PPG in the power lines
It was the morning of our second day in Peru. Exhausted from 24 hours of travel, customs nightmares because of the paramotors, and a bit hung over from too many Pisco sours (Peruvian margaritas), we preflighted our gear for our first crosscountry flight. Members of the Gourmet PPG team, featured in the Lite Touch Films DVD, had reunited, this time to explore Peru’s rugged coastline, much it virgin territory for PPG’s.
We launched from the famed soaring cliffs in downtown Lima and headed towards our objective, Paracas, a small village about 120 miles to the south. We couldn’t fly the entire distance, but we planned to fly as long as landing options and daylight allowed and ride in our chase vehicles the rest of the way.
After a 35 mile flight and a 55 mile drive, we pulled over to consider one more flight for the day. The launch site was on top of a 400 foot sand dune ridge that continued south for another 10 miles. With 40 miles to go, we wouldn’t reach Paracas until after sunset, and the distance would stretch the range of the larger motors. However, we had a quartering tailwind, which would increase our ground speed, and soaring the ridge would improve our range. So we launched with a loose plan to fly as far as we could, rendezvous with the chase vehicles and then drive the rest of the way.
A half hour into the flight, our guide radioed us from the chase vehicle reporting that we were making better time than expected. However, the Pisco airport lay ahead about 15 miles down the coast, and our flight path would put us within 50 yards of the end of the runway. The guide called the tower and surprisingly received permission for us to pass the airport at or below 150 feet.
As the town of Pisco drew nearer in the distance, the setting sun lit up the sky. We took advantage of the photo op while debating whether to land at Pisco or fly the remaining 7 miles to Paracas. Since the report from Jose was that landing options were good for the last 7 miles, the consensus was to try for Paracas.
A few minutes after sunset, we started our descent to meet the airport’s altitude request. High clouds reflected the sunlight downward, maintaining good visibility. I was in the lead followed by Jack Kimble 200 yards back. Andy McAvin, Jeff Hamann and Michael O’Daniel brought up the rear another 200 yards behind Jack. Dropping below 200 feet, I reluctantly pulled in my trimmers. Though I wanted max speed to reach Paracas in the remaining light, I would not risk flying low down wind with the trimmers out. Low and downwind was bad enough. However, Jack left his trimmers out.
Cruising below 100 feet with a ground speed of 40 mph, the narrow beach below looked like a tight but feasible LZ in the event of an engine failure. I split my focus between preparing for a quick right 180 degree turn onto the beach and searching ahead for obstacles. I radioed the group about a high antenna and pointed out that there appeared to be no obstacles over the beach.
Jeff, Andy, and Michael were too far behind Jack to notice any sign of trouble until they saw the flash of light followed by sparks. “Jack hit the power lines! He’s down!” Jeff’s radio call was surreal. Jack would probably be dead or badly injured.
“I’m making a one-eighty,” I warned and in an instant my Spice was headed north. Up ahead, I could make out Jack slumped in his paramotor on the ground with his wing tangled in the wires above. “He’s not moving!” Jeff yelled as he raced past in the opposite direction.
As I hovered in for a landing into the 12 mph wind, emergency vehicles with flashing lights were already pulling up to the scene. The beach that had been deserted a minute ago was now swarming with townspeople running towards Jack and towards me and my propeller! I killed my engine and touched down 50 feet from Jack. By now, there were so many people I could barely bring my wing down. I jumped out of my gear and pushed my way through the crowd to Jack who was on his feet, surrounded by people escorting him towards a car.
When I reached Jack, the crowd was so loud I had to shout, “Tell me where you’re hurt!” Jack had blood running down his face and was cradling his arm. He looked pretty rattled.
“I think my arm’s broke. It’s all numb,” he responded.
“Yes, it is a bit swollen. Good!” I was so relieved that all Jack had suffered was a broken arm, but I don’t think I got my point across. Suddenly the crowd moved in again and ushered Jack towards an ambulance that had just arrived. I left Jack and went to rescue my gear from being trampled, and that was the last any of us saw of Jack for many hours.
At about 1:00 AM that night, Jack arrived at the condos where we were staying in Paracas. Most everyone else was asleep but I had stayed up to wait for Jack. I interviewed him so that we would have an account of the incident while it was still fresh in his mind.
The incident began when Jack noticed a noise that sounded like part of his cage hitting the prop. Jack flew on for about 15 seconds and then decided to kill the engine to prevent damage. At the same time, Jack initiated a left turn towards town to swing around into the wind for landing. Jack figured he had plenty of room to make it around, but he didn’t see the wires along the edge of the road until it was too late.
Jack recalls, “When I swung around back into the wind, I was looking at the power pole and the wires. A second later I was settling into the wires. There was nothing I could do. Electricity was arcing everywhere. Then it was jolting through my body.”
The 12,000 volt power lines shorted out across the metal paramotor, shutting down power for the entire town. Sections of paramotor cage and frame were melted and welded together. The paramotor had taken the brunt of the electricity and kept the power lines from actually touching Jack. If the wires had not been shorted out across the paramotor, the electricity would have traveled through the gliders lines, and Jack would have been electrocuted the instant he touched the ground.
“When the electricity stopped, I thought… I’m breathing… My heart’s working… I’m going to live.”
As Jack continued falling down past the wires, the momentum of the glider carried it forward over the power lines. The glider acted as a counter weight slowing Jack’s 30 foot fall. The glider lines dragging across the power lines also helped slow the fall.
“I don’t even remember hitting the ground, but I must have hit pretty hard because the frame and the j-bars were bent and my face was cut somehow.”
Before getting into the ambulance, Jack was able to grab his cell phone and wallet from his paramotor pocket. On the way to the hospital, Jack called his family in Florida to share the story live with them. Needless to say, they were not amused.
The small third world hospital was packed with patients and chaotic due to the power outage. As doctors and nurses tended to his wounds, Jack noticed patients and hospital staff scowling at him. It didn’t take Jack long to realize that they knew he was the reason that they were all sitting there in the dark.
I showed this story and photos to Carl Seuss, an electrical contactor who routinely works on high voltage powers lines. His comment was, “I can’t give you a reason why this man is still alive. He should have been fried.” In similar incidents, fried is exactly what has happened, and others have been killed by the fall.
Jack flew back to Orlando a day later where he spent 10 days in a hospital. Jack suffered second degree burns over 20 percent of his body, but there were no broken bones.
What would an incident column be without some preachy adage? How about: Don’t fly low downwind at dusk in Peru and kill your motor to protect it from damage before safely getting yourself turned back into the wind, and by the way, when you make that turn, turn towards the shore when you are over a beach because there probably won’t be any wires or other obstacles at the water’s edge?
When I asked Jack why he turned left instead of towards the water, he responded, “It all happened so fast.” Later he added, “I’ll never do that again.”
The most important lesson to take from Jack’s story is simple: Know where you are going to go, BEFORE your engine quits.