Paraglider who died when his wing folded had yen for adventure
by Robert Meyerowitz, ADN 9/6/95
People who knew him said John Rankin was always a bit of a daredevil. A mechanic and the owner of an aircraft parts business in Wasilla, Rankin, 36, liked to fish, hunt, fly, trap and mine for gold and fancied himself a real-life Indiana Jones.
Then he got interested in paragliding.
When he moved to Alaska with his wife, Dorothy, six years ago, from their native Southern California, Dorothy had a feeling about John and the great wide open. "He was very adventurous," she said Tuesday. "His personality type was such that I knew the state of Alaska would gobble him up one way or another. "I expected it at some point. But not on his daughter's birthday."
On Saturday the couple's daughter, Tess, turned 4. John was soaring several hundred feet above Summit Lake that afternoon, near Hatcher Pass, at a spot popular with paraglider pilots. He'd gone gliding that way countless times before. The lake below him sparkled with sunshine. It was quiet. Rankin once told a friend that he felt like a bird up there.
But something went wrong on Saturday. Witnesses later said Rankin's paraglider folded like an
accordion. He plummeted to his death.
Rankin was flying close to a bluff when he hit a pocket of turbulence, said parks ranger Pat Murphy, who helped recover Rankin's body and talked to witnesses at the scene of the accident. Rankin "was about 300 feet above the ground, not an unusual height," Murphy said. "He was above a mountainside that dropped off quite quickly. If he'd been another 50 feet away from the mountain he'd have been 600 or 800 feet above the ground and he'd have had time to recover."
John Blasko, a glider pilot at Hatcher Pass that day, said he disagreed with Murphy. "Personally, I don't believe 50 feet from the hill would have made a difference." What would have made a difference? "I don't know. There is objective danger in flying - the fact that you're off the ground - and there's subjective danger, the decisions you make.
"The pilot community will learn from this. We'll let some other folks make an assessment, and we'll go from there. I miss him already."
Blasko said the United States Hang Gliding Association will assess the accident and decide what they think caused it. This is the second confirmed death in the sport in the United States this year, Blasko said. In the earlier incident, the pilot landed safely at the edge of the ocean and then was swept out to sea, still attached to his wing.
Rankin's fall sent a shockwave through the state's small community of paragliders. Tami Hamler, who runs Golden Eagle Paragliding out of her Anchorage home with her husband, said Rankin was the first person to die while paragliding in the state. She guessed there are between 60 and 70 paraglider pilots statewide. There are about 2,500 active paraglider pilots nationwide.
Paragliding has been around a little less than a decade, Hamler said. The sport is a successor to hang-gliding, which is generally thought to be riskier. Where a hang-glider is rigid,
paraglider pilots are suspended from a soft, parachute-like wing in a harness. Nevertheless, "a lot of people think of it as a crazy, risk-taking type of thing,"
Hamler said. "I would consider driving the Seward Highway riskier."
Rankin was flying a high-performance glider - longer and skinnier than a beginner's model and more efficient. He had made between 100 and 200 flights since he took up the sport a little over a year ago.
"He was totally obsessed," Dorothy said. "He would have done it every day if he could have." But he had his business in Wasilla, Mat-Su Aircraft Parts, to run, and there was Tess and his son, Johnny, 7. So Rankin settled for gliding four times a week while the weather held.
Alaska State Troopers who arrived at the scene of the accident said Rankin's equipment all seemed to be working properly on Saturday. And Rankin was no beginner.
But Hamler, who also teaches paragliding, said she didn't think of him as deeply experienced, either.
"People get kind of gung-ho. We have a term for it - 'intermediate syndrome.' I'm not saying this applied to John necessarily, but if you have someone who picks it up very quickly and experiences a lot of success, generally they get casual about things. And paragliding is very detail-oriented. So you continually go into stronger and stronger conditions until - boom! something happens."
Rankin "always took things head-on, that's for sure," said Rankin's friend Mark Bertels. He tried repeatedly to get Bertels to go paragliding with him.
Bertels planned to try gliding, but was having second thoughts Tuesday. "That's gonna be a tough one," he said. "I look at guys like John and other good pilots up there . . . and I just don't think I'll take the risk. I've got a family, too."