Soaring Risks and Risk Mitigation

This page aims to illustrate the risks and dangers involved in soaring and what we can do to prevent them as much as possible.  It includes references to my own articles and analyses as well as links to other materials that I found to be insightful. If you have a favorite safety piece, perhaps one that has a particular meaning to your own experience, please share it with me (along with its source) and I will consider adding it to the list below.

Overall Risk Analyses and Risk Mitigation Strategies

The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love.  In this statistical analysis I compare the odds of dying in a soaring accident per activity hour to the odds of dying while driving, motorcycling, scuba diving, paragliding, mountain climbing, etc.  Whether we like it or not, soaring is a dangerous sport.

Does Soaring Have To Be So Dangerous? In this article I analyze about 250 soaring accidents to find the root causes as to how and why pilots (many of whom were very experienced) got into situations that resulted in a crash. I also propose very specific actions how each of us can prepare so he or she can beat the odds.  In short: soaring does not have to be so dangerous but it takes real effort to reduce the risks.

Competing and Survival: Managing Risks in Soaring Contests.  In this article I propose a simple model that can help pilots deal with the bewildering complexity of Safety Risks and Sporting Risks.  I also show that flying recklessly not only fails to convey a competitive advantage, it usually lands pilots at the bottom of the score sheet.  The model also explains why we have to be safe in order to be fast.

General Soaring Safety Talks, Presentations and Articles

Experience Can Kill You.  Daniel Sazhin illustrates the psychological reasons why experience can be dangerously misleading when it comes to preventing soaring accidents and what we can do to avoid the trap.  He also writes more on this topic in Why Do Experienced Pilots Crash? – Prospect Theory and Soaring.

Complacency – What Me Worry? Safety talk by Martin Hellman illustrating how 99.9% safe maneuvers frequently result in complacency about the risks and too often in accidents when the same maneuver is repeated in the future.  The examples he gives include low passes, close-in ridge flying, crossing ridges or mountain passes at low altitude, getting enveloped in clouds, and landing out. Experienced pilots who have many such maneuvers under their belt are ironically (but logically) most at risk.

You Will Be Tempted.  Safety talk by John Cochrane illustrating why soaring pilots – especially in contests – are routinely tempted into unsafe flying and what they can do to prepare in order to resist the temptations.

Soaring Safety Article. Vivid account by Dave Nadler of two contests in the mid 1980s where out of 86 contestants 2 died, 9 gliders were destroyed, and countless other incidents happened that could have easily increased the toll. A must read for any contest pilot and also quite relevant for anyone flying cross-country. One of the biggest lessons: never follow another glider!

Safety Comes First.  Famous safety talk by prominent German pilot Bruno Gantenbrink in which he challenged the notion that “the most dangerous aspect of soaring is the drive to the airport” and called it “the dumbest and most ignorant saying that has ever found a home in our sport.”  Here is an English translation.

Creating a Safety Culture in Soaring Clubs.  An excellent article from Daniel Sazhin that provides very specific suggestions how Soaring Clubs can foster a safety culture. E.g., if you see someone else do something unsafe, you have to speak up – you are your brother’s keeper.  You should communicate respectfully, one on one, and without being accusatory.  The receiver should perceive that you have their interests at heart, and not that you want to demonstrate your superiority!  Otherwise the receiver will not want to hear from you again and conceal their behavior from you.

Safety Pays! A proposal to the International Gliding Commission (IGC) to make gliding a safer sport.  It includes some sobering statistics: on a per-hour basis gliding is estimated to be approx. 70 times more dangerous than participating in road traffic. The risk of an average glider pilot to die in a gliding accident in any given year is approx. 1 : 2500. That is equivalent to 1 death in 70,000 flights.  For flights during competition the risk is even 10-11 times greater than that: i.e., competition pilots die at a rate of approx. 1 in 6,700 competition flights.

