Monument Valley Fatality

Fatality at Monument Valley,
Date: 09/27/2008
Time: 19:00
Location: Monument Valley Park, Arizona
Pilot Information Age: 38
Gender: MalePilot weight (without motor): 235 US Pounds
Rating: Intermediate (PPG2 or Equivalent) Experience: 10-50 Hours Solo
Incident Detail Information Type of Incident:
Collision with Terrain/Obstruction on Ground
Primary Cause: Pilot Error and Weather
Windspeed: Unknown
Wind Type: Gusting
Thermal Conditions: None
Visibility: clear with approaching thunderstorms and gust fronts
Surface: Dirt or Small Rocks
Terrain: Hilly Site Elevation: 5200 (feet above sea level)
Phase of Flight: Cruise Purpose of Flight: Recreation
Safety Gear Used: None

Damage to Pilot’s Equipment:
Totaled Wing: Macpara Eden II 33, DHV 1-2
Motor: Fly Products Gold 115, Flash Trike
Injury InformationPilot/Passenger Injury Severity: Fatal Hosipitalization: None
Collateral Damage: None

Narrative: By Mo Sheldon:
On the evening of September 27, 2008, right at sunset at approximately 7:00pm, Martin Maxwell crashed his powered paraglider trike in Monument Valley Park, Arizona. Here is my account of this incident that is being submitted to the Sheriff’s Office and that I am posting publicly with the pilot communities. As for my credentials, I am a experienced powered paraglider pilot and flight instructor, tow operator, and paraglider pilot. I had worked with Martin to teach him to fly a powered paraglider in the Fall/Summer of 2008. I also considered him a friend. We both separately decided to join an informal gathering of pilots to fly that weekend. Also, the following day after the incident, I volunteered to go to the crash site to help understand the reasons for the crash and to recover the gear. In knowing Martin his friend and flight instructor, I know that he spent a great deal of effort and time studying pilot incident reports, trying to learn from the experiences of others. I believe this incident report I have prepared is something he would have wanted me to do. And so in writing this, I believe I honor his memory. Also, considering he was my friend, writing this report has been particularly difficult for me. It is my hope that preparing this incident report will prevent future incidents and fatalities. Pilot ExperienceMartin was a very experienced recreational, licensed hot air balloon pilot, with over 23 years experience and many flights as pilot in command and as a crew. A number of years previously, he had also tried to obtain his General Aviation private license and came very close to completion. He was also actively involved in CAP (Civil Air Patrol) and flew regularly in small fixed wing aircraft on search and rescue operations. He loved to be around anything flying related. With powered paragliding he initially worked with me showing his talents as a professional videographer to create a video called “Introduction to Paramotoring” which can be seen here: When it came to his powered paraglider trike training, he completed this over several months in the Fall/Summer of 2008. He purchased a MacPara Eden II 33 paraglider, a Fly Products Gold 115 motor unit and a Fly Products Flash trike. Considering he weighed 235 pounds, this gear was ideally sized for his weight. I made sure his gear was set up and running as best as possible. He completed his solo flight on August 1, 2008. He exhibited a great deal of skill in launching, flying and landing, but by all measures was still beginner a powered paraglider pilot. Yet on several occasions myself and other local pilots felt that he was trying things too advanced for his limited powered paragliding experience. This was conveyed to him several times by me that it would be wise to progress slowly, safely and over time. He seemed to listen carefully and respectfully but clearly he disregarded these recommendations. His flight at Monument Valley was number 15 as pilot in command in his powered paraglider trike. Pre-Incident BackgroundA number of powered paraglider pilots (roughly 30) had informally gathered that weekend to fly near Monument Valley. Our staging area was Gouldings Airport, about 5 miles from Monument Valley Park. Martin had told a number of people he would be coming and indicated that he had dreamed his entire life to fly at Monument Valley. He arrived late Friday night with his wife Lynn and older teenage son Preston and 3 dogs. He set up camp at the Gouldings Campsite. He did fly twice early on Saturday morning and reported the conditions were bumpy. Last Flight TakeoffOn Saturday afternoon, a number of powered paraglider pilots informally met at Gouldings Airport to hopefully fly in smooth, late day air. We arrived around 4:00pm to find the wind gusting from the West. No one launched. There were a number of larger cumulus clouds developing 15 to 20 miles to the South and East and also to the North and West. Around 5:30pm conditions had calmed considerably at the airport. I was one of the first to launch to feel it out. The air was quite smooth, with minor bumps, and other pilots then started launching. Within a short time, the large clouds to the East and South had begun to grow and develop into formidable cumulus clouds and occasional lightning could be seen coming from them. Most pilots opted to stay close to the airport due to the warnings of the ominous growing clouds in the distance. The few that did venture out were mostly experienced pilots and they came back to the airport and landed even though the air was still quite smooth. It appears that Martin launched sometime between 6:00pm and 6:30pm and headed West by himself directly to Monument Valley Park, specifically towards Mitten Monument, which was over 5 miles away from the airport. He was also heading directly to the growing, ominous thunderstorms which were growing towards Monument Valley. By this time, most pilots had come in to land or were preparing to land. By approximately 6:45pm only two other pilots were still flying when the air at Gouldings Airport became very rowdy. The two remaining pilots were being tossed up and down, yet both landed without incident. The two thunderstorms to the West and South West appeared to converge and blowing dust and lightning could be seen around them in the distance. Most pilots packed their gear and headed for Gouldings Restaurant after sunset for an informal gathering. Martin’s wife commented that her husband was missing. She had not seen him launch and inquired if anyone had seen him. No one had any recollection of him even launching. Later one pilot revealed he had helped him launch on the end of the runway. The CrashPreston, Martin’s