Being the ultra conservative giant chicken that I am, I often think about accidents in hang gliding. I think I'm not unusual amongst pilots in that as much as I don't want to die hang gliding, my bigger fear is having an accident that leaves me a paraplegic or worse yet quadriplegic. The possibility is there every time we fly and we all know the risk we're taking, but we take it never the less as the reward is so great.
Lea Kerr is a British hang glider pilot that had a terrible accident this past spring. Much has been written and discussed online about the cause of the accident and things that we can do to make sure the same sort of thing doesn't happen again. But, the truth is, no matter what happened, all I can help but feel is that (as someone once said and I don't know who it was) "There but for the grace of god, go I." Whether you believe in God's grace or not, any one of us could have suffered Lea's misfortune. He wasn't a careless or reckless pilot, he simply had some really crap luck and now is in a position that he needs the support of the hang gliding community around the world.
Lea is a good friend of Carl Wallbank and in speaking with Carl recently, I asked him to tell me a little about his friendship with Lea, what happened that terrible day last spring and how Lea is doing now, a half a year down the line:
"I first met Lea whilst he was under flying training at Peak air sports during 2009, he was learning to fly with his long time friend and work colleague Terry Rice. Lea appeared a very likeable quiet guy who listened more than he spoke, a quality not many of us have. At the point of both of them just gaining their flying licences Terry was sadly killed in a hang gliding accident in early 2010. Lea and other North Wales pilots where witnesses on this black day. Obviously loosing your friend and training partner would have a massive affect on any of us. But although now even more cautious Lea still followed his dream to free fly. Lea was soon integrated into our small yet close knit North Wales club, and I personally fed off his enthusiasm and hunger to be airborne. Lea always appeared careful and cautious in his preparation, yet he had a natural skill whilst flying. Seeing all this, I took him under my wing in 2011 to help him progress and we've grown as good friends on a personal level even away from hill...despite most of the drinking in the pub talk still being about hang gliding (as it is for most of us I guess).
Lea had no issues landing or taking off on his Moyes Max and eventually upgraded to a Litespeed S4 in 2011. From his first flight, he showed no indication that he'd upgraded to early, pulling off good landings in the right spot on every occasion. As I've already said he appeared to be a natural.
My main focus with Lea was to get him going cross country - he was so hungry for the first one. UK is not like the rest of the world - making the transition from hill soaring pilot to cross country pilot is a big leap, certainly not helped by our lack of thermals and lower cloud bases over here. Never the less in spring 2013 he was ready and it was only a matter of waiting for the right day to appear.
The day before the accident the UK was having some great flying weather, I was offshore at work and Lea had been flying with friends at Llangollen. I was Facebook chatting with Kim (Lea's girlfriend) to find out if Lea had actually managed to free the nest and go cross country. I could tell by her chat that Lea had been on the phone telling her about his day. Although he never actually landed out, he left the hill and did a small out and return. He was obviously extremely happy on this evening and Kim sounded very proud of her man.
The next day as we now all know, had a very different ending. What appeared no more than a commonly seen "nose in" resulted in something that can only be described as uncommonly life changing, a massive fracture of the C6 area. After 10 days or so in ICU and 19 weeks lying down not being able get up, Lea is now up in the chair and making remarkable progress each day. Fighting bed sores has been a problem from day one and still remains a problem today. Whilst I say he's making remarkable progress, this fight is long from over and he has many challengers ahead.
Despite all of this, Lea still won't stop talking about hang gliding. He's so hungry to get in the air again and I'm sure with good continued progression in his rehabilitation this hunger can and will be turned into reality. Even in his condition today we laugh and joke about having a set of Velcro gloves and he could stick his hands to the basebar and go flying. I most certainly would love to be his pilot in command on his first duel taster flight."
This past weekend, Carl organized a 100 mile bicycle ride down to Lea's hospital and back to raise money to help Lea with his recovery. Lea is a self-employed builder and while we can't make his injuries magically disappear, the international hang gliding community really is a family and we can all pitch in to help with his recovery.
The bicycle ride went well - Carl, Myles and Jeremy Kynaston and Phil and Chris Donn gave it everything they had and made the entire distance in just about 8 hours. Showing the ultimate in empathy, Carl is now getting to see what Lea is having to deal with now - having sores in very uncomfortable places! They were even joined for the last portion of the ride by Stu Lloyd. Stu is a paraglider pilot that suffered a collapse and is also now in a wheelchair. He's only been out of the hospital for two months! Carl says he's a "machine" in his hand bike and has an amazing outlook.