Paraglider Ewa Wisnierska awoke mid-air, chilled and disoriented. As the wind swayed her body, she realized she was caught in a furious storm, facing death, that's when Ewa's story took an unexpected twist.
Headed to Germany
Ewa Wisnierska was born in 1971 in Hysa, Poland where she spent the next two decades. After turning 20, she decided to move to Germany to pursue her lifelong goal of paragliding wherever she could.
But other than living out her dreams of paragliding, the young adult had another reason as to why she was moving to a whole new country. Ewa was in love with a Polish boy who happened to be living in Germany. Soon after relocating she and her beau tied the knot…but not exactly willingly.
A 360 Turn
Although Ewa was in love with her husband, the couple decided to get married for reasons other than love. The Paraglider explained to a paragliding website Sly Fly in 2006, “That time it was not possible to stay in Germany as a Polish girl. So, we didn’t have any other option than marriage. This changed my name to Cieslewicz."
Making things legally official made it easier for Ewa to live in Germany as a Polish woman. But the union didn't last forever. The athlete later confessed that she wasn’t the same person she was when they first met. “Some years later something changed me. My life changed completely.”
A New Adventure
After getting divorced Ewa found herself solo in Germany, not sure what to do next. Little did she know she soon would find her new passion. As a child, Ewa was involved in many sports and took part in various activities, all things that helped her keep her toned and athletic physique.
Despite keeping busy as a youngster, the athlete admitted that she isn’t always as active as a grown-up. “I’m [a] very lazy person, not doing any kinds of sports.” But we find that hard to believe considering paragliding is deemed as a very extreme sport.
A Different Point of View
Even though the sport can be quite tricky, finding paragliding made Ewa as happy as can be. “There is no sport making me as free and happy as paragliding does,” she revealed, “Flying and traveling… changed my point of view. I’m very happy about it. I prefer the world without frontiers.”
Years before moving to Germany, the Poland-native had taken a few paragliding training lessons. However, it wasn’t until she was living in a foreign country that Ewa realized that the education in Germany was considerably superior to what she knew before. Despite the difference, she was committed to learning.
“That was why I decided to learn in Germany. When I got my license, I knew it will change everything.” Wisnierska explained, “ I left Hamburg for South Germany and had nothing except flying in my head.” Thankfully, the paragliding lessons would take her farther than she could have ever imagined.
The adventure enthusiast shared, “Three years later some friends told me, I should fly competitions.” Ewa admitted she hadn't thought about it before her supportive pals had mentioned the idea, but thankfully that was exactly the nudge she needed before thinking, "Okay, I Will try."
Despite never competing, Ewa had an impressive debut. “In the first year I won all competitions,” she said. “Except the European Championship because I entered the start cylinder too early on the last racing day. Thus, Petra Krausova won. I beat Louise Crandal in the Nordic Open and reached the second position in overall results.”
But it wasn’t just beginner's luck! “My personal success in 2004 was the sixth rank in the German Open and in the German League within just one year,” she said. “This gave me the motivation for 2005. I never dreamed about winning four of [the] five PWCs in the Women’s category and reaching 20th position generally — but it happened!”
While Wisnierska was winning left and right, it seemed like paragliding was all that she really had in her life…and she didn't seem to mind! “I have neither a flat nor any apartment, I live in my car and don’t need to pay any rentals every month,” she confessed. But as long as she could paraglide freely she was one happy nomad.
The athlete explained, “I don’t need any luxury. I prefer having time to money.” She said, “I don’t worry about the future. Maybe it will change one day. Maybe I will wish to have a family and my own home. But I haven’t found the right place to stay yet. And currently, I enjoy my life and flying.
A Future in Paragliding
For her personal affairs, Wisnierska didn’t spend much time worrying about what would happen next, she was a free spirit. However, she approached her athletic career with a different mindset. In fact, she had plans to take paragliding in a whole new direction for people all over the world.
“I would like to make our sport more popular and show more people how fantastic it is. I’m going to make a movie about the beautiful art of flying, which paragliding is,” she clarified. Eventually, her passion for popularizing the sport would lead her to places she could have never imagined.
And that place would be a small town named Manilla, located in New South Wales in Australia. It was in early 2007 that 200 paragliders, including Ewa, came together to begin practicing ahead of the Paragliding World Championships that was taking place that next weekend.
Ewa’s excitement only grew as she headed up 500 feet to Mount Borah. Leaping off of a cliff at such great height causes air currents to rise which allows the paragliders a way to grab a lift, also known as “thermals.” And at first leap off the cliff, everything was going smoothly...or at least that's what she thought.
A Violent Storm
For an hour Ewa was having the time of her life, soaring freely. She was oblivious to the fact that a spiraling vortex was near, taking everything in its way with it. What was happening was unimaginable, and the team down below was in disbelief at what they saw. Ewa was being dragged by the storm, ascending into the dark sky.
Powerless, for nearly 15 minutes Ewa was being spun out of control going from a height of 2,500 feet to a shocking 32,000 feet. Being up that high, the air became freezing causing frostbite on her hands and feet. By that point, the unfortunate paraglider had lost all consciousness because of insufficient oxygen.
