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Why we should stay out of the air today

by Had Robinson

Earlier today (April 10, 2013), I had this discussion with RGSA Safety Officer, Robin Hastings, why pilots might want to stay on the ground.  Be sure to also read the Introduction to Weather in the Southwest if you have not already. 

Do we want to get hurt, wreck your equipment, or have something worse (!) happen?  It is extremely important that we understand the weather.  Our region has some of the most dicey air in the world because of the dry air and high altitude which make the thermals here extremely powerful.  The weather can change so RAPIDLY and/or be completely different just a few hundred feet up or down or a mile or two in one direction or the other.  One minute the air is a pussycat.  Then, in seconds, it can be brutal.  For this reason, pilots who learn how to safely fly in the desert southwest have the tools that can enable them to fly safely anywhere in the world.

Here is a report from a friend and an experienced pilot who was flying in Colombia during the 2015 season. She personally discovered why studying the weather can prevent an accident.

Colombia was actually very rowdy this year, with a lot of accidents and one death. I had to throw my reserve the first flight of my first day, heading north towards La Union. I was a couple hundred feet off the ground when I hit the bad air and my wing took two huge collapses on opposite sides and went into a spiral. I threw the reserve and hit the ground 4 seconds later. I had a badly bruised heel and slightly sprained ankle–and I credit my Hanway paragliding boots for saving my bones. My wing was fine and we were able to repack my reserve and I flew the rest of the week, but it wasn't as enjoyable as I had hoped, and the realization of throwing the reserve kind of came in waves afterwards. I have never thrown in 8 years. Everyone said the drought is creating volatile conditions. Water for the city was turned off every day from 2-7pm. There were still lots of low clouds but not a lot of rain in the Roldanillo area. We also got to fly Pietachichu which I thought was beautiful. A fast storm blew in after we landed and two tandem paragliders actually launched into the approaching squall! They really got it handed to them, and right over the buildings–they barely made it with their lives and their passengers. It was unbelievable that they would choose to do that.

Would you be excited in taking the sort of chances the tandem pilots took?  Picture yourself with only one wish: TO GET DOWN OUT OF THE AIR NOW!  But you cannot.  Think about it.  Do you want to spend the rest of your life like these pilots?

Here is an accident report from a pilot who pushed the limits, especially the time of day and the season, and experienced serious permanent injuries.  He thought he was paralyzed from the waist down.

Some of you many have noticed that I have been a bit quiet the last few weeks. During the fantastic XC weekend we had in early May, I was in Nevada on 5 day Volbiv trip. Our intention had been an east west crossing but winds dictated we fly from north to south for a few days and then head north again for the last few days. We were primarily flying the Ruby’s and Diamonds Mountains. The first few days were fickle but fun with some decent XC flight and some adventurous top landing in the big mountains. On the 3rd day the wind switched and we posted up near Eureka and envisioned a 200km flight north. The morning was challenging with 2 guys getting early bomb outs, 2 getting away, 1 (me) scratching and waiting for climb to get up and away. After a bit of scratching I found it was time to land. Below was a sea of waist high sage with a lone green spot as the obvious landing choice. It was turbulent and there was headwind moving toward the landing zone. Somewhere in the 200ft range the wind shifted 180 degrees and to make the grass I would need a low 180 degree turn. Or I could land pretty much any where safely but certainly destroy some if not all of the glider in the sage. So I made the wrong call and went for the tight turn low. On a new wing. And I spun it. I swung through the pendulum of the spin lacking the needed last 10ft of ground clearance. Or in other words I was in an accelerated pendulum when I hit the ground butt first. The price was steep. Dislocated left shoulder, 4 broken ribs, fractured sternum, badly bruised ass and tail bone and worst was fractured T8 and burst fractured T9. Upon impact I knew I had broken my back and thought I was paralyzed from the waist down. Fortunately, feeling returned to both legs over the next few hours during the extraction efforts. 6 hours and a helicopter ride later I found myself in SLC at the University of Utah Trauma Center. 12 hours after that I was having spinal surgery. T10-T7 have been fused-8 screws, 2 Pins and 2 rods. A week after the surgery I can walk and generally take care of myself. The pain is still high and movement for more than 20 minutes at a time is exhausting. I’ll be headed home this week sometime. Likely a month of doing not much but sleep and PT. 6 months before a return to a mostly normal life. And a year before I can ski, fly or play sports. Didn’t get bit flying in big air on a gnarly site but landing on flat ground where the hazards we manifestly more psychological than real. Stupid. Ill likely not respond on Group Me for a while as its a bitch to type or frankly do much right now but hope to see you all in a few weeks for some beers.

Why is our air so fickle and potentially so dangerous for our sport, especially for paragliding?  It is mainly because 1.) We are far from the ocean, 2.) We are relatively high in altitude, 3.) We are located in the Horse Latitudes where the air is unusually dry most of the time. 4.) We are in the vicinity of mountains and deep valleys.

Briefly, these four factors add up to air that is usually descending (high pressure) which makes for sharp, intense, narrow thermals with rough edges (vertical shear).  Dry air from constant high pressure means few clouds (which normally are a great help in locating thermals).  Usually, we have to guess where the air is going up.  Lack of clouds and intense sun makes the thermals very strong during the middle of the day.  Being in the Horse Latitudes ensures that winds are often light and variable and can change direction often.  We can be exposed to radically different layers of air in the atmosphere as we fly up through it.  That is, the direction, speed, moisture content, and temperature can be all over the place.  The oceans have enormous thermal mass and air that is next to great bodies of water tends to be stable or, at least, predictable, like our southern Pacific coast.  But this is the land of mishmash air.  Without careful analysis and help from our local weathermen at the National Weather Service, we can put ourselves in danger quickly.

