Thursday, March 20, 2014

An unfortunate series of events (or "how I broke my feet")

Many have asked about what happened and how I came to have two broken feet. Here is a recap of the unfortunate series of events leading up to the hard landing which broke bones in both my feet. I've called out some of the mistakes that I see; feel free to add your insights by posting comments below. Although I would love to pretend this accident never happened, I want to make sure that as many people have an opportunity to learn from my mistakes as possible. So here goes:

On Sunday, 3/16 I was awoken at 7am and informed that the flying conditions today were some of the best yet and that the group was getting ready to go fly. Even though I had planned on a rest day, complete with a massage with the best masseuse in Pak Nam Pran and then cooking classes from a local friend and restauranteur, and even though I was quite tired, I decided to get up and go flying. I was excited about the possibility of beating my personal record that day by flying 50k.

  • Mistake #1. Letting my enthusiasm about the possibility to beating my personal record get in the way of properly assessing my readiness to fly on that day.

It took me a little longer than usual to round up my stuff and I had to go back into the house at least once to get something I'd forgotten. Still, when we got to launch, I realized I didn't have my tennis shoes, just the flip flops I was wearing. Another woman in our group lent me her Chaco sandals to wear for the first flight as she had remembered her tennies and would be going tandem as a passenger.

  • Mistake #2. Not recognizing the sign that forgetting to bring my shoes meant that I wasn't on top of my game and choosing to still fly anyway.
  • Mistake #3. Allowing myself to fly in sandals!

I was impatient on launch, launched too early and ended up landing in the LZ. For the second flight, The woman let me wear her tennies as she wasn't feeling up to a second flight. I still wasn't feeling great and was actually thinking of not flying, but one pilot was already off XC and two more were finding lovely looking thermals over launch. So I decided to have another go.

  • Mistake #4. Not recognizing that I shouldn't fly when I feel impatient.
  • Mistake #5. Again letting the excitement of going XC outweigh my assessment of how I was really feeling -- too tired and out of it to fly safely.

Once aloft I found some lift, but it was intermittent. The wind direction was east, whereas all the other days I'd flown this site it had been southwest. Still, I was feeling positive about getting to cloudbase and in my confidence I let myself make a 360 turn in a thermal low over the ridge, instead of sticking with my normal figure eights. When I turned back into the hill, I fell out of lift into sink and found myself behind and slightly below the ridge. I was annoyed with myself for having taken that risk and knew that my safest option was to turn west and head into the next valley, out and away from the rotor.

  • Mistake #6. Insufficient ground clearance for making a 360 turn into wind.

I was still hoping to find lift and go XC, but I kept on hitting sink and instead found myself distracted by a bush fire on the ground and forgot all about the rotor, just concentrating on finding a nice place to land. And I didn't see any really good options. The one I choose was a little rocky looking but clear of crops and near the road (unfortunately east of the highway so totally in rotor). I judged the wind direction by looking at the smoke coming off the fire and it was very clearly south. So I set up for a south approach doing s-turns. Then when I was on final glide, the wind direction switched, I overflew where I wanted to land and it was all rocky berms beyond, which I had failed to notice when picking this LZ.

  • Mistake #7. Choosing a rocky field over a planted field.
  • Mistake #8. Forgetting to account for rotor when selecting my LZ.
  • Mistake #9. Failing to check my chosen LZ for hazards in the case of overshooting or under shooting my spot, and come up with a plan B option.

I was mostly out of my harness, but not quite enough to be in running position. I hit the upward-slopping side of a rocky berm about a foot from the top and couldn't run it out as my glider was now downwind and moving too quickly. So I stuck the landing with both feet and then tumbled over like a kid doing a somersault. Both of my feet hurt like hell and my legs had folded up under me so I just lay there, breathing and then radioed everyone to say I had landed and my feet hurt and I needed help.

  • Mistake #10. Not doing a PLF (parachute landing fall) and not being truly ready to run it out.


So there you have it! The series of mistakes that combined to result in a hard landing and broken bones in both my feet:

  • Right foot: fractured the heads of the metatarsals for my pointer and middle toe.
  • Left foot: fractured my heel, breaking it cleanly in half along the diagonal, plus swelling of the soft tissue in my foot, ankle and calf.
My lovely feet shortly after arriving in the ER in Hua Hin. Notice how the right foot is significantly larger than the left? This is nothing compared to how big it gets later....

Here's where the story takes a turn for the better, with a series of mostly positive events that result in my gratitude for all the friends, family, medical providers and airline attendants who helped me during the first few days after the accident. More about that in the next post,



  1. Mistake #2. Not recognizing the sign that forgetting to bring my shoes meant that I wasn't on top of my game and choosing to still fly anyway.

    This is the one where intervention would have been the easiest and the easiest for fellow pilots to notice. Unfortunately, our "launch bravado" that is really a cover for our nerves, prevents us from preventing each other from flying. It has taken me years to be able to pass up beautiful flyable air when I know I should not be flying. I think that is a skill that we need to practice. Saying no to a flyable day/time. Been there.

  2. Ouch! Glad your OK girl! I'll give you a call in a few days.
    - Kevin