Monday, January 09, 2012


I know many of you have heard of my recent incident, and some of you may have reviewed the video of me doing a forward launch completely unclipped from the Kahana north ridge high launch. I have posted the complete unedited video below. My hope is that we will use this incident as a means to ensure and instill better safety practices at our flying sites.

I feel that I am a fairly analytical pilot, and also fairly meticulous. No one should be more surprised than I am at my latest incident and learning lesson. If you would have asked me, I would have told you that I thought that launching without strapping in was dumb and that I would never succumb to that (can you say INTERMEDIATE Syndrome). Truth is, accidents and oversights can happen to anyone! It just so happens, that in this sport, those things usually end in death or significant injury. I was alone on Kahana high launch with the wind coming in at 3-7 mph at 70 plus degrees. I had just seen a few good cycles come in and I saw Alex, Cherie, and Bonnie launch in front of me and of the three only Alex had the cycles to make any altitude (both Cherie and Bonnie fought like hell). It was light. This may have been saving grace number one.

After Bonnie spent a half hour trying to get out of the hole in front of Kahana high launch, she finally had to succumb to gravity and headed in. Cherie had done much the same. After Bonnie launched, I set up for a reverse launch and spent the next hour baking in my harness and trying multiple times to just get a puff to get my wing overhead. After my wing folded like a burrito for the 10th time, I decided that I would just do a forward launch (alien to us pilots on Oahu); but before I did, I knew I needed a few minutes to cool off and get my head straight. I had been overworked at Kahana this day.

Earlier in the day I had hiked up to high north with Joey and Russian Gene. Being the good samaritans that we are (Chapter of the Year), Joey and I lauched Gene into some great cycles. We then sat for the next few hours waiting for a puff. I set up and finally was able to make it off the north launch, but I quickly sank to a level below the ridge that I never want to see again. At one point, I was worried that I would catch a tree and have to spend the day scrambling out of the bush and cutting my wing out -- this is a novelty of Oahu pilots. We are able to fly so close to the terrain above rubbery soft trees that it loses its dangerousness. I eventually made a not-so-spot landing at Kahana regular, below low launch. The cycles just were not working and I had to land. I just did not want to hike up again, so I landed, roughly, below low launch -- this is another novelty of Oahu flying. We can just ditch into the brush, as safely as we can, mind you, and expect to reasonably be OK, minus the hour required to work your wing free.

After hiking to Kahana high launch (keep in mind I had no water -- my water bottle was in my truck) with my wing on my shoulder, I decided to take five (actually it was about an hour). I was hot, defeated, and dehydrated, and kind of upset (not really mad); but, the kind of upset you get when they F you at the drive-through. Bill was on launch and he did his best to get out, but he also ended up below low launch and then hiked up to join me on my sojourn. Eventually, the weather had its say and pending rain forced me to do a sledder and head to the LZ.

Once I reached the LZ, I drank a gallon of water. It was hot and I was overheated. After about an hour in the LZ, lying about how good my TWO flights of the day had been, conditions changed and a flood of monkeys headed back up the slopes. Unfortunately, we went up the wrong lauch. Alex, Cherie, and Bonnie made it off; but, the regular ridge would have been a better call. When it came up as my turn to launch, there really were no cycles. So, as I said before, after trying to reverse launch for about an hour (or more), I finally decided to do a forward launch. This may not sound so intimidating to those of you who frequent sites where forward launches are the norm; but, on Oahu, A's and C's are the norm and we rarely do forward launches.

I had just spent the last hour-or-so fighting my burrito-wing in hot conditions and knew I needed a few minutes to "get my head straight" and cool off. I was impatient (wanting to follow others who had made it look OK) and I was anxious about the forward launch. So I took off my helmet and my harness and disconnected only one side of my console and then set the whole thing down and moved to the shade for a few minutes. After a few minutes, I draped my wing on a few of the local shrubberies in order to assist me in the now-planned forward launch. Once my wing was setup, I moved to my harness, got in, and promptly secured my hanging console. THIS IS WHERE I THINK I MADE MY BIGGEST MISTAKE!!

This simple act of clippng in my console has been the VERY LAST ACT of my pre-flight for the last two years. Once my console is clipped in, I am good to go! WOW! I had just skipped every pre-flight step I had ever practiced and it did not even register!! I was soo focused on setting up for a forward lauch, that I short-circuited my own pre-flight and I did not even notice it!!! I proceeded to get setup for my forward launch, and even the straps that can be seen on the video hitting my legs did not clue me in...I believe this is a kind of object fixation. I was soo interested in performing a good forward launch, that nothing else even registered. I was dehydrated, hot, tired, and JONESING for a flight -- who hasn't been there?

