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Blown over a Mountain

I went paragliding with a coworker one summer weekend. We went to a place called Winchester bowl, a small mountain in southern california, that is bowl shaped, with an opening facing southwest. The prevailing wind is from the southwest, so the wind is funneled and directed up the mountain, providing a perfect paragliding site. We drove out with Jason, who wanted to learn to paraglide, and had to take his honda civic through bumpy dirt roads to the base of the mountain. For the first hour we waited for the winds to shift from the northwest to the southwest as the high pressure front moved south. The winds were a bit strong, but we expected them to die down as the evening progressed. Ambrus and I climbed to the launch, just 400 feet above the valley. I launched and started flying across the mountain face, feeling the strong lift of the updraft. The feeling was great; after my first pass, I was already several hundred feet above launch. I flew back over to the center of the bowl and continued to climb. I cleared the top of the mountain (2500 MSL) by several hundred feet, and began to worry as I noticed I was no longer able to fly fast enough to make forward progress in the strong wind. I was being blown over the mountain.

The paraglider I was flying had a 'speed bar' but I bought it used, and had not rigged the bar yet. A speedbar is used to increase the angle of attack of the paraglider so that you can fly faster. I grabbed the 'B' lines and pulled down to achieve the same effect without causing the wing to tuck under and collapse. As I pulled, I felt the glider speed up, but the wing was picking up too much speed, and trying to collapse. The increased speed was not enough to make forward progress.

Next, I tried to pull in the outer 'A' lines to collapse the wing tips, a maneuver called 'big ears'. This decreases the inflated area of the wing to decrease your glide ratio. I hoped that maybe I could descend enough to land before being blown over the mountain. The maneuver worked, but only enough to decrease my climb, not reverse it.

When wind blows over terrain like a mountain, it accelerates up the windward slopes, then develops large turbulent structures called vortices on the leeward side. Even light winds cause vortices with downdrafts enough to collapse paragliders. I was being blown right into the leeward rotor at winchester bowl.

I turned southeast to try and avoid the brunt of the turbulence. I looked back, and noticed Ambrus scrambling up the mountain to try and help me. I hit a downdraft, and my wing rustled as it collapsed. I sank what felt like a few hundred feet over the steep terrain, thinking how much it was going to hurt when I broke my legs on impact. The wing re-inflated as it picked up speed from the collapse. I swung helplessly back and forth like a miserable flopping pendulum.

Flight or flight kicked in, and I realized that if I was going to survive this, I was going to have to take action. I applied control inputs to stop the swinging, and pointed the glider to a dirt road on the back side of the mountain. I had very little altitude left, but the strong tail wind blew me over to the field. I turned into the wind for landing. I still could not make forward progress! I drifted downwards, and slightly backwards until I landed, in a field, just downwind of the road.

After collecting myself, I hiked back on the dirt trails around the mountain. By this time, the sun was setting, and I was exhausted. When I got to the windward slope of the mountain, I launched my glider, and flew just off the hills, using the remaining weak updraft to bring me to Jason's car. I wasn't able to make it all the way back because the wind died so quickly, so I had to walk the last few hundred yards.

Ambrus never launched because he climbed the mountain trying to save me. Jason was probably sleeping in the car or something.