It’s not something that any pilot wants to think about, but deaths do occasionally happen in the sport, and it’s something that really does deserve our attention, as we can learn from the unfortunate mistakes of others to make flying much safer for ourselves. In this post we’ll look at the paramotor accident rate, how they happen, and how to reduce or stop them from happening. We’ll also look at some statistics, and find out how many deaths there are per year, and how likely you are to end up seriously injured or dead.
Due to our sport being unregulated, there’s no governing body logging incidents like you’d get with regulated aircraft, so when compiling the paramotor accident rate and death statistics you’ll never have completely accurate numbers. The USPPA and BHPA ask all pilots to report incidents via their websites, but there will obviously be lots that go unreported.
Let’s start by looking at some interesting data from a study of 383 paramotor incidents gathered over 17 years by the USPPA. Of these 383 incidents 23 people died, which works out to 1.35 paramotor deaths per year.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that a massive 21.7% of these deaths were due to drowning! This is because of an unintentional landing on water. This is why I dedicated a whole post to flying safely over water, so check that out here if you ever plan on flying over, or even near to water.
This was the first, and only study of this kind in the literature, so it’s the best we have at this time. The majority of the incidents occurred in the USA, while 26 incidents occurred worldwide. The table below is taken from the study, and it shows what happened in each paramotoring accident they studied.
|Collision with terrain/obstruction on ground||76||19.8|
|Power plant equipment malfunction||58||15.1|
|Body contact with spinning prop||43||11.2|
|Wing malfunction or deflation||35||9.1|
|Collision with other aircraft/ultralight||14||3.6|
This next table shows a breakdown of data collected from the accident reports to find out the primary cause of the accidents.
|Pilot error (only)||205||53.5|
|Mechanical failure (including fuel exhaustion)||67||17.5|
|Pilot error and weather||17||4.4|
|Pilot error and mechanical failure||17||4.4|
|Weather (gust, thermal, rain, wind increase, etc)||22||5.7|
|Other (Including takeoff disturbed by wake turbulence created by the passage of other aircraft and landing out of the landing zone)||31||1.8|
How to reduce paramotor accidents and deaths
Let’s look at some of the main causes of accidents from the study to figure out what happened and how we can stop them happening again in the future.
You can see that pilot error makes up a massive percentage of these accidents, unfortunately the report is quite vague so you’ll need to dig through the archives to find the exact cause of each specific incident. But from reading the report, this could be anything from flying in rotor turbulence, to mistakes during acrobatic manoeuvres.
Take a look at this video, a typical example of pilot error. Luckily it happened very low and the pilot was OK.
10.1% of the accidents involved pilot error combined with weather conditions. Paramotors are very weather dependent, and this is something that many new pilots aren’t aware of. When I learned to fly I came away from training with very little knowledge on weather, all we had were some very basic lessons on clouds, and I hadn’t even been taught about the danger of flying in midday thermals or gusty conditions, which is a massive cause of paramotor accidents.
This is one of the things that prompted me to write a very important eBook, which includes lessons on weather, and all of the things I had to learn from first hand experience, and trial and error. Essential things that should be, but are not being taught by instructors, simply because of the short time spent training each student.
Another example of pilot error is prop strikes, and they were another massive cause of paramotor accidents in the study. Prop strikes made up for 43 of the incidents, that’s 11.22%. I’ve personally seen a propeller strike at a fly-in, and since I started flying I’ve seen post after post on social media of missing fingers, sliced arms, and one guy even caught his head in the prop.
Prop strikes are very easily avoidable, and once again I’ve written an in depth article about prop strikes with two real life stories from people who actually lost fingers. So check out this post to find out what to do to avoid this very common cause of injury in the sport.
Contact with very hot engine parts was the cause of 4 incidents in the study, while 2 cases of generalised burns were the result of actual fires caused by combustion of the engine fuel. This again comes under the category of pilot error because these things are avoidable with proper planning, equipment, training and knowledge.
Something worth mentioning at this point is fires due to the combustion of batteries. I’ve heard of 3 cases of Li-Po batteries actually catching fire during flight. These batteries are fitted to many electric start paramotors, and the cause of the combustion seems to be the in flight battery charging system.
It’s recommended that if your paramotor has a Li-Po battery and has a charging system, to change to a different type of battery immediately. At the very least disconnect the battery after start-up to prevent it charging during your flight, do this until you can get an alternative battery.
Some reports used in the study state that pilot error had been to some extent caused by a state of mental confusion suffered by the pilot during the execution of acrobatic stunts. I’ve spoken before about the time that I was on the verge of blackout (G-loc) during a deep spiral dive, and I suggest that all pilots practise them with great caution.
When performing acrobatic manoeuvres, blood is forced from the brain into lower parts of the body because of the high amounts of G-force created by the steep turns. This can cause blackout, or a momentary state of mental confusion right when the maximum level of attention is required. If you reach the point of blackout while you’re close to the ground, the impact would most certainly be fatal, and this has happened to many paramotor and paragliding pilots.
Manoeuvres like spirals can be useful to get you out of dangerous situations, like cloud suck for example. I believe you should learn them, but I recommend using asymmetric spirals, as there will be moments during the spiral where the G-Force is much lower and only momentary.
The study doesn’t go into mechanical failure much, but from what I can gather they’re referring to engine malfunctions, engine failure, and fuel exhaustion.
Engine failures are very common in paramotoring, but if you’re following some very simple rules these situations should pose very little risk, and you should be able to land safely. Firstly, you should never trust your engine.
We use 2-stroke engines on paramotors because they’re light and powerful, but 2-strokes have never been reliable engines, and you should expect your engine to suddenly stop with no prior warning at any point of the flight.
