Friday, January 30, 2009

Nice flying but a terrible day

I’m not quite sure how to write this. I had a pretty good flight, but witnessed something terrible which somehow makes my day not that important.

The task committee called an 87 km task, pretty short by recent standards. Start around Cerpel at 12:45pm, back to launch, then to San Augustine, out to Santa Maria, along the ridge to Aguila, to within 4 km of Cualte (on the south side of the lake), and finally goal at the Lake LZ.

We all got ourselves established on Crazy after some initial scratching around, and then tagged Cerpel for the start. Then it was back to launch. There were 2 distinct groups at this point…those who tagged Cerpel and then flew back to Crazy to get back to launch that way, and those of us who tagged Cerpel and then flew directly back to launch. We got back to launch before the other larger group, but in the end it was the whole armada on the rim between the Penon and launch.

We needed to get high for the over-the-back run to San Augustine, so pilots were flying along the ridge behind the Penon trying to connect to the clouds there; rather than fly out front of Penon (which takes longer). I will admit I was one of them. It’s a long glide out to any LZ’s when you do this, and you’re directly in the lee of the Penon. But there were about 100 pilots in front of me doing the same thing, and we were all being lemmings. It was a stupid place for us to fly.

Directly behind Penon there is a V-shaped notch with a shear cliff. I saw a pilot flying a light blue Omega in the V-notch (like a small canyon) trying to thermal out of there. All of a sudden I saw him get a collapse, which turned into a cravatte on his right side. I could see him desperately trying to keep a straight heading while trying to fix the cravatte. He’d fly straight for a few seconds, and then it would start to wind up. He managed to stop the winding-up 2 times, but the 3rd time he couldn’t control it, and it locked into a spiral. Oh shit.

As he started winding up I was saying to myself “throw your reserve”, but he never did. At full wind-up speed he crashed into the cliff in the V-notch in a cloud of dust. I saw the cravatte pop out as this happened. But it was too late, and he spiraled into the cliff again at full speed, the glider caught on something, and he slid down the cliff face.

I was right over him as this happened so I was unable to see the pilot number on the underside of his glider. I could see him laying at the bottom of the cliff, not moving, no sound coming from him. Another Omega glider and myself started circling over him, shouting at him to try and get a response. But after seeing the speed and violence with which he smashed into the cliff, I was pretty sure I had just seen a pilot die.

I tried desperately to top-land on the top of the cliff (there is a small spot where you could technically put a paraglider down), but it was very turbulent and I was suffering collapses of my own. And I was trying to relay information on the radio to the rescue team (GPS co-ordinates, crashed glider ID, etc), avoid the other Omega pilot, and try to see signs of movement from the pilot. I kept trying and trying to get low enough to land but kept zooming up in the strong thermals. Finally I decided it was too dangerous for me to try to land on that cliff top; I didn’t want to crash myself and require my own rescue.

At one point I thought I heard the pilot screaming and I was so relieved, since it meant he was still alive. But I only heard the one scream and I’m not sure anymore if it was the crashed pilot, or the other Omega pilot screaming instead.

After giving all the information I was able on the glider, where it was, etc., the organization told me an Air Marshall was in the vicinity and it was OK for me to leave and continue my flight. So I thermalled out of that hellhole spot and back into clean air, where I could keep my own paraglider assembled and back up to the safety of cloudbase.

By this time most of the field was ahead of me towards San Augustine. I flew there under cloudbase, mostly in a daze, and tagged it. In fact most of my flight was in the same state; I can remember certain exciting parts, like the upwind glide to Maguey in 20 km headwinds and almost landing several times, the upwind slog to Santa Maria, ridge running to Aguila and getting low so many times I can’t keep count, and back to Espina.

At Espina I was able to thermal up and then only had to get to within 4 km of the last TP and then the home glide to the lake LZ. But I was by myself at this point, so decided to head to Maguey to try to top up, jump to Serro Gordo, top up again, and then upwind slog to Cualte. It didn’t quite work out at that way. It was very windy at Serro Gordo and not able to get up on it, so I bailed over the back and glided to within 6 km of the last TP, landing in a nice big field west of Iglesia. There were 2 other pilots with me, so the retrieve came right away and got us. I had flown 75 km. Tracklog is here.

