I've been wanting to write up the full story of my accident since it took place on January 5th... And though I've tried to get up and moving sooner this is the first opportunity I've had to sit down at my actual computer to begin typing it out.
It's a bit of a lengthy story but I want to share both the events that took place, the emotions and pains there after, and a few of the take aways from the incident that I've had both personally, and as a pilot...
I feel it's important to share these details to aid other pilots in avoiding the mistakes I made, to help make the sport a safer place... And to show clearly what I've learned personally from the past weeks of pain.
Let's get started.
It was a cool morning, fairly calm but with the winds just beginning to build... I first began to lay out my wing to the South East but after a few moments re-directed to the North as the direction of the light wind seemed to change directions constantly.
As I clipped into my motor I watched as my friend went to launch ahead of me. He nailed the inflation but then lost his footing and actually broke his propellor for the first time in his flying career. I jumped out of my motor and checked in with him to make sure he was okay and then agreed that I'd take a short flight despite the fact that he wouldn't be joining me in the air.
If I'm honest with my self, I didn't really feel "up to it" at that moment, I wasn't really excited to fly and I wasn't really fired up to fly by myself in the least. I'd had a cold for a couple of days and I think that if I'd done what I really had wanted to, I'd have just stayed in bed that morning... Of course hindsight is 20/20, heh.
I launched cleanly but felt a little rotor from the tall trees at the end of the run way so I decided just to climb out and have a boring little flight around the patch to feel things out. I made it up to pattern altitude on my downwind leg and started testing my wings speedbar "PK" system (something I don't normally fly with, but had planned to do some demonstrating of the speed range it offered on the intended flight with my friend). As I overflew the runway at about 500' I began setting up for a spiral turn to lose altitude so I could fly back across my launch.
Now a spiral turn is something I've done hundreds, if not thousands of times. Power on, power off, asymmetrical, symmetrical, over water and over land, I've had plenty of experience with this fabulous method for disposing of altitude. What happened in this spiral however was a first for me... And hopefully the last time I ever experience any thing like it.
Upon passing the runway, I set up above a wooded area just to the South West of my take off zone, I brought the engine to idle and applied full weight shift and about 1/3rd brake to initiate the turn.... Just as I have so many times before. As the glider picked up speed and began it's rotation I slowly applied a bit of power and then just as I passed through about 200 degrees of turning and 350 feet, everything about the turn changed.
The first thing I felt was a lot like being weightless, but just for an instant before the wing suddenly surged further right 'til it was aimed more at the ground than at the sky. In the moment, I had no idea what happened, only that I was losing altitude at an incredible rate and that I had to do SOMETHING to get the wing back over head. Within the space of about 3 seconds, I did a lot of things (from what I remember, and from what I've seen in my helmet cam video). I immediately dropped my weight shift and pulled lots of left brake, attempting to roll the glider back over head. I also went to full power and as soon as the wing was back above, rather than below me and I attempted all I could do to regain lift rather than the surge of downward energy I was in.
A moment later, I hit.
It seems crazy, but if the roof I hit, was not there, I'd probably have been completely fine... Or I'd be dead. So, I'm going to continue to be thankful for it being there, and for it being at precisely the right angle that it allowed me to skid off, bleeding off kinetic energy, rather than to impact and and deplete all the energy and speed I had all at once... Which would have almost certainly left me with a much worse set of injuries.
Had I been 30' higher when things went wrong, I would have been completely fine... 10' lower? I may have been dead. There are lots of takeaways I'd like to share from this experience but I'll save those for after the story is finished... Stay tuned.
I hit the roof at approximately 50mph (best I can eyeball it) I was JUST at the very bottom of the spiral and thus just at the point between sinking / building energy and ballooning out of it. My right buttock and the cage impacted at almost the same moment, the cage taking a massive amount of the impact and depleting that energy outward, breaking nearly every spar and tube within the lower half of the design. My back was impacted by the buttock impact and then my left leg (which was outstretched) hit with a vengeance and was drug up the roof to it's peak scraping the skin off as it went.
As I left the roof, my head and upper body swung forward 'til all that could be seen in the camera footage were the socks I was wearing. Approx. 20' later the wing caught in the tree on the South side of the property and swung me up, and then back into the ground where I finally came to rest after spinning in the air 360 degrees.
From there, as soon as I'd finished exhaling a few choice words in horror, I said
"Thank you Lord, thank you Lord... Okay, check list" and went through my extremities to make sure everything was working and I wasn't losing blood. Then, I removed my helmet and started unbuckling my harness. That's when my friend Tucker (the afore mentioned pilot) showed up on scene and graciously helped me out of the harness and onto the ground where I spent about 40 minutes waiting for the shock to pass so I could see if I was injured too badly, or if I could avoid the hospital trip.
