My Hang Gliding Accident

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

A couple of days ago, I tweeted about a major crash I had during my hang gliding lesson. People have been asking me about it, so here’s what happened.

I was out on the training hill in Fishtrap. It was my fourth lesson, and things had been progressing well, so my instructor wanted to put me on a wing I had never flown before. It was supposed to be easier to steer (which sort of translates into, “slightly harder to control”).

My first flight was extremely short. I managed to get no more than about 10 feet in the air before quickly landing and being dragged for several feet (the control bar has wheels on it for just that purpose). These kinds of landing aren’t scary; they’re mostly just annoying and disappointing. My instructor gave me some pointers, and we dragged the glider back up the hill to try again.

My second flight started out much better. Although the same conditions that grounded me on the first flight appeared again, I flared, which popped the wing up and got me some air. I managed to get up to about 20 to 25 feet, and at that point, the wind shifted on me, and instead of flying into the wind, it was now coming at me from my left. This lifted the left side of the wing, which caused me to start moving to the right.

The correct response here would have been to steer to the left, thereby pointing the nose into the wind again. Trouble is, I was quickly losing altitude. I flared again to try to get more air, which would give me more time to correct. Unfortunately, that was the absolute wrong thing to do.

When the wing isn’t level, flaring causes the lower half of the wing to stall, which slows it down. The upper half of the wing now has no drag on it, causing it to speed up. The net affect is that the upper part of the wing is moving significantly faster than the lower part, and the wing goes into a spiral. At least, it would have, but I was only about 10 feet off of the ground at this point.

The right side of the wing hit first. I could hear the cheatgrass crunch as the wing dragged across the brush. I watched the ground speeding toward my face, and I gripped the control bar tightly as I braced for impact. Suddenly, my right hand moved forward as the control bar bent and gave way. Before I knew it, I had come to a stop.

The first thing I felt was the pain in my knee, but my thoughts were of the control bar. “Damn it,” I thought, “I broke his hang glider.” As I hung from the wing, suspended inches above the ground, I thought about what to do next. There was no doubt that my instructor was on his way over, and usually the very first thing you do is unclip your harness from the wing. As I thought about how to do that, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to stand up without some help. As I hung there waiting, I thought about my head and realized that it didn’t hurt at all. It’s a good thing you wear a helmet when you go hang gliding; I’ve hit my head even harder on past landings and been just fine.

My instructor came running up and righted the wing. He noticed the control bar and commented on it. I apologized, but he wasn’t mad. “That happens,” he said. If anything, he was a little disappointed in himself for not bringing a spare control bar. “If you’re up to it, we can set up the other glider and keep going,” he said. I told him that although I was fine overall and didn’t think I needed medical attention, I also didn’t think I could walk properly, which proved to be the case. I limped back to the staging area and did my best to help him break down the glider, and then he took me home.

After icing my knee and taking it easy, I feel much better and expect to be back at 100% within several days.

When I tell people that I had a hang gliding accident, their heads are immediately filled with images of the wing crashing into the ground or some horrible thing like that. Although I did technically crash from the air, it wasn’t a 70 mph crash, and I managed to walk – well, limp – away with only minor injuries.

This sort of thing isn’t evidence that hang gliding is dangerous; you have to keep in mind that what happened to my knee was nothing more than a sports injury. I would argue that hang gliding is safer than many other sports, such as football. In football, you’re almost guaranteed to get beat up several times per game. In hang gliding, you shouldn’t get hurt at all unless something goes wrong.

Even if something goes wrong, there are safety measures. For starters, you’re wearing a helmet, and as I said before, it really does help. The glider has crumple zones just like a car to absorb the force of a crash, so although I broke the glider, it wasn’t that big of a deal – the glider was just doing its job. In fact, my instructor said he probably would have broken both control bars had he been in the situation (both, because he would have crashed while flying level). For high-altitude flights, you actually wear a parachute; if something goes wrong, you just ditch the glider and float down to safety.

My point is that people assume the worst when they hear “hang glider accident,” and that’s not really an appropriate response. The problem is that hang gliding accidents only get reported when they’re particularly devastating (like the guy who died recently, or the daring Coast Guard rescue of a hang glider pilot who crashed into the ocean). These are sensationalized accounts where something has gone horribly wrong. Keep in mind that there are thousands of successful flights happening all over the world every single day.

Often times, these “accidents” are caused by bad equipment (hang glider technology has come a long way in the past 20 years, and people flying old wings are really taking unnecessary risks), over-zealous pilots, or simple ignorance. Sometimes there are causes that are beyond the pilots’ control, but most of the crashes can be chalked up to human error. Like any sport, a few idiots can make things tough for everyone else, but if you keep a level head and strive to be safe, hang gliding can be a safe, enjoyable sport.

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1 Comment

  1. Mara

    Glad it wasn’t serious and you’re ok.

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