Back at HQ I received the bad news that the pilot I had seen crash had died, either on-site, or during the helicopter ride to the hospital. I’m not sure if his name has been made public yet outside of the competition, but out of respect for his family I’ll not put it here.

Tomorrow is the mandated rest day anyways, and there was a slate of offered activities for the pilots. I’m not sure now what will happen tomorrow, or in subsequent days. There are lots of red eyes around HQ, and I will admit that watching the whole accident happen and not being able to land and offer some kind of assistance or comfort to the crashed pilot until the rescue crew could arrive is eating me up.

We were all doing a stupid thing when this happened. I’ve never flown that route from launch to the Wall, and common sense would dictate that doing so is not smart, with you flying directly in the lee of the Penon and all the potential problems associated with it. But when you see pilots in front of you doing it, and it’s a competition, and you are trying to keep up, the part of your brain that is yelling at you “this is wrong!” is very hard to pay attention to. You think you can get away with it, and most times you will. But this time we paid the price for our folly with a pilots’ life. It’s not a good feeling to know that had we been smart and flown the safe route, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

12 comments:

  1. Sorry to hear that Nicole, and my condolences to everybody! Don't eat yourself up - you did what you could and whereever that pilot's spirit is right now, he/she knows you were there for them in whatever way you could be ...

    Kent

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  2. So sad...
    Sorry about the life of a pilot and for his family and friends.
    Sorry that you, Nicole, witnessed it. This is quite a shocking experience. I am glad that you are among friends now.
    Fly safe girl!
    Natalia

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  3. Hi Nicole, what a hard hard day you would have had, both mentally and physically. Try not to beat yourself up, although I know it's easier said than done.
    We too are sorry for the pilot and everyone associated with him, including his large paragliding family and sorry you had to witness such an horrific event.
    Keep your spirits up, enjoy your day off tomorrow and fly safe.
    Lee and David

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  4. You made the right decision not forcing a landing under those conditions. That is a really bad area with very squirrelly air. It is doubtful that anyone could have realistically pulled off a safe emergency landing. You did everything that could. You have nothing to feel guilty about.

    Rick

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  5. Thank you for reporting the details. "Finally I decided it was too dangerous for me " - good decision, Nicole.
    Anja

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  6. Hi Nicole,
    Thanks for the detailed account of the happening. I know how difficult it is to continue the flight after such an experience, unfortunatly I was in the same position a few years back. Not in a competition though. I flew for another hour and then went to land, feeling my concentration failing. Wish you the strenght to focus on your competition and moreso. your own saftey.
    Daniel (from Switzerland)

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  7. Nicole, I am so sorry for what you went through yesterday. Noone can ever understand how it must have torn your heart out. I hope your spirits can improve and you can try to enjoy the company of your close friends, and the rest of the competition. You are a strong woman, I really respect you.
    Kristin Biernacki

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  8. Hi Nicloe

    Sorry you witnessed the accident....

    Thank you for your report.

    My thoughts are with you. I know what it is like to witness a death and I hope you are surrounded by friends at this time.

    Nicole, you did the right thing not to force a landing - no point in rescue having to carry two people out of there...

    Take care - and fly safe - always.

    Gaynor

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  9. Don´t feel guilty. It was a high risk for the other pilot to topland but when you see a friend falling... I´m sure you did everything you could... But he died on doing something he loved...
    He flys now again ...high up there... free...
    And let us here... suffering...

    A friend

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  10. Thanks Nicole. It's so easy to forget that today we should fly so that we can fly again tomorrow. Please fly safe. We like having you at the chelan women's fly-in.

    steve

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  11. Nicole, you did as much if not more (by multiple top landing attempts in challenging conditions)as anyone could to help the downed pilot. You should feel good about that. I know that I (and many others) feel good about your efforts to help.

    Ihor

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  12. Nicole,

    I had no idea that you witnessed the tragic end to such a young, talented pilot. I am amazed and awed by your ability to continue to make good decisions both in realizing it wasn't safe to land there and to continue your tasks while doing so safely! El penon was a friend and nemesis to me, sometimes providing beautiful lift, and others some scary air whipping around causing deflations and pushing you into it! That was on the windward side so being in the leeside I imagine was pretty dangerous. I am grateful you were not hurt. One thing that you can take away from this experience is just that....experience and fortunately we can learn from others without putting ourselves in the same position. I think you did a fantastic job both representing your country and women paragliders! Take care, Nicole Chastain

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