This pilot was stunned by an inadvertent loop in a hang-glider
The air was just different one week at a Forbes hang-gliding competition a few years back. While this story of a wild ride has a happy ending, sadly not all of the incidents that week ended as well.
With more than 6000 hours flying time, much of which in pointy-nose military jets, I’ve always said I have no need whatsoever to loop my hang-glider. However, the rowdy air at this competition had different intentions.
It was the practice day and I didn’t want to get too tired so I decided to fly about 25 km upwind then practice a final glide back to the airstrip. I was aware it was still the middle of a booming thermic day and I was practicing the final glide to goal at a fairly normal inter-thermal airspeed of about 80–85 kph. For reference, an all-out racing-into-goal airspeed – that might be flown later in the day after thermal strength weakens – would typically be around 120 kph.
I was about 2 km from goal in what felt like perfectly normal air when suddenly the control bar was ripped away from me, with only my fingertips staying in contact with it.
My first sensation was that my nose really hurt. The second thing I became aware of, when I looked over my right shoulder, was seeing my hang-glider underneath me! That snapshot is burned into my memory.
Luckily the hang strap was still tight due to the G-force. I thought, ‘I’m probably going to throw my parachute, but just before I do, you’re supposed to hold the bar tightly near your chest in this situation’.
I regained my grip and smoothly pulled the bar to my chest. As I did so, I became aware there was enough airspeed to maintain the positive G-force through the top of my first ever loop in a hang-glider.
The next snapshot in my memory is of looking over my right shoulder again and seeing the hang-glider in a 90-degree pure vertical dive. I remember thinking the glider was probably going to break (due to excess speed or G) and I’ll throw my parachute, but just before I do, I’ll see if I can modulate the airspeed vs. G onset in the last quarter of the loop.
The second thing I became aware of, when I looked over my right shoulder, was seeing my hang-glider underneath me!
Surprisingly, with a few small control inputs in the last quarter of the loop, the glider was fairly easy to control without over speeding or over stressing.
After recovering to a normal flying attitude, I estimated I was at about 600 feet AGL. I touched my nose and got a glove covered in blood. It turns out the control bar had given my nose a good whack. My next thought was to the state of the glider.
I looked at the left wing and was relieved to see everything looked fine. I looked at the right wing and it was fluttering quite badly. Looking further aft, I noticed that four of the batons were sticking out of the back of the wing. Seeing this, I again thought, ‘I’m probably going to throw my parachute, but just before I do … I’ve got just enough height for a quick controllability check’.
A controllability check is a well-established and practiced procedure in military aviation where there are a lot more things that can cause structural issues than in civilian aviation. It basically involves slowly decelerating to the fastest speed at which a safe landing can be made and assessing controllability at that speed. Once this is determined to be okay, you fly the approach at a slightly faster speed until just before touchdown.
I unzipped my harness and slowed the glider to trim speed, finding it was still controllable. That was still going to be a fairly fast landing, but I reasoned I could at least start running at that speed and it wouldn’t end too badly. I decided I wouldn’t flare, as I hadn’t assessed controllability below trim speed. I flew the approach just a tad above trim speed, started running at trim without flaring and managed to stop in an ‘acceptable’ fashion.
One loop was enough. Here’s hoping for many more seasons of ‘right side up’ hang gliding competitions!
Lessons learnt: As a friend rightly pointed out, there were ‘dragons’ in the sky on that unusual Forbes week. However, this incident certainly did lead to a healthy respect for not overdoing final glide speeds in thermic conditions. Thinking back, there have been plenty of times I did perform final glides low to the ground at speeds which did not respect conditions at that time of day. But after this incident, I’ve been much more cognisant of keeping the high-speed stuff for late-in-the-day final glides only.