Monday, April 28, 2008

Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé?

So it has been over two months since I had an unplanned intimate encounter with Kam highway in front of Sea Life Park - enough procrastinating on the story!

What I remember about the crash doesn't amount to much, trauma always seems to have strange effects on one's memory of the event, so most of it just seems like a sequence of flashbacks to a bad dream.

Feb 22 was a L&V day on Oahu, and I had easily launched into maybe 10 mph wind at the cactus launch. There was quite a bit more lift than I expected on such a light day, but I remember thinking that it was some of the smoothest air I have ever flown in. No "rabbit s**t" anywhere, even those places along the cliffs that usually bounce you skyward were smooth as butter only noticeable by the sound of the vario. This made for some very nice flying from the lighthouse all the way around the corner halfway to green walls. It was very similar to flying "glass off" or "magic air" just before sunset at a mainland thermal site.

After about a hour of boating around it was starting to get dark and I discovered a few (light) bumps, over flat island. I then turned around to come in for a landing after a few short spirals. As I crossed over the beach at the north end of the LZ I got hit with a moderate bump that picked me up some 30 feet. Where the heck did that come from!*#? This messed up the glide on my approach so I made some S turns to get back on track but got at least one more bump to where the turns were getting steeper and it was hard to tell what was lift and what was just retained energy in the wing.

By this time I had angled inland over Sea Life Park for the last turn and was on glide to the LZ, straight into the wind, which was straight onshore at this point. Then I hit some sink, which then turned into free-fall. I had no idea what the wing was doing since I was staring in horror at the road rushing up at me, with everything but the spot directly below me a blur. I have experienced dynamic stalls, b-line stalls, asymmetrics, and parachutal stall, but this felt like none of those, more like my wing had just vanished, or like diving off cliffs into the ocean. I hit going straight down, I remember a loud slap as my Tevas hit the pavement, and my "shock absorbers" folding like they weren't even there, my butt hit my heels and the ground, and then rolling over.

I'm sure other pilots who there have a much better picture of what was going on than I do. It would be expedient and ego-saving to use rowdy conditions at the LZ as a convenient scapegoat, but that just doesn't cut the mustard if you view the truth as immutable. Every inland site in the western US that I have ever flown has "active" LZs, some violently so, and I've learned to deal with those, so I can't pass it off to inexperience either. I have had plenty of time to think about that day - staring at the ceiling loses its thrill very quickly, and have come to a very different conclusion as to what went wrong.

The real culprit here was the fact that I was not giving flying my undivided attention - flying on autopilot. What is that? It's like driving down the road thinking of something else (aka daydreaming) or listening to the radio or yakking on the cell phone or yakking with a passenger, etc. etc. I know I've done some of this, on occasion "waking up" wondering where I was and wondering who was driving since the last place I remembered being. I know anybody reading this has also done this, and gotten away with it - most of the time. Some may even be arrogant enough to say they are a skilled enough driver to make it OK.

True, experience does have some relevance: The more times you have dealt with some situation in the past, the more likely your "autopilot" can deal with it when it unexpectedly pops up again, but there will always be those things that happen which you are not prepared for, and for which you need 100% of your brain focused on the problem at hand. Unfortunately, a brain that is elsewhere does not come to attention instantly, and merde happens. Therefore it is never OK to drive on "autopilot", and certainly not to paraglide like that. Eighteen years and about 1000 hours of airtime may sound like a fair bit of experience, but it's only a small fraction of the time or experience most people have driving automobiles, and nowhere near enough time to have much of an ingrained response in our "flying autopilot".

For about 5 years I commuted some 20 miles each way across LA to work by motorcycle - whitelining (cutting between lanes on the freeway) without a scratch. This was partly due to luck, but mostly because I NEVER rode on "autopilot", always fully focused on everything around me, anticipating what the cars were going to do before their drivers even knew what they were going to do. Its just too scary and fast to do anything less.

I treated paragliding the same way, there is just too much going on to do otherwise, and I have always felt some anxiety about every landing I have ever done. Every landing has always been: Am I too high? Do I need to make one more S turn? What if I hit sink? What will I do if I get popped and overshoot? Am I too close to those trees? Man, that LZ looks tiny from up here! I'm going too fast! and so on and so on.

