Monday, September 21, 2009

Some lessons from Bonnie's adventure

I'm glad you're okay, Bonnie - thanks for the detailed account. I started to write a comment on your exciting article, and then I realized it was getting way too long. So here is my long comment on your report, and I hope others will continue to add their thoughts and advice.

(By the way, Bonnie, or anyone else who doesn't already have a Wind Lines blog account, please write to and I'll send you an invite to post articles under your own name.)

I hope Bonnie's adventure will be as educational (both for her and for others) as it was suspenseful and entertaining to read. There are a quite a few great lessons to be learned from it. Also, for Bonnie or anyone else who has an adventure like this and doesn't mind the official scrutiny, I encourage you to submit your report on the USHPA website so the safety wizards can analyze it in minute detail, and then publish their analysis in the magazine for the benefit of a wider audience. I hope that anyone who has an incident or close call will consider sharing their reports on the USHPA website - we all appreciate reading your stories on Wind Lines, but think of how much more infamy you can earn with a national audience!

As Ray says, many of us have "been there" and "done that" with varying degrees of success and subsequent lessons learned. Here is my two cents worth of safety advice for newer pilots who might be wondering what they should take away from an incident like this:


Getting blown over the back is potentially very dangerous - while many pilots have escaped injury after getting sucked over, some have sustained serious injuries to themselves and their gear. In addition to the examples Pete listed, I remember one of our pilots was hospitalized after crashing at the golf course, and another broke his ankle as he tried to spiral down behind Cactus. Blowing over the back is not a risk we want to take lightly.

First, remember that everyone has a different upper range of wind speeds in which they should consider flying (or launching), at their current level of development. At Makapuu, any day where there are whitecaps, or people are all launching from Crazies, or staying low in the bowl, means it's probably a strong day.

If we do decide to launch and fly on a stronger day, we need to have a basic idea of how close we can safely fly near the ridge in various locations, and also how high it's safe to go. Staying low and out front on those stronger days is always the most conservative option. The higher we go, the further out front we need to stay.

Plenty of very good pilots have been caught off guard getting too close to the venturi areas above Cactus, Manics and Three Poles on days like that. It takes some experience to get a sense of where and how much the wind is accelerating over the terrain, so let's take it slowly, and give ourselves plenty of space while we're new - let the more experienced pilots on faster wings be the guinea pigs for high wind experiments close to the ridge.

Another point: on nice easy flying days, it's worth spending some time to make sure our speed bars can reach their full extension, pulley to pulley. One extra mile per hour could make the difference and get us back out front.

Instructor Jeff Greenbaum of San Francisco has put together an excellent section on avoiding blowback in the site guide for the Dumps: [click here]. It's very good reading even if some parts are site-specific. Maybe we could come up with something similar for Makapuu.


If we find we are blowing backwards, even with our speed bar fully engaged, there are a couple of options. We should not pull big ears in an effort to get ourselves lower - the drag associated with big ears will actually send us backwards faster even as we are descending. Although we may not be able to push forward straight into the wind, sometimes it's possible to crab diagonally to the wind and make at least lateral progress toward an area of the ridge where there is less acceleration, and we can possibly punch out from there.

At some ridges we might be able to reach the edge of the ridge and allow ourselves to be blown around the corner or a low section, for a landing that is not directly behind the highest part of the ridge, and we may avoid the worst of the rotor. Our last best option is to realize our predicament early enough to get as high as possible as we're blowing back before turning downwind to outrace the rotor that we know is below us. This can be a bit complicated at a place like Makapuu, where on a strong day we can quickly be blown out over the water on the other side.


If we aren't able to overfly the rotor, and we find ourselves in the worst part of the washing machine behind a ridge, where the air can often be churning violently and going down fast, it will often take some very precisely timed active flying, with much larger brake inputs than usual, to keep our wings over our heads all the way to the ground. We may find ourselves in an improvised SIV clinic - which is a good reason for us to consider attending some real SIV clinics first, to practice that kind of active wing control.

Another point, where I may have a slight difference of opinion with Pete's excellent advice above: for any of us except for perhaps the most inexperienced students, we shouldn't automatically throw our reserves just because we're in extremely rough turbulence. If I threw my reserve every time I found myself in air where I didn't like what was happening to me, I'd probably need a new reserve every few months just from the UV exposure. Our reserve chutes are a last resort - they are not a guarantee of a safe escape from rotor turbulence or anything else. They're not even guaranteed to deploy properly every time. (Although as Pete often reminds us, we can improve our odds by having our reserves repacked often, and by practicing our deployments just before repacking. Many pilots have figured out in practice sessions that their reserves are undeployable for various reasons.)

