Failure is Only Final if You Quit


Life teaches many lessons.

Yesterday, I was reminded in real time of something my maternal grandmother used to tell me when I was a child. She said that there is always a solution to any problem if you look for it hard enough.

On Sunday, my eldest son wanted to get some aerial video shots of the sun going down over the mountains for a project on which he is working. He brought his expensive drone up Sunday afternoon and we drove up to Deer Valley, hoping State Highway 224 over Guardsman Pass might be open (it runs behind the highest accessible peaks around Park City and more or less sits on the county line between Summit and Wasatch counties but is closed in the winter due to the snow).

We launched from the bed of my pickup and for about 20 minutes things were going great. He was getting good video; the sun was setting over the Wasatch Back and we were about to wrap up. He was manually flying it and was about to push the auto-return button for the drone, but before he could let it take over, it proceeded to fly into a blue spruce tree about 70 feet off the ground and got stuck. It flew perfectly in between two limbs, so I guess the anti-collision software didn’t register the limbs and saw the trunk as an obstacle – but by the time it tried to evade the trunk, one of the rotors caught a limb and it crash landed tight against the trunk and shut down. We tried to wake it up, hoping we could spin the rotors just enough to knock it loose, but it was firmly wedged in.

We had to leave it overnight as we made plans for a rescue.

The tree was off the road and down a pretty steep grade that had collected a lot of snow from the storms and the snowplows. It was about 100 feet or so off the road, so we could not even rent anything that could reach it from the road itself. The tree is about 2 and a half feet in diameter at the base and on private property, so a chainsaw was out. Over Sunday night, we discussed a few initial options.

Option 1: Climbing the tree. Not possible – at least with the meager gear we have. The lower limb on the tree grew out a few inches and immediately turned down toward the base – I assumed in response to the face the tree used to be in a more dense stand of evergreens and away scarred a high snow load due to the slope it was on. Navigating them in a free climb was virtually impossible.

Option 2: PVC pipe – we journeyed to Home Depot at 7 am on Monday, procuring 70 feet of PVC. Reaching the objective and pushing through the melting an unstable waist deep snow, we assembled the pipe but quickly found out that accurately threading the 70 feet of pipe through the maze of limbs was an impossibility. We needed the pipe to be flexible enough to bend around the limbs but we had no way to control our aim from the base of the tree. We were able to overcome part of the distance to the drone by leaning a 24-foot extension ladder from the grade above the tree to the trunk but were limited by the lower limbs. We declared total mission failure around 10 am.

Option 3: Went to Walmart and procured a slingshot, some lead bullet weights and 150 yards of 50-pound test fishing line. We also rigged a roll of nylon twin with some heavier weights, the idea being that we could either throw or shoot the lighter lines over the target limb and use them to pull up a heavier rope to shake the limb violently enough to free the drone. After about an hour and a half, we gave up on being able to get the lines over the limb and back to the ground but did succeed in getting both lines tangled up, on in a limb in another tree – but running across the target limb and by son finally got the nylon line wrapped on another limb adjacent to the drone. For about 20 minutes we gently swayed the limb, but the drone was too close to the trunk to move. Then we decided to go medieval on it and started romping on both lines. Just before mine broke, the drone started to move. My son kept on until his line wore through but as it did, the drone flipped out, the battery ejected and the drone was impaled on a limb that went inside the now empty battery cavity – but it did drop about 15 feet, so a small victory was achieved.

But we were frustrated, initially having no luck in lassoing the new limb and when we finally did at about 3:45 PM, the drone was so stuck, no amount of shaking would free it. We decided to go eat dinner, rethink and come back Tuesday to try again with some other method – not knowing at the time what that would be. We were still stuck about 50 plus feet up and even more solidly so than before.

After getting home, we called around to try to find anyone who had a 50-foot fiberglass extension pole. Got no help from the local fire department or electric people. No rental people had anything longer than 30 feet. We did find an arborist who had some suggestions but given the terrain, none were feasible.

As we were thinking before dinner, we assessed what we needed – we needed something that was stiff enough to stand erect at 50 feet but flexible enough to flex in between limbs to get at the position of the drone. Then we inventoried what we had – we had a 23 foot extension pole, we had Gorilla tape and rummaging through the storage lockers in the garage, we three sets of old downhill ski poles plus one pair of cross country poles. Made of aluminum tubes and tapered, the poles offered a possible Option 4 solution. We removed the handles and the bails and the poles perfectly nested inside each other, giving us about another 26 feet (less the two we needed to use to tape to the extension pole.

We pre-assembled the contraption in the driveway and stood it up – the ski poles flexed and arced but then stood straight up. Now we could reach up to about 55 feet with a stiff base but a flexible upper section that had a chance to reach into the gap between the upper limbs. So, we disassembled it, loaded in in the truck and headed up the mountain.

On arrival, we packed it down the snowbank and assembled it, lined it up with the side of the tree where the drone was stuck, and we stood it up. The ski pole top section arched in a big curve and as the bottom section approached vertical, the upper section started to swing up into a vertical position – but the stored energy causes to arch forward like a giant wasp stinger toward the tree and right into the space just below the drone! Seeing this, I pushed the bottom section forward and arrested any rebound against the tree and blessed by pure dumb luck, the point of the top ski pole was aimed directly at the battery cavity of the drone and about a foot below it – I lifted up and snagged the drone. It was stuck so solidly on the limb that I had to push it up another two feet to free it – but it came loose and after hitting several limbs on the way down, made a 4 point landing on its feet in the snow at the base of the tree – totally unharmed. The entire on-site process took about 20 minutes.

As we were driving home, with the drone safely in its padded case – and after we worked on the rescue for over 12 hours, my son looked at me and said, “I wish we had thought of that earlier and we wouldn’t have wasted the day trying to get it down.” I looked over at him and said, “We didn’t waste any time. If we had not got it to drop that first 15 feet, we never would have been able to reach it with our makeshift rescue pole. That little bit of progress that seemed to be a failure was actually critical to our eventual success.”

If you stuck through this entire long story, you know what I am talking about. If you give up when things are difficult and after you seem to fail multiple times, you will not achieve your goals. You never know how those little “failures” will get you the critical 15 feet closer that makes getting down the other 50 feet to success possible.

Adapt, adjust and overcome. Failure is only final if you quit.

2 thoughts on “Failure is Only Final if You Quit

  1. Ah, great minds!
    A good part of my life spent teaching software design to new students.
    The most important lessons I taught was the ABCDE of design.
    Whenever a problem occurred try A.
    When A doesn’t solve the problem use what part of A did work and add B.
    If B fails try C…D ad nauseam, thus ABCDE.
    Complex problem, simple executions(s).

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