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Storm rider’s miracle survival February 16, 2007

Posted by tkcollier in News, Sports.

Storm rider’s miracle survival – National – theage.com.au   Photo: Robert Chappel
Robert Chappel A German paraglider survived lightning, pounding hail, minus 40-degree temperatures and oxygen deprivation after a storm system sucked her to an altitude higher than Mount Everest.

Ewa Wisnierska, 35, passed out due to a lack of oxygen and flew unconscious for up to an hour covered in ice after reaching an altitude of 9947 metres – near the cruising height of a jumbo jet.

The champion sportswoman’s survival was like “winning Lotto 10 times in a row”, Australia’s most experienced paraglider says.

Wisnierska says experience told her she had no chance of survival, but a doctor told her that blacking out had saved her.

“It was because that I got unsconscious because then the heart slows down all the functions – it saved my life,” she told ABC radio.

Froze to death

A Chinese man who flew into the same storm near Manilla in northern NSW on Wednesday did not share Ms Wisnierska’s luck.

He Zhongpin, 42, was found 75 kilometres away from his launch site, and most likely suffocated or froze to death after being sucked into the storm, hang gliding experts say.

Ms Wisnierska’s top speed of ascent was clocked at 20 metres per second and her descent at 33 metres per second by an on-board tracking system, she told ABC radio.

She described the violence of the storm system as “amazing”.

”You can’t imagine the power – you feel like nothing, like a leaf from a tree going up,” she told the ABC.

“I was shaking all the time – the last thing I remember it was dark, I could hear lightning all around me.

“I knew I was in the middle of the thunderstorm and I could not do anything.

I knew the chances to survive are almost zero

“From the theory, I knew the chances to survive are almost zero, I knew I can only have luck, I can’t do anything – and I got it.”

Wisnierska had been training for the upcoming Paragliding World Championships when she was sucked into the violent storm.

She regained consciousness in mid-air up to an hour later.

“I wanted to fly around the clouds but I got sucked 20 metres per second up into it and started to spiral,” she told smh.com.au.

“After 40 minutes or an hour, I woke up and I was 6900 metres.

“I was still flying but I realised I didn’t have the brakes in my hand.

“I saw my hands and the gloves were frozen, and I didn’t have the brakes, and the glider was still flying on its own.

“I was thinking I can’t do anything so I only have to wait and hope that the clouds were bringing me out somewhere.

And then I woke up

“And then I woke up and was thinking I was maybe unconscious for one minute.

“I didn’t know I was unconscious for so long.”

Godfrey Wenness, the president of the Manilla Sky Sailors club and organiser of the upcoming Paragliding World Championship, said Wisnierska’s tale of survival was mind-blowing.

“It’s like winning Lotto 10 times in a row,” he said, noting that the previous altitude survival record for a paraglider was 24,000 feet.

“[Wisnierska] flew underneath a storm cloud and got sucked up to 30,000 feet. She was unconscious for about half an hour. She regained consciousness at 20,000 feet and then flew down and landed safely.

“She was covered in ice. She suffered from severe frostbite. The temperature at that altitude was about minus 50 degrees. It’s higher than Mount Everest.”

Mr Wenness said her injuries were severe.

Her ears nearly got frozen off

“She’s got bruises all over her body from the hail stones and she’s recovering from frostbite to her extremities. She’s got bandages over her head because her ears nearly got frozen off.”

“She just remembers going up, lightning around her in the cloud and she doesn’t remember anything until coming to again.”

He said the size of the hail stones was up to 15 centimetres in diameter.

“Apples, oranges, up to rockmelon size. And her glider kept flying perfectly which is the amazing thing in this whole thing.

“Basically she can’t believe that she’s alive.’

Sergeant Scott Tanner of Manilla police said Wisnierska landed between Barraba and Niagra, 60 kilometres away from her launch site.

“She was treated in hospital and discharged with frostbite injuries to her face,” he said.

A Bureau of Meteorology spokesman said the temperature in the storm at 9,000 metres would have been lower than minus-40 degrees.

Body found 25 kilometres from Bingara

The body of Mr He was found by the Westpac Rescue helicopter 25 kilometres south-east of Bingara in northern NSW about 2pm yesterday.

He, a member of the Chinese national paragliding team, was in training for the Paragliding World Championships, which start next week in nearby Manilla.

The paraglider, who had 10 years’ experience in the sport, was last seen about 3pm on Wednesday as thunderstorms were moving into the area.

Hang Gliding Federation of Australia general manager Chris Fogg said Mr He was probably sucked into the cumulonimbus storm system and propelled to high altitude.

“We assume he was taken to an altitude where he may have suffocated and may have become radically chilled,” he said.

“At the top of thunderstorms is typically where hail forms and there’s lots of agitation and turbulence.

Below zero

“I understand he was above 9000 metres so that’s below zero [degrees].

“This system one sounds as if it was pretty strong – he could have been taken up at 1200 feet a minute and beyond. “Most pilots will try to get down to the ground before they get close to something like that.”

The glider piloted by Mr He would have continued flying even if he had been unconscious, Mr Fogg said.

Mr Wenness yesterday said the paragliders were among 200 people taking part in a routine training flight.

“The other flyers in the area had given the stormclouds a “wide berth”, he said.

“Maybe he was trying to thread the needle between two cells, but we don’t know,” he said.

Mr Wenness said more would be known after data retrieved from the GPS instruments carried by the man had been used to map out his exact flight path.

Storm cell building

Mr Wenness said the storm cell had been building since the early morning, and all paragliders had been briefed about the danger before beginning their training flights.

“You do not fly anywhere near them – not even 747s fly through storm cells,” he said.

