Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pemberton Canadian Nationals: day of reflection and mourning

After yesterday's task many of us were all stoked about making goal. It was only last night that we realized a pilot hadn't checked in and was still missing. Non-pilot reports (farmers) were of a pAraglider going into the Lillooet River a few kms south of the goal field.  Search and rescue initiated a search of the river banks in the hopes the pilot had swum ashore, but the cold water, combined with the swift current and the fact a submerged glider is almost impossible to control and reel in meant the pilot was almost certainly dragged under and drowned.

The body was discovered today about 50m downstream of the witness reports, caught up in some flood debris.  A media report can be found here.

Several questions have been raised about the task and the responsibility of each pilot as well as the overall organization in terms of flying safely. Most pilots who made goal were happy with the took us away from the forecasted bad weather and the conditions along the course line were considered safe. It was the pilots at the back of the pack, flying slower, who got caught in the approaching weather.  Unfortunately, all the members of the safety committee were already on the ground, either in goal, or back in town, so weren't in the air to be able to give in-flight information. And nobody else in the back of the pack gave reports either...essentially there wasn't enough conmunication amongst the pilots and the ground organization about the bad weather brewing in Pemberton. The task was stopped when the organizers realized there were still pilots in the air despite the signs that it was way past time to land.

It's been speculated that perhaps the pilot got caught in some turbulence and had a collapse, maybe associated with the bad weather, or maybe just the "normal" turbulence experienced when you are low, trying to cross a tree line in some wind (in this case the tree line was bordering the Lillooet River). We'll really never know since no pilot saw the actual cause behind the water landing/crash but the approaching storm probably had something to do with it. Trying to get down ASAP because he finally realized it was time to get down NOW, maybe got hit by a gust front, perhaps focused on getting to goal, plain bad luck, who knows. Had the river *not* been right there, he would have landed on dry ground with possible injuries or in a tree or dragged into a fence by some wind, but he would have had a reasonable chance of living to tell the tale.

Paragliders and moving water *don't* mix. Period. If you see that you aren't going to make it across a moving body of water, turn around. Land in a tree. A water landing is almost always instant death due to the forces the current will place on your glider. Unbuckle from your harness if possible or use your hook knife to cut yourself free. Don't try to save your gear. It won't work. You will get dragged away by the cells in your glider filling up with water and no human can overcome those forces. Even if you land on dry land but your glider lands in water, the moving water catching in your cells will drag you from dry land and into the water.

Another thing I want to mention is the use of SPOTs. The pilot had a SPOT, but hadn't enabled live tracking. This meant when we were looking for him and checked his SPOT page, we only had his "I'm OK" message from the day before, and no breadcrumb trail (from any day) at all. Had he enabled live tracking, we would have been able to get an approximate (10 minutes old) position and had a place to start looking. If you are injured and unable to hit the 911 button, or unconscious, or dead, at least we would know where to start looking. So pilots, please, if you have a SPOT, get the live tracking option!  The SPOT is of little use otherwise if you go down and can't tell us that you need help.

Pilots today took the day off to reflect, free fly, or otherwise relax in their own ways. I went up to launch and drove a track down, then a swim in the very-warm mosquito lake. We have decided to continue the competition so tomorrow we may fly, although the forecast is for wind and possible thunderstorms in the morning which may lead to a cancelled day.

1 comment:

  1. Wow ... While driving back from our LZ, Max, Claudia and I saw 3 pilots still in the air near Owl. The gust front was howling through as we watched one pilot land safely going backwards. The other two were still higher. We carried on, and debated saying something on the radio, but didn't ... I'm not sure why ... John and I spent some time at launch together that day, chatting about gliders, Sunday's flying, and the usual stuff. Very, very sad ...