Mayday, Mayday for Sierra Lima!

November 17, 2010, 4:45pm

I watched my bright orange hat blow away, tumbling along the sharp rocks in the wind.  The canopy had shattered, its pieces flung away during the impact, and I could see my sunglasses perched, strangely intact, on top of another rock, just out of reach.  The instrument panel was dead, and the valley was eerily quiet.  The only sound was that of the wind blowing past the glider, tellingly headed directly down the valley.  That explained a few things.

Looking down, my feet were resting on what was left of the rudder pedals, themselves half dangling from what remained of the glider’s nose and half balanced on the craggy stream bed I’d ended up in.  The fiberglass nose of the glider had been all but ripped away, some of the instruments in the panel were dislodged, and other innards hung suspended like entrails.  The sandal had been torn from my right foot, which was resting, numb, on a lichen-covered stone.  I could tell something was wrong with my foot, but the pain hadn’t yet set in.

Though a perfectly safe place to be and shielded from the cold wind, I, like countless accident victims before me, felt the urgency of needing to exit the grounded aircraft.  I reached down to unbuckle my harness and though it wasn’t loose, I realized that through the concentration of landing the glider, I’d never even thought to tighten my straps.  In fact, though I was quite certain that I hadn’t stalled, I couldn’t even recall my approach speed, one of the most crucial aspects in landing any kind of aircraft, something I’d religiously paid attention to on hundreds of prior landings.

Not bothering to open the canopy, its frame and a few jagged edges of acrylic being all that remained, I gingerly lifted myself out of the cockpit, bearing my weight with my arms, hands placed on either side of the canopy’s ragged edge.  Carefully testing my right foot, protected by nothing but a wool sock, I winced with pain as soon as I tried to place it on the uneven rocky surface.  I assumed it was broken and my left foot, though not entirely pain-free, seemed to bear my full weight.  Still clipped into my parachute, I sat down next to the glider and crossed my left leg to keep my swollen right foot off the ground.

I sat for a few moments, resting the back of my head against the leading edge of the wing.  I was swearing.  I couldn’t believe that I was actually sitting on the floor of a valley, thousands of feet below where I’d been moments before, nursing the injuries of a crash landing.  It was surreal.  And what the hell was I going to tell everyone back in Omarama?  What would they think?  The glider was insured, but everyone was going to shake their head at a young, mountain inexperienced, foreign pilot — there was no way I’d be able to show my face again in Omarama.

I unclipped the parachute straps, shifting it under myself so I could sit on the wool-lined backing.  It was getting cold.  I turned my attention to the instrument panel and wondered why everything was dead.  Craning my neck to look back into the cockpit, I could see the front battery lying on its side, ejected from the glider.  I flicked a switch to select the rear battery and everything came back to life.  The radio was silent.  Turning off the squelch, I could hear a faint, urgent voice.

“ … Mayday Mayday for Sierra Lima … GPS coordinates four four point four … “

X-ray Golf was radioing in my position.  The rescue helicopter would be here soon.  I switched to the emergency frequency, 121.50MHz, to make sure my emergency beacon had triggered.  I could hear its warble.  Good news.  I switched back to the gliding competition frequency.

“Sierra Lima, Sierra Lima X-ray Golf, do you copy?“

“X-ray Golf this is Sierra Lima I read you, can you hear me?”

“Sierra Lima X-ray Golf, do you copy?”

“I can hear you George, are you receiving this?”

I was virtually shouting into the microphone, struggling to get as close to it as my broken foot would allow.

Silence.

Damnit.  Since I could only receive with the squelch off and my transmissions couldn’t be heard, I figured the aerial had become detached from the radio.  I had no idea where the antenna was in the glider.  The tail had snapped off and I could see some loose tubes and cables, but without the ability to walk, it was a non-starter.

With no other way to indicate my survival of the landing, I pulled the personal locator beacon out of the glider and activated it.  With its flexible aerial extended, I set it on top of wing.  Pulling some warmer clothes out from behind the seat, normally reserved for more routine outlandings, I did what I could to keep myself warm, wrapping my wool long underwear around my neck as a makeshift scarf.  Lifting myself up onto the wing, I sat there, hoping someone would be able to see that I was alive and had exited the glider.  There was nothing else I could do expect for one thing: wait.

As the minutes ticked by, I was left with my thoughts, running the chain of events through my mind over and over again.  Where had I gone wrong?  How could this have been prevented?  Had I let the excitement of the competition and my favorable placing the previous day overrun my typically cautious approach?  How had X-ray Golf escaped the same fate despite following virtually identical paths through the air?  Had the 50ft difference in altitude been enough to make a difference?  Fuck.

