10 Things That Can Go Wrong in Air Sports

By: Thorin Klosowski
Beauty and danger come together in air sports like paragliding. See pictures of skydiving.
Extreme Sports Photo/David J Spurdens/Thinkstock

Air sports are a dangerous but exhilarating hobby. The risk certainly doesn't keep people from flying, but even the best-trained air sports adventurers need to be leery of the long list of things that can go wrong on a flight.

According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which operates as the world governing body for air sports and aeronautical records, there are 10 different air sport disciplines.


  • Aeromodeling
  • Aerobatics
  • Astronautics
  • Ballooning
  • General Aviation
  • Gliding
  • Hang Gliding and Paragliding
  • Microlights
  • Parachuting (skydiving)
  • Rotorcraft

[source: FAI]

There is also wingsuit flying, which is not governed by the FAI rules.

While air sports might seem like a new sports phenomenon to the casual onlooker, they've been around since the turn of the 20th century. The pioneering efforts of the Wright Brothers, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Clément Ader and others helped mankind achieve its dream of flight.

Once you put a person up in the air, new problems arise. Countless different malfunctions can take place when you're falling to the ground or in flight. We'll take a look at 10 of these potential problems.

10. Parachute Malfunction

It might seem like parachute malfunction would be a problem of the past, but, occasionally, it happens. These problems generally fall into two categories -- partial and total malfunctions. A partial malfunction is possible to reverse, but a total malfunction means something catastrophic has gone wrong with the canopy deployment.

Parachute malfunctions can be caused by bad packing, incorrect body position or faulty equipment. When a parachute is deployed, the canopy needs to eject out of the pack and spread out immediately. If it gets tangled because of bad packing, this won't happen. Poor body position can cause the chute to deploy incorrectly as well, causing the skydiver to get caught up in the chute itself. If it's a partial malfunction, an experienced skydiver can often untangle or reverse the problem [source: Dropzone].


A parachute malfunction is probably the scariest thing that can happen in a skydiver's day, but thankfully, he has a backup parachute that can be deployed. Even so, it's no guarantee of success. It's best to know the emergency procedures for both partial and total parachute failures before you go skydiving; otherwise you're putting your life at risk.

9. Getting Lost on Landing

Sometimes you just don't know which way is up.
Darryl Leniuk/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Getting lost is no fun when you're on the ground, but getting lost after a flight is much worse. While you're flying through the sky -- no matter what mode of transport you choose -- there is always the possibility that you won't hit your target landing spot. A number of factors can affect this, from the wind to your own bad judgment.

If you hit the ground in unfamiliar territory, it can be terrifying and confusing. Before you take off, you'll want to make sure you have a few survival items with you. Depending on the type of flight you're on and the air sport you're taking part in, you'll at least want to have a GPS, radio [source: Air Sports Net].


Regardless of your skill, you'll want to keep an eye on the ground as you get closer to it, so you can plan your escape route before you even land. However, if your landing catches you off guard or if you're injured, it may be best to call for help and wait for assistance to come to you.

8. Engine Failures

As with any form of motorized ground transportation, engine failures are not uncommon in air sports. Since many of the aircraft used in air sports are single-person machines, often experimental, there is always a risk of engine trouble. While mechanical trouble is often unpredictable, there are ways to help prevent catastrophic failures.

When an engine fails in midflight, the only thing a pilot can do is attempt to land. Single-person aircraft and other air sports planes need regular maintenance and care, just like a car. Unfortunately, when something goes wrong, you can't just pull off to the side of the road and call motorist assist. You'll need to learn to diagnose problems before they happen. This means preflight tune-ups, once-overs and banging your wrench on anything that looks a little out of shape.


If an engine fails, you should have emergency precautions in place, which could include manual ejection if you're at a high enough altitude, or forced landing procedures [source: Goyer].

7. Midair collisions

The biggest threat to an air sports enthusiast can be another air sports enthusiast.

Midair collisions can be a problem with almost all air sports, and whether you're in a machine or free falling, crashing into something can seriously hamper your fun. Collisions are among the leading causes of skydiving-related fatalities, accounting for approximately 15 percent of deaths [source: Dropzone]. Midair collisions can also happen in planes. In 2007, a pilot at the Reno Air Race was killed when his plane barely clipped a pylon set out to mark the course [source: Lyons].

Additionally, there is a long history of pilots running into power lines and tall trees -- especially during crash landings. The natural instinct for a pilot in an emergency is to land on a. Since power lines often parallel country roads, it's easy to hit or get tangled up in them.


