The incredible ordeal of paraglider Ewa Wisnierska
By Tom LeCompte
Her name is Ewa Wisnierska, but her friends call her Birdy, an affectionate reference to her love of flying. Since taking up the sport of paragliding seven years ago, Ewa has devoted her life to the sport, competing around the world, and in 2005 winning the Female World Cup.
Last February her passion almost killed her.
On Valentine’s Day, Ewa was preparing for the World Championships in Manilla, Australia, competing in a warm-up event, when she became caught in a fast-developing thunderstorm. Hurtled helplessly upward by the storm’s violent updrafts, she was carried to an altitude of 9,946 meters [32,631 feet], higher than Mount Everest and into the jet stream, an altitude where airliners typically cruise and far above a region that mountain climbers call the “death zone.” Unconscious from hypoxia and exposed to temperatures of –40 degrees F, she remained at that altitude for some 30 to 40 minutes before being hurtled downward by the storm’s equally powerful downdrafts. She came to at about 22,000 feet, not only still alive but still flying. She managed to land safely, and when it was learned what she had done she became an instant media sensation. Her survival was hailed as nothing less than a miracle. A Chinese pilot caught in the same storm was killed, his body found 47 miles from where he took off.
Speaking on the phone from Germany, Ewa concedes that something extraordinary happened, something that she still cannot quite explain or comprehend.
Ewa, 37, was born and raised in Poland. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she moved to Hamburg, Germany. She first saw paragliding, she says, about 14 years ago. Intrigued, she asked about taking lessons. “But it was too expensive, so I forgot about it.” Years later, in 2000, during a trip to Poland to visit her older brother, Ewa tagged along with him to his paragliding lesson. “He was very excited,” she recalls. “And after remembering them back in Germany, I got excited, too.” Now able to afford it, Ewa asked the instructor if she could try it. “He said yes, so the next day I started flying.” She was hooked.
As with hang gliders, paragliders are foot-launched gliders. The all-fabric craft are designed so that they don’t require a rigid frame like hang gliders have. Instead a series of tubelike baffles in the fabric self-inflate as the glider moves through the air, forming the airfoil that helps keep it aloft. The sport has gained tremendous popularity since the 1980s, in part because the gliders are lighter and more compact than hang gliders (and thus easier to carry) but also because their flight characteristics are more benign and thus they are easier to learn how to fly.
Ewa devoted nearly all her time to paragliding. She moved from Hamburg to Austria, where the scenic Alps offered near perfect flying conditions. She slept in her car, took odd jobs, or worked at paragliding schools—“anything to keep flying.” After three years she began to compete.
“That first year I won every competition except the European Championships,” she says. The next year, in 2005, “I won the World Cup. I was the top female competitor in the world. It was like a dream for me. I never thought I could get so good. All these girls whose names I knew—the champions—I beat them all. It gave me a strong motivation to keep competing.”
On the circuit Ewa is known as cheerful and good-natured but also as an absolutely steely-eyed competitor. Last February she arrived in Australia from Germany the day before. “But I felt good. I had no jet lag,” Ewa says. Also, “I was familiar with the place. I had flown there four years before.”
Manilla, about 200 miles north of Sydney, is a semi-arid region of farms and low hills and is considered ideal for paragliding. Godfrey Wenness, a local pilot, former world record holder, and one of the organizers of the event, briefed the pilots on the weather forecast, which was for isolated showers and thunderstorms. “Pretty typical for that time of year,” he says.
This day’s event was an open competition in which pilots try to cover the greatest distance over a period of time, deciding for themselves what course to fly. Without an engine to stay aloft, paragliders rely on thermals—rising air currents—to stay airborne. These currents can typically be found near hills, mountain ridges, and cumulous clouds. Paraglider pilots will maneuver near clouds to catch lift, then glide to the next cloud, and so on.
