I always wanted to be able tell one of those lurid semi-tall tales of hang gliding that begin, "There I was, thought I was going to die," but my hang gliding career had always been uneventful and I had nothing on which to base one. Then I went to the '91 Hobbs, New Mexico tow meet, and everything changed.
There I was, thought I was going to die! It's funny, but that is so wrong I could laugh. My life didn't flash before my eyes. I was too busy looking for the handle to my parachute. I made the best left-handed deployment I could, considering that I had never expected having to do one (being totally right-handed). Then the chute didn't open. But then, I never expected to break my right arm under tow at 600 feet either.
I was on my first competition tow for the second day of the Hobbs tow meet, climbing nicely at 600 feet when I hit a major chunk of turbulence. The glider turned hard to the left, and I corrected strongly to the right. I heard a sickening snap and my right arm quit working. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I mean, my arm felt like it had vanished but I looked and it was still there. I tried to move it. Not there. Right about then, I said "God damn, oh s..." and the VOX on my radio worked perfectly. Two little kids on the ground heard me over the USHGA band and ran over to their mom and said, "Did you hear that? He said the 'S' word." The mom, having just seen me fall out of the sky, said "He's entitled."
I made an abortive attempt to control the glider with one hand, but the glider kept turning left. As the left wing tip of the glider passed between me and the ground, I grabbed the handle of my chute and tried to throw it. They said later that I had the chute out very quickly but it fell straight down. The wings of my glider folded even before the chute came down. It appeared that the chute got whacked by a wing tip, or possibly it just malfunctioned. Pilots on the ground were chanting "open, open, open" as I came down in a whirling gyrating mess that the air had made of my hang glider.
Meanwhile back up there, I was spinning so fast the horizon was going blue, brown, blue, brown. I was sure my chute hadn't opened. Being afraid I had deployed my camera instead of my parachute, I felt my chest pack. It was empty. I reached for the bridle to my parachute, not knowing how I could pull it in with one hand but planning to give it one hell of a yank. I couldn't find it, but the tow line was still attached, and tight as a bow string. I couldn't decide if this was good or bad, however I was pretty sure I wasn't climbing, so I was certain it would loosen soon. I continued falling. I couldn't tell how high I was, so I felt my chest pack again, just to be sure. Yup, no chute. I felt for my bridle again, yup, tow line still tight. On the ground, people saw that I had changed from one type of whirling gyrating mess to another. Instead of gyrating around the tow rope, the glider and I were gyrating around each other. I must have released myself when I felt the tow line the second time. This was apparently the right thing to do. What observers told me was that 20 feet above the ground I was head down. At the moment everything hit, I was on an upswing relative to the whirling mess, and I hit feet first. So I laid there about a quarter of a second before every paramedic in Hobbs arrived at my feet. I was already making a physical inventory. Yeah, arm still broke. Right ankle stings. Must be broken, sprains feel different. Otherwise, I felt perfectly normal. I wasn't ready to get up and go jogging but considering the options I felt good. The paramedics were considerably less optimistic about my prognosis. They strapped me into a neck cuff and back board. My son David showed up about this time. He was very reassured to find me alive and kicking. The sun was getting into my eyes so I asked for my polarized Bausch & Lomb sunglasses. Now I could not only lie there surviving, but I could also be cool. So there I was lying on the ground, looking cool and taking a physical inventory of my body parts. The real puzzle was why my arm broke. I thought of bone cancer first, then osteoporosis because of my advanced age of 49. Suddenly, I remembered I had been nursing a sore arm for a week. On a tandem flight the previous week, I had taken a bad hit to my right arm from my passenger on a bad landing. I must have gotten a crack in my upper right arm. When I hit the thermal and put all my strength into a correction, my arm broke.
Later I was to find that I had a spiral multiple high energy fracture. Literally, my arm had exploded into many parts. But lying there on the ground, I had to focus on the issue at hand. How badly hurt was I? Would I ever fly again? In the final analysis, though, I felt great. I was still alive.
I spent the next 48 hours in a hospital bed waiting to be operated on. I was in too high spirits and too obnoxiously healthy to be considered a real emergency, so a broken pelvis and a hemorrhoidectomy or two snuck in ahead of me. My arm wasn't set and the doctors had warned me about possible nerve damage, so I didn't move more than a few inches for those two days. I got to watch America's funniest videos, hoping that I wouldn't be in a starring role. The high point of that time was all the pilots who came to visit. The low time was the doctor reading the x-rays and telling me how hard the arm was going to be to reassemble. My ankle was only dislocated, and the doctor reduced it on the spot with my assistance. He held my foot and said "pull your knee back." I did, there was a click and my foot was back straight. The operation came and went. Two doctors spent four and a half hours with steel and screws, duct tape and crazy glue. It was their opinion that I would regain use of the arm, in say, about four months.
