Fatal Glider Crash at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Mauna Loa volcano includes some very rugged terrain. Photo by Bret Arnett via Flickr.

Additional details are becoming available about the recent tragic crash of a glider at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

On Friday, January 16, 2009, David Bigelow, 69, attempted to set a record by soaring to 40,000 feet in his glider, a single-seat sailplane. Bigelow was a veteran aviator, with nearly fifty years of experience as a former Air Force fighter pilot and commercial airline pilot.

In an interview in the Honolulu Advisor, a family member said Bigelow had spent months meticulously preparing for the flight. Last year, the pilot had set a new state altitude record for gliders of 33,600 feet.

Bigelow’s last communication was just after 1 p.m. Friday afternoon, when he reported he was at 28,000 feet over Mauna Kea and was heading toward 13,677-foot Mauna Loa, one of five volcanoes in the park. The glider was reported overdue later that afternoon and Coast Guard, Hawaii Fire Department, Civil Air Patrol and volunteer aircraft joined in the search.

Late the next day, park rangers received word from Hawaii Fire Department officials that possible wreckage of the glider was spotted at the 9,800 foot elevation on Mauna Loa, about three miles south of Red Hill Cabin. Weather conditions precluded a landing at the site during remaining hours of daylight.

At first light the following morning, clear weather allowed ranger to fly to the site in a contract helicopter and confirm the wreckage was that of the missing glider. Located in park wilderness, the wreckage is strewn over a barren lava flow. Human remains near the wreckage have been removed to Hilo Medical Center for positive identification; an autopsy is pending.

According to the Honolulu Advisor, family members and friends speculate the pilot likely suffered a problem with his oxygen supply and fell unconscious after reaching record-breaking altitudes before his sailplane spiraled back to Earth and broke apart in midair, leaving a seven to ten-mile path of debris across the barren lava flow.

Pieces of the glider have been moved to the CAP hanger in Hilo for assembly and investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA.