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Accident Report: Kris Ericksen
4:30pm Tuesday 11 January 2005

Launched from Mt Maude at approximately 1:30pm on Tuesday 11 January 2005, without having had lunch first.  1.5 litres of drinking water was also carried.

Kris then proceeded over the next three hours to fly 28.6 kilometres towards Makarora following the northern shoreline of Lake Wanaka.

Approximately fifteen minutes before crashing Kris crossed Camp Creek, a deep incised valley that extended back into the ranges for a considerable distance.  Significant sink was experienced as this valley was crossed.

The flight continued on towards a rock-slide area (white area on photo #1). A small amount of lift was obtained here.  The flight then crossed a steep valley (Sheepskin Creek), which had a significant fan at the base with a very narrow beach.  A lay-by area with a 200 metre long access road was located on this fan and identified as a possible landing area. The flight then continued on towards some cliffs (not visible in the photo).  After several passes along the cliff faces no lift had been obtained and Kris headed out towards fan at a reasonable height.

A wide circle was performed to determine the direction and speed of the wind.  This was ascertained to be blowing up the lake towards Makarora at approximately 5 kilometres per hour.

A couple of wing-overs followed by a solitary spiral and a few more wing-overs were then performed to lose height and final approach was set up following the access road towards the lay-by area.  There were several four or five metre high beech trees adjacent to the first half of the road.

Approaching the lay-by area Kris realised that he had too much height and risked over-shooting or crashing into the rock rubble wall that surrounded the lay-by.  (See photo #2).

An “S” turn was then made to the right of the road, then to the left of the road.

During the second “S” turn more height was lost than anticipated and Kris was risking crashing into a five metre high beech tree.

A split-second decision was made to make an airbag landing into low (one and a half metres high) vegetation with legs raised, while still aiming at the lay-by.  There is no recollection of an attempt to flare before hitting the ground.

Unfortunately there was an unseen rock covered mound in the vegetation and Kris hit a rock with his right sitting bone.  After several loud expletives Kris then ascertained that he could wiggle his toes and then felt along his spine.  There were no obvious “sore bits”, but there was a generalised strong ache in the lower back.  A self-diagnosis of severe straining and winding was then made.  Kris released himself from the harness then walked about five metres across relatively flat ground to the access road, where he lay down and then telephoned Kat West to come and assist him.  An enquiry by Kat as to whether an ambulance was required was declined by Kris.

Kris was transported in a reclining position to the Wanaka Medical Centre by Julian Daly in his van.  From Wanaka Kris was transported to Dunstan Hospital by ambulance where x-rays were undertaken.  Stable compression fractures of the L1 and L4 vertebrae were diagnosed.  The following day Kris was transported by ambulance to the Otago Hospital, where he spent six days in the orthopaedic ward.  No nerve damage has occurred.  Six weeks will be spent in a back brace, and there should be no reason why Kris won't fly again in the future.

Contributing factors
  • Poor decision making, possibly due to not having had lunch prior to flight and lack of hydration during flight combined with euphoria of a good flight.
  • Failure to take into account wind gradient – likely that it would be nil wind at ground level, or the possibility of wind coming down Sheepskin Creek.
  • Relative lack of experience with nil wind landings, particularly with small landing areas.
  • “S” turns undertaken too close to ground.  May have been banked turns resulting in increased energy and descent rate.
  • Failure to consider earlier other maneuvers such as pumping brakes or big ears to lose height and velocity.
  • Probable failure to flare when close to the ground - instead intending to flare when over the lay-by.  (Having a "horizontally" determined trigger for flaring  rather than a "vertical" trigger). [Is this what is known as "controlled flight into terrain"?]
  • Hunger for “k’s” – wanting to go that extra kilometre, rather than turning back earlier to larger landing areas.
  • Insufficient pre-flight preparation to be aware that there was a larger landing area at the next spur, and which was within glide distance.
  • Intermediate pilot syndrome – relative lack of practice at landing in different situations (Flies relatively infrequently, but when does flies for a reasonable period of time).
  • Over-reliance on effectiveness of air-bag system. No harness will protect pelvis/spine in a forward collision with a rock.

Now - if the rock hadn't been there none of these errors would have mattered (until next time....)

Other observations
A week earlier another pilot had a collapse close to ground and had a stable compression fracture of L2.  He also initially thought he had only winded himself and declined assistance from other paraglider pilots.  His rescue was significantly delayed due to subsequent problems in locating him.  Given that compression fractures are a relatively common paragliding injury it may be desirable to educate the paraglidng community of the symptoms of a stable compression fracture - which may be a generalised strong dull ache in the affected area of the back.  It does NOT feel like a back strain though.  There may not be any symptoms at all!

Could Kris have aggravated his injuries by walking to the road?  If his injuries had been more severe it is unlikely that he would have been able to stand up.  His physiotherapist has advised that with a stable fracture walking in itself would not aggravate the injury further, but tripping and falling would!  In EVERY instance where spinal injury is a possibility the patient should remain immobile until professional assistance arrives.

In late January another paraglider pilot crashed giving himself a compression fracture of T12 and a cracked S2.  He too got up and walked around after his crash.  The above recommendation is upgraded to "all paraglider pilots MUST be (re)educated about the symptoms of compression fractures and their management."

Julian and Kat packing up Kris's wing. Note rock wall surrounding lay-by.  Photo taken by Kris laying on ground.  Crash site is five metres to the left.

More photos of flight


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