Thunderstorms are very powerful events. They can produce grape fruit sized hail, terrifying lightning, strong winds, torrential rains and tornadoes. But another less noticed product of a thunderstorm is the updraft, unless you happen to be caught in one while flying a paraglider. That’s exactly what happened to a German woman who was flying a paraglider in Tamworth, Australia while training for the World Championship. Caught in a powerful updraft, Ewa Wisnierska found out first hand how terrifying and painful a thunderstorm can be.
While training in her glider, two thunderstorms quickly formed and merged into one. As she was trying to avoid one storm she got caught in the updraft of the other and to her horror, she was sucked into the violent storm.
According to her GPS unit and tracking log, she was lifted high into the thunderstorm at a rate of about 60 feet per second to an amazing altitude of 32,634 feet which is higher than Mount Everest and where most commercial jets fly. Her wet clothes turned to ice and froze to her body. Encased in ice and without oxygen she passed out and for most of her 60 minute flight she remained unconscious. Subjected to -50°F temperatures, tennis ball sized hail and lightning, her body endured a torturous journey that was long from over.
If getting caught in the updraft wasn’t bad enough, she now faced the dangers of getting caught in a downdraft which caused her paraglider to descend at a rate of 90 feet per second. As her glider spiraled out of control on her final descent, she passed through 31,069 feet where she barely regained consciousness. She managed to scraped the ice from her GPS unit and slowly start to regain control of the glider.
“When I woke up I tried to fly, I don’t even have the brakes in my hand. My clothes were frozen. The harness had ice peaks [icicles]. It was amazing because the glider was still flying. I don’t know how it’s possible because there was hail everywhere – into the glider, into my harness – and it was still flying.”
With her clothes caked in ice and frozen to her body, she managed to land the glider about 1,500 feet from a farmhouse where she laid on the ground curled up in the fetal position to try and get warm. A short time later, her cell phone rang and to the amazement of her teammates she answered.
“It’s beyond the word incredible,” said Godfrey Weness, organizer of the 2007 Paragliding World Championships in the northern New South Wales town of Manilla. “It’s beyond unbelievable. Her chance of survival was a minuscule little dot in a very big ocean.”
Another man who was also caught in the storm wasn’t so lucky. His body was found about 46 miles away from where Ewa Wisnierska managed to land her glider. And just a few years back, 7 paragliders were all killed when they too were caught in a thunderstorm. The fact she survived beat the odds.
Despite the ordeal, the extent of her injuries were severe frostbite, cuts and bruises. The one thing doctors think saved her life was passing out and being encased in ice, as this caused the heart and other vital organs to slow down, conserve heat and require less oxygen.
An Air Force pilot by the name of Colonel William Rankin also endured a similar event and lived to tell his remarkable story. His story can be read here.