Always have a landing option! From the moment your feet leave the ground, you should be asking yourself where you could land if the engine suddenly quit. If you fly over large areas with no landing options, climb up high so you can glide to the nearest safe landing zone, and never ever fly low over trees, water, buildings, roads, or anywhere that you wouldn’t normally consider a good place to land.
Due to the fact that paramotors don’t come with a fuel gauge, this is another common cause of paramotor accidents and emergency landings. When you have a few flights behind you, you’ll be able to easily work out how long you can stay in the air for the amount of fuel you’ve put in the tank. But beginners, and sometimes even complacent pilots will drain their fuel tank completely, and sometimes at a time where they’re neglecting to keep a safe landing option.
On most paramotors it’s either impossible, or very hard to look around to check how much fuel you have left in the tank. If you’re unsure how many litres of fuel you use per hour, fill your tank to the top mark, fly for an hour, then land to see how much you’ve used. From this you can work out your fuel burn per hour, and you’ll know exactly how long you can fly for when you only have a certain amount of fuel in the tank.
You can also take a fuel check mirror up with you, just like you can see me using in the image below. This is basically a small mirror fixed to an extendable / telescopic pole, that you can use to view your fuel tank to keep an eye on how much you have left.
Hang point failure
I didn’t see any mention of hang point failure in the study, and thankfully hang point failure is extremely rare. There was a case of a cracked carabiner which prompted tighter regulations on carabiners and harnesses way back in 2001, and since then all paramotor carabiners should undergo strict testing to ensure they’re able to withstand the forces placed on them during flight.
With all that being said, there was an incident that involved a paragliding tandem carabiner breaking during flight, which we’ll talk about later. There’s also multiple stories of pilots taking off with open carabiners as in the video below.
This is once again pilot error, and a case of taking off without doing the necessary pre flight checks. Always do a 6 point check before taking off, so check leg straps, chest strap, helmet strap, and both carabiners. Make sure they’re closed, and that no part of the harness has accidently passed through them.
There’s also a few things to know about carabiners, like checking them for cracks and wear, and replacing them after a certain number of hours or years. Check out my carabiner post here. You should also check that your carabiners have passed all of the necessary tests, and that they come with EN certification, and a declaration of conformity.
Unfortunately we’re working with a very dated study, but as mentioned it’s all we have to go off besides sifting through the USPPA and BHPA accident archives. The study dates from 1995 to 2012, and much of this time was before reflex wings, and when paramotor design was in its infancy. This brings up some problems, because although the basic deign of paramotors hasn’t changed, wing design, and reserve technology have come a long way.
Before the introduction of reflex wings, a wing collapse was a very common thing to see at the launch site. My flying career doesn’t date back that far, and I only flew classic gliders during my training, but some of the training films that I initially bought were from the early days of paramotoring, and they were always quick to state that all pilots would have to deal with collapses at some point.
With the introduction of reflex wings, collapses became rare, but they do still happen to pilots flying in undesirable weather conditions. So never push the limits and think that you won’t get a collapse just because you have a reflex wing. But with that being said, many of the pilots in the study were undoubtably flying classic wings, and this may have made an accident more likely than it would be on a modern wing.
Modern wings will also recover from deflations quicker, and they’re more forgiving to bad pilot input. This is something else that we need to consider when looking at the paramotor accident rate, and incidents involving old wings, and non reflex wings.
So how do you avoid a deflation?
I’ve flown reflex wings in some pretty rough conditions with no problems, but a reflex wing will also have a breaking point. So avoid flying in midday thermals, changeable weather conditions, high wind and gusty conditions, and rain. You’ll also need to be wary of turbulence from obstacles close to the ground, turbulence under clouds or during certain weather events, and also prop wash from other pilots. Learn more about turbulence, and how to make your paramotoring endeavours safer here.
How likely are you to die while paramotoring?
People like to compare the low number of paramotoring deaths per year to things like driving deaths per year and motorcycling deaths for example, but the number of paramotor pilots are miniscule compared to both of these. There may be a lower paramotor accident rate, but there’s also only a few thousand people who fly paramotors, compared to hundreds of millions riding motorcycles!
It’s really hard to say how likely you are to die while paramotoring, although some resources come up with fancy numbers, they’re all just made up, because nobody knows how many active paramotor pilots there are, and how many hours of flying actually happens. You can’t even take any estimates from the study we looked at today, as the paramotor community has grown massively in the years since the study.
From my personal flying experience since 2013, I haven’t witnessed or heard about a single accident that wasn’t caused by some kind of pilot error. I heard of one broken carabiner during a tandem paragliding flight which freaked everybody out, but it turned out the pilot was using cheap carabiners that weren’t rated for tandem flights, so this is once again pilot error, not the equipment to blame.
In short, it really comes down to the pilot. If you fly on clear low wind mornings and evenings within 3 hours of sunrise and sunset, you’ll be pretty safe from wing malfunctions. If you carry out pre flight checks and only use equipment within the stated service life, you’ll be safe from mechanical failure. If you send your wing off for its yearly inspection, it should continue to function as expected, and if you always keep a landing option, and are very aware of your surroundings, your flights should be very safe and trouble free.
With paramotoring there will always be a certain level of risk involved, just as there is driving your car to the field to go flying. Most pilots have stories of close calls, and scary flights, I’ve got my fair share, but I’ve learnt from every single one, and I do my best to share them so you guys can learn from my mistakes.
Unfortunately some pilots don’t get a second chance, some of the things I call close calls have been serious accidents for many pilots, so listen to those who came before you, and learn from the unfortunate mistakes of other pilots. This is how all types of aviation progress, and it’s how you become a much better safer pilot, with a much lower risk of injury or death.