Freefall after hang-glider breaks up
Gulgong Freefall: Cheating Death
Fri, 27/11/2009 – 15:39 — adamp
It was the 2nd task of the Gulgong Classic and just like the day before the wind gusts and turbulence in the tow paddock were moderate to heavy. It was about 30-35 degrees Celsius at ground level and the conditions seemed stable although the weather report had predicted good instability. Due to the rough conditions weak links were breaking just about every other tow and the two tugs worked hard to eventually get everyone off the ground successfully. The task was 209km, north, to Manilla Airstrip.
I towed out of the airstrip around 1:30pm and went to release height behind Pete Marhiene. During the first thermal I noticed several light inversion layers. Eventually I drifted downwind and met up with Chris Jones, Phil Schroder, Oliver Barthelmes and Dave May and we topped out at 6500’ before heading NW in a cross-tail direction to get on the upwind side of the course line.
Chris was ahead by 200m and after a 5km glide I watched him complete two turns in what looked like solid lift. Eventually Dave, Oli and Phil would also head for Chris. Before I got there he had already straightened up and was back into a search pattern. This was typical of the conditions for the day; very short lived ‘bubble’ climbs, mild to moderate turbulence and generally a stable type of feel to the weather. Way off to the north great looking clouds filled the sky along the Liverpool Range and beyond, we needed to get there but for now we continued to hunt for a core that may be lurking around in the stable conditions of Gulgong.
While Chris, Oli, Phil and Dave tended to search upwind I turned downwind for about 100m and noticed the air felt much better there, still bumpy and stable but at least it was more buoyant I fully expected to only gain a few turns out of any climb I may find before it too petered out. Soon I felt some lift ahead and more to the left so I began a shallow turn in that direction and the vario started to chirp at about 200-300’/min. VG was off except for about 1 arms length of rope. I was flying at about 50kph with a bar position faster than best glide speed.
As I climbed for about a ¼ of the first turn the ‘G’ began to lighten and the nose started to ease over. For that first split second I expected a ‘wire slapper’ to precede a return into normal flight. This did not happen. The ‘G’ went to zero and the nose continued over. I braced onto the basebar and attempted to pull in and maintain hang position. This however could not be maintained. The ‘G’ went negative and the nose went over. I maintained some grip on the basebar and kept the torso as close to it as possible but the leg/boot end of the harness could not and continued to move toward the undersurface and my upper body would eventually follow. The nose-over motion accelerated and then I lost contact with the basebar.
As I fell weightless through the air the glider proceeded to tumble and I clear the wing without making contact as it passed underneath inverted. Just as the glider came around upright I bottomed out with a thud when the hang strap went tight and for a split second I thought the glider may stabilize however it had more than enough momentum to enter the 2nd tumble. Again I don’t recall hitting any part of the glider as it went over a second time. Once again I fell with another thud when the hang straps went tight but this time the tension lasted for a much shorter period of time. I went weightless as if falling straight down for several meters before feeling the beginning of a rotation/spin in the horizontal plane (like a sycamore seed). We suspect the sidewire had broken at this point and the wings began to fold together.
The first spin finished quickly but I entered the 2nd spin with much more speed. I tried to go for the parachute handle but the ‘G’ force had already built up significantly. Soon my arms (and eventually my head) were forced and held out away from the center of rotation preventing me from reaching the parachute handle. I realized I was in a bad way but my life depended on getting to the parachute. Hard as I tried and with all of my strength my arms remained straight pointing away from the harness.
What followed is something I could never have imagined, a force developed by these rotations, an incredible rapid acceleration in speed and the rapidly increasing ‘G’. I have watched video of similar motion when a glider folds its wings but on those occasions the rotation seems to reach a maximum after a number of rotations. Not in this case. The ‘G’ force continued to increase and was transverse to my prone position, pooling blood ventrally in the front half of my body. The eyes sustained advanced haematoma from this force. By the 5th and 6th rotation the load was so severe I knew the equipment would have to fail soon and hopefully before I sustained serious injury. 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.
I was aware of moving horizontally with a lot of velocity and could also hear the airspeed accelerating very quickly. Motion through the air was like a projectile but soon turned into a freefall. I realized then I had definitely separated from the glider. I located the parachute handle and pulled with my right hand but it didn’t budge, and after a few more heaves I was convinced the parachute was going to need a lot more persuasion to come out. (We would discover the back plate had failed catastrophically and the opening of the parachute port was deformed as a result).
As I fought to remove the parachute I was aware of free-falling straight down in a boot-first/head-up/’pencil’ position. This would later be confirmed by eye witnesses. Over the next 5 seconds while I continued to struggle with the parachute the sound of the airflow achieved a maximum and I realized I was at terminal velocity.
One arm was not enough so I reached down with the left and with both hands heaved on the handle. After another couple of seconds I felt the parachute finally come loose. I threw it sideways, let go and waited.
What came next was the most painful and violent impact I have ever felt in my life, like I had been torn in half. Extreme pain instantly filled the body with the worst of it concentrated in chest and upper back. I knew I had sustained serious injury and immediately suspected my back was broken. I looked up just enough to see one of the most beautiful things, a clean circular shape of the front 1/3 of the parachute, taut, inflated and in tact. The airflow was quiet now and the earth was no longer hurtling towards me. In less than 15 seconds I had fallen 4000’, the parachute and harness survived the deployment and so had I but not without injury, and the pain suggested I was in a real bad way.
The thought of paralysis filled my mind and I needed to know. I tried to wriggle my fingers and they moved. I thought with some dread, ‘My legs?’ I wriggled my feet and they moved too. Relief mixed with the pain but concern remained that my back was probably broken despite the spinal cord being intact. I needed a soft landing to protect what wasn’t damaged. I looked down and the remaining 2000’ came up very slowly. I could only just breathe. I needed to get down as soon as possible and get help.
