Death Spiral Fatality at Endless Foot Drag Fly-In

Goin’s report On the most recent fatality.  The accident rate among new pilots is rising.

Tragedy: Paramotor Fatality From Spiral

2017-05-26 Endless Footdrag Fatality | Fatalities | Steep Maneuvering Risk Article

On Friday evening, several hours after I had left, tragedy struck when Richard Biggerstaff was, according to two witnesses, doing a spiral from which he hit the ground. There was a small post-impact fire that was extinguished almost right away. Another pilot who was flying with Richard at the time, saw the whole thing from the air. He landed and rushed over, reporting that “he’s gone” by the time another witness arrived at the scene.

They were high, over 1000 feet AGL according to the flying witness, when the spiral was initiated. It was almost certainly a “nose-over” spiral where the pilot and wing are pointed nearly straight down, rotating quickly.Richard had received probably 30 flights of training elsewhere and came to Bryan in Austin, TX, for a day of brush up after a 9 month hiatus.At the Endless Footdrag, Richard had been flying fairly aggressively including steep spirals. Bryan had talked with him about it.

The most likely explanation is that he blacked out before impact and never knew what happened. There are, of course, other possibilities–accident investigation is rife with examples of early assessments being wrong. But most of the time the obvious reason is the correct reason. Hopefully we can get enough evidence to rule out equipment failure or other even less likely causes.
He was flying normally-functioning, appropriate gear: a Nirvana motor and Universal wing. These details are so utterly irrelevant because they have almost no bearing on this kind of spiral. It’s a characteristic of paragliders that when the bank goes beyond a certain point in a round circle, it automatically devolves into a nearly straight-down condition that locks in: no input is required to stay like that.
Blackout can happen in seconds depending on several factors. It’s possible that, by the time someone notices their visual field closing in (graying out,) it’s too late. Beginner gliders are just as susceptible as advanced ones. Being heavily loaded makes it easier to get into but I don’t know the glider’s size. I suspect he was over 9 lbs / sq meter which makes starting a spiral easy.
Round, steep spirals are remarkably lethal.
My heart goes out to his connections–those whose lives were intertwined with his. I joked with him several times while he was out in the field kiting with Bryan West who was helping him on various wing handling skills although, to my knowledge, he was not one of Bryan’s students, at least originally. He was also an airplane pilot who flew his plane to the event. Clearly he had a love for life and flight that most of us share.

Round Spirals

We all need to help spread the word about how absurdly dangerous this maneuver is. I’ve covered it in articles here, the book, and various magazines but it’s easy to melt into our overall risk.

History shows this one to be a particularly lethal recurring theme.
One problem is that it’s an extremely easy maneuver to do. They all look the same whether done by newbie or inexperienced pilot. So someone aspiring to keep up with their aggressive peers or just wanting to explore can get right into it. And, as these videos show, blackout happens so quickly!
We need to do a better job of educating those we influence on the risk of steep spirals AT ANY ALTITUDE. You only black out once and, to my knowledge, it’s *ALWAYS* a death sentence.
At Fly-Ins
How much more do we push it at fly-ins? As of this writing I’ve been at 4 events since 1999 where pilots have died; three of them were due to aggressive maneuvering. Is it possible our exhibitionism is getting the best of us?

If I were an event organizer, knowing what I do now, and it was my primary field, I would likely ask pilots to only come if they’re willing to fly like grandmas and grant permission only to those with a history of successful acro or steep maneuvering. Events would get smaller, of course, but that would be a trade for making them safer and more likely to continue.
Lets Face It
What we do has risk. I’m a proponent of evidence-based understanding, using empirical evidence to inform our understanding. How we then act on that is a personal choice but damn lets make sure everyone at least knows where the risk is. I do risky things, we all do, to some degree, by strapping these things on. But some things are really bad and steep, round spirals are among the worst. Low, steep maneuvering is another that, although not as lethal as spiraling, has caused a few and caused a lot of maiming.

I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what to do or not do, after all, I do my share of lowish, moderately steep maneuvering, but just want to share knowledge about what’s at stake.
This is a tragedy on many levels obviously the worst being the pilot, his family and friends. Also for Britton who has lost his primary training field as a result. And to those of us who have lost a fellow flyer doing what we all love.
Life is precious and so terribly fragile. Live it well.

