Gravity, Wind and Dirt

June 8, 2002

I wrote the following after crashing (not tandem, but with another friend and pilot) a couple of days ago, writing helped clear my head up about the whole experience. We're basically OK, but it was a near thing. Here's the story, feel free to pass it around to anyone who might be interested.

A couple of days ago I had my first-ever paraglider crash. In the last eight years Iíve flown several thousand hours all over the world, generally in strong thermal conditions. Iíve set many distance records, competed occasionally and generally had a great time flying. I have always said that I would crash one day, itís just statistical; you can do your best to avoid being a number on the crash side of the statistics chart, but sooner or later itís inevitable, nobody is perfect all the time. My number finally came up three days ago.

Cochrane, Alberta.

            The day looked perfect for XC flying. Cycles on launch ranged from 5 to 30kmh, a fairly normal setting for a south-west-facing thermal site at 2:30 in the afternoon. I arrived at Cochrane just as Tihi and Chris Muller were pulling out their gliders; both are good pilots, and Tihi is known as a fairly conservative pilot. I watched the cycles for a few minutes and thought conditions seemed reasonable, a judgment supported by Chris and Tihi who had been watching them for a while (they live at the hill). We talked on launch about how good it looked--Tihi and I were excited to go cross-country, conditions looked epic. There were good clouds drifting perfectly overheard, and my main goal was to get into the air and thermal up to them. I was fairly sure that we were about to have one fantastic afternoon of flying. We all laid out, clipped in and got ready to flap.

            Chris launched first in a nice cycle that was blowing in at perhaps 10-15kmh. I watched him for a minute and saw that the air looked good. I then saw him starting to climb in a nice thermal in front of launch, so  I pulled up, turned and started walking to the edge of the hill in a smooth, 10kmh breeze. I was fairly far back from the rounded edge, maybe 20 feet, and just starting to get into the air when I saw the sock on launch go from blowing gently straight in to directly across the hill and stretched out like it was starched. Chris later estimated the wind speed at 35kmh. Not good. I heard the wind roar, not a good sign, then was catapulted straight up and onto my back. I knew from hitting a lot of dust devils over the years that I had just hit another one; this time I was very low (although I had just gained about 30 feet). Shit, this wasnít good, and my movement was only accelerating.

            I could feel that I was moving quite quickly across launch to my left, and that my feet were somewhat higher and to the right of my head. The glider was lost; normally I can tell exactly what my glider is doing and work with it, but there just wasnít much to be done here. I spotted the ground and saw that between me and it was Tihiís glider--even though he had been 30 feet to my left only a second before. Years of gymnastics and diving kicked in and I was able to twist in the air and get my back protection toward the ground and my head at least level. I remember thinking clearly that this was going to hurt--a lot. I kept my neck turned to the side to watch the ground and stay oriented as I fell, and noticed that Tihi was just leaving the ground in the same dust devil that had grabbed me. Then I went through his lines and hit hard on my back and side. I rolled with it to dissipate the energy, but Iíd hit pretty much straight on. I heard all the vertebrae in my neck click just like they had years earlier when Iíd caught my heel side edge while going fast snowboarding; whiplash.

            The impact partially knocked the wind out of me and totally disoriented me. Once I came back mentally I could see Tihi downwind of me on the ground (how did he get there?), which we were both getting dragged across fairly fast. I did my best to disable my glider, but I was pretty disoriented. Both gliders were spun up together but still catching a lot of air. After about 50 feet we stopped. I lay there for a few seconds, then moved all the major body parts and listened for the roar of pain I was sure to feel. You donít crash from 20+ feet at a high rate of speed without breaking something. My neck was painful but felt exactly like it had after my snowboarding crash, and I could feel I was generally bruised, but amazingly the parts all felt more or less OK.

            Terry, a hang glider pilot, ran up and asked what to do. I told him to lie on the wings to prevent us dragging more, which he did. Vincene, Chrisís mom, witnessed the whole thing from her living room window and also ran out and lay on the wings. Chris top-landed immediately beside us (conditions were now mellow again), and we started the business of figuring out what was wrong. I gingerly and slowly unclipped from my harness, but Tihi wasnít moving much. I checked that he was breathing and responsive, then started the search for spinal or other injuries. He complained of mild pain in his neck and kept asking, ďWhat happened?Ē I explained that we had crashed, and he asked if were flying. I said not really, then he asked what happened again. It was clear he had suffered a concussion. We put a collar on him, checked him very thoroughly for other injuries, then loaded ourselves into Vinceneís truck and headed to the hospital immediately. I kept mild traction on Tihiís neck and stabilized it against the head rest. Mainly I answered Tihiís questions on where we were and what had happened; fortunately the time interval that he didnít remember was getting shorter and shorter, so things didnít seem to be degenerating.

            At the hospital the paramedics ran a quick check on my neck and declared me to be whiplashed, which a doctor on his way home confirmed and said they didnít even do X rays unless I had direct spinal pain. The medics were more concerned about Tihi, and ended up admitting him for farther examination. Turns out he had a fracture of a small bone in his wrist, a sore neck and a solid concusion, but was otherwise fine. He had more injuries than I did, probably because I could see what was going on and had prepared to crash while he had it happen much more suddenly.

