Paramotoring is one of the most fun sports to take part in, but how dangerous is it? There’s just something intrinsically terrifying about strapping a fan to your back and taking off into the air. How well-founded are these fears?
According to paradrenalin.com, there will be one fatality every year out of every 1504 paramotor users. This a better statistic than paragliding (the non-motorized version of paramotoring) which sits at around one person out of every 752 people. It’s also a better statistic than motorcycles which sit at one fatality for every 1382 motorcycle drivers.
This may seem like good news, but death isn’t all that there is to worry about with paramotoring. When surviving a crash, the survivor is often left with several injuries.
Statistics on Injury and Death
Picture the scene, you’ve just purchased your first paramotor. You’re out in an open field, ready to leap into the clear blue sky. The engine is humming on your back, and you begin to run forwards.
Your feet slap the ground, faster and faster as the wing begins to lift up behind you. You can feel yourself lifting off the ground. This is it, the moment you’ve been waiting for.
In an instant, everything goes wrong.
A random rock snags your foot, and you and skid a good twenty feet on your face. There’s grass is in your mouth, you’ve got scratches on your arms, and that cute girl you were hoping to impress is now laughing hysterically at you. That is until she gets a sick look on her face from seeing your broken nose.
Despite the humor of this situation, it brings up an uncomfortable question about paramotors. The smallest mistake seems like it could easily be life-threatening when flying paramotors. Just how dangerous is using one of these machines?
A study conducted by BMJ gathered together a lot of data on paramotoring accidents. They were able to compile 383 reports, and we can see some of that data here:
|Types of Accidents|
|Collision with terrain/obstruction on ground||76||19.8%|
|Body contact with spinning prop||43||11.2%|
|Wing malfunction or deflation||35||9.1%|
|Collision with other aircraft/ultralight||14||3.6%|
We can see from this chart that the most common type of accident is a collision with the terrain/obstruction on the ground. This is followed by engine failure, wing faliure, or other equipment malfunctions.
To avoid collisions with objects close to the ground, it’s best to stay high up in the air. Doing maneuvers close to the ground could go catastrophically wrong if a sudden gust of wind surprises you.
Tucker Gott, a paramotor enthusiast and Youtuber, has found a clever solution. To avoid bad wind conditions, he prefers to fly below the earth’s surface. See how he does it in this video.
He also has some commentary on complacency.
In another one of his videos, Tucker begins to notice a problem as he’s taking off. He finds himself inexplicably turning right as soon as his feet leave the ground.
“So as I gain a little bit of altitude, I can now see what the problem is. It looks like three of the lines have bunched together. – This is something I’ve never really seen, and haven’t encountered since then, but that basically deforms the right wing tip and pulls it in, which causes that right turn.
So now that I have a little more altitude, I have two choices. I can either keep flying, climb higher and try to pump the brake, or pull those lines to let them loose. Or I can come in for a landing immediately.
Given the situation, I decided to just come in for a landing immediatly. and get back on the ground safely.”
Well said Tucker, well said.
When encountered with a situation like this where something feels off, even if you don’t immediately know the problem, come in for a landing to figure it out. It’s better to solve an easy problem on the ground, then to find yourself solving a hard problem 2,000 feet in the air.
Primary Causes of Accidents
Another set of data that BMJ collected was the causes of accidents in individual cases. These can give a greater insight into what to be especially aware of while flying on paramotors:
|Primary Causes of Accidents|
|Pilot errors (only)||205||53.5%|
|Mechanical failure (including fuel exhaustion)||67||17.5%|
|Weather (gust, thermal, rain, wind increase, etc)||22||5.7%|
|Pilot error and mechanical failure||17||4.4%|
|Pilot error and weather||17||4.4%|
Looking at this we can clearly see that pilot error is the main cause of accidents, followed by mechanical failure, and bad weather.
We can extrapolate from this data that by becoming a better pilot, taking care of your gear, and flying in ideal weather conditions you can avoid assuming unnecessary risk.
