Paramotor Safety

Water: A Fatal Attraction

2007-07-02 by Jeff Goin. | A Better Paramotor

See also Agama Water Rescue system test.

"I've been in the water several times—it's not so bad" is like saying "I played Russian Roulette several times—it wasn't that bad." You were lucky.

The reality is that going into the water, even shallow water, is a terrible throw of the dice. About one in 30 pilots who go into the water die. With deep water (over 6 feet) it's about 1 in 10. Humans are called land mammals for a very good reason.

The problem is that it can go from seemingly benign to drowning in a minute or less. One pilot got out of his motor then drowned while swimming to shore, a mere 50 feet away. Another pilot was held underwater by his rig. He struggled to exhaustion then passed out.

What Happens When You Go In

If you're flying low, have a motor failure and go in the water, things are bad. Even rehearsing on dry land is dramatically different from ending up face down, unable to breath and trying to think clearly. The military understands this intrinsically which is why they make their aviators actually go for a dunking after doing training.

Even a skilled stud of a pilot stands a high chance of panic. Ace flyers who think coolly in air emergencies have acted completely inappropriately when faced with the unique trauma of submersion. Even pilots who have behaved exquisitely under fire have succumb—being suddenly unable to breath breeds it's own unique panic.

How Can I Survive A Water Landing

So you've accepted the risk of overwater flight and now face a ditching. Without floatation, there's a good chance you won't survive, as mentioned, but here are ways to improve your odds slightly. If you go in without warning (flying low) then you're probably screwed—sorry. Doing foot drags in the water has caused a number of pilots to dunk when water slowed the prop or somehow killed the motor. These tips come from actual experience of numerous ditchings, include those who didn't make it.

If you have some altitude when the motor quits and know you're landing in water then:

  1. Head towards shore. The closer the better in almost all cases unless there's a boat that you know will see you.

  2. Time permitting, do the following: Unclip from the harness—everything except one leg strap. Some instructors suggest all the straps. Remove your shoes and sox, empty your pockets and make sure there's nothing around your neck. Even a healthy swimmer will tire and drown in minutes if he's the least bit encumbered. Rehearse releasing that last buckle (if left fastened).

  3. If there's more than about 3-5 mph wind, land into it and don't let the wing fall on you. As soon as you touch, give full brakes to help it go behind. It's good to have the wing go behind you since that will tend to put you on your back, face up and breathing, instead of face down and thrashing.

  4. If there is little wind, it's probably better to land downwind to insure the wing overflies you on touchdown. Minimize the flare and let up on the brakes at touchdown to help insure the wing overflies you. Advantages are that the wing will land on its leading edge, trapping air, and also that any breeze will push the wing (hopefully still standing up on the leading edge) to keep the lines taut which reduces your chance of entanglement. Thanks to Keith Pickersgill for this info.

  5. Don't jump out! At least one pilot died after misjudging his height and jumping too soon. Jump when your feet first touch the water.

  6. Once the motion has stopped, see where the wing went and swim away from it. Becoming entangled will prevent the necessary swimming action and you will drown in an exhausted flail of fruitless thrashing. If your motor is equipped with floatation, consider staying with it until help arrives. If you do swim, strip down first.

  7. The paramotor sometimes sinks immediately but more likely will float for a short period depending on fuel quantity (more fuel, less float time), motor weight, how long it takes to soak the harness and flood the frame. It then sinks to the bottom of your wing's lines. Trapped air in the wing will probably keep everything afloat for up to several hours, regardless of how the wing deflated.

  8. If you're far from shore and still have lots of clothing on you risk drowning from exhaustion in a matter of minutes. The clothing quickly becomes heavy (taking on its dry weight) as all the air bubbles escape. With no other option and rescue not imminent, consider using the wing for floatation. Put two arms around a puffed up portion and hold it so the trapped air remains. It's a tradeoff since you risk getting tangled in the lines although they will hopefully be relatively taut if the motor has sunk.

Can I Fly Over Water Safely?

Yes, if the water is less than 12 inches deep. Otherwise, not really. But you can reduce the risk. Flying over water deeper than a foot, even with these tips, is still riskier than flying over land but, if you must:

1. Have buoyancy mounted on your paramotor. The Agama (pictured left, see Agama Test) is ideal but any floatation that can keep the top part of your frame (and mouth) above water will work. It probably has to have to have at least 100 pounds of buoyancy (the Agama has 400) to keep your head high enough. It's not good enough just to float you, it must keep you upright and not hold you in a face-down condition.

2. Wear a personal always-inflated life vest like a water skier. You must have floatation in order swim away from the motor safely after a dunking.

3. Have a boat handy or have people on shore with floatation! Swimmers without floatation run a huge risk of drowning themselves. Lifeguards carry those swimming assisters for a very good reason.

4. Avoid moving water like the plague. At least one pilot drowned after he landed next to a culvert while his wing feel in the moving water . It pulled him into the water and he drowned. Water's pull on a wing is extreme and you will not likely escape once the dragging starts.

Never go beyond gliding distance of shore, avoid moving water, and treat water deeper than 12 inches like the Mariana Trench. The 12 inch max allows your arms to push your head up in case you're forced into a face down position and can't roll over due to the cage. One pilot almost drowned in 18 inches of watery muck in just this situation.


© 2016 Jeff Goin & Tim Kaiser   Remember: If there's air there, it should be flown in!