The sky

I dreamed I was floating a few inches above the sidewalk – it was effortless!  All my future hang gliding friends had dreams like that when they were children.  It must have been what lured me into skateboarding.  I was a teenage skateboard maniac.

Rick Masters flies a single surface hang glider beneath a Owens Valley Sierra Wave Cloud in 1979.

New to flying the Owens, I asked my Bishop hang gliding friend Bill Dodson to fly the Sierra Wave with me. He refused.

“Nobody flies the wave,” he said, not even bothering to get up. “I don’t want to see you die.”

But it looked good to this foolish young immortal. A day to die for! The wind sock was standing out in the steady 30-mph wind. Tim gave me a really scary wire launch and ran to get the movie camera as I lifted off, hardly penetrating and desperate to keep the nose pointed into the wind. As I moved slowly away from the slope, the sky elevator kicked in and up I went. The ground turbulence diminished. To my surprise and delight, the air was smooth! High over the edge of the foothills, I soared the Whites south to Bishop and back with a golden eagle. Then, unable to come down, I did spiral dives for hours in the bitter cold at 12,000 feet, finally landing under the stars in my worried driver’s headlamps.

It was only much later that I learned how lucky I was to have survived such powerful lift. Sailplane pilots had died in the wave – and they had oxygen! Yet the King of Owens Valley hang gliding, Don Partridge, didn’t think it was such a big deal.

“You should have just flown West, out of the lift band,” he said knowingly, discounting the big invisible rotor I had feared might be lurking out there, under the magical cloud.

The second prototype of the Spectra Aolus hang glider stands next to Eric Raymond's Sunseed on Paiute Launch, but a thunderstorm is moving in.  For a while, the hang gliders buzzed, charged with electricity, as we stood back in apprehension!
I set up the second prototype Aolus next to Eric Raymond’s Sunseed on Paiute Launch, but a thunderstorm moved in. For a while, the hang gliders buzzed, charged with electricity, as we stood back in apprehension!

I had many wonderful adventures with my Aolus learning cross country in Owens Valley in 1981. It was the second prototype. The designer was a brilliant Cal Poly SLO aviation major, Carlos Miralles. He taught me to fly it off Cuesta Ridge in San Luis Obispo, California, and sold it to me for $500. After many hours, I took it to John Reisig at Spectra Aircraft who sleeved its already massive frame and smoothed out the leading edges.

It was a superb thermalling machine. In a strong, smooth core, you could push out past stall and flat-spin at 2000 fpm. Unique and unbelievable. With that reflexed tail, it gave you a very secure feeling that it would recover from going over the falls in violent thermals. And fast landings in high-altitude-density air were helped by that bowsprit. When it dropped, you’d fly through the bars and hit the sail (no crossbar). My buddies who flew their Aoli in Owens Valley were Carlos, Bob Dunn and Mark Hanley.

Flight log of Rick Masters
Gunter #3    8200′    White Mountain Range    Owens Valley, Ca
Spectra Aolus 170 proto #2    Other pilots    Mark Hanley, Don Partridge
Date Aug 30, 1981    Launch time 13:50    Landing 16:20
Duration 2 hr 30 min    Distance 32 mi    Nevada line
Wind T.O. Sw 10 mph    Wind Land N 10 mph    Temp 80 deg / 75 deg
Clouds    Clear
Quality    No wind at altitude.

I flew to the Nevada line. It was my best distance flight. I was the last man off Gunter after Mark Hanley sank out and landed at Don’s Ranch. I followed, sank down to the side of Katie’s Tit, working close for lift. I caught a gentle thermal and I could hear Mark yelling, just a few hundred feet below, when I started climbing. Don Partridge was under me but he left for the “Scareport.” I rode the first thermal above the main spine of the Whites, turned north and did the Aolus Boogie. A second thermal took me over White Mountain Peak at 14,000’+. I ran the Pellisier Flats north but sank out in front of Boundary Peak in a light north wind. I just made it crabbing to the state line on Hwy 6. Perfect landing.

Unofficially, that broke the world altitude gain record, but a lot of us were doing that on a regular basis. Some, like Chris Arai, were reaching the middle 20s in those mad final months before the FAA altitude restrictions went into effect.

You needed to use adverse yaw technique with the Aolus for the best performance in a thermal. I’d slow that thing down and twist my body parallel with the wing and load up the outside wing with weight shift, then return to center and push out a bit as it began to turn. It would hold a turn wonderfully in a core.

One of my fondest memories was flat-spinning that wonderful bowsprit through the center of a gaggle of sailplanes at 2000+ fpm. I killed them. It was unbelievable. At first, I was looking up at them – then I was looking down on them like little bugs. 

