After 15 Years: Power Lines
Power lines are a common cause of paramotor accidents. They
frequently incur serious injuries but, strangely, are rarely fatal,
possibly because the altitude is very low and the lines touch each other
causing the power to shut off before the victim becomes a filament.
Power line's amazing invisibility is what gets us, especially when the
poles are concealed. It's aggravated by how often we CAN see them which
lulls us, even subconsciously, into thinking we always will.
Here is a story about one very experienced, accident free, pilot who
had his record scorched at the hand of unseen power lines. Everything
was going swimmingly until he went down low to play, as MANY of us do on
Face To Face With My ďArcĒ Enemy
2017-06-21 by Tom Dresner
The thought has to occur to everyone who takes up this sport, at some
time. The fundamental questions; will I crash? Will that crash kill me?
Will I be badly injured, slightly injured? If it doesnít, it should.
And, on the other hand, can I do this, and fly for many years, without
essentially a scratch?
Many people of differing ages and backgrounds
are united in their often lifelong desire for manís oldest dream:
Flight. And no one platform allows more of the purity of flight than
I used to dream as a child of being able to fly, while growing up in
the ďRight StuffĒ generation, glued to the TV as Neil Armstrong stepped
onto the lunar plains in the Sea of Tranquility during the Summer of
Then, 40 years later, in November of 2009, as a middle aged man, my
dreams--never diminished--became reality, and I became a PPG pilot. Ten
flights became a hundred; a hundred became five hundred, and then one
thousand, right up to my present day count of just over 1,300 in the
past nearly seven years.
Plenty of falls in the beginning,
self-mandatory knee pads for the first 150 or so, and then competence,
wise weather choices, and only a few truly uncomfortable moments brought
on by sudden weather changes. More often than not, if even slightly iffy
weather approached too close, I would land where I was immediately and
call for ground transport from my wife. All this to make the point; that
I fly safe. I have mastered the ability to balance the love for the sky,
with the inherent dangers of aviation, with a supportive and
understanding family who always knows that I will be home with a big
smile on my face as I return after another peaceful evening on high. And
knowing full well the risks involved in starting any sentence with, "I
have mastered...' I really think I possess a realistic assessment of my
That meant essentially forswearing the flight styles of my younger
friends, no acro, and minimal low level cranking and banking. Ask any of
them, and theyíd agree that yeah, Tom flies like grandpa.
So, what could possibly go wrong?
Without question, where I live and fly, the worst hazards exist in
the following order:
- Power lines
The mental processes that guide my in-flight decision making have
been well-practiced and ingrained over time. In the constant quest for
the right altitude/emergency landing locations, for engine outs,
foremost in my mind is the search for power lines. I was satisfied with
that diligence which leads me home with a smile every night. Fly high
enough, and none of the above three are an issue. But we all know how
much we like to fly low, donít we?
All was right with the world.
Until it wasnít.
An unremarkable summer flight on a Thursday evening which included a
photo of the Mighty Missouri at sunset, surrounded by the thick, still,
humid air of summer, which provides the bump free conditions I am most
in love with, along with a brief trip up to 3k to give me the
air-conditioning of the low-70s temps to dry the sweat from setup and
The sun was still just above the horizon as I turned toward home, and
beneath me the unremarkable pastures west of my house were unremarkable
yet again, except for a large white tent that caught my eye a few miles
from home. I could see people near it. As I still had some time left, I
did some wingovers and spiraled down to wave and say hi in a low pass
before climbing out to finish the flight.
The tent was huge, and it
was obvious some special event was planned for, soon. And as I descended
at idle, one man emerged from the tent and waved. But his wave wasnít
the usual kind of wave Iím used to; it was one Iíd never seen before.
And I remained fixed on him in my tranquil mood, borne of experience and
confidence in my abilities, a bit too long.
His index finger was extended as he moved his arm slowly back and
And then it hit me. Heís pointing to something. HEíS WARNING ME ABOUT
In a nanosecond, I looked up, and two residential lines were dead
ahead to my body and the motor, only about 15 yards away. I was on a
collision course. Two things I needed badly at that point, I did not
have. Time and space. I had, I estimate, less than two seconds to
I reacted instantly in what in retrospect could only have been so
because of plenty of if/then thinking pre-event, should an event like
this ever come. With power lines, all encounters are bad, but for very
different reasons. But the worst of all options was taking 27,000 volts
with my body.
