Sunday, February 27, 2011

Misfortune at Makapuu

I want to post what I know of Colonel Tommy "Boots" Baker's incident last Saturday and have obtained his permission to do so. You'll have to forgive me for calling him COL Baker since I've worked with him for over two years and can't call him by any other name. I guess it's just something about being in the military.

COL Baker came up to me one day in the office and saw a picture Waianae Jim had taken of me flying at Kahana. As excited as a kid at the carnival, he asked, "Is that you?" After watching a few videos on Vimeo, he stated, "man, that looks fun, how do I get started?" Before long I had him in contact with Reaper and kiting at Kualoa Beach Park.

I tell you all this because when I called his fiancée last night at 12:30 AM in Atlanta, I felt partially to blame, having to tell her that the reason he hadn't called her in the past 8 hours was because he was in the emergency room at Queens Hospital with six broken bones in his foot and a compression fracture in his back. I already knew she wasn't particularly happy with him getting into paragliding and she knew I fueled the fire every Monday I came into the office with another story about cloudsurfing Kahana.

I don't know everything that happened yesterday afternoon and I am not about to speculate anymore than has already been posted on the chatterbox. I have refrained from posting any more drama than is already there but feel that something positive needs to be said about the accident.

The first words out of COL Baker's mouth when LeeAnn and I walked into his room at Queens was, "I really f**k'd up." There is no question that he made some mistakes, HUGE mistakes, and, even in his state of morphine-induced delirium, understands that he can only blame himself. Having said that, there are some things we know and can learn from without knowing all the facts and without passing judgment on anyone.

1. He was a student and should not have launched without his instructor.
2. This was his first flight in four months and his first at Makapuu.
3. He was intent on flying that day and those that helped him launch helped him launch safely.
4. He did have a radio on and a Flytec 6015, which meant he had a compass and communication.
5. He flew for approximately 90 minutes and became disoriented in the clouds.
6. He landed in the Kalama Valley after being blown over-the-back and rotored about 30 feet from the ground.
7. The rescue team (Reaper, TJ, Gary, and the emergency response team) acted quickly and appropriately to get him stabilized.
8. He is at Queens Medical Center with serious injuries relating to an accident that could have been prevented.

Those are the facts. I hesitate to post the last one, not wanting to begin another string of posts relating to what he should have, or should not have, done. The facts remain, mistakes were made that we can all learn from.

Again, I do not post this article to spark debate, although some will feel certain accusations need to be made. I also do not post this article to defend COL Baker's decisions that day. I've had some emotional conversations with him since the accident and we both know things could have turned out differently.

I will end this article by telling you that as much pain and remorse as he is in, he loved flying that afternoon. The second, maybe the third, thing he said after LeeAnn and I entered his room after hours of CT scans and X-rays was, "I took some beautiful pictures today." That being said, he says he is ready to sell his gear and move on, appreciating the brief time in which he soared the skies above.

I will end this post with a quote Hillbilly wrote in a comment to Alex's article after his accident. I reread it last night after getting home from the hospital and fell in love with it. Who among us would not appreciate or resemble the following statement by Hunter S. Thompson?

"Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, "Wow! What a ride!"

For a 30-year Army officer who served multiple tours in Iraq, Kosovo, Haiti and Panama, he will be the first to take responsibility for his actions and fess up to any mistakes he made on that flight. I am simply grateful to have shared his passion for paragliding in the brief, but unregrettable, moments I shared with him in the air.


Duck said...

Well spoken! I hope that Boots will consider paragliding again--accidents happen. I also know that there are extenuating curcumstances to his accident. I would ask that he consider the joy in balance against the decision making, and not make the same decisions in the future---there is always tomorrow!

Thanks for looking in on him!

Waianae Jim said...

Thanks for the post JD - I'm in agreement with Duck that you put it well. I feel somewhat at fault in that I could have given COL Boots a more thorough pre-flight briefing to forewarn him of the dangers of getting blown over the back at MPU. That being said, as Duck has asked I'd hope that the COL would reconsider his choice to totally give up PG and to think about perhaps flying again in a more conservative manner. This sport will certainly miss him if he does opt out. And I like JD want thank the COL for the brief time I did get to spend hanging out with him. Heal fast Sir!!

Thom said...


Excellent right up, no more need be said.

Except heal well and heal fast. Don't ever give up on living hard just make the decisions that will allow you to live hard another day.

I heard the Col. is leaving and moving to Atlanta then off to duty in Kuwait, Good Luck in your travels.

PS your not the only one that went over the back, I did too and it could have been prevented with better decisions, but live and learn.

Good Luck Sir,

Anonymous said...

