How To Crash

Rob Wenban
 
So you’ve forgotten all the lessons about landing setup, you’ve misjudged the wind direction, you’ve stalled in the final turn…. you’re going in, an up close and personal meeting with Mother Nature, you are about to crash. So, what now hot shot?
You have a death grip on the uprights, your body is rigid, your eyes are big and your pants are getting warm and sticky. As the glider plows into the ground you swing through the A-fame. The torsional stresses on your humerus exceed manufacturers’ specs, the bone twists and snaps with a spiral fracture. That’s going to need surgery, plates, screws, time off work and time away from flying. Your face slams into the ground just before the keel smacks down on the back of your head, cracking your stupid bicycle helmet, and your head, like an egg.
This article is not about avoidance. At this point you’ve already failed that class. I’m assuming that you’ve heard it all before. You’ve probably even given lots of advice to newbies about avoidance, but somehow you’ve still managed to do what we’ve all done at some point. You’ve reached the point of no return.
This article is about how to make the best of a bad situation. It’s about how to hit the ground without doing too much damage, minimising your hospital time and being able fly again another day.
I’m going to cover the most common forms of crash and try to give a condensed version of experience that I’ve gained from crashing a lot over the years and also from picking some of the most experienced brains in the business.

Prime Points

  1. Use Wheels.
    Yeah, yeah, I know, they look dorky, you look like a learner and they’re draggy. Bollocks! Unless you’re able to fly your glider to the absolute limit of its capacity AND you’re so good that you can tell the difference in the coefficient of drag with or without wheels AND that difference is what’s going to stop you from being World Champion, then use wheels. You will lose more performance through bad flying than you will through a set of wheels. Don’t believe me? Rohan won Corryong in a Sting 3, against a field of very good pilots in full carbon topless racers. Think about that. Better glider? Less drag? Nope, better pilot. Use wheels!
  2. Break the glider, not your body.
    You can buy new bits of glider, not new bits of body. Do whatever you can to make some part of the glider hit before you do – any part. Who cares if you break the leading edge? Bend another upright? Write off the entire glider? Who cares? You’re alive – that’s the bottom line.
  3. Assume The Position.
    If you have a short attention span and can’t focus long enough to read the whole article, then just read this bit. Or if you’re really lazy go to the first of the Video Examples below.
    This is what I mean by “Assume The Position”:

    1. Relax
    2. Let go with one hand
    3. Wrap your free hand across your chest
    4. Look into your other armpit like a swimmer

Why?

  1. Drunks and babies rarely get hurt when they fall, because they’re relaxed. A bone will break more readily if it’s already loaded by tight muscles. Think of the MotoGP riders when they “rag-doll” down the road at 300kph. They get up, throw their helmet on the ground and walk away.
  2. If you let go with one hand you will swing through the A-frame with your body rotating around your gripping hand. This has two good effects. First, your body will swing through the A-frame around your gripping hand, causing you to hit the other upright with your other hip. Second, your head won’t hit the keel. If the most delicate part of you body hits the strongest part of the glider only bad things can result.
  3. Wrapping your free hand across your chest means you’ll roll your shoulder under, just like a judo break-fall, spreading the impact across your back and shoulders. Doing this will add extra protection to important things like heart and lungs. It also means that you will probably hit the other upright with the back-plate of your harness, the strongest part.
  4. Looking into your other armpit turns your face away from the impact point. If you have a full-face helmet the chin bar will rest on your chest or collar bone, avoiding excess flexion forces onto your neck.

So we now know how to “Assume The Position”, let’s look at individual scenarios.

Flared Too Soon

We can sum this one up in two words – HOLD IT! If you hold the flare (assuming you’re not 20 feet up) the worst that will happen is that you will fall back to earth keel and feet first (strong bits). You’ll probably drop the bar, you might even bend the stinger or bend an upright, but you will be OK. If you try to back out and lower the nose to “save” the flare you will almost certainly drop the nose, drop the bar and probably face-plant (weak bits).

 

Flared Too Late

You’re going to end up on your belly. If you have wheels you will have a laugh and dust yourself off. If you’re so good that don’t need wheels because you’re a gun and you never crash then you’re going to need to Assume The Position. You’ll probably be making yet another addition to your charming aluminium wind chime.

 

Landing Downwind
That ground seems to be going past pretty fast huh! You’ve got two choices here. If you’re smart and you have wheels, just run it in on your belly and the wheels – no problem. If you’re a dunce and you don’t have wheels, you’d better flare really, really hard and get ready to run really, really fast. If you find you can’t out run it…. Assume The Position and get ready to get out your credit card.

 

Tree Landing

Stay zipped in – this will reduce the possibility of cuts, scratches and new piercings. Treat the top of the tree like the ground and flare down flat onto the canopy. Once you have settled into the top of the tree then you can consider climbing down. If you’re higher than you’re prepared to fall, stay there and use your radio. You’re much safer in your harness and in radio contact than in a crumpled heap on the ground from a failed climb-down. If you’re flying in areas where a tree landing is possible (the alps) always carry a roll of dental floss and a whistle in your harness. You use the whistle to attract attention and the dental floss to haul a rope up from your rescuers.