            As I write this I feel very, very lucky. Chris said, ďThat was one of the most radical things Iíve ever seen on launch. I remember thinking that you were very fit, but that you would probably be injured.Ē My neck is sore, but everything works. This was my first "real" paraglider crash (I had a rope break very low on a tandem tow once and a few other incidents), but Iíve thought about crashing a lot and tried to visualize getting oriented in the air and landing either on my back protection or in such a way that I could roll and turn the vertical movement into horizontal. Iíve always figured that I would crash either from a mid-air in a gaggle or if I lost control of my glider below the altitude where a reserve toss would do anything. Sure enough, thatís when it happened. I fly with an extra-large reserve for the mid-air entanglement and try to leave enough terrain clearance to either recover the glider or toss, but you canít always do that. Iíve been flying a lot in the last two weeks, at least 30 hours of thermal air time, so I felt confident and clued into the air but I keep asking myself what I did right, wrong, orcould have done differently.

            What I did right has more to do with luck, equipment and general fitness than any particular skill. I was hearing a High Adventure XC harness, which has excellent back and side protection. Due to gymnastics and a lot of crashes on snowboards, skis and mountain biking I was able to get the padding toward the ground and my arms tucked in to roll with the impact. If I had of stuck a hand out I probably would have broken it. I was wearing a good full-face helmet; I condensed the foam in the back of the helmet and somehow broke the chin guard either while hitting the ground or being dragged--either way my face would likely be more sore without the chin guard. I had two helmets in my bag at launch, I choose to wear the full-face because I knew I would be low to start, Cochrane is a small site and requires scratching to get going. My harness has deep abrasions and impact marks on it, but the six inches of back protection and side plates really helped absorb a major impact. My glider, a Proton GT, is fine. I donít think it would have mattered what glider I was on, it was simply too much too low for any wing to deal with. Tihiís glider definitely slowed my impact some, and Chris felt my falling through Tihi's wing kept Tihi from getting yanked high into the air also. Dumb luck there.

            What did I do wrong? Perhaps launching back from the edge of the hill prevented me from seeing the dust devilís approach; there was grass in the air after it took Tihi and me out according to Chris and Vincene, so perhaps if I had been on the edge of the hill I could have seen it or the violent change in wind speed and direction coming in the short grass/bushes below launch. I was flying in very strong mid-day conditions, but this is pretty much normal for me, Chris and Tihi. There were some interesting meteorological conditions in the area, but they were adding up to some great flying potential, not out-of-hand conditions. After we crashed Tihi did mention that he saw a large dust devil near launch earlier. But it wouldnít have made any difference if he had mentioned it before launching, I would just have taken it as a good sign that the day was really onódust devils are the bottom of thermals. We all fly with dust devils mid-day at any good thermal site, they are to be respected and feared but donít shut the day down in general. Iíve flown into small ones on the flats at low altitudes, they are violent but manageable if you know what to expect and have some altitude to deal with it.

            What could I do differently? There might, might, have been enough time to collapse my glider when I saw the windsock change, but I donít think I could have reduced the surface area of my glider fast enough to keep from getting sling-shotted. If I see the sock change that violently again Iím going to deflate my glider immediately and hope I can reduce its area fast enough; I have been hit by small dusties on launch before, but Iíve been able to run and just lie on the middle of my glider while it was blown around. I normally like to launch at the beginning of a lull on strong days, it gives me enough time to get some terrain clearance before hitting a strong cycle. I think that if I had of had even 100 feet and a fully loaded glider I could have sorted this out; my glider wasnít yet fully loaded and I hadnít yet developed a feel for what the air was doing. Chris had mentioned that the cycles were very strong and switchy, perhaps I rushed into the air to join Chris rather than picking my own cycle? Iíll definitely pay more attention to the cycles before launching. I have good confidence in my flying ability and the solidity of the Proton GT, but there are obviously some situations where you just need altitude to deal (either in a paraglider or hang glider). I also don't think I was mentally all "there" after crashing; it turns out that we made the right call about my and Tihi's injuries, but would it have been bette to call an ambulance? We did reach the hospital quite quickly, but if we had mis-diagnosed either my or Tihi's injuries then perhaps an ambulance would have been a good call? We could have back-boarded either/both of us; we all have good first-aid training and did the "right" thing luckily, but we're not paramedics. It's something to think about; I certainly have no negative comments on our actions, it's just something to think about and discuss for the future.

I will continue to fly mid-day, but I will launch where I can see more of the terrain in front of launch to judge whatís happening with the cycles. Cochrane is a very small (less than 500 vertical?) site, I think I took it a bit casually (itís just not as impressive as hucking off of Waltís or Aspen orÖ), but mid-day conditions are mid-day conditions and need to be respected.

Tihi and I both feel we were incredibly lucky. I looked DOWN on the top surface of his glider as I ďflewĒ through the air, which means I was at least 20 feet in the air. I look at a two-story building and think about running off and landing on my back, itís a frightening image. Tihiís concussion has cleared up, and his wrist will heal in four to six weeks. Given what could be wrong I feel incredibly lucky to be sitting here typing this and talking about it with Tihi on the phone instead of in adjoining hospital beds!

            Thanks to Terry Thorcan, Vincene and Chris Muller for their effective and competent assistance; we are lucky as a community of pilots to have them. Thanks also to Superfly for everything, including the good helmet and High Adventure harness, they worked. Terry ended up flying 110K after watching Tihi and I crash, so it was a good day! Rather than feeling unhappy to have missed it I just feel lucky.

 Safe flights!