Photo by SMJoness, iStock, Getty Images
San Diego’s paragliding community continues to reel from the loss of two people many considered friends.
No one knows exactly what final thoughts went through the minds of the two pilots who plummeted from the skies over Torrey Pines State Beach one sunny afternoon in early March as the pair struggled to disentangle their entwined paragliders. Soaring in opposite directions above the San Diego coastline just seconds before, their individual aircrafts had collided in midair.
An expert instructor flying close by that Saturday saw 61-year-old Laguna Hills resident Raul Gonzalez Valerio and friend Glenn Johnny Bengsston, 43, of Carlsbad, perish when the men hit the rugged cliffs towering over the blue-white surf just north of Black’s Beach.
The uniquely qualified eyewitness is convinced that, because the men were so occupied with troubleshooting their paragliders’ tangled lines and canopies, mercifully, they probably did not anticipate – at least, not for long – their impact with the hard-packed earth below.
“I don’t believe either one of the pilots thought it was a catastrophic error,” Torrey Pines Gliderport master flight instructor Gabriel Jebb says, referring to the collision that caused crucial parts of each aircraft to become critically compromised shortly after 2:35 pm that fateful day.
If the men did ultimately realize that a crash with the notoriously unforgiving cliffs of Torrey Pines was inevitable, it was by that time probably too late for either Valerio or Bengsston to do the one thing that might have been life-saving.
“I don’t think either one of them had the feeling it was something they couldn’t work out, because they probably had 12 to 15 seconds from the time they collided to the time they impacted the cliff,” Jebb explains. “I have a feeling the pilots were trying to fix the problem rather than just throwing their reserves.”
According to Jebb, there was plenty of time from the moment the pilots collided with each other to the second they hit the ground to have pulled their reserve parachutes’ cords. He says it takes only about three seconds for a reserve parachute to fully deploy.
Responsible for the pilot-training program at Torrey Pines Gliderport, Jebb is certain the pilots’ backup parachutes would have saved their lives had the cords been pulled quickly enough. But sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees — or just how bad a disaster is from its very center.
“We have three different radio frequencies here: one for the tandem pilots, one for the general pilots, and one for the schooled pilots,” Jebb says, his voice halting with emotion as he recounts the events of that day. “On every single one of those frequencies, people were screaming ‘Throw your reserves!’ because people saw the [severity of the] initial accident.”
Months later, San Diego’s paragliding community continues to reel from the loss of two people many considered friends. Those who were connected by radio to Valerio and Bengsston that day won’t soon forget the last utterances they heard from the men as they fell to earth.
“It was terrible,” recalls Jebb, though he remains resolute about protecting the accident victims’ still-mourning families from media attention, and believes unnecessary pain would be inflicted by sharing what exactly were the final sounds heard by him and an employee who was actively instructing one of the pilots via the gliderport’s training frequency.
Yet Jebb’s description couldn’t be starker about what he and several others saw as the two pilots crashed onto the bluffs of Torrey Pines from an estimated height of 75 feet.
“It was clear that they were dead on impact,” he says.
“There were only two pilots who said they saw the collision, but there were seven of us who saw when they actually hit the cliff,” Jebb recalls. “I was probably about 200 yards away from them, on the radio, screaming, ‘Reserves! Reserves!’ I don’t know how to describe what it’s like to watch two friends die — especially doing a sport you love.”
Having instructed both Valerio and Bengsston at certain points during their training as paraglider pilots, Jebb has spent time since the accident — Torrey Pines’ first since 2012 involving fatalities — going over in his mind whether or not he missed something.
“Did I forget to tell them not to fly too close to each other?” he wonders aloud during our interview. “Did I forget to explain to them what the right-of-way rules were? I know I didn’t, but you always question yourself.”
In addition to assuming responsibility for protecting the deceased men’s families from media attention, Jebb is also acting as an unofficial custodian of their reputations as pilots. He says neither man was at fault for the accident.
“Raul was more advanced. He was only an intermediate-certified pilot, but he flew out here probably about four or five days a week. He had a lot of experience up here on the ridge. I would say upwards of 250 flights… He was probably at 50 to 70 hours on the ridge.”
The day of the accident was to have been the day Glenn Bengsston earned his P2 “novice license.” In fact, it was that last flight which would have garnered Bengsston’s P2. But instead of a party celebrating licenses, two memorial fly-ins honoring both men have been held at Torrey Pines Gliderport since the accident.