So, what are some ways to become a better pilot?
How to Become a Safer Pilot
There are two ways to go about learning how to pilot a paramotor. Teaching yourself, or going to an instructing school. Teaching yourself to fly will most likely get you killed, but some people don’t have the time or money to attend one of the schools.
For those who absolutely have to teach themselves, there are many online resources, such as helpful tutorials on Youtube and many good websites that can teach you how much of an utterly stupid idea it is to try to teach yourself.
So many problems can occur when training on your own.
Taking off at the wrong time of day in strong but invisible and imperceptible thermal conditions can toss you around like a leaf in the wind, and fold your wing in half. This can and does injure/kill students.
Another issue that you could run into is having brake and/or throttle lines that are set too short to reach in flight or long enough to wrap up in a prop during flight. Not being able to reach controls has killed unsuspecting self-trainees, and getting a break caught in a prop can kill you in an instant.
Another problem you could run into with self-training is not running with straight body posture and a forward facing propeller angle practically no one does this properly without training, and the engine pushes the pilot straight down during the launch run.
If you haven’t been dissuaded yet from self-training, there is a useful website here which gives the basic rundown of how paramotors work, but if I’ve almost convinced you what a bad idea self-training is, you can click here for another testament to how dangerous self-training can be.
Paramotor Flight School
For those of you with common sense that have decided to attend a training school, let me tell you a bit about what to expect.
Most paramotor flight schools have you visit the instructors location for a week or two. During this time period, you’ll spend some time indoors doing “ground school” lessons, or book learning. this typically happens whenever weather conditions outside are non-flyable.
When you are outside, most of the time will be spent learning how to ‘kite’ a paraglider wing, learning how to handle it on the ground, and how to position it over your head while running and getting ready for takeoff.
At the end of your time in the school, your instructor will guide you via headset through the process of launching, manuvering through the air, and landing.
By going to a paramotor flight school, you’ll become well acquainted with the parts of the paramotor rig, and get comfortable with maneuvering with a wing.
Dangerous Common Mistakes that New Pilots Make
After flight school, you should be ready to enter the new and exciting world of paramotoring.
However, even after flight school, people are still prone to accidents and mistakes. Studies show that 90% of accidents happen within the first 10 flights.
A common mistake that people interested in starting to paramotor make is buying equipment before even going to flight school.
How do you know that you’ll enjoy paramotoring? You might save up months worth of wages to purchase one, and then find out paramotoring just isn’t for you. Paramotoring isn’t for everyone, and many pilots cannot get over the initial nerves.
I’m not saying you can’t, but it’s wise to make sure you can before making a big investment.
After going to flight school, you’ll have a better grasp on the type of paramotor that you want to buy as well. Buying a paramotor that isn’t right for you can be an expensive mistake.
Another common mistake that those interested in paramotoring make is that they don’t go on a tandem flight before deciding on whether to even invest in the training. A tandem flight is when you ride on a paramotor with a trained professional.
This is a far safer, and far cheaper way to find out if paramotoring is right for you.
After your tandem flight, it’s time to find a flight school near you. It’s important to have a good connection with your instructor, and you’ll be spending some time together.
Following this link will take you to a website that can help you find flight schools near your location. These aren’t the only flight schools, but they’re a place to start on your search for a flight school for you.
How to Maintain Gear for Safety
One of the scariest things that can happen to a paramotorist is for their equipment to fail them mid-flight.
In order to avoid this, certain precautions can be taken in maintaining your paramotor.
When becoming a paramotor pilot, you have to practically become a 2-stroke mechanic. Fortunately, for each paramotor, a manual comes with it that should teach you how to take care of your specific model.
There are some blanket rules that go for all paramotors though.
