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The soaring risk of flying high

Buffeted between its critics and defenders, the sport is producing a frightening toll of casualties

As a diversion for folks who otherwise lead button-down lives, soaring across the sky on a breath of air can be uplifting. It can also be dangerous. Flying may be making the world smaller, but it remains a fact that it is impossible to miss it if you fall. And nowhere has that fact been more painfully in evidence than in the troubled young sport of hang gliding.

For the 15,000 Americans who literally fly a kite on a weekly basis, hang gliding has immense appeal. A factory wing can be bought for as little as $500 (or as much as $1,100), which makes gliding fairly inexpensive. Those who have tried it say neither ballooning nor skydiving offer the same birdlike freedom that hang gliding does—and the cockpit of a sailplane is a prison cell compared to the harness of a kite.

But for all its fetching qualities, hang gliding is quickly establishing itself as the most hazardous mass-participation sport in the world. It is impossible to say exactly how many were killed flying hang gliders in the U.S. last year, but the Federal Aviation Administration has received reports of at least 44. The U.S. Hang Gliding Association's count was a slightly more conservative 39. No single agency is responsible for keeping track of hang-gliding accidents, and that is part of the problem, but by all accounts the incidence of crippling injuries and compound fractures is an orthopedist's nightmare.

Despite such grim statistics, hang gliding has boomed in the past three years. The sport is seductive in its beauty; even the photographs of hang gliders are captivating. What the pictures don't show are the intrinsic perils, says Jack Haberstroh of San Diego, who once operated a school for hang-glider pilots. "When people see those fantastic pictures, they can't wait to get their own kite and jump off a mountain. And who can blame them? It all looks so easy. What those people don't realize is that what they don't know about hang gliding could kill them. And most of them don't know plenty."

The modern incarnation of the hang glider was designed for the U.S. space program by Francis Rogallo, for whom the most-used wing is named. His basic idea was set aside when NASA turned to other means of bringing back its space vehicles, but it wasn't long before crude gliders, constructed largely of bamboo and Dacron and put together with spit and string, began to show up on the bluffs overlooking the beaches of Southern California. In that nascent period the fliers were a curious amalgam of self-immolators and bored surfers.

Today the sport has become more organized. There are at least three national hang-gliding associations in full flight. Their leaders insist that hang-glider pilots take no more chances than a person who rides a motorcycle or straps on a pair of skis. But a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association warned that hang gliding is "a high risk operation" and alerted physicians to the types of injuries peculiar to the sport—fused spines, broken necks and brain damage.

The article also came to at least one startling conclusion: the more experienced the pilot, the more likely he is to come to a tragic end. "Serious injury seems to be a greater threat to the sportsman whose preliminary gliding experience permits him to risk higher flying, over rough terrain, in marginal weather conditions, and, in particular, to risk launches from cliffs rather than the running start from safer and more gradual slopes."

Larry Sherrer, onetime University of Hawaii running back who now lives in Larkspur, Calif., was flying the wing of a well-known manufacturer last year when one of its aluminum tubes bent. After cartwheeling into a spin from 800 feet, the craft fell, leaving Sherrer with a broken ilium, a separation of the pubic bones, eight fractured ribs, a collapsed lung and an assortment of cuts and bruises. "The manufacturers have a good thing going," says Sherrer. "They sell these aircraft without having to prove to anyone—including the FAA—that the things are safe. The only place the sport can be regulated effectively is at the factory, and as long as the manufacturers are the ones making money, they ought to assume responsibility for their product."

The FAA has yet to set regulations that might straitjacket the sport, much to the delight of kite manufacturers and the USHGA, which asserts that peer pressure among the participants is the only safeguard needed. But such attitudes are changing. Last August the National Park Service proposed banning hang gliding, as well as all other forms of powerless flight, from federally owned parks, and many state parks are considering similar bans. The hang-gliding industry, fragmented though it is, mounted a letter-writing campaign that it hopes will block such moves, and there is evidence that it is working.

The Department of the Interior recently dispatched Assistant Secretary Nathaniel P. Reed to Yosemite Park to investigate flying conditions. What he found was hang gliding at its best. A park ranger was assigned to supervise the activity during those time periods when gliding was permitted from 3,254-foot Glacier Point. "We discovered that they had established a control system that was working," says Reed, "so I proposed we rethink our earlier decision."

