Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Worst Bad decision

I showed up at KNA today after work to find Mad Dog going for his first bay crossing attempt, followed soon by Alex. Maui Doug was on the beach after a light bomb out, and we decided to hike up for a flight. It looked like a great day to fly! Maui said that it had been light when he launched. While we were hiking up to regular high launch, Mad Dog made his bay crossing. He crossed low and proclaimed that it was working on the bowl on the other side.

Maui and I scanned the skies and found Alex skied out over Pu'u Piei. He also made the bay crossing and Maui and I watched as he too found lift on the front little ridge of anti-Kahana. He seemed to be going up well, so Maui and I began to break out our gear for our own flights. A few minutes later, we heard Alex come over the radio calling a close encounter with some rotor above the fishpond. We looked to see him on the beach past the fishpond and the stream, but not by much.

Alex let us know that he had tried to work a small thermal on the front side of anti-Kahana to no good effect and had had to bail to the beach. Having spent some time at KNA already, he decided to pack it in and go home. Meanwhile, back on the farm, Mad Dog had been cruising way back into the valley just past the first ridge and had skied out.

Maui and I launched into beautiful steady 12mph winds from high regular launch. I worked my way up to 2400 working to get to 2600 over Pu'u Piei and waiting for Mad Dog, Maui, Bonnie, and Carlos to join me for some sweet XC (or more appropriately for us to join Mad Dog). The weather looked perfect for a trip to Pounders! Carlos unfortunately landed in a tree just out from launch, and Bonnie was still on her way up the trail.

Mad Dog made his way back and benched up beside me. A little while later, he announced that he intended to head across and after a little chatter, we decided that I would follow Mad Dog and that Maui would wait to escort Bonnie and Carlos if they could make it in time. So, having gained a respectable 2600, I set off following Mad Dog's general line and we tracked over to Punalu'u ridge. The ridge was working and it was on! Mad Dog and I scooted on up to 3000' (he went even higher up in the back) and I began to push out on glide for Pounders. Accidents are just a chain of bad-decisions that come to their inevitable conclusion. Upon reflection I should have chosen a more outside line (Mad Dog kept telling me to stay out front), but that was not my worst bad decision for the day, just my first.

I have to admit, I had the VERY BEST XC flight of my short flying career! At three grand with high cloud-base I could see Haleiwa and it was beautiful! My tack to Pounders was good, but a little deep. As Mad Dog and I approached Pounders we decided that we had it on glide to go further. I elected to head for BYU and Mad Dog elected to head for the beach. As I got above the main campus, I decided that I was going to line up at the back for a nice upwind tack that would bring me in to land at BYU (the main field is large and free of obstacles). As I approached the back of the main field at BYU, I looked and saw that I was on glide to land at a nice ballpark just on the other side of the Mormon Temple--I instantly decided to stay on glide as there were still several options open for me as good LZ's (and I was caught up in the experience). This instant decision to change from an excellent LZ (one that I knew from riding my bike there, that had no major encumbrances from power lines, trees, or structures) to an unknown LZ was also a bad decision, but also not my worst bad decision for the day.

I was good on glide to the ballpark that I had spotted previously when I noticed that a baseball game was in play. This pretty much eliminated the ball field as a good LZ, and I was left with two or three options. One was a swampy area behind tall trees--bad call, definite rotor. Another was a nice set of fields that I was also familiar with--there were some upwind and downwind trees, but the field was large and long (not a bad option). The third option was a lot, just this side of the ball park. It was smaller, and had the advantages of power-lines, coconut trees, hedges, buildings just upwind, and a nice chain link fence that tracked upwind and to the right. I choose (poorly) to select this lot as my LZ. This was still not my worst decision of the day.

As I came in on glide, the air got turbulent (mmmm...could be the buildings, trees, power lines, and hedges may have had their effect on the laminar flow). I knew to expect some level of rotor. As I lined up on the field (from the left side downwind, another bad decision, should have crabbed), I felt that I needed to get out in front of the power lines. So I gave it a little speedbar, began to sink and to move upwind. I decided to let up on bar quickly as I did not want to run out of room (just wanted to be clear of the power-lines). I moved upwind into the center of the park, and got too far upwind. I now felt like I was in danger of landing on the fence or in the adjacent parking lot (either of which would probably have been preferable to my actual landing).

In my fixation to land in the field, I made a bad decision--this one WAS my Worst Bad Decision of the day. My reasoning was that I preferred to land in the soft grass rather than risk the fence, blacktop, light poles and sidewalks in front of me, plus in retrospect I really believe that I was fixated on landing in my chosen LZ (stupid, I know). So, at treetop, I initiated a hard right (downwind) turn--hoping to pull it mostly around and back into the wind. This decision changed all of my previous options. I now had the option of committing to the turn or to flying headlong into the previously mentioned power lines/power pole/tree/hedge combination. I committed! I buried the right break 10 feet up and slingshotted myself into the ground (according to my gps, I went from 12mph to 30mph to zero mph all in about 10 seconds). Thankfully it was only a glancing blow. I had managed to pull around enough to be fairly horizontal when I hit and I rolled with it and managed to collapse my wing (Mad Dog said he saw my wing go negative--I think this happened right when I hit the ground).

