Accidents in context
: the relative contributions of pilot, equipment and environmental stress to paragliding incidents

  • Matthew R. Wilkes

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Aims and scope
To describe the risks of flying paragliders and the effects of three environmental stressors (hypoxia, cold and acceleration) on the performance of pilots and their equipment, as a basis from which to identify targets for risk mitigation.

Outline of studies
(1) Review of the literature pertaining to canopy sports
(2) Analysis of retrospective data from 1,000 paragliding incidents
(3) Survey of 1,788 pilots regarding flying activity
(4) Quantification of cardiorespiratory demands of paragliding in 211 hours of live flight
(5) Measurement of cognition in ten pilots in simulated flight under environmental stress
(6) Characterisation of reserve parachute deployment by 55 pilots under linear acceleration
(7) Characterisation of reserve parachute deployment by 88 pilots under radial acceleration

Results and conclusions
Paragliding had fatality rates of 1.4 (1.1-1.9) deaths and 20.1 (18.4-26.7) serious injuries per 100,000 flights, making it approximately twice as risky as general (non-commercial) aviation in the U.K. It required low levels of physical effort (1.5 (0.5) METS), but pilots were vulnerable to control and decision errors. When these errors led to accidents, pilots often failed to throw their reserve parachutes and the lower limbs and thoraco-lumbar junction of the spine were most at risk of injury. Hypoxia and cold did not appear to cause gross cognitive impairment, during simulated flight to 3,600 meters for two hours. When pilots attempted to throw their reserve parachutes, under linear or radial acceleration and conditions of cognitive load, there were common behaviours and some were maladaptive.

The studies detailed in this thesis were the largest and most rigorous conducted in paragliding to date. They established methodology for future work, including a paragliding flight environment simulator, while permitting the first direct comparisons between paragliding and other branches of aviation based on common denominators and a shared taxonomy of error. The results were widely disseminated in the flying community via articles, podcasts and videos, as well as in three peer reviewed publications. They led to the creation of a trauma management course, a trauma kit, changes in the pilot licensing examination and improvements in the international standard for harness design.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorHeather Massey (Supervisor), Mike Tipton (Supervisor) & Clare Eglin (Supervisor)

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