Location: Sauratown, North Carolina
Date: July 30, 1989
July 30, 1989 was a typical North Carolina summer day, very hot with very little wind, when Gilbert Aldrich and his fiancée, Nancy Lumlee, drove up Sauratown Mountain to go hang gliding. "A little still for this July day, but perfect for flying," thought Gilbert as they made their way to the launching site, past the thick forest, and up the steep slope to the top of the mountain.
Gilbert and Nancy were meeting their friend, Jim Burton, who was another pilot and a fellow member of the hang gliding club to which they belonged. Although Nancy had taken only a few courses in the sport, Gilbert and Jim were old pros, and between them, there was plenty of experience flying hang gliders.
On this summer day, Gilbert followed his pre-flight routine perfectly while Nancy helped him set up the hang glider. After carefully checking everything, Gilbert got in place for takeoff. Another hang gliding expert and friend, Doug Rice, arrived at this time, planning to enjoy the sun and sky with the other pilots.
Jim had just flown off the launching pad, gracefully soaring from the mountaintop in the hazy sunshine. Gilbert hoped to be close behind. As Gilbert moved forward for his turn, Nancy realized he was not wearing his helmet, Gilbert, too, noticed this and tried to reach out and grab it before he left the ground.
The helmet was in a position just out of Gilbert's reach. He knew he needed to wear it, so he unhooked himself from the hang glider--for just a second--to stretch as far as he could and grasp the helmet. As he placed it on his head, he was still in the position for takeoff--and still unhooked. As Nancy looked over at him, she noticed he had not secured himself back into his equipment. And with the breeze kicking up, it looked as if he might be leaving the ground soon!
Gilbert felt a gust of wind coming, and he and his hang glider were carried up and away, over the edge of the mountain and into the brilliant blue sky. But he was not hooked into the safety harness. He was hanging on for dear life.
Nancy could see he was in danger. His body was dangling straight down from the glider--this definitely was not the correct position. Growing increasingly nervous, Nancy screamed for help immediately. Her only hope for him was that he could keep a tight grip on the crossbar. If not, he would plummet to the dense forest below.
Watching with wide-eyed terror, Nancy could see Gilbert speeding down toward the trees. He was clearly in danger now, and there was no way for Nancy to get to him to help him. He bounced around as the hang glider dove faster and faster, banking off trees before landing out of sight in the woods.
Screaming out to Doug, who was preparing his equipment at his truck a few yards away, Nancy pointed out Gilbert's landing site. Almost unable to speak, Nancy was so upset that she forgot to tell Doug that Gilbert hadn't been strapped in. Doug thought he had just taken a wrong turn and misjudged his landing. He assured Nancy that he would be walking out of the forest in no time, laughing at himself for missing the ground.
Doug called out to Jim, who was still gliding through the air, to ask if he could see where Gilbert had landed. Jim did not see anything, so he and Doug agreed to meet down where they suspected Gilbert had landed.
Doug and Nancy looked down to the site and could see a figure walking among the trees. They thought this must be Gilbert, and, sighing with relief, they felt he must be okay. Doug joked to Nancy that Gilbert's biggest problem would be getting his huge hang glider out of a tree!
Driving separately down the mountain, Doug and Nancy headed with concern but less worry for the spot where they thought they had seen Gilbert walking. But as Doug approached the spot, there was no sign of Gilbert or anyone. He could see the hang glider in the trees, but no pilot could be found. Concern now turned to fear as Doug and Jim, who had landed near the site, followed a road leading to the hang glider. As they neared the area, they spotted Gilbert--lying on the ground, forty feet below the hanging hang glider. He was hurt.
Curled up on his left side, Gilbert was conscious but, having fallen all the way from the treetop, was very seriously injured. The two men had both taken a first aid class and knew they could not move him, in case of any broken bones or internal wounds. But there was blood everywhere, and they were worried about this dangerous sign. Gilbert could move his legs, and at one point, he even tried to get up. But Jim and Doug knew, even if Gilbert didn't, that he was hurt badly and must stay where he was until help could arrive.