This was the best XC flight that I have yet had, and it almost ended in disaster because I made a series of bad decisions. Why I made the decisions I made deserves introspection. On some level I was not ready to end the flight, and I was over confident in my abilities to land in a new LZ. I have had little experience in landing in and handling rotor. I deliberately flew past a perfectly good LZ that I was familiar with from ground level--for (what) an extra quarter mile of flight? STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!

I feel very fortunate to have come through this with only bumps and bruises.  Please don't make the same kind of mistakes I did. Break the chain of bad decisions early in the cycle and you will be a better and safer pilot for it.

Thanks to Mad Dog for immediately being on the radio to see if I was ok, and to Jenine for the pickup and transfer back to KNA. Rounding out the day, Maui had a great XC to Laie, Carlos came out of his tree landing safely, and Bonnie got in a nice after work flight.

[Click here to see the GPS track]


P.S. As an aside, the worst lick I took coming in was under my right eye.  My open frame sunglasses bit me.  From now on, I think I might remove them before landing--Mad Dog said he takes his off in order to make sure he can see everything.  I think that will be my new routine. I posted the last four minutes (that I had on video) of my flight unedited for review, linked to the image at the top of this story. You can see how quickly I made the bad decision to overfly the better landing option.


JeffMc said...

Man, what a cliffhanger of a video! Wish you had the ending in there.

Duck I learned this the hard way too... With very little exception "once you're on final, you're on final". Pick your LZ early and don't deviate.

Also - those little last minute adjustment S-turns you need to dial in a tight landing... try to use more weight shift and less brake. Not only to initiate the turn, but also to dampen the resulting pendulum when you come back out. Using all brake is going to make the wing dive, speed up, and then pendulum (a bad combo when you're low to the ground).

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I think top landings (or even attempts) are a great way to work on your traditional landing skills. Right off the the bat, it's a spot landing - so right there, you're working on accuracy when you pull it off. But what I like more is that you can always abort and in fact never even top land. Or maybe just "touch and go". Those repeated attempts and fly-by's teach you a lot about approach, S-turns, spot landing, brake pressure, etc.

Glad you're OK, man! Sounded like an awesome flight.


Anonymous said...

Hind-sight, Duck. Be glad you're around to exercise it. Great story and valid conclusions. Happy to know that you're OK.

Kaaaawa Larry

Alex said...

Great writeup! The video was a cliffhanger all right. You have made some great analysis, and Jeff's points are good too. I know we've already talked but I have a few more thoughts.

I see you using speed bar in the video (and you mention it in your writeup). The best use of the speed bar is on transitions when you're high. The worst use is down low in air that might be turbulent - thankfully, your wing will tolerate this a bit better than mine, but it's still risky. The only way to avoid using the bar when low is to assess the wind strength sooner, and also set up more conservatively, i.e., not from behind the target.

Mad Dog has taught me to appreciate the lateral crabbing approach for most landings, and I've used it many times with good results. It's really just the aircraft approach without the downwind leg, so just a very flexible crosswind base and then a final. You never allow yourself to get downwind of your intended target. I've also seen pilots land in small fields by setting up a constant turn pattern, like a slow spiral, starting with circles high overhead to gauge the drift and constantly correcting, ending up into the wind just as they touch down.

You're right to think you could have had an easier landing if you'd stuck with the bigger field you passed over. It's good to know your limits and stick with the easier options at first. But as we progress, we often find ourselves having to land in smaller fields with multiple hazards all around. This is the most critical safety issue in XC flying, and it's why I don't generally encourage folks to start going XC until they have successfully practiced aiming for various spots near the home ridge first. Paragliders can land in more limited spaces than any other gliders, but it takes practice. At Kahana, a good practice exercise would be landing around the corner beside the shrimp ponds in Punaluu on any decent day. Pick a spot, starting with large areas and moving to smaller ones as you get better, and get comfortable with the turbulence you will inevitably get from the trees upwind, and learn to make corrections and calculate contingencies.

MauiDoug said...

Thanks for sharing your experience Duck! The one thing that I have learned from this sport, is that I learn something new every time I fly! It's good to see that you are paying attention to this sports learning curve. I leaned from one of my instructors that this sport is as safe as the pilot is! See you flying soon!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the feedback, instruction, and all the kind words. I really appreciate it! I think I will do more top landing touch and go's and maybe over time get into the shrimp ponds. Gotta remember to crab in!



Anonymous said...

Good lessons for the rest of us fortunate enough to not have to live it. I actually wear sunglasses mostly for landings; just in case I end up in a tree or brush and need to keep my eyes open till the bitter end!

Roger Ramjet