Broken back and neck due to impact with ground.
On 5/14/16, I launched at the Villa Grove, Colorado launch site, elevation 9,700’. It was a beautiful day with fluffy white clouds in the distance. Moisture was predicted to move in at the end of the day. Air temperature was predicted to be in the 80s. I was flying a Paraglider, the Ozone Delta 2 with a SUPAir Delight II pod harness. After launch, I managed a low save and climbed up to about 12,000’. I then flew South with the goal of reaching Crestone, Colorado. I flew a flight path following the snow line of the lower third of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The winds were very light and the lift was strong. During my flight, my max lift was 1930 feet per minute, 1800 sustained. I do not have a max sink due to spiraling down at the end of the flight. The lift was fantastic, I climbed up to 15,725. The thermals were going higher, but without oxygen, I saw no point in going higher. As I approached Crestone, a thin finger of Virga was marching across the valley from the Northwest. I could see over, around and through the Virga. South of this line of Virga, the flying looked awesome all the way to New Mexico, with cloud streets developing. I continued toward Crestone, hoping to beat the line of Virga. As I closed in on Crestone, I encountered a head wind that slowed my progress. The Virga reached Crestone before I did, cutting off my flying South. The Virga was over the populated area of the valley. I then turned West out into the valley. There was a break in the Virga out in the Valley, which might give me a place to land near a road or even dissipate, allowing me to continue South. The Virga did not dissipate and the wind got stronger out of the South West. This gave me a tail wind to fly back to launch. I could have landed near the road leading into Crestone, but this would put me very close to the Virga. I decided to fly back to launch, I could hear on my radio that people were still launching, which meant to me that conditions there must still be good. With a tail wind, I made good time back to launch. During this time, I watched small Cumulus clouds build and dissipate over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. On the West side of the Valley, the clouds were filling in and getting darker. I had a corridor of lift and great flying leading back to launch. Landing South of launch was a possibility for me, but due to the retrieval and remoteness of some of this area, I decided to continue North toward Launch.
As I approached launch, two hang glider pilots were trying to get out of strong lift and land. A third Hang Glider pilot was not responding on the radio and we did not know where he was. One other pilot was flying a paraglider. The two hang gliders landed without incident. The wind had changed again, I was now fighting a headwind out of the North West. I had to spiral down, when I spiraled, the wind pushed me toward the tree line and the mountains. When I would come out of the spiral, I would put my speed system pulley to pulley and crawl back up wind, while gaining altitude. I then decided a deeper spiral was necessary. I got to an almost nose down spiral, dropping 2,800’ a minute according to my vario, came out of the spiral, went on full bar with big ears to continue descending and making a little forward progress. A gust front was reported by the pilots in the LZ. I was still high enough at the time that it did not affect me. Once the gust front passed, I thought this would be a good time to land. I was thinking that the gust front that passed would release some of the built up energy near our LZ. Pilots were reporting winds of 5 to 10mph after the gust front. My assumption about the gust front was an error. While low, I could still have climbed back up. Overhead, the clouds were now filled in and appeared to be getting darker. Continuing to fly might result in cloud suck into the white room.
When I was about 100’ AGL, another gust front rolled through. I am guessing this wind was 35 to 45mph. I was pointed into the wind, my ground speed was about 15mph backwards up the slope toward the tree line. It was full on turbulence, I was doing some big wing overs and had 2-3 30% collapses. I knew I was too low for a reserve toss. I tried Big Ears, but this increased my backward speed without gaining me the stability I wanted. If I turned and flew with the wind, I was afraid that with as low as I was, I would fly right into the hill or the tree line. I tried to crab South to build up energy to land into the wind. I turned back into the wind and fought another big wing over. At 30’ off the deck, I was happy to have my wing stable overhead for a moment. I got my feet out for my landing. Once my feet were out of my pod, the wing surged forward and I swooped toward the ground. The ground rushed up at me at a tremendous velocity. I braked for all I was worth, swung back under the wing just as I impacted the ground. With the swinging action, I was not able/ready for that angle to get my feet under me. I landed on my butt, bounced and rolled to my left. The wing dropped to the ground to my left. I was not dragged down wind. Upon landing, I knew I had hurt the lumbar region of my back. Lying on my side, I radioed for help. I managed to unbuckle myself from my harness so I could lie flat on my back. Once supine, I did not move again until rescue arrived with a back board.
The other pilots had not seen my final descent, as they thought my flying looked good and they were watching the other paragliding pilot, who the gust front hit first. I was informed that the other pilot had been taking collapses and at about 50’ AGL, his wing stalled and he dropped to the ground. He landed in 12’ high scrub oak which broke his fall. He was able to walk away with a bruised rib and hip. The missing hang glider pilot had been sucked up in the clouds and blown over the back. He crashed in Salida, with only a close call and walked away unharmed.
