21 Aug 2018

Coroner alerts paragliders to dangers of excessive aerobatic manoeuvers

3:03 pm on 21 August 2018

A commercial paragliding instructor who died in Queenstown was performing multiple aerobatic manoeuvers before he plummeted to his death, a coroner has found.

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Photo: 123rf.com

Benjamin Letham, 26, died while paragliding over Queenstown on April 22 last year, after he became entrapped in his paraglider and fell to his death.

Coroner David Robinson said Mr Letham was an experienced commercial pilot who worked for GForce Paragliding. He had amassed 345 flight hours as a commercial tandem pilot and flown 2016 such flights.

"He was regarded by those who knew him as a highly-skilled, highly-capable and very talented pilot," Mr Robinson said.

But the coroner also found the number of manoeuvers Mr Letham undertook during the fateful flight exceeded what was expected at competition level.

"The number of loops carried out (seven by my count, six in the view of the Civil Aviation Authority), exceeded the number of loops that would occur in what the Civil Aviation Authority investigator described as a 'standard example of a competition event in which three revolutions would be the norm'," Mr Robinson said.

The flight

Mr Letham took off from Bob's Peak on a solo trip intending to land in the Queenstown Primary School grounds.

While performing infinity loops - somersaults in the air - he ran out of momentum and fell into his canopy.

"He became entrapped within the canopy with the consequence that it collapsed and could no longer function as an airfoil," Mr Robinson said.

"Either due to that entrapment or the proximity of the ground, he was unable to deploy a reserve chute," he said.

He crashed in the school grounds and because of the extent of his injuries probably died instantly, the coroner found.


In his recommendations, Mr Robinson said paragliders who undertook aerobatic manoeuvers needed to ensure they flew high enough to recover if things went wrong.

He also recommended pilots discuss manoeuvers with their colleagues before take-off, to get an objective risk assessment and maintained a suitable safety margin while flying.

The coroner's findings have been passed to the Hang Gliding and Parachute Association to highlight the risks associated with performing an excessive number of infinity loops.