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Broken record

As long as I’ve been around the flying scene in Taiwan I’ve heard the same line repeated every two years or so, "Unfortunate pilot loses life in accident". It’s starting to sound like a broken record.

On the safety page on this site you’ll find records of some of them, as well as some serious accidents that I’ve been able to report on. It’s a sad fact that many, many more accidents have occurred that many people know about, yet have not been reported. One female pilot we know has had a rash of accidents that started with locked-out spiral dive that resulted in a broken leg and pelvis, and went on to include numerous tree landing, launch draggings, landing out on remote mountain tops and a landing in a lake while trying to put down on a boardwalk. You would ask if this person knows about the idea of reporting accidents, but the answer must be yes since she has posted news of other pilots’ accidents just 4 hours after they happened! There is a serious problem in this community where accidents are talked about, whispered about among the old hands, but never posted for the new and upcoming pilots to learn from.

Some of the more serious accidents we know about:

1998 Two student pilots were pulled into a cunimb at Saichia. One of them escaped, the other was found frozen or asphyxiated a few kilometers away some days later.

11/28/99 Two pilots collided at Saichia, one broke his leg and the other was injured.

07/07/00 Novice pilot Hsu Ching-yen took off in strong crosswinds at Green Bay, flew into leeside rotor and crashed, dying on impact.

01/22/01 Novice pilot broke her leg and pelvis attempting spiral dives on a DHV 2-3 glider while under instruction.

09/15/02 Chang Hui-tai crashed on landing at the Taipei-Ilan highway site, breaking his leg.

12/29/02 Novice pilot Chen Dz-yung failed to close his legstraps before launching at Saichia and fell to his death.

04/20/03 Novice nearly drowned herself in Sun Moon Lake trying to land there.

10/05/03 Experienced pilot surnamed Li broke his leg in a demonstration event.

04/25/04 Hsu Chang-chi broke his leg attemping to top-land at Puli when he flew into a jeep.

07/24/04 Novice Luo Chi-luen died while flying as wind dummy in a competition in the Huadong valley.

08/08/04 Tandem passenger surnamed Wang was killed when he fell from a tandem glider at Saichia.

08/08/04 A tandem and a solo glider collided at Green Bay, injuring both the passenger and one of the pilots.

There have been another two incidents where tandem passengers have been seriously injured, one at Gaotai and one at Green Bay, that have been successfully covered up. While it’s obvious we have a long-standing safety problem here, it has traditionally been limited to pilots hurting themselves. Now that the accidents are occuring more frequently, and the public are getting involved, you can be sure that more negative publicity will result. Apple Daily’s policy now is not to write about paragliding except when there are accidents.

I’m not going to go into further speculation about the cause of the fatality at Saichia until the police investigation is completed. The undisputed facts are that the passenger fell from the harness on landing approach at about 20 to 30m and died from injuries resulting from the fall. But, we have obvious systemic failures which are important contributing factors. We know very well that site rules are merely suggestions that are applied selectively and come and go from week to week, and Saichia is not the only site so mismanaged. A-Po is widely regarded as a dangerous nutcase, but he brings the money in, and his misbehaviour goes unremarked for the most part. Like the other guy who has the hip-flask down in the LZ, everyone knows he’s an alcoholic and flies passengers after drinking, but again he’s bringing money in, and nothing gets said. The SSO down there is directly responsible for half of the stupid things that happen at that site. If he’s not actively participating in dangerous behaviour, he’s ignoring it. But who are you going to take these issues up with? Village chief doesn’t know any better because he was taught by the SSO. Unsafe practices and ignorance are the norm down there, not the exception. It’s ingrained in the system.

1. No tandem program in Taiwan. I’m not talking about another bullshit rating consisting of a theory exam and some basic practical tasks. I mean a properly managed, staged tandem program like USHGA’s.
An Advanced license is no substitute for a tandem program, how could it possibly be used as a benchmark? Sure it’s a good place to start, but it is in no way a substitute. Never mind the fact that an Advanced rating here is about as good as Intermediate back home, maybe only Novice.

