Rescues, Helicopters, Fires, Mines and Paraglider/Hang Glider Pilots

By Will Gadd, Paraglider Pilot, Red Bull Athlete;
and introduction by Randy Parkin, HPAC/ACVL Alberta Director and Vice-President HPAC/ACVL

Introduction by Randy Parkin, HPAC/ACVL Alberta Director and Vice-President HPAC/ACVL

You may have seen this news article or one like it about an incident that happened in Canmore, Alberta recently…

Here’s a quick summary of what we know…

  • A group of 7 pilots hiked to a mountain launch know as EEOR (East End of Rundle) just to the west of Canmore. While this launch has been used quite often recently by paragliders and BASE jumpers, it is within a Provincial Park. Launching or landing in the park is not technically allowed but has been tolerated for some time by the authorities involved.
  • While the group was on launch, A BASE jumper launched close by, had difficulties, and crashed into the side of the mountain as per the article.
  • The group was aware of the accident, so an experienced member of the group called Alpine Helicopters and was notified a rescue operation was underway. The group then decided together to wait till the rescue was over before launching.
  • The pilots observed the helicopter check out the BASE jumper, then fly away and shut down on the ground.
  • Judging that the rescue operation had concluded (it is unclear whether the group re-checked with Alpine), a pilot new to the area who had been set up to launch decided to fly without objection from the others on launch.
  • The rescue operation was delayed while the pilot was in the air and out of concern that others might launch into the active area.
  • The rescue turned out well but could have had much worse consequences given the delay caused.
  • The pilot who launched was subsequently arrested, charged, and faces a court date for breaching Section 16 of the Provincial Parks Act which restricts the launching and landing of aircraft within our parks.
  • I’m told the pilot who flew appreciates and regrets the mistake he made and is doing what he can to apologize to the parties involved.
  • A group including Will Gadd, Brandon Hopkins (AHPA and working with Will on National Parks project), and others are working to mitigate the damage done by this incident and put in place a clear structure to allow us to fly in Alberta Provincial Parks.

Please read the attached article Will Gadd penned in response to this incident and has asked we share with all pilots in Canada. The passion evidenced in his words arises out of real concern this incident threatens the future of flying near his Canmore home, and harmed negotiations with Parks Canada to allow us to fly in our National Parks, a project Will has worked on for 15 years.

Some might also be uncomfortable with the directness, even bluntness, of Will’s words. I hope you can get past that discomfort to hear and heed his core message: “If there might even possibly be a chance that rescue could be ongoing, and you can’t confirm it, walk down”. That may seem too cut and dried for some, leaving little leeway for “responsible” pilot decision-making. But having been involved in these situations over the years while flying and running competitions in Golden, I fully endorse the simplicity of Will’s recommendation because…

  • In any rescue situation, there is considerable ambiguity. Pilots in the air or on launch are not able to see or interpret all that is going on.
  • Multiple agencies can be involved in a rescue, none having a full picture of what’s happening so unable to give an “All clear”. And frankly, during an emergency, they don’t have time to deal with bystanders.
  • Helicopter pilots and other rescuers unfamiliar with our sport will default to standing down if there are pilots in the air, or a possibility we may launch into their operational area. To them, we present an unpredictable and unnecessary risk to be avoided.
  • Any delay at all caused by our interference just extends rescue response times that can already be longer than we’d like in our mountain areas.
  • Our reputation as a community in the public eye is affected more by the poor decisions made in situations like this than the good ones most of us make most of the time.

Sustaining our flying sites and rights to fly requires that each of us make responsible choices. That includes understanding and adhering to the rules and regulations that apply to our activities, including those set by Transport Canada, Provincial, and local jurisdictions. If you don’t know or are unsure what those are, find out before you fly. If you know, do the right thing, every time, and help other pilots do so as well.

You might feel none of this applies to you because you don’t fly our mountain sites. But you could (and should) fly here someday, and an incident like this could come up at many of the other places you fly. You might also think you’d never make the poor decision that Canmore pilot made. But we’re pilots, always eager to get in the air. Trust me: you don’t have to be otherwise “irresponsible” to give in to the pressure to fly, convincing yourself a rescue is concluded, unaware or ignoring the risk you present to the victim, rescuers, or even yourself.

Please read and heed Will’s message: If there is any doubt during a rescue situation – walk down.

Story by Will Gadd, HPAC/ACVL Member #2634, Red Bull Athlete

Paragliding is, for many of us, the ultimate freedom. But with that comes the need for some basic knowledge and common sense about where we launch, land and fly. A few recent incidents have unfortunately highlighted that we need to do better. Please help spread the following information within your circle of friends, club, social media, or wherever it will help prevent more incidents.

Short Version:

A paraglider recently launched while a rescue was underway in the immediate area of an injured BASE jumper near Canmore, Alberta. There were a series of events that led up to the flight and the pilot didn’t intend for his actions to have a negative result, but at best that flight put additional and unneeded stress on the multiple SAR groups working together in a tense situation to save a life. At worst, a small delay could have cost the victim his life. It’s just luck that it didn’t. Why a pilot would launch with even the hint of a rescue in his immediate area is beyond me, and there were strong “hints,” but here we are.

Two pilots also recently landed in an active surface mine locally—less than an hour before that area was literally blown up. Why they thought this was reasonable given that even flying over an active mine/quarry is illegal, never mind landing in one, I don’t know. It shouldn’t even have to be said that landing in a mine, where explosives are in regular use, is idiotic, but here we are.