“Gee,” they don’t turn very tight, do they?” I thought.

A sailplane didn’t stand a chance against that wing in a thermal core.

But the thing that made the Aolus such a great thermalling machine, that huge tail, may have kept it from attaining the best l/d between thermals. After I’d moved on to Comet-clones, I loaned it to Bill Dodson around 1985 and he made its last flight from Horseshoe. 

Owens Valley XC

When the first hang glider pilots came to the Owens Valley in the early 1970’s, they were regarded by knowledgable aviators as utterly and suicidally insane. They were certain that in this place that spawned the greatest measured turbulence in the world, the madmen on the featherlight fabric wings would surely be killed. But they would be proved wrong. Owens Valley was destined to become Hang Glider Heaven.

The discovery is unforgettable.

As the hiker climbs eastward, the broad expanse of the fertile San Joaquin Valley drops slowly away. Far to the west, rising out of the valley haze, the gentle peaks of the coastal mountains appear. Suddenly the forest of pine gives way to a grove of towering Sequoia, the most gigantic of trees.

Onward he goes, upward, following the raging Kern River to the granite-walled canyons of its birth in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. Now the highest peaks can be seen, their flanks rising precipitously from the river itself. The trail becomes steep and narrow, at times cut into sheer rock where a misstep means death. The struggle seems endless. Breath comes short at this altitude. Then, in an instant, it is over.

The mountains stop.

As if cut by a knife, they plunge as one to the floor of the Owens Valley. Stretching two hundred kilometers northward, the massive granite escarpment marks the path of the Sierra Nevada fault where, in ages past, the Kern Plateau was ripped asunder to form the Owens Valley.

To the south, Owens Dry Lake, barren as the moon, shimmers and glares a red-rimmed eye in the desert heat. Out of the lake bed, towering dust storms race along the base of the desolate Inyo Range. Beyond, to the east, the desert mountain ranges march in rows across the Great Basin. Their names, given by men who crossed them on foot a hundred years ago, offer a lasting warning to the future unwary traveller: the Last Chance, Death Valley, Skull Mountain, Funeral Peak and the Dead Range.

The Inyos merge with the White Mountains to the north, where awesome Boundary Peak, highest point in Nevada, marks the end of the range. The shattered remains of a monstrous volcano, Glass Mountain, fills the north end of the valley, resting against the Sierra and almost touching the White Mountains. The narrow corridor that remains is the spawning ground of immense, sinuous dust devils often two kilometers high.

Owens Valley is claimed to be the deepest valley on earth, yet in another way it is even more superlative. Winter winds in concert with the jet stream deflect upward from the Sierra Nevada to form the most extraordinary atmospheric wave condition known. Three distinct cloud types appear at this time. The foehn drives the cap clouds down the escarpment like a waterfall, while high above, the wave cloud runs the length of the valley in a curvilinear streak. Between these writhes the deadly roll cloud, constantly forming on its upwind side and dissipating downwind, boiling and dark, often rotating. Caught in the first rotor of the sinusoidal wave system, its turbulence rivals that of the interior if the cumulonimbus.

The first man to die in the wave was a European sailplane pilot. In pursuit of a world altitude record, he rode the wave to a height of eleven kilometers. There, photos from his hand-held camera found in the wreckage indicate, his oxygen system froze. He didn’t notice and lost consciousness. The sailplane entered a spin and crashed near Independence.

The roll cloud offers an even more exciting way to die. In 1959 a sailplane pilot was pulled into a roll cloud above Bishop. Although he was flying one of the world’s strongest sailplanes, a Pratt Read, the vicious turbulence snapped a wing and broke the fuselage to pieces. Ripped from his seat harness with a broken shoulder, his helmet, boots, oxygen mask and gloves torn from him, he fell unconscious, into the roll cloud. He regained consciousness in free-fall to discover he was blind. Stunned, fearful he would impact the ground at any moment, he cast his parachute into the swirling madness of the cloud. It opened with such force that many shroud lines parted and his boots were lost .

Helpless and swinging wildly beneath his canopy, he realized he was trapped within the cloud. After half an hour, his sight returned to the point where he could see pieces of his sailplane being carried upward past him. Miraculously, he escaped the cloud, but only to be blown toward the jagged cliffs of the White Mountains. Summoning his last reserves of strength, he spilled air from his canopy, using his good arm, and brought himself down.

