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British Gliding - The 2003 Accident Record
By John Hoskins
John, whose flying hours of 14 500 include 1600 on gliders and a total of 6000 as an instructor, trained with the AAIB (Air Accidents Investigation Board) as a fatal accident investigator for the British Gliding Association. Now as the Senior Fatal Accident Investigator for the BGA, he has not only given us a summary of this year's accidents but has looked more deeply into the causes and made some sound comments
This has been a bad year for British gliding in so far as the accident record is concerned. To date (September 18th) I have reviewed 122 accident reports submitted to the BGA and know that others have occurred which for various reasons have not been reported. We have had six fatalities, innumerable serious accidents involving spinal damage and broken limbs, destroyed a large number of gliders and damaged even more. These accidents have been the result of a variety of causes, most avoidable with a little more care and a retreat from the cavalier attitude adopted by far too many glider pilots of a wide range of experience and ability. Apart from the shocking loss of life and the distressing effect this has on families and the personal pain suffered by pilots who survive but are badly injured, what sort of effect is this having on the insurance premiums of those who are taking care? Will eventually the CAA or the Health and Safety Executive take notice of the type of accidents we are having and insist on far more restrictive control? What are these accidents, when reported in the press, doing to our public image?
There are four causes this year that give me the greatest concern:
-Late field selection.
-Poorly judged final glides in competitions.
-Too early and too rapid rotation into full climb attitude during winch launches.
Late Field Selection I count 15 accidents this year that have occurred when gliders have been landing in fields. Most of these, when push comes to shove, can be clearly identified as appalling airmanship in that the decision to land has been made too late to even give a chance of an abbreviated inspection of the field, its orientation in relation to the wind and no time for the most rudimentary circuit and approach. It is as if the minds of the pilots have closed themselves utterly to the fact that a medium level urgent search for elusive lift steadily becomes a low-level desperate search, with the consequent logarithmic narrowing of options for a safe return to earth.We all know the answer. We must increase our efforts to ensure that when lift begins to fail at a respectable height, we acknowledge that the likelihood of a field landing increases in inverse proportion to the height beneath the belly of the glider. By all means continue to search for lift, but not with so much concentration that no mental capacity is left to observe the ground beneath us and employ the mental mathematics of getting safely into a previously selected field. This should be into wind if possible, but without question with the capability of safely arresting forward motion short of the far dry stone wall.
Final Glides. So far this year (to my knowledge) we have a landing in a quarry (substantial damage), a landing on a main road (write-off), a landing just short of the perimeter track (no damage) and last year - but still very much in my memory - a landing in a tree in a car-park (substantial damage). Luckily there have been no injuries to the pilots concerned but, even more fortunately, they didn't hit anybody else.Can we really go on behaving in this irresponsible manner if we wish to be accepted as considerate sporting people indulging in an elegant and adult pastime and who are urgently needing new recruits?There is another aspect to Final Glides, and that is the reverse of the low energy failings - the high energy exhibitionism at the expense of the 500ft rule. It may be great fun, and could even be considered safe in the hands of a skilful and knowledgeable pilot. But is it a good example to the less experienced who may try, without the skill or the knowledge, to emulate their idols? Again the answer to this problem is within our grasp. Do away with the zero altitude finish line on the airfield perimeter. All competitions now require the use of a logger to ensure compliance with airspace restrictions. We do not need a visual finish line. Make the line a 6km wide line at 90° to the inbound track and one kilometre out. This has a minimum crossing height (dependent on Class - lowest for Open, highest for Club) but ensures that a safe return to the field can be made in a manner decided by the Director. Penalties should be imposed for finishes below the specified height at an appropriate rate. If the returning exhibitionist is alone in the sky, the Director allows, and he/she has sufficient energy, he/she can still make a fast approach on finals, pull up and go round again. However, although I personally also enjoy a "beat-up" I fail to see why - in some pilots eyes - this should be obligatory at the end of a hard fought and exciting five or six hour flight when exhaustion has depleted one's reserves and errors are so easily made.
Winch Launches. We have had several accidents during the initial part of the winch launch, one of which was a fatality. The fundamental problem in each of these has been the pilot (usually not receiving instruction or an early solo pilot but with a modicum of experience), failing to achieve sufficient airspeed before rotating into the climb. It is crass stupidity during take-off to put any aircraft into such a nose high attitude that in the event of a "thrust" failure the drag of the airframe will slow the machine below stalling speed before recovery action can be taken. This is of paramount importance on a winch launch since the load on the wings is increased to such an extent that the normal stalling speed can, as a consequence, be increased by as much as 50% - from 34 to 51kts in K-13 or the like.DON'T DO IT!!! This problem can be further exacerbated by the presence of a crosswind during the launch. Without going into details, any rudder or aileron applied to correct drift during the rotation will cause the downwind wing to stall first and a flick is very much on the cards. It will not happen if you are safely above stalling speed (up to 150% of normal) before you rotate.
Mid-air Collisions. We have had two so far this year. Luckily no-one was hurt although three aircraft are (I am told) irreparable.There are two aspects of this. The first is in the cause. Both accidents followed a similar pattern. One pilot was close behind another when the leading aircraft pulled into a turn to enter a thermal. Can I commend to you the following principle?:-If you are so close to another glider that you are unable to carry out a normal scan for the presence of other aircraft in the sky around you for fear that any change in the flight path of the glider in front will present an immediate danger to you, YOU ARE TOO B****Y CLOSE..Secondly, in the hopefully unlikely event you are involved in a collision, think very carefully before you stay with a glider that is still functioning after a nasty bang. At least one person has died because he thought the aircraft was OK but it was not. I know it is a nice comfortable environment in the cockpit, and the air out there is hostile, but parachute designers know their stuff. Make sure you are well versed in the escape procedures you need to adopt in YOUR glider and be mentally prepared to use them. Better a discrepancy between your take-off totals and your landing totals than no discrepancy and a curtailment of your logbook entries.
Conclusion:The basic principle in all of the above is use your common sense. We all know how at some time we have heaved a big sigh of relief as we walk away from a nasty situation with an intact body and airframe, a more rapidly pumping heart and the sure knowledge that we nearly did it that time!. The solution to a better accident rate lies in all our hands and it is up to us to use the brains we were given from the time we leave home/caravan/tent till the time we have the first beer of the evening. After that they are probably scrambled anyway.