Mid-Air Collision, April 12, 2019
This document is an account of each of the Pilots’ personal experience, the conditions and factors, and lessons we learned. We hope it may serve as a learning tool for the paragliding community at large and help keep more pilots safe in future!
Summary of events:
7 Pilots flew in the Beaufort Range near Port Alberni on Friday, April 12th, 2019.
There was a mid-air collision between two of the pilots, Pilot #1 and Pilot #2. Pilot #2 was able to keep flying, Pilot #1 had to deploy his reserve and landed uninjured but in steep inaccessible terrain.
Emergency calls were made and SAR activated.
Due to weather conditions, the helicopters were not able to retrieve Pilot #1 that day and he had to spend the night on the mountainside. The next morning a brief window in the cloud cover allowed a long line helicopter rescue team to retrieve Pilot #1 successfully.
Pilot #1 personal account:
As stated, there were 7 pilots in total with experience ranging from Novice to Senior Instructor. I launched on what felt like a fairly strong cycle and once the wing was over my head that was confirmed by the lift that my wing was generating. I was able to slide across the gravel take off and easily lift off the edge. Once in the air I found the lift to be broken and somewhat punchy and fairly quickly found myself losing altitude sinking below launch. I switched into scratching mode and worked some light lift over a small clear cut and tree line. I was eventually able to lock into a good climb and quickly worked my way up to cloudbase.
The first few climbs were good and cloud base was around 5000ft. At this point I had identified most pilots in the air except one pilot who I had assumed headed up the range to the NW. Once established I decided that conditions were good for a flight in the Northerly direction and started on gliding and climbing. Slightly up range I spotted the other pilot fairly low and working his way back towards launch. It appeared to me at this point that I was the only pilot that far up the range and continued on. After a few more climbs and glides I spotted another pilot behind me and I started to stay in my climbs a little longer to let him catch up. I radioed him a few times with no response so I flew back and joined into a thermal with him so I could get close enough to yell over to him. He replied with a yeah hoo and we carried on up the ridge.
It was at this point I noticed some of the wind readings on my flight instrument indicating a range of NNW to NE at certain altitudes putting me in the lee of the mountain. I pushed on a few more glides and noted that I had passed any good grassy field landing zones and was in an area with only clearcuts to choose for LZ’s. It was a long drive to the site so I wanted to make sure I had a 100% chance of gliding back to a roadside LZ, if needed, so that my retrieve wouldn’t add hours to our long drive home. It wasn't a day for long distances.
At that point I took the next thermal to the highest point of the day, which was just past 6300ft, and turned back toward launch for an out and return flight. It was then my intention to examine the ridge I had flown in a little more detail and note any good thermal sources and ridges for future flights. Few glides later and I was closing in on launch and I started to spot the 5 other gliders to the SE. I was picking up radio chatter about miscellaneous things such as conditions and not breaking airspace over the airport as I guess a pilot or two had forgotten since the discussion on launch about heights over the valley.
At this point I noticed the starting phases of over development and that combined with the possibility of lee rotor I lowered my altitude to just above ridge height. A compromise between keeping good distance from the clouds and staying out of the possible rotor. I had also distanced myself from the ridge somewhat pushing a few hundred meters further out from the ridge. The first two pilots I came into gliding distance of were Pilot #3 and Pilot #2. Pilot #2 was the highest by far and had already established herself at ridge height and Pilot #3 was establishing himself in what seemed like a very respectable climb. I glided towards Pilot #3 to increase my lift as I was finishing a glide and needed more altitude and he was surely in some lifting air. My memory at this point is not 100% but I believe I got into a good climb within the vicinity of Pilot #3 and started to circle left. I have a habit of turning left 95% of the time so I can be sure it was a left turn. I had no intention of climbing above ridge height, for reasons stated earlier, and climbed only as high as I thought I needed to get to the next source I had already picked further along the ridge.