The first hang gliding flight was made from the top of the White Mountains on September 23, 1973. The man who stood beneath the flapping rogollo had flown sailplanes. He knew about thermals and turbulence. He and his close friends, the Wills brothers, were pioneering the rebirth of hang gliding. He felt superbly confident in his ability to fly. At 23, Chris Price was a master of the sailwing. And he knew it.

What he didn’t know was that across the valley an atmospheric wave had formed above the Sierra Nevada. It crested high above the range and dove down into the valley, only to be deflected upward by the great Whites to form a secondary wave. Above the highest peaks, dwarf wave clouds struggled to exist in the drying, desert-bound air while in the valley the invisible wave rotor swirled and writhed in the depths of the trough.

He ran but the steps were not necessary. The wind plucked him up like a feather. Suddenly he was high above the ridge and drifting backwards! He pulled his weight forward until the control bar was touching his knees. He stopped drifting back, but he could not penetrate into the wind. He crabbed to the south, searching for weaker conditions.

He flew into a powerful downdraft. The jagged ridges leapt toward him. Then the glider’s nose pitched upward and his harness straps strained as the sink changed suddenly to strong lift. It was all he could do to keep the glider pointed out into the valley. But gradually Chris made progress. He moved awayfrom the mountains and escaped the intense upper winds.

When it came time to land, he set a high approach and touched the glider down on the shoulder of the alluvial fan just above the little town of Chalfant. He unhooked, stepped to the front of the glider, and looked up. Above the highway, not a mile down the sloping alluvium:, the ghostly outline of a deadly rotor cloud spun lazily against the deep blue sky. A chill ran through him.

Only a few hang glider pilots, all from California, came to the Owens Valley over the next two years. Don Partridge of Bishop was launching from the Sierra escarpment in 1974, but a flight into turbulence dampened Don’s enthusiasm for high altitude flight as he watched the wires of the Chandelle Rogallo snap taut and slacken, and his leading edges flex a kilometer above the valley floor.

Even without the presence of the wave, pilots would discover that each Owens Valley site presented its own peculiar dangers. Rich Grigsby and Trip Mellinger flew off the Whites east of Bishop to encounter tremendous sink over rugged Silver Canyon. They were forced to land between the sheer granite walls and the rows of power lines that fill the canyon.

Partridge and Steve Huckert launched their standard Rogallos from two-kilometer-high Coyote on the Sierra west of Bishop to discover that the wind they had launched into was actually the underside of the monstrous Sierra Nevada rotor. Steve was thrown through his flying wires and his craft spun almost to the ground before he managed to recover. Don experienced a seemingly endless series of tail-sliding stalls in teeth-rattling turbulence. Somehow, they made it down alive.

In July of 1976, Gene Blythe and Trip Mellinger set unofficial world records for distance and altitude after a series of flights from the southernmost launch on the Inyos, Cerro Gordo. When champion sailplane pilot George Worthington learned of this, he became intrigued with the idea of capturing all the official records for hang gliding newly recognized by the FAI. The following summer, he did just that.

Don Partridge flew with George all that summer. George’s achievements inspired Don with the idea of the first true cross country hang gliding competitions. Don sent out invitations to the best pilots he knew announcing a contest in the summer of 1978. Forty-six pilots came to the first Cross Country Classic.

“You could feel the fear,” Don said, “from people wondering, ‘Can hang gliders really fly in afternoon turbulence in Owens Valley?’ …. If these things can actually fly in this place, the most turbulent place on earth, in the most turbulent time of day, then they’re going to prove themselves as worthy aircraft. Otherwise they’re just toys.”

Bill Bennett of Delta Wing Kites, the world’s leading hang gliding manufacturer, sent a team of six to fly Dick Boone‘s newly designed, high performance Mariah in the contest. By the third day they pulled far ahead in the standings. But then the team leader got into trouble above White Mountain Peak.

To gain a little more speed from his Mariah, Gary Patmore had detuned his wingtips – a risky procedure on a glider that was giving indications of being inherently pitch instable. He was thermalling above the peak when the nose of the glider pitched up violently. He swung his weight to initiate a turn, but the glider was stalled. It fell through and the nose tucked under. It tumbled forward several times, then broke, clapping its wings around the pilot. Patmore was trapped in the falling wreckage. His arms pinned. He was unable to throw his parachute as he plummeted toward the mountain.

At the very last instant, with the: superhuman effort that only mortal fear can provide, Patmore ripped his arms free and hurled his parachute. The canopy burst open just before impact. It saved his life but he hit hard against the rocks. With a broken ankle, injured back and a lacerated face, he lay in agony alone on the peak until a helicopter rescued him.

