Masters of Disaster

The Instructors of Towing

Dave Broyles © 1996

Several years back, I wrote an article for Hang Gliding Magazine called "Lockouts and other Paths to Disaster". At the end of the article, I promised to a sequel called "Masters of Disaster, Advanced Towing Techniques."

I got a call the other day from someone who scolded me for never writing the sequel. He thought it was supposed to be two articles, and he was highly disappointed that I hadn't written them. I have to disappoint him yet again. It was supposed to be one article with two names, a bad habit of mine as I like to write articles with catchy names in hope that someone will actually want to read them.

However, there was a reason why I never wrote Advanced Towing Techniques. I wasn't that excited about encouraging pilots to do "Tricky Things Under Tow". It was my feeling at the time that 360 turns under tow are best not encouraged, and step towing is best left to those with a ton of experience.

On the other hand, I just conversed with Luen Miller, the USHGA Accident review guy, about a rash of towing fatalities over the last year, and it was clear to me that regardless of cute names for articles and other things that go bump in the night, a lot of towing is going on out there, and some of it is going down bad.

There are a lot of different flavors of towing going on now. Towing behind cars, trucks, ultralights, and even the occasional hand pulled tow. Tow bridles include the ATOL tow bridle, the European double bridle, the Skyting bridle, the aerotow v-bridle, towing with the tow line both above and below the control bar. Releases include the 3 string release, the 2 string release, the 3 RING release, the Mason release, the Linknife, the European steel bar release, and so on. There are two major styles of stationary winch, scooter tow and the regular stationary winch.

With all of these variations, though, there are some basic principles of towing that continue to be the same.

One of my paraglider students, in the process of learning how to tow paragliders, kept locking out. Yeah, yeah, you can lockout a paraglider. The mechanics are different, but the problem is the same. You get over to the side, the forces get high, and the glider won't turn back into center. So what does towing hang gliders have to do with all this? Well, I generalized that towing hang gliders and paragliders are very similar, and I suddenly realized what the problem was. Flying paragliders is very easy and, in fact, relaxing, but towing a paraglider is just as intense and peril ridden as towing a hang glider. I have been towing hang gliders for some 20 years, and I have never gotten to the point that I am totally relaxed about any tow. I realized suddenly, that of all the things I do, hang gliding and paragliding, I find towing is the most intense. And why? To me, towing seems to have the most things that can go wrong. (Short of thermaling in the Owens Valley on a strong day, anyway.) I suddenly realized that the reason why I generally don't have tows that DON'T GO WELL is because of the intensity I put into each tow. So I formulated and told this pilot the 100% rule.

A pilot being towed MUST give 100% of his/her attention to the successful completion of the tow. Why? Because most of the problems of pilots new to towing are caused by inattention. And most of those problems could have been nipped in the bud by the correct response of the pilot being towed. But not 2 or 3 seconds after the problem has started. Only right now is good enough.

I got hurt pretty badly about five years back. Due to a one in a million type of occurrence, my arm broke in flight while I was towing up at a meet in Hobbs, NM. But one thing that exacerbated the accident, was that due to the unusual nature of the accident, I neglected to release from the tow line. Somewhere, I had heard that the tow line is your friend! Well, it wasn't! Because of gyrations of the glider as it came down, caused by the tow line still being attached, observers told me that there was probably only 1 chance in 10 that I could have hit the ground so I wasn't killed outright, but I was lucky and drew the "live man's hand".

(Obviously not Aces and eights.)

From this accident and many other incidents over the years, I formulated the concept of "recognize and release". The towed pilot must recognize that he/she is having a problem and release, well before things get so bad that releasing doesn't help. If the pilot is too inexperienced to know when he/she is in trouble, then, it is essential that the observer/instructor be qualified to release for the pilot.

Several years later, Two buddies and I were towing on a road where the observer on the tow rig, would have gotten a rough ride and a lot of dirt in the face. I volunteered to ride the tow rig as an observer, but the pilot, mindful of the difficult ride in store for the observer, declined. The one, out of a thousand, bad platform launch ensued, and the pilot flew into the ground seconds after launch. Yeah, he tried to release, but he had just moved his release cord, and grabbed the wrong thing. The ground he flew into was concrete. He smashed an elbow which after several years still hasn't healed, and he had internal injuries which also necessitated surgery. I'm pretty darn good with a hook knife, but I was in the cab of the truck. Once again, there were a number of things that combined to contribute to a bad accident. But the overriding thing was that there wasn't an observer on the tow rig with a ready hook knife.

