Paraglider made fatal error: investigation

A TRAGIC tandem paragliding accident that claimed two lives off the coast of Nirranda was the result of a mistake by a veteran pilot, an investigation has found.

“I think he just misjudged it and paid very dearly,” Victorian Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association president Rob van der Klooster said.

“He literally had thousands of hours of flying experience and certainly many hundreds of hours tandem paragliding and hang gliding.

“He would have had the option to land on top of the cliffs if he was high enough, but he dropped below the cliffs.”

Pilot Rob Lithgow, 52, of Torquay, and passenger Bruce Ottoway, 66, of Victor Harbor, were killed in the incident on May 19. 

Mr Lithgow’s body was found tangled in ropes in the ocean the next day, but Mr Ottoway’s body was never recovered.

It was the first time the veteran pilot had flown from the Nirranda site, known as Flaxmans Hill, which is located at the end of Mathiesons Road.

Mr Ottoway, who had damaged his own hang glider, was keen to get a paragliding licence and joined the flight to get his hours up.

Mr van der Klooster is preparing a report for the sport’s governing body and will present it if a coroner’s inquest is called.

His investigations have shown that while there were squalls in and around the area, conditions were good for flying when the pair took off about 2.30pm from a lookout area at the top of the cliffs.

“They went off to the left and radioed to the ground to say conditions were good and there’s lots of pictures to prove that,” Mr van der Klooster said.

But about 30 minutes into the flight, tragedy struck. 

“They were probably two kilometres to the south-east above sheer cliffs with nothing at the bottom. It’s a very rugged area,” Mr van der Klooster said.

“We have readings from Warrnambool that show the winds did drop and change to the west within a half-an-hour period. The Warrnambool reading is not exactly what would have happened at Flaxmans, but it’s indicative.

“We know they landed in the water, so we assume the wind dropped or changed and they were out of reach of a safe landing area.”

The Hang Gliding Federation of Australia’s website advises pilots that once they are past the first bay, there are no beach landings to the east of Flaxmans Hill.

“Do not fly the sheer cliffs if the wind is light or likely to drop off,” it warns.

Mr van der Klooster estimated it would have taken the pair just 30 seconds to fall into the ocean once they lost the onshore breeze.

He said they followed emergency procedures, with Mr Lithgow unclipping his passenger from the harness before attempting to unclip himself.

Emergency services were called to the site when the pair failed to return and a ground crew member raised the alarm.

“When police rang me I said you’re looking for two live pilots on top of the cliffs or two deceased pilots in the water,” Mr van der Klooster said.

“It’s all too unfortunate. He was a very skilful pilot and he probably thought he could fly his way out of anything.”

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