Instructor Gets A YouTube Code Red

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Cable television being the reiterative swamp that it is, you can count on some things being more or less evergreen. One of these is the 1992 classic, A Few Good Men. And yes, that was 26 years ago. When it scrolls by on the guide, I never fail to watch it. A good night is when I catch it just as Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup is taking the stand and about to make cinematic history with a lecture about truth.

One minor but important MacGuffin element is when actor Noah Wyle takes the stand to explain why his fire team beat the crap out of him for dropping his weapon for lack of using rosin to counter his sweaty palms. The salient point being that seemingly minor mistakes like that can prove fatal. The beating—the vaporous Code Red—reinforces the need for discipline and focus in high-risk situations. 

Hold that thought while I plow on here.

Last weekend, a dramatic video went viral showing a man taking a hang glider ride in Switzerland. Alongside the instructor, he leaps off a steep slope attached to the machine only by his left hand; the instructor neglected to clip in his harness. The video shows the passenger, Chris Gursky, clinging to the glider’s control bar and grasping desperately at the instructor’s pants. The harrowing flight lasts about three minutes and ends with a fast, hard landing that hurt Gursky seriously enough to require surgery and orthopedic hardware for a wrist injury.

Coincidentally, Gursky lives locally, so the papers here predictably interviewed him for stories. I found his “live your life” attitude refreshingly unusual for people not accustomed to high-risk sports. Understandably, many people would shiver and say never again. He appears philosophical about the experience.

But he was far more generous toward the instructor than I ever would have been. I’m not a person given to unrestrained physical violence, but I’m not so sure a Code Red moment wouldn’t have been justified. I’m all for polite behavior and dispassionate analysis and all, but there are limits.

For those of us who make risk decisions on behalf of others—and that’s chiefly strapping passengers or students into airplanes—this incident serves as a sort of brief safety stand down. Which is to say don’t get complacent about the cabin safety briefing, the seatbelt check and whatever tricks you use to review your risk matrix before the wheels leave terra firma. This instructor clearly did not do that and it wasn’t just a minor oversight that anyone could make. It’s as basic as gravity.

My perspective on this is informed by hundreds—more like thousands—of rides to altitude sitting next to tandem masters strapping another human to themselves for a skydive. Some are more disciplined about the procedure than others, but considering the enormity of the potential risk, the need for unrelenting care has rubbed off on me and carries over into other physical risk assessments I find myself making.

Everyone has their own tricks for answering the question: Am I ready to do this? Mine is to simply pause and ask myself what I might be forgetting. Obsessively checking handles multiple times—when one will do—is a symptom of this. So is triple checking that the switch is off before propping the Cub on the prime stroke.

Resisting the natural urge to rush things is another because getting in a hurry almost guarantees something will be overlooked, especially on preflights. Another fetish of mine is to discourage yelling in an airplane. It connotes panic and shatters concentration. The pushback has proven futile, I’m afraid, but I keep trying.

Once safely on the ground, however, a well-placed verbal burn is fair game if doing so keeps the target from dropping a weapon or forgetting to strap a passenger to the glider. All things in moderation, I always say, including restraint. Gursky’s YouTube video was published, then removed, but now it’s out there in the wild. Maybe the global beat down that resulted is a Code Red for the multi-media age and not a bad thing.

Comments (12)

Instructor may need time management instruction. "Dress me slowly, I'm in a hurry." Good lesson for all of us.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 2, 2018 1:04 PM    Report this comment

Col. Jessup: Ever put your life in another man's hands, ask him to put his life in yours?

Kaffee: No, sir.

Col. Jessup: We follow orders, son. We follow orders or people die. It's that simple. Are we clear?

Kaffee: Yes, sir.

Col. Jessup: [slower and louder] ARE WE CLEAR?

Kaffee: Crystal.

Posted by: ANDREW PATTERSON | December 2, 2018 6:05 PM    Report this comment

There is no frickin way I'm going to strap myself to anybody to do anything. No, no, no, no, no.
Are we clear???... and no bungy jumping either.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | December 2, 2018 9:47 PM    Report this comment

I am joining Mr. Cooke's camp. It is completely beyond my limited level of comprehension how one can depart without assuring that the very reason for the flight is somehow attached to the vehicle of choice. Leaking luggage is one thing, leaking passengers is quite another...

