Thursday, May 31, 2018

Unforgiving of Human Error

The saying goes, “aviation in general isn’t inherently dangerous — it’s just absolutely unforgiving of human error.” For the past six weeks I’ve been trying to get up the courage to give a debrief of my paragliding accident at Makapu’u in which I shattered my calcaneus (heel bone) and broke a vertebra in my neck. It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized that my pride was keeping me from sharing my experience with others.

Let me start by saying that I’ve shared this video from my GoPro with many who are reading this, and I’ve been able to walk back through every second in slow motion and see what went wrong that day. I’ve also been fortunate to get thorough debriefs from Pete “Reaper” Michelmore, Alex Colby, and Jorge Atramiz.

If you are just looking for a quick synopsis so you can say, “that will never happen to me,” and go about your day, here it is. I’ll spare you any further reading after the next paragraph.

It wasn’t the weather. It wasn’t the wing. It was me. The pilot. It was "human error".

If you’re still reading, I applaud you. I believe this story can provide some valuable insights for those looking for the root cause beyond, “he should have gone hands up.”

I think it’s important to understand my short but indescribably fulfilling flying career up to this point. Abide with me a moment and you will quickly understand what went wrong on April 13, 2018.

I started paragliding in 2009 as a military transplant in Hawaii. From the moment I saw the first picture of a paraglider, I was hooked. I’d earned my private pilot license in college and loved aviation but it had become far too expensive to justify recreational flying. $185 an hour wet (with fuel)! Paragliding was the obvious gateway back into the skies.

After earning my P-2, I began to get comfortable boating around in lifty conditions where the only real danger was clearing the air for other new pilots like myself. I went to the Rat Race at the end of that year as an under-qualified and inexperienced newbie and got my butt kicked every day. I was so nervous on practice day that I could barely launch. My hands and knees were shaking but that didn’t stop the line from moving and spitting me out in the middle launch corridor. I managed to launch after just one blown attempt and then hit my first big thermal about 15 seconds into my flight. I almost crapped my pants! I felt the hand of God grab me and throw me up hundreds of feet as I flew right through the thermal.

It was awful! The scariest thing I’d ever felt! I bombed out the next three days not knowing that when you hit a thermal you were supposed to turn. On task 3 I had a 50% collapse before the task even started that scared me right out of the sky. I turned directly toward the LZ and landed, all the while wondering what the heck had just happened to me. I’d just upgraded that “scariest feeling” thing to a new level and might have even crapped my pants...I’m not saying.

I may have been looking for excuses to ditch the wing at that point, (despite the fact that it recovered from the 50% collapse perfectly) but with non-stop tip collapses in the smoothest air, I lost confidence in that wing. My solution was to move up from an EN-B to a EN-C and rely on the safety features built into the wing rather than gain the knowledge and experience I needed to respond to wing malfunctions.

In other SIV.

After leaving Hawaii in 2011 with the Air Force, I continued to fly in Washington state at Baldy Butte and Chelan — but NEVER on BIG days. I could say I flew those sites, but no number of sled rides can equate to one afternoon of real mountain flying in thermic conditions.

I went back to the Rat Race in 2012 after taking an XC course and got my butt kicked again! But at least I had the t-shirt and a little more experience flying in thermic conditions and somehow that made ridge soaring seem much less dangerous. I longed to get back to Hawaii again!

And still no SIV.

After finally getting back to Hawaii a year ago I started flying more aggressively and charging harder on a new wing. I wanted to improve my flying and figured the best way to do that was to get out there and take some risks. I didn’t throw caution to the wind, but I did get some courage to explore areas beyond our normal playgrounds.

I started flying XC on days that no one else wanted to go — so I went alone. I left the local scene when people said it was too strong or too north, ensuring that I always had an emergency plan if I had to land out or I wasn’t penetrating as much as I’d liked. I began having amazing flights and flying to places I’d previously only dreamt of going. I was top-landing Kahana, flying strong thermals above Kualoa and enjoying para-park days at Makapu’u. Who could ask for more?