son, and Chad, a friend Martin had invited, were staged on a dirt road about 0.75 mile from Mittens Monument and were taking some photos of Martin flying around the monuments. Perhaps Martin became fixed on making those photos a reality. Right before sunset, at approximately 7:00pm, several eyewitnesses at Monument Valley Park, including Preston and people camping at the Park noticed Martin was flying towards and within 0.5 mile of Mitten Monument at 200 to 300 feet above ground when his craft began to get rocked violently in large up and down swings of 50 feet. The thunder storms had developed considerably and were now within a few miles of Martin probably throwing him some very strange air. The witnesses were approximately 0.25 to 0.33 mile away. 2 witnesses noted that his motor sounded to be running erratically up and down, but it was probably that the pilot was simply adding and reducing throttle to try to stabilize his violent ups and and downs in altitude. What happens next is uncertain whether he lost altitude from the severe weather (strong winds, downdrafts, gusts and/or rotors) that was moving on him, that he became scared and wanted to land quickly and reduced his throttle accordingly, or his motor began to “sputter” (the exact words of 2 witnesses) and he simply could not maintain his altitude. His son noted that he got a minor wing tip collapse and then turned around, heading back to Gouldings Airport. The severe rocking and loss of altitude began to quickly increase. As he lowered in altitude he began to descend into very unforgiving, hilly, canyon-like terrain. Preston noted the rocking continued to increase very violently as he descended and his motor was revving up and down. This was probably due to the strong rotors he was getting off the nearby hilly terrain. At about 50 feet above ground and well below the horizon of the canyon-like terrain, Preston noted he had a very severe full wing collapse and then he crashed with his motor running at full throttle into the side of a hill approximately 0.25 mile away from witnesses. Witnesses reported a large cloud of dust shot up and then the motor quickly became silent. 911 calls were made at just after 7:00pm. Preston and Chad rushed to the scene of the crash. Preston estimates he was there within a few minutes as he ran as quickly as possible to help his dad. When he arrived he found Martin in the wreckage unconscious, not breathing, and with what appeared to him as a very faint heartbeat. It was clear he had landed extremely hard as his gear sustained substantial damage. Considering the remoteness of the crash site, the difficult terrain, the crazy weather approaching, and that dusk and night was coming on quickly, rescue and recovery efforts were slow. It took rescue crew an additional 50 minutes to find the crash site in the pitch of night and difficult terrain. Martin was pronounced dead on the scene. Cause of Incident and DeathThe initial autopsy report reveals that the cause of death was “multiple blunt force injuries” mainly to his chest cavity. With any aviation related accident, there usually isn’t one cause that can be labeled as the only cause. It is usually a string of multiple actions and choices. This incident has a number of contributing factors, all stemming from poor decisions of the pilot. First, was the weather. The warnings were all around calling out loudly and clearly. As an experienced, licensed hot air balloon pilot and with his powered paraglider training he was intimately aware of reading these warnings and fully aware of the risks of flying in unforgiving weather. It is not clear why he chose to ignore these warnings given his extensive experience in reading weather. Second, was the terrain he was flying over and landed in. It was extremely unforgiving, jagged, hilly, and dangerous. Given his paramotor training, he was fully aware of the severe risks associated with flying over and landing in rough terrain. Third was his experience level. He was flying over terrain and in weather that was well beyond his experience level of 15 powered paraglider flights. Fourth was getting caught up and hyper focused into a task or series of tasks (such as flying around the Monuments, being the center of some special photographs, showing off for family and friends). The Next DayEarly Sunday morning myself and Craig Squillante, a fellow experienced powered paraglider pilot joined the investigating officials to the crash site to try to piece together what happened and later carry out the gear. We found the point of impact and carefully examined the crash scene looking for details to unravel this puzzle of this incident. It was clear that the landing was very hard as the trike and motor cage was severely bent up and broken. He had considerable downward and forward forces on impacting the side of a steep hill. The propeller was cleanly shredded to about 16″ long, with hundreds of propeller splinters scattered in a 30′ radius. This indicated that the landing was at full throttle. Additionally, the force of the impact coupled with the gyroscopic forces of the shattering propeller at full throttle ejected the entire motor frame (motor, prop, fuel tank, carburetor, etc) approximately 8′ away from the trike and cage. Final ThoughtsThis incident was caused by a cascade of pilot errors that all compounded onto each other. There was some question that perhaps his motor failed him, but these reports came from unreliable laymen witnesses who heard the motor from approximately 0.5 mile away. Additionally, there was conflicting reports from the eyewitnesses on how his motor sounded. I believe his equipment operated normally as there was no other indications to the contrary and previously it had operated flawlessly. There was a lingering question whether a helmet may have helped to prevent his death. The autopsy indicates that a helmet would probably not have saved his life, even though Martin chose to fly without one with full awareness of the added risks. Some pilots questioned whether a reserve parachute may have helped. I do not think so. Considering the terrain and the severe weather and his lack of experience, a reserve deployment would probably have made matters worse. If there is a major lesson to be learned it is first and foremost to fly within your experience level and push your skill levels slowly. Second, to stay cautious and respectful at all times on the weather and the terrain below you. Third, to recognize that flying is a continual process of learning, respect for mother nature, respect for the limits of your gear, and respect of your own limits.

