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Unsuccessful Reserve Deployment / Aspen
This report was originally submitted to the USHGA in confidence for statistical evaluation only. The report is now offered for review by our flying community so they may learn from my mistakes.
Date of Incident
Early Evening on a strong summer day. Fading wind and thermal strength. Some convergence. The wind up in the canyon and up above was from the SSW. The wind down lower closer to the mouth of the canyon and down low out in the valley at the airport was from the NW.
The competition task was from Ruthies, to Hurricane, to Red Mountain, to the Merry Go Round on Highlands, and back to the Primary Ruthies LZ west of Town.
A seasoned P4 pilot with limited competition experience. Limited experience on the DHV-3 glider flown. No prior advanced maneuvers clinic.
Firebird Cult (DHV-3), Pro-Lite harness, 12 cm Sup’ Air back protector, Protec open face plastic helmet.
The pilot had stayed low on the upwind leg to Hurricane but stopped at the convergence on the way back to climb with a good thermal into the upper level flow to aid the glide across the Valley to Red Mountain. The pilot left the thermal with 18,000’ and headed for Red Mountain. Another glider followed off to his left slightly below and behind. The glide to Red mountain was quartering downwind requiring reduced speed for best glide but both pilots had enough altitude to complete the course so they applied some accelerator. The glides were smooth at altitude. After rounding Red the glide back across the valley to Highlands was upwind at altitude so the pilots applied near full accelerator. The gliders rounded the last turn point with about 3 to 400’ AGL and headed back down the ridge toward goal. The lead pilot slowed down to access his angle to goal and also because he didn’t feel comfortable going full speed just a few hundred off the deck. It quickly became clear that he was going to make goal easily and he might be too high. Pilots needed to cross goal below 1,000’AGL to score so there wasn’t much incentive to arrive at goal high. The trailing pilot was still below and behind but closing and about to pass. The lead pilot could beat the other glider to goal if he went full speed. He elected to to apply full accelerator.
With about 300’ AGL over the ridge line tree tops the lead pilot took a full frontal tuck while flying fully accelerated. The canopy stopped and swung back fully stalled. The canopy then gyrated forward hard and went about 60 degrees past horizontal before the rotation was arrested. The pilot fell through the slack lines and caught several lines under his right leg. The pilot decided to deploy, found the handle quickly and gave a hard throw outward. An Airborne witness at 12 o’clock (Will Gadd) reported seeing 2 gyrations, the reserve come out, and the canopy streamer. He watched it descend straight down and disappear through the tree tops. The second gyration probably occurred while the pilot was busy deploying his reserve.
After throwing the reserve the pilot looked for the ground to regain orientation and noticed his deployment bag falling away toward full line stretch, but the deployment bag wasn’t falling much faster than the pilot. The ground was rushing up quickly and it was apparent the reserve would not inflate prior to tree top arrival. The pilot was laid out in an awkward position and there wasn’t time to get upright and prepare for impact. Perception was skewed in the ground rush followed by noise like crashing brush and snapping branches followed momentarily by a thud. The thud was accompanied by the physical sensation of vertically compression from the legs up through the body. The pilot was on the ground, on his right side, slightly head down on a slope falling off to his upper right.
Obvious Primary Cause
Speculative Contributing Cause
The pilot had intended to fly a DHV-2 glider in the meet, however, due to a last minute mix up the glider he was suppose to fly was not available. He opted to fly the Cult even though he had never thermaled the glider. The pilot had extensive experience in turbulence and strong conditions, however, he had never attended and advance maneuvers clinic or flown a glider with as much speed performance as the cult. The pilot had listened to advice from one of the glider’s designers and as well as advice from other sources that suggested that you have to be cautious about braking the glider too hard in recovering from trouble. His perception of the advice was that using too much brake when attempting to limit a forward surge on recovery could cause the glider to stall asymmetrically and break into a flat spin. This advice influenced the pilot in how aggressively he was willing to brake the glider when it was surging forward. Due to lack of training in advanced maneuvers the pilot did not have a solid understanding of the sequence of gyrations that can take place from wicked front tucks at full speed under a fast canopy.
The pilot was not a regular competition pilot but was doing well in the meet. He was the highest placing American on all the task he flew. Even though his intuition told him to slow down he chose to speed up because another pilot that had been trailing him for over a dozen miles was about to pass. In hind sight, the difference in scoring would have been negligible and probably wouldn’t have affected his place in the standings. He had been caught up by the competitive moment and blocked his intuitive perception. He made a decision on hasty incorrect calculations about his score.
