A NARROW ESCAPE - Powered parachutist nearly drowns after crashing into ocean

  • Published
  • By Beery Miller
  • Research Chemist
When a powered parachute driver crashed into the Gulf of Mexico 200 yards from shore, his craft landed upside down, trapping him under water. It took us more than five minutes to reach him. We found him still submerged, buckled in his harness and entangled in his lines.

Our hearts raced from the exertion of fighting the waves and from the knowledge that no one could hold his breath for that long.

As we rolled the unit upright, we saw the pilot's face for the first time. ... He was white as a ghost, and he wasn't breathing.

It was an incident that will forever live in the minds of four Texas Powered Paraglider "WingNuts" and one powered parachute pilot. It began on the morning of Good Friday, March 25, 2005. En route to our chosen launch site of San Luis Pass on the west end of Galveston Island, Texas, we encountered intermittent patches of heavy fog. The weather radio indicated fog would remain patchy till about noon. This was normal for the spring when we have encountered 10-degree temperature shifts between two days on the Gulf of Mexico.

Arriving at our familiar launch site at 9:30 a.m., the fogbank out in the gulf had forced a helicopter pilot and his two oilrig passengers to land at the beach. A quick discussion indicated the helicopter pilot had insufficient visibility about two miles out, and he was unable to land his aircraft on the helo pad at the rig. The helicopter pilot was very interested in the powered paragliders flying about.

Amazed at our equipment, he commented with a chortle, "Like to see them auto-rotate in on an engine-out."

We moved up the beach about 500 yards from the helicopter. We knew sooner or later the chopper would generate a massive cloud of sand, coating everything in the area. That left our small band of paragliders closer than usual to the powered parachutists on the beach that day. Normally our two clubs give each other a little more clearance to avoid prop wash from each others' launches. This little deviation from our normal ops soon would play a big role in controlling the chaos that lay ahead.

Three paragliders launched out over the beautiful blue-green water, followed 45 minutes later by two of our parachutist neighbors. Without incident, we passed cordially by one another on our way in to land at the beach.

One of our party, who attempted to have a little fun dragging his feet across the sandy beach at 20 mph, came in a little too low and "VRUMPF!" ... His whirling propeller sliced the sand with such force that a small piece of it tore loose. We ran over to inspect and found the minor damage to be easily repairable. No real harm done.

Dale Catching, a paragliding pilot famous for his super-glue-and-baking-soda prop repair technique, began the patch up job to salvage the rest of the man's flying day. Meanwhile, another member of our team, Tommy Rollins Sr., and his son, Tommy Jr., arrived and required mechanical assistance for an ailing motor.

These two maintenance delays would later appear as though they were an intervention by fate ... playing a key role in whether a man would live or die.

As we worked on the machines, we noticed a powered parachutist returning to land. He climbed to about 1,000 feet and initiated a spiral descent. During his last 360-degree turn, something went terribly wrong. The wingtip of his craft folded under!

The pilot, Ken Harger, cried out for help as he plunged from a height of around 100 feet toward the water.

Andy McAvin, owner of Texas Fly Sports; Tommy Sr. and Jr.; Dale; and I immediately began running the 200-plus yards to the water. We left our modesty behind as we stripped away our pants, shirts, shoes and socks and entered the frigid 66-degree water.

Initially, it looked like the powered parachute pilot had managed to free himself from the harness. But what we thought was his head was actually one of the aircraft tires floating upside down. That meant he was still under water!

Fortunately for the pilot, the wave action pushed the craft back toward the second sandbar where it would eventually be grounded in 4 feet of water rather than being pushed toward deeper seas.

Precious seconds and minutes ticked away as we scrambled through the crashing waves to reach the oxygen-deprived crash victim. As we got Harger's head above water for the first time in more than five minutes, we all felt too much time had elapsed to see the unconscious man ever take another breath.

Nevertheless, we didn't hesitate.

Dale and Andy steadied the unit around the crashing waves. Tommy Sr. started chest compressions using the back of the seat as a support. I initiated mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Remarkably, after four or five rescue breaths, the pilot began spitting and coughing up water. Then, astonishingly, he began some much labored breathing.

We finally got the victim untangled and removed him from the harness. As we carried him to the beach, he went from unconscious to semi-conscious. But as he started to come to, Harger's memory returned to his final thoughts from just before he blacked out. Unfortunately for all involved, those final thoughts were of him drowning!

Fear gripped him, and then he started fighting for his life. Thrashing wildly, we quickly calmed him down by assuring him he was safe.

The grueling 200-yard carry of the pilot back to the beach wiped us out. Each one of us had grabbed an arm or leg, and we supported his neck and head as best we could as we again struggled with the waves. Once we got Harger on the beach, we propped him on his side and began evaluating his condition. His body began the involuntary action of voiding his lungs of the seawater. We previously had individuals calling 9-1-1, and then repeated the request as we were able to give more specific information to the emergency medical services.

I asked the pilot to squeeze my finger with his left and right hands, and then wiggle his toes on both feet. Harger later would comment how he found it comforting as we let him know that everything was indeed working. This was important because the extremely low blood-oxygen state near-drowning victims fall into leave them unable to move much, yet fully conscious and aware of everyone's comments around them.

Emergency response took a good 20 to 30 minutes to reach the scene as the ambulance and other rescuers had to enter the beach at an alternate location because of the soft sand.

Miraculously, Harger entered the hospital on Good Friday and was released a couple of days later on Easter Sunday --- just in time to enjoy a holiday meal with his family. Other than a sore knee, he suffered no ill effects.

For the rest of us, it proved to be an Easter weekend that we will never forget.
Mr. Miller is a research chemist for a major chemical company. Some of his projects involve designing chemicals that provide safer aircraft of all types. He also is the main organizer of the powered paraglider "WingNuts" flying club in Texas. Also contributing to this article was Maj. Dean Cherer, a senior analyst with the Air Force Recruiting Service at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, as well as a member of the WingNuts (www.TXWingNuts.com).