***The following is my write up after my big accident in Wolcott back in May or June 2005 with some recent Note and Picture adding. It went to USHPA with the accident report. Anyway, now that I have a blog, it’s a good way to get the info out there. I hope someone avoids my mistakes and takes a free lesson from my intermediate syndrome or whatever it was that made me go down this path to pounding in.***
So, there I was…alone, setting up the Saturn in stellar conditions atop Wolcott (8800ft). 2 or 3 pm, with maybe 20% cloud cover. 5-12mph SW conditions with frequent yet civilized cycles. I was PUMPED! Was glad my early season launches were good so was able rationalize coming out to fly alone today (June 18th). I walked to launch slowly and deliberately. I waited through some cycles to get comfortable with everything. Checked and double checked that I was hooked in b/c I was alone and felt like I ought to do some extra steps. Talked to my self (inner voice only) about the launch and how it’d be powerful with an exaggerated Walk-Jog….portion. It was time, pull the nose down a smidge, start the walk.walk.jog.jog…run…and up I went. It was a launch that could define launches in my book. Might have even been as good as a Shawn B. launch.
The soaring is a breeze and it feels like I’m going up from the time I launch till around 13k. Sometimes climbing in thermals, and sometimes drifting over the ridge and its lift. The SW wind has more S in it higher up. And it’s probably blowing 15+. I didn’t spend much time climbing over launch as I had a mission to finally go XC towards the ENE, over the Gore Range. I let the wind take me, slowly climbing and without any real plan, or much experience in XC for that matter. At 13k, I thought I could still penetrate into the wind to reach the small downhill/alternate PG LZ and I was ok with landing there. I’ve done it once before so no biggie. But hey, there’s lots of little LZ’s around. Maybe I’ll put that LZ on the back burner too and keep drifting and see what happens (NOTE: MAYBE???? “Maybe” isn’t a solid plan unless both results are safe. My head wasn’t there b/c I had no idea what was behind door number 2 and was ok with that). There’s a cloud further to the north that just must be working… (NOTE: I didn’t have any cloud flying experience really, but sure wanted some. My first time at cloud base was over Wolcott at 17k actually). I circled several times on the way to it thinking I found something but no dice. Now the cloud is playing hard to get and really drifting. It’s gone over the back of the last ridge where the terrain goes mostly downhill and is lee side country and no man’s land. I was already over no-mans land actually. I know I don’t want to go past this ridge until I’m high(er). Well NOW WHAT!?? I’m getting lower over foreign LZs that are going to require hiking or a 4wheeler or a jeep trail to get out. I must get up!
So I ran the ridge between the shady part to the North and back to the S/SE in what I figured would be a good place to be. Lots of sun for thermals and wind for ridge lift. It was a slow sink until I was at 350-400ft over the ridge/saddle. But, down near this saddle, to maintain zero-sink meant I really had to fly at trim and that was now too slow to stay in front of the ridge. I figured there was a section of stronger wind over the funneling saddle and made a bad mistake trying to cross it one more time to get to the sunnier ridge. In the dumbest move yet, I thought I felt a thermal I could work so I made a circle and sealed my doom. In probably the worst part of the venturi, I’m low and had drifted behind the top of the saddle. Now, trying to penetrate my Saturn to the front of the saddle to land on its smooth grassy top became impossible.
Now, since I had been so focused/rigid on going XC, I’m finally forced to unfocus on that and get all my grey matter working out a safe landing option. The problem was that I’m too late for a safe landing alternative. All options were to land behind the ridge in the lee-side valley. And the only non-treed area behind the saddle/ridge was in the deep gully back there. As I looked down, I see that behind the ridge, it drops off in a steep rock wall (200ft?)… For experienced guys and ones with their heads on straight, a 20+ wind venturi’ing over a saddle, with a cliff drop behind it means that the air back there isn’t going to be good. Actually, it’s the perfect storm as far as a Hang Glider goes.
Those fleeting moments were strangely comfortable in my harness, knowing I had slowly given up control of my destiny. It must be what it feels like to be in the eye of a hurricane. I was super aware of how comfortable I was. The view and aspens in the wind below and the warm sun were all clearer and crisper than I had experienced before. Almost like a slice of heaven in contrast to what I figured would be next. It’s the most memorable part of this experience. Soaking up every second in slow motion with a contentment that is hard to make analogy to.
So, I made one big drifting circle as a down-wind leg and base leg to get as far back from the cliff as I could.. My Final approach was going way better than expected till a big right bump…corrected it, and immediately afterwards the bottom fell out. I remember pulling the bar in and having that feeling only a good roller coaster gives your stomach as it rounds the top of a rise. I think my legs were out. I don’t remember the rest. Memory starts back up later when a hiker arrived and I’m taking battons out. He had see the whole thing from somewhere along the ridge.
In retrospect, I’ve tried hard to figure out what the wreck was like exactly. How’d I get unhooked and out of this pancaked glider and why I was moving in the first place instead of waiting for professional help. I called the hiker 4 days later with questions. He said it looked like I drove straight into the ground from 30-40 feet up. He even mentioned that it looked like I bounced. Given he was pretty far away. I think I had some speed before the bottom fell out. Don’t know when or if I put my legs down. I was unzipped for sure. My injuries are what you’d expect if you put a helmet on and did a belly flop off your roof. I had NO idea that I had launched from Wolcott and the scenery was unfamiliar back there so another thing I remember is that as I’m walking around the glider, I’d keep panning around the area trying to figure out where the heck I was and where I’d come from. I had NO clue.
Snapped an “Attacktube” and the other one needs replacing too. The keel got damaged from the torque of the broken control frame. The heart bolt is a noodle.
Concussion, broken ribs, messed up knees (Meniscus needs surgery says 1st Dr.), shoulder subluxed, and some interesting bruising. Got a black eye in spite of the full face helmet.
In conclusion, this was a wreck that was avoidable in many ways. I had been taught better than this and to avoid flying alone, and to keep good LZ’s in reach always, and NEVER leave Wolcott w/o getting to at least 16k, and to watch for Venturi’s over saddles. For whatever reason, I’d decided on the big XC route before getting to the site and that was my only focus. Loosing the flexibility of the mind is never good. So, the result of using up all my safety margins left me in a place where the reaper could have his way with me. I shouldn’t have put myself in a position that wouldn’t allow for some pilot error. When I made the last error of circling that one last time, I kicked fate in the nuts and smacked the reaper with his cane. There’s a big life-lesson for me in this and a chance to adjust my priorities. I also need to take my ego out of flying and stay flexible. I have a bun in the oven that needs a father.
So, that was what I wrote in 2005, now it’s 2008 and the bun is about to turn three years old and I’m so glad to be here!.
Another important thing I could have done to keep myself from this accident was to take more gradual steps. Now that I have more experience, I would have known that as I got lower, I wouldn’t have been able to circle in anything in that strong wind and climb out fast enough to maintain my glide to the front of the ridge… so earlier on, I would have cut bait and headed upwind to a safe LZ. Whatever, though, wisdom comes from making mistakes right? But this was my most costly. I haven’t had any major mishap’s since this wreck. Maybe close calls b/c of a dumbed down hypoxic brain, but nothing with a bad result. I have lots more hours in the air now and won’t fly(or at least won’t go XC) on days when my head is cloudy. I hope this write-up helps someone. I’ve appreciated all the free lesson’s I’ve gotten while reading other peoples’ posts.