We can’t even imagine what it must feel like to be up that high in the air, let alone while being spun in below -58 degrees Fahrenheit. As Ewa got higher and higher into the darkened air, both lighting and hailstones hit the paraglider. In just a mere 15 minutes she had reached a height higher than many passenger jets get up to.
Ewa later explained the agonizing event, “I found myself being pulled up and up at a violent rate.” She frighteningly continued, “I was trying to fly around the clouds, but I got sucked into them at a speed of 65 feet a second and then I started to spiral.”
Ewa elaborated further to Black Rabbit Special about the details of the unbelievable tragedy she experienced. The paraglider explained how it truly felt to be dragged so furiously by the winded skies while simultaneously the lightning struck all around her.
“I got a jolt of very strong lift, like I was in a Formula One car,” Wisnierska added, “My head was pushed back, and my body pressed into the harness. My eyes kind of rolled back.” We can only imagine the horror that Ewa must have felt in that very moment…
Calling For Help
Even though Wisnierska was going through a horrific and catastrophic event, she was still clear-headed enough to know she needed to come up with a plan if she was ever going to get back down safely. She later on articulated to BR Special, “I had to work to keep the glider open.”
"I realized then it was dangerous. I knew I had to say something to my crew, to my team leader,” she admitted. “I told him I was in trouble and that I was in a cloud, and it was raining and hailing, and I could not do anything. That was all I could say.” Talk about courage!
Devising a Plan
The hard part wasn’t yet over…although her team down on the ground was aware of the storm, Ewa was still stuck up hundreds of feet in the air. Nevertheless, she knew she had to keep a clear head. “It was very scary, but I didn’t panic. I knew I was in deadly danger, but I just kept trying to think of what I could do,” Ewa said.
The paraglider started to think of many ways to get out of the fatal situation. “I considered releasing the paraglider and using my reserve chute,” she explained. “But the reserve chute is not rated for free-fall speeds, and being a round [standard] parachute, I’d have no control.”
Headed Up a Deadly Altitude
The skilled paraglider had to juggle multiple tasks while trapped in the spiraling winds. She needed to not only find a way to prevent herself from ascending further but also maintain a calm demeanor to avoid succumbing to panic. Unfortunately, things couldn't have gotten worse, but regrettably, they did.
Suddenly, Ewa noticed something extremely concerning, "Ice was forming on my sunglasses and instruments." Her helmet, clothes, and gloves weren't designed to withstand such freezing temperatures. Moreover, the altitude she had reached wasn't typical for human exposure. She stated, "I couldn't breathe, and then I passed out."
The Silver Lining
Wisnierska was being battered by the harsh wind and the lightning at an altitude greater than Mount Everest's. Eventually, her body succumbed, and she lapsed into unconsciousness. When our bodies shut down all the bodily functions, including the heart rate slow down.
At that stage, her body suffered relentless blows from hailstones the size of oranges, resulting in widespread bruising. Ewa had ascended to a remarkable height of 24,000 feet, surpassing the previous record for any paraglider pilot's survivable altitude.
“40 Minutes Later”
Ultimately, the terrified paraglider regained consciousness, yet she had no recollection of how long her blackout had lasted. In the aftermath, she recognized that it must have been an extended period, admitting, "It was approximately 40 minutes later that I awoke."
“I thought I must have been unconscious for about a minute but then saw from my watch how long I had been out. From my instruments I saw I was as high as 6,900 meters,” she revealed. We can’t believe how much strength she must have had in her to withstand being in that storm!
Even though Ewa was awake and had a clear mind, at that point, there was not much she could do to safely get herself out of the terrifying situation. Wisnierska explained to The Sydney Morning Herald, “I was still flying but I realized I didn’t have the brakes in my hand. I saw my hands and the gloves were frozen…”
All the athlete could do was sit and hold on, waiting patiently for Mother Nature to land her safely. “I didn’t have the brakes, and the glider was still flying on its own. I was thinking I can’t do anything, so I only have to wait and hope that the clouds were bringing me out somewhere.”
Ray of Hope
While it was indeed good news that Ewa was alert and had hoped she would be safe, her fear kicked in again when she noticed just how high up in the air she was floating. “It was very hard. I wanted to see how high I was, but when I saw I closed my eyes again,” she admitted to The Age.
Unfortunately, the situation continued getting worse, because the paraglider endured another 15 minutes of relentless bombardment by giant hailstones. We can only fathom the harrowing thoughts racing through her mind at the time. Fortunately, it was precisely then that Ewa spotted something that ignited a glimmer of hope.
It was a harsh few hours, and she was getting weary of holding on. Thankfully, luck was on her side because she recognized that she wasn't being ascended upwards – instead, she was falling down! “I thought, ‘Okay, try to spiral down again.’ After a while, I saw the Earth, and I thought, ‘Wow, I probably will survive!'" she said.
When Wisnierska recounted her incredible landing, she compared the intense experience to a scene from an astronaut movie. She humorously shared with BBC, “I could see the Earth coming — wow, like Apollo 13 — I can see the Earth!” Her words added a surreal touch to the intense story.
