Note: Most of the standards referred to in this note are not publicly available, and this note relies extensively on secondary sources for the information contained. This data may therefore contain inaccuracies, and is provided to give a general overview of current standards, rather than offer specific guidance.
EN966 is the only global airsports helmet spec available and it limits our choices for helmets.
For competitive paragliding use, the FAI allows three other snowsports standards that are similar but not identical (EN1077, ASTM F2040, and RS98) to widen the availability, and to encourage more regular replacement of helmets.
This note explores what differentiates paragliding helmets certified by EN966 compared to potentially similar helmets certified to other common standards.
Blunt impact - measured by the shock experienced by dropping a helmet containing a head-sized object onto various solid objects from a height of 1.5 meters [Front, top, sides, and back]
Penetrating impact - measured the hole produced by hitting the helmet with a cone shaped metal object driven by a 3kg hammer
Securing of the straps - measured by the force required to pull the helmet off [must not break under a certain value, but must break away if a high force is applied]
Peripheral vision - The vision must not be obstructed within certain limits [25 degrees up, 45 degrees down, 105 degrees left/right]
Head movement - the head must not be restricted from moving within certain limits
Environmental degradation of impact performance [heat, cold, water, UV light]
Potential for line entanglements
The ability to wear goggles or be fitted with integral visor
The blunt impact tests are quite similar across several helmet standards, particularly the European ones. EN966 tests are towards the more stringent end, and are higher than (for example) most cycle helmet standards such as EN1078.
Generally, there is a tradeoff between light helmet weight and better blunt impact performance.
Only some sports helmets test for penetrating impact. The test involves hitting a metal cone into the helmet with a hammer. Resistance to penetrating impact causes several visible aspects to the design-
The shell of the helmet tends to be made of a stronger and/or thicker material that better resists sharp objects. This can be a thicker plastic shell, or an “in-mould” constructed helmet using fibreglass and sometimes kevlar or carbon fibre layers.
The vents on the helmet (if any) tend to be very small and covered with mesh or plastic guards. The foam layer usually does not have any large cutouts for airflow.
These attributes make EN966 helmets quite recognisable, and very different to cycle helmets in particular. EN1077 helmets also undergo similar but weaker penetrating impact tests.
⚠️The large vents and thin shell of cycle helmets (including rugged mountain bike / bmx standard ones) generally offer low levels of protection against impacts from pointed objects⚠️
⚠️ASTM F2040 helmets have good blunt impact ratings but no penetrating impact test unless also EN1077 certified⚠️
The chin bar of a helmet (if present) has no impact testing under EN966, EN1077, or ASTM F2040. Of the paragliding-accepted standards, only RS98 helmets (few if any exist) require chin bar impact tests.
Some chin bars are designed to break away in a severe impact to prevent neck injuries, and others are designed to be more rigid.
On an EN966 helmet, the chin bar is usually quite thin and angled down at a 45 degree angle to comply with the visibility requirement. This is very different from mountain bike and motorsport helmets which tend to block more vision.
Snow sport chin bars have mostly disappeared from the market. The few that exist are unrated and appear to be designed for slalom skiers hitting slalom-gates, not for falling into the ground at speed.
The EN966 standard is very rigid on peripheral vision, and this is why full face paragliding helmets have a very large opening in the front. EN1077 has the same vision requirement, while other standards tend not to have such stringent requirements.
⚠️Full face helmets designed for cycling and motorsports tend to obstruct vision substantially more⚠️
EN966 requires helmets to not present a line-entanglement risk.
While snow sport helmets tend to have a slick exterior, ⚠️cycling helmets in particular often have visors and other hooking extrusions that present an entanglement hazard⚠️.
EN966 is a relatively rigid standard for helmets. This usually works to the benefit of paragliders, but due to the relatively small number sold can lead to narrower selection of sizes and slow adoption of newer technologies.
If using an alternate FAI-approved standard (EN1077 / ASTM F2040 / RS98) leads to achieving a better fitting helmet, more regular replacement, and / or having advanced technologies that protect against specific risks you are concerned about, it might be worth consideration. However, you should also strongly consider the gaps in these standards compared to EN966.
Manufacturers of EN1077 / ASTM F2040 / RS98 helmets are unlikely to recommend their helmets for airsports use.
Of the snowsport helmets, the EN1077 Class B impact tests for both blunt and penetrating impacts are less stringent than EN966. For this reason, ⚠️the BHPA does not recognise EN1077 Class B as an acceptable helmet standard⚠️.
Many snow helmets are certified to both EN1077 and ASTM F2040. The combination of both these standards closes the gap significantly (although not completely) with EN966. This is of particular importance to flying in the UK where EN1077 Class B is not an accepted standard.
