In my paramotoring safety article we learned about accidents that happen on the ground, the most common being the paramotor prop strike. Although we’ve already taken a look at preventing this, I think a full article is definitely needed. Each time this happens we’re discovering different causes and circumstances, all of these will be addressed in this article.
Just as I was considering writing this post, another pilot fell victim to his propeller which resulted in a finger amputation. I’ve been given permission to include details of this pilots accident, and another similar accident that happened a year prior.
Before reading on, please be advised that this article contains some graphic images of actual paramotor prop strikes. If you don’t like the sight of flesh wounds, please check out another one of my safety posts.
Later in this post we’ll learn ways of preventing prop strikes, and we’ll look at modifications you can make to your paramotor. I won’t mention the names of any paramotor manufacturers as I don’t believe in singling out companies, but all manufacturers need to address this issue.
Manufacturers should realise that this isn’t always caused by pilot error, and that the design of the paramotor can easily be changed to prevent this happening. Before we go any further, let’s find out what happened in these two recent cases.
Paramotor prop strike: Fred’s accident
As previously mentioned, Fred has given me permission to post his full story and photos. Do not reuse any of this without contacting him first for permission.
Experienced UK pilot Fred Littler had been flying for twelve years when he set up ready to launch in July 2017. Fred had clipped into his paramotor, and had attached the throttle to his hand. The hand throttle on most machines uses either a Velcro, or nylon strap to attach it to the pilots hand. This prevents the pilot dropping it at any time during the flight.
Fred had started his paramotor’s powerful 200 cc engine which had no clutch, so the propeller was already spinning. As Fred walked towards his wing to clip in, the throttle cable was able to pass through a gap in the netting. The propeller quickly grabbed the cable and pulled it in, along with Fred’s hand.
Within a split second Fred’s hand was pulled through the carbon cage spars straight into the propeller. As Fred’s hand and the throttle cable were pulled through, the engine revved up to maximum RPM which also increased the propellers speed. This destroyed Fred’s hand, and then pinned him face down onto the ground.
Fred’s thumb and fingers had been lost, and the kill switch which is built into the hand throttle was also gone. People around him could only watch, unable to help in any way.
Nobody could do anything to help Fred kill the engine, as the left handed throttle was underneath him. The spark plug lead which can be removed to stop an engine was also underneath. It took at least twenty seconds from this point for the frame to give way and propeller and cage to self destruct, which finally stopped the engine.
Fred spent many weeks in hospital and had to undergo multiple operations, including the amputation of two fingers and his thumb.
PARAMOTOR PROP STRIKE: PAT’S ACCIDENT
Once again, I have been given full permission to post Pat’s story and pictures, so do not reuse them without contacting him first.
Pat Matthews is another pilot with plenty of experience. He’s flown paragliders for over twenty years, and started paramotoring over five years before his accident. In April 2018 Pat set up for a forward launch in perfect flying conditions. His engine had no clutch and was already warmed up and ticking over.
Pat ran forwards, pulling his wing into the air. As he did this, the wing quickly swung around to the right. Anybody that flies paramotors will experience this at some point. The normal reaction to correct it is to pull left brake to bring the wing back into the wind line. Pat did this, but as he pulled left brake the wing overshot him, so he pulled more brake to collapse the wing. This is another normal reaction that all pilots would do, this safely brings the wing down to prevent it dragging you around.
Unfortunately, as Pat pulled hard on the brakes to collapse the wing, his arm was able to pass through the gap in the netting. The gap was in the lower part of the netting, very similar to the gap on Fred’s paramotor. The propeller struck Pat’s left hand, and cut through his index finger. The prop strike resulted in multiple operations and Pat’s index finger and knuckle being amputated, and a further surgery on his thumb.
Fred and Pat were both very keen to share their stories with me in the hope that it helps other pilots. Now let’s look at the reason behind these accidents to help you avoid these terrible life changing injuries.
Causes of prop strike: Netting
There are many different causes of prop strikes. Some are pilot error, and some are design flaws. After looking at both Fred and Pat’s accidents, it’s really easy to see how they could have been prevented. These accidents weren’t pilot error, but a flaw in the design of the cage and netting. Gaps in the netting, no matter how small, can pose a risk to pilots.
A close call!
Shortly after buying my current paramotor, I was flying and I lowered my hand to let the blood flow. As I did so, my throttle cable passed through a gap in the cage, hitting the propeller. Thankfully the cable and prop were fine, and my hand didn’t get pulled in.
I was careful to never lower my hand again, but I soon encountered the same problem on the ground. I was sat on the ground, strapped into my harness while warming up my engine. I took the engine to full power and decided the engine was ready to fly. With the throttle in my hand, I placed my hands on the ground to push myself up. As I did this, the cable once again passed through the gap and hit the propeller.
This time the prop strike minced up the cable and caused the engine to rev up. Luckily the kill switch still worked! For anybody that isn’t familiar with the design, the wire for the kill switch travels back to the engine in a sheath around the throttle cable. My propeller was also damaged, but luckily my hand didn’t get pulled in, as in Fred’s case.
Pat tells me that he also had this happen to him three times while flying the same model paramotor as mine, and it minced the cable every time! Who knows how many pilots this has happened to worldwide, but the design hasn’t changed! Just to note, Pat was launching a different model of paramotor at the time of his most recent accident.