That autumn, two local pilots received the scares of their lives. Richard Smith bought a parachute and flew with it for the first time in a flight off Coyote. He threw it when turbu1ence tumbled his glider. It saved his life. Garland Rhodes, last in a string of pilots and alone at launch above Lee Vining, was slammed into the grouhd by turbulence a moment after he took off. He lay with a broken neck through the night waiting for help.

The 1979 competitions demonstrated with utter finality that the forces of the Owens Valley must be recognized and at all costs, respected. During the Open, a pilot found himself low and about to land. Then he noticed a dust devil snaking up the foothills nearby. In a wild gamble, he attemptedto ride it up the mountain. He entered it within meters of the mountain’s craigs, but after two successful turns he was spit out and hurled with great force into the jagged rocks. The coroner reported that nearly all the bones in his body had been shattered.

In the Classic, John Davis encountered incredible turbu1ence above White Mountain. Nothing he did could keep his Ultralite Products Mosquito right-side-up. Suddenly he found himself inverted and diving at the peak. Terrified, he threw his parachute. It successfully deployed but to his horror the bridle was severed by a flying wire! The parachute drifted away in the wind but, luckily, the force of deployment had righted the glider and it resumed flying. He managed to reach the highway and land. Then he packed it up, withdrew from the contest, and left the valley.

Eric Raymond, flying his Manta Voyager three kilometers beyond Montgomery Pass off the northern end of the Whites, became engulfed in powerful lift at an altitude of six kilometers. He pulled the control bar all the way in and tried to fly out of the lift, but he kept going up!

“Suddenly, the bar was ripped out of my hands,” Eric said. “The vario swung upwards. I felt as if my arm was broken from its collision with the downtube!” Eric escaped the lift, but he has made a practice of always flying with oxygen in the Owens Valley.

During the 1980 competitions, four pilots were forced down in the White Mountains by strong winds. A French pilot stalled while making passes at takeoff and crashed. One pilot was sucked into a deep canyon and barely made it out the mouth. Then, after the Classic, an intermediate pilot attempting to launch off rocky Mazourka Peak near Independence was flipped over by a sudden dust devil. Tragicly, his back was broken and he was paralyzed for life.

Shortly before the 1981 Open an intermediate female pilot on her first Owens Valley flight broke her arm when she misjudged the wind gradient at landing. 

Dick Cassetta at the 1981 XC-Open. a frame from Rick Master’s Aoli, Comet Clones & Pod People

The first day of the Open, Dick Cassetta launched into a dust devil that he did not see. The devil was so powerful that it flipped Cassettals Comet over on its back. He executed a full loop sixty meters above take-off in front of the entire field of contestants. His trajectory brought him back into the dust devil which this time knocked him into a vertical wingover. Dick recovered safely, but many at launch felt it could easily have been different.

Coming in for a landing in the heat of the afternoon, pilot Fred Hutchenson was hit by a gust and dragged along a barbed wire fence. His leg was cut to the bone and he had to withdraw from the contest.

During the Qualifier, scorekeeper Liz Sharp, flying as a contestent on her Atlas, encountered the suddenly changing conditions that so typify the often unpredictible nature of the 0wens Valley. Only a few minutes after she had launched, the wind strengthened out of the north into a powerful gust front. The windstorm brought her straight down from a high altitude. She neared the ground above a boulderfield on the upper alluvial fan. To her horror, she realized that she would have to land flying backward at twenty kilometers per hour. With her wings rocking wildly, she managed to slam the glider into the ground with the nose pointed into the wind. Over an area of many square kilometers, other pilots were forced to make similar landings.

The extreme conditions of the Owens Valley have provided the world’s formost testing ground for the evolution of hang gliding design. In less than a decade the hang glider has progressed from the basic inefficient Rogollo to today’s superb soaring wings that are capable of out-climbing sailplanes and exceeding 266 kilometers in a single flight.

The predictions of a great number of deaths in the Owens Valley from hang gliding accidents have proved false, due in part to the great sophistication of the modern wings and the respect of the pilots who fly the Owens Valley. In fact, if the proper level of respect had been exercised by all pilots to date, there would have been no deaths and only a few injuries. Let us learn from the lessons of others and avoid our own mistakes as we make the Owens Valley the world’s formost aeriel playground.

— from a three-part series by Rick Masters published in BHGA “Wings” Magazine – United Kingdom, May, June and July, 1981

White Mountain Research Station

The Coolest Job in California

Circling White Mountain at 16,000 feet.

After the Tonopah Refinery went bust, I got a job as the Fleet Manager for the University of California White Mountain Research Station in Bishop.