Jeff Goin on Monument Valley 09

Jeff Goin
Photo by Faith Wesstrom
Post by Jeff Goin:
It’s breathtaking. You can easily see why film crews found this a perfect backdrop for so many John Wayne and other westerns. They had to love it when Technicolor replaces monochrome. Red rocks and others mix light and shadow in ways that our mind’s eye paint as art. Beautiful art. And its amazing to see it all from the variable perch of our little 3d machines. Unfortunately, that freedom comes at a price. I pulled in well after the morning but pilots reported that it was quite bumpy at Gouldings, where we launch from, as early as 9am. That’s not surprising since a west wind aloft was spilling over the huge mesa just to our west. But those pilots who went out early reported good conditions and gorgeous flights.What a diverse group of pilots. Pilots are here from as far away as Eastern Canada and Florida and I suspect that they are not disappointed. In spite of challenging flying conditions, it’s tough not to appreciate the place–especially with the beautiful weather tossing up brilliant blue skies that interact so well with this incredible terrain.Friday afternoon I was anxious to get in the air. By 5pm pilots were getting their gear positioned all over the aircraft parking area and runway but it was still quite gusty, ranging almost calm to 15 mph. I watched some of the kiting and it was telling. Not yet. By 6pm I figured that, even though it was still kind of gusty, at least the thermals would be diminished and I launched. The best way to launch a paramotor in switchy conditions, in my opinion, is to consider it a two part process. Get the wing up and moving nicely then, when all is well, go for it. Don’t linger in the run since inflation and running are the most vulnerable times, but take stock of your readiness for flight before committing. Running briskly, wing overhead and tracking, then power up using necessary but minimum brake inputs. Sometimes locations make this assessment period very brief, especially in zip wind.Not long after launching it became obvious I probably shouldn’t have. The wind aloft was westerly and much stronger than anticipated, curling over that huge mesa a half-mile to the west. I headed east towards the monuments and away from the rotor. Wow. What a sight! Two other pilots joined me and I did get some video and pictures in spite of nearly continuous level 2 bumps. The video will be nearly worthless but some of the stills worked out. Meanwhile, back at the field, there was some minor trauma when a trike pilot got wind-whacked and flipped over with the usual damage and a scraped up arm. Pavement is not forgiving. Other pilots wisely watched the shenanigans and decided against flying.The strong west wind also meant that I would be taking a long time to come back so I returned pretty early. I’m trying out the Ozone Viper 2 and appreciated having the reflex available. I came down to find a reasonably smooth altitude and motored in. It wouldn’t be pretty near the airport with nearly the same turbulence as when I left so chose to land farther away from where I took off and come in under power. Landing with power gives you more control in shifty air but at some extra risk of damaging the gear. Good thing I had the power because on short final a gust tried to dump me but a good goose of Mr. Black Devil at the last minute averted what could have been a firm arrival. I was happy to be down. Others launched with varying results. One pilot got airborne only to be dumped just a bit before the fence. He wisely chose land and reset instead of pressing on in hope of clearing the fence.Landings were even more exciting. One pilot took 3 approaches before finally getting a good window and setting down nicely. Another came in power off, got lifted then dumped and landed so hard that he tumbled, bending his cage. He’s an extremely experienced flyer who just got weather-whacked. This place, in this wind condition, is not very forgiving. Three pilots didn’t make it back because there were unable to penetrate so they landed out. Good move.I’m glad to have gotten my one flight, and it was spectacular, but it was not an ideal choice. If the wind is like that again I’ll just do video taping from the ground! Morning beckons and is supposed to be better. Winds are typically oozing down the runway, forcing an uphill launch but I’ll take that over turbulence any day.

