Safety - Harness Checks and security preflight

ParaDangling - 15 Minutes of Hell

By Cort Flinchbaugh

In mid-December of last year, a Santa Barbara paraglider pilot launched from Skyport, a local mountain site, after failing to buckle his harness. What happened during the subsequent 3000 foot descent is related below, excerpted from the local pilots' forum.

So there I was, dangling from the harness by my arms with a 1000ft drop below me. I searched for my stirrup, but couldn't get it. I tried several times to grab the carabiners and pull myself up into the harness but I couldn't quite get in and kept slipping back down. Even flipping my legs up and hooking the risers didn't work. As none of these were successful, and I was expending a lot of energy trying...my arms and upper body muscles quickly began to fatigue. By that time I was a thousand over and near power lines and I figured my best option was to hang on and try to fly it out. I still had the brakes and I could turn a little by bending my wrists.

Why didn't I turn back into the hill? 

Well, the terrain around Skyport and immediately below launch is extremely steep, all rocks, daggers and cliffs. While suspended by my arms, I flew a thousand feet over a pit, in the middle of a canyon, and not close to anything worth grabbing or crashing into. I had very limited ability to turn, much less pull off a crazy side-hill, and immediately decided not to try. And unfortunately the day was unusually buoyant. I was told by eyewitnesses that as I glided out I just kept going up. I was way too high, and couldn't do anything like spiral or pull big ears to get down.

The clock was ticking, I couldn't do this too long.

Oddly, what I was afraid of more than falling was the thought of never seeing my children again, and I resolved that they were not going to get that phone call. This was not going to end that way, period. That resolve filled my mind and pushed everything else out, and gave me strength.

But by the time I reached Parma, a few hundred over, hanging on had become difficult. I was breathing hard and shaking, and the pain was pretty intense. But failure was not an option, especially so close. I initiated a sort of spiral, but by then I was really, really tired and the increased G's almost made me lose my grip. So I quickly stopped doing that and just did slow turns to get down which, fortunately, worked. Those slow turns burned off altitude and helped me point toward the LZ. Luck put me down right in the middle of it. I didn't have the strength to flare or run it out and I slid in on my face. I tried to get up and found that my arms didn't work, so I rolled on my side. I heard familiar voices around me asking if I was OK, but I couldn't answer. Someone took my gear off as I laid there. After a few minutes I managed to get up, and collapsed again. That's when the tears came, because of relief I was alive, but also because of the horror of what I had just nearly done.

How could this have happened?

I knew the sequence of events. I was geared up and was waiting in line to launch when I remembered something in my harness, and took it off to get to it. When I put it back on, the straps were hanging below my flight deck and hidden by it, and I failed to re-buckle, and didn't do a pre-flight check. How could I have done that? I'd like to blame it on stupidity, but I know that's not the problem. Nor is a lack of experience. When I was talking to Lee, our resident commercial pilot, afterwards, he said that one of the biggest threats airline pilots have is complacency. Somewhere in my head I thought that after hundreds of flights, buckling-in was so automatic that I couldn't forget to do it. What I learned yesterday is that I can forget, I did, and most important, given the chance, I will do it again I have to protect myself from myself. That means a full pre-flight check, every time I get into my equipment. And before I pull up, I?m doing a final check that those buckles - EVERYTIME. I'm also going to start looking at the buckles of the other pilots on launch, especially those who should know better.

Will it happen again?

As suggested, I plan to go hook into the simulator at Elings, unbuckled, and see if I can figure out how I could have gotten back in, or at least supported myself better. I think that would probably be a worthwhile exercise for every pilot, god forbid you ever find yourself in that situation. Obviously, the best thing to do is a compulsive preflight check, so you never have to try any of that.

I want to thank everyone in the LZ for the support, compassion and understanding they gave me, and Robb for his calming and reassuring voice on the radio. I'm grateful to (still) be a part of our very special community. I hope you don't find yourself in the same pickle, wondering how you got there and how you're going to live through it ? remember to prepare, be patient, and always preflight.