Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lessons on Humble Pie

This will not be a typical funny story, but one that you should read and think about the next time you consider going downrange. I have only been flying for a year, but I have had the privilege of being tutored by some of the best pilots we have. Books and words can only give you the knowledge, but oftentimes you have to experience situations to really make them stick. Injuries are the usual penalty for a failed lesson, and my hope is that this little ditty will keep others from throwing themselves into a bad situation.

On Saturday, January 16, 2010, I flew a personal record epic flight, Makapuu to Kahana. The next day I buzzed out to Green Walls, cloud surfed over to Olomana and then back to the Makapuu LZ.

The lesson starts now at Makapuu on the MLK Day holiday.

-Launched from Crazy Man in moderate wind, very good launch.

-Benched up quick over Sea Life park, first indicator of conditions, but appeared ok, others were already downrange.

Lesson 1: Just because others are already down there, doesn't mean it is still good.

I benched up fairly quick: Indicating it is strong, stick to this ridge, but first check penetration, look for direction indicators and use GPS.

-Immediately headed for the point of turn to Waimanalo. Noticed wind was changing to the north more, so tried to predict which ridge faces would have lift.

Lesson 2: Did not check penetration at this point, not sure if it was strong but do not remember checking penetration. Can not emphasize this enough, I was too eager to catch up to everyone so I did not waste time checking penetration.

-Headed across Waimanalo to Green Walls turn. It was not as easy as the other 2 days. Wonder why, but did I check, don't think so, just figured it was a little more north than the last 2 days, which was right but still caution was out the door.

Lesson 3: During whole flight across Waimanalo did not really check penetration but still felt ok, again always check penetration. This means head out away from the lift into the wind to check for forward motion. My comfort is 8 miles an hour into the wind on glide anything less will raise some caution flags. I am thinking of upping that to at least 10 before any XC for a long while. These comfort zones are personal and will depend on experience, wing rating, your weight in glider and maybe a number of other items. Don't let anyone tell you it's perfect, come on down.

-Flight down Green Walls was lower than the ridge, hmmm, I was higher the other days. Direction indication again moving North, lift came at the end to make it to the Pali.

Lesson 4: I will say this a million times in hopes that I will remember and you will too. Check your DAMN penetration. Ya, it takes time off your score but the alternatives don't let you fly the next day or ever.

-Pali lift was awesome. Got up really fast, noticed Alex lagging lower and pushing out front. Scrappy radioed it is bumpy and going back at 3200'.

Lesson 5: Lift was way better than the other day, which means what? The wind is stronger. Holy crap, if there is a pilot with tons of experience on a faster glider low and in front of you, what the hell are you thinking. Get in front of him and lower if you have to. Another awesome pilot tells you he is going back and rocking at 3200', that should set your elevation way below that even though cloud base appeared higher. Oh, and if you are that experienced pilot, and you see someone of any caliber behind and higher a radioed suggestion to start thinking would be good.

-Crossed the Pali, seemed ok still, did not check penetration before heading across, but did not experience any notable drift during soar across to LikeLike.

Lesson 6: Check penetration before any further pushes.

-H3 area gave its first of many ignored indicators: Alex went into land, Jared did a crazy save to a patch below the tunnels of H3, and again Scrappy radioed from next bowl over, "Backwards and rocky at 3000'". I was only at 2500' but was maintaining and headed to next bowl.

Lesson 7: If a better pilot, Alex, goes in to land and it takes him forever to get to the LZ due to lack of forward speed on speed bar too, you already screwed up. Jared, of course, should not be used as any indicator. Scrappy had now lowered the backwards elevation to 3000'.

-The next bowl I was low around 2100', maybe even 1900', I did look for LZ spots, but did not check penetration to see if I could even get there. I headed across the bowl to catch up to Scrappy, who could not see me due to being so low. I was far enough, or so I thought, from the face of the ridge, but was not getting any beeps, so I crabbed towards the face until I heard the first beep. I radioed to Scrappy that I am benching up on the bowl next to you, be there in a minute so I can follow you to Hygienics.

Lesson 8: Again, no penetration check, no drift check (when going any angle from the wind, direction check, using GPS, or hell just look at the other side of the bowl or the ground, and if you are going towards the face or away from the wind immediately turn into the wind and do what! Repeat after me "CHECK PENETRATION"! If you are not getting any, you're done, messed up, try to go land out.