2. No disciplinary system for the review or recall of pilot or instructor ratings. You can screw up all you like, and there’s no accountability within the community itself. There’s no fixed time review for holders of tandem licences, and no incident board to evaluate a tandem pilot’s suitability to remain in the program. People might mutter behind your back. Of course it is true that the review system does not always work overseas, but it exists, and people do get their licenses pulled when they screw up.

3. No standardized or legally binding waiver. What they have at Saichia (for example) would not stand up against a 1st year law student’s maid. Most of you guys have signed an USHGA waiver and know what a real one looks like. That’s not bulletproof, but it offers a lot more protection than nothing at all.

4. No requirement for accident insurance, or liability insurance. I know accident insurance is available to passengers, but it’s not compulsory.

5. No system in place for specifying the jobs of ground crew, or the order for completing them, a checklist, nothing. Sometimes they help with the glider, sometimes the passenger, sometimes both, but there is no system.

6. No system in place for mandatory checks on equipment like geometry checks, porosity testing, integrity of harness, reserve condition etc etc.

7. Useless SSO. At best he’s unqualified and negligent. Negligent in that there are sites rules, which are posted, it’s his job to enforce them, and he doesn’t enforce them. It’s his responsibility to ensure high standards of safety where the public are concerned and I don’t see him doing a credible job of that.

8. Absolute callousness on the part of the associations. The day after Luo Chi-luen was found dead, the organizers of the comp he was flying did not cancel the day’s task, or end the comp. In fact they were still calling reporters on the phone to invite them to attend the prize-giving ceremonies and take advantage of the photo ops with the foreign competitors.

What to do?

In the case of the Saichia fatality, both A-Po (the pilot) and Luo Hsiang-ming (Er-ge the SSO) claim that everything about that day, that launch, and that flight went perfectly, except that is for the death of the passenger.
According to Luo, the wind was perfect, as was the layout and checks of all the equipment involved. The glider was imported, less than two years old, and in as-new condition. They did full and proper checks on the glider and harnesses, and yet the passenger died. According to both of them, the legstraps on the passenger harness were still fastened properly after landing. If this is indeed the case, then the only logical conclusion would be to just quit flying now because obviously this sport cannot be conducted safely using current technology.

However, we know this is not the case, simply because our friends overseas have accident rates similar to ours, but from pilot populations 1,000 times larger. On one hand it’s hard to blame local pilots for not having recognized tandem ratings or training when they don’t exist. On the other hand, I still think that anyone who decides to fly tandem without adequate training is stupid, and anyone who takes fare-paying passengers without having been trained and having many, many hours flying with suitably qualified passengers should be in residential psychiatric care and under heavy sedation. Perhaps the legal shitstorm that is now enveloping A-Po and Er-ge will remind the others just how serious things can get when things go wrong. It’s my understanding that the Wang family are well connected and very determined to get a conviction in this case. Pingtung police are not looking at this as a simple accident at all, but as a case of gross negligence. This one is not going to just blow away like the others. It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen next. No-one has suggested taking action to restrict or limit our flying, yet. The newspapers are starting to ask why there are so many accidents, are the operating procedures strict enough, is there any enforcement, are these pilots properly qualified. If Pingtung County government money is under legal threat we could lose the site.

It’s hard to speak up against unsafe practices when they are practised by people in positions of power, whether it’s administrative power or merely social. I’m also guilty of keeping my mouth shut when I know I should speak up. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and tell anyone to stand up against the system when I don’t do it either. My advice to my friends is to stay away from the tandem guys, and the instructors. Do not get involved in hawking their services, or helping drag or push people off of hills. If and when things go wrong, you are at risk of being held liable. If you have ambitions to be an instructor, or a pro tandem pilot or even a site safety officer, I wish you all the best, but get trained, get certified and get insured.

Be careful out there. Don’t be a statistic, and don’t cause any either.

Resources

Accident reports

TVBS News video

TVBS
report

Apple Daily report

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