Today I witnessed a hang glider crash. The pilot survived. I feel that it’s important for me to write out all of the facts about the incident first, and then I’ll give my own thoughts.

The incident occurred at the Tres Pinos training hill in California. A pilot was being towed, and after release something happened (I’ll return to this later) that caused his glider to break mid-flight. The pilot did not deploy his parachute and impacted the ground hard.

The owner of the site and the tow operator were first to arrive at the crash site, with a fellow student and me arriving a minute or two after.

The fellow student was a professional physician, and was able to immediately start doing what he could for the situation. Minutes later, the ambulance arrived, followed by a fire engine and then a police officer. Eventually a helicopter arrived which took the injured pilot to a trauma center.

The pilot had an obvious major fracture of his right femur - it was not an “open” fracture, but the bone was causing a large lump in the hip area. He was conscious, and while there was nobody at the scene when he crashed, there was no indication that he had lost consciousness. He could feel all of his limbs and wiggle his toes, and knew where he was and what had happened. He was, obviously, in a great deal of pain.

A couple people and I surveyed the area for the video camera that had been attached to the glider, but was missing at the crash site. We located it upwind from the crash, where it presumably had landed after coming detached in flight. It was still recording when I found it. The camera was taken with the pilot in the helicopter.

As for what happened in the air: I didn’t personally see it. I saw the descent after the glider had broken, and it was clear that both leading edge tubes had broken about half way down and the tubes after the break were pointing straight up. It’s hard to estimate the amount of time I watched him descend in retrospect (time slowed down and all that) but I would guess it was at least 6 seconds.

I am now going to give an account of what caused the glider to break, but I am going to repeat myself first: I did not witness this part. Everything after this point is what I understand second-hand from those that were watching his flight. Everyone who observed the flight was at least 1500 feet away.

He towed to about 600 feet. Shortly after releasing the tow line, he entered a “whip stall.” The glider then either dropped its nose sharply (one account) or continued in to a too-slow loop (another account) - either way, the pilot ended up upside-down for an unknown amount of time, and somewhere in the mix is when the wings broke. Update: a hang gliding forum poster who witnessed the event posted his own observations on the forums. You can read them here.

Nobody can be sure why he did not throw his parachute, although the camera footage may give some insight.

The glider was a Pacific Wind Craft Mark IV 17.

This was the worst injury that has occurred in this site’s long history.

Witnessing a serious crash first-hand was traumatic. The agonizingly long drive to the crash site (all of 60 seconds or so) gave me way too much time to think about the likely possible outcomes that were much worse than what it ended up being.

I make it a habit to read about every hang gliding incident that happens. There’s an entire subforum on the hang gliding forums dedicated to discussion of incident reports. Studying the activities of others is an important part of the sport, and I have learned a lot from the discussions that take place around the incident reports. But  watching a YouTube video of someone else’s crash is nothing like seeing it happen in person.

I hope that the pilot chooses to share his footage with the hang gliding community once he has recovered so we can all learn from it. Ultimately it is and should be his decision.

Hang gliding is a dangerous sport. Whether or not it’s more dangerous than motorcycling, rock climbing, skydiving, and other such risky activities is a matter for endless debate, but in the end it would be silly to claim that it is without considerably elevated risk, especially compared to my other hobbies which pretty much all take place at a desk.

I’m signing up for the next parachute clinic (a class to learn how to and to practice deploying a reserve parachute) that Mission Soaring offers.