Green walls of Salamanca

image: Fredi Bach

by Tony Sandeberg, Flight Safety Australia reader

It was my second paragliding adventure to Europe. The first had been the best five weeks of my life, so I thought I’d do it all again. All the boys had rescheduled their work commitments and we arranged to meet in Thun, a picturesque village in Switzerland, to begin our trip. The plan was to fly a few local sites around Interlaken and slowly make our way to Piedrahita Spain, 2000 km away, for the British Open Paragliding Competition.

Piedrahita is a mediaeval town in the middle of nowhere surrounded by dry, flat land. We were a few days into the British Open and it was common for ‘dusties’ laden with grass and dirt to blow around the launching area. You’d regularly hear someone call ‘dust-eyyy’, and everyone would dive onto their bunched glider except for the few out of the 100 or so pilots who were seeing to nature. It was not unusual to see a glider and attached harness 20 m from the ground, snatched up by a Spanish diablo dust devil, resembling a Chinese dragon masquerading through the sky, with the owner hoping to see his ‘more valuable than his girlfriend’ glider land unscathed.

Most competition pilots had taken off, the light scratchy conditions making launch difficult. My prior flight had been unadventurous; hugging the ridge to the right of launch dodging the powerlines in light conditions was torturous. Eventually bombing, I hitched back to the top and relaunched, this time sticking to the left of the ridge. I’m low, 10 m off the deck, it’s really stable and no one is getting up—looks like another sled ride. I head out over the scratchy outcrop searching for anything then whack, the glider kicks back. Eureka!

The glider rockets up at six and a half metres per second. I keep the pressure on aware of my limited height and look up at the glider to see … its top surface! ‘What the &*#!?’ I scream.

The time it takes to send a message from my brain to my hands seems like an eternity. Within seconds, I smack in. I hit square on my backside, just missing a huge granite boulder. I feel no pain as the glider ambles to the ground. My head spins, trying to absorb what has happened. The dusty returns and the glider is whipped off the ground and me with it—flung around like a rag doll and dumped again landing a further eight metres away. Now lying on my right side the pain is unbelievable. I unclip my left riser hoping to stay grounded should the devil choose to return for a third round. My mind races, in an unusually organised manner. Did anyone see me deck it? I’m 200 m from launch, and it’s 40 degrees in the sun and I know I’ve done some major internal damage.

My hand finds my radio and I manage to put out a call to one of the boys. A welcome response crackles through. ‘&*#, what’s happened, are you OK?’ came the response. I have a feeling of relief that someone in the world is aware of my desperate need. Badly injured and alone on the side of a mountain in an unfamiliar country wasn’t in the travel brochure!

I hear someone calling out but can’t see them. I raise my arm, waving. ‘Tony, Tony … where are you?’ An unmistakable pommy accent awakens me from my nightmare. It’s Dave, the hangie I met at the pub. He wants to help but is not sure what to do. He makes a call and eventually people arrive to reassure and support me emotionally. The value of this support and the natural will of human caring is healing on its own.

I’m roasting in my flying suit unable and not game enough to move. The pain increases and I begin to groan with each gasp of air, which somehow provides minor relief. An hour passes. ‘Where’s the f&*#ing chopper?’ I yell. Scampering through the dense scrub, the paramedics finally arrive and begin their lifesaving routine. They cut through my harness and flight suit to assess my vitals and thankfully begin the morphine.

The sound of the chopper blades is exaggerated by the drug. The vibration of the propellers throb in my ears. Dust fills the air … am I still flying? Is the dusty back? A familiar voice reassures me as I am stretchered up the rough terrain to the waiting ambulance, to be transferred to the chopper just touching down on the launch. Squeezing me into the chopper, my head is twisted against the rear of the cabin … and me without a neck brace!

Touching down on the rooftop of Salamanca hospital, I am rushed to a CT machine. Scans are taken and I’m painfully placed into a bed and wheeled into a green painted room. Within minutes a doctor approaches. ‘Hablas Español?’ ‘No hablo inglés,’ I respond. ‘I am Dr Blanco. You have a burst fracture of your L1 vertebrae and have ruptured your bowel, bladder and kidney. Don’t move your legs or you’ll be a paraplegic. Nothing by mouth for seven days,’ he said. I can’t wake from this horrendous nightmare … but I’m not dreaming. My eyes glaze and swell with tears. The night slips away in a state of drugged terror.

