Just how risky is hang-gliding?
In the wake of a weekend incident during which a novice fell to her death while being flown by a professional, uncertainty about the dangers of the sport is being laid bare.
The short answer is that there is no answer.
When things go wrong in the sport, the Transportation Safety Board does not investigate. Also, since pilots are not required to provide the number of hours they fly, risk of death or serious injury can’t be assessed in a meaningful way.
Prominent members of the Canadian hang gliding community have portrayed this as a freak accident. They say, anecdotally, that this is the first tandem fatality in the country. Largely absent, though, are hard data indicating the chance of disaster striking while soaring.
That absence, and the relative lack of regulatory oversight, are raising questions after the death of Lenami Godinez.
On Saturday, the 27-year-old was on an outing purchased by her boyfriend, who was waiting his turn for a tandem flight. He was watching as she fell from the glider and tumbled 300 metres to her death in the Fraser Valley.
The veteran pilot, Jon ‘Spike’ Orders, was charged with obstruction of justice and was in custody ahead of a court appearance Wednesday. According to court documents as reported by the CBC, he is alleged to have swallowed the memory card of a camera that may have been recording the incident.
The incident has set off a wave of discussion among enthusiasts in the North American hang-glider community – most of whom acknowledge that a tragedy is only one bad error away in the sport.
“Not clipping in is probably the worst mistake we have,” said veteran hang-glider Davis Straub. “So common I would say probably one person a year does that.”
Mr. Straub, who maintains a series of memorial links at his popular site, said the community studies every death to see what lessons can be learned.
The B.C. Coroners Service is conducting a formal investigation. Spokeswoman Barb McClintock said that it was too early to predict the outcome, but that beefed-up safety procedures could form one element of their recommendations.
Given the dangers, critics have questioned why anyone would take such a chance. But the sport’s supporters insist it has become much safer, and that responsible pilots can minimize the inherent risk.
Companies offering tandem flights typically boast about their safety record. Vancouver Hang-Gliding, the outfit involved in Saturday’s death, asserts that they “will not compromise on safety.”
But there is little regulatory substance behind such claims.
Transport Canada takes a largely hands-off approach to regulating hang-gliding and pilots carrying passengers can choose to, but are not required to, have a form of certification offered by the sport’s national association.
Numbers from Britain, offered without sourcing on a government website, provide some clarity on the broader risk involved in the sport. They indicate the chance of dying in a hang-gliding incident is about one in 116,000 flights. That makes it more risky than scuba diving and much more so than driving a car.
It is far safer than carrying a baby, the British numbers show, with the average annual risk of dying due to maternity about 14 times that of dying due to hang-gliding.
A United States professional body that for years offered an annual snapshot of incidents admitted it could not assess the risk involved.
“We really have no idea how many hang-gliding accidents actually occurred in 2004,” the United States Hang-Gliding and Paragliding Association warned on one such report. “Similarly, the [USHPA]has no quantitative information about the number of flights or flight hours logged.”