Paramotor Safety

Jeff Goin vs the Dust Devil

Playing around cost me my first-ever hospital admission | Paratoys 2010 | Delicious Dune

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 course).

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 motorhome.

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 freight train.

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 combination.

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.

Lessons Learned

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 contusion.

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.

Aftermath

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 clip to 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 appreciated.

This excerpt from a piece of video shot by Matt Wichski on Paul Anthem's camera, shows how high I got. It's deceiving because here I'm well beyond the enterprise and equally well above it.


© 2016 Jeff Goin & Tim Kaiser   Remember: If there's air there, it should be flown in!