The Instructors of Towing
Several years back, I wrote an article for Hang Gliding Magazine
called "Lockouts and other Paths to Disaster". At the
end of the article, I promised to a sequel called "Masters
of Disaster, Advanced Towing Techniques."
I got a call the other day from someone who scolded me for never
writing the sequel. He thought it was supposed to be two articles,
and he was highly disappointed that I hadn't written them. I have
to disappoint him yet again. It was supposed to be one article
with two names, a bad habit of mine as I like to write articles
with catchy names in hope that someone will actually want to read
However, there was a reason why I never wrote Advanced Towing
Techniques. I wasn't that excited about encouraging pilots to
do "Tricky Things Under Tow". It was my feeling at the
time that 360 turns under tow are best not encouraged, and step
towing is best left to those with a ton of experience.
On the other hand, I just conversed with Luen Miller, the USHGA
Accident review guy, about a rash of towing fatalities over the
last year, and it was clear to me that regardless of cute names
for articles and other things that go bump in the night, a lot
of towing is going on out there, and some of it is going down
There are a lot of different flavors of towing going on now. Towing
behind cars, trucks, ultralights, and even the occasional hand
pulled tow. Tow bridles include the ATOL tow bridle, the European
double bridle, the Skyting bridle, the aerotow v-bridle, towing
with the tow line both above and below the control bar. Releases
include the 3 string release, the 2 string release, the 3 RING
release, the Mason release, the Linknife, the European steel bar
release, and so on. There are two major styles of stationary winch,
scooter tow and the regular stationary winch.
With all of these variations, though, there are some basic principles
of towing that continue to be the same.
One of my paraglider students, in the process of learning how
to tow paragliders, kept locking out. Yeah, yeah, you can lockout
a paraglider. The mechanics are different, but the problem is
the same. You get over to the side, the forces get high, and the
glider won't turn back into center. So what does towing hang gliders
have to do with all this? Well, I generalized that towing hang
gliders and paragliders are very similar, and I suddenly realized
what the problem was. Flying paragliders is very easy and, in
fact, relaxing, but towing a paraglider is just as intense and
peril ridden as towing a hang glider. I have been towing hang
gliders for some 20 years, and I have never gotten to the point
that I am totally relaxed about any tow. I realized suddenly,
that of all the things I do, hang gliding and paragliding, I find
towing is the most intense. And why? To me, towing seems to have
the most things that can go wrong. (Short of thermaling in the
Owens Valley on a strong day, anyway.) I suddenly realized that
the reason why I generally don't have tows that DON'T GO WELL
is because of the intensity I put into each tow. So I formulated
and told this pilot the 100% rule.
A pilot being towed MUST give 100% of his/her attention to the
successful completion of the tow. Why? Because most of the problems
of pilots new to towing are caused by inattention. And most of
those problems could have been nipped in the bud by the correct
response of the pilot being towed. But not 2 or 3 seconds after
the problem has started. Only right now is good enough.
I got hurt pretty badly about five years back. Due to a one in a million type of occurrence, my arm broke in flight while I was towing up at a meet in Hobbs, NM. But one thing that exacerbated the accident, was that due to the unusual nature of the accident, I neglected to release from the tow line. Somewhere, I had heard that the tow line is your friend! Well, it wasn't! Because of gyrations of the glider as it came down, caused by the tow line still being attached, observers told me that there was probably only 1 chance in 10 that I could have hit the ground so I wasn't killed outright, but I was lucky and drew the "live man's hand".
(Obviously not Aces and eights.)
From this accident and many other incidents over the years, I
formulated the concept of "recognize and release".
The towed pilot must recognize that he/she is having a problem
and release, well before things get so bad that releasing doesn't
help. If the pilot is too inexperienced to know when he/she is
in trouble, then, it is essential that the observer/instructor
be qualified to release for the pilot.
Several years later, Two buddies and I were towing on a road where
the observer on the tow rig, would have gotten a rough ride and
a lot of dirt in the face. I volunteered to ride the tow rig as
an observer, but the pilot, mindful of the difficult ride in store
for the observer, declined. The one, out of a thousand, bad platform
launch ensued, and the pilot flew into the ground seconds after
launch. Yeah, he tried to release, but he had just moved his release
cord, and grabbed the wrong thing. The ground he flew into was
concrete. He smashed an elbow which after several years still
hasn't healed, and he had internal injuries which also necessitated
surgery. I'm pretty darn good with a hook knife, but I was in
the cab of the truck. Once again, there were a number of things
that combined to contribute to a bad accident. But the overriding
thing was that there wasn't an observer on the tow rig with a
ready hook knife.
