Steve Rohrbaugh, Josef de Beer, Steve Prairie and I met in the Palomar LZ just after 11:30. It was already hot, light breeze out of the west, and scattered high clouds. We headed up to launch in Josef's car. I had just been expecting to site fly, but Steve R thought big XC might be possible going north. He wanted to fly to Marshall. I didn't think I'd be able to keep up with him or Josef or Steve P, but it would be fun to try. I fly an Advance Epsilon 7, a B wing, with an unfaired harness, and the three other guys were in pod harnesses with C or better wings.
Up on launch, things looked good. Wind was variable, but direction was usually good, with the wind mostly light but occasionally strong. I was ready first, and launched at 12:51. I found lift right in front of launch and started thermalling up. If you want to follow along, this Doarama (http://doarama.com/view/2115273) captures Steve R's, Josef's, and my two GPS recordings.
I was in a good thermal, drifting out of the west, but at 7100 it felt like the thermal, and the west push, stopped. It felt like I hit a different layer of air, maybe east coming over the back. I decided to head northwest toward Eagle Rock. Before I got to the next ridge line, I found thermals again drifting out of the west. At 7300 I headed north over the spine of the mountain, where I found a thermal that started drifting out of the east above 8100. I topped out around 8800, and started heading NW.
I got to Eagle Rock at 7700. Beyond it, I found nothing but sink and turned around to try to tank up on altitude. Josef and Steve P streaked past me going NW, south of me and 500 ft higher. I wasn't finding lift where I was, so I decided to follow Josef and Steve P anyway. I watched Josef hit some really bad sink as he approached what looked like the NW end of the range. He started heading more north, and soon found a good thermal, and Steve P joined him. I wanted to join them too, but didn't think I had the glide, so I headed north before I reached them, and found my own weaker thermal. I gained 400 ft before it petered out.
At this point I was really perplexed what to do. If we tried to go NW, we were fighting the west. It was an over an hour into the flight and I was maybe 5 miles from launch. Maybe this wasn't going to be a big XC day. The last good lift was back before Eagle Rock. I decided to head back that way and hope to get high enough to make the next move. I left with 5600, but as I headed back, losing altitude, I decided it was too risky to be low on Eagle Rock trying to make it back toward launch. So at 5300 I turned northeast, heading for what looked like landable ranch land on the way to the 79.
I started hitting big sink. I began to think I would have to land at the ranch furthest in. At about 1000 AGL (3700 MSL) I got my low save, a nice 200-300 FPM thermal drifting out of the west. As I climbed, it got stronger, 400, 500, up to over 900 fpm. About 2 minutes before it all went to shit, I actually thought to myself "For a 1000 fpm thermal, this is really smooth. One of the smoothest strong thermals I've been in in a long time!". I had it centered, wasn't hitting any rough edges, and was rocketing up. As I climbed above 8k, I started contemplating my next move. I could see Steve R to the east of me, slightly higher, heading north. I also saw Josef about my altitude, but back to the south.
Anyway, I went weightless, and it felt like I dropped about 6 feet. I remember thinking "Oooh, that was a big one", but I wasn't terribly concerned as the harness picked up my weight again. But that was immediately followed by what felt like getting whipped around (or maybe I went weightless on one side of the harness). I grabbed the risers out of the instinct to grab something to hold on to. I know, not the right reaction. And then some moderate G's and then I watched my wing fly down in front of me, below the horizon. Luckily it didn't keep going past about 20 degrees below the horizon, but I thought "Oh Shit", like when you're at the top of the roller coaster and you know the fall is coming. I knew I was going to fall down between the lines, and I tried to remember the right thing to do. I thought, you've got to time some strong brake input to keep it from surging again.
So what happened next is a bit of muddle. It seemed like before I could make that surge correction I was planning, I was getting yanked around. The next clear thing is that I was in a spiral. As I spun around, I could see the wing about 30 degrees above the horizon, pointed mostly down at the ground. The left half of the wing was folded under. I knew that I was dropping fast, but I also knew I had been at 8800 feet when this started. I knew I had some time to try to fix the wing, but I also remembered the warning about pilots blacking out from g-forces in a spiral before they could throw their chute. I didn't feel like I was anywhere close to blacking out, but I also thought to myself that I should not go too long before hucking. So I tried to fix the wing. The left wingtip was kind of balled up, tangled in the center lines, flapping. I pulled a lot of left brake, hoping that might pull the wing out of the tangle. Nothing happened. I started to look for the stabilo line, but started to think, "I don't know if that will untangle that mess, maybe I should just chuck the reserve". Right then Josef yelled over the radio, "Throw your reserve!, throw your reserve!" I thought, if I'm not sure I can fix this, and someone else thinks I can't, it's time. I reached for the reserve and pulled. It was harder than I expected (the G-forces increase the pressure the deployment bag is under). The handle came out, but still no chute. I had just pulled the handle out to the extent of the web strap connecting it to the bag. So I grabbed the strap and pulled again. I'm thinking "Throw the reserve into clear air", but all I had in my hand was flapping fabric. I'm wondering what happened to the reserve when poof, it opens and everything slows down. I'm guessing all this took about 4 seconds (from deciding to pull to getting it out). OK in my situation, but way too long if I had been close to the ground.
From the GPS track, I'm guessing the chute opened at about 7400 feet. And it was about 50-60 seconds between the first collapse and chute opening. My maximum descent rate was over 2400 fpm.
Once I was under canopy, I radioed to the others that I was under canopy, was OK and was going to land on the north side of Palomar. Both Steve R and Josef started flying in my direction to be ready to mark my landing location and assist if they needed to.