I started a glide and I can’t say for sure how long I was in gliding mode but I clearly remember being in a gliding state of mind where I could see everything below, to the right and left, and ahead on my current track direction and everything seemed clear. I could see Pilot #3 continuing to climb and Pilot #2 was not in sight but since I didn’t see her anywhere around me, I assumed she hadn’t dropped to my altitude or lower or she would have been clearly visible to me. I then felt what I initially thought was a frontal and looked up to assess the situation. To my surprise it was a pilot in my wing and I immediately knew it was Pilot #2. It was obvious since Pilot #3 was still in view. She had hit the leading edge of the wing almost perfectly center and the wing tips had continued to fly, wrapping around her body.
I’ve heard many stories and seen many horrible videos of mid-air collisions and knew if I didn’t make an effort to clear her from my wing our chances for a good outcome would be slim.
I recognized my clearance from the mountain side was not in my favor but I decided to stall my wing. I’ve had experience with both stalls and frontals on high performance wings and knew there was a chance, although small, that the wing tips would peel back and the impending stall would pull violently against her still flying wing with the possibility of her being pulled upwards and out of my wing. This is pretty much what happened. I watched as the tips came back and Pilot #2 moved on an upwards path toward the top of my wing. It happened quite quickly and somewhat violently but was successful. Once clear my glider immediately tried to fly, diving forward to pick up airspeed and exit the stall. Unfortunately, the right side of the glider had sustained damage and I had roughly a 30% cravatte so as the glider dove at the ground I entered a right-hand spiral dive.
The G force from the spiral was building fast and I recognized that stopping the spiral and gaining control of the glider was not an option. I immediately pulled my reserve parachute and tossed it into clear air. It opened cleanly and quickly, to my relief, and I then focused on disabling what was left of the wing. After 3 or 4 wraps on the brake lines I looked over my shoulder to see how much time I’ve have before landing and was a little surprised to see the mountain much closer to me than I estimated. I abandoned the brake lines and spun in my harness to get my feet facing the ridge in preparation for impact/landing. I somehow dodged a few trees and landed on the steep cliffside completely unharmed. The glider was in a tree and the reserve was actually trying to drag me uphill in a thermal wind. It was easy to disable and I gathered it up and shoved in in the back of my harness.
Letting fellow pilots know I was alright and I needed a heli evacuation was my next objective and once complete I assessed my location and the possibility of retrieving my glider from the tree. While I waited, I noticed cloud base dropping and wisps of clouds moving through at my altitude. I started to feel anxious, knowing it would be difficult for the helicopter to retrieve me in foggy conditions. When the helicopter arrived, my fears were confirmed as conditions had deteriorated and a rescue was not going to happen. I remember the feeling of seeing that helicopter hovering right there in front of me, close enough to see the pilots face and knowing they could do nothing to help my situation. I was then informed the rescue was called off for the day and I would have to spend the night on the snowy mountain side.
Getting my glider out of the tree became my main focus at this point as I knew I would need it for protection if I was to sleep at that altitude. It seemed impossible to get it out so I grabbed my hook knife I keep on my harness chest strap and cut all the lines off the glider at roughly a foot above the risers. I then found the longest branch possible, which was a challenge in itself, as the trees are fairly small at that altitude. I broke it off and used it to hook into the openings in the leading edge and somehow managed to fish the glider down to the ground. I wrapped it up quickly and made the decision that I was going to attempt to move down the mountain to see if I could get below the snow line. I informed the rescue team I would be moving from my location and I would update them when I stop moving.
I really didn’t have a lot of time to hike and it was slow and dangerous due to the steepness of cliff face and amount of snow cover. I hiked until dark at which point, I decided it was too dangerous to continue moving on the slippery steep surface. I found an area that was somewhat open, that had received some sun, so the snow had melted away and exposed some of the rock face. I figured this would be a good spot, not that I had much choice at this point, to be seen by the rescue team. Of this rocky area there was a small patch about 10 sqft that I was able to clear the snow from and sit down. Unfortunately, it was still quite sloping so I planted my hiking poles into the ground and put them against my chest to hold myself up. Sliding off the front of this little ledge was a real possibility and I remember being quite scared of sliding off the edge.
