When a sailplane hits power or communication wires, the almost-inevitable outcome is the death of the pilot. The reason is simple. One of two scenarios rapidly unfolds.
In the first case, the wires slip over the finely pointed nose of the sailplane and whip back along the top of the fuselage until they encounter the vertical tail fin. The momentum of the sailplane, traveling at fifty knots or better, causes the wires to shear the tail completely off the aircraft, or to snap the tail boom a few feet forward of the tail. Deprived of the stabilizing forces and balance of the tail assembly, the nose section pitches forward and dives into the ground, either inverted, which kills the pilot from a face-down impact, or vertically, which has the same terminal result due to the heavy wing spars breaking loose and striking the pilot with great force on the back of the head and neck.
In the second instance, the wires pass under the nose of the sailplane. They zing back along the belly until they hit the main wheel, which, since the pilot is on final for a planned landing, is down. The wires then act like the arrester cables on an aircraft carrier, except they're in the worst possible place, low and forward, close to the aircrafts center of gravity. The sailplane is effectively stopped dead in mid air, but its momentum causes it instantly to rotate over the wires in a forward somersault and pitchpole into the ground either upside down or nose first, with the same outcome for the pilot. In a high percentage of accidents in which a sailplane has hit wires the pilot has not survived.
Because I raised the AS-W 20s left wing to execute a low-level turn to the right to line up with the furrows in that paddock south of Narromine, I'm here today to write about it. If I had continued straight and level, the wires would have zipped along the top of the fuselage and, almost inevitably, chopped off the tail of the aircraft. I would have pitchpoled in, with the results described above.
What actually happened, though, was quite different. The wires came slicing back over the canopy at fifty knots and encountered the raised left wing about three feet from its root. The wing jammed the wires together, causing fat short-circuit sparks that burned through the plexiglass just above my head. The collision between wires and wing virtually stopped the aircraft in mid-flight. My own body momentum caused me to slam forward into the restraint harness, forcibly expelling the air in my lungs and whiplashing my chin onto my chest.
From that moment, time seemed . . . to . . . slow . . . right . . . down.
I pulled my head back upright, saw the wires inches from my face and knew that I had suddenly become the main ingredient in a recipe for an unexpected funeral. As my vision cleared, the nose of the aircraft pitched up and up, rotating sharply to the left. I instinctively jammed the stick full forward to try to bring the nose down.
There was a rasping, screeching sound. The wires, still sparking, were sliding outward along the left wing, leaving pitted scorch marks. The sailplane was actually traveling sideways to the right, away from the wires. I tramped on full right rudder, knowing that at this point anything I might do would probably be futile and that the aircraft (and my life) was in the hands of those implacable forces, momentum and gravity.
At last the nose started to drop. With a final jangle of sparks, the left wing slid out from under the wires and the aircraft went into free fall, glissading sideways and down, the nose still dropping, the ground coming up.
In the cockpit and around the aircraft itself, existence had turned into an almost-normal-appearing dream world. The noise of crashing wires and popping sparks had gone away. The slipstream rush was strangely missing. I was, for the moment, unhurt. The wings and tail were apparently still attached. The controls seemed to function. The aircraft was in a relatively conventional attitude, right side up and slightly nose down, although the nose was still dropping.
Two things were abnormal, however. The sailplane was traveling absolutely sideways to the right, and the approach angle to the ground was about twenty-five degrees - really steep for even a reasonable facsimile of a walk-away landing.
It was at this moment that I experienced, with crystal clarity, a startling hallucination. I was in two places simultaneously. The cockpit, my hands and feet on the controls, my chest struggling to suck in air, the ground rising alarmingly beneath. All these things were etched sharply on my conscious physical senses. But, at the same time, I was clearly and vividly on an operating table in a modern surgery suite, blinking up at a barrage of stainless steel lights while masked surgeons leaned over me, their eyes dark and grim. There in the cockpit I felt with morbid dread that, in the next four or five seconds, I was either going to die, or break my back.
On the hallucinatory surgical gurney I sensed that my spine had indeed been broken and that I faced a gruesome operation followed by a life of pain and paralysis. As the sailplane fell toward the earth, I lay there semi-supine in the comfortable nest of my sheepskin parachute liner, right hand thrusting the stick far forward, right foot at full extension on the rudder pedal, convinced that it would be one fate or the other, paralysis or death, not knowing which would be the better to hope for.
