I had my close call with death last January and thankfully have now recovered enough to write about it, return to work and engage in life. I think I am well enough to fly, but I will not. My growing family, my wife and my future are my priority in life. It’s very sad for me but I’m alive and have brain function that can detect sadness, so that’s very good!
I was a very keen, safety-conscious pilot with thirty-six hours of newly fledged Intermediate-rated hang gliding and over a hundred launches, from hills (both inland and on the coast) to car tows, in fifteen different locations.
On the day of the close call, I launched well and ridge-soared and thermalled for about an hour at Mount Borah. The lift was fairly poor and the air full of turbulence; so I elected to fly towards my previously selected ‘bomb-out’ zone. As I was coming in for my final approach, I had variable geometry (VG) on full (wing trimmed fast), was flying with good control and what I thought was adequate airspeed.
However, at about ten metres above ground level, the right wing suddenly went up. I tried to regain control of the glider by weight shifting to the right, but I think the left wing stalled, the left wing tip hit the ground, and very rapidly, so did I.
The next accounts are from conversations with my buddies, John Spieker and Peter Schwenderling, and from watching the disturbing GoPro footage we were taking.
I was knocked unconscious for about ten minutes. My buddy arrived and started basic first aid. He immediately used his GPS messenger to call for emergency help, carefully removed my helmet and lifted the damaged Sting 3 off me.
I had only visible superficial injuries, but as I regained some level of consciousness I wasn’t making much sense at all.
When the ambulance arrived I was thoroughly assessed, had a ‘stiffneck’ collar carefully applied, and as my consciousness level was fluctuating and my ability to speak sensibly was poor they decided to take me to Tamworth Hospital.
A CT scan ruled out skull fracture and major brain bleeding, but I was at serious risk of a brain injury and subsequent deterioration, so I was admitted for observation.
The ambulance officers had had useful access to information on my personal details and health history, partly from my buddies but mainly from a detailed, laminated checklist that I had recently prepared, both to assist in pre-flight checking and also with extraction, deterioration or inability to speak following a severe accident. Odd that it was needed on its debut.
I had seen a YouTube video on this checklist method and I consider it a simple, but potentially very beneficial thing to have, either on your person or attached to the nose of the hang glider. Perhaps it should become a must-have on all aircraft, with a default place for police or ambulance officers to find it?
The ambulance officer who had initially treated me and then came with me to the airport two weeks later for a transfer to Toowoomba told me it had been very helpful because they instantly had my name, date of birth, blood type, medical/surgical history, allergies, medications, emergency contacts and address. This meant that they could tailor their questioning to me and verify whether I was answering correctly, which I evidently wasn’t.
I spent another week in the base hospital, where an MRI showed a series of small bleeds in my frontal lobe that had not shown up on the CT.
By this stage I was able to be independent in my daily needs but slept for twenty hours a day. I was very wobbly on my legs and my vision was mostly double and distorted, but I was allowed to go home under the care of my wife.
It took me the next four months to regain my normal consciousness level and sleep pattern. I returned to work five months after the accident.
My flying buddy Pete submitted the Incident details to HGFA (the Hang Gliding Federation of Australia), as he is our club’s safety officer, was the second on scene and the first to recognise that I had crashed.
In conclusion, I increased my survival chances by having a flying buddy who saw something odd, tried to radio me a number of times, and was alerted to something wrong as I normally reply rapidly. My ground buddy also tried to radio me but knew something was wrong as I was not replying at all. The GPS messenger helped. My new and previously undamaged helmet helped. My detailed checklist helped.
I will never know whether the incident was brought on by natural conditions (such as a small but strong thermal or willy-willy); the VG being on too much; my technique, or a combination of all these factors. Whatever the cause, the lesson for all other pilots is FLY SAFE.
* PTT in sleeve and hydration pack on
* Variometer on and altitude correct
* Hook-in and look
* Leg loops, waist and chest straps buckled, zips, chin strap
* Hang check – check; leg loops, waist and chest straps buckled, zips on wing, and on harness, helmet chin strap
* Radio check
* Sunglasses and gloves on
* VG at ‘half ‘or ‘off’
* PIP pins seated
* Camera on
Example of checklist (ideally laminated)
Surgical history (with dates)
Emergency contact details