Notes for new hang glider pilots--Safety gear

Notes for new hang glider pilots--Safety gear

July 13, 2007 edition
Steve Seibel
steve at


As a new hang glider pilot, there are some items that will make your flying much safer.


First, fly a glider that is appropriate for Beginner/ Intermediate pilots. Two good examples are the Wills Wing Falcon and the old Pacific Airwave Pulse.


Wheels save down tubes, and sometimes prevent broken arms or worse. If you value airtime, fly with wheels, because it's hard to get air time when you recuperating from an injury. I fly with wheels except when launching unassisted in strong winds. Wheels are especially important during aerotowing, because there is always some small risk that a glider will touch the ground after leaving the cart when the pilot is prone in his harness, or when the pilot is trying to run during a foot-launched aerotow. With no wheels, a violent accident will result. The enormous orange or black plastic wheels typically employed by novices are one good option; don't be in a hurry to discard them just because they don't look "cool". They perform very well under side loads, "sliding" along without digging in. Here (#1, #2) is my favorite style of wheels for intermediate to advanced pilots. The 7" diameter pneumatic design is very good for absorbing impacts. In fact the wheels are large enough to be used for intentional wheel landings under ideal conditions (a smooth, freshly mowed grass airstrip.) These wheels won't break apart under side loads. These wheels are only suited to round base tubes, not streamlined base tubes. Since they don't come apart, and are a bit too large to leave on the base tube as the glider is bagged up, they require disconnecting the base bar at each end during disassembly. A special inner hub with a hole in it allows a VG cord to pass through; this must be ordered separately. I've used these wheels on several gliders with round base bars and VG, including an Airborne Blade, a kingposted Laminar R12, and an Aeros Stealth KPL topless glider. (In once case I had to shim the inner hub by putting some narrow strips of tape on the base bar on both sides of the VG channel to raise the "roof" of the VG channel, so that the VG cord could pass through the channel without excessive friction.) I've also used these wheels on several non-VG gliders with round base bars. In all cases I mounted the wheels directly on the base tube, using the special VG hub where appropriate. With some care it is possible to remove these wheels from the base bar or add these wheels to the base bar even after the glider has been assembled, in case of changing conditions. Don't balk at the cost of this style of wheels; the wheels will pay for themselves by preventing broken down tubes.


1-piece wheels that mount directly on the base bar, like those illustrated above, don't work well with certain VG styles, or with center-folding base bars with no quick access to the ends of the base bar, or with streamlined base bars. In these cases other solutions are needed.


Beware of wheels like these that are designed to separate into two parts so that they don't need to be slipped over the ends of the base bar. They are vastly better than nothing, and the locking feature is nice. But I've seen these kinds of wheels break apart or severely distort during a landing with a heavy sideways load. In one of these cases I watched the corner of the control frame dig hard into the ground after the wheel was demolished, putting the pilot out of action for a year with a severely dislocated shoulder.


These wheels #1, #2 might be a better option. And here is another kind of split-apart wheel-- these will break apart in a very hard landing but are better than nothing, and the shape tends to prevent them from digging into the ground in a landing with some sideways motion. If you enlarge the center hole on these wheels they can be used over a VG cord with no special inner hub as a last resort. I still keep an old set of these wheels on hand to use in unusual situations like flying a borrowed glider that is not equipped with wheels, but I don't consider them adequate for prolonged use.


Here is a Wills Wing link to some more wheel options. All the wheels shown in the "AT control frame" section can be mounted either directly on a round base bar, or on a special corner bracket attached to a round base bar. The Hall wheels are extremely solid and not likely to break under side loads, and their small size makes it possible in many cases to pack away the base bar in the glider bag without taking off the wheels. However their small size also makes them less than ideal in terms of protection. The Finsterwalder wheels are similar to-- and apparently 1" larger than-- the pneumatic wheels recommended above. Note also the wheels for Slipstream control frames with streamlined control bars-- in my opinion the small size of these wheels makes them marginal at best, and their shape is such that they might tend to dig in under a side load. Here are some better wheels ( non-pneumatic, or pneumatic) for streamlined control bars. I don't know whether they fit Wills Wing aluminum streamlined control bars or not, or how to order. A bit of sleuthing on the web via google, the Oz Report, and the Oz Report Forums should get you the answers. Here are some more links for wheels for streamlined base bars: (#1), (#2) .


