Appliance of statistics


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Appliance of statistics

Progress in hang glider technology is only half the story. In 1975 it became clear that pilots were making easily avoidable mistakes that were sometimes fatal. The parents of the Wills family that created the Wills Wing hang glider manufacturer had already had one son killed. Young Eric attempted to teach himself 360 degree turns when his two older brothers Chris, the first US champion, and Bob, the reigning champion, were away. Eric ran out of room and collided with the hillside.

In preparation for the meeting I had reduced all the known fatal accidents for the past six months (August to February) to the little pink 3″ x 5″ cards we will use for the data bank.

— Robert V. Wills, chairman of the USHGA accident review board, in The Intermediate Syndrome: A Dangerous Confidence, in the USHGA magazine Ground Skimmer, March 1975.

We still use the term intermediate syndrome. However, while the ‘data bank’ was later computerised, we struggled to communicate and integrate incident data across national boundaries, even among English-speaking nations, until after the turn of the century. Indeed, more than 40 years on from 1975, we still find it hard to persuade pilots to complete incident report forms, which are nowadays available online.

Hang gliding in 'Sky Riders,' 1976

One of the black Wills Wing Swallowtails of the summer of 1975

Our family was fortunate enough to attend the British national competition in Mere, [Wiltshire], England this past August and there were no serious injury accidents in four days of flying by hundreds of flyers. …somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people came to watch the meet over a hundred miles from London, with marginal wind and only a 200′ hill, but with major sponsorship and lively commentary.

— Robert V. Wills in Ground Skimmer, October 1975

Accident reporting was not particularly efficient in 1975, despite Wills’ efforts, which included a network of hang glider pilots sending in summaries from several countries and his own perusing of hang gliding magazines from around the world. An accident he missed on this occasion was a standard Rogallo that stalled too high on final approach to the hot and dusty landing field. It dived automatically in recovering from the stall and it was flying almost horizontally, but too fast for a safe landing, when the control frame base tube made contact with the ground. I was nearby and I ran towards the crash, hoping that somebody else would get there first, which they did. (Fortunately, a qualified first aider.) The pilot’s right wrist was badly broken.