It was Saturday, August 28, 2004 just before 3:00 PM. This was only the third day that we were able to fly during the eight-day competition because of uncooperative weather. We were flying south from the launch at Inspiration Point. I was running at the tail end of a large gaggle and we were flying through Rock Canyon behind BYU. Rock Canyon is a narrow steep river-cut canyon with sheer walls that reach up about 4,000 feet. As I crossed the canyon I noticed how there were large trees growing on the cliff faces and I wondered how they managed to get so large growing on nearly bare rock. I had cleared the south edge of the canyon when I noticed that the group of wings in front of me was sinking, while the wing behind me was climbing nicely in the center of the valley. I swung around under the climbing wing and found some disorganized lift, which I did not like the feel of, so I headed back out of the canyon around the rim. I was flying with light brake pressure and a very small amount of bar (1-2 inches). Just as I was crossing the edge of the canyon at about 7,500 feet ASL (and about 200 feet AGL) my wing fell behind me very quickly and asymmetrically. My first thought was that I had an asymmetric collapse and my hand dropped to pressurize the wing. This break pressure caused the wing to immediately enter a negative spin and turned me 180 degrees. My hands floundered around trying to pressurize the wing, but there was nothing there. I was being whipped violently around and I saw the rock cliffs of Rock Canyon coming up very fast on my right as I spun that direction. I was flying a competition wing that I was not familiar with (I had only flown it once before the competition). My thinking was surprisingly lucid:
- I don’t have a flying wing and it is showing no signs of recovery.
- I don’t have time to fix my wing.
- I don’t know if my reserve will help given the terrain I’m over.
- I don’t want to be the statistic for this year’s Nationals.
- I don’t have any more time to think about it, …THROW!
I reached down for my reserve handle. I did not think about the fact that I still had my brake in my hands since there was very little tension on the brake lines, although I probably turned myself more towards the rocks in the process. I fly an AVA Racer harness with the reserve under the front of the seat board. I pulled the handle and nothing happened. Then I REALLY pulled the handle with all the force I could muster and the reserve came out, but it also fell out of my hand before I could give it a good fling. I watched my bridle extend and I looked at the bag at the end of it, but nothing came out. Not a good feeling. I knew that if the reserve did not deploy, I was going to be in a whole lot of trouble. Just as I was thinking I needed to jerk the bag my wing gyrated hard to the left and I knew that would deploy the reserve. It did. Almost instantaneously after the jerk of the wing I heard velcro pulling free and felt the tension of my reserve at my shoulders. My next thought was “down planing” and I looked up to see what my paraglider was doing. I never saw it, because as I looked up all I saw was tree branches racing past me. Then I stopped. From the time I felt the reserve until I was in the tree was probably only 1 second. The entire episode took less than 10 seconds, and seconds matter with a reserve deployment. My reserve (which I recovered, will reuse, will recommend to others, and love) is a LARA Gold 250 and it worked like a charm. It had been packed by Doug and Denise at Aerial Paragliding, although I had not had it repacked for over 2 years, which is something I will not let happen again.
To go from “I am pretty sure I am going to be severely hurt or killed in the next few seconds” to “I am hanging in a tree, unharmed” is a wonderful feeling. But I was still not sure I was safe since I had no idea if the wing was secure. I tried to look up, but I could not really see anything with the reserve bridle pressing against my helmet and I was still hearing breaking branches. I was facing a large tree truck but as I reached for it the small branches broke off in my hands. I was afraid that I would fall through the trees to the ground, about 70 feet below me (although it looked even farther because I was facing downhill on a very, very steep slope). I heard Dale Covington on the radio reporting seeing someone throwing a reserve and going into the trees. I transmitted my name and pilot number and that I was uninjured, and then I very carefully tried to swing towards the tree. I was able to grab a branch and pull myself against the trunk, which was about 12 inches around and I had good live branches around me so finally I felt secure. I then radioed my GPS coordinates. I was at 7,303 feet and the valley floor was just over 4,000 feet. I looked down to see if I could climb down. No way. Below me were all small dead branches and I could not bear-hug that far down. I had not packed my tree rescue kit, which I carry when I fly in Washington, because I did not think I would be flying over trees in Utah.
I ended up waiting in the tree for 3 hours. I could hear sirens and then the helicopters started to arrive. The news helicopters circled while the Lifeflight helicopter came up to check out access routes to me. I was not in an easy place to get to. At one point there was a transmission that there was a team headed up from below, which I was sure meant that I would be spending the night in the tree. One pilot who had been acting as a wind-dummy for the competition, Sebastian Meier, was sent out with a rope and a saw to look for a place to top land his paraglider and help me. He side-hilled in a very nasty area at great risk to himself, and then started the grueling 1,500-foot hike up. Dave Dixon, a pilot in the competition who also happens to be a local fireman and captain of a technical rescue team, was flying over Rock Canyon soon after I went into the trees and he landed at the base of the canyon to coordinate retrieval efforts. I was very reassured after I heard his voice on the radio. He and his volunteer paramedic, Brady George, had the Lifeflight helicopter take them and their gear about ½ way up where they met up with Sebastian for the 2-hour hike to me. I wrapped myself in for a long wait and managed to doze on and off until they arrived 3 hours after I had gone into the tree.
When the rescue crew arrived, the first thing they did was throw me a rope from the cliff next to the tree. I tied myself into the tree, lowered my gear down (which showed me that I was even higher than I thought), and tied another line to the risers of my wing as I unclipped from it. The wing was undamaged and draped over a limb above me with the lines slack. I then climbed up and cut the reserve bridle where it attached to my harness before Brady belayed me to the ground. It was good to be on the ground again.
Brady then climbed back up the tree to extract my wing and reserve. The reserve had actually capped the tree and was undamaged except for the lines which were cut to get it out of the tree.
After we had everything packed up we started the long hike out. Lifeflight had planned to pick us up where they had dropped off Dave and Brady, but they got called away, so we were on our own. We only had one headlamp, but we knew it was a full moon so we were not too worried. We ended up hiking down the 3,000 feet in about 2 hours—only to find a persistent local news crew waiting for us. We then headed back for the US Nationals final awards at the Point-of-the-Mountain. Len Szafaryn, the newly crowned US National Champion, gave Sebastian the new harness he had one for his courageous side-hill landing to come to my aid. It was a very generous gesture.
I am a P-4 rated pilot who has been flying for 13 years. I have nearly 1,000 flights with just shy of 1,000 hours of flying time. I have flown about 2,000 XC miles at many different sites and in many different countries. I had taken my reserve for granted and never used it. I had never unintentionally spun a wing and thought I could keep my wing under control. All of that changed very quickly. I learned a number of lessons from this experience that I want to share:
- I was too close to terrain, especially in an area that looked like it would produce very trashy air. I should have given myself a 500-foot AGL clearance over the rocks.
- I should have gone hands up immediately when the wing fell behind me.
- I should have gone hands up after I was in a negative spin (I had never spun a wing before and was not sure what was happening).
- I probably should have released my brake before reaching for my reserve (or at least thought about it).
- I should have carried more water. I had some but it goes quickly.
- I will repack and remove the reserve deployment bag regularly to make sure everything will come out quickly.
- I will carry a tree rescue kit or at LEAST some tubular webbing to secure myself to the tree with or to fling around the tree to draw myself in to the trunk. I think an 8-foot sling will be part of my flying equipment from now on.
- I will carry a headlamp/flashlight.
- I will have charged batteries and backup batteries for my radio.