Jeff Goin vs the Dust Devil
Playing around cost me my first-ever hospital admission |
Paratoys 2010 |
After 2 days of flying my brains out at Glammis Dunes we headed down
to Pilot Knob, the Dune's southern reach and site of a single mountain
protruding unnaturally through the dust. It also has some historical
significance that Wayne Mitchler wanted to go check out (from the air of
As I was driving down the road I noticed a decent breeze out of the
west-northwest. "Oooh" I thought, "this will be some fun kiting." There
were already several campers so, wanting clean wind, I parked upwind of
them on the western side.
After about 20 minutes of kibitzing with some pilots, I figured it
would be fun to try the kiting, especially scurrying up the enterprise
and kiting on top—something I've done many times. I was worried about
having other motorhomes downwind of me so I moved mine back to a point
where the downwind path was clear. But just barely. It was as far as I
could go while remaining in the legal camping area. That didn't allow
much room if I got blown left but none of the wind I felt so far
suggested anything overpowering.
Still, I chose the easier-to-kite Pluto (instead of the Spice) and
went well out away from everything to further test the air. It was strong at times, somewhat shifty, but
always easily manageable—and nothing that came even close to lifting me. Now to climb the
The first time I climbed it everything well well. A moderate gust
dragged me slowly aft and off the right side. I flew the glider down,
kited it around and back up again but this time the wind increased from
my right, scooting me off to the left. That put me in the danger zone and
knew it. But as long as the wind didn't do anything weird, it would be
no problem—just control the glider and kite back around.
I would have no such opportunity.
As I descended the blow started to increase and I remained airborne,
concentrating on keeping the wing overhead, inflated, and pointed into
the wind as I faced backwards. Then it happened. A huge increase in wind
and lift shot me upward to over 15 feet (most spectators thought my body
was 20 feet up). The localized wind speed probably peaked at 35 mph.
I landed on two campers, managing to keep my legs in front and
pushing off in hopes of clearing everything. Unfortunately, the last one
I hit tossed my legs back and I came swinging down between two campers too low to push off and moving too
fast. I hit legs and side first with a mighty whack, shattering the side
window. Ouch! At that point my hands went down which pulled the wing
down but mostly the wing came down because of other dynamics. I was left
standing there, connected to the wing and happy to be alive with no
seemingly serious injuries. It felt like I'd been hit by a 30 mph
The account of Sheila and Greg, who were sitting down for some lunch
inside that camper, would be almost comical if it wasn't so expensive
and painful. Greg said they heard this enormous wind and went to quickly
bring their flailing awning down. Then came my shattering crash.
Initially they though the wind blew out the window and, I suppose, in
one way it did. Christian Bultmann heard the wind, looked up and saw me
coming at him. I was able to just push off his motorhome for another
second or so of flying.
Greg, a paramedic, did a quick check up on me and didn't find
anything life threatening but I was not 100%. Indy Air Hog Matt later
insisted that I go to the hospital and, along with Paul Anthem, drove me
there (thanks guys), sticking around until there was no reason to stay.
On the way there, Matt told me of someone who was walking around after
an accident and everyone thought they were fine. The person died that night from internal injuries. I figured I'd
made one bad decision today, I'll not make two.
They didn't actually do anything at the hospital other than tell me
what happened internally and prevent me from contacting anyone in any
reasonably way—but that's another story altogether. There were some
really great people there, to be sure, and I'm thankful for having
access to the facility. But there are certainly some simple and cheap
improvements to hospital care that could make a patient's life much
easier while there! One quick note: do NOT go to the hospital without
your cell phone.
