After crash, Tunbridge man seeks to retrieve glider from White Mountain National Forest

Henry Swayze, 84, of Tunbridge, Vt., returns to the scene of his glider crash in order to plan an extraction of the aircraft near Hogsback Ridge in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. Swayze, who took off from Post Mills, Vt., on June 2 and crashed after failing to find lift on his return from Canon Mountain in Franconia, N.H., was rescued by a team of first responders uninjured. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Henry Swayze, 84, of Tunbridge, Vt., returns to the scene of his glider crash in order to plan an extraction of the aircraft near Hogsback Ridge in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. Swayze, who took off from Post Mills, Vt., on June 2 and crashed after failing to find lift on his return from Canon Mountain in Franconia, N.H., was rescued by a team of first responders uninjured. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Alex Driehaus

Henry Swayze, right, of Tunbridge, Vt., looks at coordinates on his phone with fellow Post Mills Soaring Club member Karl Strassberger, of Williamstown, Vt., while planning a route to the glider crash site in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. Swayze’s 1976 glider is likely totaled after his crash in early June, but he still hopes to extract it. “I’m an environmentalist,” he said, “I’d like to clean up my mess.” (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Henry Swayze, right, of Tunbridge, Vt., looks at coordinates on his phone with fellow Post Mills Soaring Club member Karl Strassberger, of Williamstown, Vt., while planning a route to the glider crash site in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. Swayze’s 1976 glider is likely totaled after his crash in early June, but he still hopes to extract it. “I’m an environmentalist,” he said, “I’d like to clean up my mess.” (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Flagging tape placed by a forester with the White Mountain National Forest Pemigewasset Ranger District blazes a half-mile trail through the woods to the site of a glider crash near Hogsback Ridge in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. Henry Swayze is waiting to hear back from the US Forest Service about how and when to proceed with the extraction of his glider after they consider several environmental factors including protecting the summer roosting sites of bats. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Flagging tape placed by a forester with the White Mountain National Forest Pemigewasset Ranger District blazes a half-mile trail through the woods to the site of a glider crash near Hogsback Ridge in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. Henry Swayze is waiting to hear back from the US Forest Service about how and when to proceed with the extraction of his glider after they consider several environmental factors including protecting the summer roosting sites of bats. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Henry Swayze, of Tunbridge, Vt., climbs through brush while searching for his glider on Hogsback Ridge in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. No direct trail exists between a nearby forestry road and Swayze’s crash site, so reaching the glider requires about half a mile of bushwhacking. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Henry Swayze, of Tunbridge, Vt., climbs through brush while searching for his glider on Hogsback Ridge in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. No direct trail exists between a nearby forestry road and Swayze’s crash site, so reaching the glider requires about half a mile of bushwhacking. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Alex Driehaus

Mountain peaks are visible through the trees southwest of Hogsback Ridge in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Mountain peaks are visible through the trees southwest of Hogsback Ridge in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Henry Swayze, right, of Tunbridge, Vt., takes a break in the grass with Karl Strassberger, of Williamstown, Vt., after hiking out of the woods where his crashed glider is hung up in the trees in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. Several friends and fellow club members have offered to help Swayze with the extraction of his glider. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Henry Swayze, right, of Tunbridge, Vt., takes a break in the grass with Karl Strassberger, of Williamstown, Vt., after hiking out of the woods where his crashed glider is hung up in the trees in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. Several friends and fellow club members have offered to help Swayze with the extraction of his glider. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Henry Swayze, of Tunbridge, Vt., hikes out of the woods after scoping out the crash site of his glider in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Henry Swayze, of Tunbridge, Vt., hikes out of the woods after scoping out the crash site of his glider in Benton, N.H., on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Alex Driehaus

By JOHN LIPPMAN

ValleyNews Staff Writer

Published: 07-05-2024 7:01 PM

Modified: 07-08-2024 2:54 PM


BENTON, N.H. — Henry Swayze wanted to return to where he set out. That was a big mistake, he acknowledges.

“I was of the mindset I wanted to get back to Post Mills,” Swayze said of the reason he decided not to land his glider which was losing altitude on its return leg from Franconia, N.H., at an nearby airfield in North Haverhill. “That was my undoing.”

