On 27/12/02, pilot Michael Chen (Chen Dz-Yung) died at Saichia after falling from his harness. His death is tragic both in the sense of loss to his family and friends, but also in the sense that this is a well documented scenario and its repetition is therefore pointless. Having once had the experience of failing to fasten my legstraps and almost falling, I find the accident especially horrifying.
In the last few years great efforts had been to remedy alarming number of pilots who were dying in this kind of accident. The countries that had the larger pilot populations were showing the trend earlier and were thus more active in the search for effective remedial action.
The most obvious step was the invention and introduction on the market of the safety legstrap systems which range from a simple extra strap running between the legs to a T-bar (safe-t-bar), without which the chest-strap buckle cannot be closed, to a fully integrated system which combines the leg strap buckles to the paraglider carabiners and allows the glider to be attached to the harness only after the leg straps are fastened.
You will see that most new harnesses have the safe-t-bar system as it’s effective, cheap and easy to adapt to current harness designs.
Michael Chen was in his second or third season of flying and considered a competant pilot by his flying buddies. The morning of the accident he was a little slow, perhaps hungover. The day had not looked promising, being overcast and windless. Michael had started laying out his gear, throwing his harness over his shoulders while opening his glider. At some point he had closed the neoprene front cover on his Optima harness (aerodynamic panel to cover the harness front, including the straps and buckles), even though he had not closed any of the buckles. The Optima harness is equipped with the safe-t-bar system, but as he had not closed the chest strap buckle, it was not in use.
During his set up, the wind picked up and he hurried to launch while the wind was favorable. He quickly put on helmet and gloves, turned to the glider and pulled up in a reverse launch. Someone at the launch area gate saw him running to gain speed and noticed the harness looked strange, but was too far away for his shouts to be heard.
It seems Michael quickly noticed the problem as he started slipping from the harness shortly after launching. There were several experienced pilots and instructors on launch and they all started calling to the victim to either turn and make a tree landing, or fly quickly to the LZ for landing.
Michael first flew off in the direction of the landing area, then turned back toward the hill. It was seen he was still holding the brake toggles. There was enough lift that he did not gain or lose significant altitude. After about 3 minutes he slipped further from the harness and pulled the brakes far enough that the glider stalled. He then fell from the harness at about 300 meters agl and probably died on impact from head and abdominal injuries.
The fact that he was flying with a safe-t-bar equipped harness did not save his life, neither did his experience. I think we should take this as a reminder that all the technology available is not going to help us if we ignore basic safety precautions. Among the first things we are taught is correct and thorough preparation of our equipment and this includes a systematic approach to the pre-flight. It’s essential to have an ordered sequence to follow in preparing ourselves and our equipment for flight.
It may be that the victim’s observed tired or less than alert state prevented him from performing the routine he normally adhered to. It could be that he was preparing his gear for a later flight and hadn’t intended to launch at that time, and so skipped part of his normal routine. I think it’s essential that we prepare for flight any and every time we are on a launch deck, and decide to put the harness on while it’s clipped to a glider.
- If you put the harness on your shoulders, do the legstraps up.
- If it’s uncomfortable to move around with the harness on, take it off.
- If you are interrupted during setup, start over, from the legstraps.
- If you make a change to your equipment, go back and check over your old setup steps.
- Be aware that front reserve containers, ballast bags etc. restrict your view of your buckles.
It seems the victim was not briefed on how to recover from the unstrapped position and get back into the harness, though this is not a requirement of any training regimen to my knowlege. Perhaps this should be adopted as a required task in the Novice exam.
Another issue with this particular accident is the conflicting advice given to the pilot after launch which may possibly have contributed to his death. Having several people yelling differing commands to a pilot is not helpful when he’s probably in a state of panic. I strongly urge the well-intentioned observers to leave this task to the site safety officer or the pilot’s own instructor if present.