So, I prepared and launched in a forward from Kahana. It was immediately evident (after my quick check of the wing above my head), that I had not clipped in. In fact, I was aware of it two steps into my forward launch. Usually, I would go step, step, sit-back, zoom throught the gap, and into the rushing air. This is what I was expecting. This is what the site itself had taught me. I was a few steps into the air when I felt my Kama Sutra pod harness float up and my hind-quarters missed their usual landing spot. At this point, alarm bells were ringing in my head. YOU IDIOT! YOU DID NOT STRAP IN! IDIOT! IDIOT! GRAB! HOLD! HOLD!

I was committed to my forward launch; by my video, this was about one second into the launch. I was already aware of my mistake and had moved to correct or at least mitigate it. I grabbed my risers above the carabiners and held on! In the swoop that I expected, for about half a second, my feet touched the ground -- this would have been a good time to abort with a full stall. However, this lasted only about half a second, and I was already flying and I did not want to risk going over the cliff in front of me. AMAZING what goes through your mind in half a second with the appropriate amount of adrenaline!

So, with my harness held in my armpits and restricted by the grip I had with my hands, I immediately steered back toward the hill. At that point, I was thinking that a top crash was preferable to a falling-out-of-the-sky! I maneuvered my legs up high to turn my wing to the right with wieght shift (by pulling on my right riser) and then tried to find my footboard. My footboard was proving elusive, and I had a singular moment of ridicoulous happiness and humor thinking of my buddy Joey who had been similarly fishing for his footboard earlier in the day. Man, the mind is a crazy place!

As I was fishing for my footboard, I noticed that top-crashing seemed rather severe! I could hold my current position all the way to the LZ if I needed to. I was moving a little fast, and so, very quickly, I decided NOT to hit the tree I was headed for and instead I weightshifted to fly to the right of the tree. I then proceeded to find my footboard and get settled and clip in. Truth-in-advertising--I only clipped in on my left leg. But I was headed to the LZ and not planning on falling out and the additional act of securing the other strap seemed academic at this point.

 I then flew to the LZ and had a safe landing.

 WOW! WOW! Lessons Learned:
1. Check yourself!!!
2. Have buddy check you!!!
3. Check yourself!!

Since my incident, I have read numerous incidents of the same or similar nature on If you have not seen Chris Santacroce's method of fixing this situation, go to the forum and READ IT NOW! My upper body strength and my immediate awareness and the lightness of the day made it possible for me to get through this learning lesson. Others may not be so lucky! I was lucky in the fact that the day was light (although, if it were stronger I would have been doing a reverse launch). You might want to practice Chris's method with your harness hanging in your garage. The fact that this happened to me here in our relatively smooth air on a calm day makes a big difference! You may not want to turn back into the rigde as I did at other sites. But, I feel for our sites at Kahana this is a good call. I would rather fall 30 feet and be injured than fall 300 feet and be killed. At Makapuu, or at Kahana with different conditions, you may want to fly out to get some altitude and perform Chris's maneuver. It is a decision that can only be made at the time! I would recommend that you have a plan in mind before launching -- this will further enforce your habit to double check yourself. All I can say, is IT IS CREEPY BEING IN THE AIR UNCLIPPED! CREEPY!!!

I feel that I could have made it to the LZ, with or without my footboard--but this may just be a reflection of my ability to hold onto my harness with my armpits and the sheer adrenaline of the situation. I KNOW that this was a close call. The closest I have had in my two years of paragliding! And I also know that this was COMPLETELY preventable! If I had had someone on launch with me, and asked them to check me, they would have spotted the red flag! If I had done a last minute radio check and asked for a double check, then someone in our club could have come on and asked "PINS? Check. STRAPS? Check. SPEEDBAR? Check. HELMET? Check. CONDITIONS? Check!" and then I might have missed one of my most exciting flights.

With that in mind, I would like to propose that we Flying Monkeys and our visitors perform a radio check similar or the same as I have outlined above if we are the last ones on launch, or an in-person check by our fellow pilots if we have folks launching after us. I understand that it will probably not happen every time, but if we can develop the habit, it will make us all safer! I just went through this and I don't want anyone in our club to have to go through what I just did. It might not end up with the same conclusion.

I know for a fact that I have launched with my speedbar under my main straps before and that this check would have prevented that from occuring, and NOW I have launched without any straps! We should do a better job of self policing and of policing others.  We often do not in an attempt to "not make waves". I say, F the waves. Let's be as safe as we can and recognize that our flying sites are unique to Oahu and that a P2 or a P4 can still get caught up and that the last thing we want to do is see someone injured or killed -- don't kid yourself, the mistake I made has killed MANY paraglider pilots!

Mine was a mistake of omission! It should have NEVER happened! The fact that I am safe is due to the luck of the circumstance and my early realization. I have read of many people who did not survive this circumstance and of a few survivors who have had it happen more than once. Let's not be that club! Lets not be those people!

I F'd up! It's SCARY! It should be!

So, let's fly safe and for Bill -- FLYSTRONG!



Alex said...

