Not current in current conditions

13 Aug

“Not current in current conditions”. This was Haver’s assessment of the fundamental reason for the mishap I suffered atop Mt. Swansea during the 31st Annual Lakeside event. And I know he’s right.

I made the decision to fly my hang glider during the event because I’m the most current with it. I haven’t flown a paraglider in a year. So I got my new (to me) Wills Wings U2 helicoptered up to the summit and then hiked up with my harness. It looked like a bit of a wait to fly since the wind was south, and no other HG pilots had arrived yet. But all the PG pilots were launching off the S slope, and I expressed to Max Fanderl at one point that I wish I’d brought my PG up so I could take a little flight before flying my HG. He immediately offered me the opportunity to fly one of his.

Now, Max’s spare PG was the one he recently flew in the Trans-Alps comp, and it was nearly new. It was a DHV 1-2 rated wing, and while it was a medium, Max said he thought it was small for him (good thing since Max weighs quite a bit more than me). He helped me pull it out of the bag and showed me a few details, then he took off on a tandem flight. I got in line to launch.

By the time it got to be my turn, some time had passed, as there were 15 pilots ahead of me. I was nearly the last to launch. After I flubbed a feeble forward-launch attempt, the wind suddenly increased, so a rearward launch was in order. This was the beginning of the chain of events that led to the accident.

The technique I’ve used for rear-launching my UP Soul (DHV 2 wing from 1997), has been to leave the brakes in their keepers while pulling up the wing. I grab them after I spin around. This isn’t felt to be a good style by many pilots, since there’s an instant during the launch when I have no brake control and no hands on the risers either (I’m effectively towing the glider by the risers with my harness while running backwards). It’s been suggested to me that I learn the crossed-hands technique, or some variant thereof (hands in correct brake loops while launching, so that no switch is required during the spin around). The problem is that I’m not very skilled in this technique… and I hadn’t flown in a year.

This is the point where I should have backed off launch and waited for a lull. There was no reason for me to have to fly off, since I had my hang glider there waiting to be used. Instead, I allowed myself to feel pressured to get off launch, since there were a few other pilots waiting to go. Mike Waddington asked if I wanted him to ballast me, but I waved him off. Big mistake.

A couple of people helped lay the wing out in a U-shape, but I could tell that the tips were going to lift more than the root. I pulled the tips forward, and grabbed only the centre A lines, then pulled up. The wing did come up overhead, but I probably hesitated slightly because of my unfamiliarity with the crossed-hands technique. Suddenly I was lifted up and backwards, and panicked. I tried to drop the wing on the ground, but I wasn’t quick enough. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t directly facing the wing, but rather was facing off to the west, while the wing was pointing SE because the wind was crossing from the L on the S-facing slope (so I’m told by witnesses).

I had been popped up or slid backward 5m, and now the wing was falling over the W-side cliff-edge. I tried to stop my body, but fell over the first edge onto a 45-degree slope. I thought I would be able to stop there, but then the wing pulled me further, and suddenly the scene turned into a nightmare, as I pitched head-first over a 3-5m cliff. I can recall screaming “f%^&*! ” at this point while thinking “this is now turning into a serious accident”. I honestly believed that I was going to break bones or be killed.

I tumbled down the cliff but stopped on the steep slope below, thanks to the lines getting caught on the rocks (two were broken in the impact). Pain shot through my left leg. I heard yelling and people running. Then suddenly two first-aid attendants were beside me, telling me to sit down, and asking me whether I could feel my extremities. I recall wondering why they’d be asking me that, but I guess it must have been the headfirst fall that lead them to worry about a spinal injury.

When I pulled up my left pant-leg, I saw a nasty gash on my shin bleeding profusely. I was told to apply pressure on it while Mike Waddington pulled the harness off me and took care of the wing. I was able to stand on my left leg without excruciating pain, so I concluded it wasn’t broken. I scrambled up the hill to the summit and sat at a picnic table while the attendants cleaned my wound and bandaged it. They offered to call a helicopter to ferry me down to the hospital, but I declined.

With the major wound stabilised, I was able to sit for a minute. Christine Nid’s hang glider had been damaged in transport up the mountain, so I volunteered to let her fly mine (I had a vague feeling that I should probably not fly, so this was a way of preventing me from making another bad decision). Then I got a helper stick and limped down the mountain to the parking lot, and a ride in a truck to the beach. From there my wife Leslie drove me to the hospital, and after a short wait, a nice doctor put six stitches in my leg and bandaged me up.

What actually hurt the most was the thigh of my right leg, which suffered extensive abrasions (even though the pant leg was undamaged). But later that night, after the freezing and the ibuprofens and the alcohol wore off, my wound began to really ache. It was probably a good thing that I was already on antibiotics (for a hematoma I suffered in a bike-polo incident two weeks earlier, but that’s another story).

Looking back on the incident a couple of days later, it’s clear that pilot error was the cause. As the title of this post indicates, my skills were rusty in the launch conditions I faced. The advice I’d give to pilots is: if you ever start to feel pressured on a launch-site, step aside and take a breather. If you think that a brief time-out will cause you to miss out on launchable conditions, then the conditions were probably too marginal to be safe anyway.

Another observation is that launch conditions can quickly change from being within your skill level to beyond your skill level. My previously good ground-handling skills had decayed to where I was not safe in anything other than light forward-launching breezes. I knew that, but I didn’t back off when winds picked up beyond that level.

The other lesson is that Mt. Swansea is a very unforgiving launch-site. The summit is flanked on all sides by steep cliffs. The launchable surface is very small. If you’re flying a paraglider, you have to have excellent launching skills, because you need to pull up and get off quickly. I am damn lucky I didn’t get popped up another metre or two, or I would have come down on the lee-side cliffs, and the consequences could have been much more serious, not to say possibly fatal. If you are launching at an unforgiving site, you need to be more conservative in the conditions you are launching in.

The best part of the day for me was getting back on the horse, so to speak, borrowing Brett Yeates’ Sky Atis 2 in the evening for a few minutes of kiting practice at the beach (thanks Brett!)… something I should have been practising a few times before my flight attempt! My launch skills were not up to snuff, as chief landing judge Hans Verstraten (Haver) of the 31st Annual Lakeside Splashdown rightly observed.

There are probably a few other participants in the Splashdown who are equally rusty, and only fly once or twice a year. If you are one of those people, do yourself a favour and learn from my mistake. Get out and practice your launches and landings a few times before the next splashdown.

All in all, I’m just happy that I didn’t end up like


this poor pilot!


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