During competitions paragliders carry a global positioning system (GPS) with them to verify having passed certain waypoints but also to log their flights for future analysis. They also have a variometer, which indicates their altitude along with their climb or descent rate, and a handheld two-way radio with which to keep in touch with ground crews—to give position reports or get updates about course conditions or the weather. As a precaution, they also carry a reserve parachute.
Thunderstorms contain some of the most violent weather known—hail, lightning, tornadoes, and turbulence that can break apart an airliner. Because they’re light and unpowered, paragliders are particularly vulnerable. If flying under or near a building cloud, paragliders may find themselves pulled into the cloud, a phenomenon pilots call “cloud suck.”
But with the forecast for scattered storms, Ewa says, “they just warned us to be careful. If you stay away from the clouds, generally it’s no problem. You just have to keep your distance from them.”
At around noon, harnessed to her glider, Ewa jogged off the top of Mount Borah. “The conditions were sunny, with small clouds,” she says. “Perfect flying conditions.” With the wind out of the south, she turned to the north to take advantage of the tailwind, as did most of the 120 or so pilots competing that day.
After about two hours of flying, Ewa recalls, she was at about 6,800 feet, flying 500 feet or so below a scattered deck of clouds. Ahead of her was a small line of clouds running east to west. The clouds, which had been lingering for most of the day, had since become better defined. “Parts of it were raining, parts were developing pretty quickly into thunderstorms, and others were just normal-looking clouds,” says Godfrey, who also flew that day. Nevertheless, there were “plenty of holes through which to pass.”
As Ewa recalls: “In front of us, we had two big clouds—one on the right and one on the left, but still far enough away, so I decided to fly between them.”
Flying behind Ewa’s group, Godfrey watched as the leaders first flew through the gap between the clouds without a problem. Ewa’s group followed, making it through albeit with a bit more maneuvering. Not long after, however, the hole closed, forcing Godfrey and the pilots near him to land and wait out the storm.
Seeing the clouds come together behind her to form a single storm, Ewa felt she and the others had dodged a bullet. With nothing but “beautiful sunny skies with small clouds,” she returned her focus to the competition.
Looking to gain back some of the altitude she lost in maneuvering through the gap, Ewa headed toward an innocent-looking cloud. “It was maybe 400 or 500 meters high—not a dangerous-looking cloud—so I decided to fly around [the edge of it]. But when I came closer to the cloud—I was not under but close—I suddenly caught [an updraft], which [quickly] increased. I said to myself, Oh, this is very strong lift. I need to spiral down.”
Ewa tried maneuvering away from the cloud, “but it was too strong, too fast. I tried to spiral down three times, but I couldn’t descend faster than the lift [that was pulling me up]. After the third time, I realized I was not going to get down. I was already in the cloud. I couldn’t navigate. I didn’t know which direction I was flying. The indicator on my GPS was turning, and I didn’t know which direction to go, so I decided to fly straight and level and hope I could fly out of the cloud. But it was not possible. The glider was turning itself, and the [compass on the] GPS indicator just kept spinning. I wasn’t able to control the glider, and the lift just kept getting stronger and stronger. I couldn’t see anything. I thought that since the cloud didn’t look so big, I would just come out the top of it. I thought, even if [the cloud] happened to be 3,000 meters [high], it would be okay.”
Having landed to wait out the storm, Godfrey saw that it was growing and expanding outward, absorbing the surrounding clouds, much like small water droplets drawn to a larger puddle on a tabletop. He didn’t know it at the time, but inside were Ewa and Chinese pilot He Zhongpin.
Ewa was pulled higher and deeper into the roiling mass, and it grew blacker and colder. “At about 4,000 meters [13,000 feet], it got very dark,” Ewa recalls. It started raining, then hailing. Unconfirmed reports after the storm said that Ewa was being battered by baseball-sized hail. She has no idea. “I could only feel it,” she says.