The U.S. Navy had built a high altitude medical research facility at 12,250 feet on Mt. Barcroft in the 1950s.

They were having a problem getting up to their high altitude stations in the winter. Everything was run down or broken. Especially the Burma Jeep. You could see it in the photo above.
I took one look at their crazy toys and said, “I’m your man!”

I would take medical researchers up to the top of 14,252 foot White Mountain Peak year round. Leveling out that road in deep winter snow on the steep eastern flank with the Tucker SnoCat was quite a challenge.

High altitude medical research legend Dr. John Severinghaus — video by Rick Masters

Aoli, Comet Clones & Pod People

Print the Aoli, Comet Clones & Pod People poster by Hardy Snyman

BHGA Wings! November 15, 1982
A frame from "Aoli, Comet Clones & Pod People" -  The great dust devil disaster, where a powerful thermal crossed through launch, hurling gliders right and left as pilots struggled to hang on to them.  In this frame, an Owens Valley Racer is hurled above the gliders set up at launch and comes down hard with its nose on the leading edge of another hang glider, breaking it.
A frame from “Aoli, Comet Clones & Pod People” – The great dust devil disaster, where a powerful thermal crossed through launch, hurling gliders right and left as pilots struggled to hang on to them. The Owens Valley Hang Gliding Center worried that this segment might dissuade pilots from coming to the Owens Valley. They needn’t have worried. Cross Country flying in the valley became a mania in the following years.
The Bishop television station ran a week-long special on the Owens Valley hang gliding competitions, playing parts of “Aoli, Comet Clones & Pod People” and interviewing Rick Masters, President of the Cross Country Pilots Association. The interview was salvaged from the only remaining U-matic cassette,
Don Partridge (right) of the Owens Valley Hang Gliding Center in Bishop, presents Independence resident Rick Masters with the 1982 Gray Prize for his video production, "Aoli, Comet Clones and Pod People." The award is given by Bettina Gray, a hang gliding photographer, to recipients whose work strives "to enlarge the scope of hang gliding," according to Gray, a Rancho Santa Fe resident.  Masters received $250 and an engraved Cartier mint julep cup.  Chris Cavenaugh photo
Don Partridge (right) of the Owens Valley Hang Gliding Center in Bishop, presents Independence resident Rick Masters with the 1982 Gray Prize for his video production, “Aoli, Comet Clones and Pod People.” The award is given by Bettina Gray, a hang gliding photographer, to recipients whose work strives “to enlarge the scope of hang gliding,” according to Gray, a Rancho Santa Fe resident. Masters received $250 and an engraved Cartier mint julep cup. Chris Cavenaugh photo

After suffering a dislocated shoulder in the crash of his Aolus, Rick Masters films "The Sky Blue Movie"(unreleased) with one arm at Gunter Launch in the White Mountains in July of 1982.  The camera is an Elmo 1012XL S8 loaded with Kodachrome film, one of the most popular professional news cameras of the era, counterbalanced with a weight for smooth panning.  The Gucci scarf was supplied by Bettina Gray.
After suffering a dislocated shoulder in the crash of his Aolus, Rick Masters films “The Sky Blue Movie”(unreleased) with one arm at Gunter Launch in the White Mountains in July of 1982. The camera is an Elmo 1012XL S8 loaded with Kodachrome film, one of the most popular professional news cameras of the era, counterbalanced with a weight for smooth panning. The Gucci scarf was supplied by Bettina Gray.

The Problem with Paragliding

Rick Masters has verified
2,300+ paragliding deaths
since the sport began.


All you really need to know about paragliding is in these videos.

The last moments of the life of Alexandre Pereira Alves, paragliding fatality #2150, were captured on a cell phone. In this forensic enhancement, I offer the supposed paragliding “experts” the opportunity to criticize Alex’s actions. Some of these people will claim that Alex caused this accident by pulling down too hard on his brakes or not throwing his reserve in time – and he deserved to die. I, on the other hand, simply wish that Alex had been on a hang glider instead of a convenient-to-carry deathtrap with nothing to support its airfoil. He would still be alive and enjoying free-flight because it is absolutely impossible to die like this on a hang glider.