Saturday Oct 11 Ah, now this is more like it! Morning was perfect and nearly everybody flew. It was tough launching uphill with shifting light winds but, once aloft, many pilots made the monument trek as did I. Good thing, by the way, my exhaust bolts were safety wired in. Wow, now this is some amazing scenery. Calling them monuments is right on.It’s weird how spooky being next to, and just over, these monoliths is. I mean its not like they’re going to suck you in, especially given the relatively mellow conditions. They look so hard, so utterly unconcerned about my wellness, so unforgiving of any misstep. I held the brakes just a bit tighter. It took a couple circuits before I’d let go to snap pictures.It wasn’t perfectly smooth, by any measure, but 2-level bumps are smooth relative to the sharp nastiness of yesterday evenings flights. That this is an airport became abundantly clear when an airplane, coming in for a landing, had to abandon his approach due to a bunch of gliders on the runway–trikes getting ready to launch. He circled for probably 5 minutes while everyone pulled off to make room. An easterly breeze made everything quite smooth for launch and landing, perfect for trying stuff out. I tried out Chad’s Miniplane with Mo’s Spice. That’s my all-time favorite combination. I also tried his 19 meter “ultralight” wing which was incredible. Mo tried it too. Six foot something Mo Sheldon weighs about 185 pounds and he was tasking a Top 80 with hefting around on a 19 meter wing at 6000 foot density altitude. Hmmm, I thought, that won’t be a stellar climb. But at least he was launching uphill. Mind you, the climb was pretty marginal, there was a steady 5 to 8 mph breeze and Mo knows his way around a wing. But still it was impressive. I had a pretty decent climb rate on my flight of the wing but I’m 35 pounds lighter, too. That wing weighs a grand total of 5 pounds. Five. The risers look like clothes lines. Talk about easy inflating, though! The evening was a bust. Once I found out the winds were again coming over the back I begged off flying altogether and, in fact, didn’t even get my wing out. Surprisingly, several pilots flew in spite of all that. One pilot took a 40 percent collapse just over the airport and I happened to be videotaping. “Happened” isn’t exactly right since I figured there was a pretty high likelihood of badness which was why I was taping. A 40% collapse, without any cravats, is very benign as long as the pilot doesn’t overreact. Thankfully, he didn’t and came around, rather suddenly, for an uneventful landing. One other piece of excitement was a pilot who landed at the other end of the runway and got whacked just as he was running it out. He fell and his throttle hand mashed into the dirt such that the motor stuck on half power or so. We saw the landing but not the fall. John Black sped down there in his truck, saw what was happening, couldn’t get the kill switch, so he reached in and yanked off the spark plug. Nice going.When this airport is in wind shadow, not surprisingly, it’s no fun to be flying. That’s why I, and most others, didn’t go up. Plus, I’d had a great morning flight, why go bounce around in this. Saturday night we all gathered at Goulding’s restaurant and told lies. It was a great time. Sunday morning, as I write this, promises to be nice early but, with winds forecast to be strong over the back by noon, I’m going to stay pretty close if I fly at all. It’s been a great trip, I’ve had 5 flights, and could easily end it on this most happy of notes. There is the matter of my now fully fueled motor…

Sunday Summary: A gorgeous sunrise belied the unsavory swirls aloft. Southwesterly winds put us, again, in rotor. I had no interest in it—been there, got the T-shirt, didn’t like its fit. Joe Onofrio sent up a helium balloon and, surprisingly, it didn’t look as bad as we feared and, even I agreed that it probably wasn’t dangerous but wouldn’t be smooth and, with a forecast strong wind at noon, feared that conditions could suddenly grow teeth. When one intrepid pilot did elect to launch I got the camera. The good one, with the big lens and good stabilization. Sure enough, I was treated to show. He did a nice launch, barely cleared the fence then landed (well, kinda whacked) into the hill just south of us. Neither he nor his equipment suffered any damage beyond a flight suit tear but it wasn’t a good start to the morning. That put a damper on launches for a while but then we noticed that there wasn’t anything sharp to the wind although it occasionally did gradual changes to the opposite direction. Yup, better time that one right! Then John Black starting playing around with his quad, inflating and taxi/kiting up to the ramp, turning around, taxiing down the runway and finally launching into a short flight. It was an exquisite display of what’s possible with good throttle and wing control. You’ve got to keep enough airspeed over the wing and lead your turns. When he offered it up to me I jumped at the chance. What a hoot. I did one run up to the ramp with a 180, came around between the guys and launched down the runway. God that’s cool. No potholes, either.A digression on Quads I saw some extreme examples of the incredible stability offered by low CG quads. John’s Paracruiser was the most graphic, though. When another pilot was taxiing it, he got into some turbulence which started him swinging left/right. He lifted off and wound up hitting the pavement sideways, skidding to a stop. Had that been a trike or a anything with a higher CG, it would rolled immediately. In fact, there were two trikes that rolled and were damaged. But John’s and another similar unit, which endured highly tipful encounters, just skidded around.Both incidents that I saw would have tipped most trikes. Mind you, I like trikes and, for experienced pilots, they’re fine. Quads have drawbacks, too, of course, namely in rough terrain because the wheels hit bumps unevenly. But overall, the evidence is overwhelming that you’re less likely to flip a low CG quad than a trike. And of course it makes sense given their broader overall base. Trikes can be improved, of course, by having a low CG and wide rear wheel base, but, all things being otherwise equal, quads are the best tool for beginners learning wheels.Eventually other pilots launched into increasing turbulence and all landed after collecting too many bumps in too little time. One pilot got into enough turbulence that he decided to land a quarter-mile down the runway. His last 40 feet was rapid, pounding in hard enough to wreck the cage and prop. That was hard to watch. He didn’t add power and didn’t flare until way too late. Fortunately he was fine and hopefully will be able to get his gear repaired since he’s part of a French group visiting here. Wish I could speak French! I’d love to welcome them in the same way I felt welcomed in France. Language barriers suck. Rusty was among the last to fly, putting on a great show of foot dragging and generally playing around. He’s the one who built this incredible green motor home that mated a 1950’s truck to a GMC motor home and has a matching trailer. Overall, it was an incredible experience. Just being here is worth it. Thanks so much to Joe Onofrio, the “non-organizer” as he calls himself, for getting us all together. It has etched out a fine memory that will, no doubt, enjoy frequent visits.