There have also been some issues with pilots flying near forest fires. “Near” is less than 5nM, about 10K, but if there is heavy air traffic fighting the fire, then “Near” means you can see the aircraft. Again, this should be clear, but here we are

Going forward it needs to be crystal clear (and we all need to work to make sure this clarity is communicated) to all PG and HG pilots and really to anyone who flies anything that:

  1. If there is even the possibility of a rescue operation anywhere in the same 20K area as you, then get out of the area and go land. Do not launch, do not assume that the rescue helicopter is “far enough away that it’s not a problem,” or that, “they haven’t flown in a little while so it’s OK to launch.” It is NOT. Get out of the sky ASAP, or stay on the ground until there is no shadow of a doubt in any way that a helicopter might be working a rescue. If you can see the helicopter, you are too close to it. Imagine you’re the rescue pilot and you’ve got someone hanging under your machine, and you’re trying to land them perfectly in a tricky spot. You do NOT need to be worrying about some @#@ idiot on a paraglider or hang glider flying nearby, or even within 10KM of you. Or you’re bumping a SAR team up, and suddenly there’s a paraglider or hang glider pilot in your flight path. You’re doing 150K, and worried about the blowing snow, wind, and now there’s a paraglider or hang glider in your path. It would scare the shit out of you, and likely not encourage you to be pro-paraglider or hang glider in the future.
  2. If there is any confusion about whether there is a rescue going on or not, then fly away from the site if in the air, or do not launch. “Maybe it’s OK” is not a reasonable justification for launching if there’s even a remote possibility of a helicopter rescue underway. If there’s a sliver of a tiny doubt that maybe, just maybe, there’s something going on, then don’t add to the problem. Your flight is not important compared to saving a life.
  3. It is illegal to fly over mines, much less land in them. All of us learned this in PG/HG school, so why is this even a discussion? “It’s OK, they’re not blasting now” is NOT a reasonable approach. Nor is, “I got a little low, so we both decided to land there.” If you can land in that mine, you had better options.
  4. Both of the above incidents are bad enough on their own, but also make us look like irresponsible idiots to the SAR teams, National and Provincial Park employees and the public. I’ve worked with HPAC and many others for going on 15 years with the National Parks to get them open to flying. The message has always been, “Pilots are responsible, safe, law-abiding people who are sensitive to public safety and the environment.” The above incidents justifiably do damage to that position, and I can guarantee they aren’t going to help our cause going forward. In fact, both are going to directly impact public and government perspective, and I honestly can’t argue that it shouldn’t. Both Alberta Parks and National Parks SAR teams responded to the EEOR incident.
  5. I’ve had personal conversations with some of the SAR people involved, they are stunned someone wouldn’t just understand that in even a possible rescue situation, you should stay the hell out of the air. They had to stand down until it was clear no more pilots would be flying through their rescue operation. Yeah.
  6. Locally, the legality of flying in provincial parks is questionable. We’ve had informal discussions with Alberta Parks, and need to do more there. The above does not help with that either.
  7. Please respect that the other aircraft flying are often professionals putting their lives on the line to do rescues or fight fires. Our desire to fly is way, way, less important than their lives.

People make mistakes. But please, let’s at least not repeat the above, and make sure all pilots, locals or not, understand this in the areas we fly in. And the same principles apply in Europe, the United States, everywhere really: don’t mess with a rescue (and flying anywhere within sight of it at all, full stop, does mess with it), stay away from fires, and don’t land in mines. Neither of these should require explaining, but here we are. I am NOT stoked for our next Parks meeting.

More information:

Helicopter pilots do not like to hover near the ground—they like speed, and altitude, and putting their machines down onto the ground when hovering in short order. So if one isn’t flying fast somewhere, then it’s quite likely doing a rescue, or at the very least isn’t going to be psyched to have a pilot close to it. Are you not sure what’s going on with that helicopter? Go land, or fly away from it at the very least, and definitely don’t launch.

For those still unclear on the concept, if there’s a helicopter hovering or flying slowly or in an odd place, it’s likely doing a rescue. If it’s flying close to the terrain slowly it’s likely doing a rescue. If there’s a person dangling below it then, you guessed it, it’s likely on a rescue. If there are a bunch of emergency vehicles parked on the closest road and there’s a helicopter, then… If it’s landing in a weird place, then… If a helicopter is flying in an odd place, then… If you talk to a random person who says there is a rescue underway but you still fly because “maybe there’s a window”, then you clearly do not get the severity of the situation. Even if a pilot isn’t doing a rescue, then “low and slow” means the pilot is under a heavier workload, give them respect and room ASAP.

If you’re on a launch, please help make this clear to other pilots who may somehow not understand what is going on. The SAR/pilot conflict didn’t happen in a vacuum, there were multiple pilots on the hill who let the one guy fly. That is a failure of our community leadership as well. If we are to continue being self-regulating, then that means it’s up to us to actually regulate ourselves.

For flying in the Bow Valley (Canmore etc.), there will be a clearer set of protocols shortly, but at the bare minimum, please first text Alpine Helicopters 403 493 5587 and let them know where and when you’ll be flying. That number is their “duty line,” and is staffed by pilots who will share the information out. Also call the front desk at 403 678 4802 for redundancy. This valley has a LOT of traffic, especially in the Ha Ling-EEOR corridor for normal traffic (this is their mandated route in and out of the valley) and for rescues.

The attached map shows how Alpine looks at the Bow Valley, thanks to Alpine for helping keep us all safer.