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KESTREL SAILPLANE BAIL OUT

My first, and last, parachute jump

by Mike Evans

 

The parachute in our ‘Kestrel’ had become rather uncomfortable and I had persuaded my syndicate partners to agree to a replacement. Luckily, John D’Arcy at Lasham was selling his which was virtually new, having been worn only half a dozen times, so we had a bargain. It was a glorious spring day and I decided it was a good opportunity to try out the glider after it’s recent C of A, and the new ‘chute. Little did I realize what a test flight this was to be.

 

     Clunk! “What was that?” I wondered to myself. “The undercarriage doors? No, I’d put nice new bungees on at the C of A.” While I pondered what could be wrong, the ASI flickered towards zero. Then the nose started to go down and it wouldn’t come up again. “Something’s happened back there in the tail”, I thought, and started to consider the options. “Just off tow at 2000 feet, glider still flying, no need to panic, yet. I can’t just abandon our beautiful glider; whatever will my syndicate partners say? But I don’t like it. I don’t fancy flying a circuit and trying to line up this 20-metre Kestrel for approach if it’s flying like this. Controls seem funny. No, I’m going to get out while the going’s good.”

     Pulling the velcro straps off, then the release levers, I jettisoned the canopy. Expecting a blast of wind, I was surprised to find how calm everything seemed. Undoing my straps, I started to lever myself up out of the seat, at the same time straining round to see what had happened at the tail. Then, out of the corner of my eye, something white went fluttering away. “That’s it! I’m not waiting to find out any more”, I said out loud.

     Suddenly, I remembered Derek Piggott’s story of how he once told a student to bail out, but the student dithered and when Derek asked him why, after they were safely on the ground, the student said he was putting his sunglasses away! My varifocal photochromic, very expensive prescription glasses would blow away if I jumped with them on, so I paused and put them safely in the pocket of the glider.

     There was still no need to hurry. The glider was flying almost level, and it was a beautiful sunny afternoon! “You can’t stay here all day, admiring the view”, I reminded myself. So, rather reluctantly, I climbed out onto the wing and then, sadly, slid off into space. I wasn’t at all scared, just sorry to be leaving poor old ‘284’ to fend for herself, after all the wonderful flights we’d had together.

     But the next moment, as I pulled the ‘chute handle and nothing happened, I was rudely aware that I must act quickly. I had forgotten to put my left hand over my right before pulling the handle so had only taken up the slack in the cable. Bending forward, a good heave on the handle did the trick. Just like a big friendly hand, the harness caught me very smoothly and there I was, floating gently to earth.

     Again I had time to admire the view on this sunny afternoon, and looking up, saw 284 demonstrating phugoids. “I hope she times her final pull-up right”, I thought. Then I concentrated on turning into wind. Watching the drift, I grabbed a handful of cords and heaved. After a long pause we gradually began to turn into wind. Looking down, I thought that might have been a mistake because we were getting rather close to a wood.

     All good things come to an end, but parachute jumps do so very quickly. One moment you’re drifting gently down, the next the ground jumps up at you and ‘bang’ you’ve hit it. In my case it was my back that had hit it and I yelped. I’d missed the trees, but in their lee there was probably a wind reversal and, hitting the ground with forward speed, my shoes shot from under me on the damp grass. Ouch!

     I rolled around in considerable pain, thinking I’d broken my back. (I had in fact crushed my ‘lumbar one’ vertebra). Some horses appeared and started to show interest so I staggered to my feet and then ‘crump!’ the glider hit the earth in the next field. I limped painfully to the nearby farm but couldn’t make anyone hear. The tug flew over, obviously looking for me, and eventually saw me waving. In a few minutes a group of  Lashamites, led by DP arrived. “You did the right thing”, I was reassured to hear Derek say, although I was more interested in finding out what had happened to my back.

     Amazingly, apart from one wing which was destroyed, the glider was not badly damaged. The front section of the canopy had just a small crack – and my glasses were fine! The rudder was missing and it took the Lasham team some time to find it. The tail chute and its fairing had become detached from the rudder – it was several months before a farmer found them.

     So, what caused all this? The bottom hinge had failed (left, below), causing the rudder to come loose and then depart – the white object I saw disappearing. Before that, the tail ‘chute must have deployed, slowing the glider. This is almost imperceptible, unless you’re expecting it, as when you’ve just deployed it for instance. So, loss of rudder control started the side slipping and then the tail ‘chute brought us close to the stall.

 

     Could I have flown it back to the airfield? Certainly, but I wouldn’t like to have to try and line up the approach and landing without a rudder. The longer span Kestrels needed a modified rudder, so flying without one at all would be most foolhardy.

     I don’t think 284 flew again. We sold the wreckage to a glider repairer, but Slingsby’s destroyed the wing moulds when they stopped production so the only solution would be another wing from another crashed Kestrel.

     John D’Arcy had the last word: “Had to test my ‘chute to make sure it works? You’re not very trusting are you!”

 

Reflections: I was lucky. I was high and flying level when I had to bail out. If you’re unlucky enough to have a mid-air there probably won’t be much time to get out, and the glider may spin. So make sure you can get out quickly, even from an unusual attitude. It’s a good idea to practice landing properly, as you only get one chance, and the ground suddenly hits you, fast. Legs together, slightly bent, and roll over to absorb the energy. I knew this but failed because my shoes shot away from me on the slippery grass. Tough!


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