Glider hit record height before crash


POSTED: Saturday, February 20, 2010

A 69-year-old Big Island man who died last year while trying to set a state record for altitude in a glider apparently attained a new height before crashing.

Dave Bigelow of Kamuela reached 38,716 feet, surpassing his old record by more than 5,000 feet before crashing into Mauna Loa about 1 minute and 40 seconds later, according to a crash report released this week by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB report said the altitude was determined by a GPS recording device on board the craft. In-flight structural failure led to the crash, the report said without further elaboration on the crash's direct cause.

Patricia Bigelow, the pilot's widow, declined to comment until the cause of the crash was clarified. NTSB officials could not be reached for comment.

Bigelow, a retired Air Force captain who flew F-102 fighter jets in the Vietnam War, was flying his experimental Glaser-Dirks DG-400 motor-glider when he crashed on the southwestern slope of the volcano on Jan. 16, 2009.

Friends told crash investigators that the engine had been disabled for the record attempt.

Bigelow set a record state glider altitude of 33,561 feet on April 4, 2008, according to his friends in the Mauna Kea Soaring Club, of which Bigelow was a member.

On the morning of his record attempt last year, Bigelow was towed from Waimea-Kohala Airport to about 12,600 feet and released at about 10:30 a.m. He radioed to his friends at about 12:45 p.m. to say he was at 28,000 feet and crossing over to Mauna Loa.

The GPS recording device recovered from the crash showed Bigelow's flight ended at 1:16 p.m. when the glider fell almost vertically out of the sky at 300 mph, dropping almost four miles in 42 seconds.

During the rapid descent, the craft turned 180 degrees, data on the recorder showed.

The NTSB report said Bigelow had two oxygen systems on board, including a high-altitude system made for the Air Force. The report said according to the instructions for the high-altitude system, above 30,000 feet the regulator control knob should be set to “;safety,”; increasing oxygen pressure in the mask.

When the control knob was recovered in the wreckage, it was set to “;normal,”; the NTSB report said.

Relatives had said Bigelow carefully prepared for the flight, studying conditions for about a year. Conditions were grueling at high altitudes. According to the recording device, it was minus 53 degrees at 38,716 feet with 56 mph winds. Bigelow wore eight pounds of clothing as protection from the cold, the report said.

Two days after the crash, park rangers finally reached the craft's remains, which were strewn across a lava field at the 10,000-foot altitude in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.