While Jebb maintains neither Raul Valerio nor Glenn Bengsston were to blame for their deaths, he also says that if there is blame to assign, it goes to “proximity.” That’s because the men were flying closer to each other than was safe, closer than they had been advised by him and his staff of instructors — and closer than is required of pilots by the contracted concessionaire that operates the City of San Diego-owned Torrey Pines Gliderport.
Yet ambiguous as it may sound, Jebb says that if a pilot must be blamed for the accident, both Valerio and Bengsston would be at fault. “There were only two pilots who saw the initial accident,” he says. “And they gave conflicting reports about what the mistake that was made was.”
Jebb reiterates his preference for blaming proximity rather than any one or both pilots. Repeating the dominant eyewitness report broadcast and published by multiple media outlets, Jebb says it’s true that one of the two eyewitnesses — both also pilots among the Torrey Pines soaring community — claims to have seen one of the pilots, Bengsston, make a sharp turn into the other, Valerio. But he says, the other eyewitness presents another, albeit more nebulous-sounding, scenario.
“We heard a report that one pilot turned into the other pilot, another report that maybe one of the pilots slung the glider down too much causing almost like a fender-bender.”
Scarce regulatory oversight of hang gliding and paragliding as a combined “ultralight” aviation practice makes Gabriel Jebb’s opinions about the two-fatality accident’s cause or causes, wavering and malleable as they may be, more important than would be the case if there were a mandatory inquiry by a government agency, such as the National Transportation Safety Board. That’s the agency that investigates accidents involving powered aircraft, ranging from giant airliners to small, private airplanes.
Jebb notes that, although paragliders have been in the air for going on 50 years, they — like hang gliders, which have been flying even longer — are classified as “experimental.”
“We operate under Part 103 of the federal aviation regulation, which essentially limits the FAA’s involvement because we fly what are considered ‘ultralight’ or sport-class aircraft,” he says. “So you don’t have to go through your normal FAA pilot training to fly one of these. Normally, they take a bit of a hands-off approach.”
However, Jebb says there was confusion on the part of Federal Aviation Administration officials in the first hours following the March accident.
“I think that when some of the initial media reports came out saying there were two people involved, they assumed it was a tandem incident involving a pilot and passenger. The FAA does get involved when there is a death in tandem incidents.” The apparent assumption prompted them to announce they would be conducting an investigation. Multiple attempts to get confirmation from the Federal Aviation Administration of the existence of such an investigation went unanswered.
Time to end the experiment?
If you’re wondering what government authority is responsible for conducting thorough investigations into fatal single-pilot paraglider accidents, the answer is “none.” Because it was not a tandem flight, Gabriel Jebb and his colleagues who are also employed by Air California Adventure Inc., the city’s gliderport concessionaire, will conduct whatever investigation there is into the facility’s most recent fatal accident.
Jebb bristles with resistance when asked why it would not be helpful, if not a relief, to enlist the resources, expertise, experience, and credibility of the National Transportation Safety Board for an investigation.
“I don’t think they have the bandwidth or experience to do that,” he says. “It’s up to us to self-regulate. As paragliding and hang gliding pilots, we have a national association, and that is really the governing agency of how we self-regulate.”
He points to a private-sector, national organization as the only governing body needed for his kind of aviation.
“There’s an agency in place. The United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association that writes up all of the experience requirements and writes up all of the requirements for what the certifications are going to be, and what the training and standard operating procedures are going to be,” Jebb says. “I follow those rules. I have to. We’re a big operation here. We carry a lot of liability.”
Once the operators of Torrey Pines Gliderport complete their investigation, they’ll submit their findings to the sport’s national club, whose executive committee will review it and decide what (if any) changes to “standard operating procedures” should be suggested to the larger group’s member organizations and pilots.
But unlike reports conducted by the federal government, the association’s accident report won’t be made public. (The group does make available to the public a list of fatal accidents occurring at member launch-and-landing sites.)
It has long been believed among most ultralight aircraft pilots that the best space for the hang gliding and paragliding community to flourish was as far outside the bounds of government officialdom as possible. But minds are changing among some soaring enthusiasts who previously believed wholeheartedly in their avocation’s enjoyment of near-total self regulation and a largely hands-off approach by federal aviation officials.
