The Bailout Decision-Are You Ready?

I am privileged, as are many others,  to participate in several online groups that have a shared interest in soaring. A few months back, a discussion on the ASW-20 Yahoo group was initiated about the proper way to jettison the canopy in that particular model if a bailout was needed. The discussion went back and forth, and finally some consensus emerged that 1.) Following the escape/jettison procedures written into operating manual for whatever particular glider you operating is always the best first step, and 2.) Deviate from #1 only when it appears it’s not working!

While the discussion went back and forth, a gentleman from Australia decided to chime in with his experience in a real-life emergency; the resulting decision to bail out of the aircraft, the problems he overcame making his escape and his thoughts after the event was over. I thought his story so compelling and full of lessons-learned that it deserved a wider audience than just the few who participate in this particular forum, so I asked permission (and he agreed) to share it with others. The recent successful bailout by a glider pilot in New Mexico for what is appearing to be a possible control malfunction only re-emphasizes and drives home the point that a bailout is a real possibility every time we strap in and we must be prepared for it!

The off-season is usually used to accomplish projects to get our ships/trailers/gear back into shape for the next season … may I also propose that it is the time to put into practice what Phil will detail in his email about practicing the procedures, actions and steps needed to (if needed) make the bailout decision and then execute on that decision? Sitting in the cockpit, reaching and actuating the levers and knobs that will allow you to jettison the canopy safely … eyes closed? Thinking about how you’ll lift yourself out of your disabled ship and safely clear without hitting it? Knowing which riser to reach for when you’re ready to pull the D-ring? Sightlessly? Was I securely cinched into my parachute harness before I entered the cockpit? How do I steer this thing if I need to use it? If I land in water and it collapses on top of me, how do I survive a water landing in which the parachute which just saved my life is now trying to drown me? Or, I’ve just landed in a 30 knot wind and now I’m getting dragged over or through every barbed wire fence or cactus in the county … how do I collapse the canopy? Should I carry a riser knife? (Hint: military aviators do!)

Lots to think about, and nothing like a real “there I was” story to drive home the point and get us all thinking of what we would do in the same situation … maybe it is time to review that chute manual again … or sit in the glider and get a little “muscle memory” going on with what motions are required and where they’re needed to safely exit the aircraft. Although the odds of any one of us having to actually use these procedures are fairly low, our training has to be aimed at a higher standard … as other sages have said when discussing safety training … the probability isn’t “1 in a million” something bad will occur … it’s actually more like 50-50 … it either WILL happen or WON’T!! Preparing for the worst, and being pleasantly surprised when it fails to happen is a much better plan then counting on the odds and then being literally in the scramble of your life to try and beat them when it all goes south one day…

Phil started off his post with the following modest comment:

“I have had the unfortunate experience while flying my ASW19b in a comp of a mid air collision with another glider resulting in my right wing being sheared off about a meter from the root. This obviously meant I had to get out in a hurry.

I pulled the emergency canopy releases and when nothing happened, I pushed on the canopy itself to try to get out. This worked, and the canopy left the glider and came nowhere near my head, or even the glider generally. It flew off the glider and just disappeared, which left me with an easy exit for my first parachute jump.Therefore, in my experience, the way the canopy behaved after release was in no way threatening, so I feel comfortable that the ASW20b that I since purchased should operate in the same manner. I hope this first hand experience is helpful.”


After a request for more details, Phil shared the following detailed comments about his bailout:

“A few further details with the hope that it will help someone. Nothing like firsthand experience to give people a clearer idea of what they can expect.

When the mid air actually happened, it took a couple of seconds to actually realize that I was in some trouble, probably I didn’t want to believe it and I was in a state of denial. I was at 6000ft in a left hand thermal with about 4 other gliders and I was hit by one that came barreling into the thermal straight across the middle and straight into me. He claims he never saw me.  Once I figured I had to do something because the stick just went floppy with no control response and the glider was starting to spiral to the left, I pulled the canopy emergency release. Nothing happened. I had always had the idea that once you pulled that release the canopy would just GO, but it didn’t. I then activated the other 2 canopy handles and still nothing happened. I was starting to get worried at this stage and thinking that I must be getting close to the ground. I then did as it says in the manual, and pushed the canopy, and that’s all it needed. As I said before, it just flew away from the glider and presented no danger to me or the glider.

