Dangers of hang gliding


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Dangers of hang gliding

Photo of a broken hang glider descending uder parachute

A broken hang glider descends under parachute. Reprinted courtesy of Ultralight Flying! magazine.

The cover photo by Glider Rider picture editor H. Krause (not to be confused with publisher Tracy H. Knauss) is of Dave Ledford after his wing tumbled seven times following a failed wingover attempt (at Lookout Mountain I think). He was unhurt and his glider, a Moyes Mega II (with crosstube fairings, by the look of it) was largely undamaged. Reprinted courtesy of Ultralight Flying! magazine.

The parachute is stored in a container either on the chest of the harness or, more commonly nowadays, on one side. When you deploy it (should you suffer a misfortune dire enough to need to) the whole rig including the hang glider descends under parachute. You do not ‘jump out’.

A parachute is not guaranteed to save you, however.

The first parachute deployment that I know of in my hang gliding club was that of Peter R when another hang glider collided with his Airwave Magic 4 — the so-called Full Race version — in the late 1980s and severed one side flying wire. The wing folded up and Peter deployed his parachute, landing safely despite having one arm caught between the harness riser (to which the parachute bridle is attached) and another part of the rig. The pilot of the other wing involved also got down safely.

Others were not so lucky. On June 6th (D-Day) 1994, two prominent club members collided while circling in a thermal near cloudbase over Ringwood in Hampshire. Both deployed their emergency parachutes, but both pilots were killed. The opening shock combined with his forward momentum and position caused one pilot to be thrown out through the front of his harness. I assume that the possibility of such an occurrence had not been considered at the time, or if it had, it was dismissed as highly unlikely, but harness design standards were changed as a result. According to others who studied the records, the other pilot’s combination of broken wing and parachute apparently caused the chute to deflate and re-inflate in cycles, with consequent large changes in descent rate. He hit the ground during a rapid descent phase and also, as far as I know, he hit horizontally, possibly indicating that he had been knocked unconscious (presumably after deploying the parachute).

The only other fatalities I know of on our club sites likely could not have been prevented by deploying a parachute. Adam J drowned when he ditched in the sea off Ringstead in 1983 for reasons unknown. Another fatality was caused by pitch instability that resulted in a luffing dive at Winklebury (just along from better known Monk’s Down) in the late 1980s or early 1990s. As far as I know, it happened too fast and too low for a parachute to be deployed. That was long after the possibility of the luffing dive was thought to have been eradicated by devices such as reflex bridles and tip sticks. The glider type in question was modified in consequence.

That tally excludes club members killed when flying outside our region, such as when Dave S, our main paragliding instructor, was killed in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, in 1993. It also excludes the several serious injuries sustained by club members over the years, including the paraglider crash in 2014, caused by a brief period of extreme turbulence at low level, in which the pilot’s left arm was almost severed. (The same meteorological phenomenon that day–which I feel we have not understood–killed a paraglider pilot flying a hill 50 miles away.)

Occasionally a man would look coldly at the binary proposition he was now confronting every day–Right Stuff/Death–and decide it wasn’t worth it and voluntarily shift over to transports or reconnaissance or whatever. And his comrades would wonder, for a day or so, what evil virus had invaded his soul…as they left him behind.

— Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1979

On the flatlands of Norfolk, England, we used a diesel winch and tow line on a reel to haul hang gliders into the air in hopes of encountering a thermal after releasing at 2,000 feet above the field. On a flying weekend there in 1990 we were pleased that one experienced and able pilot, who had earlier voiced doubts about continuing with hang gliding, demonstrated great skill and flying ability, resulting in a series of good flights. We were astonished when, that evening, he announced that he was turning in his wings (or hanging up his helmet) and his glider and equipment were, therefore, for sale. He had carried out that cold calculation that Tom Wolfe describes and concluded that it was too dangerous.

Internal links

Emergency parachute manuals in Technical writing and programming

Hang gliding 1977 to 1979

Hang gliding equipment