Anatomy of a Rescue

What to expect when calling for help.

By Justin Grisham
Originally published in USHPA Pilot, March/April 2021

Part of the beauty of free flight is long flights in remote locations. On these flights, you’re able to enjoy views from the air that stretch for miles—views so remote they are only shared by free-flight enthusiasts, birds, and the occasional tour helicopter or plane.

However, you don’t have to be flying over the Continental Divide or in a very inaccessible location to be far from help. Oftentimes, even local training hills are off the beaten path and a long way from normal emergency medical aid. During my years rescuing paragliders in Utah and working as an ER doctor in Washington and Colorado, I’ve seen a number of calls for help go poorly—here’s how we, as pilots, can do it right.

Let’s walk through how to call for help when you or someone else gets hurt and what to expect when you do. For the sake of this article, let’s assume at the time you call for help you’ve performed any first aid you are qualified to administer and taken care of any life-threatening problems.

Preparation

First things first, begin each day of flying with a fully charged cell phone and satellite locator (inReach, SPOT, or similar) that’s stored in an accessible place safe from damage in a crash. Bring an extra battery and cord for charging your devices. If there is an incident, you’re likely going to be using your phone a lot. That, combined with potential cold exposure, will drain your battery quickly. Pre-program all of your flying partners’ phone numbers, Garmin addresses, etc., into your devices and be sure you have contacts back home for everyone in your group.

Before you fly, take a look at the locations you plan to visit and locate the closest hospital. Are the roads in the area you plan to fly accessible by ambulance? Pre-plan where you’ll go if there’s an emergency and know the names of the roads in the area; in the event of an accident, emergency crews will need this information to find you. Be familiar with the appropriate response pattern for wherever you fly. There is likely already a system in place that works well for that site. If you don’t know it, talk to the local club to get up to speed. If there isn’t a protocol, get to work making one!

Safety

In the event of an accident, first ensure that everyone is in a safe place, patient and bystanders alike. If other pilots are in the air, it's not a bad idea to ask them to land in the event a helicopter is called. It’s important to limit any more injuries because each additional patient makes an evacuation and rescue exponentially more difficult. Do not put yourself at risk to rescue a patient. Rescuing someone from dangerous situations such as cliffs or water will likely expose you and eventually your rescuers to additional risk. If you or your patient isn’t in a safe place then you need to get to one if possible. If the act of getting to a safe place puts you or the patient in more danger than you’re currently in, it may be best to wait for help.

If you do not have any medical training, use your best judgment on whether you should move the patient or not. Moving a patient could potentially make their injuries worse, and proper medical training, such as a wilderness first aid or wilderness first responder course, is key to making these decisions.

If the injured party is in a safe location, immediately disconnect them from their wing and/or reserve. A sudden gust or dust devil can easily pluck a pilot and their balled up wing or glider, causing more serious injuries. Additionally, emergency crews unfamiliar with paragliding and hang gliding gear will often unnecessarily cut harnesses and risers to move the patient. If it’s possible to safely remove the wing or unclip the harness of the patient, you can make the job of EMS easier and save the injured party the curse of a damaged lineset or harness. Of course, it may be best to avoid removing the patient from their harness until medical professionals arrive—you’ll have to rely on your medical training to make that decision.

How to call for help

Calling 911 from your cell phone is likely your best bet. Modern emergency response systems allow many 911 call centers to find your location, although many rural systems don’t have this capability. Be prepared to give the names of local roads so that emergency crews can locate you. If you’re not near a road, have your GPS coordinates ready and be very clear with the 911 operator that you’re in a remote location not accessible by car. Depending on your level of first-aid training and how badly you or your patient is injured, the best decision may be to have someone meet EMS at a road. Even if you can’t get the patient to the road, it will make directing EMS to their location easier. Remember, the best way to the hospital is the fastest way!

If you don’t have cell service, you’ll need to use a satellite communicator like the Garmin inReach to call for help. Activating the SOS on your satellite communicator sends a message to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) to request help. They will contact the local emergency crews to begin coordinating a rescue. If you have a device capable of two-way communication, expect the IERCC to contact you within the first few minutes to gather more information.

