There’s no doubt in Rick Epp’s mind that if a wind turbine had been located in a field off of Station Rd. in Wainfleet four years ago, he would have struck it or one of its blades.
Epp was testifying at an Environmental Review Tribunal Hearing Monday in Wainfleet and recounting a serious malfunction he had in the skies above the township, located in the southern part of Niagara Region.
The hearing was convened after Skydive Burnaby owners Mike and Tara Pitt filed an appeal against Wainfleet Wind Energy Inc.’s project on Station Rd., which will see two wind turbines installed on land owned by the Loeffen family.
The Loeffens have partnered with Rankin Construction on the project, which will also see three more wind turbines installed to the northwest of Station Rd., off of Concession 1 in Wainfleet.
A stay was ordered on the two turbines on Station Rd. in late 2013, and construction halted until the hearing is completed.
Epp, an experienced skydiver of 32 years with more than 7,000 jumps, was the first to take the witness stand on Monday (Jan. 13) morning as Skydive Burnaby lawyer Eric Gillespie questioned him.
The malfunction occurred, Epp said, after he watched a student he was skydiving with successfully deploy her chute.
“She did a really nice job,” the skydiver, who works as a transport truck driver, told the hearing.
He was in the air with his student to make sure things went right and to videotape her jump.
“Video is a really valuable tool … we can go frame by frame and see what they did. It makes the students progress faster and safer.”
Epp said though things went smoothly for his student, things got ‘little exciting’ for him when he went to deploy his own parachute.
“Unknown to me a line on my main chute snagged on to the container (backpack). The chute came out violently and left me spinning faster than you can imagine. I made an attempt to clear the malfunction, but when it was clear that wasn’t going to happen to Plan B,” said Epp.
In a response to a question as to how fast he was spinning and falling, Epp estimated between 45 and 50 m.p.h. Terminal velocity for skydivers, the maximum speed they reach, is 120 m.p.h.
The skydiving instructor, who had seven malfunctions in the past, made the decision to pull a cutaway handle to release the main chute.
“I felt the chute release and I was back in free fall. I stayed that way for a few seconds until I stopped spinning.”
Epp then pulled the ripcord on a reserve chute and waited for it to deploy, adding it would normally take a second or two for that chute to come out.
“I was at 2,400 feet and nothing was coming out … I was in deep. This is every skydiver’s horror, their reserve not coming out. It’s about as bad as a place as you can be.”
Once he realized the reserve chute was not deploying, Epp used his elbows to pound on his container and do what he could.
“I started ripping and tearing … I really needed to do something. I don’t know if what I did helped, but my reserve came out and slammed me pretty hard, which I didn’t mind. It jammed my neck down,” he said, adding was about 1,300 feet off the ground at that point.
Though his reserve chute opened, Epp wasn’t out of danger. The reserve chute lines were twisted and he couldn’t free them, but he was able to finally get his head up and look above.
It was then he saw his main chute was snagged on the reserve chute.
He said if he pulled the reserve chute lines any more, the main chute could have reinflated and made things worse. As it was, his descent looked “survivable.”
As he descended, Epp’s reserve took him in a slow left turn, which made him cross Station Rd., which is west of Skydive Burnaby, at least four times.
He hit the ground in a soybean field off of Station Rd. and said it hurt when he landed.
Luckily for him, a couple of Wainfleet volunteer firefighters were nearby, saw what happened and rushed to his aid.
“I had a compression fracture in my back, broken pelvis, broken rib … I thought I did pretty good,” said Epp. “Most people who break their back don’t think it’s so good, but from what I was looking at it was way on the good side.”
Epp said if turbine No. 5, which will stand some 93 metres high, had been in place at the time, he had no doubt he would have hit the tower or one of the blades.
A collision with a wind turbine tower or blade could easily deflate a chute — main or reserve — and cause a skydiver to fall to their death.
“People die from lower altitudes. I’m glad the turbines weren’t there. I’ve watched lots of people make mistakes, experienced skydivers and students. Student and novice jumpers would have a pretty dangerous time with turbines No. 4 and 5 on Station Rd.,” he said.
Nadine Harris, a lawyer representing the Ministry of Environment at the hearing, asked Epp about the malfunction.
He said it was something that never happened to him before and he’s been able to fix minor malfunctions in the sky in the past.
“Seven times things worked out very well and I walked away … the eighth time I survived, but didn’t walk away,” said Epp.
He said there was a flaw in the parachute that somehow made it past quality-control checkers at the U.S. firm he purchased the rig from. The flaw also made it past riggers, his eyes, the eyes of his wife, who is also a rigger.
Epp said after the accident he was back jumping later the same summer.
“People ask me why, I’d like an answer. I don’t have answer for why I keep going back. I know my mother would like an answer,” said Epp.
Scott Borghese, an instructor with 8,840 jumps under his belt and 34 years of experience, was the next to testify.
The full-time instructor at Skydive Burnaby, who holds numerous national and world titles, said wind turbines and skydivers are not a good mix.
“Turbines standing that tall, with the blades spinning that fast … it’s a hazard that could be rather daunting,” said Borghese.
One of the issues, he said, is that of target fixation. Where a person becomes fixated on an object and won’t steer themselves away from it.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when someone will hit one,” Borghese said, adding it doesn’t matter if the skydiver is experienced or a student.
He said turbines are relatively new to North America and said the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association and United States Parachute Association are starting to address the issue.
“We don’t have a formula or method to deal with turbines like we do with other obstacles.”
The groups, he added, look to Europe, where organizations like the British Sport Parachuting Association have dealt with turbines.
During testimony last week, a representative from the British Sport Parachuting Association said there are no turbines within 2.4 kilometres of drop zones in the United Kingdom.
Borghese agreed with Epp and said if someone collided with a turbine tower and their chute collapsed, they would die from the fall.
The hearing resumes Tuesday (Jan. 14) at 10 a.m.