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Sunday, 3/30/03
Nordhoff to the West Side of  Bump One
Sharon Sweeney's Compression Fracture

Sharon Sweeney hit the ground hard while executing an intentional landing on the west side of Highway 33 in a gully below ridge line on the west side of Bump One about 2,900'.  The hard impact resulted in a non-symmetrical compression fracture of her L1 vertebra.  She was extracted by a Ventura County Sheriffs Helicopter crew to Ventura County Medical Center.  She was sent home from the ER after evaluation.  She was in considerable pain, but mobile, and was able to hike a short distance up and out of the gully to facilitate her rescue.

This report is offered for it's limited merit after interviewing Sharon the night of her hard hit, and several of the pilots on scene.  I did not fly and was not in the mountains, so my perception of events is not direct and contains my personal opinion and supposition.  The following is not conclusive.

Weather Archive

The day had some sharp edges, and the micro meteorology played a role in the incident, but was not the direct cause of Sharon's hard impact.  Her  canopy was fully inflated and flying at the time of impact, and she did not report an awareness of canopy gyrations or loss of control.

Sharon reports that she had gotten up at Nordhoff and crossed Highway 33.  Her max altitude was about 6K behind The Pyramid.  She still had 55 hundred over the river.  She came in above Bump One with enough altitude to continue up the ridge.  She was trying to reach the small non-descript peak up behind Bump 2, thinking it would work, but encountered a lot of sink in the canyon (other pilots reported a "wall" of SW wind approaching Bump 2).  Realizing that she would not reach the point, she became concerned about going down in the canyon.  She opted to turn back and try to reach the lower ridge off the west side of Bump One, but was pulling a bad glide against the draw, and perceived that she would go down in the canyon.  She opted to do a 180 to the right and head deeper into the back of the canyon, thinking she may be able to land on the trail (old Camino Cielo?) just below ridge line, however, the downwind north bound leg resulted in excessive ground speed.  Not wanting to impact the hill downwind, she did a 150 to the right over the road cut and headed back out.  She aimed for a bush coming out of the turn.  Sharon reports her ground speed was high but doesn't recall her airspeed.  The high groundspeed may have been a result of local down canyon flow against the draw, or her airspeed may have been high exiting the turn.  She went to full extension approaching the bush, but crashed though the top and continued downhill to impact on the hard rocky down slope through a clearing in the brush.

It is my opinion that there are no big lessons to be learned from this incident.  Basically, Sharon was landing in an awkward spot, and hit hard... but a few notations:

Most of our local pilots are either aware of or have personally discovered that traveling along the back ridge between Bumps 1 and 3 may result in getting pinned in the back of the canyons.  Pilots reported Sunday's SW draw was stronger approaching Bump 2, but not strong enough to pin a pilot.  We generally recommend that pilots avoid the back of canyons and keep the front points within reach to avoid getting either pined in a canyon, or trapped on the back side of a ridge.

It may be arguable that Sharon's decision to head deep into the back of the canyon for a downwind approach to the road cut rather than trying to fly out may not have been the best choice.

Some may question Sharon's operation in scenarios that are perhaps beyond her skill and awareness level.  She has been flying in challenging conditions for several years now.  As a result, her ability as a pilot has improved considerably.  Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from exercising poor judgment.  I don't think Sunday's conditions were beyond Sharon's ability, but I suspect her mental picture of the battle field is not as detailed as I would prefer.


Sharon's Thoughts

After reviewing the flight with Tom Truax, Robb Sporrer and Tom Pipkin, I realize that I did not continually update Plan B.  One of the things I noticed when flying tandem with Tom Truax was his keen ability to know what to do if one plan didnít work.  He had a number of backup plans for almost every situation.  To get to that level seems light years away sometimes.

Anyway, I was heading for the bump while sinking fast hoping I could get some lift from there.  I was not thinking ahead or what if I didnít get there. I had turned around the day before and had not had any problem reaching the Diversion Dam.  My only goal was going forward and I was not thinking about a fallback plan.  I had been thoroughly enjoying the day and the lift before I crossed the river.  For some incredible reason I assumed all would be good on the other side of the river as well.  After I crossed I didnít fully evaluate the winds or the area in which I was flying.  I was also scratching low after sinking too much in search of lift.  When I turned to fly out I found myself low and facing a very long canyon.  I opted to turn for the fire trail and land there.  As reported, that didnít work too well...  Sharon


The Rescue

Dan Keyser had landed in John Taft's Valley and heard of Sharon's plight while monitoring the frequency.  He used his cell phone to call the Ventura County Sheriff's Department and request a Helicopter medevac.

The Sheriff's Helicopter was on scene about 15 minutes after impact, but it took another 25 minutes airtime to locate Sharon.  The helicopter landed near Sharon and the pilot kept his rotors turning during the 15 to 20 minutes of ground time.  They sent 3 crewmembers into the brush.  One of them helped Sharon to the helicopter.  The other two extracted her gear from the brush.  Sharon climbed aboard and rode to the Ventura County Medical Center laying across the seats.  She was not put on a back board until she arrive at the hospital.

Concerned paraglider pilots reported frustration with the communication channels.  Excess chatter, misinformation, and some confusion regarding the GPS coordinates (we don't know why the helicopter crew was not able to successfully determine Sharon's location based on the GPS coordinates relayed to them).  Dan called Sharon on her cell phone and got GPS coordinates from her (N 34į 28.598', W 119į 19.449') which he entered into his GPS so he could visualize her position.  There were then several phone calls back and forth to the Sheriff's department and they eventually acknowledged receipt of the coordinates.  Dan had some contact with the helicopter via 2 meter radio once it arrived on scene, but it was looking too far to the west.  The helicopter crew was eventually able to communicate with Sharon via 2 meter radio, and she directed them to her location.

Despite the frustration in locating Sharon, she was airborne for the 10 minute ride to the hospital about an hour after impact.  It could have been quicker if they didn't have to search for her, and if she was badly injured, they could have left her gear.

John Kloer picked up Sharon's gear from the Camarillo Airport on Monday.  It was a jumbled mess of spaghetti lines and sticks.  He sorted it on the tarmac, and gave it a quick look.  No apparent damage.  Packed and ready to go, but he recommends kiting the glider first to take another look


Sharon's Comment

Thanks to all the terrific pilots who helped on Sunday.  It was comforting to know that Tony and Dan were on it and that help would come.  Thanks to the 3 Musketeers Bill, Tom and Dan who showed up at the hospital to spring me with their smiles and jokes.  And many thanks to so many friends who throughout the week called and dropped in with good wishes and goodies.  And thanks to Tom Truax for his help and his expertise in writing this report so that others may learn and fly safely.  Sharon


Respectfully Compiled by
Tom Truax,
Secretary, SCPA