The locator beacon beeped periodically, sending its distress signal out in all directions.  The only other sound in the deserted valley was the hiss of static on the radio.  A hawk flew past, and the sun started to set below the ridge tops.  The wind abated for a moment only to return with a vengeance, colder than ever, mocking me.  I started shivering.  My right foot was throbbing.

Over an hour had passed already.  I sat back down on the parachute and grabbed the canopy cover from the back of the cockpit.  I wrapped it around myself as a shield against the icy wind.  The nose of the cover was over my head and it occurred to me that I looked like a very out-of-place Ku Klux Klan member.  I pulled my hood back at the hint of approaching helicopter blades.  Nothing.  A trick of the wind and a mind longing for that familiar sound echoing up the valley.

I suddenly realized that I hadn’t tried to use my cellphone yet.  Emergency calls should be routed through any available network, regardless of your subscription.  Perhaps if I could speak to someone they could tell me how much longer the rescue team would be and I could relay my injuries.  I turned on the phone and waited a few moments for bars to appear.  No luck.  I entered 111 and dialed.  Nothing.  The tops of the ridges surrounding me were virtually within sight of Omarama, but cell phone coverage was obviously non-existent.

I could see a lone dirt track that wound its way up the valley, but it was clear that it was rarely used.  There was no sign of livestock grazing.  It was a desolate valley a stone’s throw away from civilization, a sinister trap for unsuspecting glider pilots.  I visualized a 4×4 coming to get me, fellow glider pilots slowly winding their way up the bumpy track, dust streaming behind the vehicle.  It was going to be an uncomfortable journey to the hospital, but at least it would be warm.  I felt shame as I dreaded seeing their faces.

Another 40 minutes passed.  Resting my head against the wing, I stared upwards, contemplating the wind against my back compared to the clouds overhead moving right to left just a few thousand feet higher.  If you can understand how air flows over and around the mountains and visualize it like water flowing over pebbles in a stream, you can take advantage of the rising sections and fly for thousands of kilometers. Clearly, my understanding could do with some improvement.  As if reading my thoughts, a glider drifted into my field of view, circling directly overhead.  Lying in hospital that evening I would learn that it was Terry Delore — undisputedly one of the best glider pilots in the world, having set multiple world distance records — checking to see if I could be seen alive without drifting so low as to end up in the same predicament.

Impatiently checking my watch, I was starting to worry about how to stay warm when finally the faint staccato of helicopter blades wafted towards me.  As a small dot appeared around the corner of the valley in the distance, slowly growing larger, I blinked away tears.  Like something out of a Hollywood film set, the helicopter approached and settled down next to the downed glider and the paramedic hopped out.

I waved.

* * *

I’d had a good start, but I was struggling to find strong, quick climbs and the others were no doubt close behind.  I heard a group of competitors start about 12 minutes after me, and I was going to have to keep up my pace if I wanted any chance of staying close to the lead.

At 5,000ft above the Ahuriri Valley, I was confused.  I had understood the first turnpoint of the day’s competition task to be slightly further up the valley, and I didn’t trust my GPS’s assertion that it was in fact about 10km away, directly through the towering mountain range in front of me.  I had a plan in mind to skip along the present valley, but not for crossing into the Dingle Valley.  I double-checked against my chart, conceding that I was mistaken and the GPS was right after all.  Cloudbase was barely higher than the mountain range and there was heavy sink in its lee.  The latter was a good sign for lift on the windward side, but I would need to cross somewhere else.

Looking downwind, I spotted a small bowl that looked like a certain source of lift, facing into wind and baking in the sunshine.  I arrived below the top of the bowl and skirted along the semicircular basin as close to the hillside as I dared.  Sure enough, there were good pockets of lift, and I adapted my switchback pattern along the hillside to coincide with the strongest areas of rising air.

As I climbed along the inside of the bowl, I spotted another glider a few kilometers away at very low altitude, skirting along a hillside in the lee of the larger range.  As if sensing that he’d been spotted, he made a beeline for the bowl, joining below me.  He climbed quickly and soon we were taking alternate switchbacks at the same altitude, the pilot’s side profile clearly visible through the canopy.  The sight of X-ray Golf was a welcome one, a familiar pilot seemingly struggling to make progress through the same area.

Soon we reached the summit of the bowl and began circling tightly in a tiny thermal that was streaming from the peak of the hill like an invisible chimney.  Barely 100ft apart at times, I kept constant watch on my partner in this dance, keeping him on the opposite side of the turn to me as we banked at 45 degrees, trying to stay in the core of the thermal, the area of strongest lift.  Periodically we’d be pushed out of the thermal’s core and meet each other again in a tight circle as we recentered.

