Working from home, I finished a 2 1/2 hour long conference call that lasted until early Friday afternoon, March 6, 2009. The plan that had been formulating in my mind for most of the week looked like it could become a reality. Several of my friends in the Ohio Flyers hang gliding club online discussion board had suggested that the conditions at the Richmond Dale ridge would be right late Friday afternoon for soaring. I spent a bit more time cleaning up some email, called a colleague at work to announce my plans to take the rest of the day off, and began loading my glider and equipment into the car. After a beautiful drive, I arrived at the ridge at about 3:45 PM. Four other pilots, John A., John D., Tom, and Craig, had already set up their wings and were waiting for the gusty winds to drop off a bit.
One other fellow who had just moved to Ohio from Kansas was also there to watch. Bob flies paragliders, and he wanted to meet some of us and check out the ridge. After some quick hellos I began setting up my glider.
Soon John A. announced that the winds had dropped a bit and he was suiting up to go. The others put on their harnesses and positioned their gliders in line. I stopped assembling my glider and ran to the launch point to watch and assist if necessary. John moved his glider to the crest of the hill, steadied his wing, and with just two steps he lifted off and immediately gained 50 feet of altitude. I watched for a minute or so as he continued to climb then ran back to resume setting up.
The next pilot, Tom, launched and he did not fare so well. As he left the ground his right wing lifted and he hit a tree on the left side of the clearing. I did not witness his misfortune, but I definitely heard a loud bang! Craig, who was hooked into his glider, yelled for me to assist Tom. Bob and I both ran over and helped Tom untangle from the bent aluminum and torn Dacron. Tom was not hurt but his glider will never fly again. After getting Tom squared away I ran back to my glider. Soon I was called again because the other two pilots, Craig and John D., needed assistance as they executed nice take-offs into the gusty wind.
I began to worry that the conditions would become too light before I could get my glider and equipment ready. But after about 10 more minutes I was ready to go. Bob helped me maneuver my wing to the top of launch. As I look back I recall that my glider seemed exceptionally difficult to handle in the wind and it was harder for me to pick it up and carry it than normal. After some last minute adjustments I was ready. Tom and Bob assisted to steady my glider in the gusts by holding on to the flying wires. When the winds lulled sufficiently I yelled “Clear!” and had a very smooth launch. Within seconds my glider and I were 100 feet above the top of the hill and climbing.
I turned south where I suspected the lift would be strongest and, soon, my variometer was beeping at higher and higher pitches indicating that I was climbing very quickly. Before long I was 300 feet over launch and I began to explore various area along the ridge to maintain altitude, which varied during my flight between 250 and 400 feet above the launch (up to 800 feet above the landing zone in the valley below). It was fun trading places as the high man with John and John who were still criss-crossing the skies above the ridge. They were the only two pilots still flying because Craig sank out and had to land after 5 minutes or so.
About 10 minutes into my flight a hawk joined us in our play. I turned to follow him because these birds are great at finding the best lift. After a few minutes the hawk had enough of us and bugged out to the south.
It was then that I noticed my arms getting extremely achy. The air above the ridge was very turbulent at times, but I was surprised by how tired I was becoming. A few times I let go of the control bar and dangled my arms below me to try to wake them up, but to no avail. I also noticed my harness becoming uncomfortable which was very unusual. My longest flight prior to this had been 3 1/2 hours, and my harness did not bother me at all during the flight. Even though I was enjoying the ride, I remember thinking “If this was my first flight, I’d seriously wonder if the exhilaration was worth the discomfort.” Nevertheless, I continued flying and watched as John D. lost altitude and set up to land.
Instead of getting better, the soreness in my arms intensified and the chest pressure in my harness increased. I looked at my watch and I was about 25 minutes into the flight. I decided I’d bear it out for 5 minutes more to hit the 30 minute mark, then I’d go out over the valley to land. But from that point things quickly deteriorated. The soreness and pressure turned to pain. It was then that I realized I was having another heart attack. I pulled in on the control bar and headed for the landing zone. Craig and John D. were now on the ground and John A. was still flying. I decided to avoid landing near the other gliders in case I lost the ability to control it sufficiently, so I headed for the field on the left side of the barn and a clump of trees. Pain level = 5/10.
The ride down was frustratingly difficult. For the first time in my flying career I found myself cursing the numerous areas of strong lift I encountered as verified by the squawking of the variometer. Even out over the highway at the base of the hill I encountered strong updrafts of air. I had to make a large S-turn to burn off altitude and set up an approach within a reasonable distance of the other pilots. I didn’t want to land so far away that I could not walk or crawl to them to indicate I needed help.
