TUMBLE AT SANDIA, SPRING '97
"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable." -- Helen Keller, 1940
Sandia Mountain has a high "yikes" factor at times, no doubt about it. Pegged varios, pegged sink alarms and going negative are all part of flying this mountain during the heat of the day. But on May 3, 1997, things weren't so bad. I launched about 2 p.m. in a nice, smooth 10 mph west wind at the Crest launch on my Supersport 143.
I got up right away in some lift straight off launch. It was a pretty mellow day for Sandia, I thought, with lift only in about the 400-600 fpm range. I cruised down the mountain and continued to get higher. I had been flying about 15 minutes and was working a thermal over the "Rock House", a rock structure along the Crest trail that hikers frequent, at about 12,400 ASL (launch is about 10,670).
The rock house, on a rowdy day, is always a good place to get your butt kicked, but some days it's the only spot that's really cranking. I had already been in and out of the thermal a couple of times, and it wasn't being too rude to me, so I was that much more surprised when I went into a dive. It was like no other "over the falls" dive I had ever felt. It was completely negative air; I had absolutely no bar pressure and was in a severe dive, past vertical from what it felt like, from the beginning.
The dive lasted what seemed like forever, I was just holding the bar hoping to come out of it. The next thing I remember is the bar getting violently ripped from my hands to the right. ( I saw later that the right leading edge snapped and the right down tube also broke, sucking the control bar up out of my reach). I'm not sure if the wing broke when I began to tumble, or if it broke when I came out of the negative air and hit some solid air and that's what sent me into the tumble. I flipped three times, basically nose over keel. I t was like slow motion: I saw ground, then sky, ground then sky, ground then sky. I don't remember slamming into the glider. It felt more like I was just getting flung around like a wet noodle.
The glider stabilized after the last flip and it was above me. I almost felt like I was hanging there like a normal pilot, except that the control bar was out of my reach above my head somewhere. Like a dolt, I even looked up to think maybe I could still fly it down. What I saw made me kinda sick. The sail was all wrinkled up weird and there was a lot of creaking and groaning going on. Also, the whole contraption was just sort of twisting back and forth above me. That's when I threw my parachute. I had to use both hands to rip open the velcro, and I flung the chute frisbee-style straight down toward the ground. It opened no problem. As it came up above me it kicked me into a pendulum-like swing as I floated over the top of the mountain.
It seems like it took me forever to make the decision to throw my chute, but looking back, the dive, tumble, deployment and landing all probably took less than a minute. Thus far, I didn't even have time to freak out or be scared. However, under canopy, I spotted some powerlines, and I seemed to be heading right for them. I sure was wishing for a way to steer that parachute, but I couldn't do anything but squirm. About that time a north gust hit and blew me sideways, directly into a perfectly open area padded with nice, soft spring snow. Sandia is covered with dagger-like pine trees, and getting snagged up in one of those wouldn't be too fun, either. Actually, a guy practicing for the Classic a few weeks later tumbled in the exact same spot I did, only he got snarled in the trees after his successful deployment.
I couldn't climb into the control frame to land because I couldn't reach the control bar. I hit first, then the glider, then the chute. Of course, the chute kept filling up with air, dragging me across the snow field as I tried to wriggle out of my harness. A high-altitude distance runner came to my rescue my stomping on my chute. My radio still worked, so I radioed Jim, who with Mark Mocho came to load up me and my pile of glider parts. Mocho said he'd never seen anyone deploy and land in such a convenient spot. I was right off the access road to a trail. It was like an X-C retrieval, kinda, only I never made it off the mountain.
"Next time, crash closer to the restaurant, wouldja?" Mocho said. "I'm thirsty."
On the glider, the right leading edge broke completely at the joint and was dented in a couple of places. The keel also broke, as well as the right down tube. Half of the battens are broken, and the leading edge of the sail is ripped and shredded where the leading edge busted through it. Anyone want to buy a used glider?
Only a forest ranger saw my deployment. All she could say was she saw a wing break, and that she saw a parachute come out. She alerted the pilots waiting to launch that one of us "crashed." Shortly after that I radioed to tell them where I was at.
We all started flying with the knowledge that we could possibly encounter dangerous situations while hang gliding. Boy, I tell you, though, it sure takes you by surprise when it does happen. When you least expect it, expect it. I may have let my guard down a little since I thought the conditions were mellow. I may have been flying just a little too slow to milk that light thermal. What scares me most is I don't really know what I did wrong, I know I was above stall speed and the dive didn't feel like a stall. I'll certainly always fly faster now, but I still don't know what it was that hit me and whether or not I'd do the same wrong thing if it happened again. It all happened so fast, and no one else saw it, so I can't know for sure.
It is a good feeling, though, to know I kept thinking through the whole deal, and that I managed to get my chute out without ever practicing a deployment other than in my head. It's a relief to know I'm capable of saving myself, and that someone was smart enough a long time ago to require all mountain pilots to fly with parachutes.
Id like to thank Betty at High Energy Sports for listening to my story and for looking over my parachute and repacking it for me in a nice, new deployment bag. I feel much better knowing it's in good shape.
With a little extra prodding from Jim, I've decided to stay out of the "heat of the day" air at Sandia in May and June this year, the kickingest time of the year here. I hope to get in some nice, smooth evening mountain and cross-country flights on my new X-C 132 this year. It's spring, the clouds are popping out and the winds are calming down and I can't wait to get back in the air. Here's to a safe season for everyone.
Donna Stokes, May 1998