Pulled up at a rate of 4,000 feet per minute and jerked about like a rag doll by turbulence, “I had to work to keep the glider open,” Ewa says. The glider kept collapsing, and she had to keep whipping and pulling on the control lines. “I realized then it was dangerous. I knew I had to say something to my crew, to my team leader. I told him I was in trouble and that I was in a cloud and it was raining and hailing and I could not do anything. That was all I could say.”
Despite her predicament Ewa remained calm. “It was very scary, but I didn’t panic. I knew I was in deadly danger, but I just kept trying to think of what I could do. I considered releasing the paraglider and using my reserve chute. But the reserve chute is not rated for freefall speeds; and being a [standard] round parachute, I’d have no control . . . My best option was to just try to keep flying and hope that at some point I’d fly out of the cloud.”
But she kept rising. “At around 5,000 meters [more than 16,000 feet], it became very dark and very cold. I could hear thunder all around me, but I never saw the lightning flashes. I had my sunglasses on, which were covered with ice, and I couldn’t see anything, not even my glider.”
Her chances of survival were diminishing rapidly, and she knew it. “At that moment I remember thinking to myself, Not here. Not like this. Please let me come down—anywhere.”
Ewa didn’t know it, but also caught in the storm, and less than 500 meters away from her, was He Zhongpin. By comparing data recorded on the GPS receivers of both He and Ewa, experts matched the two pilots’ flight paths. He got drawn into the storm before Ewa. After reaching a top altitude of 5,800 meters, He then started descending, caught in an apparent downdraft. As Ewa was being pulled up and struggling with her glider, He was being pulled down. His GPS unit stopped recording soon after this point, automatically turning itself off at the moment a bolt of lighting struck and killed him.
Caught in the heart of the storm, Ewa could only hold on and hope. Suddenly, she recalls, “I got a jolt of very strong lift, like I was in a Formula One car. My head was pushed back and my body pressed into the harness. My eyes kind of rolled back. Not long after, I believe I passed out. I wasn’t looking at or able to read my GPS continuously, but judging from the time that passed and my rate of climb, I guess this was between 6,000 and 7,000 meters [around 22,000 feet].”
Ewa was unconscious for 30 to 40 minutes. The track log from her GPS later showed that her glider continued to climb in a slow right turn, “so I think when I passed out I must have been leaning to the right,” she says.
At an altitude of 9,946 meters [32,631 feet] and likely still in the cloud, the glider leveled off. It continued flying in large right-hand circles about 800 meters in diameter at a speed between 70 and 80 kilometers per hour. The thin air at that altitude meant the glider needed to fly at nearly twice its usual airspeed of 38 kilometers per hour to remain airborne.
It also meant that Ewa should have been dead.
“It’s generally accepted that if you are suddenly transported to an altitude above 7,000 meters, you will die within 10 or 15 minutes,” says Dr. J. Kenneth Baillie, an expert in high-altitude physiology in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the founder of www.altitude.org, an organization that conducts high-altitude medical research. At 32,000 feet, there is only a quarter of the oxygen that is available at sea level. At that altitude humans do not have the lung capacity to take in enough air to live.
That Ewa survived, much less without suffering brain damage, Dr. Baillie says, is amazing.
Although people climb Mount Everest [29,028 feet] without using supplemental oxygen, Baillie says, they do so after undergoing a long process of acclimatization in which they adjust their bodies to decreased oxygen intake. Even so, there is a limit. “Most physiologists accept that the ceiling for human survival is about 9,000 meters,” says Dr. Baillie. “That means that if Mount Everest was a few hundred meters higher, it almost certainly would not be possible to climb it without supplemental oxygen. You wouldn’t be able to move.”
But lack of oxygen was not the only assault on Ewa’s body. She also was exposed to extreme cold. The estimated temperature that day at that altitude was about –40 degrees F. Given Ewa’s airspeed, the subsequent wind chill would make it feel more like –95.
