Friday, July 06, 2007

Keyhole Suck

This “Lesson Learned” story really starts before I ever got on the plane bound for Hawaii. While packing I made the decision to take my very first wing, a paratech 43, medium DHV1-2 wing, (P43). I’d not flown the wing in over two years, not counting the two short sled rides from a California training hill just over thirty days ago.

Arriving on island late Thursday night, the next two days had already been planned out for me by my wife, Emmy. Working with a realtor and making and offer on a Hawaii Kai home took most of Friday and Saturday. The winds did look strong and Saturday afternoon found me at Koaloa Beach kiting the paratech. Winds on the beach were around 13-14 mph. So I didn’t even think about heading out for a flight. The P43 was a handfull kiting and getting it up and over head was a dragging experience compared to the poison, (FIRST WAKE-UP CALL). So I made plans for a flight on Sunday the 1st of July.

I read on windlines on Sunday that others were heading out, One-Eye Jim, Steve and others so my wife departed for a fun filled day of beach and flying.

As we all do, Emmy and I watched the wind signs during the drive out, indicating that is was going to be a good day, definetely not too light. After parking I thought that it might be too strong but the three wings in the air over me continued to push me forward further rushing my risk analysis of the up-coming flight. Hiking up I see Airborne’s car and I attempt to contact him on the radio. Having no luck I think he is not about to break radio silence or maybe he will conduct a radio check after laying out. Hiking up I can feel the wind before I ever break out of the trees and I confirm my belief that low launch is the place to go. After resting for about ten minutes, taking wind readings, drinking water and catching my breath, Nick arrives and we discuss the situation. It is funny how you hear the voices of those you have flown with so many times. Airborne, in my head, “a little strong, but it is cycling, wait for a low cycle, launch and it will be OK.” Alex, “Direction is good, a few white caps, cloud movement, if you believe it is too strong and hike down, GOOD CALL.” Nick tells me this is a little strong and I agree but the cycles look good. Nick then elects, after we witness Airborne’s flawless take-off from high launch, to go next. A perfect and taunting take-off by Nick, I’m ready even if the winds are gusting to 16-18, I know it will be dicey in the P43 but I’ve flown in worse off of cactus in this wing. Funny how we rationalize?

I lay out and elect not to hook up my helmet cam since the wing is a handfull, holding the C’s and brakes with a death grip.

I now wait for a low cycle and pull up, a little dip to the right but A’s & C’s are working, I turn and burn and immediately go straight up, no forward movement and then aft and to the west of the low launch spine. I immediately apply speed bar hoping for no frontal since it is twitchy. (SECOND WAKE-UP CALL) I make it out front of launch and “a note to self” fly farther out than normally comfortable. I not getting altitude but I’m still parked and making little forward movement. Other pilots now confirm my suspicions by telling us that the wind is now stronger than just thirty minutes before.

Once aloft I find a quiet spot to hook up my helmet cam and now I try to get as close as I can to the radio silent “Airborne”. I get some video and digital pics and then enjoy my docile P43 thinking its amazing that the flying characteristic differs so drastically compared to the poison. Later I’m reminded of this by my wife’s comment, “I could tell it was you up there because your white wing was fatter and larger than all the rest.” (Additional WAKE-UP CALL).

I watch as all five pilots land, getting bumped around low on their approach to the LZ (THIRD & FINAL WAKE-UP CALL). Airborne and Nick did the smart thing and stay out front over the water and maneuver into excellent landings dead on target. (I didn’t notice the approach patterns of the previous three).

I elect to loose altitude well out front of the boat launch and I have the wisdom to think, “no way am I going to soar the trees, might get pushed back over them in this slow wing.” But as I continue my approach to the wind streamer, from which Nick was filming me, I loose myself to familiarity and over-confidence and begin my typical little turn into the key-hole that with my poison always provides a nice low fast glide to the wind streamer. Emmy was also on the beach shouting, “looking good.” As the video shows, when I make my turn to final, I suddenly realize that I’m not penetrating, I’ve already rotated in my harness, lowering my landing gear and I struggle for my speed bar. All the time I can see my aft movement taking me closer to some bad obstacles, like concrete/bridge, traffic, electrical lines and water on the other side. I’m now thinking, “I’ve got to kill this wing and big-ears ain’t gonna do it in time.” So I spiral/spin the wing in, probably easier than a total stall from at least 30 feet above the ground but I open the floor to those more experienced in offering solutions after having gotten myself so far into an almost hopeless situation. Events happen quickly from here on out. I hit the ground hard, less than a foot from the concrete pillor and I have to mute the audio on the video to protect those with sensitive ears. Only my wife and daughter know what I said. But it is funny in a situation like this, pilots fly the wing to the ground, I remember as with other previous hard hits that, “this is going to hurt.” But never being afraid.

After I hit the ground and I know I’m ok, my wing is on the road and I feel like the coyote on the “Road Runner Show”. I survived the crash and now my wing is going to be picked up by a passing car and I’ll be pulled up and over the bridge and drug to my death. Luckily, the fast thinking of Steve, running up and stopping cars and retrieving my wing and Suicide Pete getting me out of my harness, I was feeling and doing great.