For example, this is what a fully inflated paraglider looks like when encountering virga – not a pleasant experience.  It took some serious force to push the glider down like that, overcoming the lift flying at trim.  Thankfully, the pilot was not cocooned in the glider, there was no cravat, and the glider started flying again quickly.  Anything else would have required a reserve toss over mountainous territory – also a less than a good option.  The entire event took less than 3 nerve-wracking seconds.

paraglider collapse from virga

Salton Sea Cold Front Event Feb. 11, 2012 – Like the southwest, the desert just east of the Sierra Nevada can have sudden weather events that are dangerous to ultralight aircraft.  The pilot in the photo below failed to heed clear warnings of a rapidly moving wave of strong air that was moving east across the desert from the Pacific coast.  With help, he was barely able to land without injury or being blown out over water – this time.  Another pilot was, in fact, blown out to sea.  He narrowly escaped drowning.  Both pilots should have landed but chose not to.  Is it "cool" to risk your life?  Many pilots choose to deliberately play a form of Russian Roulette.

The search and rescue team that attempted a rescue of the latter pilot must think ultralight pilots are foolish and careless.  This is not to mention the waste of taxpayer's money that resulted from sending a fully equipped rescue helicopter for someone who did not need any help because he had reached land and was having a great time visiting with the locals.  He could have called us – but didn't.

gust front

While flying in the mountains to the northwest of the Sea, I saw the leading edge of this front sneaking in from miles away (dust kicking up).  The heavy, cold air went along the low areas and then spread out.  The mountains where I was blocked the flow and were probably safe but why take a chance?  I landed ASAP.  But there were pilots in the air who did not pay any attention to this.  They survived....

dust being kicked up by a gust front

Here is today's analysis (a sample of what pilots should always do before flying).

The NWS forecast is for some short wave impulses (low pressure waves moving along high in the atmosphere) that are on the tail end of the storm leaving the area.  These impulses cause the air in front of them to go up and cause mixing or gusting (forecast is for the effects to start about 9AM).  Things are calm here both in the valley and at the Dona Ana County Airport but it is because of the inversion which will soon be gone by mid/early morning. Conditions northwest of the Las Cruces Airport and further west of us are different. At 7AM, Deming is already west at 7 mph (not bad).

Things would have been flyable from maybe 7am until 9am but it would rapidly become too strong for all but the best PG pilots (west at 15 is forecast by the GFS model by late morning). It is the gusting from the short wave impulses and the Jet that should always concern pilots. It is extremely important that pilots take a look at the hourly weather forecast from the NWS or, at least, read the day's forecast discussion.  None of the models are designed to forecast atmospheric turbulence (gusting) that could be dangerous.

So I am flying at 8:45AM and the gusting forecast was off a bit. It could be a concern. For example, I landed late Saturday and got whacked. Just as I touched down the winds took off 18+ or so and I got nicely dragged across some of the grass at the turf farm.  I knew gusting was forecast for the time I was in the air but it was so nice flying around.  As I went up, wind speed increased and there was turbulence – all signs of something strong coming in.

Getting dragged a bit at the turf farm is one thing (easy, no damage, no harm, etc.) but getting dragged anywhere else?  It could damage equipment and cause injury.  Pilots have been rattled by gusting from the Jet, as well.  It can happen so quickly and is completely without warning.

I was at the top of Mt. Riley in nice balmy air but I wanted to be sure the Jet wasn't going to do stuff (it always does, anyway, but I wanted to be sure) so I waited around. Sure enough, a 35 mph gust came through out of nowhere. If I had been in the air, probably no problem but what if I was setting up for a landing or had been soaring close to the rocks?  I made the 40 minute hike back down the peak with all of my gear.  Why be careless? Those pilots who choose to ignore the weather might be lucky then again.... Today might have been safe for PG for 2 hours or so very early.  But, to be safe, we should get out of the air an hour before the gusting is forecast. That leaves a nervous hour to fly for us. I did not think it was worth it. These impulses combined with the Jet can cascade into a dangerous wave of turbulence which is what I think happened when I was at Mt. Riley.  Air and water are subject to the laws of physics and behave in similar ways.  The ocean coasts are subject to sneaker waves.  These are extremely dangerous waves that can be many times higher and stronger than the average wave coming in.  Many have been drowned by these monsters that appear out of nowhere, even on calm sunny days.

The atmosphere can be the same under certain conditions when the effects of extreme winds (the Jet) and short wave troughs/impulses are present and then combine.  Mixing of these effects can cause the dangerous turbulence which can spit a pilot out of the air.

Conclusion:  Make sure the air is relatively clean and smooth up to 15,000' MSL or, at least, to the level of a strong inversion before flying in it.  If there is an inversion much lower, you probably will be OK.  This is why the NWS gusting forecasts are so critical for ultralight pilots.  Any pilot who has 100's of hours of flight time can tell you a story of how he was just flying along calmly and, suddenly, without warning got whacked badly out of nowhere.  We need to minimize or eliminate these frightening and potentially dangerous experiences.  That is why we carefully study the weather before flying in it.

Remember that you alone are responsible for determining whether it is safe to fly or not.