Yet on Feb 22, I was not thinking about my landing, in fact it seemed like a forgone conclusion while I was still in the air. As a result, my mind was fixated on the spot I wanted to land on the LZ, landing down at the bottom of the LZ or in the naupaka covered dunes didn't even enter my mind, nor did I think about how much I disliked approaching from over Sea Life Park as I had done a few times before in northerly winds.

A couple of things led to this inappropriate mindset. Earlier that day I had had a glorious first flight at Tantalus, climbing thermals and going way back in Manoa, even considering the Pali before chickening out and coming back to top land. After an awesome flight like that I was feeling a bit full of myself - never a good thing, and Makapuu's smooth air made it seem like a no-brainer.


For my transgression, I was penalized with a broken back: a damaged T12 vertebrae, and a crushed L4 vertebrae which squished out rearwards compressing the mares tail (nerves that service the legs and hip area). This was repaired by surgically removing the back of that vertebrae, carving away the sqished-out bone, and then bridging across the crushed vertebrae to L3 and L5 with some hardware.

Although a couple of nerves were ripped out completely, I am VERY fortunate not to have lost everything below my waist. A big scab on my chin that I discovered a week later indicates I hit that on something as well, but I don't remember that at all, nor did I feel any pain there.

The severity of the back injury would have been lessened by a harness with better back protection as I was using an old SupAir from the days when they did not have model names and did not come with any padding. I had purchased a 20cm foam pad that was sold as an accessory, but it altered the seating position of the harness to such an awkward state that I eschewed its use. The reserve was between me and the ground, but it is not very compressible.

The moral of the story is: Give flying your undivided attention: No daydreaming, jamming to your ipod, fixating on the scenery on the beach below, etc. Even having you eye glued to the vario, gps, or camera viewfinder is distracting you from something and increasing your risk more that you may realize. And don't commit the ultimate stupidity, landing on autopilot. There is no ILS for paragliders, much less an automated landing system.


Suicide said...

Thank you for sharing.

I thank the Lord that you are still with us and walking under your own power; however painful it may be.

You're right; we all let our attentions wander. We would all do well to be more mindful of our flying habits.

I was in the air when this accident happened; trying to land a tandem. I can support the idea that the conditions were "unusual." I'd even say "unfriendly." I must have made 50 S-Turns before I was able to get low enough to set-up for my landing.

I looked down; you were setting-up for your final approach. I turned away (yet another S-turn). I turned back, you were in the street.

I am interested to read what the pilots on the ground saw.

As I was on final approach, I found myself popped-up and about to over-shoot the LZ. In truth, I had a "less-than-perfect" landing. Luckily, neither my student nor I were injured.

I wish the same had been true for you.

I wish you only the best in your convalescence.


firedave said...

I am glad to hear you are up and kicking. maybe sometime soon we might actually see you up in the air again.

I have to admit that your story has me thinking about things we do as pilots, and some thoughts on them. As a pilot I often spend time pondering what exactly is going on over my head while flying.

A few pilots over the years have had a similar experience to yours, and my goal is to prevent it from happening to me. Here are a few thoughts along that line.

AUTOPILOT IS GOOD. You learn motor skills by repetition, so that you become automatic in what is the right input to your glider, and your mind is free to tend to the variables such as weather and terrain.
You don't go about driving your car ( or glider) thinking, I need two more pounds of brake pressure or I should steer 3 inches to the right, that is too many thoughts going on. This is a skill set that a new pilot needs to develop in order to be a safe pilot.

GEAR DOWN: I have said this one before, but I feel that back protection is pretty much good for little, always try to land on your feet.
I don't always do it, but at about 40' or less your feet should be beneath you, like you are standing up, I have often imagined how I would like to land from a major drop, and it is always PLF. I know reclined looks cooler, but it also hurts a lot more.
SUDDEN DROPS: It seems to me that there are only two ways to drop suddeny on your glider. Surges and spin/stalls.

Surges: Being too heavy in the brakes and then letting up causes the glider to surge ahead of you, while the pilot swings down and under to catch up with the glider. If you find the ground before you swing under the glider that can seem like a fall depending on the amount of glider surge.
Also, if the wind lulls suddenly, the glider being lighter will surge ahead of the pilot in much the same way as above. The pilot needs to react quickly, to keep the glider above them.