-Now the blow that makes this a lesson worth listening to. I had gotten that one little beep, yaaaah, so I looked for more by creeping into the bowl, still far enough away but still no penetration check. I was still at an angle away from the wind, not sure, but it may have been 45 degrees or more, when I got hit with the most uplifting surge I have had.

I turned into the wind of course, using right break, which surged me even harder up. Not sure what elevation I was at when it hit, but when I turned I was at 3200', looking at a cloud just barely over my head. Ok, speed bar got jumped on instantly, finally I check forward penetration, way too fetching late, it was about 1 mile per hour to the north, and I was still going up, and the cloud grabbed me.

I knew big ears would create more drag but I had to get out of these clouds. Looked down, compass at NORTH, GPS ground speed SW, I was going backwards, I figured I was over the top of the ridge, 3700', so pulled big ears, and when I came out I was looking down at the back of ridge. I released big ears and pushed hard on speed bar, too late, I am done for.

I tried for a slight instant to get what elevation I could, but started near clouds again and opted to turn and burn. "May Day, May Day, going over the back, call if can". That was my last radio transmission.

The ride down the back was horrendous, I can't explain it other than when you watch in a movie a car going over a cliff from the drivers point of view, I was going to crash.

The first seconds were peaceful, thank God, so I could look around to get my bearings, I could see the twin towers of Pearl City off in the distance, ok, I am in that valley, not sure what one, but in an unpopulated, tree filled jungle.

Peacefulness ended abruptly as I got thrown to the right, to the left, I was looking at my partially balled up wing below me, oh shoot, throw reserve, then I swung back under it and it re-opened. I will be staying on a 1-2 for a long time, it saved my ass.

This washing machine stuff happened for what seemed hours, but I know were only minutes, until I got low and somewhat out of the turbulence. Now I was picking trees. I got a few little thermal/ratty air bumps and even stayed in one until I got back in the rotor, but it was enough to get me over the first 2 sets of power lines. I thought "Wow, glad not to be in power lines" but apparently the sky gods had another lesson for me.

I was approaching another set of power lines, I was not going over this one, not on glide. I hit a few bumps and started some turns to look for any gift I could, but the cupboard was bare, I had to go under.

These lines were way above the tree line, sorry I did not look at GPS anymore, concentration was out front and side to side. I got low and soared underneath with big ears ready to go if any lift did appear.

Made it through and was now looking for a tree, a low one preferably, I could see a stream bed below, way below. I hooked my left tip into a tree and did the George of the Jungle whip into the canopy of the tree while applying brakes on the right side to ease the impact. I was now 'Strange Fruit' at 35' in the air. Called Alex and stated I am ok, got to get out of tree, can't get GPS until on ground. I am hiking out, call off Rescue.

I had to swing to the tree to unhook, checked out my path to the ground it was decent so I lowered my gear. When I got to the ground again called Alex to state ok, hiking out, canopy way too thick, no GPS reception, no visual for helicopter either. Then down the trail where cell phone was spotty to no good.

Lesson 9: Always leave your tracking on when using the GPS, you can always give the last coordinates. Mine was not on.

About a mile or two out, I got to a nursery where I was met by unfriendly workers who are against visitors on their private property. After explaining my situation the moods all swung, and they were more than helpful. Thomas, the owner, and Terrance, one of his workers, gave me a ride to Grace's and then helped me the next morning to recover my wing. Those guys were great, Thomas said to stop by for a cup of coffee, but next time ring the door bell, he was kidding, no door bell. But he did say use the front door not the back.

I lucked out, no injuries, no loss of gear. Totally a lesson to be learned and my extreme hopes that everyone will take heed. Check your penetration.

Lesson 10: Equipment to add to my collection, lighter, headlamp flashlight, first aid tape. Small section of rope. Hopefully never to have to use.

ATTENTION All Pilots of Experience, near and far, I would like comments added to this story. Things I may have missed other than the obvious and stated. Don't hold back, let me have it. I would like personal mishaps noted as well with damage details, I got lucky but Blood & Money seem to sit harder in the memory. I have talked to a few pilots who are going to add their words of Wisdom & Gory Details of Defeat. I hope to print this up eventually and make other future down range pilots read this as How to Fly XC and Live to Tell About It.


nightshift said...

Lesson learned, Thom. We've all learned one or two. But you are better off than many because of your instant introspection and contriteness. There are way too many pilots out there who wouldn't have a clue what went wrong, and they couldn't care less.
Extra equipment I carry besides my headlamp: dental floss (to lower down to rescuers to attach rope) and a strobe light.