The next morning I call my daughters in Sydney and attempt to explain what has happened. Within days my youngest, Tennelle, arrives at my bedside and we both embrace and burst into tears. The guy in the bed next to me lights up a smoke …. the drugs they have given me freak me out and I’m seeing little people on the stark white ceiling of my shared room … with the green walls. I’m flat on my back, can’t move, can’t feed myself, and can’t wipe my own arse. I urinate blood into a glass bottle for three days and it’s 50 degrees with no aircon. I’m absolutely &*#ked!

Visits from fellow pilots and the hotel owner in Piedrahita were frequent; however, I’m not coherent enough to appreciate their concern. It’s the custom in Spain for your family to look after you while in hospital. Tennelle organises a small apartment close to the hospital, large enough for her and her sisters, who arrived within days. The nurses come in and out, but I understand nothing. Tennelle studies the English Spanish translation book and gives them a run for their money! They show minimal compassion and absolutely no skill in moving a patient with a spinal injury. Finally, they move the smoker out and I have the room to myself. Each night one of my daughters stays in the spare bed next to me to ensure their dad is OK in this foreign, unfamiliar dilemma.

Dr Blanco visits and in good English explains that I need an operation to insert four titanium screws, three plates and a bone graft from my hip, finishing off with a blood transfusion. I’m speechless. I ask him to reduce my drug dosage … so I can at least be aware of what’s happening.

The day for my surgery arrives. I am wheeled into an operating room and six hours later, wake feeling like someone out of the exorcist and so, so thirsty. But they won’t let me drink. Nurses smoke in the recovery room, paying little or no notice to their one and only patient. Finally I get their consideration by literally projecting a massive vomit … onto the green wall!

I am wheeled back to the green room and the long recovery begins. Placed on my back with the bandages and staples pressing into my spine and I am told to stay in this position. The days and nights pass, in a state of vagueness. I am oblivious to what’s happening. Each day I slowly improve and am determined to get up from my bed and start walking.

One day a male nurse arrives and measures my chest. The next day he’s back with what looks like body armor—a white plastic upper body brace, which allows me to get up and walk. Helped up by the nurses, my head spins, having been flat on my back for 14 days.

With my first step my legs begin to crumble but I push myself to walk the corridor, getting stronger each day. The hospital food is … hospital food, so my daughters sneak in meals from nearby cantinas.

The days dissolve into weeks. Negotiations with the insurance company are extremely difficult and eventually an agreement is made. They have arranged to fly a nurse over to assist me in my return to Australia. Each day emails arrive offering assistance and good wishes from friends and family back home. I look forward to this invaluable contact. In response my daughters produce a daily news sheet, highlighting my progress and the daily goings-on in our turbulent lives. I am finally allowed to shower; believe it or not … it’s only been two and a half weeks!

At last the insurance nurse arrives to escort me back home. The doctor is insistent that I fly flat on my back, which will take up considerable space on the aircraft incurring additional cost. The insurance company informs us that if this is to occur I will have to wait another month. I insist that I will be OK in a wheelchair, as I can’t wait to get out of here. The next day I am up at 3 am ready for the ambulance ride to Madrid airport. I am wheelchaired into the first class lounge of Singapore Airlines and after such a torturous month finally begin to feel good. I’m going home! I have severe injuries but luckily no spinal-cord damage. My three daughters have looked after me like angels … what an absolute blessing.

The flight is fantastic in first class. I revel in the exceptional food, drink a glass of French champagne and nearly pass out, my first drink for a month! On arrival in Sydney I’m taken by ambulance immediately to Prince of Wales Hospital. Dr Gray removes my staples and gives me the OK. I am released the next day and spend the next nine months recovering. After months of physio and numerous checkups I’m almost normal again … well almost!

Two years later I decided to return to Piedrahita, revisit the hospital, thank the doctor and nurses and once again fly the site and get some closure on this immense life-changing event. It took two hours in the dust and heat to find where I smacked in … and eventually it all came back. Kicking in the soil where I lay two years ago were remnants of my flying suit, syringe caps and two Australian coins that must have fallen from my pocket. I broke down … releasing all the emotional pain of that Spanish diablo which altered the course of my life.

I often look back searching for answers that I can’t find. Was I careless? Did I not read the conditions correctly? Were human factors involved? Was 12 years flying experience enough?

I think I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Published previously in the Sports Aviation 2018 Close Calls booklet.