Under canopy, the glider was winding itself up. I don't think I had a riser twist when I hucked (I'm not positive), but by the time I established that the reserve was open, the risers had twisted, and as the wing flew in a spiral (the left wing tip was still stuck in the middle lines) it was twisting all the lower lines into a rope. This was a good thing, I figured, because if it kept going, the wing would be forced smaller and smaller. As it was, sometimes the descent was smooth, other times the wing would grab some air, yank me forward, and create some penduluming between it and the reserve. As I got lower, I grabbed the "rope" of twisted lines, and started hauling the glider in. I got to the end of the "rope" where the lines fanned out, and wasn't able to grab the fanned out lines, so I stopped hauling in, and started thinking about where I was going to land.
With incredible luck, I was heading straight for a dirt road. I actually thought I might land right on it, but in the last 500 feet, the wind shifted from west to north, and I missed the road by about 50 feet.
I remember thinking, bend your knees, get ready for a PLF, and roll with it. As I got to 50' AGL, I realized that the slow spin of the reserve meant I was going to land going backwards. At about 15', I looked over my shoulder and saw a bathtub size boulder right where I was headed. "Oh fuck", I thought. I let go of the wing, heard branches crack, and then I was on my back, heart pounding, looking up at the sky, with no pain. Kind of comfortable, as a matter of fact. I immediately radioed to Steve and Josef that I was down, was OK, and if nobody saw me move for a while, don't worry, I was just going to lie there for a minute and catch my breath. And I did.
I was very lucky. I had been set down right in between two boulders. My only injury was a slight scratch on my right elbow from one of the boulders. By landing backwards, my harness (stuffed with my camelback, hat, and glider bags) took the brunt of everything.
Josef radioed that he was going to fly back to launch, get his car, and come get me. Luckily, I had cell coverage, so I was able to identify the road I was by (Cutca Valley Truck Trail), and radio the details. I even called my wife to let her know what happened, before she heard any rumors from someone else.
I admit to being surprised at how much the whole thing affected me. For up to half an hour, I was literally shaking. I had only been flying an hour and a half, but I was very tired. The adrenaline rush had taken a lot out of me.
For reasons that make no sense now, I wanted to get to the road in case someone came by. I thought, find a clear path to the road, take out a manageable amount of gear, and then come back for the harness, glider, and reserve. So I grabbed my helmet, instruments, water, and jacket, and looked for a way to the road.
It is hard to convey just how thick the bushes were. I spent a few minutes trying to see if there was an obvious path out. No. I put on my gloves and started breaking branches to clear a path. It literally took me about an hour to make it 50 feet to the road. I got more scratches from bushes than from my landing.
By that time, Paton W had stopped by the Palomar LZ, heard what happened, and volunteered to drive my car to come get me. That was great news.
It's a good thing I did. It turned out I had landed 3.4 miles past two locked gates. Pat (with my blessing) had gone and picked up Steve R first, so Steve could help navigate in to where I was. By the time they announced they had come to the first locked gate, I was just a few minutes away. I was so happy to see them waiting for me!
So, what the hell caused all this? I think all day, we were seeing different layers of air moving in different directions. I'm guessing that at 8800', I hit the east shearing over the lower level west. But I don't know for sure.
The more interesting aspect of this whole thing is how I performed. I didn't panic, which is good. I don't think I did anything terribly wrong, but I'm pretty sure I failed to do some right things when they needed to be done. We all like to think we have "the right stuff". Maybe some of us don't.
My one and only SIV clinic was in 2011. Way too long ago. In fact, my chute hadn't been repacked in a couple of years. It's easy to get complacent.
As for the future? I don't know. I love XC. But something like this changes the risk/reward calculation we all do when we decide to fly. Next time I might not be so lucky. My instinct is to jump back on the horse that threw me. But it gets really hard to say "It won't happen to me" when it's happened to you.
If you view Jeff's track, Jeff was thermaling up in the west side of the convergence. The thermal that I had prior to Jeff's but more south east of Eagle Rock was similar. We were Thermaling up in the westerly coastal air mass flow in areas that were protected from the stronger lower level winds. North into Temecula and flowing up the Aguanga Valley was the typical lower level winds that scrub and cut off the thermals. The trick for this route is to make the jump from the West side to the East side of the Convergence before the lower level cuts off the thermals, or make the jump over areas under the influence of the lower level cutoff wedge.
I had a good chat with Phil Russman about what could have been happening with my wing during my incident. He said a big surge (wing flying down past the horizon) is usually caused by stalling and/or spinning the wing. I doubted that scenario because I never pulled a lot of brake. In fact, I was thinking "get your hands up" and don't pull a lot of brake. So that led Phil to propose that probably, some part of the wing collapsed and got behind me, and then as I fell and re-loaded the lines, it started to shoot forward just as I was putting my hands up. That sounds very reasonable to me. So, as far as the first part of the incident, I made two mistakes; not looking up at the wing to see what was going on, and releasing the brakes just when I should have been applying them to stop the surge.
After the big surge, when the wing was below the horizon, I think that the line-loading went to zero as I fell down between the lines. Probably, with the wing completely unloaded, the left wing tip folded under. Again, I didn't keep my eye on the wing. If I had seen the cravat and immediately applied right weight shift and some right brake, I might have kept the wing from winding up into a spiral. Phil says once you have a "stuck-tip cravat" wound up in a spiral like that, it is very difficult to remove. Even if right weight shift and brake couldn't keep the glider flying straight, a slower turn and lesser G forces would have given me time to find the stabilo line and try to pull the cravat out.
Given the first couple mistakes, once the glider was wound up in a spiral with a stuck tip, throwing the reserve was the right thing to do.
My intent in writing up my account is not to suggest that unknowable crap will happen to your glider while you're flying. I believe that if I had reacted promptly and correctly, I would have lost a bunch of altitude, but not had to throw my reserve. My intent is for all of us to learn from my mistakes.