High flyer hits snag in trying new manoeuvre

Queenstown arborist Abe Laguna (arrowed, left) climbs a pine tree to reach stranded parapenter ...
Queenstown arborist Abe Laguna (arrowed, left) climbs a pine tree to reach stranded parapenter Ben Letham (bottom right) in a pine tree in Kiwi Bird Park yesterday.
Mr  Letham   abseils down the tree. Photo by James Beech.
Mr Letham abseils down the tree. Photo by James Beech.

Some towns have cats stuck up trees, but Queenstown yesterday had a parapenter.

Ben Letham decided yesterday, after 18 months of parapenting above the resort, to try something a little bit different.

The jump about 9.45am from the Skyline area of Bob's Peak went well enough, in perfect weather. However, the 21-year-old American private pilot came into difficulties when practising his new manoeuvre, spiralling into one of the thousands of lofty pine trees below.

Staff at Kiwi Birdlife Park, where the tree he fell into grows, called Queenstown police, as did sharp-eyed members of the public.

Experienced Queenstown arborist Abe Laguna was called, as he was familiar with the pines and had rescued Queenstown-based American paraglider Cade Palmer (28) from a similar tree in April.

A helicopter rescue was deemed unwise given Mr Letham's vulnerability, so Mr Laguna climbed the tree trunk wearing spiked boots.

It took him 10 to 15 minutes to reach Mr Letham, who appeared calm although suspended in midair more than 40m above the ground.

It was believed the pilot fell about 5m through branches before he came to a halt.

"He was 3m away from the trunk, so easy to throw rope to with safety line, and to find out if he knows climbing and ropes," Mr Laguna said after the rescue.

"He knew about it so that made it easy."

Queenstown police and St John ambulance officers stood ready near the foot of the tree.

The base was roped off to the public as Mr Laguna shouted warnings from above, and debris such as branches and pine cones thudded to the ground.

Park visitors stopped in their tracks and looked up, open-mouthed, at the sight.

Mr Letham was secured to a safety rope, then instructed by Mr Laguna to abseil to the ground. The rescue took less than 30 minutes.

"It was just unlucky," Mr Letham told the Otago Daily Times.

"It went wrong, trying something new."

Asked if he feared for his life as he fell, he said: "It happens pretty quick, so you just deal with it."

The parapenter was full of praise for his rescuer.

"He's a good guy, knows what he's doing."

Constable Terry Wood, of Queenstown, was waiting to speak to him. Charges were not laid as the incident was unintended and accidents happened with the sport, Const Wood said later.

Mr Letham and park managers came to an arrangement whereby the grateful pilot will volunteer his time to the visitor attraction.

But the job was not over for Mr Laguna. He climbed back up to retrieve the sail and glider, worth thousands of dollars.



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