Spiraling out of control
Brian Wood’s crash at the world hang gliding championship, Kössen, Austria, in 1975
Top British pilot Brian Wood and his Waspair team-mate Australian Eric Short planned a coordinated display, both flying black CB-240s, at the World Championship competition at Kössen, Austria, in 1975…
The over-used and abused term spiraling out of control refers to a flight condition in which, because of damage or a malfunction, an aircraft is locked into a turn and the pilot is unable to level it. It continues in the turn, which usually steepens into a spiral dive, until one of two things happens:
- The aircraft strikes the ground, with dire consequences to those aboard unless they are extremely lucky, or…
- The aircraft encounters turbulence that, by extreme good fortune, corrects the problem that caused the locked turn.
In this instance — and against all probability — both those outcomes applied, the latter only temporarily but fortuitously, which is how Brian emerged from the experience uninjured. A possible third outcome, complete structural failure, is extremely unlikely given the strength of these gliders. However, on his third weekend out flying just a year or two earlier, Brian witnessed a Wasp test pilot suffer a side wire failure (it had not been swaged or clamped correctly) that caused the cross-tube to break. The test pilot was lucky to survive with just a badly broken leg. Such events colour a pilot’s perceptions in flight…
…in those days the sails weren’t fixed as securely as now and the sail on my [Wasp CB240] had become detached from the end of the leading edge after being knocked about on the chair lift.
— Brian Wood (1)
The leading edge pockets of the sail were stitched closed at the ends (the tips) and plastic caps fitted over for protection. The cap on one side had been knocked off and the stitching was torn part way, but most of the seam remained intact so that, when Brian tugged on the sail hard to pull it up the tube (toward the nose) it did not move. It seemed safe enough for just this one flight.
Brian and Eric ignited colored smoke canisters attached to their airframes and launched, Eric first. Brian made a dodgy take-off (see the video link later on this page) almost certainly resulting from the large television camera strapped to his back. He recovered quickly and they began their planned display routine.
…while I was flying a tight 360 the sail rode up the boom. Suddenly I found myself flying on one half of the kite. The kite went into a spiral dive.
— Brian Wood (1)
Brian was turning when the sail leading edge de-tensioned on the damaged side and the wing locked into the turn. He eyed the hard ground of the fields below, expecting the airframe to break at any moment. There was only light snow covering the valley floor, as can be seen in photos of the event, and it would do nothing to cushion his impact with the ground if the airframe broke. (This was three years before emergency parachutes for hang gliders became widely available.)
Brian’s team-mate Eric Short circled above and watched, while looking for a landing spot nearby so he could assist if necessary.
Bang! Suddenly, the turn stopped. The outer portion of the sail on the affected side slid back down the leading edge tube enough so that Brian was able to maintain a heading toward the mountain. His glider’s sink rate combined with the rising ground diminished his height above the ground as each second passed. If he could mush the glider into the trees covering the mountain, his chances of surviving would increase. However, the sail rode up the leading edge tube again and the spiral resumed.
Fortunately the kites were built like tanks in those days — the CB had two inch leading edges — and it survived the pounding of the G forces.
— Brian Wood (1)
Brian’s interviewer (two years later) David Worth of the Southern Hang Gliding Club, added “That flight can be seen on a hang gliding film which is currently touring the cinemas.” The film was taken by Julian Grant, one of Brian’s motocross friends.
By chance, Brian did not land in the trees, but instead struck the ground in a clearing. That high up the mountain-side, deeper snow remained than on the valley floor and it cushioned his impact. Brian lay in the snow, surrounded by the silence of the forest, except for a hissing nearby: The hot smoke canister was melting the snow around it. Brian was uninjured, but the hard landing bent back one of those sturdy leading edge tubes.
