Dangers of hang gliding

Home (contents) Hang gliding Dangers of hang gliding

Dangers of hang gliding

Then in a split second the ‘G’ force went to zero and I was being thrown through space. At least I could move my arms and hold my head up. I reached for the parachute handle.

— Adam Parer describing his hang glider tumble in 2009

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 Chattanooga, Tennessee). He was unhurt and his glider, a Moyes Mega II (with crosstube fairings, by the look of it) was largely undamaged. Film of this occurrence in 1979 is included in Bill Liscomb’s 2008 documentary Big Blue Sky (linked farther down).

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’.

The chute bridle line rubbed so violently on one of the flying wires that the bridle was severed as if a hot knife had cut it. The chute floated away into space. The glider flipped right side up and the pilot landed at Janie’s ranch.

— George Worthington writing in Hang Gliding, August 1979, about a competition in the Owens Valley. Worthington, then in his sixties, was a former US Navy pilot who gained a succession of hang gliding world records.

Art based on a photo by Bettina Gray of Chris Arai's wing after hitting a fence short of Janie's Ranch in the Owens valley

Art based on a photo by Bettina Gray of Chris Arai’s wing after hitting a fence short of Janie’s Ranch in the Owens valley in about 1980

Art based on a photo by A.J. Kulhavy of John Duffy and Ian Huss after a mid-air collision in 1984

Art based on a photo by A.J. Kulhavy of John Duffy and Ian Huss after a mid-air collision in 1984 (no larger image available)

I witnessed a mid-air collision in 2000, which resulted only in two damaged gliders. See My flying 2000 to 2003.

A leading British pilot was sucked into cloud in a competition in France in 1988. The cloud prevented him from seeing the horizon. As a result, he had no visual reference by which to ascertain his orientation…

I felt all my weight on my wrists, hand standing on the bottom bar. Then there was a massive acceleration and then complete silence for a second. I was still straight and level in the control frame when the speed bar was ripped from my hands.

— Len Hull writing in the BHGA magazine Wings, October 1988. He deployed his parachute and was largely uninjured.

A parachute is not guaranteed to save you.

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, breaking a control frame down-tube, cross-tube, and leading edge. 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.

Included in the list of damaged items is this, to which we should have
paid more attention:

Torn harness where the reinforcing straps from the hang point had been spread by the tensioning of the opening shock.

— Peter R, A short XC — on a wing and a chute, Wings magazine, July 1987

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 about 1989. 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.)

Art based on a photo by Betty Pfeiffer of Pete Lehmann descending under parachute

Art based on a photo by Betty Pfeiffer of Pete Lehmann descending under parachute

In this photo that accompanied an article by parachute maker Betty Pfeiffer in Hang Gliding, June 1995, aviation author Pete Lehmann is about to touch down after being tumbled by turbulence during a competition in Australia. The discoloration in the center marks the presence of a dust devil. After impact, Lehmann and his broken glider were dragged 100 yards until stopped by the windmill on the right. He was not injured.

If you were going to stay on the cutting edge, if you were going to be competitive, if you were going to venture into those unflown spaces, you took those risks. A lot of good pilots and nice people paid for that with their lives. And that is probably the greatest sorrow that I carry.

— W.A. Roeker speaking in the documentary Big Blue Sky, 2008, by Bill Liscomb (linked farther down)

Psychology of a hang gliding accident, 1981

Psychology of an accident, 1981

In 1981, I impacted the hillside at Steyning in Sussex hard enough to knock myself out and sustain a crushed vertebra, which I can still feel nearly 40 years later in 2019.

For another of my crashes sub-optimal landings, see Consciousness explained in My flying 1996 and 1997.

Hang glider pilot hang check at Ager in1993

Hang check at Ager, northern Spain, in 1993

Bodged hang straps, typically to adjust for hang height, and other problems connecting the harness to the glider or securing the pilot to the harness have killed several people. One whom I knew slightly in the early 1980s, an army captain, had set up the British forces hang gliding school in Wales.

On an expedition to Lanzarote, Canary Islands, in the early 1990s I carried out a full hang check at Famara with another pilot hauling down on my front wires so I could be lifted off the ground (he was being very quiet) and I found myself lying on the dirt. “Let that be a lesson,” I think he said. The next day, it happened again!

Aerial photo of hang glider launch at Famara, Lanzarote

Aerial photo of hang glider launch at Famara, Lanzarote

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 power 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

Appliance of statistics

Dust off in My flying 2006 to 2009

Emergency parachute manuals in Technical writing and programming

Hang gliding equipment

Pancho villa in My flying 2004 and 2005 for my experience of dehydration in Spain in 2004

Low level hell — crowding at Bell Hill in 2014

Spring thermals, a crash at Monk’s Down, southern England, in 1975

External links

Cheating Death in high times, Saturday, November 28, 2009 — an account by Adam Parer of his hang glider tumble, from which I quote at the top of this page

Dave Ledford tumbles and deploys his emergency parachute in 1979 at Chattanooga, Tennessee: Big Blue Sky, 2008, by Bill Liscomb on YouTube starting at 1 hour, 6 minutes, 50 seconds, Rich Piccirilli narrating

Hang Gliding / Death Sport in Big Blue Sky, 2008, by Bill Liscomb on YouTube starting at 59 minutes 42 seconds, W.A. Roeker and Chris Wills speaking

Why Can’t We Get A Handle On This Safety Thing by Mike Meier of Wills Wing, who received the Jack Northrop award for the most outstanding technical paper presented at the 45th Annual West Coast Symposium of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. The paper was derived from Mike’s article originally published in Hang Gliding magazine.