Prior to driving to the top of the hill earlier in the afternoon, I had stopped in the landing zone to tie a wind indicating streamer to a lonely pole sticking up from the fence row near the trees where I decided to land. It seemed important for me to do at the time, and I’m glad I had that foresight. The wind was still strong on the ground and I did not want to complicate an already difficult situation by landing crosswind and losing control of my glider. I circled around, still pulling in hard on the control bar and set up for a landing into the wind. I pulled my legs out of the harness with 50 feet or so of altitude and let them dangle as a sort of air brake. It was effective. I leveled off just above the ground which seemed to be moving very slowly because of the strong headwind. In my less than optimal state of mind I thought I was about to stall so I pushed out the nose to flare and the glider started to climb again! I quickly pulled in again, gave it another second, then flared harder, parachuting to a landing from 8 feet up. I was unable to hold on to the uprights and the kite settled to the ground.
After landing in strong conditions, it is important to keep the wings level and turn the glider 180 degrees so the tail can be put down into the wind. I picked up the glider, which seemed to weigh 300 pounds, and began turning it around. The wind caught under the tail and abruptly put the nose into the dirt. “Great” I thought. “I’m going to go into cardiac arrest as the glider and I tumble across the field.” I grabbed the rear flying wires and pulled as hard as I could to try to drop the tail. It was not budging. So I decided to unhook from the glider while trying to hold it down so I could jump up, grab the keel (tail), and force it to the ground. This strategy worked, but now I was really hurting. Pain level = 7/10.
I stripped off my helmet, my harness, and my sweatshirt because I was feeling extremely hot. Making sure everything was secure, I trudged around the trees and got the attention of the others. Providentially Bob had driven his vehicle (I can’t even recall what he was driving) down to the landing area. He was standing near his vehicle, and when he turned to look at me I said “I need to go to the hospital.” He chuckled, as did Craig and John D., because they thought I was giving a commentary on the rough conditions. “No” I said. “I’m having a heart attack.”
Immediately they went into action discussing who would take care of what. Obviously Bob would drive me to the hospital, but he was completely unfamiliar with the area. I sat on the ground and told Bob I knew where to go, but this did not provide him any consolation. Looking back, it’s no wonder he asked the others for directions. He thought I was going to lose consciousness and he’d be lost trying to find the hospital. Poor Bob! Anyway, the others got him somewhat squared away, and the next thing I knew I was being helped into the truck.
Bob sped down the highways at extreme speeds. Talking with him several days later, he revealed that his GPS had recorded a maximum top speed of 109 MPH! On the way Bob called 9-1-1. They directed him to go to a fire station on Main Street in Chillicothe, and while giving him directions, another 9-1-1 administrator called the fire station so they’d be ready, and the hospital as well. All this time I was writhing in agony which by now was 8/10 on my pain scale.
Bob ran red lights and sped around cars like they were standing still. I recall arriving at the fire station and being lifted out of the car and onto a gurney which was promptly shoved into the ambulance. We were off again. The paramedics asked me multiple times about my name, birthdate, height, and weight. Why can’t these people write it down so they won’t need to keep bothering me? Can’t they see I’m in agony? I think the only thing they did in the ambulance was to give me oxygen and install an IV port. They certainly didn’t give me anything for the pain which was 9/10. My chest felt like it was in a vice and my hands felt like they were going to explode off the ends of my arms.
Emergency room…lights…loud talking…”How tall are you? How much do you weigh?…someone cut off all my clothes…lights…”What is your name? When were you born?” If I didn’t answer they told me to open my mouth and talk. I yelled out my wife’s name and her cell phone number. I saw Bob (who evidently followed the ambulance to the hospital) and said “Welcome to the Ohio Flyers” as I was being wheeled down a hallway. Pain = 10/10.
I was lifted onto a hard skinny table. My arms kept falling off the table. “What is your name? How tall are you?” I yelled out the answers and told them my weight and height before they asked. I thought that was pretty funny. The entire time all of this was happening I kept moaning “Oh God. Help me. I hurt so bad. My hands hurt so bad.” I also did an experiment. I tried to stay totally quiet without moaning. I pretended I was being tortured and if I moaned it was like giving away the information the enemy wanted. I’d make a poor POW because I could NOT keep quiet.
I felt sharp pain in my right groin where, evidently they were making the incision to do the heart catheterization. I howled – that put the accumulated pain level to 11/10. Turning to the technician on my left I moaned with much irritation “I’ve had 4 of these surgeries before. Somewhere in here you are supposed to say ‘Mark, I’m giving you a little something in your IV to relax you.’ Well, where is it?”
She said “I just gave it to you. Soon you…should…be…feeling…bet…”