|Without doubt the
most frightening experience I`ve had with a paraglider !!
conditions and gliders are minor safety problems compared to pilot error.
Years of flying gives no insurance against terrible mistakes. These tend
to occur when one least expects them to. This happened on what seemed to
be just another great flying in St.
Andre les Alpes. It's a privilege to be around to tell the tale!
I'm about to take off from the west face launch site of the Chalvet. Thermal activity is peaking, hang- and paragliders set off
in hoards and fly off with ease. My objective is to do an out and return
to Dormillouse together with a
couple of Norwegian friends. The others have already started, I had better
get going! Getting ready to reverse launch in the strong thermal wind, I
pull on the risers. The canopy inflates perfectly. Quickly I turn around
because a strong tug on the risers signals a vertical take-off.
From this moment on, any resemblance to earlier
flights ceases, and the ultimate nightmare begins. Moving vertically I
experience a weird sensation. The safe enclosure of the harness is not
there, I am falling! Instinctively I throw both arms around the
riser-sets. A moment later, 20-30 m agl, I realise my predicament. I had
forgotten to fasten my thigh straps, and so I cling to the harness. It is
already too late to jump down and I am not able to make a controlled
descent. Mortification, shame and anger sweep through my mind but are
quickly replaced with a deep concern. You will not survive, what a
ridiculous way to die ....
||<<At the western launch of Chalvet.
My ascending rate is 4-5 m/s, pushing me 300 m above
the Chalvet before I manage to
manoeuvre out of the thermal. But there is no time to enjoy the view, my
life depends on immediate action.
Alternatives race through my head,
B-stalling is useless as I would have to hang by the B-raisers with my
entire bodyweight and inevitably lose my grip before landing. To throw the
reserve is out of the question simply because I cannot reach the handle on
the back section of the harness. Feeling the edge of the seat aginst my
shoulders, I consider lifting myself up into it, but reject the idea
because if the attempt fails I will fall.
What about 360's? The centrifugal force might throw me out of the
harness but what the hell, something has to be done! Carefully spiralling
I shed some meters but then hit turbulence, counter-steer too much because
of my low arm-position and enter into a negative spin. Clumsy efforts at
recovering result in a variety of deflations, eventually followed by an
abrupt reinflation that makes the canopy shoot forward and under me. At
the very last second I apply full brakes, then tumble down,
leading-edge by only a few centimeters! Consequently, all lines are
violently stretched almost tearing me away from the harness.
Virtually hanging by my fingertips, I fight for a better grip,
lifting myself up by one arm and then the other. This exercise is
exhausting and saps the strength in my arms even more.
All right, if I am not able to generate sink, I will have to
go and find it! I fly to the southeastern slope of Chalvet. Arms weakening dangerously, I have to let go of the left
brake line. Grabbing the right wrist with my left hand, I lock my arms
around the raisers, thus preventing me from falling.
Hanging like this, I
permanently dismiss the illusion that one lives forever.
For the moment
the odds grant me merely minutes and seconds!
The route to survival
Over the radio I hear the carefree chatting of my
friends. They have flown some kilo-meters to the north and are in blissful
ignorance of my crisis.
I cannot reach the transmission button and it
thoroughly annoys me being deprived of saying "goodbye".
They cannot help in any case, but hearing the voices of
people I care for has a
positive effect. It strenghtens my will to survive; I will miss having a
couple of beers with them tonight!
Reconstruction of the hanging position, authentic pilot and gear.
On the leeside I get tossed around, only being able
to correct with the right brake line. "Resting" my chin on the
chest strap, my head is bent backwards giving me a good view of the
canopy's movements. To get a glimpse of the ground, though, is very
difficult. But at last I'm descending, going down 2-7 m/s in leeside
rotors. I welcome the blessing of every massive deflation and am ever
willing to crash into the mountain slope just to avoid a free fall. The
lesser of two evils.
Having lost 900 m, I'm 100 m above the valley floor
close to the little village
My arms are totally numb and the armlock is relentlessly slipping. -Don't give in, I shout to myself, desperately trying to maintain
Steering is difficult, but I manage to avoid two powerlines and
a concrete building. With a strong tail-wind, I have to land in a turn,
crashing through a tree, hitting a telegraph pole and eventually biting
the dust on the road.
Fifteen minutes of horror is over.
Despite a torn muscle in my left thigh (the
telegraph pole) and a ripped flying suit, I am very happy, disregarding
the pain and smiling to the astonishment of some local spectators.
Before leaving for Norway the next day, I buy a
T-shirt inscribed with what had previously seemed stupid but now made
absolute sense: "I survived Saint André-les-Alpes"!!
The explanation for this incident is simple but
nevertheless inexcusable. Slipping into the harness, I was ready to do the
final pre-flight check. Cross country pilots carry an increasing number of
technical equipment during flight, and the way this equipment is organised
depends upon the individual. To ensure that I wouldn't forget anything
(!!!), I first attached the compass, the hook knife and the map holder to
the chest strap and locked it. I then went on to check the vario, the
radio and the camera. Eager to catch up with the others, I set off
forgetting to lock the thigh straps. A blunder not apparent to me as the
map covered my groin.
Making it a rule to always begin putting on the harness by locking
first the thigh then the chest straps, would prevent similar
reoccurrences. In other words; back to the basics!
If you ever get trapped in the same type of
situation: React!! Time is short
and a miracle is not going to happen. Don't allow yourself to be
overpowered by fear. Stay focused on finding and accomplishing a solution
to the problem.
(Previously published in Cross Country 43/1996)
Jérôme Daust explains a technique to get into the
seat if you are hanging under:
If you are
hanging very deep, barely by the armpits like I did, this technique might be difficult/impossible to
accomplish. You might loose your grip in the attempt. But if it is
the best option it is better to try than to die.. but do it early, before
your strength is