RS98 is a very rigid standard and in part exceeds EN966, however commercial availability of helmets certified to this standard is almost non-existent.
While some other helmets offer improvements over EN966 standards, there are numerous risks involved. Some of which, such as line entrapment hazards, visibility, and low penetrating object performance have been called out in this note. The inability to fly in other overseas locations
Drop height for anvils
Allowed shock (Gs)
Penetration (▼) Test Hammer Drop Height
EN1077 Class A
EN1077 Class B
Yes; ex BHPA
Note: The ASTM F2040 standard tests using an “edge” anvil of different shape to the curb used in EN standards
Most of the standards referred to in this note are not publicly available, and this note relies extensively on secondary sources for the information contained. This data may therefore be inaccurate.
The following resources were used
Please read this article from NZHGPA magazine "Airborne" Aug 2013 about reserve deployment
First published in Paragliding Magazine, January 2001, taken from USPHA Article
Check the forecast and get an idea how likely it might be for cloud suck to occur. If the air mass is unstable or the forecast mentions the possibility of overdevelopment and thunderstorms, be warned.
Keep an eye on the clouds before you launch and while you're flying. If a cloud looks big enough to have the potential to suck me up, I do my thermal climbs near the edge of the cloud rather than under the center. That way I can fly into blue sky whenever I want.
If I find myself climbing under the center of a cloud I'll leave the thermal early rather than taking it all the way up to cloudbase. It's hard to know exactly how far I am below base, but if I'm under a small to medium sized cloud I try to leave at least 500' below base and under a bigger cloud I try to leave at least 1000' below base and fly toward the edge of the cloud. I try to do this before the vario pegs rather than after. I also try to fly toward the nearest edge or the largest blue hole, unless the nearest edge is directly upwind and the winds aloft are strong in which case I might choose to fly cross-wind toward one of the sides.
As long as the lift under the cloud isn't excessively turbulent, I use speed bar to help me get out from under the cloud faster. This is the one time when we can be happy that our gliders don't have a flat polar curve. On most gliders the sink rate increases dramatically toward the upper end of the speed bar range, so in addition to going forward faster you're also going down quite a bit faster.
If speed bar isn't enough, big ears are my next choice to increase descent rate. I usually disengage the speed bar, pull down the big ears, and then, if necessary, step on the speed bar again. I've never had any problem with frontal tucks while using big ears and speed bar, perhaps because big ears increases the angle of attack and speed bar decreases it effectively cancelling each other out.
If big ears plus speed bar isn't doing the job, my last resort is a B-line stall. I've only needed to do this once in over 1600 flights. I don't consider a B-line stall to be something that should be done frequently because it does stall the glider and recovery from a stall can be unpredictable. Pilots have been injured and even killed releasing B-line stalls close to the ground when the recovery went bad, so unlike big ears, which can be held all the way to the ground in a pinch, B-line stalls should be released with enough altitude to deal with any problems that may occur (parachutage, asymmetric recovery, spin). (Note: some pilots prefer a spiral dive to a B-line stall, and other pilots have suggested the use of a full stall as a last resort to escape from cloud suck.)
Prevention works best for me. If I can anticipate cloud suck I prefer to fly out from under the cloud sooner rather than be forced to do maneuvers later to escape. One 360 turn can make the difference between an easy escape and a close call or a white out. Be wary of any sudden increases in climb rate while thermaling under a cumulus cloud, particularly as you get closer to cloudbase, and leave the thermal before the vario pegs rather than after. Keep in mind that pilots who habitually try to get all the way up to cloudbase are more likely to get sucked into a cloud than pilots who follow the FAR 103 limitations and strive to stay 500' below cloudbase, so in this case there's demonstrable safety in staying legal.
Have you ever heard someone say, "Paragliding isn't any more dangerous than driving." By the way some pilots drive on the way to launch this may be true, but on average it appears that pilots are three to six times more likely to die flying than driving. Putting this in perspective, riding a motorcycle is 16 times more likely to result in a fatality than driving. However, fatalities don't begin to tell the story of the risks involved in paragliding. Most of us who have been flying for a few years have grown weary of the steady stream of broken bones and visits to friends in the hospital.
It's easy to say that aviation is just inherently risky, but why then is commercial aviation the safest way to travel? Commercial aircraft are exposed to many of the same risks as paragliders. The difference is that in commercial aviation the risks are deliberately and thoughtfully managed. Not just crashes, but incidents are thoroughly investigated to learn what went wrong and how to do better next time. Accident reporting helps identify the sources of risk, but risk management is needed to keep the risks in line with the joy of flying.