Galveston Texas WingNuts 1st Annual Fly-In

After spending Thursday night with Walt Burchfield and his bride in Dallas I headed south toward Houston. Just past the city I started seeing signs of damage from hurricane Ike. The first thing I noticed was the big McDonalds arches on posts high above the highway were missing parts. Then when I got to Galveston it was all beat up, there were blue tarps on the majority of roofs and lots of storefronts were closed. By the time I crossed over to the island it was total devastation, all the homes left standing were on stilts with the 1st floor blown away. Maybe one in 50 houses showed signs of people living there and the rest were either being worked on or waiting destruction. There were debris piles 6 feet high piled up[ along the Hwy. waiting for the trucks to come and haul it away. It’s 18 miles from the center of the island to the west end where we were camping and 8 miles to the nearest convenience store.

When I got there the wind was blowing too hard for me to launch but the texas wingnuts are primarily foot launchers and several of the guys were in the air. I decided to wait till sunset and used the time to set up camp. Jeff Goin had arrived the day before, he greeted me warmly and at his suggestion we went out to the beach to practice reverse kiting with the trike. It took him a couple of times to get a feel for the risers being attached to the power loops but in 45 minutes he had it figured and with me behind the prop to provide thrust he was doing successful reverses no sweat. Later I shared some leftover ribs with Jeff in the Enterprise and we had a great time. No topic was left out (except politics) from pianos to particle physics.

The next morning I got up early and took 2 long flights. The wind was about 8 mph and no problem since I had some experienced guys who knew how to hold the trike so that I wouldn’t turtle during inflation. Once up it was wonderful flat air near the sea I flew at about 700 feet parallel to the beach. Then when I flew over the scrub on the other side of the Hwy it started to get a little bouncy. The locals told me this is what to expect but I was thinking BUMPS and really it never got over about a two on the bump scale. I went about 5 miles up the beach and basically enjoyed the view.

Chris Page spotted a sea yak in the no mans land north of the residences so he and “Cowboy” went on a salvage mission. They got the kayak but I guess it was harder than dragging a bull elk through dense undergrowth. After Lunch I had three more flights. Two to figure out that I had left the choke on again and a nice long one. When it was time for the xc I had to stay behind because the wind had come up and “Cowboy” insisted that I would be asking for trouble. I still think if he had held the trike I could have gone for it but I wasn’t going to argue with a local instructor…so I licked my wounds and wished I was with the guys going out to Woody’s Bar.

The XCountry was a long flight and several of the guys ran out of gas and had to be picked up. In fact, had I gone ,I would have been walking too because we were told that it was about 12 miles each way and it was more like 20.

Later that evening Beery broke out the boudin, Sonny built a huge campfire and we had a damn good campfire. Lon even brought out a couple of busted props for us to sacrifice to the gods of PPG. I hung at the fire till about 9pm and went to bed early.

The next morning I was up before dawn the wind was 6mph and I took off without assistance. It was a great flight. After more than an hour in the air I landed and had something to eat. Jeff had just landed so I took a couple of Monster coffee drinks over to the Enterprise and as usual he was more than happy to stop whatever he was doing to spend time with a fellow pilot.

Ever since the Monument Valley Fly-In when this log was used by various people and the address was given out during the PPG Radio show I’ve been a little self conscious about what I write. So… even though Jeff might read this someday, I’m going to put down my thoughts about this guy. Jeff Goin is a genuine person with a remarkable history and an amazing set of credentials. He is passionate about the sport and truly one of the finest PPG Pilots in the world. There wasn’t a minute of the weekend that he wasn’t flying … kiting …working on the equipment…or just talking flying with the guys. His knowledge of aviation is encyclopedic and his curiosity is without end. I watched him work on a reverse with my trike, he was having trouble getting the wing to come up straight and when one guy would have been cussing, Jeff was fascinated and said “Wow! Now why is it behaving like this”. Then he proceed to work with the wing like a horse trainer with an unruly charge until eventually he figured it out and had the wing “behaving” as it should. He is selfless and tolerant and gracious about his notoriety. I’m honored to know the man and consider him a friend.

After a break I went up again and spent the better part of the flight flying as low as I could west along the beach. Most of the time I was at 6 to 10 feet but for huge chunks I was within two feet or less. Every once in a while the wind would pick up and I’d feel it pull me a little off to the side. It was a great opportunity to practice subtle wing control. I landed into much stronger winds and that was the end. I could have probably had someone hold the trike for me to get one more flight but it was time to pack it in.