The Problem with Paragliding

Rick Masters has verified
2,300+ paragliding deaths
since the sport began.


All you really need to know about paragliding is in these videos.

The last moments of the life of Alexandre Pereira Alves, paragliding fatality #2150, were captured on a cell phone. In this forensic enhancement, I offer the supposed paragliding “experts” the opportunity to criticize Alex’s actions. Some of these people will claim that Alex caused this accident by pulling down too hard on his brakes or not throwing his reserve in time – and he deserved to die. I, on the other hand, simply wish that Alex had been on a hang glider instead of a convenient-to-carry deathtrap with nothing to support its airfoil. He would still be alive and enjoying free-flight because it is absolutely impossible to die like this on a hang glider.

This video illustrates the inherent treachery of the paraglider, which has killed over 2,250 operators since 1986, usually in out-of-control incidents like this one following a collapse. Here, after turbulence is encountered, the unsupported airfoil loses its shape, then recovers, apparently with a line over the left wingtip. The doomed operator wastes the last precious seconds of his life screwing around with the sail as the paraglider enters a deadly locked-in, nose-down spiral dive. As it quickly spirals down toward the mountain, the operator finally abandons the brake handles to throw his reserve, which needs about 300 feet to deploy. You can see he was far too late. The last frame before impact shows the sail in a perfectly nose-down attitude. The helpless operator would have been swung out, even with the sail, moving in an arc much faster than the vertical speed, striking the mountain sideways in a horizontal vector of 50 mph or more. Only the paraglider can kill like this. Investigators will note that the paraglider appears to be in excellent condition. Distraught relatives will sell it on eBay at a bargain price to help with funeral expenses, Perhaps some young person who is restricted by social media from watching this important video will buy it and take up the sport with the enthusiastic support of his new friends.

June 24, 2022 A narrow escape at Pico Agudo, Brazil.

On February 26, 2022, observers at the Fly UAI competition on Brazil’s Pico da Ibituruna peak saw Valdemiro Martins Rafael’s paraglider losing altitude in a nose-down spiral dive that continued to fatal impact with the ground. In this forensic enhancement of a cell phone video, it is clear that Valdemiro threw his reserve but it became entangled with the lines of his paraglider and did not deploy. With high vertical speed and vicious centrifugal force, spiral dives are among the leading causes of paragliding fatalities. This was the 2,070th global paragliding fatality included in my incomplete count.

On July 14, 2019, at a popular flying site in Turkey, Ali Paskoy launched and was immediately seized by a powerful thermal that lifted him rapidly to 150 feet. His canopy collapsed four seconds after his feet left the ground, then popped open with a suspension line wrapped around the right wing tip (cravat). The paraglider went through a 720-degree autorotation, twisting the lines and preventing Paksoy from regaining control. It then stabilized and slowed, probably with the brake lines caught in the twist and pulling down the trailing edge of the sail. Paksoy swung forward, ahead of the canopy, certain to bring on a stall, but at that moment the sail was hit by a downward element of the turbulent thermal. It collapsed violently a second time and was propelled behind and below Paksoy. He fell weightless for a moment, then pendulumed backwards as the canopy popped open again with the right wingtip still caught in the cravat. With his weight far to the rear, the paraglider entered a diving right turn around the cravat. The turn suddenly reversed and the paraglider entered a nosedown spiral dive at 80 feet, swinging the helpless Paksoy horizontal to it at several Gs as it hit the slope of the mountain. Paksoy was killed instantly.

May 2021. Tandem collapse during joyride. Lost altitude causes power line strike, dragging down light poles. The 50-year-old was admitted to the intensive care unit in serious condition. Diagnosis: Concomitant injury. Closed craniocerebral injury. Brain contusion. Multiple bone fractures. The 17-year-old was admitted to the trauma department. A state of moderate severity. Diagnosis: Concomitant injury. Brain concussion. Closed compression fracture of the spine.

Although hang glider pilots may from time to time kill themselves through pilot error, it is the fickle paraglider that kills its suddenly helpless occupant entirely at random as a result of an encounter with perfectly natural atmospheric turbulence – often the same turbulence that would make a hang glider pilot shout out in joy. As a lifelong hang glider pilot, it remains incomprehensible to me why a man would choose to launch an inadequate and untrustworthy paraglider into strong thermal conditions instead of the robust and reliable structured alternative. Having watched these needless paragliding deaths occur over and over, in the very same ways, for 20 years, at the rate of about 100 per year, it remains as horrifying today as it was to see Jody Lucas, utterly helpless and frozen by his impending doom, crash in a twist before my eyes 18 years ago at the 2002 Paragliding Nationals in Owens Valley.

While any heavier-than-air aircraft can stall, dive and recover, only the paraglider can suddenly lose the shape of its airfoil and drop its operator to earth. This inadequacy makes the paraglider unique in all of aviation. The inability of the sail to retain virtually any kinetic energy removes the act of recovery from the realm of airmanship to the felt table of the gambler, with his life and future subject only to the roll of the die. Instead, his supposed airmanship becomes a rather desperate and urgent exercise in untanglement, something best done on the ground.