Mr Wenness said if the paraglider had deliberately steered into the storm cell, it was not just a risk but a decision that was “99.9 per cent” likely to lead to his death.

The Paragliding World Championships begin in Manilla on February 24. It is the first time the event has been held in an English-speaking country.

IN the eye of the storm, spinning out of control about five kilometres above the ground, Ewa Wisnierska closed her eyes.

“I was only thinking about the Earth,” she said. “I just wanted to come down and survive, and I didn’t care where.”

Sucked into a fierce NSW summer storm, the paraglider pilot was about to be rocketed to the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747, completely unconscious. A few hours earlier, about 1pm

on Wednesday, Ms Wisnierska, 35, had jogged off the lip of Mount Borah, about 50 kilometres north of Tamworth, and taken to the air.

For the German pilot it was the most natural thing in the world. With several other international competitors already in the sky, during what was meant to be a routine training run, the dark clouds to the south were just a blip on the radar.

“I was about 10 kilometres in front of the clouds. We were far away, and usually there is no problem,” she said.

For a good hour or so the flying was beautiful. Another glider had described the conditions from take-off as lovely. “The thermals are smooth and soft, big and wide.”

But by 2.30pm Ms Wisnierska knew she was in trouble. In front of her was a roiling mass of cloud, a double-headed storm cell that was sucking up everything in its path.

“It is very difficult to describe … suddenly a cloud was coming across our route. I wanted to fly around the clouds but I got sucked up at 20 metres per second [72kmh] into it, and I started to spiral.” At this point the world lost contact with another pilot flying nearby. Without realising it, the two paragliders had disappeared through a fast-closing slot between two storms, about 2080 metres above ground. It was 3pm.

He Zhongpin, 42, from Beijing, with 10 years’ flying experience, was also getting in some practice for next week’s paragliding world championships.

His body was found at 2pm the next day, about 75 kilometres from where the pilots took off. Experts say he probably suffocated or froze to death at extreme altitudes.

“Not even 747s fly through storm cells,” said Godfrey Wenness, the organiser of the championships, and a former world record holder.

But Ms Wisnierska was about to do just that. “It started to rain and hail,” she said. “I was climbing more and more and it was dark. After a few minutes I could hear the lightning everywhere around me, and then I knew I was in the middle of a thunderstorm.

“I felt no strength left. It was pressing me in my harness and I was unconscious. I didn’t know how high I was. The last thing I could do was call on the radio to our team leader [to say] I got sucked up and can’t do anything.”

Then she blacked out. Pummelled by hail the size of melons, coated in ice and being propelled further skyward, she was about to smash the world altitude survival record. But she does not remember a moment of it. “I felt no strength left. It was pressing me into my harness and I was unconscious. I don’t know how high I was.”

Mount Everest is 8848 metres, or 29,028 feet. Ms Wisnierska’s track log – a flight trajectory downloaded from her GPS handset and altimeter – recorded her top altitude at 9946 metres.

“After about 40 minutes I woke up,” she said. “Everything was frozen. I tried to scratch [the ice] off my sunglasses to see how high I was, but one of the [lenses] fell out. Then I scratched the GPS and I was at 6900 metres and I was still flying.”

Confused, and battered by huge chunks of ice, she had somehow endured gut-wrenching G-forces and, in a thin sky-suit, had experienced temperatures as low as minus 50. And she was still aloft.

“I was thinking I wanted to brake and feel the glider, but I realised I didn’t have the brakes in my hand. I saw my hands, and the gloves were frozen, and I didn’t have the brakes and the glider was still flying on its own.

“My harness was full of hail and the glider was as well. I didn’t know I was unconscious for so long.”

Squinting from behind frosted eyelashes and still at the storm’s mercy, she took in her surroundings.

“After a while I went out from the clouds and saw the sun. But [then] the clouds blew me, and I went [back] into the clouds.

“It was very hard. I wanted to see how high I was, but when I saw I closed my eyes again.

“But then after another 15 minutes I realised I was not climbing. I was about 5000 metres high and I realised I was sinking. I thought, OK, try to spiral down again. After a while I saw the Earth, and I thought, wow, I probably will survive.”

Now, finally headed for Earth, 3½ hours after taking off, Ms Wisnierska studied the ground to find somewhere to land. Ice began to fall off the lines to her glider and the afternoon sun began to warm her face.

“When I landed I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do because I was completely frozen and shaking. I was thinking to run a little bit and started to, but it was not helping so I just lay down on the ground. All the time my friends had been trying to call me, and after five minutes they called, and I realised they were still looking for me.”

Found blackened by frostbite to her ears and her knees, covered in livid bruises, she had landed 60 kilometres from Mount Borah, and was taken to hospital for treatment.

Once she had recovered she was told the Chinese pilot was missing. “I was kind of praying for him, but I knew his chances were very small, and the next day [when his body was found] I was really shocked. I knew what a hell he had. And I knew how much luck I had.”

Ms Wisnierska crashed a paraglider last year, shattering her pelvis. She promised herself then that she would be far more careful next time.

“I am a competition pilot and I know about the risk. It is stupid, but in the competition we go a little bit over the limits.

“After my first accident I said I would fly safe. I hope I can change it in the future.”

An online chatroom, Paragliding Forum.com, was abuzz yesterday with chatter about the ordeal.

A pilot from Oregon, Rick Ray, logged on to give his view on an extraordinary tale of survival.

“I want a comp glider like Ewa’s,” he joked. “Climbs like a rocket. Survives 20 m/s up and 33 m/s down. Handles well enough to fly by itself when you are unconscious. Dang, I gotta get me one of those.”

Thanks to Randy Marks for pointing this one out to us,


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