Editorial note: Parachute deployments in the sport of hang gliding are extremely rare. In all of 1996, only 13 deployments occurred in the US. Of these, 3 were accidental deployments, due to ballistic-system problems. Of the 10 remaining, approximately 70% were necessitated by failed aerobatic maneuvers. Aerobatic flying in hang gliders is NOT recommended by any hang glider manufacturer.
The thermal-induced tumble and subsequent glider failure described here is an even rarer event.
You asked about my 'chute story, and I am appending it, slightly edited below. It was written for the Irvin Aerospace company, one of the pioneers in the manufacture of parachutes. They used to have a "Caterpillar Club" that awarded a small silver silkworm to pilots who had used a parachute to save their lives. I tracked down the company in NC, and was told that the Caterpillar Club still exists. They requested a story of the event, which I did send them before going to Australia. Sadly, I have heard nothing back in the meantime. You have reminded me to give them a follow-up call.
Dear Mr. Mixon,
I am a competition hang glider pilot, and on January, 14, 1995 I was competing in the Australian National Championship in Hay, NSW. The contest was a cross-country event, and on the day in question our task was to fly 106 miles to the north from the field where we were taking off. As the task was, for a hang glider, an extremely long one I decided to launch early so as to have enough daylight to allow me to make goal. I mention my early launch because it meant that there were countless witnesses to my accident and parachute deployment as it occurred directly above the start field in which there were still some 150 hang glider pilots plus their crews. For months afterward photographs trickled in from different witnesses to the event. I enclose a photocopy of one of them in which you can clearly see the broken leading edge which necessitated the parachute deployment.
My flight began with being towed behind a car to about 1,200ft AGL. At that altitude I released from the tow line and went in search of thermal lift with which to climb and begin my flight to the distant goal. I soon found a weak thermal that enabled me to slowly climb. As this was a race, and I wanted to climb more rapidly, I kept my eyes open for indications of better climb rates. I soon saw a nearby glider fly into a screaming thermal and start climbing at an extraordinary 1000+feet per minute. I promptly left my weak thermal to fly into his strong one. As I approached a spot directly below where he was still climbing hard I began to feel the light turbulence indicating the presence of a thermal. I soon began to climb moderately, and banked into what felt like the strongest part of the thermal. And then my glider and I were suddenly and violently tumbled inverted. I probably struck my head on the leading edge of the glider's wing, as I received a concussion and things went a bit hazy at that time. As a result of the tumble and my body's having been slammed into the airframe, the leading edge of the right wing failed. I instantly hand deployed my emergency parachute, before the asymmetrical condition of the broken glider could induce the inevitable, radical spin.
The canopy deployed cleanly, and the glider and I began our descent together as is customary in the hang gliding world. We do not cut away from the wreckage, we go down with it. After stabilizing the glider I looked down to see where I would be landing. I didn't anticipate any problems as that part of Australia is billiard table flat and with little in the way of trees or manmade obstructions to interfere with one's descent. One look proved that I had been severely mistaken. Swirling ominously below me was the mother of all dust devils, and my descent path meant that I was going to land in the middle of that monster. A dust devil, as you may know, is a large, rotating mass of warm air that, due to its warmth, rises, and will pick up and entrain small particles of dirt. The result looks something like a tornado, and, while it is not as powerful as a tornado, it can generate serious turbulence and strong surface winds. It is no place to visit under a parachute. The violent tumble and the ensuing structural failure, while hardly routine, were at least events I had been aware of and equipped for. That part of the experience was dealt with automatically using the equipment, experience and training of many years of hang gliding. The discovery that I was descending into the maw of the gigantic dust devil was another matter. I was scared. I didn't know if the turbulent low level winds would collapse my canopy, allowing me to hit the ground. And, even if I were to land safely, being dragged cross-country in high winds promised to be a less than pleasant experience.
The last phase of my descent was very rapid as I probably came into some descending cold air around the warm core of the thermal. With my feet together and knees bent in the prescribed manner I luckily hit in the spongy bottom of a dried-up waterhole...and immediately began to be dragged at high speed across the featureless terrain. Due to the violent bouncing motion of being dragged I was unable to use my hook knife to cut myself loose from the parachute and glider. In the end, the wreckage and I came to a halt when the canopy snagged against the only obstruction for miles around, the steel lattice structure of a derelict windmill.
I was badly beaten up with what became spectacular bruises and a two day headache. But I was alive thanks to a parachute. While that parachute was not of your manufacture, let me offer my deepest thanks to you for making those life-saving devices which have saved countless other aviators over the decades.