Other outcomes are potentially crippling and debilitating, if not
instantly fatal. Say you merely touch the top line, and there is no
electrical discharge since youíre not grounded, (which is why birds
perch and donít fry on contact), your body stops moving, but the wing
continues forward until it frontals and loses aerodynamic capacity, only
25 feet from the ground. In other words, dropping straight down even
that distance is ICU territory. The last option is evasion, in whatever
form that takes. Itís almost a guaranteed crash, because youíve got to
yank so hard on the wing, and as all PPG pilots know, turns without
power lose altitude fast. But if you hit both wires togetherÖyouíre
I hammered the power (later knowing that even my powerful 2 stroke
wouldnít spool up in time), and yanked the right brake harder than I
ever have. But there was nowhere to go, because even with enough time
and power, I didnít have a clear arc for a full turn, nor enough power
to not hit the ground.
I turned sharp right and fast and down I went.
And braced for the impact I knew was coming.
And then it did.
It hurt a lot as I hit the ground on my right side, and flipped over,
resting on my left side. I was in heavy ground brush, of a species I
donít recognize. But it is now my favorite plant on Earth. Because it
cushioned me quite a bit. And because it wasnít poison ivy.
As I slammed into the ground and rolled, the fuel tank on my Nirvana
Instinct ruptured and sprayed my remaining gasoline on my face and body.
My eyes burned and gas tastes horrible, but I could see. Ryan Shaw later
told me heís never seen a tank rupture before.
I was immediately joined by several people who were concerned for me.
I started to take inventory, and was certain that I had probably broken
at least one leg, my hip and maybe my pelvis. Strangely, I also noted I
had full movement of my limbs, and yet a strange lack of pain when I
think about it.
They didnít know how to unhook me from the harness,
so I asked them for some water for my eyes, and told them to just let me
do it, because I didnít want to move too fast. I wanted to get unhooked
though, because I was worried about fire.
A woman arrived with a bottle of water and I doused my face even
before removing my helmet. Such sweet relief. Oh, and HELMET. Donít
leave the ground without it!
In less than a minute I was free, and felt all over, for indications
of severe trauma that just had to be there. Unbelievably, I could feel
nothing wrong. Everything worked.
I accepted two strong arms from two strong men, and asked them to
raise me very slowly. They did so, and all way up. I was standing up,
unsupported, and without pain.
I thanked them profusely. They were also asking if I needed an
ambulance, and though in my disbelief of my condition, I happily
declined, also gleeful that because of no EMS call, I would get to
escape the news crews in a journalistically dense city clamoring for a
story of the crash of an aircraft.
The man who had warned me pulled
my wing down from the power pole, and I later folded it up. My Instinct
was pretty much destroyed, as you can see from the photos. He told me my
wing had hit the lines and blew the circuit, causing an outage. In the
photo with the visible power pole, it gives you some sense of how close
I was. That is the place I ended up. It hadnít been moved yet.
Iím mostly in awe that I am not seriously injured. I have bruising in
several areas, the worst of which is where my left bicep came into
contact hard on the left rigid bar of my harness, when I slammed down on
my right side.
Iíve spent a lot of time since, thinking about how
lucky and how blessed I am to not only still be here, but to only have
experienced what feels like having been on the receiving end of a good
bar fight, and the associated all over soreness that would surely
I think the reason I escaped serious injury is because
of the angle at which I hit the ground and because of the thick brush
where I impacted. I donít know the exact heights of residential power
lines exactly, but I am estimating 25-30 feet. So from there to the
ground at a 45 degree angle is what Iím guessing took place.
Iíll have a lot of time to think about things. I donít have a backup
motor anymore, so I am grounded.
I know that wasnít my last flight,
but my motor is in need of a lot of work, as the photos clearly show,
and I donít have the change to devote to that right now. So I am
guessing Iíll take off the rest of the year and look toward some more
air time in 2017. I fully realize what happened, and so I know what is
necessary to avoid a similar mistake.
The main reason for writing this is for you, my fellow pilots. Never
let down your guard, and never allow the slow creep of complacency. If
you fly low, your caution needs to go sky high.
Everyone who flies in our sport develops a sense where power lines
tend to be. Along roads. Along driveways. Rarely through pastures at odd
angles, but sometimes? Definitely. You can see the big high tension
lines from way off. But itís the little ones that can bite hard.
And we all know how we detect power lines from the air. Theyíre
invisible, so we look for the poles.
And in this case, from my direction and angle of descent, the
bordering poles of this set that went straight across the middle of a
pasture were obscured by trees at both ends. No poles visible, no wires
visible from the air. It looked clean as a whistle.
Just when you think itís not possible, itís probable.
Hereís hoping you can avoid a similar cascade of seemingly innocuous
choices that led me to my accident.
And if youíre an inexperienced pilot, please realize your limitations
as to reaction time. There was no time for ďOH SH*T!Ē And of course the
key to success in a situation like mine is to never fly with the need
for an instant reaction. If you are, you are doing it wrong. Stay up
high, so that all your decisions can be made slowly and deliberately.
May you fly long, and high (and low) and freeÖand thank you for
reading, especially if you made it all the way to the end.