Meanwhile everybody was telling me about the great videotapes of my accident. I hadn't seen any of them when I left town to go home after the end of the meet. Everyone else had. They were all telling me how lucky I was to be alive, just in case I hadn't already figured it out. Thus ends the tale of my Hobbs accident. The only thing about it stranger than what I have related is that it is all true. I'm sitting at home with my broken arm and dislocated ankle, not able to walk and barely able to type. I'm still grinning because I'm alive. Not being able to do much else, I have been analyzing the accident and figuring what I could learn from it. The obvious comes to mind. Don't break your arm while in flight. But why did my arm break? Two of the orthopedic surgeons on my case believe that there probably was no preexisting condition and I must have broken my arm just from making a very powerful correction. Their reasoning is that the arm would have just snapped at the existing crack and not exploded in eight or ten parts as it did. The third doctor and I believe that it couldn't be a coincidence that I received a major blow to that arm the week before. There will never be a definite answer to this question. My advice: if you ever have an accident that could have broken a bone, don't fly until you know it is healed. Don't trust x-rays either. This type of injury may not show up on the x-ray, especially the few days after it happens.
I also thought about the strong flight correction with which I broke my arm. I believe that in the future I will be better off to release from tow rather than fight the turbulence.
At first, I thought that my accident must be unique in the history of hang gliding. But then I realized that if I had not come down alive and conscious, no one would have guessed my arm broke in flight. Several stories I have heard since seem to imply that others may have had a similar thing happen but died without telling the tale.
Why did my glider break so quickly after I let go of the control bar? Well, the jury is out on that, but I had inspected the glider just before the meet and it was in great shape. If I ever get a copy of one of the videotapes of my fall, I will be better able to evaluate the timing and perhaps the cause of the failure of the glider. Photos suggest that my glider folded even before my chute was out, and that a crossbar was the first thing to go. Apparently, practically every tube in my glider but the control bar and the other crossbar broke before I hit the ground. Photos indicate that I was still holding onto the basetube with my broken arm well after the glider had totally failed, so it is unlikely that I hit the crossbar with my body. My recollection of the fall is that I was never anywhere near the airframe of the glider as I fell.
Why did my parachute not open? Well, it has a swivel on it, but the swivel never came into play. I threw the chute left-handed without being able to brace myself. I ripped it out from the top to the bottom and threw it toward my feet in one motion. At the time, I didn't think I had gotten a good toss but had perhaps dropped it. Witnesses confirm that it fell straight down, then the glider fell past it. It was streaming behind as I fell with a bubble the size of a medicine ball in it. Apparently my decent rate was too low to open the parachute, considering it seemed to have gotten tangled as the glider fell past it. The parachute may have been caught in the turbulence behind the wreckage as well. In the past, I have been advised to pull the parachute back with the bridle to get it to open. Can anyone tell me how to get to the parachute bridle if it is at the carabiner behind your back and you are spinning? I didn't notice the G force. I was busy with other things but I would guess it was well over two G's.
Should I have released the tow line before I threw the chute? Anyone's guess is as good as mine, but I think I should have. Did I panic and throw the parachute instead of releasing? No, I saw the wing tip pass between me and the ground, and I chose the parachute first. My many years of towing, starting in 1972, have conditioned me that letting go of the control bar with both hands is a no-no, and I wasn't going to let go of the control bar with the only hand I had left except to throw my chute. When I was towing with fixed-point tow bars I was always flying with the release levers under my finger tips, and I got out of more than one unpleasant situation by releasing at a moment's notice. I am planning to incorporate this into my current tow release as I am told some aero tow pilots are doing. Would a rocket have helped me? I think that I would have had a clean chute deployment with a ballistic parachute. Since I have a 22-gore chute, I probably would not even have dislocated my ankle on impact with the ground. The next time I fly, I will have a ballistic chute, or two.
I expect to be towing in four to six months.
There is a joke in the title of this article. Anyone who gets
it can have some of my luck (hopefully, only the good luck that
caused my arm to break towing a hang glider instead of on Central
Expressway during rush hour).
I had a conversation just the other day with a fellow pilot, Bob Mackey from San Diego. He was competing at Hobbs and was next to fly after me on my tow rig. He both observed my fall from the sky, and the videotape of it. He was able to offer a clear and totally reasonable explanation for why my glider failed. His explanation was that my glider was entering a spiral dive while still under tow, as a consequence of my inability to control the glider with a broken arm. The glider had already reached an unknown but no doubt very high airspeed when I released the control bar to throw the chute. The instant I released the control bar, the glider's nose pitched up radically and the crossbar almost instantly failed, much as gliders have failed in high speed pullouts during aerobatics. The tow force would have added 175 lb. to the G load on the glider.