When a paraglider loses its airfoil shape, it loses lift, the suspension and control lines go slack, control is lost, and the unsupported human can fall at the acceleration of gravity, diminished by the often inconsequential drag of the deflated or partially inflated canopy. Usually it will reinflate, but if a suspension line has wrapped around a wingtip, it can enter a high-G, nose-down spiral dive that may rapidly progress beyond the ability of the operator to escape. Trapped in this deadly spiral, the accelerative forces can become so severe that he cannot hold his arms upright to effect control nor even deploy the emergency reserve in an attempt to avoid fatal impact.

The violent nature of a collapse in turbulence sometimes makes it difficult for the operator to throw the reserve. The brutal G-forces generated by the snapping open of the canopy can whiplash the helpless occupant to the point of incapacity, then pendulum him into the ground like a whip snap, rupturing his organs and breaking most of the bones in his body.

The PDMC chart shows a curve below which the operator has 4 seconds before impact to deploy the reserve. Drag is discounted because each incident is different. Greater drag will allow somewhat more time before impact.

  • In a sudden collapse, the operator essentially begins to fall from rest.
  • A paraglider in a nose-down spiral dive will enter the PDMC at a high airspeed, sometimes pulling several Gs, but with a vertical speed rarely exceeding 50 mph.
  • An operator falling from a height above the PDMC in a terminal velocity collapse, with the closed sail streaming above him (called a “torche” in French), can attain speeds in excess of 100 mph.
“I loved you more than you’ll ever know and I trusted you to never hurt yourself or anyone else. Now we’re the ones dying. We’re the ones dying. You’re not even here and we’re the ones dying.” — Would You Still Have Fallen by Holly Williams

Those who fly paragliders seem to have the greatest difficulty understanding the PDMC. They think it is a redundant measure of the minimum reserve deployment altitude for any aircraft. This is hardly the case. Even the helicopter, which has a clearly defined DMC near hover, can be operated throughout its entire lifetime without ever entering its DMC. The paraglider, however, cannot avoid the PDMC at all.

It travels through it at take off.

It travels through it at landing.

It travels through it while working lift below 350 feet.

“Falling feels like flying ’til you hit the ground…” — Parachute by Chris Stapleton

One of the reasons so many people get into paragliding is the positive feedback they get from the press, who are yet to figure out the difference between the hang gliders that used to fill the skies and today’s plague of vastly inferior soaring parachutes. Thanks to the press, the national hang gliding organization, the paragliding industry who took it over, and the hang glider pilots themselves, who allowed it to happen and own it, an entire generation has grown up thinking there is little difference between the two sports.

An example is a newspaper article describing rescuers as “finally locating a downed airfoil…” There was no airfoil. Paragliders kill their operators when the highly-modified soaring parachute’s unsupported fabric, ram-inflated airfoil fails to maintain its shape in normal atmospheric turbulence. When the canopy folds up, there is no airfoil. There is no aircraft. There is only the helpless human. Falling.

When a paraglider suddenly becomes a death trap, particularly under 300 feet where an emergency reserve may not have time to fully deploy, the skill level of the pilot doesn’t matter. He is just a body falling out of the sky.

Although paragliding can bring tourist dollars, it often puts a huge strain on the limited search and rescue abilities of poor countries, frequently drawing on government resources. In the later volumes of my extensive study of extreme sport accidents, Ghosts of Wind and Cloud, I include deaths of rescuers in the fatalities counts , such as the horrific loss of two pilots, three crewmen, two doctors and a joyrider’s client in the crash of this Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs Mi-8 helicopter. As they hoisted the two hapless paragliderists aboard, the tail apparently struck the cliff face or a tree, and snapped off one of the three vertical rotor blades. Onlookers started screaming, capturing the moment on cell phones, as the helicopter suddenly began to spin. After one or more full rotations, the out-of-balance rotor caused its hub to fail and both hub and rotor flew off. The huge helicopter went wildly out of control, spinning faster and twisting onto its side. It plummeted hundreds of feet to a deadly impact in the rugged ravine below, erupting in a massive, flaming explosion that was immediately obscured by a towering column of billowing black smoke. All aboard were killed except, miraculously, the joyrider himself, who was evacuated to a hospital with severe injuries.

Forensic enhancement

In a recent letter to an Indian journalist, I explained the unbelievable level of attrition in paragliding:

Paragliding, which began in 1986, gave up the most significant safety feature in soaring, the structure that holds the airfoil in shape, for the convienence of portability. Without this, on encountering turbulence, the sail can become laundry in the air, not an aircraft. It is then unable to support the paragliderist. Search “youtube paraglider collapse” for videos.

Turbulence is a perfectly normal and ubiquitous component of the atmosphere. Choosing to fly a paraglider in such active conditions comes with the risk of collapse. Therefore, paragliders are inherently untrustworthy aircraft.