Looking for a Place To Land
As the exhausted paraglider was going down, she tried her best to find a good place to safely land, to avoid having to deal with further atrocities. “I couldn’t see any roads,” she later explained to BR Special, “If I just landed I might have had to walk for a day to get help.”
As she frantically looked down all around her, Ewa finally noticed something that would prevent her descent from becoming another tragedy. She spotted a farm with a spacious pasture, ensuring a safe landing. “I just managed to make it, landing about 500 meters from the fence,” she recounted.
Safe at Last
After a harrowing journey, the weary paraglider finally touched down. And for a while, she remained lying on the ground, soaking in the moment. Ewa described the way she felt, “I was so cold and so tired, I just curled up on the ground to try to warm up.”
However, that fleeting moment of serenity was short-lived, as Ewa was soon alerted by a distinct sound. She explained, "My cell phone started ringing. I forgot all about it." It turned out to be her ground team, desperately reaching out to confirm her safety.
Together At Last
It seemed like luck was finally on Ewa’s side because she had miraculously ended up landing just 40 miles away from her original launch shot in Manilla. To everyone's astonishment, including Ewa and her team, her parachute remained unscathed, meaning her landing hadn’t caused any further damage to the poor paraglider.
Fortunately, her concerned team swiftly reached her landing location by utilizing the GPS device she had on hand, enabling them to stay connected with their advanced monitoring equipment. And of course, everyone's first concern was to get the injured paraglider straight to a hospital.
The medical staff at the hospital had concerns about the possibility of Ewa suffering brain damage, given the extreme altitude she had reached and the exposure to freezing winds, as well as the physical trauma she had endured. “There’s no oxygen," explained Godfrey Wenness, an experienced Australian paraglider.
By some miracle, Wisnierska had only suffered a few bruises and injuries. And while it was severe frostbite. It was only located on the paraglider's face and ears. She later revealed to The Standard, “I don’t believe in God. But I do believe in angels. I think they were the ones who brought me back safely.”
It was truly astonishing that Wisnierska had suffered such an intense ordeal and somehow managed to escape alive and okay. Even the president of the Manilla Sky Sailors Club and the organizer of the Paragliding World Championship, as well as the training event, Godfrey Wenness admitted that he believed she was gonna pass away.
He opened up to The Standard about the harsh conditions the paraglider sustained on his watch. “She was covered in ice. Her ears were nearly frozen off up there. It’s like winning the lottery ten times in a row — the odds of her surviving were that long.” Wow, talk about luck!
“Can’t Believe She’s Alive”
“She’s got bruises all over her body from the hailstones and she’s recovering from frostbite to her extremities,” Wenness explained even more to SMH. With a clear sense of amazement, he talked about the extremely large hailstones that Wisnierska had faced.
The organization's president declared. “Apples, oranges, up to rockmelon size. And her glider kept flying perfectly which is the amazing thing in this whole thing.” Wenness wasn’t the only one in disbelief that Ewa made it out alive. Even she couldn’t believe it! “Basically, she can’t believe that she’s alive,” he added.
Proving Science Wrong
Ewa spent a substantial amount of time trapped in the thunderstorm. According to Dr. J. Kenneth Baillie, a high-altitude specialist, the science proves her survival a miracle. “It’s generally accepted that if you are suddenly transported to an altitude above 7,000 meters, you will die within 10 or 15 minutes," he said.
Being that high up is roughly equal to around 32,000 feet, and that’s even lower than the height Wisneirska had reached! The oxygen up that high only has a quarter the level of oxygen that we human beings typically breathe in. It’s truly astonishing that Ewa made it out to see another day.
The Thing That Saved Her Life
So, how exactly did Ewa manage to survive being trusted at a height greater than that of Mount Everest, which is known as the death zone by mountaineers? Wisnierska's body couldn’t withstand the cold and eventually, she passed out, but what might have truly saved her was experiencing hypothermia.
Undergoing hypothermia causes the body to slow down the metabolism process, meaning the body needs less oxygen to survive. Essentially Ewa didn't need as much oxygen as she typically does, so she was able to pull through and live because she was at a high altitude that offered her barely any oxygen.
One of the Lucky Few
As word spread of Wisnierska’s remarkable story, many individuals started to give her the nickname of “the luckiest woman in the world,” because of how she was able to escape death. But unfortunately, another paraglider in the same situation wasn’t as lucky.
During the same training flight as Ewa, there was one other paraglider named He Zhongpin. Unfortunately, the 42-year-old Chinese paraglider faced the same brutal storm she did, and tragically, he did not survive. His body was discovered the following day.
Never Giving Up
The sad tragedy and the horrifying experience Ewa went through only made her stronger than she was before. And while for some, such a traumatic event would leave them scared to paraglide again, Ewa felt the complete opposite! She explained to The Age, “Flying is too fantastic to stop because of an accident!”
Wisnierska emphasized again to BR Special, “I cannot give up.” Following the accident, Ewa had bought herself a new glider to use, but she actually considering holding onto the one she used during the harrowing accident. Because at the end of the day, that glider was almost like her good luck charm!