I opened my glider bag pulled out the reserve and laid it on the ground to sit on in hopes of keeping dry. It didn’t make the best surface to sit on since the reserve material is very slippery and I continuously had to keep pushing myself back up the hill using the poles. The glider was used as a cover/tent and there I was all set up. It was around 8pm and the mountain was calm, I was fairly warm and uninjured, I was counting myself somewhat lucky.
I wasn’t wearing proper footwear so my next task was to remove my shoes and socks as frostbite was a very real possibility. It was cold on the feet with no socks but not nearly as bad as keeping the wet shoes and socks on. Not that that was an option anyways. Rubbing my feet worked for a long time but it would only work for so long. Morning couldn’t come soon enough. The calm of the mountain eventually broke around 12am as the winds began to howl. I started to worry about glider I had wrapped myself in and the open spot the night had picked for me. I made an effort to gather all the leading edge of the glider to prevent the winds from inflating the glider and pulling me off the edge. I got lucky as the winds were much stronger around me and I seemed to be in a somewhat sheltered area and was only beat up a few times. The strong winds subsided after about 3hrs and the calm returned. It was replaced with the sound of what I initially thought was rain but it sounded too light. Damn, snow. It continued to snow the rest of the night and was still snowing when daylight came.
By this time my phone was getting low and I was resorting to powering it down and only turning it on a few times to communicate with the rescue team through text. They had assured me that they were going to attempt a rescue as soon as they could legally fly, as we all know, 30 min after sunrise. I was told they were assembling at 6am and by 7 I could hear the helicopter hovering around the mountain. I decided to switch to my 2m radio, I had been keeping in my down jacket pocket, in hopes that the warmth would extend its battery length. I made contact with dispatch, which had direct contact the with pilot. I relayed information to dispatch until the the rescue team was directly in front of me. I couldn’t see them but I could hear them. They slowly hover closer and established my new location. I was then told they would land prep a long line team and return, which they did fairly quickly.
Next time I saw the helicopter it had two rescue team members hanging a couple hundred feet below on a line. It took a bit to get them right to me but once they touched down it only took a matter of seconds to get me into the harness and off the hillside we went. Conditions were poor and the guys on the end of the line were using the distance we were from the trees as a reference and relaying the information to the pilot to guide us out into the valley. When we finally cleared the cloud, it was a quick cold ride to the Alberni airport.
Once on the ground I met with the team members I had been taking and texting with and thanked them for all they had done and recognize the risks they had taken to free me from that frozen mountain side. I will be forever grateful.
Pilot #2 personal account:
7 of us flew from a new site in the Beaufort Range by Port Alberni on Friday, April 12th. It was a new site for most of us, 2 had flown there just a couple of weeks prior. We all had good launches from a fork in a logging road over a cut block. I felt like had a good flight for over an hour, felt comfortable with my wing and the conditions although it was a new and big site with some turbulent spring air. After working for quite a while on getting to cloud base which was not far above ridge height, I was high enough to head down the ridge over top of Mt. Hal. I climbed a bit further just over the peak. At that point I was aware of two other Pilots: Pilot #3 who had returned to the ridge from an unsuccessful attempt at a valley crossing and was starting to climb below me, and Pilot #1 who was returning from further down the ridge. At that moment I remember seeing Pilot #1 quite a way away from me towards the northwest, and below my altitude. I had close eyes on Pilot #3 who was starting to climb rapidly below and slightly to the SE of me. I shouted out a greeting but also signalling I was above him, which he didn’t seem to hear. At this point I was not climbing but circling close to the peak over the side of the ridge. As he kept climbing faster and getting quite close to me just to the SE of me, I did a right turn away from him and the ridge, towards the NE, to give him space. I kept my eyes on him and failed to look right when I turned, unaware that Pilot #1 had suddenly come much closer and somehow up close to my height. The next thing I remember was heading straight into the wing of Pilot #1. I was higher, his canopy hit my body. I tried to reach for my reserve handle, pushing aside the canopy of his wing. At this point he had the good sense to stall his wing so it would drop off of me. I kicked some lines off that were tangled on my left boot and became free of his wing. My wing did a few crazy swings but at that point I felt confident it would recover, and it did. I think I braked the surge a few times and it came under control. As I looked back, I saw the reserve of Pilot #1 fully inflated and heading for a deep crevasse in the rocks below the peak. Shortly after that we were so relieved to hear his voice in the radio that he had landed unhurt. I went straight out to land while being in radio communication with others about emergency calls etc. and as soon as I had landed responded to phone calls from the Inreach center and RCMP to start coordinating the rescue. After getting a ride from a friendly local back to my car and picking up the others, we all went to the airport to meet with the SAR team. We were expecting to see Pilot #1 on the ground soon, but then we saw cloudbase dropping and two helicopters failing to locate him due to low visibility and weather conditions, circling and returning. After a long wait the rescue was abandoned for the night, and Pilot #3 and I camped out in our van for a rather sleepless night so we could be there in the morning when Pilot #1 was finally retrieved by the long line helicopter team.
