Monday, July 11, 2011

Paragliding World Championships Musings

First off, paragliding can be a "reasonable" activity. I'd let my kids fly tandem with most any commercial operation in North America. But there are some problems lately with the competition scene, which is like comparing F1 to driving to the grocery store. The following commentary is opinion and ranting, but I'm thinking about it a lot so here goes:

The 2011 Paragliding World Championships were cancelled a few days ago. I don't think that's ever happened before. The FAI (uber-governing body of air sports globally) basically said the current "Competition" class gliders were too unstable to fly fast, and banned 'em. It's hard to argue with their reasoning; two pilots died and six or seven others threw their reserve parachutes, all in the first two days. There was no day three.

The big question in the paragliding world now is whether or not the 2011 comp gliders are more "dangerous" than usual. Some very good pilots I trust say they aren't, some others I also trust say they are. My sponsor, Gin, didn't have one of the new "2-line" gliders last year, so I didn't fly one. This year Gin does have one, reportedly a very fast one, but as I wasn't competing in the worlds this year (too much climbing of late) my order hasn't even shipped. I will be competing in the Canadian Nationals in a few days (defending my title, grin), but I didn't want to be charging on a new glider I hadn't flown at all so I cancelled my 2-liner order. I'll be flying a certified glider in a comp for the first time in almost ten years, it'll be fun! My decision also has something to do with the fact that these 2-line gliders also require very different flying control than what I'm used to. The accident and reserve rate in Spain certainly looks bad, and I don't want to add to it.

I think that maybe what's happened is that the new technology is relatively untried, and also demands new skills to fly. I doubt there were many pilots at the Worlds who had more than 50 hours on their new wings. Maybe it's a bit like going from a steering wheel to a joystick on a car while at the same time increasing the horsepower from 150 to 1,000 and dropping all speed limits; people are going to make errors, and those errors may be higher consequence. Maybe in a few years when everyone is used to driving fast with a joystick it'll all be good, but right now things are pretty crazy out there. But I don't have any time on 2011 2-liners to say really...

Or maybe the gliders had nothing to do with it, and it was all the low-skill pilots at the World Championships. This sounds somewhat unlikely to me, as any pilot who makes it to the worlds has some degree of decent skill. The two pilots who died were good pilots, and the one who died in the last world's was one of the best. But when accidents happen it's always tempting to say, "That can't happen to me because I'm (pick one) smarter, stronger, better, etc." The two pilots who died were, judging by their resumes and times flying, very good pilots and to believe I can do better in a competition on a new wing than they did is pretty much delusional to me. I'll learn how to fly these new gliders outside of competition, and then see about maybe competing on them after this year's Paragliding World Cup provides some answers. The pilots on the PWC are the best in the world, as opposed to the best in individual countries like the Worlds are.

If the PWC accident/incident rates remain relatively consistent then we'll have to look at something other than the gliders for clues to the problem, like pilot quality. If there are a lot more incidents than is historically normal at the PWC then we'll know that there is likely an issue with some of the 2011 gliders, even in the hands of the pilots who should be most capable of handling them. Until then we're all just guessing I think. The 2010 gliders certainly didn't look to be totally unstable, and some of them were 2-liners so things are weird out there.

I have been against mandatory serial gliders for competitions for many years, as I always felt safer on comp gliders. I almost threw my reserve twice on my Proton GT (serial glider from ten plus years ago, using it as an example) before I got back on the Boomerangs, on which I have relatively few close calls and none due to the glider. I am wondering if these new 2-liners share some of the problems of the GT.

The problem I had with the GT was that it felt rock solid, then it would just blow up incredibly violently and unexpectedly while I was flying on the speed bar. On the comp gliders I could feel the air very well, and adjust my speed or angle of attack to keep the glider open. The new comp gliders apparently feel very stable, but everyone admits that when they collapse they go big and may be totally unrecoverable. That sounds a lot like that old Proton GT of mine--everything going fine, then ka-boom, line twists and cascades. That glider for me was like a crazy relationship, all happy and then your stuff is cut up in pieces on the front lawn... By the way, I'm picking on the Proton GT from over ten years ago I think, I flew several other Ozone gliders back in the day that were simply awesome, and obviously they are a fine company today.

Until recently I did not feel that glider behaviour was in general a problem at competitions; most of the accidents I saw had far more to do with pilot error. But now I'm not so sure. I'm holding off on the latest "comp" glider technology for a season to see what's up. It helps that for once I have a serial wing I really like, the GTO. I have enough hours on it in strong conditions to feel good about flying it in Golden.

Over the years I've learned to recognize a sort of "smell" in the air when something isn't working right, and I smell that odour now around these gliders. Could be a passing bubble, could be the ball of shit from a wing that is non-recoverable from a stall (apparently how stalling was described in reference to recovering the current comp gliders), time will tell. Good luck to the PWC pilots, I really hope they don't need it!

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