While we manage risk continuously in our everyday lives, we are not particularly good at it. We tend to judge risk based on fear, which may or may not be a good indicator of risk. For example, most people have a natural fear of heights, so if we use our fear of heights to guide our risk assessment, we should fly very close to the ground. Also, it is human nature to underestimate risks; something termed "optimistic bias" in the language of risk analysis. And who could be more optimistic than a group of people who think they can fly strapped to some nylon by skinny little stings.
To begin replacing our fear-based risk assessment with managed risk, it is helpful to understand the relationship between risk and probability. A useful definition of risk states that risk is the probability of an event multiplied by the consequences. Probability is a number between 0 and 1, with one being a sure thing and 0 being impossible. So if the consequence is very large, like a serious life altering injury, the risk will be high even if the probability is very small. Alternatively, if the consequences are minor, the risk is small even if the probability is very high.
So how does this help us make sound piloting decisions? Let's say you are flying along and could fly to the next field or land in a closer field. You think you can make it, but if you encounter some head wind there is a chance you could come up short. Of course, if you come up short, you could have to walk a couple of hundred yards. Most of us need the exercise, so the consequences are minor and even given the considerable probability of not making your expected glide, the total risk is small -- go for it. On the other hand, change the field to a narrow canyon with raging rapids and power lines. Now, consider the risks. Even if the probability of not making your glide is extremely small, the extreme consequences make for relatively high risks.
Understanding the definition of risk is great for risks we know and understand, but the vast majority of failures, paragliding injuries or space shuttle disasters, result from unknown risks. Recently a relatively inexperienced pilot visited a popular coastal ridge soaring site. The wind was light and no other pilots were flying. He attributed the lack of pilots to the conditions being less than soarable. Figuring that being a new pilot a sled ride would be good practice, he chose to fly. The result was broken bones and a harrowing helicopter rescue. What went wrong? The pilot thought he had assessed the risks and certainly didn't feel a simple sled ride involved a large risk. This pilot learned about the unknown risk the hard way. Later the pilot was subjected to a chorus of pilots questioning why he would even think of flying that site in those conditions and stories of other luckless pilots who had tried the same thing he did. Which makes the point, that most unknown risks are not unknown by everyone. Ask your friend with the cast if they understood the risks behind the decisions leading up to their crash. Chances are, something they did not anticipate hurt them, but given the proper knowledge they could have anticipated and avoided the crash. Through experience and communication we can reduce the unknown risks, but never eliminate these risks.
We can't possibly be expected to understand and analyze every risk, so how can we manage risks that we don't even know exist. Fortunately managing unknown risks is no more complicated than accounting for the known risks. An engineer designing a building or airplane part analyzes the known risks, then accounts for possible unknown risks by adding a factor of safety. Depending on the consequences of failure and how well the risks are understood, this factor of safety is typically 2 to 5 times the calculated value. Because of the universal application of this concept in engineering, building collapses and catastrophic mechanical failures in aircraft are exceedingly rare. This same concept can be applied to piloting decisions.
Let's return to our discussion of gliding to the next field. If the consequences involve only a short walk, there is not much need for an extra margin for safety. In fact, this would be a good time to test your glide angle estimation skills. Make a note of how far your estimated glide varied from reality. With a stack of estimates under varying conditions in your experience bank, you are ready for the next step. Estimating your glide when you absolutely positively cannot come up short. What was your worst estimate ever? Let's say you estimate that you can glide four times further than the width of Death Canyon, but there was that time you came up with only a half of your estimated glide. Just like the engineer designing the aircraft part this worst case glide should be your base estimate. Using your worst-case estimate, you can glide twice as far as the canyon is wide. This could be considered a factor of safety of two. Is a factor of two enough? Consider the consequences and the unknown risks that could possibly be involved. Also, is there some compelling reason to cross the canyon. For most of us who plan a few thousand more flights, a factor of two involves far too much risk.
The only way to completely eliminate the risks of flying would be not to fly. Since for most of us this is not a desirable option, we must learn to manage the risks and find a balance between risks and the experience of flight. Learning to manage risks is just like any other skill involved in flying. It must be learned and mistakes will be made. The trick is to learn from the mistakes without paying too high a price. Considering the consequences and leaving room for the inevitable mistake keeps the price down. Often the only difference between an incident and an accident is altitude. The inevitable mistakes and incidents will be learning experiences rather than setbacks. Learning about what can happen on full speed bar with lots of altitude is one way to gain experience; without lots of altitude it is a good way to stop gaining experience. An even better way to gain experience is to learn from the mistakes of others. The history of aviation is filled with pilots who gave their bones and lives to learning the hard lessons. Making the same mistake again dishonors the memory of the pioneers who made the dream of flight a reality.
The old cliche could never be truer; judgment comes from experience, experience comes from lack of judgment.
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