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A fictional account of a possible event

Reprinted with permission from the
HGFAustralia Skysailor  

The tell-tale signs on launch were indicating strong regular cycles. The sun was heating up the expanse of rock below launch. The glider had been given a thorough pre-flight and the pilot was in his harness ready to go. The pre launch banter was giving away to more serious considerations, such as retrieval arrangements, car key locations, wind directions and the thermal cycles. “Isn’t this site under a control zone?" the pilot on launch asked. “I dunno, I haven’t got the site guide with me. Anyway, I’ve seen the top of your glider from this site more often than I’ve seen the bottom. Your usual problem is ground suck, not cloud suck.” "Give me a hang check will you?" He was ready and eager to launch. 

“Melbourne Approach, Good afternoon, Alpha Bravo Charlie, one hundred DME Melbourne, cruising flight level 12.” Alpha Bravo Charlie, 8,000” 

The captain and co-pilot had the approach plates for Tularmine ready, although a visual approach was expected. the GPS indicated a ground speed of just under 200 knots. The captain glanced at the towering columns of cumulus cloud both on and to the left and right of track. He illuminated the fasten seat belt sign. 

Hang check. Carabiners straightened - checked locked. Vario switched on. “What height above the bomb out are we?” “I dunno. I think it’s 750m. I think the hill’s 2400 according to the map.” “I thought it was 1800. I’ll just set 600m.” Radio check. The pilot shuffled to the top of the ramp. After takeoff he adjusted his feet to a comfortable position in the pod. While making the first climbing pass to the right he zipped up the pod. On the return pass, he was above launch and still climbing. A quick 180 and the vario told him what the pitch up and rush of air had already announced - a boomer thermal. He circled tightly to the right, drifting slowly back over launch and the parked gliders and cars which were fast shrinking below. 

The sun’s reflection glowed on the polished spinner of the starboard propeller. The first officer pinched his nose and blew gently to equalise the pressure as the cabin pressure slowly increased. He enjoyed the heightened impression of speed as the aircraft flew near or through clouds. The sixteen passengers were putting magazines aside, and preparing for arrival. The captain checked the destination weather, and methodically scanned the instruments. 

Cockpit view from inside a Boeing 737: http://www.boeing.com/companyoffices/gallery/images/commercial/C12B-737NG.html

“Melbourne, Alpha Bravo Charlie passing through 9.000' ASL”

When well above launch, the pilot widened his circles and maintained a steady 1.5 - 2.0 mps up. He started to enjoy the view and glanced at the altimeter - 1,200m and going up. He put his hands in the neoprene mitts as the base bar got colder. Climbing through 1,500 he could see the pub in the valley where he and his mates usually met after flying. But he could also see the highway to the west with its towns that could usually only be seen one at a time, and away in the distance a couple of distinctive hills beyond which he knew lay the city. The lift grew stronger, and the vario was indicating 5 mps up as he climbed through 2,000m. He looked forward and up and saw the gray base and white borders of a large Cu. He pulled on some speed to make sure he stayed out of the cloud. Sooner than he expected though he was at cloud base, even with the bar back around his waist somewhere. The wind noise was considerable. The altimeter was showing 2,500 and increasing. He straightened his arms for maximum speed, passing in and out of cloud, with the earth appearing and disappearing beneath him. 

The nose of the aircraft came up slowly as the auto pilot began to level the aircraft approaching 8000. The altimeter continued to wind down...8,300...8,200...The fist officer had depressed the microphone switch on the control yoke to seek onwards descent clearance. He could see glimpses of tree below as the aircraft approached the cloud base. 

The turbine powered twin engine aircraft destroyed the hang glider on impact. 

The pilot died instantly. The hang glider wreckage and pilot’s body disabled the port engine, and caused such damage to the port wing that control of the aircraft was lost. The crew and passengers on the aircraft died on impact in a fireball of wreckage. The Bureau of Air Safety Investigation determined the primary cause of the crash of the aircraft to be an unauthorized penetration of controlled airspace by the hang glider pilot, contributed to by an incorrectly set altimeter and the pilot’s ignorance of the vertical limits of controlled airspace. The pilot’s failure to remain at least 500 feet below cloud base was also a clear contributing factor, but the nineteen people who knew that the collision occurred at cloud base are all dead, and accordingly this factor was not recognised in the investigation. 

Calls were made in the Senate and in the press for an inquiry into hang gliding. A suggestion was made in parliament that all hang gliding be restricted to a ceiling of 300 feet AGL. At the Coroners Inquest, the Coroner recommended that hang gliders be banned from flying beneath controlled airspace. The Coroner also found that the sport had failed to self-regulate in that basic altimetry principles were not adhered to by a large number of hang glider pilots. CAA Investigators were ordered to attend take off and landing sites, to check ratings, carriage of altimeters, pilot currency requirements and the like with a view to prosecutions under the Civil Aviation Act and regulations. The land owner closed the site. Land owners of other sites threatened similar action. Altimetry received new emphasis in training and rating theory tests. Hang gliding featured in adverse editorial comments across the nation. 

The pilots’s actions were clearly criminal, and he would have been prosecuted and jailed for considerable number of years had he survived. As it is, his widow has to meet from his estate claims from the dependents of the passengers and crew of the aircraft, and she will lose the family home and all other assets of her husband’s estate. The pilot’s insurance was inadequate to meet claims of such magnitude. 

  1.  The launch elevations was 2,400 feet above mean sea level
  2.  The launch was directly below the 8,000 foot control step
  3.  An altimeter set at 1500 feet at launch would register 7,100 feet at the lower limit of the 8,000 foot control step (that is, at 8,000 feet above mean sea level)
  4.  An altimeter set at 2,400 feet at launch would register 8000' (equivalent to  2,438.4 m ) at the lower limit of the control step

    2438.4m = 8000';  732 m = 2400';
    3.2808 Feet / meter - Metric conversions are not easy to remember in the air

 Thus the ICAO has standardized the Aviation world on Feet AMSL World Wide - for Safety reasons. 

 Avoiding controlled airspace involves knowing at any point in flight your height above mean sea level, and the vertical and lateral limits of controlled airspace. 

HGFA MEMBER 3410

Apr 6 2004   Top Top