This video illustrates the inherent treachery of the paraglider, which has killed over 2,250 operators since 1986, usually in out-of-control incidents like this one following a collapse. Here, after turbulence is encountered, the unsupported airfoil loses its shape, then recovers, apparently with a line over the left wingtip. The doomed operator wastes the last precious seconds of his life screwing around with the sail as the paraglider enters a deadly locked-in, nose-down spiral dive. As it quickly spirals down toward the mountain, the operator finally abandons the brake handles to throw his reserve, which needs about 300 feet to deploy. You can see he was far too late. The last frame before impact shows the sail in a perfectly nose-down attitude. The helpless operator would have been swung out, even with the sail, moving in an arc much faster than the vertical speed, striking the mountain sideways in a horizontal vector of 50 mph or more. Only the paraglider can kill like this. Investigators will note that the paraglider appears to be in excellent condition. Distraught relatives will sell it on eBay at a bargain price to help with funeral expenses, Perhaps some young person who is restricted by social media from watching this important video will buy it and take up the sport with the enthusiastic support of his new friends.

June 24, 2022 A narrow escape at Pico Agudo, Brazil.

On February 26, 2022, observers at the Fly UAI competition on Brazil’s Pico da Ibituruna peak saw Valdemiro Martins Rafael’s paraglider losing altitude in a nose-down spiral dive that continued to fatal impact with the ground. In this forensic enhancement of a cell phone video, it is clear that Valdemiro threw his reserve but it became entangled with the lines of his paraglider and did not deploy. With high vertical speed and vicious centrifugal force, spiral dives are among the leading causes of paragliding fatalities. This was the 2,070th global paragliding fatality included in my incomplete count.

On July 14, 2019, at a popular flying site in Turkey, Ali Paskoy launched and was immediately seized by a powerful thermal that lifted him rapidly to 150 feet. His canopy collapsed four seconds after his feet left the ground, then popped open with a suspension line wrapped around the right wing tip (cravat). The paraglider went through a 720-degree autorotation, twisting the lines and preventing Paksoy from regaining control. It then stabilized and slowed, probably with the brake lines caught in the twist and pulling down the trailing edge of the sail. Paksoy swung forward, ahead of the canopy, certain to bring on a stall, but at that moment the sail was hit by a downward element of the turbulent thermal. It collapsed violently a second time and was propelled behind and below Paksoy. He fell weightless for a moment, then pendulumed backwards as the canopy popped open again with the right wingtip still caught in the cravat. With his weight far to the rear, the paraglider entered a diving right turn around the cravat. The turn suddenly reversed and the paraglider entered a nosedown spiral dive at 80 feet, swinging the helpless Paksoy horizontal to it at several Gs as it hit the slope of the mountain. Paksoy was killed instantly.

May 2021. Tandem collapse during joyride. Lost altitude causes power line strike, dragging down light poles. The 50-year-old was admitted to the intensive care unit in serious condition. Diagnosis: Concomitant injury. Closed craniocerebral injury. Brain contusion. Multiple bone fractures. The 17-year-old was admitted to the trauma department. A state of moderate severity. Diagnosis: Concomitant injury. Brain concussion. Closed compression fracture of the spine.

Although hang glider pilots may from time to time kill themselves through pilot error, it is the fickle paraglider that kills its suddenly helpless occupant entirely at random as a result of an encounter with perfectly natural atmospheric turbulence – often the same turbulence that would make a hang glider pilot shout out in joy. As a lifelong hang glider pilot, it remains incomprehensible to me why a man would choose to launch an inadequate and untrustworthy paraglider into strong thermal conditions instead of the robust and reliable structured alternative. Having watched these needless paragliding deaths occur over and over, in the very same ways, for 20 years, at the rate of about 100 per year, it remains as horrifying today as it was to see Jody Lucas, utterly helpless and frozen by his impending doom, crash in a twist before my eyes 18 years ago at the 2002 Paragliding Nationals in Owens Valley.

While any heavier-than-air aircraft can stall, dive and recover, only the paraglider can suddenly lose the shape of its airfoil and drop its operator to earth. This inadequacy makes the paraglider unique in all of aviation. The inability of the sail to retain virtually any kinetic energy removes the act of recovery from the realm of airmanship to the felt table of the gambler, with his life and future subject only to the roll of the die. Instead, his supposed airmanship becomes a rather desperate and urgent exercise in untanglement, something best done on the ground.

When a paraglider loses its airfoil shape, it loses lift, the suspension and control lines go slack, control is lost, and the unsupported human can fall at the acceleration of gravity, diminished by the often inconsequential drag of the deflated or partially inflated canopy. Usually it will reinflate, but if a suspension line has wrapped around a wingtip, it can enter a high-G, nose-down spiral dive that may rapidly progress beyond the ability of the operator to escape. Trapped in this deadly spiral, the accelerative forces can become so severe that he cannot hold his arms upright to effect control nor even deploy the emergency reserve in an attempt to avoid fatal impact.

