Never Again Online: Fall from presumption

May 1, 2005

After flying gliders for 13 years without any accidents or incidents — not even a scratch — I had the confidence of a seasoned veteran of the skies. I certainly knew my way around gliders, as well as around and over the mountains.

Until an average midsummer day in Switzerland, partly sunny with a few thermals and not too much wind. The glider pilots of the club I belonged to stood in line as usual on that Saturday. First come, first served. I chose the well-known Schleicher Ka-8, an old and cozy glider like the Schweizer 2-33. Let me have yours, a friend begged me, as he couldn't fly the new Ka-18, for which I had just passed the introduction flights. Well, OK, and I switched, well aware that I didn't have much experience with that sort of glider and its strange propensity to turn sideways when flown too slow. Yes, I was informed that this plane's dive brakes wouldn't lock in automatically and that the radio was out of order. Well, who cares? I thought. We were taught years ago to fly without all of this. Who would drive all the way to the airport, wait in line for a glider, and give up flying only because of malfunctioning dive brakes and a radio I hardly used anyway? In fact, much glider training is accomplished in aircraft without electrical systems.

I took off behind the towplane. We crossed the Aare River, turned left toward the steep Jura Mountains, and gained altitude. The airspeed indicator showed 100 kilometers per hour — fine so far. The towplane pilot was told that, since my glider lacked a working radio, wiggling my wings would mean that I wanted to get off the rope. Click, and I was off on my own. The airspeed indicator showed a stubborn 100 km/h. Fine with me. I was looking for a thermal; I turned in and was surprised by the unchanged speed. Funny, I had the feeling I was flying much slower. Why worry — maybe the speedometer was gone too, but who needs it anyway? Senses are the glider pilot's backbone, and this makes him so special in comparison with all the engine-dependent pilots. Right?

I was gliding along a ridge back and forth, always in the visible vicinity of the airport, like a homing pigeon. Right above the treeline of the flattened peak of the highest mountains around, I found just enough updraft to stay put, thanks to my flying as slow as possible and as low as I dared, just over the treeline, where there are quite often feeble thermals to be found. Back and forth I flew, in a long-drawn figure eight, smiling down at two hikers who waved at me whenever I flew over them. I was just happy to soar, never intending to fly anywhere in particular. Just soaring, enjoying the feeling of freedom, was all that ever counted for me as a glider pilot.

After about 45 minutes, a shattering sound, like the one of a gunshot, shook me up, short and shrill, right behind me. I tried to turn my head to look back. Something must have hit me. Yet the glider flew on, showing a steady 100 km/h on its airspeed indicator. I decided to leave the ridge, and get more distance above the ground. I knew I needed at least 1,000 feet to be able to jump with my parachute.

"Turn away from the ridge now!" a shrill voice screamed in my head. The glider turned to the right — away from the mountains — but at the same time it began to dip strangely and sideways to the right. Was I going too slowly? I tried to push the nose down to gain speed. Nothing happened. The glider raced toward the treeline. Nose up! was all I could think of. Again, nothing happened. The glider was out of control.

I will never forget the first pine tree I hit — huge, beautiful, and with an enormous number of cones on its uppermost branches. The top of the tree flew away and with it two-thirds of my glider's right wing. I stared at the remaining stump in amazement. For a split second the surroundings changed to an unbelievable environment of the brightest colors I had ever seen, a flash of brilliance. The dark trees were of the brightest green and the actually grayish sky shimmered in a turquoise blue out of this world. "That's it; the end," was all I could think of. The glider turned sharply on its right side and crashed into the next huge pine tree, where it sort of stuck and then slipped down on its right wing's stump, cutting away all the heavy branches. An almost unbearable noise of shattering material and branches rang in my ears. I closed my eyes and cramped myself into a fetal position. My life was over and I knew it. There was no fear, no panic, no recall of the past, not even hope or sadness — just plain bewilderment. The glider crashed to the ground in a final shriek of crushing metal. Then silence.

I was sitting upright, quite a distance away from the wreckage. How I made it there I don't know. The first things that came to me were the singing of the birds and an almost unbearable headache. The birds could well be residents of heaven but what about the headache? "Life after death isn't that different, after all," was the first thought I could remember. Then the desperate screams of two men — the two hikers who had waved to me sometime ago — digging through the wreckage in search of victims brought me back to reality. Aware of the wreckage, I jumped up and ran uphill despite the completely mutilated muscles in both of my legs and the blood running down into my eyes, blinding me. The two hikers couldn't figure out where this screaming woman came from as she stumbled over rocks toward them. Who are you? Where is the pilot? I understood their questions surprisingly well, but I could not answer. I didn't even remember my name and had no idea where I came from or where I wanted to go. I just felt sheer and unexplainable panic, but absolutely no pain at all — even the headache had inexplicably disappeared.

I only wanted to flee from the horrible scene. When the two well-trained hikers finally calmed me down, I collapsed, on top of the mountain. Nature indeed has a wonder drug in its store: adrenaline!

Down at the airport my husband, Herb, a glider pilot as well, was waiting to be towed up when he heard the agitated voice of another pilot high up over the mountain ridge. He had just spotted the wreckage that looked like the leftovers of a glider. All the glider pilots in the air were ordered to answer and to land immediately. Herb knew that my radio was not working. When all the other gliders came down, one after the other — all but one — he realized in a shocking instant that it was me up there on the steep rocky mountain ridge where there was no way for an ambulance to get to me.

Thanks to his experience as an officer in the Swiss Civil Defense Force, he knew what to do. He sent for a rescue helicopter, which found me right away and brought me down to the local hospital.

It took me a long time to get back to normal. My sight was impaired; I had to learn how to write again, to walk straight, and to speak in understandable sentences. Now after several years I'm almost whole. What did not come back was my former self-confidence. I have never flown a glider on my own again.

What can one learn from this accident? Never overestimate the value of your senses! You need a working airspeed indicator, even if you are an experienced pilot. Dive brakes that don't lock in properly are a no-go item for a glider. Do not neglect "little" things like certain malfunctions you think are not that important. Taken together, they are! Accidents often happen as a result of more than only one unlucky coincidence. And flying as slowly as possible just to stay up longer doesn't keep you up in any case, especially when you are too low to survive the slightest miscalculation. The sink rate depends on forward speed. At low speeds, there are two forward speeds for the same sink rate: Choose the higher forward speed, for safety's sake! Look it up in your pilot's operating handbook before it is too late!

Soaring is one of the most exhilarating ways of flying and enjoying the beauty of our Earth. Put safety before your senses, and you will stay up as long as possible, come down by your own will, and live to do it again.


Ursula Wiehl is a glider pilot and a flight attendant living in Switzerland.


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Posted Thursday, May 05, 2005 9:44:14 AM