Joey said...

Thom, thanks for sharing your awesome and yet humbling experience with the rest of us. Lessons learned the hard way like this one are sometimes the best way to open our eyes to complacency or that "intermediate syndrome" that we all experience at some point in our flying thanks for that unfortunate reminder and the need to heed ALL indicators!
As a professional aviator in the Navy, much of our emergency procedures are written in blood, and thankfully yours are not and you are still here to share your thoughts!!
Sounds like you have a pretty good grasp on where things started to get away from ya, just take a step back, learn from your mistakes and get back in the saddle :)

~ Joey

Waianae Jim said...

Thanks for sharing your experience Thom, I'm sure it will help me to remind myself to check my conditions surroundings, and available indicators. I had a couple misjudgments myself the same day - first when I launched from Crazies in super light conditions and landed on the rocks below Manics, and again on the downrange flight when I reached Hygienic store area. Up to that point my flight had been non-eventful, the easiest downranger to there for me yet. So I pushed across the Valley a bit farther than I'd ventured before, and got slammed down by some serious sink. I was too low to try to get back across the valley and bench back up to make the jump to the ball field by the store, but lucky enough to make it just short of the Kahalu'u elementary school and land in a farmer named J.C's field riding full speed bar on my Venus II. He was kind enough to let me fold up in his driveway. Then I hiked down the road and met Joey. I too was misfocused, thinking I could at least tie your record flight to Kahana on that day, and was overly aggressive in pursuing that goal.

Waianae Jim said...

The few pics I took on the downrange trip are here:

MauiDoug said...

This is one story I am really glad to be reading. It was such a relief hearing that you were down safe. I'm now also going to fly with a spare cell phone battery. That cell phone could be a life saver. I was so happy to hear Alex having a conversation with you on it. Thank God that you were able to walk away and now share your new found wisdom with us all.


DaveZ said...

Great story, and a good lesson for any pilot to learn from. Glad you came out of it ok!

JaysonB said...

VERY glad that your OTB adventure turned out for the best Thom.

Years ago on my very first downrange flight from Makapuu, I found myself checking my GPS for groundspeed frequently as, up to that point in my flying careedr, XC flights had more to do with thermal climbing and gliding than wind and ridge lift.

With that information, I was able to keep a safe forward penetration margin and made it to just shy of the Pyramid AND back to Makapuu!

As a Senior Paragliding Instructor and Tandem pilot from Canada, my first comment to add is for any aspiring downrange pilot to invest in a GPS or Integrated Vario-GPS. Relying on other pilots and visual cues are important and helpful, but personal bearing and groundspeed information is crucial.

My second comment reiterates what Joey mentioned about 'Intermediate Syndrome'.
It is all too common for newer pilots to have their passion and excitement get the better of their judgement.

You asked for a personal story. Here goes:
Over 10 years ago, I was freshly off the plane having lived 'down under' for a year where I got my P2 equivalent. I used to live in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia (most National and Provincial events are held there) and thought I'd be a para-bum for the summer and fly as many new sites as I could.

I hooked up with some hangies who were going to fly a site called Mara and remember being crammed into the back of a truck with sweaty, dirty older dudes who glared at me the entire 3000' vertical drive up to launch.

Anyway, it was nice and sunny on launch but we could see a storm one valley over, complete with forked lightning. Wind was good, albeit brisk and I was keen. The hangies didn't make a move to unload their gear but I laid out and took to the air, getting parked soon afterwards.

I'd never really used my speed bar before and didn't have a GPS (what was that?). The wind then came howling down the valley and I turned into it and fixated on making the LZ. Minutes passed and I didn't really lose any height nor make any forward progress. NOT fun.

Should I have even launched?
Obviously not.

Did I turn downwind and use my altitude to go find an alternative LZ?

I just parked and prayed and eventually ended up short, crashing down through some trees until finally getting hung up, stopping literally 2 feet above the edge of a river.

I was very rattled and wanted to quit the sport I thought had finally become a part of my life. Physically I was completely fine.

That was a powerful lesson about penetration into wind and, like you Thom, one that I vowed never to forget.

My 2 cents,

Brazilian Ray said...