Still, some people who fly the gliders see government intervention as a conspiracy that would lead eventually to closing down all the safe locations. Already dozens of popular sites in California are off limits because private property owners don't want to be held liable for accident victims. "The local people have shut most of the safe spots," says Pete Brock, president of the Hang Glider Manufacturers Association and a flier himself. "As a result, anybody who's really into the sport has to take some heavy risks."

The question is not whether hang gliding is chancy—even its most zealous defenders will admit the sport can scarcely be equaled in terms of risk—but whether it is so dangerous that the government should step in and regulate it. "If I want to risk my own neck," says Brock, "who has the right to tell me I can't?"

Haberstroh talks with bitter sarcasm on the hang-gliding industry's attempt to regulate itself. He calls the USHGA's Accident Review Board "a cruel hoax on the public," pointing out that its membership is loaded with equipment dealers. "Asking them to give reliable information about hang gliding's safety record so that people can make up their own minds about the sport intelligently is like asking Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Yamaha to handle an investigation of motorcycle safety."

Brock replies, "Yes, there are manufacturers on the board, because they are concerned about the safety of the sport and how to correct problems. They are as straight as they can be. They're not trying to whitewash anything."

Many critics also find fault with the basic design of the ubiquitous Rogallo wing. Fred Wagner, an El Cajon, Calif. aeronautics engineer who worked on the Rogallo for NASA from 1960 to 1964, calls the craft "inherently unstable, a deathtrap." Another aeronautical engineer, who has been actively involved in gliding for 40 years, says, "In a gusty wind, Rogallos tend to stall and go into a dive. If you're too far off the ground, you've scratched yourself from the list."

Some fliers seek out thermals that can keep them aloft for hours at a time, but the air in an updraft will eventually begin to corkscrew and can cause sudden shifts in wind speed and direction. When a glider loses its headwind, it also forfeits whatever edge it might have enjoyed over the insistent pull of gravity. It is possible to land a kite in such a predicament by parachuting or fluttering it to the ground, but the odds against doing so, especially in a thermal, are indeed formidable.

The USHGA has instituted an informal pilot-rating program that it hopes will diminish the casualties and prove to the government that the sport can be regulated from within. But professional test pilots and concerned dealers are increasingly calling for even stricter licensing procedures. "If some kind of licensing doesn't come," says Robbie Skinner, co-owner of Flight Realities in San Diego, "we're going to see inexperienced fliers turning up at expert sites and getting killed. And that means we're going to lose those sites, which will ruin the sport faster than anything the government could do."

Brock insists that much of the blame for hang gliding's poor safety record should be hung on the so-called mushroom manufacturers, who "spring up overnight," some of them selling untested equipment. In fact, however, fully 95% of U.S. hang gliders are Rogallo wings, and while not every fatality in 1974 involved a factory-produced glider, the number was substantial. All manufacturers claim that their kites are safe, if they are not tinkered with. But individually modified kites—altered so they will execute more acrobatic maneuvers—are the bane of the industry. Knowledgeable fliers concede that if even one of the turn-buckles that hold the kite together is improperly adjusted, or if the rigid camber of the glider's keel is disturbed, it could spell disaster.

In one skirmish of the sport's internecine war, Brock has been accused by other dealers of selling a sophisticated wing called the UP Dragonfly to beginning and intermediate fliers. "Absolutely untrue," he says. "We sell it only to advanced fliers." And in a letter last year to the UFO Flier, a hang-gliding newsletter, Brock handled the persistent criticism of Haberstroh by noting, "It's an extremely difficult position that [Haberstroh] has placed us in [and] all we can do is try to discredit whatever he says by having the right answers when we are contacted. If you have anything [on Haberstroh] I'd be glad to add it to the file."

It is not without a sad touch of irony that the most vocal defenders of hang gliding, Brock and Robert V. Wills, chairman of the Accident Review Board, have both suffered the loss of a son in hang-gliding accidents. In March 1974, 20-year-old Eric Wills was performing a low-altitude, diving 360-degree turn when his glider slammed him into a stone ridge, killing him.

Last July, 12-year-old Hall Brock, experienced in hang gliding well beyond his years, was trying the same maneuver in the mountains near Aspen, Colo. It was a fine bright day, and as the young flier surveyed the broad expanse of the Rockies, he must have been bursting with exhilaration. "When he took off, the conditions were good," says his father, "but by the time he got near the ground, the air had become turbulent. He had already made two 360s, but he wanted to do a third to show off for his friends. He just screwed up. It's such a shame, really, because he was just beginning to roll as a person."