 

Tall Grass Or Scrub

Treat the top of the grass/scrub like the surface of the ground – regardless of how long it is. Fly it in, flare it and flop through the undergrowth, you’ll be fine.

 

Fences

Do what the birds do. Flare, put your feet forward and make sure they hit the fence first. If you’re a bit high you will bounce over the top and flop down on the other side. If you’re a bit low you will bounce back off the fence onto your feet or your bum.

 

People/Animals

This is more common than most would think, especially at the beach. The dreaded General Public will stand there and watch you like bunnies in the headlights as you mow them down. They don’t understand that we have no brakes and limited maneuverability at low speed. Make as much noise as you can; shout, scream or whistle. “Get out of the way”, “No brakes, No brakes”. This is not a time for politeness. If collision seems inevitable treat them like a fence. It’s much better to shove them with your flat feet than wack them with your pointy glider. Then Assume The Position.

 

Caught A Tip On The Dunes

No time to do anything here but Assume The Position – you’re going in Sunshine.

 

Caught In The Venturi

You’re stuck in the valley, getting sucked down and back. What to do? Head for the most vertical ground. Ground that is more vertical means less lateral airflow, means better penetration, better lift, all of which means “get out of jail free”.

 

Caught Behind The Hill

If you can’t get around the side and can’t get over the top, turn tail and run. Head downwind and to one side as far you can get. The most severe rotor will be nearer the hill/edge so the further you get away from that, the better. If you can get far enough downwind you can generally turn back into wind and land without too much drama.

 

Still Water (the ocean, river or lake)

Treat the surface of the water like the ground. Land into wind unzipped and as “out” of your harness as you can manage in the air. The glider will float for quite a while due to the plugged tubes so you’ve got time to unhook then get out of your harness. There’s more room to escape from under the glider at the trailing edge than the front so head that way. Your harness will float due to the closed cell foam that’s used, plus it may have Styrofoam in the boot. If your helmet is certified it will also have a Styrofoam liner and will therefore float quite well. What you do after you get out depends on how far from shore you are. If you’re “at sea” stay with your glider as long as you can so you can be seen. If you’re close to shore and are confident of your swimming ability then ditch your shoes, use your “floaty bits” and head for land.

 

The Surf

How shall I put this…? If you land in the surf, especially in the impact zone, you are probably going to die. Really? Yes, really! Consider this…. a Fun 190 with 30cm of water on top of it weighs 5,385kg – think about that for minute. That’s two Land Cruisers. It WILL crush you. Therefore, if you have a choice between a spectacular cartwheeling downwind crash on the beach and an elegant landing in the surf, Assume The Position, take your medicine like a big boy and crash on the beach.

 

Zipper is Jammed

Most good quality modern harnesses have the zippers installed with a Velcro strip to cater for this eventuality. If so, you can kick your way out of your harness by bending one knee really hard to pull open the Velcro. Then it’s just a normal landing. If you don’t have Velcro don’t stuff about trying to release the zipper, just concentrate on flying. Set up your approach and land as you normally would but bring it in on the wheels. What’s that you say? You don’t use wheels? They’re for learners and wimps? Well, you’d better Assume The Position.

 

Video Examples

Here is an example of how to properly Assume The Position: (fast forward to 4:17)
Here is an example of not Assuming The Position: (fast forward to 4:17)
Here is an example of why you use wheels: (fast forward to 9:27)

Acknowledgements

Special thanks must go to Ikarus1015 (Kajo) and to Merv for having the guts to put their videos into the public domain. Without people like them we would have to see a lot more pilot injuries (or worse) before we learnt what to do. On behalf of the rest of the flying community, thank you both. Thanks also to Rohan Holtkamp for his many pearls of wisdom.

About the Author

I started flying at 14 years old in sailplanes, then GA, then hang gliders, back to GA, then ultralights, then microlights and back to hang gliders.

When I started hang gliding in 1975 there were no schools and no instructors, so we were all self-taught. As a result we crashed an awful lot. It was literally done by trial and error. Some people broke bones and some of us died. I’ve never professed to be a hotshot pilot. I’ve never even been in a competition, much less won anything. However I have personally crashed in every one of the above scenarios, more than once in a couple of cases (slow learner!). So I guess the fact that I’m still here to talk about it makes me at least a little qualified to talk about it. I hope you’ve found it useful and that it helps to turn disasters into pub stories.

Disclaimer: The advice I give here has worked for me, but it might not work for you. I still urge you to get regular expert instruction. Fly within your limits. Fly with pilots who are more experienced than you, pick their brains, use the experience they bought with their crashes. Always use your best discretion and if in doubt don’t fly – the sky will always be there.