Removing his helmet and checking him over for injuries, they thought he had broken his elbow and might possibly have a concussion, or head injury. They had no idea what kind of injuries he had suffered inside his body, but they tried to make him as comfortable as they could.
Doug hurried off down the mountain to find a phone and get immediate emergency help for his hurt friend. He went to the first house he saw and dialed perhaps the three most important numbers in his--and Gilbert's--life: 911. Volunteer EMTs from the Sauratown Volunteer Fire Department were sent out immediately to the emergency site. Greg Collins and Thomas Gordon, EMT paramedics from the Stokes County department, were also on their way after one quick telephone call. Doug waited at the bottom of the road to lead the emergency team to the accident.
Meanwhile, Nancy had driven down the mountain, still thinking Gilbert was fine. When she couldn't see any sign of him, or of Jim and Doug for that matter, she became frightened and felt for sure something must be wrong. She was near the home of a hang gliding pilot, a man named "June Bug", who lived near the site and often helped other pilots when they were in trouble or just needed a hand. They drove toward the hang glider, which they could see dangling from a tree. As they were climbing back up the road toward the accident site, Nancy could hear the scream of sirens, and she knew they were headed for Gilbert.
Nancy was on the verge of hysteria now as she drove even faster to reach Gilbert. She arrived at the same time as the rescuers and, seeing so many emergency workers, thought the worst had happened. And where was Gilbert? She couldn't even see him; he was surrounded by busy and efficient EMTS.
Doug and Jim, seeing Nancy, rushed to her side to reassure her that Gilbert was indeed alive. He was, however, very badly hurt, they warned her. They watched helplessly as the EMT crew and paramedics sprang into action.
The EMTs, skilled in dealing with emergencies in this mountainous area, quickly strapped Gilbert into a Stokes basket. Once secured, Gilbert was transported out of the wooded area and into the back of a pickup truck, which drove him to an ambulance. Greg Collins recognized that Gilbert's injuries would require treatment at the nearest hospital--and quickly. The only way to save Gilbert was to take him by helicopter to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, an eight-minute helicopter ride. Greg had already called ahead for the copter, and it was waiting at the bottom of the mountain for Gilbert when he arrived.
Gilbert had not been able to fly his hang glider that day, but in a rush of wind and thunder of propellers, Gilbert took to the sky now, strapped into the emergency helicopter that was speeding him to the hospital. Dr. Wayne Meredith met Gilbert in the emergency room and quickly and accurately identified his injuries. Dr. Meredith told Gilbert he needed immediate surgery--the doctor would have to open him up to repair the injuries inside.
Gilbert had a collapsed lung, a torn kidney, a broken elbow, and minor head injuries. Considering his terrible fall, it was not as bad as it might have been. But lung and kidney injuries can be very painful and very dangerous--even life-threatening. And Gilbert needed a major operation to fix the damaged organs.
The operation took five hours and was successful. Gilbert had to stay in the hospital for another eight weeks, half of which he doesn't even remember because of his head injuries. Nancy stayed by his side day and night, and when he was finally sent home, she stayed with him and nursed him through the long recuperation.
The swift, professional response to Doug's call to 911 saved Gilbert's life. Nancy and Gilbert both give total credit to the fast and efficient care these emergency volunteers provided on that mountaintop and to the quick-thinking assistance of Jim and Doug, who knew to call 911 immediately.
During his long journey back to health--an entire year--Gilbert did a lot of thinking. Although the sport of hang gliding was very exciting, he realized he could have died out there and he knew nothing was worth that. He certainly didn't want to put Nancy through that harrowing experience again--ever.
Gilbert gave up hang gliding. And he is glad. So is Nancy. She wanted Gilbert to stay with her for a long, long time. As horrible as the accident was, it did bring them even closer together. In April 1991, Nancy and Gilbert were married, and now they enjoy the great outdoors together--this time from the ground, on mountain bikes. Gilbert will leave flying to the birds from now on.