When I first learned how to paraglide my instructor (Jeff Farrell at Superfly) gave me a fun analogy about flying that I’ve always loved, and frequently revisit. It goes like this: You’ve got two jars. One jar is luck, the other is experience. When you first learn the experience jar is empty and the lucky jar is full of coins. Each time you get lucky a coin comes out of the luck jar and goes into the experience jar. At some point the luck jar is going to run out of coins and staying safe relies on all the experience you’ve built up. Of course we don’t know when the luck jar is actually going to run out so we have to be proactive about beefing up the experience while keeping some luck coins in reserve.
When I completed the X-Alps last July after the elation subsided and my brain returned to somewhat normal functioning after being fed nothing but adrenaline and sugar and endorphins for ten days three things really stuck out.
- My feet hurt like hell and looked worse.
- If I could sort out #1, I couldn’t wait to do the race again.
- If I did it again, I needed some solid acro training.
In my just-released podcast with Will Gadd I asked him what the most common source of accidents was. His response hit the nail on the proverbial head: “People see what they want to see, instead of seeing what is actually there.” The weather report says it’s going to be good. We’ve got the day off from work. But we get to launch and it doesn’t feel right. It’s cross and a bit gnarly and there are bad signs in the sky. But we launch anyway because it’s supposed to be good! We try to make the day fit our expectations instead of realizing what they actually are and backing down. If we pull it off, another coin comes out of the jar. We may learn something valuable, but we can pay an awfully steep price for that knowledge.
To be competitive in the X-Alps you have to repeatedly fly in conditions that wouldn’t normally be acceptable. Actually they just aren’t acceptable period. Like most pilots in the race who pressed hard, I definitely took some coins out of my luck jar and I’ve been at this game long enough that I’m starting to worry my jar is getting dangerously depleted. I decided that first night in Monaco, hearing scary stories similar to my own from Paul Guschlbauer and Aaron Durogati and Gaspard Petiot and the others who came in before me that I needed to stack the odds a bit more in my favor. I needed Acro training. I needed to get as comfortable with stalls and spins as I am with walking the dog. I don’t have a dog, but you get my point.
I just returned from my second trip training acro over the dirt with Cody Mittanck, who you can listen to talk about risk and safety and training and a lot more in my audio podcast with him a few weeks ago. Obviously training acro over the dirt instead of water is not ideal, and is not something I’m promoting. In our case, we don’t have an easy place to train over the water and Cody and I both feel we have the skills and background to do it safely. Cody is one of a handful of pilots in North America doing the Infinity but got confident and capable training for many dedicated weeks over the water in Oludeniz, Turkey. Personally I’ve done a ton of SIV training and some basic acro training and I’m not attempting to learn “dangerous”, complicated acro maneuvers. I’m perfecting stalls and spins, which I’m already reasonably comfortable with.
The night before heading down to Virgin, Utah to join Cody for a two-week training stint I repacked one of my reserves into my Sup’Air Acro 2 harness. I was not in great condition. I’d tweaked my back that weekend skiing and I was exhausted from a brief trip to Vancouver for an evening of paragliding films at the Vancouver Mountain Film Festival where they brought me in to MC the event. Working in poor light late at night I should have recognized as I fumbled hooking the rubber band around my harness rescue bridles that I was not operating at full capacity.
A few days later my back was feeling better and it was my turn at taking some tows over the desert. I’d been working hard on controlled deep stalls, a twitchy and very tricky and demanding maneuver to perfect on a small wing (I’m flying a 20 M Niviuk F-Gravity for the acro training), and one that can go wrong fast if you screw it up. On my second tow I pulled into a deep stall right about 1,000 feet over the deck, our prescribed limit for doing anything that could go wrong. Mistake #1. Suddenly I spun the wing hard and wound up in 4 or 5 riser twists, with a mostly stable wing overhead.
I took a quick look at the ground and didn’t hesitate. Time to throw. Cody had taught me that whenever you throw it’s really important to grab both brake toggles in the non-throwing hand in order to keep the wing stalled. The last thing you want as you go to throw is let up on a brake, which might allow the wing to recover dynamically and go into an auto-rotate situation. So I grabbed both toggles in my left hand, reached down with my right and threw the first reserve of my flying career. Then I waited, feeling mildly curious how this was going to work out.
After what seemed like an eternity, with the ground rushing closer and closer I thought, “what the fuck is wrong with this reserve?” and looked back to see if it was fouled or something. And there behind me was a perfectly deployed red and white round reserve- floating peacefully away from me. It wasn’t attached to my harness! Mistake #2. My second thought was a “you’ve got to be kidding me, are you that stupid?” But I didn’t have time for thoughts. I took a look at my risers, avoiding looking at the rapidly approaching ground and thought for a split second that if I couldn’t get out of the twists I was going to die. But then I remembered I was flying a harness with two reserves, which I wasn’t used to (mistake # 3- being unfamiliar with your equipment) and reached down and threw my second reserve as fast as I could.
At this point Cody was screaming at me on the radio. “Keep the wing overhead, keep the wing overhead, keep it in deep stall!” My thoughts exactly and thankfully being all twisted up meant my brakes were locked in. I was basically coming down under a really small reserve. My last thought before I hit was to do the best PLF I’ve ever done. “You’re going to hit hard dude, don’t try to stick this!”
And then I pounded. My second reserve didn’t have time to deploy, it was laid out right beside me in a unfolded line. I bounced a bit and thankfully the dirt was really soft. My body made a horrible thudding noise but I was certainly alive. I got up slowly and realized with some amazement that I seemed to be unhurt. I called Cody on the radio and said the same. “Cody, dude I’m ok!” I panted.
“NO YOU AREN’T OK, that’s the adrenaline, you are definitely not ok, lay back down!”
But I was in fact ok. Soreness and stiffness would kick in as the adrenaline wore off but I had nothing worse than bruises. To both my ego and my body.
The first thought that registered after I’d confirmed nothing was broken was that I was pissed I wouldn’t get any more tows that day as repacking my two reserves was going to take all afternoon. I wasn’t scared to fly again or any more nervous about towing over the dirt than I had been. I was out here to learn, and learning was happening. When is a wing recoverable? How much time/altitude do you need to throw? How to throw? I can’t believe I’ve flown all these years in all the nasty places and in all the nasty conditions and didn’t really know anything more than theory when it came to reserves. But the most important lesson was one of complacency. It was a small miracle that I was alive and nothing more than dumb luck had saved me. I’d made an idiot mistake no slightly respectable pilot would ever make- not attaching a reserve to the harness! How could I be so stupid?
The reality is we all make mistakes. In this case my mistake isn’t forgivable and it’s only funny because I got lucky. The morale of the story I suppose is painfully clear. Check your gear. Be familiar with your gear. Recognize when you aren’t on your game. Don’t take life for granted. Don’t empty the luck jar.