By Jerry Keller, co-chair, Accident Review Committee
Originally published in USHPA Pilot, May/June 2020
The goal of the USHPA Accident Review Committee is to investigate all reported accidents to identify common issues and report these findings to the flying community. All details of an accident may not be fully disclosed to us, and we must use our best judgment to discern the possible root cause.
Fatalities and Serious Injury Accidents
There were four reported hang gliding fatalities and three serious injuries during the 2019 season. Though it does little to ease the pain of these events, we have tried to capture some of the details about these accidents so we, as a community, can reflect on our flying and decision making. This report is in honor of these pilots, and we believe they would want us to review what happened to improve safety. These accidents are unique and uncommon but could happen to any pilot—it comes down to how we approach the sport, manage the risk, and make decisions.
On a flight at a coastal site, an H4 pilot was soaring down the ridge in moderate to light wind conditions. During the flight, they attempted to make a crossing along a long section of the ridge that did not have any beach for emergency landing. The pilot was caught in light conditions, sank out, and was unable to make it back to a suitable landing area.They were forced to ditch into the surf—it was reported that they released from their harness prior to landing in the water but unfortunately drowned.
This accident highlights the risk of flying over areas without an emergency landing. While conditions may be good one moment to make a crossing, it’s possible to get caught on a down cycle and be left with no safe escape. This pilot had an advanced rating and familiarity with this site but was not able to use this experience to get out of a dangerous situation. The decision to continue into a phase of flight that leaves no suitable emergency landing option is very risky. Doing so requires betting that skill sets and weather will allow a safe transit—sometimes we get lucky and make it, but sometimes luck is not on our side.
During an inland mountain flight, an H2 pilot was flying in light/switchy conditions. A witness in the LZ said the pilot was making a pass across the mountain about 25 feet above the terrain, got slow, stalled, and turned into the ground. The pilot was seriously injured and airlifted out—they passed away a few days later. The glider had a broken keel, leading edge, and down tubes, and the VG was set at 3⁄4. It was reported that the pilot was using a relatively new glider, with this flight being their sixth flight on it. Another pilot who rode to the top with them said that they were remarking that the glider was difficult to turn, and they had to “force it with J-turns.” The pilot had an H2 rating for many years but was flying H3 sites. The glider was H3 rated, 135 square feet, and was reported as looking small for the pilot’s size. This accident appears to have been a stall spin without enough altitude to recover.
Pilots need to be very cautious when flying low to the ground, especially in the mountains. Wind and turbulence can change as you get closer to ridges, ravines, and trees, and there may not be enough altitude to recover from an unexpected stall. In light, switchy conditions, flying low and slow to stay in lift can be risky if you don’t know your glider or if you might not have the skill to recognize when you’re approaching a stall. When flying a new glider, it's important to get some initial flights from a safe altitude in mild conditions so you understand the glider's behavior in launch, turns, slow flight, stalls, and the landing phases of flight. If something does not feel right, stop flying until you can correct the issue. A good approach is to contact the manufacturer and/or a flight instructor familiar with the wing for advice on the issue. A new or more advanced wing may not fly like your last glider. Some Mylar wings can fly more stiffly than Dacron and you may need to adjust your flying technique to handle this change. All wings have an optimum weight range; flying outside this range can impact how the wing handles. In general, if you’re heavy for the wing, you may experience a higher stall speed and possibly a more abrupt stall than on your last glider. On another note, if you’re selling a glider, make sure the pilot purchasing it is rated for the wing and has the experience to handle it.
In the third accident, a student pilot, who had been training for over a year, was practicing launches and landings under instructor supervision at an established training site. The day before, the instructor had stopped flights because the student had been flying too slowly while conducting a training session on speed to fly. On the day of the accident, the student was working on speed to fly while on the radio with their instructor. Winds were 4-6 mph to light and variable. No thermals were rolling through at the time of the accident. The student launched and transitioned to flying well but began to slow down. The instructor advised them to speed up, but the student was not responsive to the radioed instructions. Eventually, the student stalled the glider about 20 feet AGL, resulting in a fatal collision with the ground. It may be that the pilot suffered a medical event that led them to be unresponsive to their instructor’s prompting for more speed, but we really do not know.
The fourth accident occurred during a boat tow on a tandem flight. At approximately 150 feet, the tow line drogue chute inadvertently deployed while still under tow, and the glider took a steep diving turn into the water. While it’s not clear exactly what happened, it is speculated that either the drogue chute deployment allowed slack in the tow line, causing a stall, or the line wrapped around a part of the airframe causing the hard turn into the water. The passenger reported that the pilot was trying to free something just before the steep turn into the water. The pilot was unconscious after impact and drowned; the passenger did not suffer any injuries.
