Deadly decision

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A fullstall with a paraglider
image: Luxo

by David Wood, Flight Safety Australia reader

I’d test-flown this paraglider at 10,000 feet over the Himalayas and as far as I could tell it flew fine. It was a Summit XC2 with about 140 hours on it. The pilot selling it was experienced and hadn’t had any problems with it. My instructor knew the wing and said it was a good buy. The price was right so I snapped it up and headed back to Bali excited for the July–August flying season.

I mean, they said it’s good, so it’s good, right?

Wrong.

Very wrong.

The wind was perfect and the sun shining on my first day flying my ‘new’ second-hand wing in Bali. I flew back and forth along the Timbis Beach ridge in stable onshore wind and everything went perfectly. That is, until Big Ears.

Big Ears is a basic technique involving collapsing just the edges of the wing to reduce wing size and lose height. I was performing Big Ears to lose enough height to land back on top of the ridge. But something felt wrong. The wind was a bit louder in my ears and the wing sluggish, and I was losing height faster than felt comfortable. So I quickly released Big Ears and after a bit of a jerk, the wing returned to normal.

I suspected I’d just experienced something I’d only heard about in theory lessons, called a parachutal stall. I was pretty concerned, because I needed Big Ears soon to top-land, and I wasn’t willing to risk a top landing unless I knew 100 per cent what my wing was going to do. Unfortunately, I had no idea how dangerous a parachutal stall can be.

I performed Big Ears five more times to see if I could avoid a parachutal stall, work out how serious the issue was, and perhaps work out how to control it prior to landing. But on the sixth attempt the wing surged overhead quite suddenly and although I recovered quickly, I was a bit shaken. I decided not to do that again and found a way to land safely without Big Ears.

The instructors thought it must be out of trim, but there was a possibility I may have been causing the issue by keeping a ‘wrap of brakes’ on—meaning slight brake—during Big Ears. I didn’t think I’d had any brake on, but wasn’t 100 per cent sure, and I didn’t want to post my wing to Australia and get it checked if I’d just been making a dumb mistake the whole time. The instructors agreed it was reasonable for me to try Big Ears one last time with absolutely no brake on to be sure I wasn’t causing the issue, but that the decision was up to me.

With my instructor in radio contact and watching me, I took off for one final Big Ears attempt. He had me gain more height and go further out over the ocean as a precaution, and watched while I did one final Big Ears, with absolutely no brake. The wing again went parachutal, confirming the problem wasn’t pilot input. So now about 300 feet above the ocean and still quite close to land, I released Big Ears … and that’s when everything went to hell!

The wing surged violently and terrifyingly forward over my head, then fell back behind me, and surged violently again. I was so freaked out and hyper-focused on controlling my wing, I had no idea I was in full free-fall towards the water and possibly the cliff. I also wasn’t aware that this was what a full stall feels like—something I’d only heard about in class. I just knew I had to control the wing and that today might be the day I die.

The instructor was still giving me instructions on the radio, but it happened so fast that to this day I don’t know if I recovered the wing on instinct, or because I followed what he was saying. But recover I did, finding myself about 120 feet over the water and heading straight towards the cliff. I managed to correct course and scratch back up the hill to hop just over the bushes and land … falling to my knees.

The instructor said I’d followed every instruction, recovered perfectly, and that it was an equipment failure. Thorough subsequent testing showed the leading edge had less than one second porosity!! This means the air passes through the fabric in under a second, making it useless and not airworthy. The deadly trap was that the wing would fly perfectly well in most conditions—it wasn’t until something went wrong that it might not respond without vigorous pilot input. So the honest pilot who sold it to me had no idea the wing was an accident waiting to happen.

What are my take-aways from this?

Firstly, read the manual. I now know the manufacturer recommends applying 50 per cent of speed bar before performing Big Ears. This would lower the angle of attack and presumably reduce the chance of stall (something never covered in my theory lessons).
Secondly, pay super close attention in theory lessons, soaking up everything. And it never hurts to repeat your classes. You never know when one piece of information (like how dangerous a parachutal stall can be) will help you make a life-saving decision, instead of a deadly one.
 Thirdly, test your equipment when you buy it if it is second-hand (if it hasn’t recently been checked) and every six months after that.

I’ve just bought another second-hand wing, and it’s been THOROUGHLY checked and certified to be in ‘as-new’ condition. I’m slowly building up my confidence and air-time again. I look forward to many fun years of flying with the wonderful community of pilots who continue to help me fly higher, further and safer.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Brilliant article. Loved it. Very informative and at times exciting. Now I want a go. Where is the nearest school to SE Melbourne?

  2. Good story, but can we just confirm one item; I think I was taught big ears on THEN speed bar, and release speed bar before releasing big ears.

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