Gaps in cages and netting have also caused many other accidents. Brake handles have been sucked through resulting in uncontrollable spiral dives. Hoods on clothing have also been sucked through! Here’s an online conversation I had when I noticed my own hood was through a gap in the cage. The other pilot told me his friends hoodie had got caught up in his propeller and it almost strangled him.
So what can we do about this problem?
Firstly, manufacturers need to address this issue. The first thing that needs to happen is a complete redesign of cages and netting for future paramotor models. Many paramotors are designed with aesthetics in mind, but safety should be the priority.
Manufacturers are well aware of the problem with netting and gaps, so they need to act now. Instead of just considering what areas of the cage need to be covered during normal operation, manufacturers should look at all possibilities, including the ones mentioned in this post.
I mentioned earlier that I wouldn’t name and shame manufacturers, but I don’t mind bragging some up. I’ve searched for a paramotor that doesn’t have gaps in the netting and I couldn’t find many. But one design that looks very good is Bulldog paramotors design. You can see a picture of it here.
The routing of throttle cables should also be reconsidered on many machines. Even if cage gaps are covered, a simple trip can tear through the netting, allowing the cable to pass through.
If you already have a paramotor that has gaps in its netting, it’s possible to fill these gaps. If you are disassembling your paramotor for transport then these modifications will have to be reinstalled at every flight. Simple hook and loop Velcro luggage straps can be placed over gaps, but be sure that they are safely secured before start-up.
More causes of prop strike: Starting the engine
The most common cause of prop strike that I’ve seen or heard of, has been caused by simply starting the engine. Pilots will start their engines, the engine will rev up, the motor flips over, and the propeller strikes the pilot. This can be avoided with a few simple pre-start checks…
A few simple checks should be done directly before every start up to ensure the engine won’t rev up…
- Check that the finger lever on your hand throttle returns to the stop position. Pull it a few times to make sure it’s not jammed, and that the cable is nice and free.
- Check that the cruise control knob is loosened, and fully unwind it. (SEE THIS IMAGE)
- While you’re pulling the throttle lever, watch the carburettor. Make sure the lever is returning to the closed position. You can also listen for a clicking sound as you release the throttle, this is the throttle slide/butterfly snapping shut inside the carb.
- All of this should happen with a fast, but smooth motion.
- Loose items can easily get sucked into the propeller, so always clear the area around the paramotor.
- Call out “CLEAR PROP” to let everybody around you know that you’re going to start your engine. This warning will be recognised by everybody.
Starting the engine on your back
The best way to avoid a prop strike, and the safest way to start a paramotor, is to start it while you are strapped into it. It can be extremely difficult to pull the cord on larger/higher compression engines while you’re strapped in. If there’s anybody else around that can help you, it’s always best to get them to pull it while you remain strapped in.
Starting the engine on the ground
I strongly advise against starting non-clutched engines on the ground. Clutched paramotor engines should only be started on the ground if all of your checks have been completed successfully. It’s also recommended that you install a safety strap to the propeller before starting the engine. You can’t buy these straps, so you will need to make one. I will explain how to do this in a separate article. (Safety straps are covered in my book that you can get here).
This is the way I have to do it, as I simply can’t start my paramotor while it’s on my back. As soon as the engine is running, I remove the strap, and clip straight into the harness before touching the throttle. The engine is then warmed up after I have clipped in.
If you need to use this method, you should always be sure that the paramotor is standing on firm ground. And never try to start it while it’s on any kind of stand. I witnessed a pilot attempt to start his paramotor while it was standing on an aluminium decorators stand. The engine went to full power and the paramotor fell on top of him, luckily his hands were clear of the prop.
You should also avoid starting the engine on the ground if you have made any carburettor adjustments, for example changing the mixture. If the mixture is set wrong, there is a chance that the engine could rev up. This happened to somebody recently, which resulted in a prop strike. It left him with a nasty cut to the shoulder, a destroyed propeller, and ripped netting. The propeller also hit his helmet, which could have been very nasty if he wasn’t wearing it!
Paramotor prop strike round up
We’ve looked at many causes of prop strike, and I believe all of these can be avoided. To totally eliminate this, we need manufacturers to step in and rethink their cage and netting design. This is the only way to prevent cases like Fred and Pat’s from reoccurring. If any manufacturers are reading this, please realise that this is a serious problem. These two examples happened within a year of each other, and not everybody goes public, so there could be more. Things need to change now!
We also need paramotor training schools to teach students about all of these potential hazards. They should create a list of preflight checks that all students must complete before every flight. If you create good habits as a student, you are more likely to stick to them as you progress.
Pilots that have got into bad habits, or those that weren’t taught correctly in the first place can also change. Write a list of all the checks and good habits mentioned in this article, and take it with you to the field. Realise how important these checks are and make them all routine before you fly, they’ll soon become a matter of course.
I hope this article has helped you, and I hope that it will save many pilots from these terrible injuries. Since I started flying, I’ve read countless prop strike reports online, and I even witnessed one happen. Please take this article seriously, get into good habits, do your pre-flight checks before every flight, and always fly as safely as possible.