By Paul Klemond
Any humble paraglider or hang glider pilot knows that success REALLY depends on that remaining 20%, the weather.
The US Paragliding Team was 80% successful at the 1999 Paragliding World Championships. We showed up -- eight pilots, the team leader, and several supportive others all showed up in Pinzgau, Austria, some 5,000 miles and 8 - 9 time zones away.
Our 80% success was shared with 237 other pilots from 39 other countries who also showed up and coughed up the $320 per pilot entry fee, which didn't include lunch each day or backup film, but did include ski-lift passes to carry us smoothly 4,000 feet up to launch. Pilots could also show their ski-lift pass to any train conductor for a free ride back to Neukirchen, the charming town we called home for the three weeks of the competition.
Pinzgau is a few hours from Innsbruck, Munich and Salzburg. It's a lush green cattle-farming valley stretching 35 miles east-west, surrounded by 6,000 foot mountains. Neukirchen lies toward the west end of the valley, one of a dozen tiny towns each with a church steeple and full of stout square houses made identically for hundreds of years. From the tops of the surrounding mountains you can view taller glaciated peaks to the south -- on the rare days when we could see anything at all.
Part of Murphy's Law says that for any given competition, the very best weather will happen on the day BEFORE the competition starts. Yes, this did happen to us. A gorgeous cloudstreet ran down the valley. Word spread of a popular practice task: fly 15km or so to Kitzbuhl, top-land there to have lunch while watching the hang gliding "speed gliding" competition going on there, then fly back to Neukirchen later. This is what the US team chose to do. We enjoyed it, which is important because it turned out to be the best flying we would have.
Sunday July 4th: during the morning briefing the organizers honor US Independence Day. The task is fairly long, 107km out and return. There is some concern that it will overdevelop into thunderstorms. I flew the far legs of this task the day before, and it took me three and a half hours. During the safety committee meeting, Claire Bernier suggests the task might be too long given the risk of thunderstorms, but they decide we will all go for it.
Our first misfortune (and hint of the organizers' failings) happens right away: Gary Brock laid his wing out toward the bottom of the designated launch area. All the pilots gathered for a mandatory pilot briefing up above there. While we were away, one of the cows that were roaming free in the field wandered over to check out Gary's very cool wing, a red Airwave XXX. Gary caught the snoop in the act, and as the beast lumbered off, several lines snagged around its hooves and it dragged Gary's wing.
Rrrriiiippp! Score one for the Bovine Austrian Saboteur! OK I'm not certain the cow was a nationalist agent, but that cow showed not one shred of remorse. Like most cows would, it just showed mindless panic at being chased by a furious Gary Brock. Needless to say we were not at all pleased with the organizers' management of the launch area.
I hustled down to US HQ to snag an extra Firebird Rocket that Chris Santacroce had on hand. 45 minutes later most competitors were off and thermalling. We smacked new ID numbers on the new glider and got Gary off launch 10 minutes before the launch window closed and running hopelessly far behind the lead gaggle. Austrian veteran Christian Heinrich was screaming down the course AVERAGING 39km/hr. (I personally have to be on my speedbar to do 39km/hr, and I have to stop once in a while to thermal -- that really slows me down.)
The Europeans have a name for the strong winds that set up in the Alps, and it's pronounced "foon." North or south, it really blows. This one moved in from the south while the troops were out flying the course. Oh yeah, there was also a large storm cell "dropping out" over the far turnpoint at the east end of the valley, beyond the watchful eyes of the organizers.
When the weather is getting threatening, each pilot must decide for himself or herself when to land and abort the task. In lockstep with this decision, the organizers must decide whether or not to cancel a task, when the pilots are in too much danger. History shows clearly that if the organizers fail to cancel a task when they should, and instead leave it to each pilot to decide whether or not to risk the weather, tragedy will result.
Tragedy resulted. Even the lead pilot Christian Heinrich had to play "Russian Roulette" with the thunderstorm brewing over the the turnpoint, and he was way ahead. The later you got there, the greater the odds the storm would "drop out" and spank you with a gust front. The organizers were not monitoring the weather at the far turnpoint. It's hard to make a good decision whether or not to cancel the task when you're not even aware of the weather on the course. Several pilots crashed and had to be helicoptered out.
US team pilot Lizzy Opitz is a doctor. She landed to help a Polish team pilot who crashed and was injured. Other US pilots in the air relayed by radio Lizzy's call for a helicopter. As team leader, I am required to monitor both the US team frequency and the meet's emergency frequency. I relayed Lizzy's call on the emergency frequency. No response. I repeated it several times. I was four blocks from the meet headquarters building. No one responded. Finally the Danish team leader responded -- she was standing at HQ and said she'd walk in and tell them to respond to the call. It's pretty amazing that the organizers failed to monitor the emergency frequency! Now I started to fear for the safety of our team pilots.
Todd Bibler, veteran competitor on the US team, had rounded the far "roulette" turnpoint and was racing back to goal when the gust front moved in. He described being blown perpendicular to the course line into the 50mph venturi winds through Pass Thurn northward into Kitzbuhl. Some of Todd's "normal" adventures and accomplishments scare the hell out of me. Imagine what it takes to shake up a guy like this. He was pretty shook up. Miraculously this ended without injury.
