Dangers of hang gliding
Then in a split second the ‘G’ force went to zero and I was being thrown through space. At least I could move my arms and hold my head up. I reached for the parachute handle.
— Adam Parer describing his hang glider tumble in 2009
The Glider Rider cover photo is of Dave Ledford after his wing tumbled seven times following a failed wingover attempt (at Chattanooga, Tennessee). He was unhurt and his glider, a Moyes Mega II (with crosstube fairings, by the look of it) was largely undamaged. Film of this occurrence in 1979 is included in Bill Liscomb’s 2008 documentary Big Blue Sky (see under External links later on this page).
The parachute is stored in a container either on the chest of the harness or, more commonly nowadays, on one side. When you deploy it (should you suffer a misfortune dire enough to need to) the whole rig including the hang glider descends under parachute. You do not ‘jump out’.
Another pilot was even luckier…
The chute bridle line rubbed so violently on one of the flying wires that the bridle was severed as if a hot knife had cut it. The chute floated away into space. The glider flipped right side up and the pilot landed at Janie’s ranch.
— George Worthington writing in Hang Gliding, August 1979, about a competition in the Owens Valley
Hang gliding is a potentially hazardous activity often carried out in dangerous places and demanding weather conditions. Crashes are inevitable, but fortunately serious injury is rare. See Accidents in Grandfather Mountain 1975 part 2.
Flying prone, that is head-first with your arms out holding the control bar Superman style, confers several advantages over the seated position. Firstly, the reduced frontal area and long body shape aligned with the airflow reduces the aerodynamic drag as compared with the blunt upright form of a seated pilot. Secondly, it provides a much greater range of pitch control because the range of control bar position is from full stretch forward to about thigh position, a range of about twice the length of your arms. In comparison, pitch range of a seated pilot is the length of his or her arms.
A six page article by Carol Boenish-Price in the November 1973 Ground Skimmer quoted opinions by several pilots on the merits and drawbacks of both types of harness.
An unplanned impact with the ground or other hard object head-first involves a greater risk of death or head injury than hitting feet-first. One of the earliest fatalities attributed to flying prone was that of SCHGA director Chuck Kocsis, who was killed on his first prone flight. At the Domes site on the south side of Palos Verdes peninsula, southern California, the landing zone sloped down, which made for difficult landings with the wind blowing up-slope…
…it was always a fight to get it on the ground. Flare too soon and you would pop up too high with the ground always dropping away from you. It was better to try to fly it to the ground with a running landing. You couldn’t approach very low because there was a bench you had to clear on the landing approach. Chuck Kosis was killed when he didn’t clear that bench.
— Frank Colver via e-mail, March 2020
Frank was one of the people who examined Chuck’s helmet in attempting to figure out why his neck had been broken in the accident.
In 1973, there was no established process for such inquiries. They were carried out by young men — and the occasional young woman — as best they could to find out how their friends were killed. Furthermore, although hang gliding was still new, flying prone was newer.
Frank and his associates concluded that Chuck’s head had tucked under him and slid on the rear portion of the helmet. Frank continues…
Many years later, after seeing many reports of pilots breaking their necks by having their heads hit the keel when the control bar dug in, as Chuck’s had done, I began to question our conclusion about what broke Chuck’s neck.
Approaching a half century later, hang glider pilots are still engaged in this internal debate. Modern hang gliders pose another danger: They have such short keels that, in a sudden stop on the ground, the prone pilot swings forward and his head goes in front of the glider’s nose, which can then hit him (or her) in the back of the head or neck. In the April 2020 edition of the British hang gliding magazine SkyWings, hang glider tester Garry Hume points out an advantage of the bowsprit design, largely discarded since 1980, but still being made by Bautek in Germany (until the closure of that company in early 2020): You hit your head on the bowsprit, which at least prevents the nose-cone from hitting you in the back of the neck.
For an early 1970s experimental wing that used a safety line to reduce this risk, and that maybe should have become common (and might still be useful) see Cylindrical Rogallo in Rogallo wing definitions and diagrams.
Having said all that, modern hang gliders are safer than ever. In such a crash, the control frame down-tubes collapse. (They are made to do that, while being strong enough for all loads imposed on them in flight.) That reduces the tendency of the pilot to swing through. In addition, flying with light-weight and low-drag wheels on the base tube often turns a potential crash into just an untidy landing. Lastly, we know more about how to fly better and avoid situations that cause such crashes, which is the main reason why they are so rare nowadays.
Another aid to safety — and comfort — is the ‘suprone’ harness, being a combination of prone and supine (seated, leaning back, paraglider style). Bill Pain in Australia produces one at the time of writing. See Bill Pain under External links later on this page.
