By Ray Stern
What happened to hang glider pilot Kunio Yoshimura on Saturday was the sort of fatal blunder that reads like fodder for a Darwin award.
As local news reports like this one detailed yesterday, Yoshimura forgot to connect himself to his hang glider before jumping off a windy cliff on Mingus Mountain near Prescott. Unable to control the craft, he deployed a parachute too low and fell more than 1,000 feet to his death.
But this was a real tragedy in Yoshimura's family and in the state's hang gliding community. Family pictures Yoshimura posted on the Internet, like the one shown above, should stifle the macabre laughter of even the more cynical reader.
The beauty of Kunio Yoshimura's chosen pastime can be seen in his YouTube videos, like this one. The 36-year-old Phoenix realtor had been flying hang gliders for about 13 years and documented many of his adventures with videos.
The sport has an above-average risk factor, though, and is commonly thought to be even more dangerous than skydiving.
On Saturday, Yoshimura was attending an annual three-day event at Mingus Mountain with other members of the Arizona Hang Gliding Association. Details on the Web site go well beyond the snippets that appeared in local publications.
Hal Hayden, the Mingus Site Monitor for the association in Prescott, describes how the 1:30 p.m. incident unfolded with lightning speed after Yoshimuro launched "without first attaching his harness to the glider."
The pilot grabbed the glider’s control bar and attempted to pull himself up onto it, but he was unable to gain control and the glider dove approximately 1,000 feet down the slope of the mountain. Yoshimura threw his parachute and let go of the glider before it impacted the hillside, but he was too low and the parachute failed to arrest his descent.
Yoshimura's mistake can be boiled to down to the fact that he didn't perform a "hang check" before he took off, one member says. Another who goes by the name "Randy Skywalker" states that "Kunio was anxious to fly" and that "I should have noticed he was not hooked into the glider."
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The most detailed account comes from "Flying MJ:"
Randy and Kunio were both ready to launch at the same time. Randy stepped up first and was talking to the guys at the [launch zone]. Concerned about the landing wind conditions he was thinking whether or not he wanted to launch. Kunio was ready and in a hurry and decided to go to the north launch. I was with Mark Knight at the south launch holding wing wires and Mark Knight was holding nose wires waiting for Randy’s decision. Both Mark and I wanted to see Kunio launch so as soon as we got someone to take our place, we started over. We had not gone 10’ when I heard “Kunio just launched”. I stopped and looked and got my first glance at him. Then all hell broke loose. “He’s unhooked, shit…” Guys yelling at him over the radio to throw his chute, “Kunio don’t think, throw your chute throw your chute”. We all watch in horror not believing this was happening. Kunio was hanging on to the down tubes flying away from the mountain. He managed to climb up into the control frame and get his feet on the base bar. A sigh of relief came over me. I have seen guys fly from there before. I was hopeful, but Kunio was all over the place flying out of control, severe [pilot-induced ocscillation] from side to side. By now he was farther away and flying wildly making it harder to see what he was doing, getting closer to the ground. I can’t imagine what was going through his mind. He then separated from his glider. I don’t know if as he let go with one hand to throw his chute and the G force threw him out or maybe he was holding on and got thrown out, but he was falling and his chute was trying to open seconds before he hit.
Ultimately, Yoshimura's death is a chilling reminder for everyone that, sometimes, one careless mistake is all it takes.