Glad you're ok! :) Thanks for sharing the story! I have been over the back twice and it'aint funny! You started your story recommending thinking about it before considering going downrange, I would go even further... consider it before launching! you don't need to be going downrange for it to happen. I've seen a pilot going (immediately) straight from launch to OTB at makapuu, from tomato. Other pilots in the air should not be an indicator of fly-ability: they could be flying heavy in their wings or a faster glider than yours, there are lots of variables! Make sure to find your comfort zone and be cautious when pushing the envelope.
For equipment, I also carry dental floss and I'd would recommend having a hook knife handy. Here is the USHPA Recommended emergency procedures outline:
and here is a good article:

Also, having your track log turned on on your GPS will allow you to go back to your last saved location (very likely to be right above your head, above the tree canopy line) and also "see" where you started drifting backwards and have an idea where the range is, very useful if you are inside a cloud and can't see it.

Flying paragliders is the greatest thing but it can go from a marvelous "natural high" to "mommy!!!" in a split of a second. Conditions are changing all the time but we should always be cautious!

Glad you're ok, buddy! I am sure this will make you a better pilot. Looking forward to follow you to an amazing distant safe LZ sometime soon!
Brazilian Ray

Doug said...

Great post, we all need to be introspective and critical of our flying and the decisions we make while in the air. We are not playing a video game and the consequences are real. As you expand your XC flying you should be able to look back on a flight and understand which decisions were good ones and which ones were bad. I often land wishing I made a different decision even tho while flying I made that decision because it was safer than another one, then after the disappointment of landing wears off I can be honest about the decision and again see the reason for it. Every flight has a lesson in it! You may have to look for it but it is there, find it and fly better the next time. I think one of the reasons paragliding is so interesting is that there is SO MUCH TO LEARN.

Anonymous said...

Ditto Ike

Gravity said...

Hey Sidehill,
Great flight the day before dude. Ya, I would say you have intermediate syndrome. But, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, or hopefully smarter.
Fortunately for me I have NEVER been OTB. So, all I can say is either I'm fatter than you or I just think before I leap more than most.
If you launched from Crazy Man's launch, then you know its windy enough to get you airborne from 60' off of the beach. Manic's is just as bad. Why wouldn't you think that it wouldn't get too windy downrange at the flick of a switch.
We never went downrange unless we launched from Cactus. Remember your lessons on wind gradients? Venturi's, etc. It all its gets stronger with altitude.
Play it safe and think about where your going before you leap into the air.

Tis' better to wish you were in the air, than wishing you were on the ground........!

PS Use a GPS!

Thom said...

I did have a GPS & a compass and there is a new NOTE on the toe of each boot. "Check" on the left "Penetrate" on the right.

DaveZ said...

NOTE on the toe of each boot. "Check" on the left "Penetrate" on the right.


Brazilian Ray said...

Can't wait to see pictures with the classic boots in and the words "check penetration"!


Anonymous said...

Mad Dog & Alex have already had a preview, I got to get back in the saddle and get a picture of the boots.


Anonymous said...


Takes a big man to write up an incident like that. Thanks for your candor and sharing of the mistakes that lead up to it. Every pilot, no matter how long in the air, can learn from this.

I have been very luck with two incidents in my flying career that could have resulted in an unhappy ending. Thanks for making me think again about how I fly and to keep the adrenaline in check. I rode the gondola down yesterday from Aiguillie du Midi when the situation was not perfect... your story was in the back of my head and helped to persuade me to make the right decision.

Fly on, Jon

Jack Brown said...

Hey Thom,
The challenge as I see it, is to recognize when you as a pilot are becoming distracted. I'm not talking about the obvious distractions like the approaching squall or whitecaps. We're generally pretty good at recognizing the obvious..... Distractions in aviation manifest themselves in many different ways, and sometimes creep up on us so discreetly that we never see it coming. The worst crash I've had on a paraglider came on one of the most epic looking days I'd ever seen in Alaska... the day when our site altitude record went down. The excitment of a great flight to come.. I'll never forget watching my son get literally yarded all the way to cloud base just doing S turns in front of launch.... So instead of taking the careful, conservative path being aware of just how strong the day really was, my judgement became clouded by the excitment of what might be.... Whenever I'm preparing to launch on a great looking race day somewhere, I try and force myself to take a 'safety pause' and make sure I'm not being distracted by the excitment of this incredible thing we get to do... A "positive" distraction can be just as effective in clouding your judgement and masking your intuition (check penetration) as a negative one. It's no easy task to pick up on this sometimes...

Glad your OK and thanks for the great story!