There were a couple back to back stories this week that were not just unusual in nature; they were great examples that not all workplace activity in the air occurs inside an airplane. In one story, a skydiving instructor was found to have committed suicide by separating himself mid-dive from his student and plummeting to his death. In the other, a hang-gliding pilot took a customer on a ride he will never forget – mostly because the pilot forgot to attach him to the hang glider before launching his craft.

The “experienced skydiving instructor” from Maine who plunged over one mile to his death while flying tandem with a student was found to have deliberately released his safety harness to commit suicide, according to the Maine State Police.

The student, who was not identified, landed safely with the parachute and contacted authorities. The instructor’s body was found the following day about 750 feet southwest of the Lebanon Airport runway. 

Missed it by that much. 

According to the Portland Press Herald, “a two-month investigation concluded he loosened his harness midair and that it was an intentional act. Police said they spoke with other skydiving instructors and industry officials, who all concluded that no experienced skydiver would loosen a parachute harness by mistake.” The man did not leave a note.

I can’t help but wonder if he said anything to the hapless student. Imagine being that guy. It’s not like he was “going on ahead” to get the mail or something. Talk about trial by fire. “Oh, by the way, I’m leaving. You’ll have to figure out how to land on your own. Have a nice day, and thanks for flying Plummet Air.”

I suppose it could also have been a statement of confidence in the student’s ability. We just don’t know – mostly because the guy didn’t leave a note.

The determination that this was a suicide and not a workplace accident probably saved some insurance company a small amount of money. In Maine, workplace related death benefits say that compensation is to be paid to the dependents of the employee who were wholly dependent upon the employee’s earnings for support at the time of the injury, a weekly payment equal to 2/3 of the employee’s gross average weekly wages, earnings or salary, but not more than the maximum benefit for a period of 500 weeks from the date of death.

If there are no dependents, the incidental death benefits for the estate are $3,000.

In our other air related tale, a Florida man vacationing in Switzerland almost fell to his death after the pilot reportedly forgot to attach him to the aircraft. He was forced to “clutch onto the glider with his bare hands at 4,000 feet for more than two minutes, in order to avoid what would likely have been a fatal fall.” The video of his entire flight is available here.

Sounds like that pilot didn’t follow his pre-flight checklist.

Wearing helmet, check.
Helmet on passenger, check.
Attach Pilot safety harness to airframe, check.
Facing wind, check.
Attach passenger safety harness to airfr – SQUIRREL!

The president of the Swiss Hang-Gliding Association described the tale as “horrifying,” saying

“This is such a basic mistake. On the one hand, it’s tragic and then on the other hand, they were lucky. It could have been much worse. The sort of mistake in the video is what you learn in your first hour of training. It’s hard to understand what happened.”

I suppose the real news here is that the Swiss have a hang-gliding association. Something tells me this pilot won’t be up for any significant awards at their annual achievement banquet. Perhaps he’ll be awarded “Most Likely to Improve.” 

I’ve heard of people dropping clients before, but this seems a bit extreme. 

The passenger, who managed to clutch the pilot’s leg long enough to survive, was injured during the incident. He tore a rotator cuff while hanging on for dear life and fractured his wrist upon landing. Experts say that was probably because he was dangling below the wheels, which in effect made him the landing gear for this flight. All in all, it could have been worse. At least his pilot stayed with him to the end. He didn’t step out to run a few errands in the middle of the flight.

He does say he will try hang-gliding again, since he “did not have a chance to enjoy his first one.” There was no word on whether he was planning to take sky-diving lessons in Maine anytime soon. 

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