James Johnston on launch in Roldanillo, Colombia, January 2017. Photo: Hugh Miller
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Kiwi Johnston: More details released

Tuesday 22 September, 2020

More details have been released about the search for New Zealand pilot James ‘Kiwi’ Johnston following his flying accident in Nevada, USA last month. Searchers found Kiwi’s body last Friday after a four-week search.

Kiwi, 53, went missing while on a paragliding XC flight in Nevada on 22 August. A large search failed to find him, but his glider was spotted by a member of the public on Wednesday 16 September. A search team on the ground then found Kiwi’s body on Friday 18 September.

The conclusion reached by the team that visited the site, which included the local sheriff and experienced paraglider pilots, was that Kiwi would have died instantly. The reserve was not deployed and the glider was not attached to the harness. His Garmin InReach satellite tracker’s screen was smashed. The condition of his other flight instruments has not been made public, but they are being investigated to see if any data can be recovered from them.

Kiwi was found about 2km from where his wing was found. He was underneath a tree, and although the area had been searched at least twice from the air he was invisible from above.

The wing was initially spotted by local mining workers. It may have been rolled around by the wind, making it more visible, according to one of the searchers involved in the rescue, Rob Whittal.

Rob said: “I flew over the spot in a helicopter twice and it was so easy to not see something. It was not flat, easy countryside. The glider matched the colours of the terrain.

“It was not through anything other than major bad luck we missed it. Every effort was put in to seeing it. Our eyes were peeled and I never saw it.”

The Eureka County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement on 21 September which attributed cause of death to “multiple blunt force trauma due to high elevation fall.”

Pilots involved in the search suggested that Kiwi probably had an incident at height, which led to a spiral dive and loss of consciousness. At some point in the air the glider’s lines failed.

There are no “automatic” reserve-parachute deployment systems used in paragliding, as there are in skydiving, and an unconscious pilot is not able to deploy their reserve parachute.

The glider was a three-year-old Ozone Zeno. Paraglider manufacturer Ozone said they would do a full inspection of the wing, to try to work out what had happened. Ozone test pilot Russell Ogden said, “At Ozone it’s a personal loss for all of us here. He was part of the crew for many years, part of the family. It’s like losing a brother.”

The statement from the Eureka County Sheriff’s Office also listed the multiple search agencies involved, and explained more about the near month-long search operation. It said:

“On Sunday 23 August 2020 the Eureka Country Sheriff’s Office was contacted about a missing paraglider [pilot] near Nine Mile Peak in Nye County, Nevada.

“On Monday 24 August the Sheriff’s Office, search and rescue, and volunteers with the private search efforts assisted the Nye County Search and Rescue with a search of the area.

“The Nye County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue, the Eureka County Sheriff’s Office S&R, the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, REACH Medical Helicopter, Washoe County Sheriff’s Office RAVEN helicopter and Air Squadron, along with countless volunteers searched for several days. Search efforts were officially suspended on Saturday 29 August.

“On Wednesday 16 September an observant passerby noticed an object out of place as they were driving along a road near Fish Creek Range in Eureka County. Upon further investigating, it was discovered to be James Johnston’s paragliding chute.

“The observant citizens contacted the hotline for the missing paraglider. Eureka County Deputies and S&R personnel responded to the area and recovered the [paraglider]. Due to the time of day, and limited daylight, Eureka County Search and Rescue reactivated search efforts on Thursday 17 September.

“On Friday 18 September at approximately 11:22 am volunteers searching the area discovered James Johnston deceased. The Eureka County Sheriff’s Office conducted the coroner’s investigation and determined James Johnston’s cause of death to multiple blunt force trauma due to high elevation fall. There will be no further information released in regards to this case.”

The statement added: “Our deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of Mr Johnston.”

It also thanked all those involved in the search.

“The Eureka County Sheriff’s Office would like to extend our sincere appreciation for all the partnering agencies, volunteers and citizens who helped with this search.

“This was an extensive search that covered multiple counties, jurisdictions and a lot of collaboration. Without these partnerships and the countless volunteers, this search would not have been possible.”

The statement was signed by Jesse Watts, Sheriff-Coroner, Eureka County, Nevada. Eureka County has a population of around 2,000, and is the second-least populous county in Nevada.

Private search efforts had raised nearly $100,000 to help pay for search expenses. Donations had come in from around the world, from pilots and friends in the Burning Man and psychedelic communities. Kiwi, a paraglider pilot for 30 years, was active in all three.

Posting on the search team’s GoFundMe page on Tuesday 22 September, the search team wrote: “Although the search to recover him took weeks, it is comforting to know that he did not suffer and was not waiting for us to show to save him.

“At this moment anything more would be pure speculation but we hope [we] will have new data to analyse which will spread more light on the circumstances of the incident leading to his death.”

The search team added their own thanks. “We can not thank the Eureka County Sheriff’s office and the Eureka County Search and Rescue Service enough for the support, sensitivity and cooperation throughout this long search.

“We must also extend heartfelt gratitude to everyone else that helped, from the people that donated, the volunteers on the ground, in the air and searching satellite photos it has been so humbling to see so many come together with the common goal to find Kiwi.

“It was a privilege to see the flying community, the Burning Man tribe and the psychedelic fraternity collide and work together alongside the state effort! All proving that co-operation is the way forward when exceptional results are required.

“We would like to make a special thanks to Bill Belcourt, Reavis Sutphin-Grey and Amanda Jane McBride for their devoted effort in co-ordinating much of the work, but we are also well aware that the work that needed to be done was spread far and wide and we appreciate everyone’s effort and see it all as equal.”

Report by Ed Ewing and Andy Pag

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