When doing an engine check, don’t forget to:
- Check the spark plug
- Tighten bolts (torque the head)
- Readjust and tighten the prop rig
- Check for any gas leaks
- Ensure integrity of rubber mounts
- Verify idle stability
To maintain your wing:
- Check for any holes or tears after every flight
- Be sure that the wing is clean after landing and before packing it away
- When landing and taking off, try to choose areas that won’t damage the wing when it touches the ground (avoid gravel or areas with brush)
- Be sure that the wing is dry before packing it away
- Test the lines before every flight to make sure they will hold you
It’s usually best to do some maintenance every 10 hours of flight. Be sure to always follow your manual when maintaining your paramotor.
Ideal Flying Conditions
Flying conditions are what can make or break a paramotor pilot. It’s always best to stay on the safe side of things when it comes to weather.
One of the first weather issues that people will run into when paramotoring is wind. Wind speed plays a big factor in paramotoring. A good rule of thumb is that if wind speed is about 12 mph, don’t go flying that day.
Another thing to consider is wind gusts. These are sharp spikes in wind speed, and they can effect your paramotoring experience in an unpleasant way. If the wind gusts are 5 mph above whatever the average is that day, it’s best to not go out.
There are apps that can be accessed here, that can determine wind speed. All good paramotor pilots have a way to find out the current wind speed, among other weather information.
Concerning rain, it’s best to not paramotor in precitipation, as it can lead to something called parachutal stall, where you lose all forward momentum and begin to sink towards the ground.
If you find yourself in the rain, open up your trimmers and apply your speed bar if you have it. Keep these settings as you’re going in for a landing and don’t take them off until you’re ready to flare.
Avoid steering with your breaks as well. Use the tip steering toggles instead. When trying to get down to the ground in the rain, use tight turns, but don’t exit the turn too aggressively, as this could tilt your paramotor out of balance, and cause you to enter a parachutal stall.
An average wing will stall around 17 degrees angle of attack, but if your wing is we,t it could stall at just 9 degrees. Keep this in mind while flaring during landing, as doing so at the wrong time could cause problems. Be very careful and only flare very close to the ground within the last few feet.
As far as cloud cover goes, flying over mid morning fog, or high above the clouds is an amazing feeling, but there are certain things that you should avoid concerning clouds.
Flying into clouds is illegal, and dangerous according to the CAA “Rules of the Air” regulation. Flying close to clouds is also illegal, but how close you can get depends heavily on the type of cloud, and the type of paramotor you are using.
In my research, I found a strange and interesting phenomenon called “Cloud Suck”. Hopefully, none of us will experience this because frankly, it sounds terrifying.
Cloud clearance rules keep us safe from the danger of the phenomenon known as cloud suck. Towering cumulus clouds and cumulonimbus are often associated with this strange activity.
Cloud suck is when you are pulled inexplicably towards and into clouds.
Cloud suck is more commonly seen in paragliding where thermalling is more common, but it’s still very possible in paramotoring. Thermalling pilots can find themselves fighting to stay out of the clouds while thermalling as the clouds try to draw them in. The vertical reach of a cumulus cloud is a good indicator of the strength of rising air beneath it, and thus is an indicator for the potential of cloud suck.
Many pilots have reported that they have been unable to descend while experiencing cloud suck, even while pulling deep spirals or other active areal maneuvers to descend. Getting throw towards the ground is one thing. Getting stuck in the sky is a completely different ballpark.
So avoid flying into or near clouds. If it’s cloudy outside and you have low visibility, then consider not flying that day. When trying to get above the clouds, a good rule of thumb is to fly through a break in the clouds. Clouds can dampen your wing, and cause parachutal stall.
When it comes to weather, rely on training, and use your common sense. All it takes is one wrong gust of wind at the wrong time to ruin your whole day.
Laziness over Life
Read Flake was a paramotor pilot who was not an expert, but certainly had experience with over 500 flights under his belt. He was out one day at a well known free flight site, Point of the Mountain.
It was getting to be later in the day, a little past 10 O’clock, and most of the other pilots had gone home after a fun day of paramotoring. It was only a little gusty, nothing an experienced pilot like Read couldn’t handle.
Despite knowing it wasn’t completely ideal conditions, Read thought “I have a motor, there’s no need to drive to the top– just launch below and fly up to the ridge to catch the thermals.”