Another principle of towing then is: Use an observer. Yeah, I
know that it's often inconvenient, and we all have done thousands
of tows without one, but, having an observer is sort of like wearing
a helmet or flying with a parachute. You wear a helmet on a thousand
flights hoping you will never need it and being very glad the
one time you do need it, that you had it.
Obviously, there is at least one type of towing where an observer
is impractical or impossible, aerotow. That means that during
an aerotow, several extra precautions need to be in place. The
main one is that the tow plane needs a good rear view mirror so
that the pilot can act as the observer, and it also needs a reliable
tow release at the tug end of the rope so that the pilot can get
rid of the towee quickly.
I was consulted recently about a towing fatality. The accident
occurred using a stationary winch. I read and listened to all
of the reports, and then concluded that the primary cause was
the combination of a relatively inexperienced tow operator and
a very inexperienced tow pilot. It would have been easy to pin
down the accident to, "Well, the pilot should have released
from tow, or the winch operator should have cut the power sooner
or later, the glider was one difficult to tow, and a number of
other things but while all of those factors may have been true,
the overriding factor was that no one thing was the cause of such
a serious accident. It took a number of factors combined together,
to make events go really wrong.
An inexperienced tow operator and an inexperienced tow pilot are
a bad combination. The less experienced the operator, the more
experienced the pilot must be, and the less experienced the pilot
is, the more experienced the tow operator must be. A good tow
operator is a 'Master of Disaster'. One who, when things are going
wrong, will quickly and confidently take the correct action..
Flying a hang glider (or paraglider) under tow requires learning
to fly your glider in a different way than you will do in free
flight. It requires learning some concepts that need to be brought
to your attention in detail before and as you learn to tow. Thus,
you need to receive tow instruction from someone experienced enough
to give you information as well as safe flights.
If you have or plan to get some sort of tow system, be sure that
you get some appropriate training in the use of your tow system,
and do a number of tows with tow trained and experienced pilots
before you start towing inexperienced pilots.
A conversation I had with Peter Birren pointed out another area
of importance. HE told me of a pilot, who was killed while towing
with a static line and a pulley. This arrangement has the driver
acting as the observer. But, the pilot had a release failure,
and the driver had no way to release the towline from the tow
vehicle. There was no observer at the pulley to cut the rope either.
Most accidents occur because of an accumulation of mistakes. This
accident is much the same. A group may start out with a complete
set of safety precautions and practices. Then due to the extengencies
of the moment, one or another of these things may be left undone
and then over time maybe discontinued entirely with the justification
that well, we got away without it this time, maybe we don't need
it after all. I suggest that you have a set of minimum standards
that must be met before you tow. Review your check lists, weak
links, tow releases, tow lines, measurement or monitoring of tow
tension, observer methods, hook knives, the use of radio, the
use of hand signals, and so forth. Many of these things should
not be done without. If basic safety requirements aren't met then
Several of these observations go in the face of current towing
practice. I showed a 21 year old 8 mm film to my local club, and
it was interesting to note that 100% of the pilots in the film,
including myself, flew without helmets,. There hasn't been a great
rash of hang gliding accidents that convinced pilots over the
years that helmets are a necessity. It has been more like an attack
of common sense. Likewise, even now, some pilots have the attitude
that an observer is seldom or never needed, and that "Real"
tow pilots never have to release from a tow. I strongly believe,
though, that common sense does tell tow pilots that the principles
mentioned in this article are pretty wise. I occasionally give
lectures on towing, and I always emphasize a conservative approach
to towing , with particular emphasis on using an observer and
"Recognize and release". I always meet pilots and tow
operators who have come to these same conclusions. What I think
is happening is that as towing becomes more and more popular,
we become more and more aware that even a one in a thousand occurrence
eventually has to happen.
So here is my basic tow safety list:
1. The 100 % Rule. (100 % of your attention must go to the successful completion of a tow.)
2. Recognize and release!
3. Use an observer (capable of instantly cutting or releasing the tow line.)
4. Get instructions either as a tow pilot or a tow operator or both.
5. Establish minimum safe requirements for towing, and if they
aren't met, then don't fly.
There are a number of other, more specific ideas for improving
safety in each of the different towing disciplines, but these
rules are more or less common to all hang glider and paraglider
towing and are a good starting place for safety.