An alternative, which reminds me of Steve Dyer’s supine pod of the late 1980s, is Jim Fenison’s Flybar setup. It uses a paraglider harness, in future possibly modified, and an additional control bar mounted about half way up the control frame. See the Suprone Solutions/Fenison Flybar Pilot Report/Scott Campbell video link under External links later on this page.
For completeness, see also the Suprone harness in 1976 video link under External links later on this page. See also the Domes, Palos Verdes related topics menu.
A serious consequence of poor information flow in the early days, which the USHGA accident review board initiative sought to address (see Appliance of statistics) is illustrated by the following events. In 1974, experienced pilot Tom Simko had lace hooks, which are used in some hiking boots instead of eyelets, catch in his rear wires at 1,800 feet over Mount Sentinal in Missoula:
…I feel that Tom was lucky in the respect tat he had plenty of altitude and time to correct and have a good flight. The next time someone might not be so lucky.
— Gordon C. Quick note dated May 1974 in Ground Slimmer, April-June 1974
That warning did not get through to Britain in time to save John Amor* from a fatal crash caused by the same phenomenon at Rhossili in south Wales the following year. One of my (the original author of this web site) fellow club members was in the air there at the same time and he watched John’s struggle — with no idea of the cause of the problem — until John and his wing impacted the ground.
* Not to be confused with John Amos, another British hang glider pilot
For more about the competition at which this accident happened, including additional photos taken of the results of the Duffy and Huss collision, see Grouse Mountain invitational 1984.
Although no other hang gliders are in view in this photo (a digitized slide) many flew that day. When the lift band shrunk, the resultant crowding imposed the need for keeping a good look out — and disciplined flying. (The ‘rules of the air’ are similar to those of the sea, but with an extra dimension.) After I (the original author of this web site) landed, while standing on the hill I heard a muffled bang from above. Looking up, all I saw were hang gliders apparently flying normally, but a piece of something small and light fluttered downwards. It turned out to be a nose cone of stiff fabric that had come off a hang glider.
Then a hang glider flew past at ridge height, its female pilot shouting “I’m going down to the bottom,” while the pilots on the hill crowded around a hang glider that had just landed on top. Its control frame base tube was bent back and it sported a dent in its center. The other pilot landed safely at the bottom despite her glider having a broken leading edge!
A leading British pilot was sucked into cloud in a competition in France in 1988. The cloud prevented him from seeing the horizon. As a result, he had no visual reference by which to ascertain his orientation…
I felt all my weight on my wrists, hand standing on the bottom bar. Then there was a massive acceleration and then complete silence for a second. I was still straight and level in the control frame when the speed bar was ripped from my hands.
— Len Hull writing in the BHGA magazine Wings, October 1988. He deployed his parachute and was largely uninjured.
A parachute is not guaranteed to save you.
In 1987 another hang glider collided with Peter Robinson’s Airwave Magic 4 — the so-called Full Race version — breaking a control frame down-tube, cross-tube, and leading edge. The wing folded up and Peter deployed his parachute, landing safely despite having one arm caught between the harness riser (to which the parachute bridle is attached) and another part of the rig. The pilot of the other wing involved also landed safely.
Included in the list of damaged items is this, to which we should have
paid more attention:
Torn harness where the reinforcing straps from the hang point had been spread by the tensioning of the opening shock.
— Peter Robinson, A short XC — on a wing and a chute, BHGA magazine Wings, July 1987
Others were not so lucky. On June 6th (D-Day) 1994, two prominent members of the same hang gliding club collided while circling in a thermal near cloudbase over Ringwood in Hampshire. Both deployed their emergency parachutes, but both pilots were killed. The opening shock combined with his forward momentum and position caused one pilot to be thrown out through the front of his harness. I assume that the possibility of such an occurrence had not been considered at the time, or if it had, it was dismissed as highly unlikely, but harness design standards were changed as a result.
According to others who studied the records, the other pilot’s combination of broken wing and parachute apparently caused the chute to deflate and re-inflate in cycles, with consequent large changes in descent rate. He hit the ground during a rapid descent phase and also, as far as I know, he hit horizontally, possibly indicating that he had been knocked unconscious, presumably after deploying the parachute.
The only other fatalities I know of on our club sites likely could not have been prevented by deploying a parachute. Adam Jefferson drowned when he ditched in the sea off Ringstead in 1983 for reasons unknown. Another fatality was caused by pitch instability that resulted in a luffing dive at Winklebury (just along from better known Monk’s Down) in about 1989. As far as I know, it happened too fast and too low for a parachute to be deployed. That was long after the possibility of the luffing dive was thought to have been eradicated by devices such as reflex bridles and tip sticks. The glider type in question was modified in consequence.
