Tragedy: Paramotor Fatality From Spiral
2017-05-26 Endless Footdrag Fatality |
Steep Maneuvering Risk Article
On Friday evening, several hours after I had left, tragedy struck when
Richard Biggerstaff was, according to two witnesses, doing a spiral from
which he hit the ground. There was a small post-impact fire that was
extinguished almost right away. Another pilot who was flying with
Richard at the time, saw the whole thing from the air. He landed
and rushed over, reporting that "he's gone" by the time another witness
arrived at the scene.
They were high, over 1000 feet AGL according to the flying witness, when
the spiral was initiated. It was almost certainly a "nose-over" spiral
where the pilot and wing are pointed nearly straight down, rotating
Richard had received probably 30 flights of training elsewhere and came
to Bryan in Austin, TX, for a day of brush up after a 9 month hiatus.
At the Endless Footdrag, Richard had been flying fairly aggressively
including steep spirals. Bryan had talked with him about it.
The most likely explanation is that he blacked out before impact and
never knew what happened. There are, of course, other
possibilities--accident investigation is rife with examples of early
assessments being wrong. But most of the time the obvious reason is the
correct reason. Hopefully we can get enough evidence to rule out
equipment failure or other even less likely causes.
He was flying normally-functioning, appropriate gear: a Nirvana motor
and Universal wing. These details are so utterly irrelevant because they
have almost no bearing on this kind of spiral. It's a characteristic of
paragliders that when the bank goes beyond a certain point in a round
circle, it automatically devolves into a nearly straight-down condition
that locks in: no input is required to stay like that.
Blackout can happen in seconds depending on several factors. It's
possible that, by the time someone notices their visual field closing in
(graying out,) it's too late. Beginner gliders are just as susceptible
as advanced ones. Being heavily loaded makes it easier to get into but I
don't know the glider's size. I suspect he was over 9 lbs / sq meter
which makes starting a spiral easy.
Round, steep spirals are remarkably lethal.
My heart goes out to his connections--those whose lives were intertwined
with his. I joked with him several times while he was out in the field
kiting with Bryan West who was helping him on various wing handling
skills although, to my knowledge, he was not one of Bryan's students, at
least originally. He was also an airplane pilot who flew his plane to
the event. Clearly he had a love for life and flight that most of us
We all need to help spread the word about how absurdly dangerous this
maneuver is. I've covered it in articles here, the book, and various
magazines but it's easy to melt into our overall risk.
History shows this one to be a particularly lethal recurring theme.
One problem is that it's an extremely easy maneuver to do. They all look
the same whether done by newbie or expert. So someone
aspiring to keep up with their aggressive peers or just exploring the
steep side can get right into it. And, as
these videos show, blackout happens so quickly!
We need to do a better job of educating those we influence on the risk
of steep spirals AT ANY ALTITUDE. You only black out once and it's
nearly *ALWAYS* a death sentence.
How much more do we push it at fly-ins? As of this writing I've been at
4 events since 1999 where pilots have died; three of them were due to
aggressive maneuvering. Is it possible our exhibitionism is getting the
best of us?
If I were an event organizer, knowing what I do now, and it was my
primary field, I would ask pilots to only come if they're willing
to fly like grandmas and grant permission only to those with a history
of successful acro or steep maneuvering. Events would get smaller, of
course, but that would be the trade for making them safer and more likely
Lets Face It
What we do has risk. I'm a proponent of evidence-based understanding,
using empirical evidence to inform our understanding. How we act is on
it a personal choice but damn, lets make sure everyone at least
knows where the risk is. I do risky things, we all do, to some degree,
just by strapping these things on. But some things are really bad, and steep,
round spirals are among the worst. Low, steep maneuvering is not as lethal as spiraling
but has caused it's share of maiming.
I wouldn't dream of telling anyone what to do or not do, but my fellow
pilots to be aware.
This is a tragedy on many levels but obviously is worst for the pilot,
his family and friends. Also for Britton who has lost his primary
training field as a result. And for those of us who have lost a fellow
flyer doing what we all love.
Life is precious and so terribly fragile. Live it well.
We took this picture before I left. Condolences to
the family. Richard Biggerstaff is in the middle.
I didn't know him before the event but he was clearly
passionate about flying. Click to elarge.