by Giuseppe Guglielmi
Scene: a typical wine-bar in the middle of the Palatinate, a region in the south-west of Germany. Leading actor: Karl Slezak, safety consultant of the DHV (German paragliding and hang-gliding federation). Other actors: the members of the "Südpfälzer Gleitschirmflieger Club", the local paragliding association. Karl Slezak is giving a talk about paragliding safety. The video projector beams onto the canvas the picture of a street with a prohibition sign: "No thoroughfare… except for Alois". The attendees burst into laughter. "Except for Alois" was of course hand-written and a very funny idea (for Alois) to avoid a prohibition. Karl Slezak laughs too, but not for long. "Rules are valid for everybody without exception," says Karl Slezak and went on making his point, "Acro flying isn't allowed in Germany as in many other countries, but we have a lot of acro-pilots here." How is it possible? Are there (hand written) exceptions? There is something odd happening in the paragliding scene and Karl Slezak is fighting against it. It's a silent struggle between safety and performance, between people who claim the right to fly just for fun and pilots looking to test their courage.
Karl Slezak does his job with great passion. He committed himself to safety about twenty years ago, as he started flying. In the year 1988 he fell for more than 500 meters during a paraglide flight. Fortunately, he didn't get hurt, but this experience marked his subconscious. As a paraglide instructor, he went on organising the first safety training courses in Germany. "It was a great success," says the man whose nickname soon became Mister Safety, "we had a lot of applications and organised an average of forty courses each year." In the paraglide family he became famous for his research into the interaction between wing and pilot. The appointment as safety consultant of the DHV in year 2001 was the logical consequence of his work. The main point of his job is to compile statistics and analyse accidents, working out details of construction faults and pilots' mistakes. But he has never understood his work as a desktop activity. Quite the opposite: he always tries to look behind the scene of each accident. "When I draw up my annual accidents' report I am always asking myself the same question," Slezak wrote in a fervidly discussed article published a year ago by the DHV members' magazine, "What would happen if pilots at last chose to buy a wing, thinking principally about safety?" And he went on with an even more burning question: "What would happen if pilots admitted that flying with a "DHV 1 classification" paraglide is not a confession of incapability, but the demonstration of what paragliding is for most pilots: fun, enjoyment and freedom without performance pressure and stress". These hypothetical questions hit the nail on the head. Each pilot knows these issues, but only a few have got the boldness to deal with them seriously. That's why Karl Slezak suggests another definition of bravery: "The truly competent pilot is the one who recognises his own limits." A person, on the other hand, who refuses to accept this simple rule, gets himself scared and "nobody is more stupid then someone who spends his spare time being frightened!"
Karl Slezak's new safety concept is a global one. A safety flight is the result of many factors: a suitable paraglide, a good weather forecast and maybe, even more importantly, a sound self-evaluation. "The average paraglider makes 15 flights a year," says Slezak, who has the rare ability to speak about important and sometimes difficult topics in a very easy and comprehensible way. "A DHV 1 paraglide offers the average pilot more potential than he could ever make use of and furthermore also gives him a great reserve of passive safety". Of ninety accidents after a side collapse in the 2003/2004 season, only 8 happened with a DHV 1 or 1-2 and 6 of them where caused by a noverreaction of the pilot. The difference in speed between a DHV 1 and a DHV 2 is only a few km/h and experience shows that nowadays long cross-country flights are possible even with DHV 1 wings. Why then should an average pilot buy a paraglide with an higher classification? Second point: the weather forecast. "Generally, there is no a good or bad weather for paragliding, but there are weather conditions which are good for some pilots and bad for some others". A strong thermal wind in spring could be the beginning of a wonderful cross country flight for an experienced pilot and a nightmare for a beginner. "Why do some pilots voluntarily put themselves in a situation which they are not able to cope with?" The answer for Karl Slezak seems not always to be in the lack of meteorological knowledge but in overestimation of their own skills. And here we have the third point of Slezak's argumentation: "A safe flight begins in the head of a pilot". An example? A dozen pilots are sitting on the starting area waiting for calmer conditions and slacking wind. One of them will soon stand up and take off. "Is the wind getting better? Not at all! It's only the pressure of the group," asserts Slezak. "It is proven that the same pilot wouldn't start if he was alone." Psychology is getting more and more important during pilots' training courses in Germany. Karl Slezak made this a main topic during his speeches and during the preparation courses for paraglide instructors. "We are trying to compensate for lost time. In other flight sports, the importance of psychology was recognised earlier". That's why he decided to attend a safety course for Lufthansa pilots. The German line has long lasting experience with the management of stress situations and the risks of routine in flight. "I was surprised at how openly the pilots spoke about this topic," says the German anti-hero, "a good pilot isn't afraid to show his fear." A similar openness among paraglide pilots is still rare. He is fighting to change this attitude. "Paragliding can become a mass sport only if we manage to change its image of being an extreme sport," emphasises Slezak. "I'm the natural enemy of any pilot who fights for performance above safety and there are a lot of them even within the DHV". Whenn his article about safety was published last year by the official magazine of the German paragliding and hang-gliding federation, the editor put a remarkable picture on the coverage. It shows a well-known German acro-pilot, performing one of his notorious flight manoeuvres. But isn't acro flight forbidden in Germany? Didn't the editor know that? The members of the Südpfälzer Gleitschirmflieger Club, who listened the Slezak's talk, now know the answer: Acro-flight is forbidden in Germany … except for Alois!