But still no SIV.

I soon became confident in my budding abilities and thought of myself as a capable pilot. I know we call that “intermediate syndrome” but how could that be? I’d earned my P-4. I was an “advanced” pilot!

Looking back on my flying career I realize that I’ve progressed in certain aspects of the sport, but not all aspects of the sport uniformly. I can say that I usually fly conservatively and have never been “blown over the back,” but that doesn’t make me a safe pilot if I don’t understand the weather around me or the dynamics of a wing coming out of a spiral dive.

So here’s what happened on Friday the 13th:

I launched after Maui Doug on an easy day out of Crazy’s. The clouds were low so there was no chance of going down range. I was left with entertaining the few tourists that ventured out to Makapu’u in overcast conditions. I performed some modest wing-overs starting at about 900 feet and then proceeded to end that run with a spiral dive from about 750 feet. I figured I had plenty of altitude to play with and would still be able to bench up again over the Kam Highway. What I didn’t figure in was the altitude I would need if something went wrong.

As I exited the spiral dive I knew from experience that this wing had a tendency to shoot forward with a lot of energy and I thought I needed to check the surge before I got a frontal collapse. What I should have recognized was that the wing was close to stalling in that configuration and that I needed to let the wing fly. I should have gone hands up immediately and then checked any pitch oscillations once the wing was flying again. I didn’t know to do that. Instead, I spun the wing.

Had I mentally prepared for this moment, or trained for it rather in an SIV course, I would have gone hands up and weight shifted and let the wing recover just like they are all made to do. Instead, I thought I could maneuver the wing to get it to fly and I spun into the mountain. I then dropped 7-10 feet onto the Kam Highway and miraculously didn’t get run over by a car. If you want to know how serious this accident was, play the last 20 seconds of that video and listen to me moan in agony and distress. All said, I’m lucky to be alive and have much for which to be grateful.

I’ve also been blessed to spend much time since my accident contemplating my future in paragliding. I’ve contemplated what I will do if I can never run again, let alone keep my footing on our treacherous launches. I’ve contemplated whether I’ll have PTSD and freak out in minor turbulence. And I’ve contemplated what it was that drew me to paragliding in the beginning, and if that simple desire to fly like a bird will ever be enough to keep my interest long term — if that’s all the reward I seek from this point forward.

C’mon! Are you serious? Were you really thinking I was quitting paragliding? No way! In fact, Melinda, my amazing wife, sent my wing off for repair as soon as I got home from the hospital. Her words were, “it’s got to be ready when your ready to go back up.” My parents are also 100% in my corner. My mother’s advice was, “you’ve got to get back on the horse as soon as possible.” How’s that for supportive? They know as well as I that paragliding is just a part of who I am.

It turns out that after some serious contemplation, the most important question I need to answer before I get back in the air and finally take an SIV course is this: “how long do I want to be in this sport?” After all this time of asking myself what I want to get out of this sport, it's longevity. Longevity in paragliding is what I dream of today. It's not distance records or points in a paragliding competition. I want to be that 75-year old guy who can still hike up to launch with his full kit and take to the skies like a fledgling pilot. I want to be just as excited as I was on my very first flight and have that very same grin on my face that I had years ago.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t have to age out of this sport, but we will if don’t match our flying expectations with our level of experience. Therefore, I must be willing to hike down on days I don’t feel it. I have to repack my wing on launch when the wind creeps up to unsafe parameters. I have to be willing to ask for help on launch and not feel bad about it. And I have to be willing to put time in the bank with my family on questionable days. After all...tomorrow may be the best flying day of the year!

If there is anything I learned with this accident, it is that we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. Having an accident is a lot like climbing a mountain. Half of what you learn happens when you’re just trying to get back to where you started.


Gravity said...

Great to hear the story and the fact that you have a positive attitude.
Your right about being 75 years old and still flying. I made that decision a long time ago. Welcome to the club.

