The winds have been blowing a lot the past two weeks–it makes pilots hungry for some air time. I wanted to share the following with you in the hope that it might help you decide when it’s a good time to kite. Or, more importantly, when it might not be a good time to kite. I read some WhatsApp posts recently about kiting in higher winds and decided it was time to get this out on the forum. I wrote the following article last September and submitted it to USHPA for possible publication. It doesn’t look like it will make the USHPA Magazine cut so I’m hoping some readers on our forum might get some value from it.
Kiting–My “Safe Place”
It was a beautiful blue sky day in Colorado. I did a wind check on my back deck and it looked pretty nice for some kiting. I grabbed my gear (Nova Ion 3, Gin Verso harness, helmet and gloves) and headed out the door to my local park to make sure my ground handling skills were sharp. I was leaving on a weeklong paragliding trip in six days–meeting some buddies at a fly-in in Utah. I wanted my ground handling to be sharp for the high altitude launches and ready for launch winds that could vary from zero to limits.
When I got to our local park it was about 2 pm and the wind was from the south (the direction you are looking in the photo). I couldn’t get the picture to load–the section of the park where I was kiting is over 200 x 200 yards of soft green grass with no significant upwind obstacles and it is located approximately 8 miles from the foothills. The wind was coming through in smooth cycles of about 20 minutes that varied from fairly light to close to 15 mph. It was not really gusty; the winds would increase smoothly to their max velocity before slowly dropping off again. It seemed perfect for some kiting in variable conditions.
After about an hour, I was feeling pretty confident. I was handling the varied conditions well and having fun playing with the wing while listening to music. It had been a good workout and I planned to pack up as soon as the current wind cycle died off. The wind was steady, around 12 mph, on the high side of the cycles. I was in a reverse launch position, knees bent, leaning back, making just minor inputs to the brake lines to keep the wing over my head, practicing moving left and right perpendicular to the wind line.
I think I had always thought of kiting as safe. I thought the risk was limited if I was kiting in a nice flat open area–maybe the potential to get pulled off my feet, dragged a little in higher winds, but nothing too serious. Kiting was my safe place to master ground handling skills; practice and more practice to reduce the possibility of having an accident up “on the hill”. I never thought this is where I’d have an accident.
As I leaned back, in my “safe place”, enjoying the music and my dance with the wing, everything suddenly changed. Instantly I was 20 feet above the ground, the wing was flying into the wind but I was moving rapidly downwind and descending rapidly, without turning around (still in the reverse launch position) I “flared” using the brake lines in hand and I skipped off the ground (not a hard impact) and was 20 feet high again, instantly; I was still moving downwind (in the reverse launch position) but with a higher descent rate, I attempted to flare again and hit hard, feet then butt; my feet and knees were together but too far out in front for an effective PLF. The second impact hurt and I knew I had probably done some damage. Laying on the ground in pain I secured the canopy; I did not want another trip on “Mister Toad’s Wild Ride”. I was shocked and embarrassed. I came to rest about 50 yards from where I had been kiting and 20-30 feet downwind of where I hit the ground on the second impact. I lay on my side for a while assessing the damage and pain. The park was pretty empty, nobody had seen my wild ride and nobody came running. I stayed on the ground and called my wife. She asked about calling 911 but pride, stubbornness and stupidity dictated that I have her come pick me up.
At the emergency room, after a CT scan, I learned I had a compression fracture of my L1 vertebra. Hopefully, after some healing time, I should be fine physically. However, I am still trying to process what happened to aid my psychological recovery and learn from the incident. Since I am not on my paragliding trip in Utah, I am writing this article in the hopes that it may help some other paraglider pilots keep flying and avoid wearing a back brace like the one I currently enjoy.
I put together a list of lessons learned and reached out to some of my instructors from my last 2 plus years in the sport (221 flights and 102 hours–not counting the two short “flights” I’ve described in this article). The instructors helped refine and expand the lessons learned. Had I learned these lessons sooner or heeded the ones I already knew, I might have broken a link in the accident chain and been paragliding in Utah this week.
- Don’t be complacent, there are reasons we wear helmets kiting. Assess the weather for kiting with the same critical eye you use for flying—your limits may be expanded for kiting but don’t take safety for granted. If the day’s conditions are right for strong thermal activity kiting may be a bad idea, especially during the most active part of the day. Thermals close to the ground are likely to be tight with sharp edges. Even in a big flat green grass field you can encounter thermals. In my case, the big dry areas around the green field were prime areas for thermals to develop. Thermals may release upwind of where you are kiting and drift to your location.
- Not all winds are created equal. Strong steady coastal winds (10-15 mph) may be OK; midday strong thermic wind cycles (10-15 mph) are not. Good thermal days will also have more potential for strong gusts and dust devils. Coastal winds and pure ridge soaring winds are typically smoother and more consistent. Never kite on the leeside of hills and mountains when the wind is strong over the back. Check the winds aloft. High speed winds aloft can dip down to the flats without warning making kiting dangerous (the winds aloft the day of my accident were not strong or over the back).
- Avoid kiting when the potential to get airborne exists but be aware that it could happen (you may be surprised—I was). Just like on launch, be mentally prepared to get airborne or plucked. Have a plan for that possibility. Give consideration to always having the correct brakes for flying in hand when kiting, especially if you choose to kite as winds get stronger. Be ready to turn around quickly if you get airborne. Brakes in hand will make flying much easier and turning around quickly may allow your harness to provide some back protection (especially with some airbag harnesses that may need time to fully inflate). Consider trying to face forward as much as possible if you choose to kite in higher winds–minimize your time in the reverse position. Facing forward allows you to watch for signs (blowing grass, trees, dust) of what’s coming next. If only lifted slightly collapsing the wing may be a good idea but realize a tug on the brakes may initially take you higher or rapidly pull you downwind. Collapsing the wing with the C’s on a three liner may be a better bet.
- While kiting, versus flying, you will have more exposure to sudden gusts, thermals and dust devils while in close proximity to the ground. In my case I was kiting for over an hour. For a typical flight, the wing is over your head on launch and landing for a very limited amount of time—you could still get hit by sudden gusts or dust devils but the probability is lower. Spending unnecessary time on the ground with the wing overhead in potentially thermic conditions is a bad idea.
- If you have to wait for lulls in the wind to kite, the winds are probably too strong for safe kiting. A small or mini wing can be used to expand the safe wind envelope but kiting could still be a bad idea if conditions are thermic.
- If you think you have a potential back or neck injury and you aren’t in tiger country (i.e. emergency help can get to you in a reasonable amount of time) minimize your movements and let the experts help. Pride doesn’t encourage good decision making—call the emergency responders.
Fly and kite with a full awareness of the risks involved so you can make the best decisions for your experience level and risk tolerance. I hope to see you at cloudbase…in 8-10 weeks.
After taking the winter off, I am back to flying and hope to see you at one our local sites.
Was my accident poor judgement, lack of skills and/or knowledge, poor timing, bad luck, or, probably, a combination of all the aforementioned? Regardless, I hope this article helps fill your bag of experience and that your bag of luck never runs out. Cloud streets and lift…