Spin/Stall: This is an example of all or part of the glider losing its airflow and stopping flying. An all to common example of this is the pilot on final deep in the brakes( no problem flying straight), and initiating a turn. The inside wing, which is now moving below stall speed, spins. The pilot gets rocked back, and falls out of the air onto their inside hip. If the pilot senses the spin and releaqses the brake too fast then you get a surge.
If you meet the ground before the spin starts dropping fast, or before or after the strong surge develops, then it is a normal landing ( albeit ugly) that go down everyday.
The normal landing flare is a momentary stall, completed at he correct moment.
A great example of glider control and situational awareness, was Jorge on his 69 at Crazy's a month or so ago. He took a collapse during a wingover at powerline height. It seems he just held on and rode the glider down parachutal into the rocks above the beach. If he pulled more brakes, he likely would have full stalled and landed on the rocks on his back. If he released the brakes, he likely would have dove face down into the rocks. As it turned out he landed fine.

I meant this comment to be in no way a critique of Berndt's accident. The guy has gobs of experience and I respect him as a pilot and all around good guy. I wasn't there, so I have no idea of what might have actually happened.

This is more of a general impression of what has happened at the Makapuu LZ, particularly on north wind days.

So to make my rant seem more like some type of lesson here is a recap.

Good landing habits: 1) Focus, but not fixated. 2) Gear down early, stand up in your harness. 3) Don't over control the glider. Go with the flow.

On second thought. Ignore this whole post. Experiment ( up high). Discover for yourself. Find your place in the sky.

Alex said...

Berndt, I sincerely appreciate your willingness to recall the details of your bad dream for the benefit of the rest of us. There is a lot of room for discussion here among our local pilots. Dave offered some excellent technical analysis. I would also be curious to hear input from others who were on the LZ that day, like Ken, Joey, and Nick. Jetflap Jeff could probably add some valuable insight to this discussion as well.

On days when the flow is more northerly than normal, whether from ambient wind or a sea breeze, we often see mechanical turbulence at the LZ as a result of Rabbit Island's direct upwind position. Also, the LZ is very short in that direction - I know the hang glider pilots can tell us what a challenging direction that can be. On those days we often see pilots approach the LZ from over Sea Life Park and the highway. I always try to keep two constructive options in mind in northerly conditions:

1. If there's any reason to expect that the LZ might be turbulent (either from visible wind lines or cats' paws on the water, or previous pilots' landings), then it's far safer to just land somewhere else, like at the Heiau. I would not want to test my active flying reflexes against the kind of turbulence that downed Jetflap or Berndt.

2. At Makapuu, it's possible to set up an approach over the water and the beach that replicates a north day's landing approach at Kahana, without every overflying Sea Life Park or the highway. You would never come in from behind the trees and highway at Kahana - imagine the same downwind no-fly zone at Makapuu, and make more of a crabbing approach from over the water and the beach.

Berndt, thanks again for your great insights. I have enjoyed knowing you and flying with you very much, and I hope you will keep in touch whether or not you choose to get airborne again. Of course I hope you can eventually rationalize flying again. I know it's a very personal decision, and I know you already have zillions of great flying memories to last your whole life. I've shared a few with you - I am still thinking about that great flight we had at Tantalus that day. I hope there's room for a few more good memories like that.

launch potato said...

I hope your doc has checked your vitamin B12 level in a blood test - something that is vital for nerve health and made a big difference to me. I had some nerve damage just drift worse over recent years, until a blood test led my doc to prescribe megadoses of B12 (1000mcg?).

Believe your doc or even random internet pages before me, but as I understand it B12 is unusual in that overdose doesn't hurt. Normal B12 pills are ridiculously weak, but the horse sized ones are about the same price. The first big one gave me notable results in a few hours, then the rest gave diminishing returns but at least in the right direction.

May be of no use if your B12 level is OK to begin with, but could really help if you are low. Low levels reputed to lead to temporary or permanent nerve damage, and I now am guessing I recognize the symptoms in some slow moving elderly, etc.

I'll soon be heading to a more forgiving hill than MPU to check out the results...