SIV's are highly recommended for anyone. Newbie to advanced pilot. If you don't know how to stall or unstall your wing, surge damping, asymmetric collapses, etc now is the best time to attend an SIV. This doesn't mean learning acro, it just means you need to learn the basic recovery procedures of a wing that you lost control of.

An old saying of mine was "Practice or get practiced upon" Another is "Fly a wing at 80% of your ability, not a higher wing rating at 20%".

Thanks JD.


Waianae Jim said...

Excellent write up J.D. - thanks for sharing your experience & perspective. I applaud your honesty and appreciate your attitude. Hope your recovery progresses quickly, looking forward to sharing the skies with you soon. Not to be insensitive - maybe it's time for a new nickname "Spinner".

Unknown said...

Too soon, 1I. :)

Thanks so much for the thoughtful well written article JD. I love the honesty and introspection. Very generous of you to share it here. Cheers.


William said...

Great post JD! I would love to fly with you on that first flight when you come back! How about coming over to Maui for it! I’ll put you and wife at my new place in Wailea. Just give me a call! William Abbott- 808-359-8608.

firedave2 said...

Great for you to write up your misadventures JD. I know it is hard to look at what you do and find fault. In paragliding as well as life, a little luck goes a long way. That day your luck wasn’t running. I guess the next thing to work on is getting back to living life the way you want it. Hoping for a fast recovery.

I personally have gotten away with a lot sketchy moments. The only thing I could say for others is to practice maneuvers high over the water, get really comfortable with them before you try them close to the hard stuff.

Getting 1000’ far out over the water at Makapuu on a light wind day is perfect. You Tube is full of high quality instructional video, video that wasn’t available until a couple of years ago. Start slow, some maneuvers like wing overs and spirals you can build into. Some thing like stalls and helicopters are a bit more involved. SATs and Tumbles you sort of have to just go for. There is something for everyone, while at the moment it can be a bit more risky, in the long run it will take your flying skills to a higher level.

Since Jim offered up a nickname, I propose something like ‘Skidmark’ , Road Kill’ or ‘Nephi’.

JD said...

Thanks for the great comments and added insight from everyone. I’ll leave the nicknaming to democracy. Melinda has never liled “JD” anyway.

Waianae Jim said...

Thanks again for the excellent write up, you should ask Melinda for her input regarding nickname. I like Dave’s suggestion of “roadkill”. Hurry up an get well so we can go flying!

Jean-Paul Wenger said...

Jason, this article is excellent, I appreciate your honesty! You have discovered by yourself this adage: "there is no such thing as a good pilot, there are only old pilots"... And I'm not an old pilot btw... I'm very glad that your family is so supportive, that's extraordinary!

About SIVs... Please correct me if I get something wrong: by reading your article, you seem to think that a SIV is a sort of "solution to all problems". Did I get that right? If not, please tell us more about your opinion on SIV and what you think it'll bring you.

Here is my 2 cents (FI I'm an acro pilot from Europe, I started in 2009 and I never did any SIV): a SIV is just the beginning, a starting point.
The most critical thing to learn is the full stall. It's the "reset button" for most if not all paragliding incidents. To learn to full stall as easily as pressing a reset button, you need to practice it least 100 times. That's what beginner acro pilots do (yes, I wrote beginner). No way to do that in just 1 SIV course. But what you can learn in SIV is being comfortable practicing full stalls, so you can practice them by yourself thereafter. And I don't recommend stopping at 100. Even top notch acro pilots continue practicing it...

And in a wonderful spot like Makapu, you can do easily 20 stalls a day, so you can get to 100 stalls very quickly. I flew there, I was practicing my helicos during a week of vacation (check and subscribe to my channel:, one of my flight in Makapu: there).

JK said...

JD, thanks for sharing. You might consider a repost on FB:
It’s a new group and you may get a wider audience with more input. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. JK