Examination of my glider's airframe shows that the left crossbar failed about one foot inboard of its center. Photos show that immediately after chute deployment, the leading edges were intact and the wings were folded up at a 45x angle away from the pilot. This corroborates Bob's observations. Theory says that if a glider normally stalls at 20 mph, then at 60 mph the glider will stall at nine G's. Some hang glider manufacturers speculate that if a glider's nose is allowed to pitch up rapidly, the G forces generated may greatly exceed the theoretical limits. The cause of this would be that the air flow doesn't separate instantly from the wing surface, thus causing the wing to stall at a higher G loading. I am told that the manufacturers are planning to test this soon.
I have been asked numerous times why my weak link didn't break. Payout winches being used for platform launch pay out line at a preset tension, no matter what the payout velocity. The line tension (which should not be confused with brake line pressure) is typically 100 to 175 lb. At launch, due to the inertia of the rope, drum, starter motor, etc., and due to the difference between the coefficients of static friction and dynamic friction, the actual line tension momentarily exceeds the preset tension. The weak link must be stronger than this momentary excess tension or the weak link will fail on launch. Thus the strength of a usable weak link will be a fair amount greater than the preset line tension of the payout winch. So, as long as the payout winch is functioning normally, a sound weak link of the proper strength will never fail. The weak link is actually needed to protect against a winch malfunction, but contrary to popular belief, it cannot protect against lockouts or other flying problems. Yet more: Thanks to Ruven Av-Tal who took the video and Bob Mackey who sent it to me, I have now seen my fall from the sky. The video shows that I had turned almost 360x and was in a more than vertical dive when I released the control bar to reach for the parachute handle. I estimate that the glider was at between 400 and 300 feet going 60 to 70 mph when I released the control bar. The video shows that the glider's nose pitched up 90x in less than a second, and the glider failed so quickly that the moment of failure couldn't be seen.
It's no longer a mystery why my chute didn't open. I was coming down so slowly that the chute almost fell on top of me as the glider and I fell. I think that the tow line still being attached actually slowed me down. The glider seemed to act as a bizarre rotating kite. From the moment my glider broke until I hit the ground took about 17 seconds or about 15 mph. My final thoughts are this. Generally, I believe that platform tow launch is as safe or safer than mountain launch, but my accident points out how unforgiving towing a hang glider can be if the pilot is poorly trained or incapacitated. But then, I think about a recent mountain flight where I was rolled 80x to the left by turbulence about 30 seconds after launch, and about 100 feet above the trees. Think about it.
An Addendum Much Later...
The predicted outcome of the healing of my broken arm turned out to be wrong. It took 2 years 3 months and a second operation to get me back in the air on a hang glider. There was an unexpected outcome. I am now a paraglider instructor as well as a hang glider instructor. This was forced on me by my need to get back into the air. A paraglider seemed to be a reasonable solution while the bone of my arm was too weak to support hang gliding. I now have a large titanium plate re-enforcing my arm and I am able to bench press pretty much the same weight as before the arm broke.
The wonders of the Internet provided me with an answer to the unanswerable question posed me by my accident. Why did my arm break? It is almost in-conceivable that an orthopedic specialist wouldn't have known this, but none of the doctors I talked to thought of it. It is well known that in the process of healing a fractured bone, even a microscopic stress fracture not visible in an x-ray, the body decalcifies the bone extremely as part of the process of healing. Thus someone who has a small stress fracture is very vulnerable to other fractures in the same area. The decalcification maximizes between 1 and 2 weeks after the original injury. My arm broke in the air, 8 days after the original injury. Jim Palmeri pointed out that runners who stress fracture their feet but keep running often have worse injuries caused by this phenomena.
I am absolutely sure that this is what happened. There is no other reasonable explanation. Thus, a pilot who receives a heavy blow to his arm should consider giving him or herself some time to recover before getting back into the air.
Another thought. The most common injury in hang gliding is a broken arm. It is important to protect those arms in case of bad landings or accidents.
If you do break an arm, consider. I know several pilots who broke
an arm and then subsequently broke the arm again in flight. Those
pilots resumed flying before healing was complete. EVEN THOUGH
the doctors had cleared them to fly, they weren't ready.. As I
found to my dismay, flying a hang glider in turbulent air puts
extreme stress on the arm. An arm which is not 100%, may not take
it. So if you do break an arm, wait until the doctor tells you
that it couldn't possibly be better healed, to return to the air.