Brazilian Ray said...

Berndt, thanks for sharing your experience. It always help us to be humble and responsible about the way we fly.

A note on Dave's comment: I think we are talking about 2 levels of "autopilot"... Berndt is more like on an airplane where the pilot switch it on and leave the cockpit. (once, driving to town from aiea I jumped on H3 because I was on "autopilot" not thinking I wanted to go to town instead of the windward side... my mind just wasn't there). Keep focused!
Dave in the other hand is more on a subtle level of muscle memory that is very important and only comes with a LOT of practice, time and experience (that is why we kite so much). It is when you RESPOND with an action in a fraction of a second without hesitation. It is not a reaction (freezing could be a reaction. Or to use Dave's example, if Jorge had used more pressure on the brakes or let it out). On a Response you know what to do and you do it right because you've been there before, heard from someone or read it on a book or magazine. You have that experience and answer in your brain and you don't have to ask yourself "what do I do now?".
My point is: both are right, and most of all: listen to them!! Practice a lot, develop the muscle memory to fly in (Dave's) autopilot but don't turn off your brain. Put your landing gear down early (get it "out of the way" by being ready ;)
Practice kitting (A LOT)! Reverse AND forward.

Be safe and have fun, ALOHA

Brazilian Ray

Nick said...

I’m really glad that you’re recovering nicely. The two best witnesses to the accident are probably Joey and I since we were both on the LZ watching you and Suicide make your approaches. Feb 22 seems like a distant, hazy memory right now…must be getting old! However this is what I wrote in my flight log for that day… “Great day for 1st flight after a long time! Beautiful launch and flight, light and north, landed a little faster than I wanted to. Berndt crashed onto the road during landing, tried to hook a turn to the left too aggressively. Joey, Suicide w/ tandem, Jetflap, Frank, Ken were there. Reaper, Sony came later because of Berndt.” I believe it was very much the same scenario as Jetflap’s accident…North conditions, left turn… except that this day had very light winds. From my perspective, your last two S-turns were “aggressive”, enough so that Joey and I commented upon them moments before the accident. On your last left S-turn to final, you hooked it around so fast that the glider stalled, you took a approx 50-70% collapse. (I believe it was the left-hand wing, not entirely sure) and fell straight down about 15 feet.

After you fell, Joey and I rushed into the road to take control of the situation. He stopped traffic and got your wing off the road and I dragged you off the road to the side as carefully as I could, trying to keep you in your current posture. Joey instructed a bystander at the LZ to call 911. The timing of this accident was supremely ironic as we had just wax and waned with the bystanders about how safe the sport could be! While we were still tending to you, Suicide came within inches of crashing into the stone wall with a tandem passenger and we had to stop traffic again to clear his canopy from the wall and road. This was clearly not a good day for Oahu pilots. Those bystanders will most likely NOT be taking up the sport of paragliding.

Of course you know how lucky you are, very much like all of us. The fact that there were no cars coming in BOTH lanes is 2 of your 9 lives used up. There’s no question to your skills and experience given the vast number of hours and years you have been flying accident-free. I chalk this up to the unforgiving nature of flying. One “aw shit” wipes out a 1000 “atta boys”.

Like Berndt said, don’t fly on autopilot (different than reflexes). In the Air Force, we disengage autopilot at 200 ft AGL in most cases  Additionally, don’t setup to land at MPU LZ over the road…it’s bad for you and bad for the cars that could be distracted.


volfik said...

Thanks Berndt for going back to your worst nightmare, and everyone for comments. Great lesson!


nightshift said...

Berndt, all pilots have learned a lesson from you. Now, if only most of us will put it into practice!
In northerly conditions the MPU LZ is a postage stamp. Add rotor from large highway vehicles, then a slightly miscalculated low approach, and you have a recipe for disaster. I know. I scared the bejesus out of Sideshow Bob a few months ago on a north approach. Just missed the wall. I'll never do that again. Now I crab down my familiar, long grassy runway hugging the guardrail. A gentle left turn at the end, flare...... then a perfect Capt Kirk roll. ( just once so far). Does it really matter how close you land to the "beer circle"? Not to me.
Heal soon, Berndt. Let's get you back in the air.