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 occasion.
Face To Face With My “Arc” Enemyby 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 doesn’t, 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 man’s oldest dream: Flight. And no one platform allows more of the purity of flight than powered paragliding.
I used to dream as a child of being able to fly, while growing up in the “Right Stuff” generation, glued to the TV as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar plains in the Sea of Tranquility during the Summer of Love.
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 limitations.
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 they’d 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, don’t we?
All was right with the world.
Until it wasn’t.
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 takeoff.
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 wasn’t the usual kind of wave I’m used to; it was one I’d 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 forth.
And then it hit me. He’s pointing to something. HE’S WARNING ME ABOUT POWER LINES!
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 contact.
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 you’re not grounded, (which is why birds perch and don’t 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. It’s almost a guaranteed crash, because you’ve 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 together…you’re done.
I hammered the power (later knowing that even my powerful 2 stroke wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t recognize. But it is now my favorite plant on Earth. Because it cushioned me quite a bit. And because it wasn’t 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 he’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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. Don’t 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 hadn’t been moved yet.
I’m 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.
I’ve 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 accompany one.
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 don’t 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 I’m guessing took place.
I’ll have a lot of time to think about things. I don’t have a backup motor anymore, so I am grounded.
I know that wasn’t my last flight, but my motor is in need of a lot of work, as the photos clearly show, and I don’t have the change to devote to that right now. So I am guessing I’ll 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 it’s the little ones that can bite hard.
And we all know how we detect power lines from the air. They’re 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 it’s not possible, it’s probable.
Here’s hoping you can avoid a similar cascade of seemingly innocuous choices that led me to my accident.
And if you’re an inexperienced pilot, please realize your limitations as to reaction time. There was no time for “OH SH*T!” 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 free…and thank you for reading, especially if you made it all the way to the end.