Given the low altitude, the pilot had very limited time to correct the situation. Investigation into this accident revealed several other circumstances that contributed to this accident. The pilot was a very experienced H4, but they were not rated for tandems. It was also reported that the pilot had been drinking prior to the accident, the pilot did not have an emergency chute, neither the pilot nor the passenger was wearing a helmet, and the pilot did not have a hook knife in their harness. Additionally, the pilot decided to tow when winds were nil or light downwind, the tow line rig and boat were considered substandard for the type of towing being conducted, the drogue chute deployment bag was homemade, and the tow operator was not a pilot and had only done about 10 tows, none of which were tandem. The passenger purchased the flight on Groupon and had no experience at all, and the passenger was considered heavy for a tandem. It appears this accident was avoidable, and it goes without saying that we need to be rated/ qualified for tandem tow flights, have proper high-standard tow equipment and qualified tow operators, and should not be drinking alcohol before flying. When the public come to us for a flight experience of a lifetime, they are putting their safety in our hands, and we have to take this responsibility very seriously and professionally.
After a two-hour soaring flight at an eastern mountain site, an H5 rated pilot in a topless glider made an approach to the LZ. The conditions were light, switchy, and very hot. This site has a somewhat restricted landing field and sometimes requires S-turns on the downwind end to lose altitude. A witness on the ground reported that the pilot was executing some S-turns but had drifted forward enough that they would overshoot the LZ. The pilot had to make a landing in a small pasture nearby, and on the approach, low to the ground, it was observed that they dragged their feet, possibly to help slow the glider down. The glider's base tube hit the ground, and the glider nosed in at a high speed. The pilot suffered a serious head injury.
The witness was also flying with the pilot and landed just before; they were in radio communications during the flight but mentioned that the pilot did not respond during the S-turn maneuvers, which seemed odd and not typical of this pilot. This lack of communication suggests the possibility of an in-flight medical issue. This is a very puzzling case with a very experienced pilot; though they may have allowed themselves to drift forward during the S-turns, this seems very unlikely knowing their skill level. The pilot did not have any known medical issues. One note of caution, when using S-turns to burn altitude on approach to a restricted LZ, is to be very cautious of drifting forward; this can put you too far ahead into the LZ approach, and you could end up overshooting.
A low-time H3 pilot flying an intermediate glider at a coastal site in conditions described as mellow got caught in sea fog/low clouds. They became disoriented due to lack of visual with the ground and subsequently drifted far back behind the ridge and hit a building. The pilot sustained a broken jaw and wrist from the impact. There was some damage to the building. Pilots need to constantly be aware of weather and potentially changing conditions, especially in coastal areas. In addition to it being illegal to fly into clouds, getting caught in clouds is a very hazardous situation with potential for vertigo along with reduced or no visual reference to the ground and structures. Coastal areas can have low cloud/fog layers occur rapidly when conditions permit. Pilots need to understand the conditions that are conducive to the formation of fog and recognize the early warning signs when flying, or stay on the ground.
A pilot flying a small inland ridge went cross country at an urban site that does not offer a lot of good landing options. The pilot decided to land in a field (approximately 300 yards long) near a parking lot. Due to power lines near the field, they had to make a high approach. The pilot reported flaring high to avoid overshooting the field, resulting in a stall approximately 20 feet high. The impact broke his arm and bent the down tubes. Fortunately, the pilot received a ride to the hospital from a passerby. We understand that the pilot received a warning or citation from the local police department for parking an aircraft in a regional park. This accident appears to be the result of poor judgement to attempt XC from an urban site with few, if any, good LZ options. XC takes planning, with knowledge of potential LZs along the route. Taking off without this knowledge and hoping for the best is a risky decision. Landing in a small, unfamiliar field with power lines is very difficult and risky, and flaring high to a stalled condition in order to stop forward progression is a dangerous maneuver.
The majority of the minor/non-injury accidents for the year were the result of bad approaches, landings, and a couple of bad launches. While the outcome of these were favorable, pilots need to make sure they have solid launch and landing skills—this is the most critical phase of flight due to the proximity to the ground. If you’re having trouble getting consistent launches and landings, it may be time to connect with an instructor to work out the issues you’re having or go to a training hill for practice. Every site has its own unique launch and landing zone, and if flying a site for the first time, it’s important to talk to the local pilots to get familiar with best launch and landing approach techniques for that site. They can also point out any specific hazards or conditions to avoid.