Canopy collapse is unique to paragliding. This risk is accepted by soaring parachutists. Others like myself, who refuse to trust our fate to parachutes, do not fly paragliders. We are hang glider pilots. Our sails are stretched over airframes and do not deform in turbulence. We take joy in turbulence and the lift it provides.

When an effort to provide greater safety is attempted in paragliding, the success will be limited to what can be done on the ground. Once in the air, the fate of the paragliderist is a gamble. Skill in managing the paraglider in turbulence is vastly overated. The odds of the canopy collapsing in turbulence is the same for all – expert and novice alike. Nothing at all can be done to reduce these odds without requiring airframes which, unlike paragliders, allow control input in turbulence.

Most paragliderists are killed when the canopy collapses near the ground.

Because paragliding exists with the greatest level of denial in sporting history, it is difficult to obtain honest analysis from enthusiasts.

I am watching India and Columbia’s push for expanding paragliding venues with knowing trepidation.

With no airframe to hold the shape of the airfoil, the paraglider can become a death trap below 300 feet if turbulence distorts the canopy. There is simply not enough time to deploy the emergency reserve. Airfoil distortion is not a problem for a real aircraft.

I hate the inherent treacherousness of paragliders and I despise the paragliding industry and the irresponsible associations that today place paragliders and hang gliders in equivalence. As a pilot with great experience in turbulence that no paraglider could survive, I could never allow wishful thinking to place my life at such random risk. I assume more than a thousand soaring parachutists killed in collapse-related accidents would agree with me, if they were still alive.

As if all this isn’t enough, the air bag harness is a deathtrap in water landings because it forces the operator’s head underwater, resulting in a horrible drowning.

A USHPA commercial  joyrider performs a dangerous stunt by biting the canopy of another paraglider immediately behind him. 
 He is just above the cliff, flying with a child on the edge of the Paraglider Dead Man's Curve at Torrey Pines in 2015.  The joyrider on the other paraglider is also carrying a child.

A USHPA-certified commercial joyrider performs a dangerous stunt with a child within the Paraglider Dead Man’s Curve at Torrey Pines in 2015. The joyrider on the other paraglider is also carrying a child. Incredibly, both claim they are teaching children to fly paragliders under federal aircraft regulations – for $200 per ride.

Mythology of the Airframe
The site that led to
Ghosts of Wind and Cloud

Independent researcher Rick Masters discovered an unreported total of 902 DEAD paraglider pilots from Jan 1, 2002 to May 1, 2012. Today the total exceeds 2,250 — nearly a thousand more than went down with the Titanic.

If we add to the world’s free-flying paraglider totals the quickly rising numbers of powered paragliding fatalities, all deaths number more than 2,600 ghosts of the lost… Who cares? Like USHGA Accident Chairman Doug Hildreth forlornly told me many years ago: “Rick, you’re the only one who cares.”

The foolkiller, the paraglider, brings you this close to your place in the world

Soaring parachutists often accuse me of being insensitive to the thousands of unwitting victims of their sport. I suppose they are right, although I would describe it as desensitization. I often listen to Freddy Mercury’s masterpiece as I compile tragic stories from reports of their inevitable daily, lemming-like attrition.

Remember, my experience evolved through hang gliding. We saw over 75 global deaths in 1976 due to early design errors. We fixed this quickly with some simple modifications and the number fell to possibly less than 10 by 1986 as the older, flawed rogallos were retired and genuine pilot error took the lead as the main driver of hang gliding fatalities. But paragliding, with sudden collapse remaining the main driver of fatalities, has gone over 30 years now with no fix in sight – having averaged about 100 global deaths per year throughout this century and now delivering over 100 fatalities for 2019 by the middle of September, unquestionably yet another very bad year with three months yet to go. Apparently, the fatal fault is inherent in the fundamental design concept of the soaring parachute. They collapse in perfectly normal atmospheric turbulence that other aircraft easily survive. There can be no fix. Safe aircraft simply need airframes.

The real tragedy is that most of the forever-lost soaring parachutists would still be alive today, still flying and enjoying the magnificent passion of flight, had they only chosen reliable hang gliders or other soaring aircraft with airframes instead of untrustworthy, deadly parachutes with nothing in their design to protect or save them. Yet somehow, they don’t get it. They accept the unacceptable. They accept the fact that their aircraft can collapse in the air and drop them out of the sky to their deaths. This is not piloting. It is something else: a new universe of risk concealed in a deceptive aerial sport where the vital and time-honored measure of pilot skill has been allowed to be eroded away and replaced by the randomness of chance.

After a while – after an entire generation, for God’s sake! – yes, this became desensitizing, and I found myself pitying the real victims of paragliding: not the self-absorbed participants , but the devastated orphans, the widows, the parents and siblings, the friends and employers, and the destitute dependent families who have lost a breadwinner or who are ruined by unending medical expenses.

Any questions?