A passenger who tumbled about 1,000 feet from a hang glider to her death in Canada fell because she wasn't strapped to the craft and because the pilot failed to ensure attachment before takeoff, according to an investigation by a gliding industry group.
Pilot William Jonathan Orders, who previously was charged on suspicion of swallowing a possible video recording of the flight, didn't perform a required "hang check" that would have revealed Lenami Godinez-Avilla wasn't attached to the glider, the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada (HPAC) said this week.
Godinez-Avilla, 27, fell to her death on April 28, not long after she and Orders took off from Mount Woodside over a heavily wooded area near Agassiz, British Columbia, authorities have said.
"A review of the events leading up to takeoff suggests that there were multiple distractions that may have resulted in a breakdown of standard operating procedures," said the HPAC's report, which cited witness accounts and its examination of the glider and equipment.
Orders, 50, was charged in May with attempting to obstruct justice on suspicion of swallowing a memory card of an onboard video camera that might have recorded the flight, an action he said he admitted doing. Orders passed the card while in custody days later, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said Thursday that they've viewed the card's data but aren't discussing the contents.
Orders posted bail in May and is awaiting an April trial on the attempted obstruction charge. A call seeking comment about the report and the case Thursday from Orders' attorney, Laird Cruickshank, was not returned.
The report by the HPAC, which certifies pilots and suspended Orders after the incident, has no legal standing. Only an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would lead to additional charges, and the RCMP has yet to file a death investigation report, said Neil MacKenzie, communications counsel with British Columbia's criminal justice branch.
Still, the Coroner's Service of British Columbia will consult the HPAC report and another expert report to inform its pending determination on the cause and nature of death, corner Barb McLintock said.
Godinez-Avilla and her boyfriend each were to take tandem flights that day – Godinez-Avilla with Orders, and her boyfriend with another pilot, the HPAC says. It was her first hang gliding experience, and Orders' business, Vancouver Hang Gliding, charged between $190 and $210 Canadian dollars for introductory tandem flights.
Godinez-Avilla and Orders took off first as other people watched from the ground. A witness, Nicole McLearn, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. earlier this year that when the glider was in the air, Godinez-Avilla appeared to be wearing a harness that wasn't attached to the glider and clung to Orders before she fell.
"I could see her starting to slip down his body ... past the waist, down the legs. Finally she got to the feet and tried to hang on and obviously couldn't hang on for that much longer and let go, tearing off the tandem pilot's shoes in the process," McLearn said.
Jason Warner, HPAC safety director, told the CBC on April 29 that he talked to Orders shortly after the incident.
"He tried to grab her – he tried to grab her harness, everything he could, wrapped his legs around her – and she slipped down his legs and then fell," Warner told the CBC.
The HPAC says that having examined the equipment and other evidence, and having "eliminated any possibility of equipment failure," it concluded "that the passenger's harness was not connected to the glider on takeoff."
"All suspension straps and connecting devices were found to be without defect and in good working order," said the HPAC, to which police had given access to the equipment.
Bruce Busby, the HPAC's vice president, said Thursday that Orders alone had the responsibility of ensuring that Godinez-Avilla's harness was strapped to the glider's primary and backup loops with carabiners.
Orders also was supposed to perform a preflight "hang check" - putting the glider in a flying attitude on the ground to see whether pilot and passenger, supposedly strapped to the craft, would hang in the middle of the glider, Busby said.
"The hang strap is not long enough to allow (them) to lie on the ground. ... If you can lie on the ground, you're not hooked in," Busby said.
Busby said none of the roughly seven witnesses that HPAC interviewed remembers seeing Godinez-Avilla undergoing a hang check.
The witnesses don't include Orders or the pilot assigned to Godinez-Avilla's boyfriend. Busby said the HPAC hasn't had access to them.
"Until such time that a statement from Mr. Orders is made available, the investigation assumes that pilot distraction resulted in a failure to perform recommended standardized safety procedures, resulting in the death of the passenger," the report said.
Busby said he knew of no specific allegation of a distraction. "We think it's distraction, because something distracted them from the normal routine that they're required to follow to be an HPAC-certified instructor," Busby said.
He also said he swallowed the video memory card in a panic but quickly admitted it to police.
"I would like to apologize to [Godinez-Avilla's] family, to the police and the public for my panicked action of swallowing the memory card as I did," he said, according to the CBC. "I disclosed to police myself shortly afterwards what I had done with the memory card, as a result of the overwhelming stress I was under."
He added that he concluded he "cannot and will not return to hang gliding," according to the CBC.