Few of us want to find out how we'd handle the scenario of launching unclipped. I've practiced the Santacroce method, and it's a good technique, but it's not easy. You turned this incident into a close call with a combination of luck, strength and fast thinking. I've forgotten my leg straps a couple times, but thankfully I've been lucky enough not to leave the hill before realizing it or having it pointed out. Let's do better at checking and pointing it out!

Bon Bon said...

Duck, great write-up, thanks for sharing so other can learn. I kinda feel somewhat responsible for this incident. I had just gotten off work and ready to go fly an i was in the lz patronizing everyone telling them it was looking good an stop being lazy a$$es and come fly with me. You explained how you had had a rough day and that this woul be your third hike. I said tough it up and stop cryin, fatty. (lol - all jokes of course). When you've had a day like that, you are not only physically exhausted, but mentally, too. And that's HUGE!! (esp in this sport). I shouldn't have forced you as i did, and I'm sorry for that.

Just so you know, I played launch director yesterday at Kahana and asked everyone if they had their leg straps, i assisted in launches, i was the Fluffer Slut, and i got two major knots out of lines that saved an ugly flight for 2 pilots. One knot was the worst I've ever seen. So yeah, let's take the extra time to help each other out.

I'm glad you are as strong, athletic, and as smart as you are with quick decision-making abilities and that you were able to make this accident end safely. Good job!

~Bon Bon

JK said...

Impressive! Mahalo for sharing, Duck. You did an excellent job recovering. I can imagine the feeling. I wonder how much more difficult a basic seat harness bar/stirrup would have been to find vs. a cocoon blown open by the wind. Also, I suspect your flight deck played a factor, as discussed on PG Forum. I see how dehydration and fatigue and doing an infrequent forward launch can all play into this as well.

This could have happened to me. You could argue that it’s possible for it to happen to anyone. Without doing a pre-flight, an error of omission is simply an eventuality. As the saying goes, “there are those that have and those that will”. And how many of us have dropped out that pre-flight? I have to admit that in my haste or distraction, I have. And as a result, I have left the ground without my speed system connected or turn direction determined before pulling up. Thankfully, harness donning habits saved my ass on those occasions (all on or all off).

I’m not a religious kinda guy, but I’m going to start doing my pre-flight (Reserve, 1, 2, 3, 4, R, S, T) before a launch like a devout Catholic says grace and does the Sign of the Cross before taking a meal. Besides being an obvious check, it’s a moment to switch from a socializing mindset to a flying mindset, a chance to visualize the launch and think about options. I think that if you’re with someone doing a check, it’s a good idea to stop talking to him or her. These are just thoughts you’ve sparked, Duck

Like the good Catholic, think I’ll be saying “thanks” at this moment as well from now on. Flying in any capacity is something not to take for granted. Believe me, while I’m away, I’m missing it “big time’.

If it helps anyone, here are some of those web sites I think you mentioned:

1- Santa’s photos on saving yourself

2 - PG Forum: Forgetting to Strap In: Accident Reports + Survival Strategies

Nick Johnson said...


Amazing video and skills. Although I hardly fly I will render *judgment*:

Not strapping in: F
Forward launch: A-
Monkey grip on risers: A
Weight shifting towards hill: A
Posting video: A
Reporting story: A+
Overall grade: F :)

Thanks for sharing, I was so amazed at the forward launch I hardly noticed the strap-in incident! You have mad-skills and lady luck helped too. I'm happy you're still here my friend. Your video/testimonial have surely delayed my making same mistake too. Thank you.


Kevin said...

Thanks for sharing Duck! Lesson learned! I thought you looked a little frazzled when I first saw you at the party but shrugged it off. I have a pre-flight ritual too and your video and article solidified my OCD'ness about it. Thanks again and great recovery. See you in the air my friend.

Ka'a'awa Larry said...

Thanks Duck, your video is working on me. I get chills every time I watch it.

Early in my training I watched some of the vids of guys that hadn't strapped in and the tragic results made a deep impression on me. Since then I have always been careful to concentrate on that aspect of my pre-takeoff procedure. Now that it has happened to someone close to me that I KNOW is systematic, it has made an even deeper impression.

Thanks again for the pointed reminder that even though we are a free-spirited group, there are moments where sober reflection and an isolated mind-set are needed.

firedave2 said...

I am glad you didn't name the post 'Strap-On?', that would have sophomoric.

Great job in recovering from a bad situation. You remembered to turn on the GoPro, but forgot leg straps.

The relaunch is always a likely time to forget to hook in or even clear your lines, so pilots are best to take a little extra care at those times.

The way I look at it, hooking up your leg straps is the number one most important thing to do on launch. Having said that, I have gotten inadvertently airborne a few times over the years without my leg straps, fortunately I have always been seated or able to abort. The one thing you do come away from the experience with is a sharp reminder to always hook up your leg straps. Unfortunately the lesson only lasts a couple of years. Such is the life of the pilot.

Good job.