Another principle of towing then is: Use an observer. Yeah, I know that it's often inconvenient, and we all have done thousands of tows without one, but, having an observer is sort of like wearing a helmet or flying with a parachute. You wear a helmet on a thousand flights hoping you will never need it and being very glad the one time you do need it, that you had it.

Obviously, there is at least one type of towing where an observer is impractical or impossible, aerotow. That means that during an aerotow, several extra precautions need to be in place. The main one is that the tow plane needs a good rear view mirror so that the pilot can act as the observer, and it also needs a reliable tow release at the tug end of the rope so that the pilot can get rid of the towee quickly.

I was consulted recently about a towing fatality. The accident occurred using a stationary winch. I read and listened to all of the reports, and then concluded that the primary cause was the combination of a relatively inexperienced tow operator and a very inexperienced tow pilot. It would have been easy to pin down the accident to, "Well, the pilot should have released from tow, or the winch operator should have cut the power sooner or later, the glider was one difficult to tow, and a number of other things but while all of those factors may have been true, the overriding factor was that no one thing was the cause of such a serious accident. It took a number of factors combined together, to make events go really wrong.

An inexperienced tow operator and an inexperienced tow pilot are a bad combination. The less experienced the operator, the more experienced the pilot must be, and the less experienced the pilot is, the more experienced the tow operator must be. A good tow operator is a 'Master of Disaster'. One who, when things are going wrong, will quickly and confidently take the correct action..

Flying a hang glider (or paraglider) under tow requires learning to fly your glider in a different way than you will do in free flight. It requires learning some concepts that need to be brought to your attention in detail before and as you learn to tow. Thus, you need to receive tow instruction from someone experienced enough to give you information as well as safe flights.

If you have or plan to get some sort of tow system, be sure that you get some appropriate training in the use of your tow system, and do a number of tows with tow trained and experienced pilots before you start towing inexperienced pilots.

A conversation I had with Peter Birren pointed out another area of importance. HE told me of a pilot, who was killed while towing with a static line and a pulley. This arrangement has the driver acting as the observer. But, the pilot had a release failure, and the driver had no way to release the towline from the tow vehicle. There was no observer at the pulley to cut the rope either. Most accidents occur because of an accumulation of mistakes. This accident is much the same. A group may start out with a complete set of safety precautions and practices. Then due to the extengencies of the moment, one or another of these things may be left undone and then over time maybe discontinued entirely with the justification that well, we got away without it this time, maybe we don't need it after all. I suggest that you have a set of minimum standards that must be met before you tow. Review your check lists, weak links, tow releases, tow lines, measurement or monitoring of tow tension, observer methods, hook knives, the use of radio, the use of hand signals, and so forth. Many of these things should not be done without. If basic safety requirements aren't met then don't fly.

Several of these observations go in the face of current towing practice. I showed a 21 year old 8 mm film to my local club, and it was interesting to note that 100% of the pilots in the film, including myself, flew without helmets,. There hasn't been a great rash of hang gliding accidents that convinced pilots over the years that helmets are a necessity. It has been more like an attack of common sense. Likewise, even now, some pilots have the attitude that an observer is seldom or never needed, and that "Real" tow pilots never have to release from a tow. I strongly believe, though, that common sense does tell tow pilots that the principles mentioned in this article are pretty wise. I occasionally give lectures on towing, and I always emphasize a conservative approach to towing , with particular emphasis on using an observer and "Recognize and release". I always meet pilots and tow operators who have come to these same conclusions. What I think is happening is that as towing becomes more and more popular, we become more and more aware that even a one in a thousand occurrence eventually has to happen.

So here is my basic tow safety list:

1. The 100 % Rule. (100 % of your attention must go to the successful completion of a tow.)

2. Recognize and release!

3. Use an observer (capable of instantly cutting or releasing the tow line.)

4. Get instructions either as a tow pilot or a tow operator or both.

5. Establish minimum safe requirements for towing, and if they aren't met, then don't fly.

There are a number of other, more specific ideas for improving safety in each of the different towing disciplines, but these rules are more or less common to all hang glider and paraglider towing and are a good starting place for safety.

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