Paraglider Survives High-Flying Ordeal

The Associated Press
Friday, February 16, 2007; 10:35 PM

CANBERRA, Australia -- A champion German paraglider said Friday she did not believe she would survive when she was lifted higher than Mount Everest by a thunderstorm in eastern Australia.

Paragliding 2005 World Cup winner Ewa Wisnierska, 35, was lifted to 32,612 feet by a storm that apparently killed a Chinese paraglider in eastern Australia on Wednesday. The pilots were preparing for the 10th FAI World Paragliding Championships next week, event organizer Godfrey Wenness said.

He Zhongpin, 42, died during the same weather system, apparently from a lack of oxygen and extreme cold, Wenness said. His body was found 47 miles from his launch site.

Wisnierska described Friday how she attempted to skirt the thunderstorm and when that failed, repeatedly attempted to spiral against its powerful lift.

She said she could see lightning around her and decided her chances of survival were "almost zero."

She said she radioed her team leader at 13,123 feet.

"I said, 'I can't do anything,'" she told reporters at a news conference. "'It's raining and hailing and I'm still climbing _ I'm lost.'"

Officials and Wisnierska's ground team used global positioning and radio equipment to track her altitude as she soared well beyond the 29,000-foot plus height of Everest, the world's tallest peak. Wenness said she went from 2,500 feet to the maximum in about 15 minutes.

She lost consciousness for more than 30 minutes while her glider flew on uncontrolled, sinking and lifting several times, he said.

She regained consciousness at about 1,640 feet and landed safely, but had ice in her lightweight flying suit and frost bite on her face.

She recalled feeling like an astronaut returning from the moon as her landing approached. "I could see the Earth coming _ wow, like Apollo 13 _ I can see the Earth," she said.

Wenness praised her ability to regain her senses and strength to land.

"It's like winning Lotto 10 times in a row _ the odds of her surviving were that long," Wenness said.

A paraglider is a type of hang-glider but the pilot's harness is attached to a modified parachute that can be steered rather than to a hang-glider's wing-like canopy.

© 2007 The Associated Press