We had had some very unfortunate accidents earlier in the competition and I was adamant about keeping Kari’s recommended 1000 feet of ground clearance. This is not only to have options if things went wrong, but these thermals weren't well organized until above that altitude anyway.
After hitting the start cylinder to the north, I turned back south into the wind. On the way to the next turn point (Black Mountain) I found myself with different pilots along the way. The last company I had was with Reavis Sutphin-Gray, behind launch. We shared some disorganized lift without much payoff. We worked it for a while, and then split off to look independently while I kept him in sight. I found a good thermal that took me from 9k to about 12k. The thermal came out of a canyon below, and just ahead was another one with the same exposure to the sun and protection from the wind, only deeper and wider. I headed for that, hoping to get a climb up to my no-O2-limited altitude of 14k. Reavis didn’t seem to notice, so I was now alone and unafraid.
I remember the air was butter smooth and I was at least 3k above the highest terrain below. I took the opportunity to readjust my flight deck and study the route for a few seconds. Then, perhaps a minute later I had the very opposite of butter smooth. I took a very short, sharp hit from some very angry air. My Delta 2 took a full frontal and I began a free fall. I reacted with full brakes to keep the wing open, which was followed by a loud “whack” from the wing’s fabric going from slack to taut. I looked up and saw my wing mostly open, pointing forward and seemingly OK. It didn’t look fully pressurized and it moved around like a jellyfish. I should have known what I was looking at, but honestly I wasn’t sure what was going on. I was giving it weight shift and brake inputs to straighten it out, but that didn't help. The wing took a couple of slow spins above me and now I had two riser twists.
My situation was going from bad to worse and I was running out of ideas. I decided to reset the wing with a full stall. The brakes went to full deflection with surprising ease. Then, once stable overhead, I released to my shoulders. At this point the wing looked similar to what I had been working with. I released the brakes to the pulleys and the wing surged to life. I tried to check the surge with brakes, but with the wing loaded and the twisted lines under tension, the brakes were jammed. Soon after, the wing entered a high-speed spiral. I could feel the G forces building rapidly. With even more line tension and more twists, my brake handles became useless dangly ornaments. I couldn’t reach my brake lines above the twists, even without the G forces. I had nothing left but to go for my reserve. I reached, strained to look, found the handle and pulled.
I think I had built up to about 3 G’s by the time I threw, and it was increasing. The handle pull was anything but forceful. It was merely enough to release the pins. The throw was meager in comparison to the centripetal force. The tug came just over one second later. The escape from the G forces and the quiet from the rush of air put a big smile on my face.
I looked around and took in my surroundings. I was about 500 feet above the ridge surrounding the canyon I had been flying toward. The floor of the canyon was another 1000 feet below that. Then, like a spoilt child that demands attention, the wing began to down plane. It blocked my view, but more importantly it pulled me hard toward the ground, increasing my descent rate against the reserve at an alarming rate. A PLF with this descent would hurt. I had to disable it somehow.
I had too many line wraps to count at this point, which put most lines out of reach, including the brake lines. I could get to the middle A’s, but there was too much pressure in the wing to induce a frontal. I put cuts in my gloves trying. After about 6 turns, I reached for the outside two lines; the stabilo and outboard A. I pulled about three lengths until the wing stopped spinning. It began a falling-leaf maneuver overhead, which gave me a minimal descent rate that was next to nothing and a maximum that was what I figured to be a reserve-only descent. I planned to clutch these lines to the ground.
After packing up, I had a beautiful 1.5 hour hike down a footpath that turned into a four-wheel-drive road. I estimated that the canyon released about once every 15-20 minutes. The wind kicked up to as much as 15 knots in these cycles. Eventually I saw someone round the bend on the road ahead. It was Mike, one of our comp’s retrieve drivers and president of the 4WD club. We walked for ten minutes together where he could go no farther in his F-150. He saved me at least another hour of hiking. As we approached the main road, a huge cloud of dust was being churned up by a Hyundai Sonata rental car, closing on us at an alarming rate; one of the scariest moments of the day for me. It turned out to be Alex, Thom and Seattle pilot Andrey – on a rescue mission with a cold growler of local brew. It was all smiles after they stopped and I transferred to the new retrieve vehicle.
This reserve deployment was my first. The errors and the actions were classic. I did some things right, and some things wrong. I want to share these so others might learn from my experience.
1) When flying upwind, the first part of any thermal encountered will be the lee of the thermal. That portion is where all the turbulence or "bad air" lives. I think about this as I thermal but didn't have it in mind for the initial encounter.
2) If the prevailing air is generally lumpy or bumpy, and there is an area of smooth, laminar air ahead of an obvious thermal trigger or thermal source, realize that this may be due to blockage from a large disturbance upwind; i.e. a large thermal. If the thermal source is apparent, the thermal is expected to be strong, and the center of the thermal is expected to be directly ahead, it may be best to take a course 45 degrees away from it and approach the thermal from a direction other than directly downwind. Big wave surfers don't paddle through the whitewater at Waimea Bay on a 20+ day. They take the channel around the break and enter from the clean side. It's a similar concept.
3) SIVs are important as an introduction to actions required for malfunctions. However, I don't think that yearly SIVs themselves are enough. I believe that every correction maneuver learned in an SIV should be recorded as a series of steps or a procedure. I'm planning to handle each potential malfunction (collapse, cravat, frontal, stall, etc) as an emergency procedure handled by recalling memory items. I don't do SIVs enough to make recovery a natural event. I need to be deliberate and mechanical. There isn't always enough time or altitude to be experimental or confused.
4) Specifically, I didn’t recognize a parachutal stall (aka paratage). I believe the correct action is to release the brakes to the pulleys. If that doesn’t reduce the angle of attack sufficiently to break the stall, I think that pulling lightly on the A’s with the back of the hands while still holding the brakes can be effective. I understand that another excellent method is to apply speedbar. If I had recognized my wing’s malfunction and applied any of these controls, I think I would have recovered and continued to fly the task. The worst thing to do is what I did; apply brakes and induce riser twists.
5) Things got more complicated after the riser twists. I think the best mitigation is to avoid them by correcting wing malfunctions before they develop. If they do exist, the only control to the brakes may be above the twists. As Brad G. said the next day, "Fly the wing you have and work on untwisting after establishing control." I plan to practice wing control with multiple twists during my next kiting session. Be ready to throw the reserve if control deteriorates, as it did for me.
6) After throwing a reserve, realize that the wing will likely down plane. It’s much easier to disable the wing before this happens, so go for it immediately. I'm not certain what the best technique is, but with free brake lines, I think I would go for those first and wrap all I could. Consider carrying an accessible hook knife to disable the wing as a back-up plan, cutting lines vs. pulling them.
7) Realize the threat of being dragged by the reserve after landing. Have a plan to disable the reserve in windy conditions. Consider pulling the center line if you can find it or several side lines on the reserve. Think about this the next time you have your reserve out of the D-bag during a repack. Consider a quick release. Consider a hook knife. Try kiting it and disabling it if conditions are safe and conducive.
Please post up any inputs or suggestions. I'm sure there is more to know and learn.