Weather And Other Risk Factors
Typically, early February weather is quite a bit more mellow than in
summer—a fact that I was counting on. The overall forecast was for
decreasing winds and we hadn't felt anything horrendous since getting
there. Mind you, I wouldn't have considered flying in that 8 to
18 mph wind but I've kited in worse winds with no problem. Flying would
be risky given the obvious presence of thermals and wind, a nasty
I've been kiting up stuff for years. It's easy in steady winds but
can be done in gusty winds with obviously more difficulty. And, as long
as there isn't anything downwind be strained through, I
consider the risk elevated only by a bit. Namely that a wing
collapse could cause me to fall off the back. But in all likelihood, there
would be something still inflated to cushion the fall. Simply getting
blown off the back or side under control is no big deal and happens
periodically. You just keep the wing up and kite it back around.
I had moved my motorhome back to provide a clear downwind path but
just barely. There was no margin to go left at all. When the wind took
me left, I remember thinking "this is the danger zone" but figured I
should be able to steer the wing clear while sliding on the ground.
Obviously the amount of margin required is much larger. Equally
apparent is that there are freakishly strong conditions lurking in a
very few places. I was extremely unlucky. You can see in the video as a
dust devil forms just as I get tossed upwards. Others around reported a
very strong increase in wind as this all took place.
1. I already knew that kiting in strong winds carries risk. In fact,
I've gone out in strong conditions just to record what can happen but
did so where there was almost nothing downwind. From now on, I'll
rethink even that. While the chances of a recurrence may be extremely
low, the consequences are potentially life-changing (or life ending).
2. Margins are almost always less than we think. Had the motorhome
been out in the middle of nowhere, even this gust would have been
manageable. I kept the wing up and flying until hitting the last camper
broadside. Had I been out in the open I would been able to do a C-line
kill while sliding. Scrapes and minor bruises sure beat cuts and a lung
3. Rehearsed reaction. In hindsight I should have immediately done
either a c-line kill after going left or steered the wing more
powerfully right when it started drifting left. I'm not sure that would
have worked since I was already moving left but, in the future, I'll
rehearse what to do in the event of starting in a bad direction.
4. Will I stop climbing things? No. Skiers get hurt and don't stop
skiing. I really enjoy this sort of thing, almost as much as a I do
flying, and will simply increase my margins. There's still no guarantee
I won't get hurt again but then there's no guarantee I won't get in a
car crash, either, and I'm not going to stop driving.
We all engage in risk management and some of the stuff I do is
riskier than general paramotoring. Close camera flying is among the
riskiest since I'm distracted with my subject. And I certainly try to be
aware of the risk and minimize it but I can never get rid of it.
Hopefully this event, hurting my mobility for a few weeks like it has,
will help my realization of what's at stake.
5. Lastly but most relevant to all of us is the unpredictability of
mid-day weather conditions. I've been out just living life in mid-day
weather and have felt gusts that made me say "where did that come
from?" It's like waves in the ocean, every now and then, thermal
conditions converge to cause an unmanageable blow. The video shows a
whipping dust devil forming below me just as I got carried up. There are
videos on youtube where pilots on a mountain, getting ready to launch,
are sucked up into a dust devil and tossed like rag dolls. In one case,
the pilot did not survive.
Messing with mid-day is serious business! You can be lucky for years
but, if you get into this sort of condition during launch or landing,
all bets are off.
First of all, thanks to Matt and Paul for playing ambulance, I really
appreciate it. After a couple chest x-rays and one CT scan, they
discovered I have a cracked rib, minor lung bruise (that's the only
serious part), a couple minor bruises and one colossal bruise on my
right inner thigh. THAT is one colorful mess. They tell me to breath deep a lot
in spite of any pain and not lift more than 10 pounds. I took no pain
medication throughout so I can know what was going on with my body and
continue that simply avoid doing anything that elevates the pain. It's not as
bad as it sounds since I can keep the pain to essentially zero by moving
in certain ways or, more importantly, not moving in certain ways!
I'll not be flying paramotors or Boeings for a month and will use
that time to get lots of editing done.
The upside to this is that I have got a much more realistic video
use in place of the one I had. It's for where the script is talking about how
serious kiting in high winds is. Realistic is an understatement there.
Thanks to all who have sent well-wishes. It's encouraging and