A comedy routine that went wrong killed an experienced hang glider pilot at a June 2 airshow at Mountain Home Air Force Base, a federal agency said Tuesday.
Dan Buchanan, a paraplegic from Dayton, Nevada, piloted the hang glider when it crashed. He was supposed to detach his hang glider from a tow cable drawn by a truck to start an airborne comedy routine when the glider descended faster than expected and crashed, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
The board's report is preliminary and did not say exactly what caused the accident. But it did say that witnesses were mistaken when they told news reporters that an aerobatic plane that was part of the performance appeared to have sliced the glider's tow cable.
Witnesses at the Gunfighter Skies Air & Space Celebration had said Buchanan appeared to have lost control of his glider at 1:38 p.m. after the plane clipped the cable, which was attached to a winch trailer pulled by the truck. Investigators found the cable intact.
The NTSB issued a three-page preliminary crash report. A final report is expected to be released in coming months.
Buchanan, 62, had performed his routine at airshows for years. It involved the pilot seeming to fly his glider inadvertently past the plane performing an aerobatic routine. The plane would make a series of close passes, eventually cutting streamers attached to the glider, which was outfitted with smoke canisters.
The plan called for the cable to remain attached to the glider for three passes over the runway. The winch operator let out the cable and maintained tension as the glider climbed to about 1,500 feet. Buchanan was to release the cable after the third pass and then perform a series of gliding maneuvers down to the ground.
"The winch operator stated that a few seconds after the turn, he looked up and noticed the hang glider was about 500 feet below the altitude he would typically expect to see it," the report said. "The hang glider then performed an aggressive turning maneuver, and descended another 500 feet."
The winch operator released pressure on the cable, trying to make it easier for Buchanan to maneuver. The glider climbed for a moment, rolled left and crashed to the ground nose-down, the report said.
"Multiple witnesses, including the Air Boss, who had seen the routine performed many times before, all recounted similar observations and all stated that the maneuvers after the third pass were completely unconventional and not part of the routine," the report said.
The report does not say whether wind could have been a factor in the crash. The report said wind was blowing at 3.5 miles per hour at the time of the crash.
The Pulse 10 Meter glider Buchanan was piloting was manufactured in 1995, registration records from the Federal Aviation Administration say. It was last certified for airworthiness in 2014, with its current certificate good through April 2019.
Buchanan suffered a spinal injury in 1981 while landing a hang glider in bad weather. Although he couldn't walk after that, he returned to flying six months later and logged more than 3,000 hours of flight time in hang gliders and sailplanes, according to his website.
He was also licensed as a private and commercial pilot. He made his first appearance at an air show in Medford, Oregon, in 1989. He appeared annually at more than 25 airshows.
The accident at Mountain Home caused organizers to cancel the rest of that day's show. The second day of the show went on as scheduled and was dedicated to Buchanan.