It took a while for the shock to wear off and all of the implications to sink in. A lot has come up and keeps coming up. Knowing how close I had come to dying, and to causing the death of another person through a moment of unawareness, is devastating. Thinking about leaving my girl without a mother, or having to live with the guilt of having caused someone to die, is unimaginable. This was a very very close call... I also know that we both owe our lives to the skill and quick reaction of Pilot #1 in full stalling his wing and getting us untangled. I am so grateful for that, and that Pilot #1 and I have been able to have honest, heartfelt communication. The words ‘I am so so so sorry’ just don’t come anywhere close to expressing what needs to be expressed, yet we don’t have better words in our language. This is a huge and hard lesson, causing me to re-examine my entire flying career and future. Looking at all of the moments I had close calls or made stupid decisions, when things could have gone much worse than they did, as I am sure any pilot has had, seeing friends around me have close calls and make stupid decisions. I hope everybody reading this can learn from it so everyone can fly safer in the future and not rely on stupid amounts of luck for survival.
Pilot #3 personal account:
On Friday April 12, 7 paraglider pilots launched from a hill near Port Alberni. The day's conditions were typical spring, strong with some ratty sharp edges. The wind in the valley and up to 6000' was light 5km NW. Above 6000 was a strong NW that increased in strength over the day with the shear pushing over the top of CU's. Cloudbase was ~5500 on the range, ~4500 in the valley. Thermals varied 1-4 m/s.
The Beaufort range runs SE to NW.
The pilots varied in experience, with 3 being instructors with decades of experience and 1000s of hours and the remaining 4 pilots are P2/P3 with 2-3 years of experience and 80 to 200 hours.
This was a new site for 4 of the pilots, 2 pilots had flown there once a few weeks prior and 1 had flown many years ago.
Pilot #2, 80 hrs, 3 years of experience, flying a low EN-B wing. (BGD Epic)
Pilot #1, 1000s+ hrs, instructor, decade of experience flying a EN-D wing. (Advance Omega Xalps)
Pilot #3, 200 hrs, 3 years of experience, flying a high EN-B wing (BGD Riot)
Pilot #2 was boating around near the peak of Mt Hal, near cloudbase. Pilot #1 was approaching from the NW on a straight tailwind glide below Pilot #2’s height. I was scratching around far below, and then rising quickly in a strong climb.
It appears that Pilot #2 was flying straight SW looking left at me quickly rising in a thermal near her. While Pilot #2 was looking left, she slowly turned right and collided with the leading edge of the wing of Pilot #1. It appears Pilot #2 was descending while Pilot #1 was in neutral or rising air. Pilot #1 was on a downwind glide on a high-performance glider, he would have been difficult to see at a distance (white wing) until he was very close. I would have been in front of and to the left of Pilot #1, and below and to the left of Pilot #2. It appears that Pilot #2 would have been in the blind spot of Pilot #1's wing. It appears that me rising in the thermal may have been a distraction to Pilot #2, and possibly to Pilot #1. Immediately Pilot #1 full-stalled to release Pilot #2 from the glider and lines. When the wing reinflated it was ripped, did not re-inflate properly and began to back spin. Pilot #1 threw his reserve which inflated quickly, and had about 10 seconds before making impact with the terrain. The landing was in very steep terrain, very near to a sheer cliff/ravine. He was very lucky.