The image of glaring lights, stainless steel, and glittering eyes above green cotton masks flicked off. For a fleeting moment I had a snapshot mental image of the aircraft straightened out and executing a fairly normal straight-ahead landing.
Hah! What was I thinking? I couldn't get this thing even to begin to yaw to the right. The whole semi-airborne assembly was frisbeeing groundward at nothing remotely resembling a normal flying attitude. The lack of adequate airspeed prevented the tail from doing its weathervane job of turning the aircraft to fly pointed-end-first, plus the entire side of the fuselage was presented to the air mass, causing huge resistance and drag, further eroding what little speed I had left.
This was not going to be a landing. It was going to be a crash.
Here came the ground. The nose was pitched down now at maybe forty-five degrees. I was moving sideways to the right at probably thirty knots. Here were those damned furrows in the dry red soil, only eight feet away, streaming across the nose and not lined up at all. There were small stones and yellow blades of last years stubble tumbled in the mix. At the last moment, like a paratrooper about to hit the ground, I retracted my right leg from the rudder pedal and flexed my knees slightly.
The nose struck with a tearing crash. I felt a violent jerk to the left in my feet and legs. Dust billowed into the cockpit and pebbles clattered on the canopy as the aircraft sheered around to the left. The right wingtip dipped, touched, grabbed, and swung the aircraft counterclockwise in a fierce backward groundloop.
Now the whole fuselage banged down with a noise like a car crash. My head cracked into the canopy, driving the steel cap button painfully into my scalp. Everything rushed backwards, bumping and shaking. My legs were being thrown around in the nose, but my body and arms were held in place by the restraint harness and by my death grips on stick and airbrake handle while the hammering and shuddering went on, until finally the aircraft ground to a stop in a rolling cloud of dust.
Well, almost. The audio variometer on the instrument panel still sang its muted no lift tone, weeeoooowwooeeee.
Of course there's no lift, we're on the fucking ground, damn it.
I reached out and flicked the audio switch to OFF and took a gasping deep breath.
I was encouched there in the cockpit, facing back exactly the way I had come in. Red dust hung in the air all around. As it sifted down, I saw the wires I had hit fifty yards back whanging and jangling in the sunlight like a slack guitar. It would be several minutes before their oscillations stopped.
Tentatively, I moved my legs. They felt more or less normal. I looked down at my feet, offset way over to the left in the nose of the aircraft. Small shafts of sunlight streamed into the footwell. That wasn't normal. Christ, I've damaged the iconic Uniform Kilo India, John Rowes former championship aircraft. Rowe had retired and moved north to Queensland, but UKIs current owner, Arnie Hartley, was very much in place at the Soaring Club in Narromine. How would I confront him after this brutal violation? I would have to face people to whom this AS-W 20 was a symbol, not only of Rowes heritage and Arnies investment, but club income and soaring opportunities for dues-paying members.
But I'd have to deal with all that later.
The canopy was sprung partly ajar. I reached up to open it and saw my hands shaking. I unlatched the restraint straps and parachute harness. By partly sitting up, I got enough purchase to heave the creaking canopy up and away to the right. Heat and dust filtered into the cockpit, together with the song of grasshoppers. Distant galahs squawked and cackled in the eucalypts along the main road. With effort, I hoisted myself in the seat pan and struggled to extract my legs from under the instrument panel. My left foot seemed stuck, but, after pulling and twisting, it wrenched free. I climbed stiffly over the left cockpit rim and stood up in the sunshine on the dusty soil.
Alive and uninjured!
My left ankle hurt, but that was nothing. I moved my arms and legs, tentatively marching in place for three or four steps, flexing arms and shoulders, twisting my spine. Nothing seemed broken. Everything worked. I felt as though I should fall to my knees and kiss the dirt, or put my cheek on the cool white gelcoat and weep in gratitude. Instead, I took two more deep breaths, leaned into the cockpit where the radio still hissed its white-noise song, pulled the mike stalk close to my mouth and pressed the thumb switch on the control stick.