People were trying to find me. I could see launch, where pilots were still para-waiting. They were asking me for a lat long. I managed to get to my phone, turn it on and provide this information. This information was not used to find me, but would have helped if they needed it. People were hiking in my direction, but they still could not see me. They were asking how close I was to the tree line. I was not able to provide this information as I could not look in that direction. The pilots on launch spotted me and directed two trucks to my location. I had crashed close to a two track that they used to drive to me. The rescue operation went really well. I was boarded, driven in the back of a truck to a waiting ambulance and transported to a hospital. A special thanks to Larry who lives in Villa Grove, the pilots on scene and the local rescue personnel.
Xrays showed that I had mild compression of L-1, broken shards on L-1 and L-4, and a small break in C-3. I was given a back brace and told that I will make a full recovery.
Lessons learned and decisions made
While I could have landed much earlier, once the Virga existed, a gust front could have happened at any time. After I crashed, the Virga dissipated and the sun came back out, showing that I could have just waited for the Virga to pass. Waiting for the Virga to pass could have lead to the white room and a trip over the back of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The wing surging forward just above the ground might have been due to the pod catching the wind like a drogue chute, sending me backwards and the wing forward. Another possibility is surface rotor and that the wing was caught in the downward rolling action of the wind. The latter option represents what I felt. If I had a few more feet in altitude, I think I would have completed the swing without the forceful impact. Had I landed 10 minutes earlier or later, this landing would have been a nonevent. Given these choices again, I think I would try to continue flying and observing the weather.
Flying with a back protector
I fly with a POC back protector. I do not know if this device helped me, but something to note is that the breaks I received were above and below this extra protection.
Thank you for posting this! I am really happy to hear that you will make a full recovery and that you are healing.
I have a few things to add that may help. I have been caught in a few gust fronts, one of them was at Villa.
I had the fortune of having MR (Mike Reeder) as a mentor. He always told a story of having to land in a gust front/ high wind situation. He told that story so many times that when I had to use that information, it was in my mind so strong that it overwhelmed my fear at the moment and allowed me to to what I had to do.
Long story short: MR would say… If you find yourself in a high wind landing situation on a paraglider, you must do the thing you assume to be inherently wrong: you need to go downwind on your final approach ( about 60’ and flying 50-60 mph) turn the glider back into the wind at the last chance (20’). The wing will resist pointing back into the wind, if the wing does point straight into the wind before you land (or if you flare) you will be back up and flying backward again.
I have a theory about the wind in a gust front, in a basic way of thinking… the air is turbulent near the ground because it is blowing down at the ground and air is blasting back up at the same time, like a waterfall.
When I had my gust front ride and tried to point my glider into the wind (at100’); the glider would collapse and I was going up and backward. The down wind method is necessary. I told many pilots about this at fly week last time… one of the pilots heard me tell this story many times (annoyingly), but it turned out he was caught in a gust front and safely landed using this technique.
I wish that I could have put this knowledge in your hands before you actually needed it Eric. The main thing I can say is that Villa is a beast of a flying site. It can be so rewarding and then absolutely terrifying in a short time. If you are willing to ride that bear, you have to be willing to fight.
It is a very tempting thing with all that strong lift everywhere. Personally, when I get the notion the air is getting really rowdy, I just go and land. It takes a serious situation sometimes to make you have this mind set.
Thank you for posting Eric, I hope to see you healed soon.
Thank you for your post/information.
I did know that I needed to fly down wind to build up energy to land in a gust front. I had both heard this and watched it being used in Villa Grove at the last Fly-in. When the gust front hit me, I thought about going downwind to build up this energy. When the gust front first hit me, my first reaction was to get my wing under control. While I was doing this, I tried to access if I had the altitude to turn downwind. I decided that I did not have the altitude to make a downwind turn and then a final turn into the wind to land. If the topography was not climbing and if the tree line was further from my location, I could have done this maneuver. Thus, I turned South which was maybe 120 degrees off the wind direction to build energy. I think this worked, as I gained control of my wing. I may have turned back into the wind too early to use the energy to land, I am not sure. I finished my upwind turn about 30’ agl. Then the wing dove toward the ground. I do know that I have not trained on this kind of landing. Building energy close to the ground to land, I think is dangerous, so I have not practiced this kind of landing. I have been thinking on how to safely practice this kind of maneuver. It is something I want to be better at.
Excellent recap, Eric. Very helpful analysis and self-evaluation. Always good to see the critical thinking going on. Mother’s Day, 1995 was my own example of what you experienced. While I returned uninjured, my gear was a near total loss as everything I had got torn to shreds on landing and I didn’t even care. Sounds like some great “you should have been there” stories to share over beer sometime.
I consider myself a much more cautious pilot now than I was then. I hope your return to the sport provides the same sort of insight.
Good write up Eric. Good talk Jobin. Thank you.