Martin Maxwell’s Autopsy

Blunt force injuries to the head: A. Abrasions- the two things on his forehead B. Subarachnoid Hemorrhage-bleeding into the space between the skull and the brain C.Atlanto-occipital dislocation- The crack between the neck and spine Blunt force- Chest A. Abrasions- Internal B. Sternum and Rib Fractures- He broke his 5th and 6th ribs C. Aortic laceration with bilateral hemothoraces- Collapse of the lung by puncture which bled out. D. Right Pulmonary Artery Laceration- E. Inferior Vena Cava laceration- cut of the main blood line in your chest, this line goes between your stomach and heart, but feeds to other lines that branch out to your extremities. 3. Blunt Force injuries- Extremities A. Abrasions and Contusions- scratches on knees, and hands etc. B. Left Humerus fracture- He broke his shoulder, or popped it out of place
So I am going to shorten this all up for you going from the Head to the feet: The brain plates in the head= The one in the back split from the rest and crushed the brain which would not have killed right away but if not attended to it would have. He broke the connection between his neck and his spine in bone. He broke his left shoulder. Many internal injuries including cracked ribs 5 and 6 on both sides, he popped his aorta making it bleed profusely. He popped the right pulmonary artery another artery that would bleed profusely. And the Inferior Vena Cava, another profuse bleeder. He had 640 ML of blood in his chest cavity. He punctured his lung when his ribs popped and made that bleed but there was a very small amount there, not enough to kill. He popped his pubic bone from his pelvis, so he broke his pelvis in turn. And if anything could get any worse, he broke his left femur. The big bone in your leg.
This was no soft run into the ground.
The Opinion of the Examiner is: The crack between the neck and spine and the aortic laceration which lead to bleeding into the chest cavity, so essentially he bled to death internally. My Thoughts follow the examiners- he bled internally to death because of the laceration to the Aorta, the laceration to the vena cava, which in turn leaked blood, and, killing him too and the puncture to his lung, which didn’t allow him to breathe,
For any one who was wondering- He weighed 242lbs and was 73 inches in height. He was stiff and not easy to move as stated by the examiner.
Mo’s Final Comment

The injuries Martin sustained were certainly much worse than I had anticipated. I will concur, especially from how damaged I saw his gear, that he hit very, very hard. In my discussions with you, the other eye-witnesses, and from studying the wreckage, I estimate with a high probability that he was flying downwind and with a very fast downward velocity when he impacted the side of the hill. I also estimate he encountered some very severe air turbulence in the form of rotors seconds before he impacted.

Author: JoeO

Powered Paraglider pilot since 2005

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