Incident at Cape Kiwanda

Incident at Cape Kiwanda

I first flew a hangglider at Cape Kiwanda in Oregon. It’s a great place to learn and practice because the launch is a large sand dune. If you make a mistake the sand makes it a little less likely you’ll get hurt. On the other hand, hauling the glider to the top of the dune is back breaking and leg cramping.

If the wind is strong and from the west or northwest you can launch from the dune, ride the lift in front of it to get some altitude and then fly out over the water to the Cape. If there’s enough air flowing up the cliff face you can stay out there over the water as long as you want.

One day when the wind was favorable I hauled my glider to the top of the dune three times attempting to get the altitude needed to make it out to the Cape and I’d almost made it the third time. The fourth try would be the last because my thighs and calves couldn’t take any more. Knowing that it was my last chance for the day and maybe for a long time I took a chance that I shouldn’t have.

The rule is if your flying ridge lift, which is the air that flows up and over a ridge, stay in front of the face of the ridge or the cliff. You have to be able to see the cliff face because if you get behind it, and can’t see it, you’ll get in the “rotor”, the turbulent air above and behind the cliff.

Others had made it out there that day and managed to sustain long flights so I knew the conditions were good but as I approached the tip of the Cape rather than stay out in front it, over the water, I turned left slightly and flew over it. That maneuver put me behind the ridge and for a second I thought it would be all right, that maybe, at that moment the air was clean, or that I would just punch through the rotor and get out in front before the turbulence could affect me, but just as it seemed that I might make it, the right side of the glider lifted and I was suddenly at a right angle to the ground. Leveling out put me even further behind the cliff and over “The Bowl”, a deep opening in the Cape that went all the way down to the water.

My only hope to avoid plunging a hundred feet into the bottom of The Bowl was to crash downwind into the back of it. I don’t know if I flew the glider into the cliff or if I just got lucky and was carried there but I ended up crashing into the cliff face at the back of The Bowl, ten feet above a ledge.

I was going so fast when I hit, the “down tubes”, which are the aluminum tubes you hang from and hold onto while you’re flying, folded around my forearms. I had locked my arms to protect my head and face and the structure bent and broke, but not my arms.

After the impact I fell to the ledge with the broken glider on me and I couldn’t breath. The wind had been knocked out of me and I thought I’d broken my back. My bottom teeth had gone through my lip so it was bleeding inside and out. In a few seconds I was able to breath and spit the blood and sand out of my mouth and move my arms and legs so even though my back hurt I was pretty sure it wasn’t broken and I didn’t have a spinal injury.  Before sitting up to thoroughly assess my condition I took off my helmet and when I set it down it rolled off the ledge and tumbled all the way down to the water. I watched it splash and then disappear in the waves.

There was just enough room on the ledge to fold the glider so I packed it up and carried it over the back of The Bowl and down to the beach. When I finally got back to my Jeep with the broken glider and with blood on my face and chest the other pilots, who either assumed I flew to another beach or was dead in the water, paid me little mind.


  • Dick! I was surprised and very glad to hear from Don. I told him one of the best things about documenting all this stuff on the web is hearing from people like you and him. Thanks for writing. Click on “Contact Rob Crimmins” in the sidebar above to email me if you want.


  • Dick Mahoney says:

    Hi Rob. I was sure surprised by the email I received from Don Burge. It brought back a flood of good memories. The last time I saw you was at American Blimp.
    Dick Mahoney

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