Now, full disclosure... I don't recommend ANY ONE wait to go to a hospital after a major trauma like this. However, after many different accidents in my adventurous life, I've learned my body fairly well and my hope was to avoid the cost associated with going to the hospital if at all possible. Our family had to drop the medical insurance we had a few months ago when the rate more than doubled and I remembered the bills from the first time I broke my back were incredibly high, I really wanted to avoid adding that stress to my wife and my life.
After those 40 minutes passed I knew I was hurt, but the pain was no where near as bad as it was the first time I'd broken my back and I incorrectly assumed I'd just badly bruised myself. So I hobbled over to my Dad's truck (he was one of the first on scene) and with the help of a couple of gracious people I climbed on board for the ride into town. Our first stop was at my home to share the news with my wife and my boys. Then my wife joined my father and I and we went to the local hospital.
I seem to have a way of shocking hospital staff members. I was in good spirits when I arrived and when the receiving medical staff were told that I'd prefer a gurney to a wheel chair and that I'd need to climb into it myself, they were in a bit of a tither at first, but they acquiesced and we made our way into the ER.
After reviewing my scrapes and roughly pushing around my injured ribs, the Doctor on call recommended a cat scan that was sure to be "a little more expensive than an x-ray but will give us a much better idea of what is going on"... Within 5 hours, we'd had the cat scan and were told we'd have to be transferred to the next town over for a trauma center to take a better look at my injuries as I'd need a specialist... Oh, and the bill for those 5 hours? No pain medicine, no bandages, nothing but pictures and an uncertain diagnosis... Nearly $24,000... And I thought my back hurt!
Because we were transferring from one hospital to another they required that we take an ambulance or the other hospital would apparently not admit us (still not sure about that one but I was very open to the idea of laying down all the way to Lakeland... The swelling had been increasing and with it, the pain).
The ambulance ride was fairly nice, one of the EMT's even seemed to be interested in flying with me someday... Talk about a positive thinker! haha. Nelle got to ride along and it was such a blessing to have her smiling face with me.
Once at the Lakeland hospital it was late afternoon (the accident happened at approximately 8:12AM) and I was STARVING... I hadn't eaten since the night before and all I could think about was drinking water and eating food... The hospital staff still wasn't certain about whether or not I'd be undergoing emergency surgery so no intake was allowed until much later... I'm getting ahead of myself though, apologies.
They admitted us to the Lakeland ER incredibly quickly. The staff was very helpful and within 5 minutes of arriving we'd already had 3 Nurses, two Doctors a couple of porters stop by to help me move from one bed to the next. I was ordered to stop all movement of any kind and to await the neurosurgeon's availability to read my scans.
As the hours passed I finally accepted a Tramadol for the pain because they described it as an "extra strength motrin" ... I'd had a horrible experience with narcotics my first time with a broken back and I didn't want to feel like I had no control or wits about me so I was very clear that I wanted to have something light strength (don't worry pain med fans, that changes later).
Eventually, the neurosurgeon was able to read the scans and shared his expectation that we would probably not have to have surgery... So at about 7:00PM I had the world's most delightful dry roast beef sandwich and tap water... Only to be told that we'd need to stay overnight and that they actually weren't so sure about the surgery after all, heh.
After check in and a brisk sponge bath by two sweet older nurses we were put in a holding pattern awaiting orders for pain meds, food, water, etc. for nearly 7 hours. When they finally found out what I could eat, drink, and have for pain, they promptly woke Nelle and I up to dress my wounds and tell me that I couldn't eat after all.
Let's talk briefly about that whole "dressing of wounds" thing, shall we? At this point it had been 17+ hours since the injury with no one touching my leg of doom (Nelle liked to call it the "Eye of Sauron" for it's flaming, raging appearance) at One Something AM however those sweet nurses scraped, scratched, and attacked it in the name of "cleaning it" ... and let me tell you, that was BRUTAL! After an hour of trying to sleep therafter, I finally had to call the nurses station to ask for some morphine (my prescribed pain killer) to take the edge off. I asked for a half dose to start and let me tell you what... I suddenly understood why people talk about how awesome pain killers can be. No rush, no heady buzz... Just a sudden lack of pain, it was lovely... And the first time in 17+ hours I really was able to relax. I'm officially a fan of morphine when one is in critical pain. The stuff worked a miracle for me.
