Glider breaks up, pilot lands on hospital

10 Apr 15 4 Comments

I’m feeling that I’d like a happy ending and this accident certainly fits the bill. It’s an amazing incident which ended well for everyone …well, except for the glider.

It happened last Sunday in Reno. Not everything that happens in Reno stays in Reno, apparently.

At around 07:30 local time that morning, a pilot departed Minden-Tahoe airport in a Schleicher ASW-27 glider. The ASW is a 15-metre-class German-built sailplane; the W means that it was developed by the designer Gerhard Waibel. It has a maximum speed of 285 km/h (178mph).

That day the weather was reportedly somewhat variable but a number of gliders departed from Minden that day and had uneventful flights.

I don’t know a lot about gliding but Japlopnik reports that the Reno area is “a kind of Mecca for glider pilots”.

Its unique location nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains creates the ideal location for flying a mountain wave. This oscillating wind creates a massive updraft on the lee side of the ridge, allowing powerless aircraft and their crew the opportunity to fly to extreme altitudes and record breaking distances.

While this mountain wave weather phenomenon requires stable air by definition, there are several hazards associated while flying in the wave. That’s the reason pilots always wear a parachute in the event that the aircraft breaks apart.

The pilot had had a full morning’s gliding and was returning to Minden when he encountered severe winds.

He was at around 14,000 feet and experiencing turbulence while the weather was closing in. He attempted to fly between two large clouds. The gap filled in quickly and he found himself in instrument meteorological conditions: in cloud with no visual reference.

The turbulence was severe. He said that he felt the glider stall and then it began to descend rapidly. The airspeed increased very quickly. Then he remembers hearing two loud pops.

At about 9,000 feet, the glider came out of the clouds and the pilot saw that he was in a spin. He attempted to recover. Then he realised that his left wing was missing. Out of options, he disconnected from the glider with his parachute.

Both of the wings had sheared off in the severe wind and turbulence. It is not clear if the glider exceeded its maximum turbulence penetration or if the wings were maybe fatigued leading to structural damage.

The pilot came down near Circus Circus just before 14:30 local time. It was a hard landing but he couldn’t be more perfectly placed. He landed on the five-story parking structure of St. Mary’s Hospital and was treated on the scene.

The fuselage landed in a nearby alley and caused some damage to parked cars. The left wing was found in Dick Taylor Park, about 2½ kilometres (1½ miles) from the hospital. The right wing has not yet been located.

The initial reports stated that the glider “experienced a malfunction over Reno”, which is an interesting way to describe breaking up in mid-flight.

Reno Police Department reported that the pilot suffered only minor injuries from the hard landing.

The pilot spoke to Reno local news channel 2:

I was going around the clouds and the clouds closed in on me and when you are in a cloud, you can’t tell if you are rightside up or upside down and I ended up upside down and I got going so fast, the wings came off.

It broke both wings off and I had to get rid of the canopy and bail out.

Reno Flying Service President John Burruel spoke to local news channel 4:

Sometimes there is something wrong that you don’t know about with the airplane, some fatigue or stress, metal fatigue is a common thing that you hear about and if you don’t know about that, and you’re staying perfectly within the limits of the airplane, you could still have instances like yesterday.

Because you’re not inspecting as frequently as a commercial airplane is being inspected, it’s possible you don’t know about that fatigue.

So here’s the story: the pilot survived entering cloud and going into a spin leading to the glider breaking up with only minor injuries which were treated at the hospital he near as damnit landed on.

Hard to get better than that.

Category: Accident Reports,

4 Comments

  • Finally again a story with a happy ending !
    Metal fatigue is highly unlikely as the cause of the in-flight break-up of the glider.
    Modern high-performance gliders are usually built from some form of carbon fibre composite. It is more likely that the pilot, caught out in bad weather became disorientated, exceeded the aircraft’s structural design limits and overstressed it when attempting to recover. Without experience flying under instrument weather conditions and probably without the necessary instruments to make flight under IMC even possible, the result was virtually inevitable.
    Fortunately he kept his cool and bailed out in time.

    Sometimes accidents can be laughed away and make good stories.
    A friend of mine, a flight instructor, had an engine failure during take-off. He managed to turn away from a housing estate and steered towards an open area near the runway. The wheels of the trainer just clipped a hedge but all would have been well if there had not been large concrete pipes, about 3 feet in diameter, behind it. The hedge made them invisible to him from the air. The aircraft bounced off these pipes and came to rest on the car park, right on the roof of the student’s car. Nobody was hurt but the car was a write-off.
    A year or so previously the same pilot was on a banner towing flight in Germany in a Super Cub when he suffered an engine failure. He was over houses so he delayed releasing the banner until he had cleared them. He managed a perfect landing on what looked from the air like a meadow. Unfortunately, it was not grass but winter corn, still green but already nearly 2 feet high. The tough fibres wrapped themselves around his wheels like arrester cables and the aircraft nosed over. He had his photo in the local newspaper with his arm nonchalantly on one of the wheels of the upside-down aircraft.

  • Hey, something funny I only just noticed now:
    I believe that my friend, on his banner-towing flight, had taken off from … Minden.
    Not in the USA, but in Germany.
    Full name of the aerodrome, if I remember how to spell it correctly:
    Bad Oyenhausen – Minden.

    Coincidence ?

  • Not a great coincidence;
    The town Minden in Nordrhein-Westfalen in Germany has existed since around 800 AD. The founder of the town Minden in Nevada, Heinrich Friedrich Dangberg, named it after Minden in Germany, where his father was born.
    Many towns in America are named after European towns; There are 8 Londons, 13 Birminghams, and 18 Cambridges in the USA.

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