“Only direct FAA ratings for tandem instructors can be impartial and safer,” writes a San Diego-based pilot venting in early May on an enthusiasts’ online newsletter and discussion board.
Ben Reese’s comment is part of a thread at The Oz Report that suggests the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association risks losing the confidence of some of its members regarding one of its founding purposes.
Originally established, in part, to provide affordable liability insurance to hang gliding and paragliding members as a way of indemnifying property owners where pilots wanted to launch and land their aircraft, the association also oversees safety standards.
A regional-chapter representative of the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association who sings the praises of Torrey Pines Gliderport as it is currently operated by Air California Adventure for having “remarkably low” incidence of fatalities given the numbers of flights the facility accommodates, gives much of the credit for the facility’s purportedly low ratio of deaths to flights to its top instructors.
“I don’t have the exact numbers, but every time I’ve been to Torrey Pines, I have been impressed by the number of people who’ve come there to fly,” says Jugdeep Aggarwal. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but not only is Gabriel Jebb a pilot, he’s a master pilot rated to train instructors.”
Aggarwal’s high praise for Jebb and his acumen as a pilot and trainer of trainers comes not only from the former’s perspective as a national association chapter officer (albeit from a Northern California chapter), but also from his point of view as a retired British Royal Air Force pilot.
Gabriel Jebb is a “master rated P5” pilot who in 2003 was named “instructor of the year” by the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
Even so, a criticism persists about the way current concessionaire (and Jebb’s employer) Air California Adventure runs Torrey Pines. Complaints range from accusations that the facility is operated like a “petty fiefdom” where you’re in if you’re liked by the operators’ inner circle and out if you’re not, to charges that rules at the facility apply—except when they don’t. It’s an attitude, say critics, that’s reflective of a wider problem in paragliding culture that emanates from professional associations at the top, down through to some local clubs and site operators.
“If the FAA directly managed the tandem commercial ratings, it would end the bending of the rules that got us in so much trouble with [Air California Adventure] and currently threatens our tandem waiver. When you carry passengers, it’s a big deal,” Ben Reese’s comment at The Oz Report continues.
Reese, who did not respond to an attempt to reach him for direct comment, was not speaking specifically about accidents at Torrey Pines, but rather about insurance and safety ratings more broadly.
Jebb doesn’t deny that there may have been some flexibility in regard to how one of the now-deceased pilots was viewed by instructors at Torrey Pines. Although Glenn Bengsston did not technically meet the most rigid of stated requirements to earn a P2 “novice” license (which the Torrey Pines flight school was ready to issue had he safely completed that last flight of his life) as they’re described on the facility’s website, his experience as an airline pilot was considered.
“Glenn was a newer pilot,” Jebb recalls. “He had only been with us since January. He had just shy of 50 flights on the ridge and probably a couple of hours. But he’s been a commercial airline pilot for about 20 years.”
A significant portion of Bengsston’s 50 flights would have been tandem flights rather than solo outings like the one that ended his life.
Bob Kuczewski, a perennial thorn in the side of Air California Adventure, is an avid hang glider whose arrest and banishment from the gliderport the Reader reported in 2015. He’s been beating the drum about a multitude of claimed transgressions for years.
Says Kuczewski, those wrongs have been done not only to him, but also to other hang gliding or paragliding pilots who’ve deigned to criticize the gliderport’s operator — not to mention San Diego taxpayers, who technically own the gliderport. These days, he’s defending himself in a defamation counter-lawsuit.
“If I had to put it in a seven-word headline, I’d say, ‘Gliderport Operator Sues to Suppress Accident Publicity,’” he says.
More than one pilot critical of the current gliderport operator said they think changes need to happen at the site, but were unwilling to share critical opinions on the record about how the facility is operated by Jebb’s employer, lest they be “put on the blacklist with Bob K.”
There’s no such list, say operators of Torrey Pines Gliderport.
A self-proclaimed “conservative with a libertarian streak” who professes a belief in keeping government out of people’s lives as much as is reasonable, Kuczewski nevertheless says that in order to standardize and make fairer the operation of facilities such as Torrey Pines, the Federal Aviation Administration should probably have more engagement than its current sparse regulations, designed for the days when ultralight aircraft were experimental.
“It may now be time for the FAA to get more involved,” Kuczewski says. “Though I’d prefer local control, that would be preferable to what we have now.”