The violent nature of a collapse in turbulence sometimes makes it difficult for the operator to throw the reserve. The brutal G-forces generated by the snapping open of the canopy can whiplash the helpless occupant to the point of incapacity, then pendulum him into the ground like a whip snap, rupturing his organs and breaking most of the bones in his body.

The PDMC chart shows a curve below which the operator has 4 seconds before impact to deploy the reserve. Drag is discounted because each incident is different. Greater drag will allow somewhat more time before impact.

  • In a sudden collapse, the operator essentially begins to fall from rest.
  • A paraglider in a nose-down spiral dive will enter the PDMC at a high airspeed, sometimes pulling several Gs, but with a vertical speed rarely exceeding 50 mph.
  • An operator falling from a height above the PDMC in a terminal velocity collapse, with the closed sail streaming above him (called a “torche” in French), can attain speeds in excess of 100 mph.
“I loved you more than you’ll ever know and I trusted you to never hurt yourself or anyone else. Now we’re the ones dying. We’re the ones dying. You’re not even here and we’re the ones dying.” — Would You Still Have Fallen by Holly Williams

Those who fly paragliders seem to have the greatest difficulty understanding the PDMC. They think it is a redundant measure of the minimum reserve deployment altitude for any aircraft. This is hardly the case. Even the helicopter, which has a clearly defined DMC near hover, can be operated throughout its entire lifetime without ever entering its DMC. The paraglider, however, cannot avoid the PDMC at all.

It travels through it at take off.

It travels through it at landing.

It travels through it while working lift below 350 feet.

“Falling feels like flying ’til you hit the ground…” — Parachute by Chris Stapleton

One of the reasons so many people get into paragliding is the positive feedback they get from the press, who are yet to figure out the difference between the hang gliders that used to fill the skies and today’s plague of vastly inferior soaring parachutes. Thanks to the press, the national hang gliding organization, the paragliding industry who took it over, and the hang glider pilots themselves, who allowed it to happen and own it, an entire generation has grown up thinking there is little difference between the two sports.

An example is a newspaper article describing rescuers as “finally locating a downed airfoil…” There was no airfoil. Paragliders kill their operators when the highly-modified soaring parachute’s unsupported fabric, ram-inflated airfoil fails to maintain its shape in normal atmospheric turbulence. When the canopy folds up, there is no airfoil. There is no aircraft. There is only the helpless human. Falling.

When a paraglider suddenly becomes a death trap, particularly under 300 feet where an emergency reserve may not have time to fully deploy, the skill level of the pilot doesn’t matter. He is just a body falling out of the sky.

Although paragliding can bring tourist dollars, it often puts a huge strain on the limited search and rescue abilities of poor countries, frequently drawing on government resources. In the later volumes of my extensive study of extreme sport accidents, Ghosts of Wind and Cloud, I include deaths of rescuers in the fatalities counts , such as the horrific loss of two pilots, three crewmen, two doctors and a joyrider’s client in the crash of this Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs Mi-8 helicopter. As they hoisted the two hapless paragliderists aboard, the tail apparently struck the cliff face or a tree, and snapped off one of the three vertical rotor blades. Onlookers started screaming, capturing the moment on cell phones, as the helicopter suddenly began to spin. After one or more full rotations, the out-of-balance rotor caused its hub to fail and both hub and rotor flew off. The huge helicopter went wildly out of control, spinning faster and twisting onto its side. It plummeted hundreds of feet to a deadly impact in the rugged ravine below, erupting in a massive, flaming explosion that was immediately obscured by a towering column of billowing black smoke. All aboard were killed except, miraculously, the joyrider himself, who was evacuated to a hospital with severe injuries.

Forensic enhancement

In a recent letter to an Indian journalist, I explained the unbelievable level of attrition in paragliding:

Paragliding, which began in 1986, gave up the most significant safety feature in soaring, the structure that holds the airfoil in shape, for the convienence of portability. Without this, on encountering turbulence, the sail can become laundry in the air, not an aircraft. It is then unable to support the paragliderist. Search “youtube paraglider collapse” for videos.

Turbulence is a perfectly normal and ubiquitous component of the atmosphere. Choosing to fly a paraglider in such active conditions comes with the risk of collapse. Therefore, paragliders are inherently untrustworthy aircraft.

Canopy collapse is unique to paragliding. This risk is accepted by soaring parachutists. Others like myself, who refuse to trust our fate to parachutes, do not fly paragliders. We are hang glider pilots. Our sails are stretched over airframes and do not deform in turbulence. We take joy in turbulence and the lift it provides.

