Knowing When To Stop | Salton Sea Collapse and Crash
Competitions exude a can-do attitude that easily clouds judgment. You’re already confident in your flying ability or you wouldn’t be there. Everybody else is flying so it must not be that bad—an effect that happens at fly-ins, too, where you commonly see pilots flying in conditions that they wouldn’t dream of flying back home.
So there we were at the 2013 Paratoys competition in conditions that sucked. Round one was done in the morning; this was the afternoon round. Initially it didn’t seem that bad—turbulent but tolerable and, in fact, I took off at about 2:40pm, flew over, practiced a couple cloverleafs, climbed up and did some spot landings. I was first in the launch order so I wanted to be ready for the 3pm start. That’s a generally benign 2+ hours before sunset. It should have been getting nice. Not this time.
Another very experienced pilot, Paul Lundquist, commented on how strangely nasty it was. The competition started with a cloverleaf, which we all flew with the exception of Ryan Shaw. He started it but hit some nasty turbulence and did the most amazing thing—aborted the run and landed. After taking some good hits he decided it wasn’t safe and packed it in, electing not to fly any more of this session. Wow. OK.
Mind you, Ryan has titanium balls. I’ve watched and worried during some of his low-level, high energy shenanigans. He executes them with great precision but it’s still risky stuff, certainly for less skilled pilots, but even for Ryan. There’s just there’s no way around it: low-level, high energy maneuvering causes carnage for even highly skilled pilots. But here is Ryan, packing it in. Others finished their cloverleaf and then we started the bomb drop which I did fly.
I remember thinking that, with the cloverleaf behind us, most of the risk was over; we’re home free. My cloverleaf was good, I’d nailed two spot landings and did better on the bomb drop than my previous run. And I’ll admit that I would have likely launched again for my final task—the “full” spot landing—had I gotten the chance. Not long after I landed, Michael Mixer launched for his fateful fall. I didn’t even fly again at the event after that. Here’s more on the accident.
There were several other pilots who begged off even before Ryan. experienced pilot Shawn Cordon, competing in the Novice division, had flown around 2pm, found the air too nasty, and told Michael that he would not fly in round two. Good judgment. The other two Novice division pilots made the same call. Good judgment.
Paul Lundquist turned down an offer to redo his spot landing when someone got in his way on landing approach. He said the conditions were too bumpy. Good judgment.
Ryan’s is the most notable, though, mostly because of his willingness to push the envelope and his competitive nature. Bagging it in round two could have cost him dearly in the standings but he wisely decided that it just wasn’t worth it. Really good judgment.
We can learn a lot and we must.
1. The single biggest lesson is this: if the conditions suck, don’t fly. Don’t even “just go check.” But there’s more to learn from this. Just because *YOU* didn’t find a particularly scary piece of air doesn’t mean that you can somehow handle the conditions where the other pilots are somehow inferior or your gear is better. I’ve built a lot of confidence in my gear and capability but I’ll bet, had I found that same piece of air that Michael had, I could very well be in the same boat. I took a decent collapse, probably 30%, and pressed on because it remained controllable.
2. If the weather is unusual, give serious thought to launching. Unusual means there is something going on beyond climate. For example, if it’s gusty at sunrise, something unusual is going on. It’s probably a bad time.
3. Realize that 100’s of times you may make make this conservative call and everybody else will go on to have a nice flight, or compete, or whatever. But one of those times somebody is more likely than you (since you’re on the ground) to find the nasty piece of that will be their undoing.
I’ll did the wrong thing and simply lucked out, I didn’t hit that devastating piece of air. Some will blame it on the wing but I’m not at all convinced. It COULD have been a factor but it’s simply not useful, or accurate, to brush it off as such.