Well written article JD. I appreciate your contribution to the flying community. My sympathies to Col Baker and hope for a speedy recovery. The flying Monkeys are a special group of people but can be critical of other pilots who have accidents. When other pilots get hurt if forces us to confront our own mortality and this scares most of us. Nobody wants to believe it will happen to them but at some point we will be injured pursuing the exhiliration of this sport.
Col Baker, things seem bleak right now but you will recover and you will have some great stories to tell. Mabey something like this. " So one day I'm sitting in a lawn chair dangling from some string a couple thousand feet over the sea when suddenly this massive cloud envelops me..."
Some day, God willing, all we will have are our memories of a life well lived. Hopefully at that point you will be able to smile and reminisce fondly of your time in the sky.

Alex said...

Please sign your name to your comments. This website is not the place for anonymous posts of any kind, even the one above which seems mostly positive. I am trying to avoid requiring all users to log in before commenting. You can all help me do that by signing your names voluntarily. The comment above will be deleted if no one takes credit for it. Thanks for your understanding.

Doug said...

So what did we learn?

Let me relate one of my early experiences and its associated lessons.

In 1997 I went for an afternoon flight at Makapuu with my main flying buddy at the time. The wind was light, it had to be we only flew "the big hill" from cactus, and we were eager to taste the victory of reaching the Green Wall. When we arrived base was about 100 below the top of the ridge and I played in the bottom of the clouds often needing to use bar and/or ears to keep the ground in sight. My partner was just as inexperience as I was and was doing the same.

I eventually had to B-line to stay clear and radioed that I was heading out. The radio was surprisingly quiet. When it finally crackled to life my partner relayed he was lost over some rugged terrain could only see down due to the clouds. He then radioed that he could see Diamond Head!!!

Three exclamation points for amazement. He was the first OTB on Oahu.

So what did we learn?

1. Never trust a cloud. They are light, white and the stuff our dreams are made of but they are horribly disorienting and could care less if they confuse you.

2. If you fly the big ridges you will encounter them and even very new pilots (all soloing pilots) should have a bag of tricks at least 3 deep to stay out of them. Speedbar, bigears, and B-line stall

Getting on a plane more later.

Anonymous said...

Also a compass for when avoidance techniques fail. Sometimes those clouds just seem to come and get you.

Boots, sorry to hear about your accident. Sad to hear it happened in your fledgling days, when it really can ruin the buzz. All the best.

'Fireman' Dave

Doug said...

3. To develop your bag of tricks you need to practice them every flight. You may not get high enough to B-line every flight but you can look up grab the Bs and visualize it.

4. When we were flying Makapuu it was light today you fly in much stronger conditions making the lift at cloud base stronger as well as the turbulence over the back. You have to make good choices sooner than we did. PLAN AHEAD.

5. Being forced OTB is no joke. Many have done so and been uninjured. This was just lucky and luck never lasts forever. Don't take it lightly

6. If you have to go OTB get as high as you can before you have to go. If you can choose pick a peak vice a valley. You are further from the rotor if you do.

7. Once OTB get as far away from the rotor as you can. The further you go the less severe it will be.

8. When it gets radical do the best you can to keep the wing overhead. It keeps your vertical speed to a minimum.

9. Point into the wind if you can. Reduce your ground speed.

10. Reserve. Consider it they are very resistant to collapse and may ride the rotor better than your wing.

Get well soon. I'm very sorry you got hurt.

Gravity said...

This was an unfortunate accident that is way overdue for our club. Many have been blown over the back at many of our sites and many more will be blown over the back or get 'Lost' in the clouds, and yet very few have encountered the nastiest of rotors that Col. Baker received.

But this accident was partially my fault for being lenient with my students and allowing other pilots to launch or guide them when I'm not there. After today this will never happen again. The instructor is always fully responsible for the actions of his/her students and the student shouldn't even think about flying without an instructor present.

We have been trained in teaching, watching, and guiding our students and therefor have the knowledge to hopefully make the right choices with each of our students. We also build a special relationship with our students during the lesson program and sometimes that's the only person they will listen too.

Sort of the master and his dog.

You can't expect that other pilots will spend the time or take the responsibility necessary to fully watch a student during their flight like an instructor would. That's what we get paid the big bucks for.

But, this also doesn't let the club pilots off the hook as well, and we've been doing a great job looking out for our students and visiting pilots in the past few years. We need to do more. We need to be very diligent in examining the conditions, the site, the equipment, and the experience level of all our pilots that fly with us, as much as possible. What's good for the goose, is not always good for the gander.

We have some very challenging sites, weather, conditions that don't relate to the rest of the world. so, we need to just say NO to some pilots.