I then identified the harness release and used it. I’d read horror stories of people undoing their parachutes by mistake and jumping out without them and I didn’t want to do that. I’d actually practiced this on the ground.

I then rolled out of the glider quite easily. My ’19 didn’t have a tilt up panel and it was absolutely no problem to exit the aircraft. I’d thought about this scenario quite a bit as well, because I have an artificial right leg, and I figured that the damn thing was most likely going to get caught on the panel and I would end up leaving it behind. But this didn’t happen at all, I was outside the glider before I knew it and the parachute was deployed. The glider was in a left hand spiral and I don’t recall much in the way of G forces, but I think that the fact that she was diving made it a lot easier to get out, more easier than on the ground: I just sort of rolled out, and the fact that there was no right wing in the way probably contributed to my ease of exit too. In a hurry admittedly, but that’s all I had to do.

I’d also practiced locating the ripcord while I was on the ground and it must have worked because I don’t even remember pulling it, but I had it in my hand so I must have. Hung on to it all the way down too :-)
A few things that I have taken away from this experience:

Be prepared for shock to be a factor in your decision making. When it all came down to it, the training took over and I did everything I’d been practicing. A corollary of this is, practice the procedure, make sure you look at what you are doing when you have to undo your straps, know where your ripcord is, and know where the canopy releases are.

Make sure you push the canopy as well as undo the handles. John Murray of Eastern Sailplane is dead right on this. Suction or something holds the thing on when everything is undone.

If you carry a mobile phone, carry it on your person. It’s not much good having a mobile in a crashed glider somewhere while you’re a kilometer or more away. I’d decided this a long time ago for the reason that I mentioned above where I thought my leg would be gone and I’d be doing no walking but at least if the phone worked I could use that to get help.

Read up on the parachute you use. I tried to steer the chute away from some trees by pulling on the risers, you know like you see all the guys on TV do. However, all it did was collapse the canopy. There were actually toggles on the harness that you use for that, but I had no idea that they were there.

Land into wind if you can. Another basic parachute thing which I had no idea about.

Be prepared for a hard landing. The chutes we use are emergency chutes, not designed for soft landings and fancy manoevres. They’re designed to save your life. I hit the ground so hard (mainly because I couldn’t see it as my glasses came off when the chute opened)that I was having treatment for a bruised coccyx for the next 6 months. But hey, I was still alive!

But I guess the most important thing to keep thinking is: it could happen to you, so get yourself as ready as you can, just in case it does.”

Whew!! Heck of a story, no? Even more incredible when you consider the man was trying to exit the aircraft with a very significant disability!

We all want to enjoy this shared passion we have for soaring for many, many years to come…and none of us want to look back years from now and see friends and associates missing from our midst because of that attitude that what “couldn’t happen to me” … did … and they were unprepared or unwilling to take the rapid action needed to save their lives. Get the books out and study your escape procedures for your ship. Sit in it and train yourself to proficiency with those escape procedures. Study your parachute manual. Avail yourselves of the opportunity to learn more about the bailout decision by reading info from the experts…I’ll leave you with a link that I’ve used and find valuable.

The EAA has a great 90 minute webinar about Emergency Bailout Procedures, which they’ve recorded and made freely available on their website here:

There are many more resources out there, this is only one. Once again, many thanks to Phil for allowing me to share his story and for letting us to learn from it.

In closing, we all want to take the steps needed to make 2012 a safe and successful year for soaring, and the SSA is making an admirable push to make safety a priority in the USA. Hopefully, their efforts will be successful and will result in a marked decrease in the number of accidents and incidents…however, soaring is still an activity that entails significant risks, and therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to do the mental and physical preparation needed, especially when it comes to an activity like “stepping over the side”. We must be diligent in laying the foundation for a happy outcome if the day all of us hopes never happens … happens to us.

Rob Schroer

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