injured, and killed while participating in this sport, and in most countries the organizations responsible for growing and developing the sport are under pressure to control the accident rates, or face restrictions on their activities. Information is collected, trends are examined, and the real reasons for accidents and injuries analyzed. Over the many years that hang gliding and paragliding have been popular, some basic truths have been discovered about the dynamics of flight, weather conditions and human nature. It’s come to the point where the best wheel is generally recognized to be round, and further development work is limited to the refinement of it. Pretty much all mistakes are repetitions of ones that came before, and therefore are predictable, and avoidable.

We figured out a long time ago that when people just flew around at random, collisions ensued. Some basic rules that laid out right of way were borrowed from the guys who cheat and fly with engines, and modified a little to suit the slower unpowered craft we fly. Basically, if everyone follows these simple rules, there shouldn’t be any problem. Things should only get even mildly exiting in competition.
Instead, the rules are ignored by pilots or they are simply not taught to beginners. "Nice rule for everyone else, but it doesn’t apply to me"

It was also noticed that when those enthusiastic pioneers decided to spread the gospel and share the thrill of flight with others, the results were a little inconsistent. Some people just picked up the necessary skills as if born to fly. Some took a bit more patience, help and guidance, but eventually they made it. A few just lacked something essential, whether it was perseverance, or courage, or motor skills, or the ability to judge risks or any one of a myriad other things. It also got noticed that this process of coaching could be improved upon by comparing notes and sharing the knowledge gained in practice. It was realized that hit or miss usually meant a lot more hitting (hard things, other pilots) than missing. The idea of a trained coach and a standardized program arose and again a scheme for training was borrowed from other forms of aviation and applied to gliding. With some time in operation it then got further refined and honed by the growing ranks of both students and coaches. This wheel wasn’t invented in one go, but with a lot of hard work. It still isn’t a perfect wheel, but it works as best it can at the moment and the work of refining it goes on. A lot of people were injured and many killed to make these programs what they are, and usually not willingly or even fully aware of the risks. Do we lend our hand to the process already started, learn from the mistakes of others? Or do we tell ourselves, "Gee, that’s a nice program you got there, but I don’t need no stinkin’ training, and I can do it on my own"?

Probably not very long after the first brave nutter jumped off a mountain with a parachute, somebody probably figured they could make a bigger one and take some poor sucker up with them. Well hey, no one really knew what the hell they were doing in those days. Over the years enough people have been hurt, or had near-misses, to realize most of the potential for disaster, and so the willingness to drag the innocent and ignorant into potential danger has subsided. Still, a few brave folk decide that sharing the joy of of flight makes the effort to do it safely worthwhile, and good on ’em. The collected knowledge is analyzed and a training and rating program figured out to be sure that what the others had learned the hard way was passed on, and that the new tandem pilots got plenty of practice. First tandem flights with instructors to guide them, and then with experienced pilots who know what the risks are, before taking up Joe Public as bipedal ballast. In most countries it is still illegal to simply accept money for a flight on a tandem paraglider, it has to be done as part of a recognized training program. But here we are in an environment where anyone with the money to buy one and the willingness to do it may gamble with the lives of others. There’s an effective program in place, already laid out and administered. Do we use it, or do we tell ourselves, “That’s a nice program, but I don’t need it, and I can teach myself as I go along”?

As the flying of paragliders rose to an epidemic in europe’s mountains, the sites started to get more crowded and it got to the point where just spreading out a bit more wasn’t enough to fix the crowding. People figured out they couldn’t just lay out their glider at the front of the launch and then shuck around getting their shit together. After some experimentation it’s generally agreed that pilots get their gear ready in places that aren’t suitable to launch from and then form something like a queue to use the best launch spot. It also got noticed that if someone took off and then played about in the lift zone right in front of take off, the other pilots would be unable to launch. Eventually everybody agreed it was unfair and these people were asked (at first) to stop doing that. I think the throwing of rocks at these ‘launch potatos’ is the custom now.
But then there’s always the one who decides, "But I’m a Skygod. I have the right to hog the take-off spot, whether it’s taking my sweet time laying out my wing, or performing for those admiring mortals in front of launch"

I think it was the Americans who first figured out that alcohol and cars caused problems when used together. Maybe because they are pissheads, or because they have a thing about cars with bad handling, bad tires, 300ft/lb of torque and rear-wheel drive. Maybe it was just a fad the Kennedys started. Well the habit of getting throughly drunk and then smashing yourself and anyone else up with a car got to be a pretty big problem all over. Even Taiwan now has stiff penalties for failing the breathalyzer and I hear a lot more calls for the pissed-up to take a cab home from the pub or KTV these days. Even though it’s pretty hard to flag an aircraft down and make the pilot blow into the bag, a pilot would be wrong to assume he can fly intoxicated and that nothing bad will happen. The potential for disaster is so obvious that I almost feel silly mentioning it.
Even so, we see pilots wobbling up to launch, dragon-breath and all, or having a little nip between tandem flights with paying customers, or even drinking beer while coaching beginners. What the hell they are thinking is really beyond my imagination.

We all like to imagine we are in control of our own destinies. We like to think that we do what we like and it doesn’t affect anyone else, and perhaps that no-one else even notices. We probably all run a red light now and then, or get on a motorbike after maybe one beer too many. We all feel that in some certain set of circumstances we can bend the rules, even break them, and escape the consequences.

It really troubles me that in a sport that’s known to be dangerous we still see so much stupid behaviour in the face of existing knowledge and proven safe practises. It troubles me even more that it’s very often the innocent who are suffering for this stupidity and selfishness. When it comes to paragliding I say the old maxim holds. If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

See you in the sky, and please don’t crash into me 😉

Resources

Safety and courtesy in ridge soaring

Survive thermalling together

USHGA basic safety

USHGA instructor program

USHGA tandem program

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