Paragliding, safer than you think

Paragliding from Lions Head or Signal Hill is a common and colourful sight along the Atlantic coast, with over a dozen parachutes hovering in the sky during the summer months.

The tandem paragliders float effortlessly in the clear blue.

The tandem paraglider pilots are affiliated with the Civil Aviation Authority and the South African Hangliding and Paragliding Association (SAHPA), and they must be licensed to fly paragliders.

They adhere to strict rules, including maximum speeds of 40 to 50 kilometres per hour. The Atlantic Sun recently reported on a paragliding accident (“Paraglider dies after crashing into Lion’s Head”, Atlantic Sun, January 16).

“For a typical paraglider we adhere to the speeds and don’t go over 50km/h. We do have a speed range and there’s many factors that can affect this speed, and if the wind is blowing at 100km/h then we are not paragliding,” said Ria Moothilal, the instructor for Air School Paragliding.

Mr Moothilal has been paragliding for nine years and says accidents are rare, with only five occurring during his time as a paraglider.

“People have a poor understanding of what we do; they think we just jump off the mountain and hope that things work, no that’s not it. The equipment is properly designed and is of the highest quality. In Europe they use wind tunnels and there are special test centres to test the gliders and they give it ratings. So we are informed of the behaviour of the gliders and which pilot it would be suited to and we use gliders here that are suited to beginner’s training,” he said.

Ria Moothilal, the instructor for Air School Paragliding, speaks to a client before they take off.

Mr Moothilal adds that the instructors prefer to fly in good weather and when mist appeared on the Sea Point Promenade on Friday January 13, where the paragliders regularly land, they chose not to fly from Signal Hill and instead took off from Lion’s Head.

“It’s a lot safer than people actually think and the pilot’s decision-making can mitigate a lot of the risk and if you look at the stats you will see that it’s (accidents) really, really low. I think paragliding is the safest form of aviation and you know let me compare it to driving a car – I can teach you to drive a car and you’re not just going to drive into a wall are you, and the same with us; we will teach you paragliding and you’re not just going to fly into a rock,” he said.

It takes three to five years to become a tandem flight instructor, which includes doing 350 flights as well as acquiring the licences to do paragliding instruction.

Pete Wallenda has been paragliding for 40 years and is a Grade A flight instructor, and says that accidents are almost impossible due to their focus on safety.

“I had a 78-year old training me with me recently and although it was physically challenging for him, he could fly,” said Mr Wallenda.

“If you look at the safety of paragliding it’s a bit like driving a car. We give you boundaries and give you an envelope of operations, yes it’s good to train a student when the wind is 90 degrees to the slope, it’ good if the wind is not more than 15 kilometres per hour, it’s good if the student has a glider that’ easy to fly, has a harness with a back-protector,” he said.

Mr Wallenda says that wind strength, wind direction and the weight of the student is all considered before going on a paragliding flight.

“You have to consider where you’re taking off, where you are landing, the topography and the weight of the person, they could be 60 kilos or a 100 kilos and there is a weight range we work with. Remember we do a foot launch and the wind has to assist us,” he said.

SAHPA chairperson, Louis Stanford, says that all pilots are taught to do rudimentary safety checks on their equipment and that maintenance and repairs are performed by skilled and qualified riggers.

“It is exceptionally rare for equipment failure to be the cause of accidents. I’m afraid I don’t have the statistics at hand for Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, 2022 data has not yet been filtered and sorted,” said Mr Stanford.

Mr Stanford says that SAHPA has a statistics and reporting system aligned to the rest of the aviation industry and that incidents and accidents are reported by the pilots.

“Incidents are reported by pilots when something untoward happened during the flight, where there was no injury or damage to property. Accidents are reported by pilots when there was damage to property or injury to person. This is an important distinction, because it is theoretically possible to have two identical adverse events, but where one outcome was a safe landing, and the other a serious injury. Pilots spend a lot of intellectual energy to understand why this is,” he said.

There are many rules to paragliding and the pilots follow all of them.