The glides at altitude were in smooth air, but as the gliders got lower they began to experience some texture.
The pilot impacted on the west side of the Highlands ski area ridge line. He was a bit below the ridge in a mature Aspen grove. He came to rest on his right side, slightly head down on a slope falling off to his upper right. He struggled unsuccessfully to roll uphill to his left away from increasing pain on his right side. He was tangled in the lines which restricted his movement and he wasn’t strong enough to get out of his uncomfortable position. Shouts from uphill were heard and the pilot called back. Help arrive within 5 minutes of impact. He was evaluated, strapped to a backboard and professionally extracted uphill to a waiting ambulance. He was conscious and coherent. The ride down the bumpy ski area service road was quite uncomfortable. He arrived at Aspen Valley Hospital one hour and twenty minutes after impact. Within 30 minutes of arrival 90% of his injuries had been diagnosed.
On the right upper body the pilot had shattered his scapula (shoulder blade) along with assorted shoulder damage including torn muscle and a shattered humerus (upper arm bone) with the head of the humerus broken off. Ribs 2, 3, 4, & 5 were broken inward toward the chest cavity which punctured and partially collapsed his right lung.
Lower on the body he had a fractured pelvis (left hip), fractured sacrum (where the pelvis attaches to the back bone), and a fractured Fibula (lower right leg).
Speculation on Cause of Injuries
The pilot probably impacted the trees laid out somewhat horizontal, on his right side, and possibly rotated slightly on his back. Impact with the tree branches most likely caused the upper body injuries.
The impact with the trees caused the pilots body to tense tightly. The drag of the canopies through the foliage helped rotate the pilots body upright. The pilot appears to have hit the ground feet first with good tension in his legs which absorbed much of the impact. This vertical impact with the ground probably resulted in the lower body injuries.
All the trees in a mature Aspen grove are the same age. They don’t have any low branches and it’s a long way from the foliage to the ground. The trailing canopies probably helped slow his decent but the distance from the ground to the branches was about twice the line length. The canopy’s owner inspected the glider and reported that it was not badly damaged. The pilot obviously went between the trees striking only moderate size willowy branches. The pilot estimates his vertical speed on arrival at the tree tops to be 40 to 50 mph (about 60 ft/sec).
Patient was admitted to the ICU at Aspen Valley Hospital with a chest tube. He spent 6 days in ICU plus another 5 on the regular floor for a total stay of 11 days.
The patient was able to begin walking without a crutch at 5 weeks and began physical therapy about the same time. He engaged in aggressive physical therapy sessions twice a week. He flew again at 4 months but was initially limited to mostly left hand turns. At 4-1/2 months he was having longer flights an doing tandems with light passengers. At 5 months he could turn right with reasonable comfort on limited duration flights. He continues with physical therapy and maximum recovery is expected to take about a year.
Primary Lessons Learned
© copyright 12/9/98
Released for publication on 2/23/04
Additional notation at publication
Early in our sport, US competitions were typically held in the fall to avoid sharper summer conditions. Our sport was going through "intermediate syndrome". Competition canopies were pushing the performance envelope and the competition gang was taking on peak mountain conditions in the mid summer heat. There were three pilots hospitalized during the Aspen meet. In one of the incidents, the pilot was caught in a dust devil while landing in the primary LZ. His landing was captured on video. He was snatched like a rag doll and taken along with the twister hundreds of yards, repeatedly slamming into the ground and other assorted projections. He sustained many broken ribs an was still in the Aspen Hospital when I was discharged. Our sport appears to have learned some humility, and US competitions are now back in their late summer or early fall season slots. European comp pilots are more full time professional than their US counter parts, and their competitions are more aggressive.
The Firebird Cult was short lived. The glider had exceptional performance for it's day, and was popular among hardcore comp pilots for 3 or 4 months. Everyone who flew the glider in comps eventually needed to deploy their reserve.
The reserve used a deployment bag rather than a diaper. A diaper may have performed better in this scenario.
The shoulder injury healed, but with abnormal structure. The interference led to deteriorating arthritis and surgery about 5 years after the initial injury.
Rob Sporrer came back to Aspen to collect Tom from the hospital and take his broken body back to Carpinteria. The flying community came together and provided much needed support for basic functions like meal rotation and emptying Tom's urinal.