After a surprisingly restful night sleep of constant interruptions and vitals check ups (this was my first time ever being checked into a hospital overnight... Quite the experience). Nelle and I turned to each other and smiled, silly as it may seem to be in a hospital, in pain, and with your whole life kind of turned on it's side, there was a lot of joy just being there with the woman I love, no little ones to care for and a semi-comfortable bed. We had quite the date!
As with all things in a hospital, we were promised that I could eat (finally) after the attending docs made their rounds... At 10:00AM. When they finally showed up around 3:00PM I was truly thrilled to put food in my stomach again, lol.
Lakeland hospital is a non-profit organization and they worked really hard to help us not overspend. They allowed us to leave after one night (though they recommended I stay for at least one more) and they were incredibly open with us on the costs and expectations we should have.
The neurosurgeon who attended my needs was shocked by how little pain I was experiencing as compared to most L3/ L5 injuries and graciously recommended an "early ambulation" program for my recovery. I'm to wear a brace for 6-12 weeks and walk as much as possible. It took me nearly two weeks to walk more than a few feet but with each passing day now I'm able to do much more and the pain is much more manageable though I'm increasingly easily wearied and often find myself with chills and muscle spasms after a therapy session.
Upon returning home, I was incredibly blessed by my family. My brother Joseph dropping everything to be there for me, my Mom staying with us for days to help with the children and my brother James who is still losing sleep nearly every night to step in and help with the kids while I cannot. Each of my siblings has been a blessing as have all of my wife's family. It's been amazing to be on the receiving end of such an outpouring of love and care.
There are a thousand other little stories I could share with you about the experience for myself and my family but I'll go ahead and jump forward a bit more into some of the things I've taken away from all of this so far.
MORE ABOUT THE CRASH.
My life has never been without risks. In fact, I was a young boy when I realized that the only time in my life I'd felt true peace, that I felt truly alive was when I was flying... Either above the earth, or above the pavement.
When I first discovered the magic of the paramotor, I thought I would never even consider flying as intensely as so many of the people I watched on YouTube and at events. The Denherder's, Goin's, Shaw's, or Santacroce's were so far advanced it seemed like an entirely different sport, an entirely different world... And at first the thought of flying like they did was mystical & frightening to me, I had no desire to swing upside down held aloft only by soft lines, fabric and some gracious physics.... But as time went on and my addiction to the magic of these incredible machines grew, I found myself pushing the limits of my understanding of flight, of the energy balance between fabric, gravity, and power... And I loved every moment of it.
That said though, I think it's important to note that downsizing wings, flying aggressively, and moving that aggressive flying lower and lower really does move this sport into a whole new dimension... One without the inherent safety of traditional powered paragliding... On my 18M Snake, my impact speed straight and level could easily be close to 50mph. In a roll, or in a diving turn? I'm fearful of even contemplating what that impact might do.
So, if we are more aware of the fact that these smaller, faster wings change the game completely, we can start to plan ahead for such dangers much more effectively. Safer motor and harness designs, more safety training for fellow pilots, and most importantly, more altitude to allow for recovery in the event that something unexpected happens.
Another thing I'd like to mention because it seems relevant after reading people's feedback on my initial report... I am in no way trying to villainize any company, design, or person. I chose to fly the gear I was flying, and I made mistakes in trusting certain things, but I don't feel that is due to any one else's error.
From the best analysis that can be done post crash in a situation like this (watching the video and piecing together broken equipment with some of the best pilots I know), it appears that the bolt holding my left swing arm broke as I was in that spiral turn. While I obviously don't have video of the bolt itself shearing, all the evidence seems to suggest it, including the fact that the outcome from such a failure matches the accident and the fact that we discovered half the bolt in the wreckage.
As I said above, the purpose of this is not in any way to villainize one design or manufacturer... I've spent the last couple of weeks researching others that have similar designs for their swing arms and have found that an astounding number have similar issues (especially those who were active in attempting high g maneuvers)... Here's what I found that has proven true for my accident:
If you're flying a smaller wing, or getting into more aggressive piloting I beg of you... Learn from my pain. Add back up options for yourself if things fail, talk to your manufacturers about modifying your suspension system, fly higher, and get specialized training... But most of all, realize that this kind of thing CAN happen to you no matter what gear you fly & if you fly these small, ridiculously fun wings... The consequences could be dire.
In the future, I'm not yet sure exactly what kind of pilot I'll be... But I do know that I'll evermore be a safer one. Until then, I'm just laying here in my home, thankful for my family and honored to have the life I do which allows me to fly.
I hope to see you all in the sky soon.
451 S Airport Rd
Lake Wales, FL 33859
863.272.9907 or 251-716-6304