Most aircraft have a detection system that can help pilots avoid midair collisions with larger craft, but sports like skydiving or paragliding don't have these warning systems. Instead, you need to keep your head up and be aware of your surroundings -- even if you think you're alone in the air.

6. Blackouts

When falling through the air or flying at incredibly fast speeds, it's possible for even the most experienced air sports athletes to pass out. These blackouts can have catastrophic effects, which is why it's best to follow the rules and precautions associated with air sports before you take off.

If you're prone to blackouts, you shouldn't be flying. Increased risk comes if you're overweight, epileptic, addicted to drugs or alcohol or have heart disease. Even if you're not, people can still be surprised by how their bodies react to high altitude or the affect of high speeds [source: Medicine Net].


Passing out while falling through the sky is nobody's idea of a good time, and it's one of the most terrifying things that can happen in the air. This is why people partner up when they first hit the skies, because no amount of training can predict exactly how a person's body will react to the increased stress.

5. Broken Gear

If your gear breaks there's not a lot you can do.
Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

We've already mentioned malfunctioning parachutes and engine failures, but there is plenty of other gear that can fail while in the air. Air sportsmen rely on a lot of different types of protective and functional gear. For instance, in 2010, a 38-year veteran hang glider died after performing a loop when his glider collapsed [source: Knoll].

One common problem in several air sports is busted straps. A skydiver or hang glider may not notice the fraying on her harness, and a skydiver may not see the cut in his backpack. The aircraft are made to be lightweight, so every strap and pulley counts; failures can be disastrous. It's not just the safety straps, though -- even goggles, helmets and carabineers have the potential to break if they're not kept in good shape. If they give way, you may lose visibility or the ability to steer.


Broken landing gear can also lead to disaster. Like an engine failure, there is nothing a pilot can do but rely on his wits and hope for the best.

With any air sport, it's incredibly important to give your gear a thorough once-over before participating in the sport

4. Lack of Education

While all sports require a bit of education about rules, regulations and traditions, it's especially critical in air sports.

Education isn't just about the sport itself. While you need to maintain your equipment and understand how to properly participate in whichever sport you're interested in, you also need to be aware of your surroundings. If you're not educated about the terrain you'll be flying over, you may be in for a risky landing without even knowing it. If you are paragliding or hang gliding, this might mean attempting to land in a rocky area and possibly ending up breaking or spraining a leg by getting caught on a jagged stone.


Despite regulations and rules, misinformed individuals take to the sky every year; the deaths and injuries that ensue are easily preventable.

3. Weather

The level of risk increases with poor weather.

Weather can be the bane of any athlete, but since air sports have such high stakes, it can easily heighten risk and hasten injury.

Some of the more obvious examples of this include rain and snow storms, which can cause issues with visibility and landing. No matter which air sport you're undertaking, lightning and thunderstorms can be threatening. Storms can result in direct lightning strikes or electronic malfunctions in your craft. Even fog can seriously endanger landing, as the ground is obscured or not visible at all.


Before takeoff, you need to check with the Federal Aviation Administration weather-briefing center to make sure you're clear to operate at the elevations you're interested in [source: FAA].

There is also the issue of landing. If you're landing on your feet, a slippery surface can make it impossible to do.

2. Falling

Falling, no matter how you cut it, is a bad thing. Falling from a couple hundred or a few thousand feet in the air is really bad. Whether it's due to a midair collision, or just because the passenger is leaning over the side to get a better view, at least a few people fall out of balloons each year [source: Facworld].

Falling primarily occurs in ballooning, but it can also be an issue in paragliding and hang gliding. If it's not abundantly clear at this point, air sports are incredibly dangerous on their own, so putting yourself into needless danger, like hanging on the outside of a balloon or not being properly secured, is a bad idea.


1. Landing Errors

A bad landing can lead to injury or death.

While most potential air sports disasters happen in the air, there is just as much potential for failure on the ground. Landing can be a tricky beast to master and consistently causes problems and fatalities with nearly all the air sports. More than half of all accidents in hang gliding take place during landing [source: FAA Academy].

If you're coming in at a bad angle, it can cause problems for a craft or a parachute. Usually it will just result in a hard landing and a few bruises. However, these mistakes can cause bigger problems, including broken limbs, concussions and even death. Most skydiving fatalities are caused by improper or hard landings [source: Dropzone].

We already mentioned landing gear malfunction as a major problem with aircraft, but even if the gear deploys properly, the craft's angle is incredibly important. Such errors can result in serious harm to the pilot as well as spectators.

To learn more about air sports, continue to the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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