Wires claim a paragliding pilot after a wind increase

In May, 2007, a pilot died in a paragliding accident during a maneuvers clinic. She flew into high tension wires after increasing winds prevented a return to the planned LZ. This tragedy falls heaviest on the remaining spouse who apparently watched it unfold while awaiting his turn aloft. It also weighed heavily on the two highly experienced maneuvers coaches who were giving the clinic. My heart goes out to these folks.

A relatively new pilot, with about 50 flights, released from tow and was to be on the radio with her maneuver’s coach, a highly experienced aerobatic pilot who’d given many dozens of these clinics. It would the coach’s first time working this pilot through her routine. For some reason, the radios didn’t work, in spite of a preflight check. So the pilot started doing mild maneuvers on her own. While doing so, the winds started to quickly increase. Eventually, she realized that penetration was nil and the regular LZ would not work. So she elected a downwind dash, over the dam, to try for a dry alternative.

According to a witness on the ground she was moving quickly when she struck high tension wires and fell to her death. In all likelihood she was planning a turn into the wind and simply did not see the wires. That’s not terribly surprising given how much focus her predicament was commanding. We obviously can’t say what her thought process was but this is one highly plausible explanation.

Every precaution appeared to be in place. She was wearing a back-protecting harness, a life preserver, a reserve and had a successful radio check before flight.

This accident happened just one week after I finished my own clinic with the same instructor and it hit me hard. We had our own experience with strong wind and one pilot wound up landing off-site uneventfully. Plus, I’ve given a clinic where a pilot perished in an non-clinic related accident. These are pilots of passion, it makes for a quick kinship and takes the winds out of your sails when tragedy strikes.

Does This Apply To Us?

What a shame and waste it would be to disregard this tragedy’s teaching because it’s free flight or because it’s a clinic or any other reason. To be sure, the motor grants us options but the underlying cause, even the primary cause has much relevance. For one, there’s a strong possibility that the accident pilot never even saw the wires until it was too late. When heading downwind everything happens quicker while the glider responds slower—the proverbial downwind demon emerges. Yes, the airborne turn rate is the same but the ground track turn radius is much larger. You’ll have less time, a lot less in stronger winds, for avoidance while headed downwind. Besides diminished time, maneuvering will eat up more distance to turn-avoid the obstacle than if you’re going upwind. This same result can happen to a powered pilot, especially one that’s distracted.

Other lessons apply regarding options. This accident highlights the importance of considering our options before we need them. Doing so will free up precious attention to mind the other “gotchas” like powerlines. We can hardly fault the pilot who, in this case, may not have been thinking about wind since it’s doubtful this small-scale effect was forecast. I suspect nobody even talked about the possibility. In fact, when they launched, the wind was reportedly nearly calm although it had recently changed. That also reminds us how a dramatic change in wind over a fairly short time should send up warning flags—the atmosphere is churning up potentially dangerous cocktails.

Our heart goes out the husband and family who most acutely felt this tragic loss and also to the instructors and participants who must pick up various pieces and carry on.

We who choose to live life life large must accept  this possibility. But we should never stop trying to make it safer while preserving the fun. We can learn from those who pay this ultimate cost, and hopefully save others from the same fate.

I recognize that mistakes like this could be my demise. They could be anyone’s demise in a mere moment of inattention. What a lesson. I will hopefully let this lesson settle on my decision making. We all should.

Launching is always up to the pilot. If you’re not ready, or the weather is questionable, don’t hook up. Pass to someone else. Personal pressure to go when all your buddies have gone can be the straw that breaks the back of sound judgment.

A side note: I obviously don’t want my passion to consume me but, if something does happen: 1) know that I’m incredibly glad to have popped out in a time and place that allowed exploration of this primal desire to fly free and 2) if I do meet my end flying know that such freedom was worth the risk. Hopefully someone’s behavior changes enough to save themselves from a similar fate.