Meanwhile, Eric Short landed near the ski lift, jumped to the head of the line, jumped on, and jumped off where he judged it came closest to Brian’s position. He then attempted to wade through the snow and crunch his way through the tangled forest. Finding the going too slow, he resorted to following a stream. He eventually found Brian, by which time Eric was in a considerably worse state than was Brian. So much so that, when the rescue snowmobile arrived, it took Eric off to the first aid station while Brian walked down the mountain. (2)
Eric Short became a top competitor in the early days and continued flying for many years. (The author met him, a burly and friendly Australian steeped in flying knowledge, at Rhossili on the coast of south Wales either in the late 1970s or the late 1990s. I cannot figure out which of those two eras it was.) This is how he took up hang gliding the year previous to his adventure with Brian Wood at Kössen in 1975. (3)
In 1974 Brian’s friend Eric Short, an Australian living in Britain, phoned Brian to find out what he was up to. Brian said he had taken up hang gliding and that Eric should try it. As soon as Eric saw this new kind of aviation, he bought a hang glider. At a hill overlooking a wide beach (Brian does not recall where) he briefed Eric to do exactly as he did, including a pre-launch ‘hang check’; lifting the glider up until he felt his harness risers go tight to ensure he was clipped in. Brian made it clear to Eric that this was not a lark; it was to be taken seriously. Then Brian flew down and landed on the beach. This was before radios were used in instruction and also before it was realized how dangerous it was for someone to make his first flight from the top of a hill. Brian then watched from the beach as Eric launched in his own glider from the hill top.
Eric turned into the quartering wind, turned again the other way and — as Brian peaked through fingers over his eyes — lined up for a landing, fortunately into wind. There was plenty of room on the deserted beach. Deserted, that is, except for Brian and his glider. Eric copied Brian’s motion through the air so exactly that he landed on Brian’s glider, destroying it.
Brian Wood, Britain’s first hang gliding champion (1974) was again British champion in 1977. When flying a a Birdman Cherokee over the flatlands of Norfolk, England, in August 1979, he set a cross-country distance record for flights launched by towing into the air.
In the interview in Wings, Brian continues:
Competitions are for me a must, because I can’t afford to buy hang gliders especially at the price they are today.
One of Brian’s international competition friends was Hawaiian hang glider photographer, developer, and test pilot Ed Cesar. For more about Ed and Brian, see under the Antares, Floater, Ten Meter, Condor, and Mega sub-heading in Hang gliding 1978 and 1979 part 3.
Mid-way through the competition season in 1978, Brian Wood tried out a Gryphon, a high-performance flex-wing with bowsprit rigging. The site was a small and turbulent hill new to him.
Eye witnesses state that he was turned through 180 degrees immediately after launching and he impacted a glider waiting to launch, demolishing it, but luckily without injuring its pilot. Brian was less fortunate, sustaining serious injuries including loss of memory. He reports that he slept a great deal during subsequent months. He recovered eventually. (2)
Brian made a come-back in late 2019 and early 2020, flying ‘free flight’ hang gliders in Britain and Spain and also flying a lightweight powered ultralight near his home in the south-east of England.
Brian Wood related topics menu
Miles Wings Gulp and Gryphon related topics menu
Semi cylindrical Rogallo in Rogallo wing definitions and diagrams
Waspair of Surrey, England
There is more film of this event under External links in Hang gliding 1975 part 1.
These links are to photos on flickr by hang glider pilot and photographer Don Liddard.
Eric Short flaring his all-black Wasp CB240 in the landing field
Tina Trefethen’s Eipper-Formance standard Rogallo sitting in the landing field. Above the Eipper, Brian Wood is on finals to land his Wasp CB240, all black except for the AGV helmets sponsorship logo.
View from part way up the ski lift that Eric Short jumped on and leaped off to reach the crash site. The official landing field is at middle right between the car park and the river.
These links are to the documentary ‘Free as a Bird’ by Otto Pammer and Julian Grant, translated as Hanggliding Worldcup 1975 (Drachenflug WM 75 Kössen in Tirol) digitized film on YouTube (narration in German).
Brian Wood’s spiral starting at 32 minutes 23 seconds
“Der Englisher champion Brian Wood…” lands on the target starting at 40 minutes 49 seconds
These are links to RR7513B AUSTRIA WORLD HANG-GLIDING CHAMPIONSHIP digitized film by AP Archive on YouTube
Brian Wood circling and landing (followed by an older tan and blue CB-240 launching) starting at 3 minutes 29 seconds
Brian Wood flying in the distance during an interview with Bob Wills, starting at 3 minutes 29 seconds (very brief clip)
1. Brian Wood interview by David Worth in Wings (BHGA magazine) August 1977
2. Author’s telephone conversation with Brian Wood on May 10th, 2020
3. How Eric Short took up hang gliding: Conversation in-person with the author and Roly Lewis-Evans on July 30th, 2021