It looks dangerous for a reason!

Phil Russman and I fly powered paragliders (and just paragliders) together a lot. We’ve become rather comfortable working in close proximity—to the point where we can do it consistently and smoothly. It started with camera work on various video projects and progressed to synchronous maneuvering just for the fun of it. Phil has become adept at getting the camera exactly where he wants it and he frequently wants it in some strange places. If you’ve seen any of the footage he’s acquired at various events, you know what I mean.

One camera move we’ve worked on perfecting is a spiral where he keeps me in view as we ooze into the turn. My job is easy, all I have to do is be smooth and predictable. We’ve done this while flying level but the burble that swirls off each wingtip ruins any shot it wiggles. So we try to do it descending. It’s just that maneuver that got us thinking of the synchro spiral where we try to turn opposite each other. There are some amazing European acro teams doing these things with incredible precision. I’ll never get that good but it’s still fun to try. Hey, a lot of people like playing golf but they’ll never be Tiger Woods.

We start by coming at each other from opposite directions and start the turn when abeam, getting steeper until our wings are pointed downward at a 45° angle. The hard part is keeping him exactly opposite. We’ll keep perfecting it but will take a few more precautions in the future. Even then the risk meter goes well up doing such things. 

At the Flying Circus, we were doing one of these when I flew through Phil’s wake unintentionally. That was the first mistake, letting myself get there. Mind you that we’re in a 60° bank which means a constant 2G’s. Instead of pushing the air with the force of a 230 pound craft, its 460 pounds and spinning out a lot stronger wake.  

It was over almost before I knew it and my reaction was completely automatic although somewhat insufficient. The wing suddenly surged downward then the right side collapsed and recovered almost immediately. All I did was what I drill—almost nothing. Pulling lots of brake would have been disastrous with that much energy. I pulled a little then immediately let almost completely off, holding inside brake pressure to dampen the rollout. In this case, though, it wasn’t quite enough brake when it surged or else the wing would not have collapsed in the first place.

What’s eye opening is how it could have been so easily far, far worse. Had the inside wing tip line caught, it could have wrapped me up in a steepened spiral for another three turns at least. The ground was only two turns below me. I wouldn’t have had enough altitude to recover.

Of course it was stupid starting from that low altitude. We’d done these turns enough times that we were complacent. I won’t be doing it from that low again now or without a reserve. It seemed so benign. I know quite well how much altitude it takes to recover from a steep spiral but a simple complication can change that dramatically. I’ll remind myself about keeping options open. 

Doing these maneuvers, indeed doing the filming, invites more risk. But this reminds me to do some simple things that will hopefully at least improve my odds for the long term. This event got me to schedule a maneuvers clinic. I’ll report on the results of that when it’s over.