Personal Best… by Reserve Parachute

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Happy XC-ing shortly before

I wish my personal best UK XC didn’t end with me hanging in a tree by my reserve…

This August I was flying cross country from Liddington Castle. It was going well, the wind was brisk but fine, the base was high and lift was good. I finally caught up with my friend after flying mostly on my own – Ill finally be able to relax a bit I naively thought. Struggling in some weak lift, it finally turned into a whopper and we were both soon in danger of hitting the airspace ceiling in typical UK fashion!

Failing to keep my glider stable under the massive big-ears of my ENC Air Design Volt 2 (I must practice the alternate outer B technique, or holding the stabilo lines as well as the outer A’s, as described in the manual), I was alternating full speed bar and spiral dives to keep below the airspace at 5500′, even on full speed bar I was still going up at ~1m/s.

Im relatively new to the Volt 2 (30hrs) having flown a Gradient Aspen 4 for many years. I bought the wing as the Aspen was getting porous and I’d had a few big collapses in very strong conditions in the mountains of Columbia though it would always recover very nicely. Though I loved flying the Aspen and could handle the conditions as well as any others I flew with, I wanted to find something a bit less likely to collapse while retaining similar performance. All the reviews of the Volt 2 suggested this was just the wing. Once I flew it, I realised it is a very different to fly compared to the Aspen – it feels really solid and reassuring, especially on bar. The downside is that the feedback is very subtle and the brakes are much longer so I have to really concentrate hard to try to feel what the wing is up to and make sure I use a lot of brake when required to try and prevent collapses.

This was definitely a factor I think – I felt relaxed in the strong conditions on full bar, the wing seeming to cut though the mild turbulence nicely, but then my friend saw my wing pitch back in a strong thermal and have a massive collapse. I can’t honestly remember the details, but my wing went though a cascade of violent collapses – way too fast to counter. As I was very high, at least 4500’, I wasn’t in immediate danger of crashing so I concentrated on keeping my hands up and trying to stop the risers from twisting which I barely succeeded in doing. I think I did, but I can’t remember if I tucked my legs under me to help stabilise myself as pods can worsen the twisting (something for me to practice until its instinctive). I certainly came of the speed bar instinctively, although I’m now wondering if it would have helped to remain on it as the wing pitched back to keep the wing from collapsing…

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The last 10 minutes – collapse to tree

The cascade ended with a ~40% cravat on the left side and the wing immediately started to spiral. Fearing blacking out, I quickly stalled the wing to stop the spiral and try to remove the cravat. The stall stopped the spiral, but was very unstable and on release the wing violently surged and started to spiral again as the cravat hadn’t come out. I tried this 3 more times but the cravat didn’t even get smaller! My friend suggested later, that I take a wrap or two when stalling which is an interesting idea. When stalling the Aspen with its short brakes there’s no need, but the Volt 2 stall is near the end of my reach. I was contemplating throwing the reserve, but still with comfortable height, I decided I’d try a bit more so after the 4th stall, I caught the wing before it started to spiral by anticipating with weight shift and opposite brake and I managed to achieve straight and level flight.

This was very difficult to maintain due to the size of the cravat, the wing was very much on the edge of stall or a spiral. I tried to pump the cravat out, but I had to be gentle to maintain control. I tried pulling the sabilo, then other lines in turn but none of them budged. Looking up, the cravat didn’t seem to be in a complete knot, but something was obviously very stuck. I contemplated landing like this as the sink rate was reasonable, but the concentration I had to maintain and force I had to use on the right brake was very tiring, so I tried to tease out the lines again including trying to slowly tug some of the accessible loose lines out by looping them around my wrist. And finally I tried to stall the cravat out one last time but none of this worked.

After maintaining for a while, I decided I couldn’t guarantee I could make it to the ground safely as even a small lapse in concentration, if my right arm lost strength, or if there was any turbulence, the wing would either a spiral or stall. And I couldn’t steer easily anyway, so I threw my Sup’Air Xtralite reserve parachute.

The reserve deployed well but I couldn’t get my main wing in. It was flailing around and when I tried to haul one side by taking the brake lines on one side hand over hand, it ended up spinning. With the wing eventually settled in a down-planeing configuration with twists in the lines, there was nothing more I could do. I must get some advice on how to better de-power the wing in this situation…

The wing was fighting the reserve a bit, but fortunately I wasn’t swinging too badly and I came down on a belt of trees next to a country lane, missing some power lines on the other side of the road. I fell though a tree (field maple my Dad helpfully informed me later!), the weak branches snapping as I went slowing my fall and ended up ~1.5m off the ground with the wing and reserve now resting on top of the trees suspending me – phew so lucky!

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Field maple!

After managing to unclip one side of my leg strap I managed to flip myself forwards and thread my other leg though and landed ungracefully in a bed of nettles on the side of the lane completely unhurt.

This was about 10 minutes after the initial collapse and finally the “excitement” caught up with me, I was shaking, my brain was addled and I found all I could do was lie down. I recognised I was in shock, but didn’t feel in danger. I felt a bit silly at first when I waved down a family passing on a bike ride, but they sensibly called an ambulance and even found me some water. I don’t know your names, but thank you so so much. I then attempted to let everyone know I was OK on the various channels (text, fb, telegram, radio, phone – it is actually a bit confusing at the best of times!). In my confused state I even managed to post a message on the Scottish Telegram group which surprised them a bit! And for a while I thought I’d shit myself, but then I realise I’d just crashed next to a diary farm!

The ambulance crew were just great, they kept me until my blood pressure was a bit more normal which I was grateful for as I was incapable of doing much. After a bit of welcome banter and telling me they didn’t mind hanging about as it was a much more interesting call out than they usually got, they offered to get my wing and reserve out of the tree which no thanks to me they managed surprisingly well by just pulling the lines. They then drove me to a near by petrol station to await my wife in comfort.

I spent the time waiting taking half a tree out of the wing on a traffic island to the confusion of the passers by. Amazingly the wing, reserve and harness and even I was undamaged (except for some nettle stings!).

Thanks to my flying friends, especially John for hosting a great meal with all important wine that evening for a tipsy de-brief to help keep me sane, and to Jan for helping get my wife to our car – you’re all stars!

I have flown a few times since, but I think its going to take me a while to get back the (over?)confidence I once had. I hope I can learn to become a better pilot from this experience, and I hope that this account can be at least somewhat useful to others.

Full track log

Safe flying everyone.

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Me on a better day! 🙂