Posted by: Jason Baker | December 3, 2018 5:27 AM    Report this comment

The older I get, the more I see the perilous risk in certain activities; especially those with a prominent single point of failure.

My heart cannot imagine carrying the weight of responsibility for the well-being of a trusting but helpless individual strapped to my chest as in a tandem jump situation (or hang glider). May God bless all those that undertake such endeavors...safe landings.

Posted by: A Richie | December 3, 2018 8:40 AM    Report this comment

A friend of mine allowed his 92-year old mom to experience a lifetime yearning to skydive. She was frail and thin. At first, the primary canopy failed and was released by the instructor. Upon the opening of the backup canopy, she instantly began to slip through the harness. He grabbed her and had to hang on all the way down. She enjoyed the flight. Details in a future post.

Posted by: Jeff Parnau | December 3, 2018 10:09 AM    Report this comment

Jeff Parnau, interesting story! However, I'm with Mom...at 92 you might as well enjoy the rest of the ride.

Posted by: ROBERT JOHNSON | December 3, 2018 11:45 AM    Report this comment

The "natural urge" for me is to direct a verbal burn at the thrill seeker for first choosing a dangerous situation and then providing yet another data-point confirming it was. Russian roulette is probably thrilling too so long as you don't get hurt.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | December 3, 2018 2:16 PM    Report this comment

Since the hang point is a single point of failure, and there have been quite a few deaths over the years, most hang glider pilots are paranoid about checking they are hooked in. You'll see pilots check their hang connection three, four, five times before launching - as Paul says he does with other items. It becomes a before-takeoff nervous tic - "wind is cross from the left, I'll wait... - yes, I'm hooked in - Lull now, be ready for the gust behind it... nothing yet... - yes, I'm hooked in - leaves rustling, here it comes, whoa too much, nose down and wait, it's crossing from the right, slowing now - yes, I'm hooked in - there's the lull, wait for it - yes, I'm hooked in - here it comes... straight in and steady... clear! launching!"

People have invented various hook-in alerts, from dangling flags (like "remove before flight") to electronic alarms, but most pilots rely on old-fashioned paranoia and fear.

It's entirely likely the instructor in the video has himself reminded students, over and over, to check their connection.

Two observations, then:
- Sooner or later you will forget to check any given item. You just will. You already have - but you got away with it. I don't have a fix for this.
- There is simply no excuse for launching without having hooked in the passenger.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | December 4, 2018 8:36 AM    Report this comment

"Sooner or later you will forget to check any given item. You just will. "

A constant truth, I'm afraid. The best defense is the four eyes method. Have a third--or second--party do a gear check. I know of only one skydiver who does this consistently before ever single jump. I don't, for reasons I can't necessarily explain. I check the big stuff; handles, reserve static line and pins on main and reserve. Haven't forgotten to turn on the automatic activation device for the reserve that 99 percent of us use these days.

But like every sport, skydiving has its electronic gadgets. I have an audible altimeter that has to be extracted from the helmet, turned on, reinserted. And an electronic altimeter that has to be turned on before takeoff. If you forget, you can't do it easily in the air. I have forgotten both of those a time or two.

Funny incident. I was videoing a team last month and mounted a camera on the strut to get the exit. Normally, skydivers will beat the airplane to the ground, just. But videographers open higher so they land about the same time as the airplane. To retrieve that camera, I had to land, jump out of my rig and run for the airplane. Left my helmet, gloves and suit on. When I was headed for the airplane, someone on the boarding line for the next load physically grabbed me and said, "hey, dude, you don't have a rig on."

I found it reassuring.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 4, 2018 10:32 AM    Report this comment

"at 92 you might as well enjoy the rest of the ride."

75 summers and 75 winters is about all any one of us get.

Waiting 91 years before attempting to "enjoy the ride" leaves many a waisted summers and winters.

Posted by: Robert Ore | December 4, 2018 9:15 PM    Report this comment

I'm not sure if anyone else saw it, but it looked to me that there as a large clearing on top of the hill that he could have landed on if he just made a 90 degree right turn. He may have been fixated on the problem, but in hindsight he should have put down immediately on the nearest viable landing point. At least that's the way it looked from my armchair.

Posted by: James Freal | December 5, 2018 3:58 PM    Report this comment

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