That tally excludes club members killed when flying outside our region, such as when Dave Sigorney, our main paragliding instructor, was killed in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, in 1993. It also excludes the several serious injuries sustained by club members over the years, including the paraglider crash in 2014, caused by a brief period of extreme turbulence at low level, in which the pilot’s left arm was almost severed. (The same meteorological phenomenon that day–which I feel we have not understood–killed a paraglider pilot flying a hill 50 miles away.)
In this photo that accompanied an article by parachute maker Betty Pfeiffer in Hang Gliding, June 1995, aviation author Pete Lehmann is about to touch down after being tumbled by turbulence during a competition in Australia. The discoloration in the center marks the presence of a dust devil. After impact, Lehmann and his broken glider were dragged 100 yards until stopped by the windmill on the right. He was not injured.
If you were going to stay on the cutting edge, if you were going to be competitive, if you were going to venture into those unflown spaces, you took those risks. A lot of good pilots and nice people paid for that with their lives. And that is probably the greatest sorrow that I carry.
— W.A. Roeker speaking in the documentary Big Blue Sky, 2008, by Bill Liscomb (linked later on this page)
In 1981, I impacted the hillside at Steyning in Sussex hard enough to knock myself out and sustain a crushed vertebra, which I can still feel nearly 40 years later in 2019.
Bodged hang straps, typically to adjust for hang height, and other problems connecting the harness to the glider or securing the pilot to the harness have killed several people. One whom I knew slightly in the early 1980s, an army captain, had set up the British forces hang gliding school in Wales.
On an expedition to Lanzarote, Canary Islands, in the early 1990s I carried out a full hang check at Famara with another pilot hauling down on my front wires so I could be lifted off the ground (he was being very quiet) and I found myself lying on the dirt. “Let that be a lesson,” I think he said. The next day, it happened again!
Occasionally a man would look coldly at the binary proposition he was now confronting every day–Right Stuff/Death–and decide it wasn’t worth it and voluntarily shift over to transports or reconnaissance or whatever. And his comrades would wonder, for a day or so, what evil virus had invaded his soul…as they left him behind.
— Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1979
On the flatlands of Norfolk, England, we used a power winch and tow line on a reel to haul hang gliders into the air in hopes of encountering a thermal after releasing at 2,000 feet above the field. On a flying weekend there in 1990 we were pleased that one experienced and able pilot, who had earlier voiced doubts about continuing with hang gliding, demonstrated great skill and flying ability, resulting in a series of good flights. We were astonished when, that evening, he announced that he was turning in his wings (or hanging up his helmet) and his glider and equipment were, therefore, for sale. He had carried out that cold calculation that Tom Wolfe describes and concluded that it was too dangerous.
Spring thermals, a crash at Monk’s Down, southern England, in 1975
Bill Pain, ‘suprone’ harness manufacturer Facebook page
Cheating Death in high times, Saturday, November 28, 2009 — an account by Adam Parer of his hang glider tumble, from which a snippet is quoted at the top of this page
Dave Ledford tumbles and deploys his emergency parachute in 1979 at Chattanooga, Tennessee: Big Blue Sky, 2008, by Bill Liscomb on YouTube starting at 1 hour, 6 minutes, 50 seconds, Rich Piccirilli narrating. I believe that this segment originated in Winning at Hang Gliding by Hugh Morton of Grandfather Mountain, for which he received the CNE Golden Eagle award in 1982. (*)
Hang gliding rescue parachute opening video on YouTube starting at 53 seconds
Hang Gliding / Death Sport in Big Blue Sky, 2008, by Bill Liscomb on YouTube starting at 59 minutes 42 seconds, W.A. Roeker and Chris Wills speaking
Suprone harness in 1976: 1976 Kössen 1 de 3 15 min digitized film by Roman Camps on YouTube starting at 6 minutes 57 seconds
Suprone Solutions/Fenison Flybar Pilot Report/Scott Campbell video on YouTube
Why Can’t We Get A Handle On This Safety Thing by Mike Meier of Wills Wing, who received the Jack Northrop award for the most outstanding technical paper presented at the 45th Annual West Coast Symposium of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. The paper was derived from Mike’s article originally published in Hang Gliding magazine.
I attribute the photo of Dave Ledford descending under parachute to Karen Alexander because that is stated in the December 1980 edition of Glider Rider, where a small black-and-white print appears (reversed) on the left center page. However, the January 1981 edition, in which it appears on the cover (in color) is credited to Glider Rider picture editor H. Krause (not to be confused with publisher Tracy H. Knauss).
Winning at Hang Gliding by Hugh Morton of Grandfather Mountain: Whole Air March/April 1983