TJ asked "Who has the power to shut down or talk down a pilot that doesn't have the experience or qualifications to fly a site?" I said we all do. Especially, USHPA Instructors, club directors and any local P-4 that see's a potentially dangerous situation evolving.

We're losing people and sites faster than I've ever seen lately. This isn't good. Everyone justs needs to re-think every flight before they let themselves or their buddies 'Huck' themselves off the hill.

I for one will be looking out for all of you all the time (whether you like or not) as I have always done. But, the biggest change is who I 'LET' fly and where.

If your my current student or a potential student and your reading this, I say to you "Don't even ask if you can fly without me". It ain't gonna happen.

Fly safe.

Get well Boots.


Thom said...

I guess we can call this the Boots Revelation.

Pete, I am so glad to hear this come from you, hopefully all who read this will take you serious enough to just LISTEN. I do not have the experience that our main instructor on this island has but his words should be enforced by all. Pete can't be everywhere.

As comrades we have often provoked others to fly in conditions that have the word probably. We have told others it is perfect, I think you can handle it. We need to STOP this practice as well.

I am guilty. JeffMc hiked up NAN high launch which is not an easy endeavor and the thought of hiking down is even worse. I was ready to launch and he stated he wasn't feeling it and was going to hike down. "Dude, you hiked, at least get a sledder", was my response. This type of response to any pilots decision NOT to fly should be ceased.

Never egg someone on to do something that they have decided is not right for them.

I don't want us to all turn into Nazi launch patrols but we need to all take control of our sites before we loose them. I still want to fly, I still want our club to be know as those fun loving, filled with aloha barrel of monkeys. We can still do this and help others as well as ourselves. FLY ANOTHER DAY.

Pete, I hope you mean these words and will do my best to keep all of our pilots safe and sometimes it may hurt to have to tell someone NO, not good for you. That is what families do.

JD said...

An update on COL Boots Baker: Doctors did not operate on his foot, even thought he sustained a compound fracture. They were able to set the foot and put him in a brace. He also has a back brace to keep his spine aligned.

He was released from the hospital late yesterday afternoon (Monday) and is at home with his fiance' Dana.

After a long discussion with him yesteday, I understand more of the story. When he found himself in the clouds he thought he could get out of them if he flew out over the water. Unfortunate thing is he was flying the wrong direction (obviously without looking at his compass).

When he did get out of the clouds and found himself on the Sandy's Beach side of the ridge, he felt he was still high enough to make it back over the ridge (experience tells us this is impossible from his position). He made the best of his situation and tried to land in a clear area but power lines and houses made his approach difficult.

Best he can determine is that he was flying in a cross-wind direction when he impacted the mountain, unable to flare or slow his descent due to the increase rotor once below the ridgeline.

He wishes he would have continued toward Sandy's Beach Park or the golf course, but again, thought he could make it back over. Lots for us to learn from this experience and include in our site briefings for new and visiting pilots.

Thanks to all for the positive responses and posts. I know he appreciates all the support and well wishes.


Unknown said...

All, thank you for your support that day as well as throughout my learning. Paragliders are the nicest people. I sincerely apologize for doing something that harms your reputation on the island. I also thank the rescuers that were just fantastic. Everything that happened was my fault. I was flying great and just somehow got turned around in the cloud. I was so shocked when I saw where I was. I have thought of a million things I could have done different. Pete has been a great instructor and I have been a lousy student. Just too much going on in my life these days. Everything that happened was my foult and I just did not expect the rotors to grab me and throw me down as they did. Couldn't get myself to land in the houses. JD, thank you for the kind article and you and LeeAnn have been an inspiration to me ever since I got to know you. All, thank you for the encouragement and I probaby will not fly again as my new fiance really doesnt like it. My whole body is bruised, torn, and broken, but I truly think I will recover. Thankyou again for living a dream of flying without an engine. Boots

Roger Ramjet said...

Anyone who hasn't spent some time in the white room should spend some time flying by their compass before they get whited out. And I hope by "compass" we are talking about GPS. A compass will tell you which way you are pointed, but not which way you are going, which may even be backwards. A GPS on the other hand, tells you which way you are going, even if you are crabbing with the wind from one side or the other. Early on, I had experience looking up to get my big ears, and finding my GPS reading 180 degrees different when I looked down again. At first I didn't believe it, but luckily trusted my instruments. But I've also looked down (luckily not in a cloud) and seen it saying "no satellites available". That's when it's good to have a reliable and steady kayak compass as a backup. But again, it's only going to tell you which way you are pointing, so is only ball park direction, and no good at all if you are going backwards. We tend to flirt with the white room a lot on the Big Island, due to the low base, but it's definately not something to be proud of.

Ramjet out.