Glancing toward the Dingle ridge, I could see my escape path.  When I felt I had sufficient altitude, I would level off and fly directly under a line of clouds that was approximately aligned with a smaller ridge, gently leading up to the Dingle at a ninety degree angle.  From there, I could see a saddle in the ridge that I would cross over to reach the lift on the windward side.

After gaining another 500ft, I leveled my wings and set off first.  Pulling up to slow down in areas of rising area and pushing forward to speed up in areas of sink, I “dolphined” through the air, trying to make the best of the available energy.  Soon, I noticed X-ray Golf about 50ft above me to my left.  I fell in behind him and started to follow him, implicitly trusting his greater experience having grown up flying in these mountains.

Nearing the saddle, we pushed through sinking air and my clearance above the ridge decreased to a few hundred feet.  X-ray Golf remained within 100ft above me.  As we crossed into the next valley, I was surprised to find no lift on the other side.  I continued flying along the ridge, still with no luck.  Realizing that I might be in a landout situation if I couldn’t find any lift, I turned to continue crossing the valley, X-ray Golf still ahead.

Looking to the left, I was horrified to see that not only was this definitely not the Dingle Valley, but there was absolutely nowhere to land.  One of my unbreakable rules was to never, ever fly into a valley with no landout options.  My stress levels were suddenly elevated through the roof.  Passing through an area of strong lift, I pulled up and began to circle, but the lift was rough, and it was difficult to find a center to it.  Losing height, I leveled off and flew back to the saddle that we had just crossed.  If I could gain some height, I might be able to sneak back out again –

“Sierra Lima, is everything OK?”

This was the first time that X-ray Golf and I had spoken over the radio.  I could sense concern in his voice.  And the damned ridge wasn’t cooperating.  The lift wasn’t consistent, and every turn back to search for a pocket of lift was another hundred feet lost.  My exit was blocked.  I was trapped.

“Uhh … Not really.  Any suggestions?  It’s all sink.”

Though I tried to remain calm, there was a hint of desperation in my voice that must have been clear over the radio.  Quickly running out of options, I opened the water ballast dump valve to jettison the 80 liters of water I had on board.

“I’d try the sunny slopes.”

I flew down the sunny side of the valley, but even as I did so, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I would be making a crash landing in this valley, though I wasn’t yet ready to accept that fate.  Doing my best to fly as close to the hillsides as possible in search of a saviour pocket of lift, I looked out to the right below me and spotted the best possible option in sight — a small gravelly area that looked landable.  I made a mental note of it and continued to fly.

Everything was happening very quickly.  I hadn’t yet registered the fact that the air in the valley was doing something very different to what I had expected.  I was flying downwind, which not only explained why the ridges were producing no lift, but also why the terrain seemed to be going by so quickly as the valley began to swallow me.

“So is there any way out of this valley?  There’s nothing but sink.”

There was no time to think as the variometer told me that the air around me was descending at close to 1,000ft per minute.  As I wound my way around the hillsides, I was still trying to accept the fact that I might not get away.  I was vaguely aware that my piloting skills were degrading under the stress, but I’d managed to sneak away from tricky situations before, and I kept trying.

“Sierra Lima, what’s your altitude above the valley floor?”

I hadn’t the faintest idea.  I heard the variometer increase in pitch and I turned around with the optimistic hope of trying to catch the area of rising air I’d just flown through.  As I turned, I didn’t need the instruments to tell me that I was sinking fast.  Things were getting desperate.

“No idea … It can’t be more than 1,000ft.”

I turned back towards my chosen landing spot when all of a sudden it became clear that I had a significant headwind.  It was going to be extremely close.  I lowered the landing gear and eked out my final radio call, announcing my intentions.

“I’m going to land in the gravelly area.”

The picture ahead was depressing.  As if somehow descending vertically, I watched as the valley in front of me seemed to rise up and out of the ground.  It was inevitable that I was going to land short of my intended spot, but it was too late to do anything about it.  I had no altitude left.  All I could do was soften the impact and land as carefully as possible.  At this point my brain was completely overloaded with stress.

A wall of sharp rocks was coming straight for me, and if I didn’t do something about it, I would impact them directly.  On some kind of mental autopilot, I dove for the base of the rocks to gain speed and then pulled up to pass over them.  It was going to be a rough landing, and I’d rip off the landing gear, but –

The aircraft struck the ground and the world shook violently.  There was a horrible grinding sound, and I watched through blurry vision as the world slowly rotated 180 degrees and the glider came to a halt, resting near the source of Timaru Creek.  Silence.

The canopy was somehow entirely missing, and I was facing back down the valley in the direction I’d approached from.  I hadn’t expected to hit the ground at that moment.

What the hell had just happened?