I was very close to the collision, I heard a loud ruffling of wings right behind me and turned left to see them just after they had detached, just as Pilot #1's wing started to spin. My first thought is that they had been hit by freak turbulence, except they were spooky close to each other and both wings were moving erratically. I learned later it had been a mid-air. I was directly overhead while the reserve was deployed. I then radioed that a reserve toss had happened. I called a Port Alberni SAR contact and activated InReach while flying over Pilot #1's location. Two other pilots arrived a few moments after the collision and helped in spotting/relocating Pilot #1 visually.
A mistake I made, is that in the kerfuffle of trying to talk on my phone to SAR, talk on the radio, and maintain my position above Pilot #1, all while in very strong thermic conditions near terrain, I didn’t notice that I had flown away from being directly above Pilot #1. So when I activated the Inreach SOS, the GPS location was wrong by probably ~500 ft. This delayed the helicopter trying to locate him. (though he was extremely difficult to spot) When on the ground I asked Pilot #1 to send a more accurate “pin” from Whatsapp that we then gave to the helicopter pilot.
I’m grateful that another pilot insisted on keeping visual contact with Pilot #1, and alerting me that I had flown away from being right above him. And waiting around in the air until I was again flying over Pilot #1. By that time the coordinates had already been sent from the Inreach.
After the collision, Pilot #2 flew out to the valley and landed.
Pilot #2 spoke with SAR/RCMP (they called her as she is a first contact on my Inreach SOS) and briefed them on the situation. Once we had confirmation SAR were mobilized, two other pilots and I flew out to the valley and landed to clear the air for the helicopter.
Initially a Courtney helicopter was called in to assess. After they determined that ground rescue would be very difficult, and there was nowhere safe to land, they would need to long-line. North Shore Rescue was called in as they have that capability. By the time they arrived the clouds were taunting, hovering just above, then just below Pilot #1’s position. The helicopter made about a dozen attempts to get in close between the clouds but was not able to do so safely. All of us were gathered on the ground at the Port Alberni Airport at the Port Alberni Rescue Squad station. We were assisting wherever possible with additional information as needed. In my view, this was a critical piece, that we all remained with the SAR base station. It sped up their ability to assess and execute. They were also able to reach him both with cellular and VHF radio. SAR said if the situation were more critical (like Pilot #1 injured, hypothermic, etc.), they had the option of bringing in the military helicopter from Comox that can do IFR night rescue. (but it is *very* expensive to call them in)
Main factors contributing to the accident:
- Not looking into the direction of the turn
- Object fixation - the colliding pilots having their eyes only on one other pilot, being unaware of the other one. The pilot close to the accident being focussed on their thermal and not seeing either of the others
- Relying on an outdated mental snapshot of other pilots’ positioning that can change rapidly
- assuming the other pilot was still a ways away and lower, when they were approaching and climbing much faster than expected due to a lifty downwind glide on a high performance glider.
- Lapse in vigilance of scanning surrounding air
- ALWAYS CLEAR TURNS. LOOK WHERE YOU'RE GOING.
- Spacial awareness. Be scanning the air around for other paragliders/aircraft.
- When flying with others, trying to keep track of everybody’s positions as they are changing as much as possible
- Avoid object fixation, staring at something and blind to surroundings or approaching aircraft.
- Be aware of blind spots
- See and be seen - both in air and on ground.
- Regularly check and repack reserve, practice/memorize hand movements to deploy (in this case, seconds counted)
- Always carry VHF radios, they were a critical tool in the response
- All pilots equally responsible to SEE and BE SEEN and to avoid collision
- Get latitude, longitude and altitude of accident ASAP. (I used Inreach SOS, but an app on phone that can capture location as a snapshot would have been helpful. What’sApp can do this)
- Paragliders make very warm, waterproof sleeping bag/shelters. If your survival is on the line, burrito yourself up in your wing.