When an effort to provide greater safety is attempted in paragliding, the success will be limited to what can be done on the ground. Once in the air, the fate of the paragliderist is a gamble. Skill in managing the paraglider in turbulence is vastly overated. The odds of the canopy collapsing in turbulence is the same for all – expert and novice alike. Nothing at all can be done to reduce these odds without requiring airframes which, unlike paragliders, allow control input in turbulence.

Most paragliderists are killed when the canopy collapses near the ground.

Because paragliding exists with the greatest level of denial in sporting history, it is difficult to obtain honest analysis from enthusiasts.

I am watching India and Columbia’s push for expanding paragliding venues with knowing trepidation.

With no airframe to hold the shape of the airfoil, the paraglider can become a death trap below 300 feet if turbulence distorts the canopy. There is simply not enough time to deploy the emergency reserve. Airfoil distortion is not a problem for a real aircraft.

I hate the inherent treacherousness of paragliders and I despise the paragliding industry and the irresponsible associations that today place paragliders and hang gliders in equivalence. As a pilot with great experience in turbulence that no paraglider could survive, I could never allow wishful thinking to place my life at such random risk. I assume more than a thousand soaring parachutists killed in collapse-related accidents would agree with me, if they were still alive.

As if all this isn’t enough, the air bag harness is a deathtrap in water landings because it forces the operator’s head underwater, resulting in a horrible drowning.

A USHPA commercial  joyrider performs a dangerous stunt by biting the canopy of another paraglider immediately behind him. 
 He is just above the cliff, flying with a child on the edge of the Paraglider Dead Man's Curve at Torrey Pines in 2015.  The joyrider on the other paraglider is also carrying a child.

A USHPA-certified commercial joyrider performs a dangerous stunt with a child within the Paraglider Dead Man’s Curve at Torrey Pines in 2015. The joyrider on the other paraglider is also carrying a child. Incredibly, both claim they are teaching children to fly paragliders under federal aircraft regulations – for $200 per ride.

Mythology of the Airframe
The site that led to
Ghosts of Wind and Cloud

Independent researcher Rick Masters discovered an unreported total of 902 DEAD paraglider pilots from Jan 1, 2002 to May 1, 2012. Today the total exceeds 2,250 — nearly a thousand more than went down with the Titanic.

If we add to the world’s free-flying paraglider totals the quickly rising numbers of powered paragliding fatalities, all deaths number more than 2,600 ghosts of the lost… Who cares? Like USHGA Accident Chairman Doug Hildreth forlornly told me many years ago: “Rick, you’re the only one who cares.”

The foolkiller, the paraglider, brings you this close to your place in the world

Soaring parachutists often accuse me of being insensitive to the thousands of unwitting victims of their sport. I suppose they are right, although I would describe it as desensitization. I often listen to Freddy Mercury’s masterpiece as I compile tragic stories from reports of their inevitable daily, lemming-like attrition.

Remember, my experience evolved through hang gliding. We saw over 75 global deaths in 1976 due to early design errors. We fixed this quickly with some simple modifications and the number fell to possibly less than 10 by 1986 as the older, flawed rogallos were retired and genuine pilot error took the lead as the main driver of hang gliding fatalities. But paragliding, with sudden collapse remaining the main driver of fatalities, has gone over 30 years now with no fix in sight – having averaged about 100 global deaths per year throughout this century and now delivering over 100 fatalities for 2019 by the middle of September, unquestionably yet another very bad year with three months yet to go. Apparently, the fatal fault is inherent in the fundamental design concept of the soaring parachute. They collapse in perfectly normal atmospheric turbulence that other aircraft easily survive. There can be no fix. Safe aircraft simply need airframes.

The real tragedy is that most of the forever-lost soaring parachutists would still be alive today, still flying and enjoying the magnificent passion of flight, had they only chosen reliable hang gliders or other soaring aircraft with airframes instead of untrustworthy, deadly parachutes with nothing in their design to protect or save them. Yet somehow, they don’t get it. They accept the unacceptable. They accept the fact that their aircraft can collapse in the air and drop them out of the sky to their deaths. This is not piloting. It is something else: a new universe of risk concealed in a deceptive aerial sport where the vital and time-honored measure of pilot skill has been allowed to be eroded away and replaced by the randomness of chance.

After a while – after an entire generation, for God’s sake! – yes, this became desensitizing, and I found myself pitying the real victims of paragliding: not the self-absorbed participants , but the devastated orphans, the widows, the parents and siblings, the friends and employers, and the destitute dependent families who have lost a breadwinner or who are ruined by unending medical expenses.

Any questions?