He did this, but when get got above the ridge, wind hit him unexpectedly and launched him straight towards some nearbyby power lines. In attempting to maneuver away from the lines, he cause a parachutal stall, and dropped about 40 feet to the ground.
You can see the video here.
Though he survived, as a result of this accident, Read broke his pelvis, crushed two of his vertebrae in his spine, and one in his neck as well. He also partially collapsed his lung.
It’s a rather harrowing story to hear when someone who has so much experience is just swept away
Accidents are unavoidable. Read’s story is a testament to that. but they can be reduced.
In Read’s case, he knew that the gusts of wind were potentially problematic, but decided to try to fly up to his location anyways.
Like Tucker Gott said, “Complacency Kills.”
Never take unnecessary risks while paramotoring, it’s a risky enough activity all on its own without you adding on potential issues because of laziness.
Something that Read could have done differently is to have taken the longer but safer road.
Richard Biggerstaff’s Story
Richard Biggerstaff was a paramotor enthusiast. He would often attend festivals, and loved the sport with all his heart.
Richard had received around 30 flights of training elsewhere and attended the paramotoring festival Austin Texas to brush up after a 9-month hiatus.
One Friday evening, he was out at the festival when disaster struck. According to two witnesses, he was doing a spiral from which he hit the ground.
There was a small post-impact fire that was quickly extinguished. Another pilot who was flying with Richard at the time saw the whole thing from the air.
He landed and rushed over, but when other witnesses arrived at the scene, the other pilot simply whispered, “He’s gone.”
Richard had been high, over 1000 feet AGL when he initiated the spiral. He had been conducting a trick called a “nose-over” spiral where the pilot and wing are pointed nearly straight down, rotating quickly.
The most likely explanation is that he blacked out before impact and never knew what happened. There is the possibility of equipment failure as the cause as evidenced by the fire (fires don’t usually erupt in crashes unless something was wrong with the equipment beforehand). However, it is far more likely, due to the nature of the spiral he was doing, that he lost consciousness.
A Word on Spirals
Spirals are absurdly dangerous. They tend to induce blackouts, and once you black out, no matter the altitude, it’s almost always a death sentence.
When you get down to it, paramotoring has an intrinsic and inseparable risk associated with it. But doing dangerous tricks on paramotors is a tragedy waiting to happen.
Paramotoring is a fun sport. It’s full of thrills, excitement and wonder. But it’s also full of danger, and potential heartache and pain.
I don’t mean to discourage anyone from paramotoring. All sports, all motorized vehicles, everything worth anything that life has to offer has risk involved with it. The dangers of paramotoring might be the very thing that attracted you to it.
Accident’s happen, and it’s true that some accidents are unavoidable no matter how much you prepare. However, fear shouldn’t stop us from experiencing new things and reaching new heights.
Accidents happen, accidents will always happen. But even most wild journeys have a safer, smarter path to follow. Follow the safer path. Don’t let fear cripple you, but don’t let your hubris get the better of you either. Find the middle ground that’s right for you.
Accidents happen, but you can change yourself to minimize the risk of accidents. Go out and put in the work to be a better pilot. Don’t be like Read Flake, or Richard Biggerstaff. Remember that complacency kills and that with preparation and caution, most accidents can be avoided.
Do you need a license for a Paramotor?
Paramotoring is a license-free sport. This is because paramotors are foot launched, like hang gliders. However, paramotorists are still bound by aviation law. Be sure you know the laws pertaining to aviation before taking flight yourself.
Is Paragliding Safer than Paramotoring?
Paramotoring is safer than paragliding for several reasons. Paramotors can be launched in zero wind, with no thermal activity. This means that paramotors don’t need to time their launches right, and therefore have zero penalties for launching them whenever they feel like. Also, due to paramotors constant forward momentum, the wing is less likely to collapse. If launching in strong enough conditions though, Paramotors and Paragliders are about the same danger level.