The most obvious effects of exposure to such temperatures are frostbite and hypothermia, in which the body’s metabolismand functions begin to slow and, ultimately, shut down. Ironically, however, hypothermia may have helped save Ewa’s life. As it slowed her metabolism, it reduced her body’s demand for oxygen—not unlike cases in which heart attack or heart surgery patients are plunged into ice-cold baths to intentionally induce hypothermia to prevent hypoxic injury to the brain.
The precipitation pelting Ewa may have also helped. Soaked from rain that subsequently froze as she was pulled up through the storm, she may have been completely encased in ice. If so, this coating provided a protective layer that shielded and insulated her from the biting winds and the severe temperatures.
After turning at 32,631 feet, Ewa’s glider sank a little. She then hit a massive downdraft, plunging about 10,000 feet at a rate of between 27 and 33 meters per second (about 75 miles per hour) before coming to a stop at around 23,000 feet. Jolted awake, Ewa had no idea what happened, how long she was unconscious, or where or how high she was.
“At first I thought it was only a moment, like when you’re driving and you snap awake. I was lying in the harness. My head was lying back. My arms were hanging. I tried to control my glider and started to pull on the brakes, and I realized I didn’t have them in my hands. They were hanging, covered in ice. My gloves were completely frozen. So I had to sit up in my harness to grab my controls. I realized then I had been out for more than a moment or two.”
Exhausted from the lack of oxygen and the freezing cold and shaking violently, Ewa assessed her situation. “The gilder was open, flying normally. The air was very smooth, without any turbulence. I didn’t have to work it. It was still dark.” Scratching the ice off the face of her GPS, she read that her altitude was 6,900 meters [22,637 feet]. “I realized I was still very high and still had a long way to go, . . . but I had no idea where I was, so I just tried to fly straight, hoping to find a way out.”
For a moment the clouds parted. “I could see out, but I couldn’t see the ground. I was above the clouds. But the hole then closed and I was back in cloud.” Ewa continued flying blind, “but after 15 minutes or more, I realized I was no longer climbing.” From an altitude of about 4,000 meters [13,000 feet], she began to carefully spiral down in a descending turn until she broke out of the clouds. “I was at about 1,000 meters [3,200 feet] over the ground. I told myself I was probably going to make it.”
Ewa knew she needed medical attention. “But I couldn’t see any roads. If I just landed, I might have had to walk for a day to get help.” Finally, she says, “I saw a small farm.” The farm was just pastures surrounded by a fence, but it was the closest thing to civilization that she could find. “I just managed to make it, landing about 500 meters from the fence.”
But she was in no shape to walk. “I was so cold and so tired, I just curled up on the ground to try to warm up.” After two or three minutes, she heard a sound. “My cell phone started ringing,” she says. “I forgot all about it.”
It was her ground crew, frantic to find out what had happened. With her GPS she gave them her coordinates, and in a short time her rescuers arrived.
Ewa was taken straight to the hospital. At this point no one knew exactly what she had been through. She was treated for frostbite on her nose and ears, along with bruises from the hail. Doctors also checked her blood-oxygen level. “But I was okay . . . they just released me and said I should come back the next day so they could double-check.”
It wasn’t until the next day, Godfrey says, “after analyzing her track log, that we went, ‘Holy cow!’” Then, around noon, they found He’s body. At that point “it just became a media frenzy,” Godfrey says.
Much of the media commentary concentrated on the sport’s dangers. If anything, Godfrey says, Ewa’s ordeal proves how safe paragliders are. “Look, Ewa got caught up in a storm that produces some of the most violent weather on the planet. She was unconscious, and this glider kept flying. This is weather where if you flew into it in a 747, you’d have 350 people killed.”
Ewa continues to fly and compete, and she is currently ranked second in the world standings. “I cannot give it up,” she says. As a tribute to her good luck, she had the number 9946 stitched into the fabric of her glider. She has since gotten a new glider, but says she is not sure which one she will use. “I really trust [that old] glider.”