- If you wear a GoPro on your helmet, take a moment to visualize what will happen to your head/neck if it gets tangled in lines and yanks hard. (use a velcro attachment that can break away)
- Other pilots need to clear the air, lingering causes more risk of collision (in all incident situations)
- Land quickly after incident as helicopter won't fly near us
- Danger of peer pressure while flying with friends and we push our normal limits
- Respecting the concerns and feedback of more experienced pilots
- Humility. If we aren’t humble, the elements will swiftly remind us with possibly deadly consequences.
- Do SIV!!! Know how to full stall your wing quickly and safely. Watching accident videos may not be fun for some, but can be very educational (If Pilot #1 had not known to full stall his wing to disengage the other pilot, things very likely would have ended badly)
- ***Don’t mistake “luck” for “skill and good judgement” (a huge danger for novice/intermediate pilots)***
- Do everything we can to replace “Luck” with “Skill and Good Judgement”
- Fly your own day, have your own flying journey based on good judgement, comfort level, skill and enjoyment of the sport. Be aware of the dangers of peer pressure and the desire to keep up with others who may be more experienced or ambitious than you are.
- ALL pilots MUST alter their acceptable flying parameters based on:
- recent airtime (being current)
- regular airtime (being current)
- experience level, hours, years
- wing type (A, B, C, D, CCC)
- experience and hours on that specific wing/harness/gear
- weather conditions of day
- location of site (local hazards)
- experience with that site specifically
- headspace/fatigue/attitude/hydration/blood sugar
- Understand that there is a real chance you might die despite all these measures to prevent it. If you have family or loved ones, have a life insurance and your Will in place to protect them.
Other Valuable information:
- SAR used a different coordinates format than Inreach or phone (they use UTM rather than degrees), so at least 15 min were spent getting that converted. Be familiar with how to convert coordinate formats. (degrees, UTM, deg.min.sec)
- SAR said it would have been better to activate the Inreach SOS **AND** 911 to get faster response. So there was a delay of about 10 min between pressing SOS and RCMP mobilizing SAR. (I had called SAR directly and pressed SOS, but SAR can't mobilize without Emergency Services/RCMP authorizing) 911 good for immediacy, Inreach good for precise location (and where no cellular service)
- A senior instructor present advised that this was not a novice friendly day. Big gnarly spring conditions, thermals, wind
- Fully charged devices - Radio, Phone, flight instruments
- Inreach Device - especially if doing any kind of mountain or XC flying! Turn tracking on for each flight. This has been a vital device more than once.
- Battery pack with charging cables (The pilot stranded on the cliff had battery packs but no cable and his phone was running low which was an essential communication tool during the rescue)
- Sturdy boots, extra warm clothing
- Carry individual rescue kit with food, water, signalling light, whistle etc.
- At least a basic tree kit - minimum a strap and carabiner to be able to secure oneself to a tree (Pilot #1 got very tired having to hold/brace himself - and imagine hanging high up in a tree for hours or overnight!), hook knife for lines, a length of rope or paracord.
- Pack of hand/toe warmers
- Hiking poles proved to be very valuable to Pilot #1
- High visibility gear! Colourful wing/clothing/harness/reserve/helmet, at least some of the gear should be well visible over either forested, rocky or snowy terrain. (Pilot #1 was dressed in all black with a white wing and forest green reserve, extremely hard to spot for the rescue team, could have possibly been rescued on the first evening if they had been able to spot him right away)
- Have camera/gopro always on (none of us did at the time) (NOT on helmet, unless it is on a velcro breakaway)
SAR = search and rescue
SIV = SIV (Simulation d’Incident en Vol) Simulating Situations in Flight
We were lucky. Pilot #1's knowing to and actually full stalling, his safe landing in dangerous terrain, lack of injury, cooperative weather, quick spotting and Inreach location tagging, cellular reception, quick SAR response, witnesses to the incident, his lines didn't snag on her or decapitate her. There are so many ways this could have gone horribly worse.
May we all learn from this.
Authored and edited by Pilot #1, Pilot #2 and Pilot #3