After a minute of trying to get more air into my lungs my color vision started to fade, I was graying out. I remained conscious but gradually blacked out and feared I may have sustained fatal internal injuries.
My thoughts immediately went to my wife who passed away earlier this year. I hoped that if this was what was happening to me then I would be with her soon and I felt content for the first time in 4 months. My soul mate, taken away so early in our life with whom I had shared so much… Pain was no longer on my mind and I felt calm. A few moments passed before awareness came over me, I was not dying, I would survive, and this was not my time. The peace gave way to the pain which returned with a vengeance. Shock set-in and I passed out.
When I came too I was on my back looking up at the sky. I looked around and suddenly the realization of what had just happened came back all at once. I said out loud in astonishment and relief, “I survived!” Then I started to get dragged backwards at a walking pace for a few feet before coming to a stop. I looked over my shoulder and there was that beautiful red colored parachute again, right behind me on the ground and still inflated. A gust came through and again I slowly got dragged along the ground a few more feet.
The pain was worse than ever now and I had to get out of the harness. I rechecked arm and leg movement and all were still working. I unclipped the leg loops and the waist belt. As I struggled in vain to undo the chest buckle I heard a voice from behind, a farmer who had seen my parachute from a distance sitting inflated on the ground drove over to check it out. “Can I give you a hand son?” he asked as he walked into my field of view where I lay on my back. “Yes, undo this buckle and call an ambulance”, was my reply.
He too struggled with the chest strap and I thought it may be jammed from the deployment. I had one more go and it released. I rolled out of the harness, stood up, walked over to the shade of a nearby tree and carefully crouched in the least painful position. There I stayed for the next 90 minutes until I could be evacuated.
Three things I saw that day will stay with me for the rest of my life. First, a glimpse of that High Energy parachute sitting high above and taking me safely to earth after the wildest and most painful ride of my life. And again as I lay unconscious in that field then waking up, looking over my shoulder to see it there once again, that big red parachute on the ground and still inflated as if it continued to watch over me.
Second was the sight of Oli, Dave, Phil and Chris all coming into land only meters away from where I crouched in absolute searing pain. I watched them get out of their harnesses one by one and I felt much better straight away. They rallied around me in relative silence but their concern was obvious. It took 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive but the pilots urged the paramedics on and tried to hurry them to do what ever was necessary to get me out of there and into hospital. I heard Oli pleading with the Ambulance Officer, “You need to get the helicopter, just send the helicopter right now”. “Dave sat next to me and relayed my answers as I could hardly speak. I can’t describe how good it was to have them there.
Then the red and yellow Westpac helicopter arrived! The crew was on the ball and once airborne I finally realised I was safe. We lifted off and headed straight for The John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.
As I was wheeled in through the hospital doors a familiar face in a green medical gown stood there waiting, Conrad Loten, fellow hang glider pilot and head of the Emergency Department took over my treatment and directed his staff calmly but with obvious authority and competence. After the CAT scan Conrad came over to my bed and confirmed the damage; 6 broken ribs, a collapsed lung, broken sternum and a flail fracture of the chest. “What about my back?” I asked. With the slight smile he assured me the back was in perfect condition, no damage to the spine whatsoever.
Quietly but with apparent concern Conrad kept in touch of my progress and treatment over the next week. I was very lucky indeed to have him looking after me. Friends visited everyday and thankfully I made a quick recovery in that first week. My family came with real food to spare me and my recovering body what wasn’t offered on the hospital ‘menu’. While the prognosis is still uncertain it seems as though I could expect to make something close to a full recovery. Everyday I am feeling much stronger.
I was very lucky to have survived this accident and many things were in my favor including a lot of luck. The specialists believe health and fitness gave me a big advantage not only aiding in the healing but also preventing more serious injury. Since my wife passed away some months ago I have lost a bit of weight and I suspect the less momentum I had when the parachute inflated the better. She always looked out for me in the most unusual and often in the least obvious of ways and it feels that she continues to.
In hindsight I began preparation for this accident 18 months ago. At Forbes in 2007 I watched Austrian pilot Andreas Orgler experience an almost identical accident. While his incident did not involve the violent sycamore rotation he did tumble twice and then separated from his glider. His pilotless wing then descended straight at me, head-on, and only just cleared mine with a closing speed that would have certainly brought me down too. Meanwhile Andreas quickly deployed his parachute during his freefall and well before achieving terminal velocity. Despite his much lower speed the inflation was explosive and the parachute failed. He continued to freefall right before my eyes.
Witnessing such a traumatic event left me deeply affected for a long time but it was the motivation to understand why it happened and then reequip with the most advanced skyline harness and a new High Energy parachute. This equipment that could and did survive this rare and ‘unlikely’ event where pilot and glider are separated in flight. The accident in Forbes helped prepare me to survive mine at Gulgong. This may be small consolation to those who have never met me and knew Andreas, but the fact is there are many people here now who are very relieved and very happy because I am alive. He helped save my life.
I am very happy to be alive.
My understanding of flying has not changed in any way and I am not left with any doubt about the safety and risks of hang gliding. I hope to fly again but that depends on the ribs, and if I get to fly for another 15yrs I would be surprised if I ever come across the same air that lead to my accident last Monday. Nothing I could have done and no sort of equipment would have behaved differently. The air was tipping me over no matter what.
The Rev is the most stable and beautiful glider I have flown in and when I eventually reequip it will be with the same gear.
Check your equipment and update to the best, the extra few $100 is worth it!