How skilled are you at paragliding? do you know?

Intermediate syndrome is likely a term you’ve already heard. It's appeared in articles published by the USHPA (USA), the HGFA (Australia) and the SAC (Canada) to name a few, and is a theory taught by instructors around the world. The commonly description of the theory goes like this:

  • New pilots are cautious - fear levels are high and thus prevent the pilot from pushing into areas which they do not yet know the outcome, resulting in conservative flying habits.

  • Very experienced pilots know where the limits are and don’t push into these areas as they do know the outcome

  • Somewhere in the middle sits the intermediate pilot. Confident enough to push, not knowledgable enough to predict the outcome.

Our definition of the term supports speculation that the phenomenon is paragliding (or at least air sport) specific. This however, could not be further from the truth. Observations of similar cognitive bias were made by Confucius and frequent references are visible since. Why then, does it appear so prevalent in our sport? The answer is simply how observable it is in high risk sports. Let me explain:


Accidents in paragliding attract a disproportionate amount of criticism compared with other activities. A weekend pilot landing in a tree will see a saga of social media analysis and criticism while a football player of a similar level will hear nothing of the pass they dropped during club practice on Thursday night. The mechanism that resulted in the pilot landing in a tree may have been a mistake no greater than that which saw the football player drop the pass. The same inconsistency is unfortunately true of injuries. A major blunder in most sports might result in a lost game. For pilots, it is often serious injury or death. ‘Intermediate syndrome’ is simply a term we have leashed to paragliding as it’s far more observable in sports with a high risk than say, playing football, and likewise, is far more important to understand as the consequences are far greater.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In 1999 David Dunning and Justin Kruger released a study comparing an individuals own perception of their skill ability with rational observations across a range of skill sets and skill levels from amateurs through to professionals. The results displayed a consistent trend of inexperienced groups overestimating their ability while highly experienced groups (professionals in their field) held only marginally higher estimates of their ability than the inexperienced groups and therefore underestimated their ability. In graphical terms, the results looked like this:


bottom quartile |  2nd quartile  |  3rd quartile  |  top quartile

This graph however, doesn’t completely align with our definition of ‘Intermediate Syndrome’ as it would suggest that the likelihood of making a mistake (and having an accident) decreases in a linear trend from the first day of training through to professional status. The traditional view of the ‘Intermediate Syndrome’ would suggest a trend better represented as:

Theorised effect of fear response


bottom quartile |  2nd quartile  |  3rd quartile  |  top quartile

The disparity can be explained by including the influence of the human fear response which greatly effects new pilots, preventing them from taking risky actions and reducing confidence, while having less of an influence as experience levels increase. This happens because of a neurological process called extinction, a silencing of the fear response from repeated exposure to an event. The point where fear is at a minimum, perceived ability is at its greatest, and actual ability is at its lowest is where we expect the most accidents to happen. Understanding the fear response explains why the phenomenon only effects pilots once they have spent some time in the sport, and gained some experience.

It's important now to reiterate the demographic which is effected by 'intermediate syndrome'. A pilot enters the bracket once they have sufficient experience in the air to feel comfortable trying new things. Once that pilot reaches a skill level which matches or exceeds their perceived skill level, they leave the bracket. Note that experience and skill are not interchangeable terms within this definition and the point where a pilots overestimation of their ability ends is also not reflective of their actual skill level. For example in the same way a pilot who has just gained their intermediate rating may overestimate their ability, a world class pilot may overestimate theirs compared with rational results, likewise some pilots also fall into the danger area much earlier. The bracket stretches and moves across entirely different ability levels depending on the individual. 

How do we know if we're within the 'danger zone'?

Paragliding is simply too diverse to rationally test every facet of a pilots ability. A conclusive test would require examiners to push pilots to the point of failure which for obvious reasons is impractical. The paradox of the Dunning Kruger Effect is that we are unable to know when we are affected, or at least the extent to which it affects us. Knowledge is the only tool to combat it. For those interested in learning more the original paper is available here:

"Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" - Justin Kruger and David Dunning

Ted-Ed in conjunction with David Dunning have also created a fantastic online lesson on the study available here

Ted-Ed Lessons - Dig Deeper, David Dunning

What can we do about it?

As pilots we simply need to understand that regardless of our individual ability, we will all fall within the danger area at some point within our flying careers. It does not necessarily begin once we achieve our intermediate rating and does not end once we become experienced pilots, and as such it's popular title as an intermediate syndrome is inaccurate and misleading. It is unique to each pilot and their own psychology. A thorough understanding of how inaccurate our own perceptions of skill are is fundamental in staying safe in the air. On top of this David Dunning provides these tips for countering the effect:

"Ask for feedback from other people, and consider it even if its hard to hear."

"Keep learning. The more knowledgable we become, the less likely we are to have invisible holes in our competence"