Even if our deployment is successful, remember the tradeoff we make when we toss our reserves before our gliders are truly out of our control. Once we are descending under reserve, we have given up the option of steering to avoid power lines, buildings or roads, and we won't be able to flare to slow down our final approach. We need to know how to mitigate the risks of downplaning by disabling our gliders, and to be ready for a good practiced PLF upon impact.

Let's save the reserve tosses for those truly desperate situations where we have already lost control of our wings, whether due to riser twists, cravatted spirals, or falling through our lines and getting tangled up. And of course, if we are in the kind of turbulence where we see our wings directly below us, well, holy crap, let's hope we can get those reserves out in a nanosecond. But before that happens, if our wings are still even reasonably capable of flying under our control, and they're located above us, we're often going to be better off flying them actively all the way down - at least we'll have a chance of choosing which tree to crash-land in!

As Pete mentioned, he has thrown his laundry successfully after losing control of his glider, as have many others. But we also know of incidents where people could not successfully deploy them, or where there were complications with the deployment that made the situation worse, or where people drifted into serious danger. Reserves are a last resort that carry their own special risks - they don't get you out of jail free. I hope the lesson we learn from those who have needed them is not that we should throw them anytime we are uncomfortable, but rather how we can avoid those dire situations in the first place. This reminds me of another serious danger with reserves: they can sometimes deploy accidentally when we're near the terrain - this is why Pete often reminds us to do a reserve pin check before launching.

Most of us will surely know when we are at the point where we need our last resort - I don't think we'll need much extra encouragement to toss. However, we do see occasional examples of people resisting the urge, especially from our more experienced pilots. The least controversial advice about throwing our reserves is this: we should not hesitate for a moment to attempt a deployment if our gliders are already descending uncontrollably. At that point, we truly do need to rely on our last resort. Many pilots have waited too long and run out of time, hoping they could manage to get their gliders flying again. Once our gliders are unflyable, even if we're not super high, we should throw our laundry as quickly as possible - we're never too low to throw in those situations.


As Ray points out, since we fly near the water here at all our sites, we need to be aware of the risk of accidentally landing there. It may look like a nice soft place to land, but it's potentially very hazardous, and we're almost always better off aiming for dry land if we can. (I say almost always because there is inevitably a situation where the water is better - compared to, say, hot lava, or a beachfront preserve of hungry lions, or a busy ten lane highway).

In a crash on dry land, we do run the risk of sustaining injuries, but in a water landing there is pretty much only one risk, and it's the ultimate one. Many pilots have landed in the water and survived, but the survival rate for emergency water landings is worse than for those on dry land. Please don't take water landings lightly - many of us have survived them, but the odds are just not acceptable. Water that is moving, due to wind or current or waves, is the most dangerous, but people have also drowned even after crashing in calm water.

Sometimes it's possible to crab into shore for a downwind or otherwise less than perfect landing, possibly aiming for a bit of terrain that's not underwater, like a tree, or a less hospitable stretch of shoreline, even if it's not one we'd normally aim for. Any dry land situation is generally going to be preferable to the water itself. In the same article as cited above, in the pilots' guide for the Dumps site in San Francisco, instructor Jeff Greenbaum has included an excellent section on the risks of water landings: [click here].


If we are definitely going to have to land in the water, and we have time and the presence of mind to prepare for it, we should follow Pete's advice and try to detach our leg and chest straps in order to slip out just before we splash in. After you splash in, detaching from your gear and swimming away should be your top priority. As Bonnie found out, we want to avoid getting near our gliders in the water - the risk of entanglement is very high.

This is why we encourage pilots to carry a good hook knife that they can reach easily, attached with a lanyard so they don't get lost in the heat of battle. No one wants to contemplate slicing their valuable gear, but to save our own skins we need to be prepared to throw our gear under the bus (speaking figuratively of course).

Another risk is that the air in the back of our harnesses will cause them to hold us face down in the water and make it difficult to keep our heads out. Some pilots wear a life vest they can inflate in such a situation if they know they'll be flying over or near water. Probably not a bad idea.

I think I've just scratched the surface of this one. I'm sure there are more good lessons to be drawn from Bonnie's mishap - I hope others will feel free to join the discussion with their thoughts and advice. Again, I'm glad you're okay, Bonnie, and that you and your glider came out of this in one piece. I am glad your enthusiasm for flying wasn't dampened by your dip in the drink. By now Reaper must realize that with you he has truly created a Bonster!

1 comment:

DaveZ said...

Great reading Alex. Thank you (and Bonnie, too) for sharing your thoughts and experience. We had an intermediate pilot drown at the Dumps earlier this year, so I want to reiterate the warnings about landing in the water, particularly near the surf. Even landing in ankle deep water near a medium shorebreak can be very dangerous.

One point about wearing a life vest too, you still need to get away from the gear immediately. The buoyancy they provide is no match for the force of waves puling on your wing and lines.

Hope we can all stay high and dry. Cheers!