A Reply to Clemens Ciepek- The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love

Clemens Ciepek wrote a thought provoking piece that computed the relative risk of dying in soaring in relation to other activities. He pointed out that statistically, glider flying is twice as dangerous as motorcycling. And the risk of dying while soaring in the next 1000 hours is approximately two percent, ouch.

Observing the responses and reactions, many people pushed back at the statistics. Sure, a lot of this reaction can be explained through cognitive dissonance. Yet the statistics speak for themselves; soaring is a high risk activity.

However, we should examine the risk concept a bit further. We have considerable control over the risk we accept. This is not a cop-out, but rather a factual statement. The reason we crash is due to human factors and poor decision-making, not things outside of our control.

However, we must also accept that overcoming our human foibles is difficult. It’s kind of like trying to beat the stock market; sure it might be possible, but everyone else is trying to do the same thing. The same psychological processes that prevent smart people from doing better than the market are the same ones that get us killed.

All that given, it’s still worth examining where the risk is hiding in soaring.

Almost all gliding accidents occur during takeoff or landing. The remainder includes mid-airs, health-related episodes, structural failures, etc. Most of us can exclude the remainder from the risk equation. Therefore, almost all of the risk is in the first and last five minutes of the flight; below 1000ft AGL. Otherwise, unless we hit a bird or an airplane, the risk level above 1000ft is nearly nil.

This suggests that our overall risk level should be low if we are totally professional when we do our takeoffs and landings. We can do this by meticulously performing checklists and strictly maintaining our margins in decision-making, airspeed and coordination.

The opposite is also true. If we rush through the pre-flight, forget to do our pre-takeoff checklist and an issue arises on tow, our risk level would be very high. When we thermal below 1000ft AGL, neglect choosing a suitable landing option for too long and fail to commit to a safe approach, our risk level would be extremely high. At a minimum, should we indulge in entering this high risk territory, we should acknowledge it and minimize the risk through our choices. But it’s best to avoid it.

For competitive pilots, there is the additional risk of a midair with another glider. It’s undoubtedly true that the likelihood of a midair in competitions is considerably greater than in casual flying. That said, incidents and accidents in competitions are overwhelmingly due to poor landout judgment. This is entirely in the domain of pilot decision-making.

Then there’s ridge/mountain flying. Here the risk level is probably an order of magnitude greater than in thermal soaring. This is due to the challenges of taking off and landing in strong winds, maneuvering in close proximity to the terrain in gusty conditions, and the poor landing options in the vicinity of mountains. There are many ways to mitigate these risks, but this requires a tremendous amount of experience and effort. We have to study the weather, terrain and learn the fields and their approaches. We have to train to handle challenging conditions. And even if we do everything right, we still cannot contain all the risk. To use Clemens’ analysis, ridge flying is probably as dangerous as climbing the Tetons. And interestingly, in the past I have used mountain climbing as an analogy for the risk level associated with ridge soaring.

That said, there are mountain climbers out there who successfully scale mountains their whole lives. They often do this by being cognizant of the risks and consistently mitigating them. They do this through good preparation, training and maintaining their margins.

My point is not to detract from the statistics. It is to give us tools to think about so that we can control our risk level. And since there’s a lot we can do, we can greatly minimize the risk of dying doing what we love.

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