Slash and crash

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image: © iStock Photo | webstuff

Answering nature’s call nearly cost hang glider pilot, Howard Taylor, his life.

On the last day of winter this year, myself and a few other hang glider pilots were enjoying an unexpectedly good flying day at Spring Hill—a Canberra hang gliding and paragliding site. Conditions were perfect for the hang gliders—the underlying wind strength guaranteed we’d stay up, while great thermals let us climb high enough to make out-and-returns into the valley in front of the hill.

I had been flying for well over an hour and had top-landed a couple of times for the practice.

I decided another top-landing was in order as ‘nature was calling’. I top-landed nicely, moved the glider to a position out of the strongest airflow and proceeded to relieve myself. I didn’t detach the harness from the glider and I didn’t get out of the harness—doing either would require a recheck of equipment (a hang check) and I wanted to get up and back into the air quickly. I was wearing an apron style harness—I use this harness quite often as it’s light and fun for ‘gooning’ around in.

I manoeuvred the harness out of the way while peeing and then headed back over to the launch area.

When I relaunched, my weight was immediately pulled over towards the left upright of the control frame and I was fighting with all my strength to keep the glider tracking straight out from the hill.

I realised my left arm was somehow trapped in the harness straps and/or ropes.

I let go of the control frame with my left arm and tried to free it from the tangle. The glider’s left wing pitched up quickly due to a gust coming through at the same time as my release of the control frame. The glider banked sharply, turned back towards the hill and hit boulders just to the right of launch.

I was knocked unconscious and had a few minor cuts and bruises. The glider was destroyed and so was my helmet. Witnesses were surprised that I had nothing broken and could walk around.

Analysis of the footage from the GoPro camera that I had attached to my wing clearly shows that the left harness strap was running over my left shoulder, but it’s supposed to run directly up from the hip to the hang point. This dramatically shortened the left harness strap and resulted in the massive involuntary weight-shift to the left side of the control frame.

Why did this happen? I had been flying for an hour so I knew my equipment was fine. I hadn’t unhooked or detached the harness from the glider for my relief break so I shouldn’t have needed a fresh hang check. What I missed was the possibility that the harness straps and/or ropes had been rerouted during my period on the ground. Had I asked any of the pilots close by on the launch for a fresh hang check or just turned to check the harness straps like I usually do before launching, this incident would have been avoided.

The lesson learnt?

It’s one we already know—check your gear before every launch! Do a hang check if possible—having a second set of eyes run quickly over your gear could save you a lot of pain and money.

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