Wie überlebe ich Segelflug?  (German).  Essay by an experienced XC pilot, Bert Willig, who tackles the root causes of soaring accidents.  His focus is on breaking the causal chain that led to accidents with a special emphasis on “soft factors” such as “mental overload” and “misjudging a situation”.  There are a lot of parallels to my own analysis in “Does Soaring Have to Be So Dangerous?”.  He even proposes the use of a stop light metaphor where green is “go fast”, yellow is “stay up”, and red is “safely execute a landout”.  This is basically the same concept as my pyramid of priorities.

Safety Advice for Specific Maneuvers and Flight Situations

Take Off

It is Critical To Brief the Tow Pilot.  This is particularly essential when you’re flying with water ballast and are behind a tow pilot who normally pulls lighter gliders.  Heavy gliders require a minimum tow speed that is often well above the minimum tow speed of the tow plane. What could possibly go wrong?

Mountain Soaring

Safety in Mountain Flying.  Excellent booklet published by the Centre National de vol à voile, Saint-Auban, France, Dec 2011.  Also available in German and in French.

Ridge Soaring

Ridge Soaring.  My own summary of the risks involved in ridge soaring and strategies to mitigate them.

Managing the Safety Risk of Ridge Soaring.  Excellent Article by Daniel Sazhin, explaining how to consider and test the uncertainty of ridge lift.  A much better approach than “you have to believe” that the lift will continue!

Falling Off Ridges.  Blog post by Daniel Sazhin illustrating how to avoid precarious situations when ridge soaring, especially along low ridges (like in Appalachia) where there is not much time to act when the ridge stops working.

Wave Soaring

Wave Soaring. My own summary of the risks involved in wave soaring and strategies to mitigate them.

Final Glide

This Brilliant Man Can Get You in Trouble – Misapply MacCready Theory at Your Own Peril.  XC beginners are often inclined to use a low MacCready setting on their flight computer – after all, they want to stay high and safe and are not trying to race.  In this article I explain why this strategy can mislead them into believing that airports are in glide that are way out of reach.  I also include specific tips to avoid this dangerous trap.

Safer Finishes.  Article by John Cochrane in Soaring Magazine examining the history of final glide accidents and proposing specific measures (i.e. the “high finish”) to reduce the risk of crashing just before getting back to the home airfield.


Landing Pattern – Paranoia as a Virtue, by Bob Wheelan, Soaring Magazine Nov 2007 p. 26-29. Written by a fellow Boulder pilot, this article recounts three very challenging experiences in the landing pattern and underscores the importance of a safe pattern altitude.

Off-Airport Landings.  Excellent article from Kai Gertsen about how to prepare for and execute safe landings in a glider in fields and other places that are not airports – generally called “landing out”.


Spin Avoidance  Nice safety video illustrating how too much rudder in a turn can cause a glider to spin-in even if the nose is well below the horizon.


Rogue Air Currents.  Excellent article illustrating the existence and effects of narrow and extremely powerful updrafts and downdrafts at all altitudes.  It is likely that these played a role in many an unexplained accident.

Microbursts – How To Avoid This Invisible Trap.  In this article I closely examine the common phenomenon of dry (and often invisible) microbursts that has brought down airlines as well as glider pilots.

Mindset – Expectation Governs Action. Article by Dr. Daniel Johnson that discusses how we need to stay flexible to respond to completely unexpected (because unknowable and in advance unobservable) changes in the atmosphere.  Examples include invisible thermals on short final, unexpected wind shear and tailwind on short final, and massive sink from virga outflow.

Glider Accident Databases

Global Glider Accident Database. Worldwide wiki database of ~6000 glider accidents. It’s shown in chronological order (scroll to the bottom for the latest accident and click on link for writeup of the circumstances and causes).

United States – NTSB Database.  Reports of all glider accidents in the United States.

Germany – Bundesstelle fuer Flugunfalluntersuchung.  Reports of glider accidents in Germany.

United Kingdom – Air Accident Investigation Branch.  Reports of glider accidents in the United Kingdom.

Switzerland – Schweizerische Sicherheitsuntersuchungsstelle. Reports of glider accidents in Switzerland.

Austria – Versa Reports. Collection of sailplane accident reports in Austria (in German).