Ewa Wisnierska is a champion German paraglider. But she never expected to scale the heights she did over eastern Australia.
She was on a practice run when the updraft from a thunderstorm pulled her all the way from 2,000 feet to 32,000.
That's 6 miles up -- cruising altitude for most jetliners. Their cabins are pressurized to protect passengers from air that is only about a third as dense as it is at sea level. They're also insulated to protect passengers from temperatures that usually reach 50 degrees below zero.
Nearly an Hour in the Air
"The glider kept climbing, climbing, and I couldn't see anything," said Wisnierska, safely on the ground today in Manilla, Australia. "Then it got dark. I was already shaking, all wet, all instruments were frozen. And then I could hear the lightning around me … and I said, 'Oh, no, please, not there.' "
Incredibly, she has little more than a few bruises and mild frostbite -- after nearly an hour, mostly unconscious, tossed around in the upper reaches of the storm.
"I was only praying, 'Please, please, throw me somewhere from this cloud,'" she said.
Paragliders routinely look for updrafts to keep them in the air -- but they rarely go more than a few thousand feet high because the air gets too thin.
A fellow glider died in the storm. He Zhongpin, 42, from China, was apparently killed by the cold and lack of oxygen. His body was found nearly 50 miles from the launch site.
Doctors said passing out may have saved Wisnierska. Like an extreme diver practicing relaxation techniques under water, she was in a state where her body needed less oxygen.
She regained consciousness at an altitude of about 1,500 feet, and landed safely, her flight suit encrusted with ice.
"I could see the earth!" she told Australia's Channel 9. "Wow, like Apollo 13! I could see the earth!"
"Obviously, if the paraglider hadn't stayed the right way up it would have been really, really difficult for her," said Ken Harrison, one of the doctors who came to her rescue. "I also think that it is a kind of medical miracle that her body was able to cope with that."
Wisnierska stayed only an hour in the hospital -- and says she plans to be back in the sky next week.