My wife of 27 years witnessed it all. She never bought my story that I was totally ok. As a licensed mental health councelor she can easily see through your soul. The event never really bothered me until after I watched the video for the third or fourth time, then I realize just how lucky I was. (OK, I know I’m a little slow on the uptake). The whole crash sequence was like a guadian angel pushed me down in soft sand less than one foot from concrete. Now being the third day I wish the angel had not pushed so hard, my whole right side from my hip to my neck is black and blue and sore. I’m only kidding about not pushing so hard. I realize that I could have been at Tripler Medical Hospital in a coma with ventilator rather than enjoying Alan Jackson and fireworks at the Bay Fest that night with my family.

Thanks to Dr. Pete, Steve and everyone else that helped me out, what a GREAT group we have in Hawaii. I called Airborne and he never knew that I, chopperdave, his old flying buddy was ever there. His first thoughts when seeing my old P43 / white wing was that of a visiting pilot about to get into trouble after being pushed back of launch.

Lessons Learned:

1. Always listen to the signs from beginning to end and digest them. From my computer that morning to arriving on launch to folding up your wing. I listened but didn’t really comprehend and process what I was hearing.

2. We always are aware of the risks of moving from a slow wing to a fast wing. But we need to be equally aware of the risks from going the other way, the habits that we have developed and the flight performance we have grown to expect.

3. Don’t confuse experience with proficiency.

But always remember, even as close as we get to death in this sport, it still beats sitting on the couch saying, “I shoulda, coulda or woulda”

To all the pilots out there, my hat is off to you for conquering the intimidation that we all feel hiking up and enjoying the jubilation of soaring that we all share.”


Click HERE for the full size Video


Anonymous said...

Wow Chopper, you alluded to this incident a few days ago and I've been wondering what it was all about. Thanks for the detailed and well written article. Posts like this one help all of us make better decisions. The helmet cam really puts an emphasis on the whole story. I'll be thinking of you the next time I think the conditions are a little strong up on low launch.
Now that I know you're OK I have to say that my favorite part of your article is in the second paragraph. It's the part where you mention that you're buying a house. That means you're back for good right?
Welcome home.


Brazilian Ray said...

Hey Dave, glad you're ok! On the video I noticed you were "heavy" on the brakes for such a windy day. Since my accident with the quarx I like to always use speed in my landings and you'll see me with hands up all the way on most of my approaches (unless I am too high).
Also, you could have pushed your A's forward to accelerate the glider without pushing the speed bar. It can useful if you loose (and need) your bar. You can try it during regular flights (please be high and away from mountains/others...). In a desperate maneuver you could cause a frontal collapse (by pulling your A's) but I won't recommend at 30 feet high. Hope to see you in the air soon!

firedave said...

Great video and story Dave. Our accident master alex might dig it.

Nice spin landing! I had seen that one used before by none other than Jamie " Death Wish" Roberts whike flying Diamond Headed. He landed perfectly, much to all the onlookers surprise.
On the otherhand, I don't think I would ever use it in that situation, the outcome is too unpredictable and you could have easily swung at speed into the pillar. I would probably have just flown it out with speedbar, big ears, a b-line landing or maybe nothing at all.
Spin landings work and look cool, nice job.

Gravity said...

Hey Dave since you asked me to comment because I was your instructor, I would have to agree with Ray & Fireman Dave.

Pushing on the A's, pulling an emergency landing using B's would definitely been better.

Doing a Spin landing that close to an object can be very dangerous; lucky for you you didn't hit the concrete pier's of the bridge... Ouch!

But it still amazes me what fast decisions we can make when the "Sheet hits the fan"

You are extremely lucky no cars, buses or bikes were passing over the bridge. That is one of my oldest nightmares, being dragged by a car.

One other thing for those who will follow in Dave's footsteps and fly on extremely windy days with DHV 1 or 1-2 gliders is leave yourself more room towards the sea to crab into the LZ, rather than do the usual fly to the back of the LZ and attempt to glide out for a more standard approach.
In other words stay out front of the LZ, and stay away from the trees and roads.


Bruised but not down, eh?

Nick said...


(I had just landed, still hooked to my gear, when I filmed this)

We all lose concentration from time to time. You knew it was windy, but didn’t apply that knowledge during landing, as you self-professed in your article. Thanks for posting your story, I certainly learned a couple of things that day. I’m going to talk about my mistakes that day. Even though my launch went “flawless”, I was fully expecting to be drug a few feet before getting the wing overhead. That’s not the smartest game plan in the world. Aside from the obvious dragging dangers, you don’t get a chance to inspect your lines before you are yanked back and up. I still need to work on my A’s and C’s. Right now they’re just a tool to build my wall on launch. I keep rationalizing my reluctance to learn the technique due to my feeling that if it’s that windy, I shouldn’t be flying. However, it’s a good skill set to have nonetheless.
As far as your landing is concerned, I still beat myself up for not being “Johnny on the spot” on the radio. I’ve been trying to analyze why I didn’t get on the radio sooner. My commentary on my video could have easily been broadcasted to you during your approach. Maybe things would have ended up differently. I fell victim to the “halo” effect. During our conversation on launch, I got the impression that you were an experienced pilot, but simply out of practice. I forgot that there is nothing “simple” about aviation. That combined with my natural personality of non-interference probably contributed to my silence.
I’ve always heard about the venturi effect there at the Kahana LZ, but never seen it. Thanks for showing how thin the line is between safe and unsafe. As for my recommendations born of this event; I recommend that you adjust or change your speedbar setup. I have easy access to my speedbar even when my legs are “gear down”.