In May, 2007, a pilot died in a paragliding accident during a maneuvers
clinic. She flew into high tension wires after increasing winds
prevented a return to the planned LZ.
This tragedy falls heaviest on the remaining spouse who apparently
watched it unfold while awaiting his turn aloft. It also weighed
heavily on the two highly experienced maneuvers coaches who were giving
the clinic. My heart goes out to these folks.
A relatively new pilot, with
about 50 flights, released from tow and was to be on the radio with her
maneuver's coach, a highly experienced aerobatic pilot who'd given many
dozens of these clinics. It would the coach's first time working this
pilot through her routine.
For some reason, the radios didn't work, in spite of a preflight check.
So the pilot started doing mild maneuvers on her own. While doing so,
the winds started to quickly increase. Eventually, she realized that
penetration was nil and the regular LZ would not work. So she
elected a downwind dash, over the dam, to try for a dry alternative.
According to a witness on the ground she was moving quickly when she
struck high tension wires and fell to her death. In all likelihood
she was planning a turn into the wind and simply did not see the wires.
That's not terribly surprising given how much focus her predicament was
commanding. We obviously can't say what her thought process was but this
is one highly plausible explanation.
Every precaution appeared to be in place. She was wearing a
back-protecting harness, a life preserver, a reserve and had a
successful radio check before flight.
This accident happened just one week after I finished my own clinic
with the same instructor and it hit me hard. We had our own experience with strong wind
and one pilot wound up landing off-site uneventfully. Plus, I've given a
clinic where a pilot perished in an non-clinic related accident. These
are pilots of passion, it makes for a quick kinship and takes the winds
out of your sails when tragedy strikes.
Does This Apply To Us?
What a shame and waste it would be to disregard this tragedy's
teaching because it's
free flight or because it's a clinic or any other reason. To be sure,
the motor grants us options but the underlying cause, even the primary
cause has much relevance. For one, there's a strong
possibility that the accident pilot never even saw the wires until it was too late.
When heading downwind everything happens quicker while the glider responds slower—the proverbial
downwind demon emerges. Yes, the airborne turn rate is the same but the
ground track turn radius is much larger. You'll have
less time, a lot less in stronger winds, for avoidance while headed downwind.
Besides diminished time, maneuvering will eat up
more distance to turn-avoid the obstacle than if you're going upwind.
This same result can happen to a powered pilot, especially one that's
Other lessons apply regarding options. This accident highlights the importance
of considering our options before we need them. Doing so will
free up precious attention to mind the other "gotchas" like powerlines. We can hardly
fault the pilot who, in this case, may not have been thinking about wind
since it's doubtful this small-scale effect was forecast. I suspect nobody even talked about the possibility. In fact,
when they launched, the wind was reportedly nearly calm although it had
recently changed. That also reminds us how a dramatic change in
wind over a fairly short time should send up warning flags—the atmosphere
is churning up potentially dangerous cocktails.
Our heart goes out the husband and family who most acutely felt this
tragic loss and also to the instructors and participants who must pick
up various pieces and carry on.
We who choose to live life life large must accept this
possibility. But we should never stop trying to make it safer while
preserving the fun. We can learn from those who pay this ultimate cost,
and hopefully save others from the same fate.
I recognize that mistakes like this could be my demise. They could be
anyone's demise in a mere moment of inattention. What a lesson. I will
hopefully let this lesson settle on my decision making. We all should.
A side note: I obviously don't
want my passion to consume me but, if something does happen: 1) know
that I'm incredibly glad to have popped out in a time and place that
allowed exploration of this primal desire to fly free and 2) if I do
meet my end flying know that such
freedom was worth the risk. Hopefully someone's behavior changes enough
themselves from a similar fate.