Ken Hudonjorgensen had his first flights in New Zealand in 1989 and now has over 7,000 flights and 1,400 hours of air time in a paraglider. He received the 5th Diamond Safe Pilot award (5,000 safe consecutive flights our highest safety award) in January of ’96 and as of this writing is still the only paraglider pilot to receive it. Ken held the Utah X-C record for two years, has been awarded the Utah cup X-C award for two years, is master rated, the senior instructor in Utah, a Tandem and instructor Administrator and USHGA Examiner. He is responsible for getting a paragliding program started at Snowbird Ski Resort and a Tandem program at Teton Village in Jackson Hole, WY. He has also pioneered many Utah paragliding sites. Ken feels that his most significant achievement in paragliding is this 5th Diamond Safe Pilot Award.
How and why do you think you have been able to fly safely and receive this award?
I must have built up some good karma in a past life because I definitely made some unsafe decisions during my early days in this sport becoming more conservative with each borderline experience. I also tend to think fairly clearly during an emergency. An example of this occurred when I was taking my third day of lessons in North Boulder and flew into my first thermal. My wing went into a spin. My thought was “I don’t know what I’m doing, and this wing knows how to fly better than I do at this point,” so I put my hands up and let it do its “thing”. It just happened to be the right thing to do and 20 ft. off the ground it pulled out and I flew out and had a soft landing in the L.Z.. Both of my instructors were surprised and relieved to see me standing up and alive in the landing area.
In your opinion, what are some of the most important decisions a pilot can make to stay safe?
I look for reasons not to fly. It’s easy to find many reasons why I want to fly and all too easy to ignore any danger or warning signs.
Tell us about one of the most important times you chose not to fly that kept you safe and why?
Frisco Peak in central Utah 1995. As I looked up I noticed three things that sent warning signals to my brain. Some pretty dark overdevelopment about 10 miles. S.W. of us, early and fast development directly over us and some great cycles coming straight up the mountain. It was all coming together a little too fast and too “good” for my personal comfort level. I said to my X-C buddy, “it’s too big for me, I’m not flying.” He still wanted to go and asked if I would drive for him. He launched and promptly gained over 8,000 feet. Forty minutes later he got sucked up into a towering cumulus at 2,200 ft. per minute lift. He attempted to stay out with B-line stalls and spiral dives yet still went up. He eventually managed to fly out the side of it and 20 minutes later got caught in a gust front 200 ft. over my car on the highway where I clocked him going 70 miles. per hour. Outflying the front he turned into the wind and landed going backwards at a walk. The front reached him seconds later! He is a great guy. I love flying with him and we both relearned a good lesson that day. No flight is worth putting ones life in danger.
We regularly get 1200 to 1600 ft. per min. lift at this site and it doesn’t take much of a change in conditions for it to build greater than that and for us to “be in over our heads”. All sites deserve a great deal of respect. Sites like this one deserve extra attention.
Describe one of your most memorable flights?
I have experienced many memorable flights and the first one I think of occurred during the summer of ’97, about 20 miles from my home in Sandy, Utah, at The Snowbird Ski Resort. I had just flown from Snowbird a few days earlier and landed in my back yard so I was eager to fly the weak high pressure system that still prevailed to see if other adventures could be gained from such conditions. That day, I was able to get to cloudbase at 16,200 ft. on my second thermal of the day. The view of the Wasatch range is rather spectacular from that vantage point. The beautiful sunny day with small to moderate cumulus clouds made the close-up view of these clouds seem friendly and stunningly awesome! The cloudbase over Park City, a few miles away, was at 13,900 ft. therefore I was able to fly above some of the clouds for a while. Watching the top of the clouds as they rolled and reshaped themselves, was an “other” worldly view I will always remember. To travel up to the cloudworld at cloudbase helps me to temporarily remove myself from Terra Firma. This is one of the parts of this sport I enjoy the most.
What are two of the most important safety considerations to remember while progressing in this sport?
First of all take your time with your progression in this sport and with your fly/no fly decisions. If you decide not to fly then there will be another day to fly. If you decide to fly when it is questionable FOR YOU then it may be your last flight either from injury or scaring yourself out of the sport. Second, get good instruction for each level of your progression. Most of the accidents I have heard of or witnessed are caused by ignoring good instruction, poor instruction or no instruction (like the rash of HG pilots getting injured a few years ago on paragliders because they felt that they did not need any instruction). The most dangerous years of Hang Gliding and Paragliding were the early years when no one knew what the boundaries of the sports were. Now we know some of those limits. Take advantage of that hard earned knowledge. You may be able to get cheaper and more minimal instruction but it’s not worth putting yourself back into those dangerous early years. As an example I spoke with two pilots last fall who had just gone to Mexico for a thermal clinic because it was “cheap”. When they got there, the guide took the group to the site, pointed and said “There’s thermals out there, go get em.” That was the “clinic”. People have given their lives in learning some of the limits in this sport, you don’t need to put yours in jeopardy to relearn the same lessons.
I’d like to add a third. Don’t be too anxious to get on an advanced or competition wing. They are not for everyone. Some people think the way to progress and improve their flying ability is to get a higher performing wing. This is a safety judgment error. One should be awesome at kiting, maneuvers, thermaling and X-C before changing to a more advanced wing. I’m still not ready for one and probably never will be.
This article was written in July, 1998. Since this writing, Ken has received another Gold, Bronze and Silver Award for safety