ST. GEORGE — Their New Year’s Day flight started like one of their numerous past trips — great weather, an unparalleled view of southern Utah’s red rock scenery — when an unexpected gust of wind hit.
The wind pushed locals Jeff Hunt and Brad Roper up a ridge, causing the wings of their paramotors to collapse. Roper was high enough that his wings reinflated in time, but Hunt got “too low,” Roper recalled.
“The wing didn’t have time to reinflate, and he went to ground,” Roper said.
“I was terrified. I tried to turn around to go back and see if he was OK. I saw his parachute on the ground, and I was just sick. I tried to fly closer thinking maybe I could land or could get a better view to see if he was alive,” he said.
“I hadn’t seen any movement, so I didn’t know if he was alive.”
But Roper’s wings started to collapse again, and he was low on fuel at the end of the men’s hour-and-a-half flight, so he needed to return to their landing zone about 10 minutes away. While still above Hunt, Roper called 911 from his helmet communication device and told dispatchers his friend had fallen.
“Right as I went to land back in town, I saw LifeLight cruising across town heading toward him,” Roper said.
When he made it to Hunt’s location just west of St. George, paramedics and firefighters told Roper that members of the LifeLight crew were speaking with Hunt and he was coherent, Roper remembered.
Hunt suffered a broken femur, broken pelvis and hip fracture. He had bleeding on his brain and pancreas, as well as a ruptured aorta, which doctors treated immediately with surgery after he was flown to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. He also broke all of his ribs, Roper said.
The husband and father of two remained in the intensive care unit Saturday, where he will receive surgery on his hip, femur and pelvis on Sunday, Roper said.
Despite his extensive injuries, doctors have told his family they’re optimistic Hunt will heal after a three- to six-month recovery, according to Roper.
“We’re really grateful,” he said. “When I got the news that he was talking and moving, I was so excited. Because when I left the scene, I thought that he was dead. So we’re really happy that he’s going to make a recovery.”
But his injuries will likely put him out of work for a while. Hunt manages all of the region’s Jimmy John’s restaurants, Roper said.
Roper set up a Facebook fundraiser to help Hunt’s family through this time. Those interested can also donate directly to the family through Venmo at Jeff-Hunt-1.
He described his friend’s survival as a miracle.
“I think what actually happened is he fell about 75 feet on the last fall, and I think his wing partially opened right when he made contact with the ground,” Roper said.
If the wing hadn’t partially cushioned his fall, Roper believes his friend likely wouldn’t have survived.
They’d set out — they fly three or four times each week — expecting good weather after watching the forecast. The men had been flying with two other people who turned back for the landing zone soon before. The wind hit toward the end of their flight.
“We had a ton of fun, we saw some beautiful spots like Snow Canyon, and then it was just out of nowhere, just a sudden gust that happened right when we were close to the ridge. It was totally unexpected. Both of us have been flying for quite a while, and he’s a really great pilot,” Roper said.
“It was just kind of a freak accident,” he said.
After about 250 flights, Roper said he’s never experienced a similar unexpected gust of wind.
Despite the terrifying experience, Roper said he plans to continue flying.
“It’s a feeling of freedom that I’ve never been able to find with any other extreme sport or any sport. It’s super beautiful and scenic and peaceful. It can be a huge rush when you’re flying low and you get to see all the terrain, and you go fly through the Arches in Moab,” Roper said.
“I think everyone, from the time they’re born, has an interest and desire to fly. And this is the most visceral way to fly because you’re not in an airplane in a cab, you’re just hanging out in the sky, right? You’re just floating around,” he said.
But moving forward, Roper plans to take extra precautions — including buying an emergency tracking device.
“That’s something that I didn’t have and I will definitely have from now on, because if I hadn’t seen him when he went down … who knows if anyone would’ve been able to find him?” Roper said.
“You think, ‘Oh it won’t happen to me, the odds of that are so rare.’ Then something like this does happen and you’re like, ‘I definitely need to take every precaution to be safe.’”