I am increasingly finding that my life as an engineer and as a pilot evince a certain integrity. I enjoy seeing a beautiful system run the way it ought, whether it is software going clickety or a paraglider slicing through the air… but I really get off on understanding how systems will fail and reasoning about how we can both strategically plan for and tactically respond to such eventualities.
Perhaps, however, those aren’t really such distinct things? In nearly anything worth doing the game readily adjusts to match your skills. Navigating any complex domain, in the fullness of time, appears to involve a continual exclamation of “wheeeeeelp — didn’t know that could happen!” and an update to the model.
This Morning’s Outing
Roughly two weeks ago I somehow tweaked by L5-S1 disc as happens from time to time and, like the occasionally stubborn individual I am, I powered through the pain to host a dinner party, which caused the flare-up to go off the rails. Consequently this morning’s session represented my first time strapped to a wing in eighteen days, a slump I was very grateful to break, but also a moderate cause for anxiety.
And what a delightful morning it was! Thirty minutes of sunny flying at the POTM’s southside divided across three flights chained with top-landings followed by roughly the same amount of kiting — what more could a boy ask?
In fact the most memorable and in retrospect most joyous moments of the morning (probably in a Type-II adventure sense) were all the janky events that conspired to curtail or even ruin my fun but that could not get the better of me.
There was my initial inflation — Another pilot was slightly behind and to the side of me, probably no issue, but I chose to wait because the wind had gotten to the edge of my inflation competence (14/15MPH) and I did not want either to wake him or even get plucked and crash into him. With him clear I got the wing up mostly without note, spun forward to start approaching the ledge, and… man my legs straps feel not quite right, like maybe I’m going to crush my gonads on take-off, but damn I don’t want to have to inflate again, and yet I heard myself repeating the mantra “make decisions in a way that prioritize safety over ease”, and so spun around, yanked my rear risers, angled the wing to the wind as it deflated, then casually resolved the issue.
Then there was my second inflation — Ah the joys of inflating a 37m wing in 15MPH gusts. One brake toggle in each hand, firm grip on the Cs with my right hand, As in my left hand for a gentle tap, and… *YOINK* In the blink of an eye I am lying on my back and… everything is fine. I had decoupled my brake inputs from the crazy stuff the rest of my body was doing, got the wing overhead, and instead of feeling in a hurry to stand up just said to myself “ah, I seem to be lying on my back, one of the many positions in which I am comfortable kiting my wing”, took a moment to catch my breath and collect my thoughts, then rolled onto my right hip, matched brake toggles in left hand, did a one-armed push-up with my right hand, grabbed raw brake lines, then spun forward while dumping raw brakes and switching to toggles in one fluid motion.
Then my first flight — smooth launch, smooth seating, smooth flying, cheerily shout “gooooooood MORNING!” to a nearby pilot as I come in for a smooth top-landing, feeling kind of giddy, start kiting eastward, trip on dirt mound of a filled in hole, fall on my ass, nearby pilot looks alarmed as wing rolls 90 degrees in strong wind, “WHOOPS!” I shout as I smile and laugh while recovering the situation in a manner similar to earlier, and them I am on my way.
On all my flights — I maintained a hyper-awareness of when I might find myself downwind not just of other pilots but also interesting terrain features and thus exposing myself to their generated turbulence. In particular, I noted that earlier in the morning the wind was regularly of a SE orientation, considered the implications of this for the east-end gully with respect to rotor generation, and made a point of staying upwind of this sometimes treacherous feature.
Then my third flight — I’m debating whether I want to do another circuit when I hear and feel the initiation of a tip collapse. It’s no big deal. I catch it while it is small and innocuous. But it is a signal and one I have previously ignored at my own peril. So I decide to be grateful for the amazing morning I have already had, come in for one final top landing, and choose to kite for a while.
Maybe kite for a little too long… because wheeeeEEEEEEE! My friend Joe, while kiting near the lip on a much smaller wing, gets plucked a solid ten or more feet straight up while I get generally clobbered and briefly dragged, but mostly feel under control, go to recover, and… ugh my right leg is somehow caught in my harness’ stirrup, leaving me feeling like a trussed holiday bird. In dealing with this distraction my wing flips over and is threatening to turn things into a rodeo. “And now we play this game in reverse” my brain calmly says, however, and I begin to reel in As to depower the wing, and then sit and catch my breath while I wait for Joe to come over and hold the wing while I get out of my harness so I can ball things up nicely for my next outing instead of a starting with a cravat’d mess.
In addition to doing tons of ground handling practice over the past six months I believe this morning’s successes stemmed from a recent “happy accident” (in the Bob Ross sense) a month earlier where during a launch at the southside I tried to abort because another pilot already in the pattern abruptly turned back toward me in a way that had me thinking mid-air collision. My 37m wing had a different idea, however, and was like “noooooop! we’re going! figure it out, bro!”, and that figuring involved turning hard to the right and muddling through a sideward sliding launch where I threaded the needle between colliding with this errant pilot and tumbling messily back into the hill. “Didn’t know I could do that” was my immediately subsequent reaction followed a little later with “I should practice that.”
And so I did — on my subsequent three outings I did nothing but hours and hours of sliding practice on my 25m wing in 18-20MPH wind which, incidentally, also comes with lots of not-quite-planned “fall-down drills”. I had fun with the sliding, and eventually I will have it as a reliable tool in the belt, but where I got serious immediate value was repeatedly navigating that messy experience of your body tumbling wildly and yet still finding a way to keep the wing overhead in turbulent air.
Which has me thinking about some useful principles in aviation that sound an awful lot like how I approach the problem of engineering security and reliability into the technology systems I build:
- Think hard about how systems might fail
- Find and listen to signals of imminent failure
- Maintain appropriately risk-calibrated margins
- Simulate failures to train your responses
- Ruthlessly resist complacency