What happens if you don’t have cell service or a satellite communicator? You’ll need to send someone for help. This is the worst case scenario and requires good preparation. Before heading out to fly, pre-plan an evacuation route to the nearest cell phone reception or landline. Preferably send two people to get help in case one of them gets hurt on the way out. They should have detailed patient documentation (such as name of patient, age, potential injuries, and time of the incident) to assist medical crews with their planning and to decrease the chance for miscommunication.

If you’re alone and without a satellite communicator, then it’s time to take stock of your situation and make hard decisions. If someone knows approximately where you’re at and you’re visible (hopefully you have a brightly colored wing!) then it may be best to stay put. After performing first aid, wrap yourself up in all your layers, your emergency blanket, and your wing (if conditions allow). If no one knows where you are, then figure out how to start moving toward the closest rescue point or cell service.

Need to know information

Emergency crews will need the following specific information in order to plan an evacuation:

  • Number of patients and their names.
  • Suspected injuries and condition of each patient. Be sure to make it clear that they were flying as there are injuries more specific to free-flight accidents that can be time sensitive, such as internal bleeding from a broken pelvis.
  • How many people need evacuation. This may be more than just the patient.
  • Location and accessibility.
  • What type of dangers are associated with your location. Are there steep cliffs, rivers, crevasses, or snow fields? Is there a pilot stuck in a tree who will require a more advanced rescue?

If possible, write everything down so that you can minimize communication errors. Preferably use a documentation sheet that you practiced with during your first-aid training.

Timeframes

Many free-flight accidents occur in locations that are far from help. Even with a helicopter rescue, you should expect to wait hours before help arrives. In some locations, you may even have to wait until the next day. It is important to keep your patient warm (cold patients bleed more) and as comfortable as possible. Usually the patient’s “position of comfort” is the best for them. Be prepared with warm clothes, food, water, and an emergency blanket (or use their wing or reserve if it’s safe to do so with the conditions present).

Helicopter safety

If your rescue involves a helicopter, you will need to take a few additional specific actions in order to ensure everyone’s safety. Most importantly, you need to prepare for the arrival of the helicopter by packing all equipment away and placing it in a safe place. Imagine a loosely balled paraglider, untethered hang glider, or reserve chute catching the wind of a descending helicopter and inflating—not a good situation! The air movement from helicopter rotor blades can exceed 100 miles per hour and can result in very dangerous conditions. More often than not, a helicopter pilot won’t land if they see loose fabric billowing around, delaying the rescue and the required medical attention. Clear an area of 100 square feet, and keep it clear.

If there is a paraglider, hang glider, or reserve stuck in a tree or on a cliff, tell the emergency crews that the immediate area is not safe for a helicopter. The downdraft off a helicopter can pluck a glider or reserve from a tree, causing the pilot severe injuries. If you’re in the U.S., it is unlikely that the rescue crew has dealt with this scenario in the past.

Disconnect your patient from their wing and/or reserve immediately if you haven’t already. Much like a dust devil, the downdraft from a helicopter can result in serious injuries when it whips around a reserve and pilot. Clear the site of all loose items. Helmets, jackets, wings, packs, etc. can all damage a helicopter or injure people on the ground if blown around. Preferably all your equipment should be packed away and secured to an immovable object like a tree away from the helicopter landing zone.

Follow all commands from the aircrew and don’t move unless they tell you to. Do not shine a flashlight or vehicle lights at a helicopter as it may affect the night vision of the pilots. If your rescue involves a helicopter hoist, stay clear from the operation until told that it is safe. Never reach for or grab the medic on the hoist line!

Summary

Pre-planning is key to success if you ever have to call for help in the event of a free-flight incident.

  • Plan how you’ll call for help if needed.
  • Have contact info for everyone in your group, including their family.
  • Bring an extra battery and enough supplies to spend the night and to keep your patient warm.
  • Be ready with documentation to minimize communication errors.
  • Immediately after an incident, disconnect your patient from their glider and/or reserve if it is safe to do so. If you have the skills to extricate them from a tree or other precarious or dangerous location, do so.
  • Prior to helicopter arrival, clear the area of all loose items, wings, and hazards.
  • Take a first-aid course!
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