from "free flight", Jan/Feb 1983
On obstruction of controls & the wonder of parachutes

Mirth Rosser, Winnipeg Gliding Club

These two subjects are not foreign to any of us, yet some of us may not always take them as seriously as we should. The first of course, can kill you, and the second can save your life. Only an unprepared pilot ignores these very real possibilities. Under a particular set of circumstances only a very lucky unprepared pilot survives. This has been my experience.

On September 12, I was flying our newly-acquired HP-14 for the sixth time and had spent a few minutes in one gentle thermal, but was unhappy with my speed control which kept varying between 35 and 45 knots. Not having had much experience in high performance sailplanes with such large wing spans, I didn't like the roller-coastery feeling and flew away to do straight and level until I felt comfortable again. Shortly, at about 2400 feet above ground, I encountered some reasonable lift and started circling right again. After a couple of 360 degrees my speed dropped and I carried out the normal "pre-incipient spin" maneuvre which I had found to be effective and safe in that sailplane - opposite rudder and slight stick forward. Immediately, I found myself in a dive as the HP recovered from what was probably an incipient spin and began to fly. But pulling fully back on the stick had no effect on the dive and WZT continued to accelerate.

My thoughts during the next several seconds consisted only of possible maneuvres that I should attempt in order to control the situation, but the situation did not seem to be one which I was familiar with. My feelings were a combination of absolute terror and disbelief. I was astonished that what I had believed was a gentle aircraft could be doing something so uncontrollable and so violent. At no time did I consider the possibility of mechanical failure or that the controls were jammed. Being a low-time pilot, I assumed it was my error.

There had been a plastic handgrip fitted over the stick, and at one desperate point when I released backward pressure on the slick (from sheer lack of any other ideas), this grip slipped off in my right hand. Weirdly, this was like a light flash: the aircraft was damaged and I could not fly out of the dive.

By now I knew I was very low - certainly under a thousand feet - and flying very fast and I suddenly decided to get out, although I didn't expect to survive a jump either. From that point on everything was rapid and methodical - push two pins forward to release the canopy (which flew off with a great bang!); unlock my harness (gravity did the rest, although I was not aware of it, I was on the down side of an outside loop, almost upside-down); and pull the D-ring of my new parachute. Unexpectedly, the ring was not on the inside of the left strap, where it had been on PPM's old chute, and I actually had to spend a few seconds in free fall looking for it. In the meantime, I heard WZT crash (WHACK! as it landed upside-down in the river). In the time it took to pull the D-ring, feel the parachute open immediately and "lift" me up, orienting me vertically, I looked down for the first time since I'd left the sailplane and saw I was over water. The next moment I was several feet under water in the middle of an oxbow of the Assiniboine River, fighting up to the surface away from the chute. Estimates of my safety margin before hitting range up to one second - and that includes the ten foot bonus from ground down to the water level. My amazement at being down and alive was total.

I began to swim forward to shore away from my parachute canopy which looked indescribably beautiful floating on the water. Since I had no idea how long the lines were, I swam until I could feel and see tension on them I was still some distance from the nearest shore and decided to try to get the harness off. At this point I noticed one of the HP's canopy locking pins embedded in the palm of my right hand with the remaining eight inches curled around and pointing up my forearm. It must have been pushed in by the force of the canopy flying off. I could not pull it out, and a few shroud lines were caught around it. This was a point of near panic, and I had to force myself to be calm, treading water slowly as I assessed my situation.

Since I was unable to undo the two leg snaps and unfasten the chest-strap buckle without the function of both hands, I decided I must pace myself by pulling the parachute canopy toward me with my left hand in order to provide some slack, then swim 'til I had taken it up, stop swimming and repeat the cycle. Although it might be slower, I reasoned that it would use less energy than swimming with the shrouds taut all the way. With about 4 or 5 of these cycles I reached an overhanging branch and pulled myself to the water's edge. All that remained was to pull in the canopy, get the backpack off and unravel the ropes which were tangled around my wrist and the canopy pin. Then I climbed through the brush up the river bank, emerging in a swathed grain field near some Hutterite buildings.

A few seconds later a truck carrying several men started to head for me across the field - Len Nylund with some of the Hutterites. Len had seen the HP go into the oxbow upside-down, radioed the club (no one heard him), then landed his 2-33 as closely as possible to the glider and spent 10 or 15 minutes diving for the pilot he believed was still in it (WZT, flattening its arc once I'd left it, travelled a further 400 feet horizontally from me before impacting, and I was at tree-top level when my chute opened). I don't know which of us was happier to see the other. The subsequent discomforts of having the pin removed from my hand, and spending a night in the hospital receiving intravenous antibiotics hardly mattered.

Many of us spent the next two days agonizing over what might have gone wrong - I was most afraid of pilot error. Could I have completely mistaken what was happening and failed to take appropriate action? During all the soul-searching I managed to think of at least four objects that had been in the cockpit not fastened down: the iron ballast on the seat underneath me; the "Ethafoam" slab I sat on which, had it shifted forward an inch during flight, would have interfered with full back stick control; the bungee used to hold the flap handle in place during takeoff and tow; and a plastic handle attached to 12 inches of cord tied around the release bar - an arrangement we'd rigged because the release was inconveniently located to the right and ahead of the stick, not the best place for an emergency on takeoff.

The final consideration was that of mechanical failure - the most plausible seemed likely to be a failure in the mixer which blends the rudder and elevator functions of the V-tail.

Three days later, a professional salvage crew and some club members removed WZT from the water, and Brian Stratton from the Ministry of Transport did a careful analysis, eliminating mechanical failure. The plastic handle was still dangling from the release bar on the end of its cord, bearing score marks corresponding exactly to the edges of the floor opening around the stick; it was a perfect fit between the stick and the rim with the stick in a central position and the cloth boot around ihe stick had an oblong hole on the pilot-side through which it could easily have slipped. It almost certainly had provided the obstruction which had jammed the stick in a slightly elevator down position and maintained the dive. This simple thing almost took my life and probably has destroyed a beautiful sailplane. It could have been even worse - an unpiloted aircraft out of control near a colony of people is an awful thing to contemplate.

The errors had been made on the ground. Rather than designing a safe solution to the problem of the release handle's awkward location, we had made a potentially lethal modification, disregarding one of the most important principles of safe flight: never have anything loose in your cockpit. I never noticed that the boot was not intact. I've learned these lesssons the hard way.

The other important lesson involves parachutes. Only a few days before the last flight I'd been complaining about the absurdity of paying a thousand dollars for a cushion to put behind me so I could reach the rudder pedals. I certainly had never expected to use it and was sure l couldn't have gotten out of a sailplane in flight anyway. It was difficult enough getting out on the ground.

As everyone knows, in an emergency you usually can do whatever you have to. My parachute harness straps happened to be snug, not because I had considered this to be important, but because they got in the way of the ship's harness when they weren't. And I didn't know for sure where the D-ring was. Yet that chute rewarded me with the most beautiful sound I ever expected to hear - a little "pop" as it opened. There was no shock, no jolt; it just picked me up and slowed me down. These days I hate leaving home without it. The hell with my American Express Card.

So take care people. Imagine the worst that could happen, then realize it really is possible, and prepare to survive it.

Editor: For the lack of a quick release harness, or shoulder "Capewells" to separate the canopy from the harness, Mirth was fortunate not to be drowned by the same chute that had just saved her an instant before! Remember the safety adage, "Learn from the mistakes of others, you won't survive long enough to make them all yourself."