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No guys, there is no danger in certifications, but there is a real danger in relying solely on them and nothing else.
This post is not about making some people angry, although I had my fair share of angry feedback, this is about making people aware that there is more out there beyond certifications and every kind of official tests done in paragliding for that matter. We need to understand that our beloved sport is still in it’s young stage, although, I recon it passed it’s childhood. Let’s analyze a bit the certifications and how they are performed. Firstly, it has to be said that those guys are really trying to cover as much as they can in terms of possible situations that might/will happen when using a paragliding kit (for flying that is). That being said, they only have a limited amount of kit at their disposal. And also, the tests do not take everything into consideration, as they simply cannot. It will be too expensive and time consuming.
First, let’s consider some of the aspects that the test, according with my knowledge anyway, do not take in consideration:
The front containers are a critical part of your safety kit when the harness is not provided with it’s own reserve housing system. They ensure, or suppose to, that the reserve is deployed correctly. Is there any certification body that make sure this really happen? I do not know that, and I need your input to round up my knowledge if it is. Also, the front container is directly linked with the carabineers. Now, we all know, that one of the harness critical setting that have a direct impact on the wing behavior is the length between the risers. The possibility of adjustment is mandatory and the front container, along with a easy reserve deployment (but not too easy!!) needs to permit the waist harness adjustment to go all the way wide or narrow.
The cockpit nowadays is a must-to-have piece of kit for any “serious” flyer aiming for XC or already there. I really cannot count the number of times I’ve tried to adjust it’s position in flight to be able to see the screens. That sais all about the safety provided (or destroyed) by my cockpit. And it is made by a renowned company! Also, the cockpit is also attached by the carabineers or by their harness links (in my case). One needs to check the possibility of waist adjustment on the ground as well as in flight as we need to make sure the wing span have the correct setting according with the air we fly in.
As said before, the certification bodies have a limited amount of kit available to complete a wing with when tests are done. And in any case, the tests are done with a single harness for the lowest weight and with a single one for the highest weight. And that is it. Now, harnesses are very different, and their drag is directly influencing the wing behavior and performance. The elephant in the room, of course, is the pod harness. Although it can be certified (and in most of the cases is), by using it, the wing certification is voided. Whaaat? Yes, the pod harness modify the angle of attack, the speed, it’s lateral drag is higher and it’s inertia in case of twists is also much higher. Now, who can tell me that a high EN B for example, flown at the highest part of it’s weight range (still within certification, right?) with a pod harness, is not actually moved into the EN C standards? In fact, the common sense, if not the maths calculations too, are pointing towards this fact. They will behave like any other EN C wing, especially there, where most of the wings are getting their rank: asymmetrical accelerated tuck. But let’s see if we can identify more flaws of the tests. The position of the test pilots is quite upright when they are performing the tests. That’s sensible, and I really want them to continue to do that for their own safety. But how about flying the same wing with a very slim harness, well laid back as we saw all the pilots flying after they pass 30h of flying or so. Such a harness set up will not bring too much different results than a pod harness, especially if the tail is well designed. So, it is not just about pod harness after all. Not testing all available harnesses in the market (I am well aware it is a utopic thought) will not say much about how that wing will behave in all situations, including the maneuvers done during tests.
Another valid point is the use of solo harnesses for tandem. A lot of us are doing this, I know I am. The certification in this case is voided without any doubt. The easiest thing to say is: buy a new kit, but we all use our cars for example to go off road to reach a beach or other destination. We will never say: hold on guys, I am going to buy a brand new Defender and will be right back. Hold my beer.
Sorry, what? The reserves are tested and every time they are deployed will behave the same as in tests if they are packed within an year or whatever period the manufacturer recommend. Yes, and yet, no. There are harnesses out there with their own reserve container. I still have one of those. Don’t you all think that the container is as important as the reserve itself? I do. And even with all in place and tested, I had a bitter experience when I was in the need to deploy the reserve. It simply did not want to come out. I had to use both hands to take it out whilst I was in a upside down position. And that was with a certified reverse harness that had it’s own reserve pocket under the seat. There are not that many in the market with this configuration so you can tell which one it was. 🙂 That tells me enough about the certifications. Is anyone testing the ability of the harness to easily open it’s reserve container for deployment? Especially after 8 months or so of sitting on it, waiting for the perfect thermal? No, is the short answer.
More and more popular, are the chase cams. The gear to mount your GoPro is even sold by renowned companies. The pictures/films are exceptional, out of this world, or better said, it potentially introduce our world to the general public. But let’s think about it. This is something that you tie of your wing (or lines) and not only that creates drag, you will probably say that the drag is small, but if you will fight with a strong headwind and step on your speed bar with all your life and hope, you will surely reconsider it, but also it brings a real danger when it comes with stalls. The wing will stop it’s forward movement, the cam will come forward towards you, and then, the wing will start falling. Chase cam system creates drag for stability, it is basically a small parachute, and in this case, it will go upwards into the wing. Chances are it will tangle with the lines, and the exit from stall is totally compromised. Now you need to throw the reserve, fitted in the harness container, not the one used in homologation and flatted by the countless times you sat on it. Sorry, just joking. Or did I? 🙂
Yes, the wings. There are many tests done for wings certifications, and all of them are absolutely relevant. Is just that… it’s not everything. And I am not talking here about the behavior of the wing at 5000m altitude (or 10k, Ewa Wiśnierska can tell us more about this). I am simply taking in considerations things that we all do, like wing overs, flying in really damp air or in rain/ clouds, etc. Although we are not allowed to fly in clouds, these things happen. I’ve landed once with my wing and lines soaked, water drops literally falling down from my kit after flying in a cloud. For sure, for the same certification, two wings from 2 different manufacturers will have different behaviors when wet. But the most important thing that is not tested are the very wings we are flying in real life. Even if you buy the wing brand new, it will be new for a while. A short while. Almost all it’s life it will be an old wing at different stages of wear. I am currently flying a Delta 2 from 2013. Who can tell me what EN/DHV my wing have now? The canopy deforms with time, the lines are shrinking at different lengths, the porosity is lower, the UV eats the fabric’s strength, and so on. I will really want to see a test for each year of the wing’s life until the release of a new model at least. Following the example above with the cars, the MOT is a test, a re-certification if you want, that is done for the whole lifetime of the car. And the tests are always the same, not in line with the latest norms, but the ones that the manufacturer declared at the date the car was launched. This will be a safe thing to do with the paragliders as well, don’t you thing?
I could go on with more issues, most of them minor ones at first glance, but let’s stop here as I believe I’ve showed enough to understand that hiding under the certifications, tests, licenses, and all sort of paperwork in our sport is a big mistake. One cannot control everything, and that will be the case for long time from now on. We all know the perfect example with the Carrera which in fact is a EN C wing but passed the EN B certification (thank God that the manufacturer is a really serious one and clearly stated the pilot type this wing is aimed to). And this is just the tip of the iceberg, I’ve flown an Apco Presta back in the days with really big surprises in the air; this one was another wolf in a sheep skin. So, what is left for us to do in order to keep us safe? Is to learn from people that used a certain equipment, what they said, how it feels, etc. We need to do our own tests, to see if we can understand the kit we use, aiming to be one with it. They say that the best pilot is not the one using the safest (by certifications) and/or more performing equipment, but the one that is one with his or her equipment. The pilot that is able to perfectly set the gear for it’s own needs, and in the same time able to adjust himself to the gear’s “needs” and limitations, will be the safest and most performing pilot. Test the gear before buying, read all that was written about it, and by all means, use the test reports as a guidance, but do not rely just on them.
Safety above all. Fly safe!