From the moment you fly alone, you are responsible for your own safety. As with any sport, safety is paramount in gliding. How safe is gliding? Commercial aviation is the safest means of travel today. Gliding can be safe as well if we follow a few basic rules:
- Stick to the rules and regulations.
- Speak up and report unsafe situations (Chapter 1).
- Only fly if you are fit (I’M SAFE checklist, Chapter 1).
- Always look out for other traffic.
- Use checklists, take the time to memorise them (Lesson 4.3).
- Maintain a safe airspeed, especially at low altitudes.
- Use TEM (threat and error management) (Chapter 3).
- Seek, value and enjoy instruction.
You are far more safe as a passenger on an airliner than as a passenger in a car. In recent times, every new year has made commercial aviation safer than it already was. This is only partly down to technical progress; much has changed in the way pilots interact. In the past, you were punished if you made a mistake and it was difficult to talk about other pilots’ weaknesses. This led to some major accidents, and pilots are now trying to learn from each other’s mistakes. Flying has become a team effort. For the sake of safety, a major cultural change has taken place. There are many similarities between gliding and commercial flying. We too can learn a lot from each other. In Chapter 1 we talked about speaking up (even if you are unsure), reporting and a just or no blame culture, where incidents and accidents are not punished, unless they are caused by deliberate violation of the rules or gross negligence. These basic safety principles come from commercial aviation.
So what is risk? When you get out of bed in the morning to shower, fry an egg, and then travel to work, you are taking the first risks of the day. After all, you can slip, burn yourself or end up in a traffic accident. These are risks we take every day. Staying in bed on the other hand is also risky. We need regular exercise to stay healthy, as every doctor will confirm. We accept the fact that we can’t control everything in life. Gliding is a sport and has few practical purposes. Except for young people who find a job in aviation thanks to gliding or those that do scientific research with measuring equipment, you won’t make a living out of it. So why would we take the risk of an accident? Because gliding is exciting. We don’t know if we will find a thermal, make it to our destination with ease, or fly an aerobatic program without mistakes. We like some insecurity, we like adventure, but we don’t like accidents. To minimise the risk of an accident, we need to minimise the amount of uncertainty. We do this by preparing for our flight well, knowing the local weather conditions, staying on top of our theoretical knowledge, following the rules and always having a back-up plan ready.
In commercial aviation, threat and error management is used to prepare for uncertainty and to identify risks in advance. We do the same thing in the world of gliding. What can we do if we have to release from the tug during the initial climb? How will we respond to a cable break during a winch launch? By thinking carefully about unexpected situations beforehand, we prepare ourselves for what could go wrong and how we could solve those situations. Discussing eventualities or emergencies is an important part of the pre-flight checklist. This concept of preparing for the unexpected should also be used when preparing for landing or preparing for flight exercises.
HOW SAFE IS GLIDING?
Gliding can be a safe sport, as long as we avoid unnecessary risks. Such as: not wearing your parachute properly, allowing yourself to be distracted by taking photos or shooting videos during the flight, or flying while stressed or unfit to fly. It is impossible to say exactly how safe gliding is for you. It all depends on how much risk you are willing to take. Statistics show that flying in the mountains is more dangerous than flying above flat terrain. Competitions also carry extra risks, because there are many planes racing together and pilots will feel extra mental pressure to win. For most of us, the risk of flying in the mountains is acceptable. We take that extra risk because it is wonderful to fly in a challenging landscape. Few of us are able to take part in competitions in the mountains. Every new step you take brings new risks. Know your own limits and only take new steps after training and when you feel ready for them. Don’t push your limits too far. As pilots we can get fixated on a task to the extent that we lose sight of the dangers. Allow yourself to say ‘today is not the day’. Acknowledging your boundaries is not a failure. To be a safe pilot you sometimes have to let go of your goal and try again another day. We call this airmanship.
HOW CAN I MAKE GLIDING SAFER?
There are several factors that make flying safer. These are the three main ones:
- Technical progress
- Better procedures and regulations
- A safer culture
Technical progress is an ongoing process; the cockpit structure of new gliders is much stronger than 30 years ago, we carry highly reliable rescue parachutes, computers warn us of collisions, and so on. Better equipment has literally saved many lives.
We can adjust our procedures and regulations by reporting incidents and identifying unsafe trends. We still have a lot of catching up to do here, so be honest about your own mistakes and report any unsafe situations you see around you. Your club probably has a procedure that makes it easy to report incidents. Even reporting something small might save lives one day!
Almost all accidents are due to pilot errors. In aviation this is called human factors. Therefore, the third and most important point to make gliding safer is to develop a safer culture. We can only achieve this together. Everyone makes mistakes, even your instructor with 1,000 flight hours. Talking about mistakes and fallibility is not always easy, especially if it concerns someone who is older and/or much more experienced than you. But when the atmosphere is informal and everyone is relaxed, it is easier to talk to each other. Be tolerant and accept feedback as an opportunity to grow. Help each other, especially when you see that someone needs help. In the ideal world, a 16-year-old student can address the chief flight instructor about his or her behaviour. After all, we are all engaged in a fun sport and we have the same goal: getting the most out of every flight.
We wish you many beautiful and safe flights!