No one ever caught up with Christian Heinrich so he won the task, followed by Canada's Chris Muller and over the next hour, 80 more pilots including three Americans (Othar, Josh and Bill.) The winds in the LZ were substantial at times, I sure wouldn't have been flying. Is taking this kind of risk something we want our sport to be about? Some of the US pilots were very upset the task wasn't cancelled, including at least one who made goal. A few were neutral at best. So I joined 12 other countries and signed a protest asking the Jury to cancel the day. It was rejected.
The story goes fast from here: rain, rain and more rain. Thirteen days straight of rain. Every morning while the team was still sleeping I got up and drove to meet headquarters in Bramburg, the next town down valley. Every day the respectable meteorologist told us the same thing: today and tomorrow look not so good, but two days from now it could get good. Soon this became laughable, but I had to appreciate the durability of this optimism.
A week went by. The team was really starting to get stir-crazy. You feel trapped because the sunshine is too far away -- you can't go there and get back in time for the mythical Good Weather That Will Be Here in 48 Hours. Mark Horvath is a US competition pilot ranked in the top 10 and an all-around great guy. He lived in Garmisch, Germany a few hours away from Pinzgau. He brought down a special VCR that can play US video tapes on the European TV's (which use a different signal standard.) He also brought tapes of the South Park TV show, about 8 hours worth. If it hadn't been for this diversion to take the edge off, I'm convinced the Austrian citizenry would have suffered from the restlessness that was fermenting. Life was pretty oppressive by the 10th straight day of rain. (I'm the only one from Seattle, well-adapted to endless rain.)
To be a valid competition, we'd need to fly four tasks. As the days started to dwindle, the organizers got very worried. In marginal weather we gathered our gear and headed up in the rain to one launch in the morning, then another in the afternoon, still in the rain. One team mustered enough good humor to walk around on launch wearing snorkels and scuba masks.
Towards the end the organizers asked the team leaders to vote on several issues, all designed to meet the letter of the rules (requiring four valid tasks) but all violating the intent and spirit of the rules. All were voted down.
On Friday the 16th, we once again go up top in marginal weather. Two days remain in which to fly three tasks. A number of pilots including two from our team have left Pinzgau knowing the meet will be invalid. But the organizers are too desperate to let it go: they've set an aggressive timetable and will try to run two tasks today. The pilots are unhappy about this. The weather is marginal and there is no room for delays for safety, and the second task in the day will be pressured, short and not sporting.
I hear over the radio that the cows are once again a problem. I have to prod the organizers into providing the "cowboys" they said they'd provide after our mishap on the first day. The darkening cloud overhead is building. "Arms" of cloud move across launch, at times thick like fog. Josh Cohn decides this is bogus and launches early, as do Todd, Othar, and numerous other top pilots. They fly down and land. The rest of us gather and reach consensus fast: if they won't cancel the task, we will withdraw.
They won't, so we do. The launch window opens, and a number of pilots make it off. The winds are now calm at times, blowing down at others. Those who launched are thermalling, many of them into the clouds despite the rules against this. I point this out to the organizer, who replies that someone below is watching with a telescope to enforce could-flying. Some of these pilots are not visible from the valley floor. As clouds obscure launch, some pilots launch anyway and immediately disappear. Again the organizer takes no action.
After 45 minutes of this the winds are blowing downward stronger, and light rain is starting. I board the ski-lift down but keep my radio on. By now it is raining hard. I receive word on the emergency frequency that a helicopter has been summoned to the valley. A Taiwanese pilot has crashed on high-tension powerlines. Reports conflict as to whether he was blown there by a gust front or whether he fixated and flew into the lines. The circuit-breakers are tripped but the initial bolt of electricity heated his harness and flightsuit to over 1,000 degrees, igniting and melting it. He is airlifted to Innsbruck, alive but in critical condition. The task is officially cancelled.
The next morning we are very glad to be leaving Austria. The weather is of course sunny. Over 100 pilots have left the meet. The rest are up top just launching to fly a task. Canada's Chris Muller would win the task, but it would only be worth 842 points of 1,000 possible. So Christian Heinrich is the UNOFFICIAL world champion after two tasks. It's anyone's guess who the official world champion would have been if two or more tasks could have been flown. Usually the champion is a consistent finisher who doesn't take first in any tasks.
It took an awful lot of preparation and work, and a lot of your support, to get the team to Austria for this meet. It's really crushing after all that to be denied the chance to compete and show our skill. The bad weather is no one's fault, although many Austrians we talked to said it often rains in July and they didn't know why anyone would run a meet there then. The organizational failures presented serious and needless safety hazards. The FAI/CIVL must learn from this and enforce a higher set of standards.
The good news at the end of all this is that we have two years now to forget about it before the next world meet in 2001. I'm not sure where it will be held, but I'm sure it won't be in Pinzgau, Austria. It's a beautiful place but I'd avoid any organized competition there, and I'd go in August when the weather's a bit more reliable.