Here is a cautionary tale from an expert pilot who didn't bother to find a set of wheels that worked with his new glider.


I recommend a harness with a chest-mounted chute. This can provide an effective protective cushion in the even of a mishap--during my one and only blown launch to date, my chest-mounted chute helped to cushion a forceful impact against large boulders. The impact knocked the wind out of me, and I'm sure I would have received some sort of internal injury had I not been flying with a chest-mounted chute. The drawback, of course, is that a harness with a chest-mounted chute is less streamlined than a harness with a side-mounted chute. Be sure that you can reach your chute handle with both hands-- an arm can be incapacitated by debris if a glider breaks up, and there are even several known cases of pilots with undamaged gliders suffering broken arms in flight and having to deploy their chutes! Whatever kind of harness you end up getting, you'll want your chute to be one of the more modern types such as the Lara or Quantum, which offers a much slower descent rate than the old "meat savers", in case you actually have to deploy during an in-flight emergency.


I strongly advise new pilots to obtain a real radio that can receive and transmit on the normal USHGA channels by the time they are ready for their first mountain flight.This is an important safety item, and though Iím not a fan of excessive ďradio-controllingĒ by someone standing on the ground, I do find myself reluctant to mentor novice pilots who donít have radios.An Icom T2H Sport radio only costs about 100$, and can be modified by a knowledgeable person to receive and transmit on the USHGA channels.A supply of AA rechargeable batteries, plus a charger, will keep this radio fed and happy.The radio can simply be taped to a down tube.A hand-held CB-style mike from Radio Shack or elsewhere is quite inexpensive and can be taped the gliderís base bar to allow a pilot to easily transmit in flight (though in truth itís much more important that a novice pilot can receive than transmit!)Some foam taped over the microphone will help reduce wind noise. Eventually you'll probably want to move up to a helmet-mounted speaker and microphone, with a remote push-to-talk switch, but don't let the lack of these items keep you from flying with a radio.


An open-face helmet is fine for the training hill, but when a pilot starts to make mountain flights, he should get a full-face helmet, i.e. a helmet with a chin guard. Sometimes a lighter-weight motorcycle helmet can be found used in good condition, or new on clearance, for significantly less expense than a purpose-designed hang gliding helmet. The motorcycle helmet will likely be more protective than the very lightweight full-face helmets that are produced for hang gliding and paragliding, but the prospective buyer should first check that the helmet creates minimal restriction to his peripheral vision to the sides and especially upwards. After years of flying with such a helmet, I now feel "overly exposed" when I fly with an open-face helmet.


I'll close by listing a few items that might better be described as "comfort gear" than "safety gear". Gloves with grippy palms help provide a good grip on the down tubes and base bar during ground-handling, which significantly decreases the physical effort needed to handle the glider on the ground. The improved grip will also be helpful during launching, and during flight in turbulence. The "Atlas Therma Fit" brand is inexpensive (check hardware stores), grippy, and warm. In cold weather or for high altitude add bar mits, and for truly chilly conditions add thin polypropelene liner gloves. Pieces of adhesive plastic grip-strip, with a rough surface, applied to the base bar and down tubes will also help improve a pilot's grip, especially through bar mits. Protective foam taped to the inner sides of the down tubes near a pilot's shoulders will also greatly ease ground-handling, and is especially helpful when the pilot is carrying the glider up a training hill. The foam layers can be thick for maximal comfort, or thin for streamlining. On a glider with round down tubes, pipe insulation works well. Pilots who are small in stature and/or have narrow shoulders will find that a substantial layer of foam on inner sides of the down tubes will narrow the inside width of the control frame enough to allow the glider to rest several inches higher on the pilot's shoulders, so that there is more clearance between the base tube and the ground.


Fly safe!

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