Swayze, of Tunbridge and Burlington, made local TV news last month when the glider he was piloting — in his words — “landed” in a canopy of trees in the White Mountain National Forest near Benton.

Unscathed in the crash, Swayze, 84, walked unaided hours later through the dense forest down to the road where emergency rescue vehicles awaited, a happy ending to an incident but for happenstance of his glider’s wings getting caught in the wishbone branches of two yellow birches could have ended differently.

“It wasn’t quite like falling into a feather bed,” Swayze said of his glider’s arrest into a leafy tree canopy. “But it was the next best thing.”

How does a glider get caught in trees?

Partly as the result of the unpredictable behavior of Mother Nature, where air currents can shift suddenly without warning, Swayze explained. But also because of a bad judgment call on his part, he acknowledges.

Planned short flight

When Swayze took off in his glider from the grassy airfield at Post Mills at 1:45 p.m. on Sunday, June 2, he initially hadn’t planned to fly far.

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Having begun soaring — as the sport of flying gliders is called — eight years earlier at age 76, Swayze, a former sheep farmer, seller of electric fence equipment and soil conservationist who co-hosts an environmental show on Royalton Community Radio, received his glider pilot’s license in 2022. He has a total of about 150 hours of flight time — including 50 hours flying a power plane, he said.

Swayze initially learned to fly in the 1980s with the aim to travel around New England visiting customers of his electric fence business. The savings and loan crisis hit his customers hard and Swayze eventually had to shutter the business but he later became enchanted with the minimalist experience of glider soaring.

Flying a glider “has the beauty of harnessing nature to go somewhere,” Swayze reflected, and offers a breathtaking bird’s eye perspective of “being able to view the beautiful scenery of the whole Connecticut River Valley.”

Swayze said he is also drawn to the mental challenge of glider flying, which he likens to a “three-dimensional chess game” as a pilot is always on the hunt to find thermals for lift, calculating how much altitude can afford to be lost on a glide slope before finding the next thermal, all while remembering markers on the landscape below to navigate and awareness of fields for emergency landing.

“When you’re flying there’s no tuning out. You’re on task,” he said.

In-flight decision to change plan

June 2’s weather was ideal for soaring: white, puffy clouds dotted the clear blue sky, a good sign that air would be bountiful in thermals, columns of warm, rising air that lift a glider’s wings, enabling a pilot to stay aloft, sometimes for up to five hours, hopscotching from one thermal to another over landscapes of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

But shortly after the tow plane released his glider at 3,700 feet, Swayze noticed that the thermals that day were propitious, promising an extended opportunity for soaring. Only a week earlier Swayze had made one of his first “cross-country” flights, successfully flying to Franconia and back, a 70-mile round trip as the crow flies.

About two miles west of the Post Mills airfield, Swayze surprisingly caught a strong thermal which lifted his glider to an altitude of 6,200 feet, a quick gain of 2,500 feet. At that point Swayze said he made an in-flight decision and decided to head northeast to Franconia.

“I wasn’t intending to go cross-country when I was towed out of Post Mills. It wasn’t until I got to 6,200 feet above the field that I thought, well, this is ridiculous. I can go anywhere I want,” Swayze said. He decided to repeat the trip he made a week earlier to Franconia.

Swayze then flew over the Connecticut River and headed toward North Haverhill. There, near Dean Memorial Airport, he caught another thermal before turning east and flying over a mountain ridge known as The Hogsback — named for its long, white series of cliffs that resemble the ribs of a pig — to the south of Benton.

Over Hogsback, whose elevation and steep cliffs heated by the sun creates a band of thermals known as “ridge lift,” Swayze’s glider was pushed up to 5,000 feet, enabling him to reach Franconia about 18 miles further northeast.

At Franconia, over Canon Mountain, Swayze turned his glider around and pointed it southwest for the return leg back to Post Mills.

But Swayze knew he likely would not have enough glide slope to make it all the way back to Post Mills. He would need to catch a thermal to boost his glider’s altitude for the final leg.

So he made the soaring equivalent of a gas station stop off a highway exit and detoured to Hogsback, where the thermals had been favorable only 45 minutes earlier on his way to Franconia and where he planned to take advantage of them again to make it to Post Mills.

This time, however, the weather unexpectedly turned against him, Swayze recounted.

Sun diminishes

With high overcast clouds now shrouding sunlight overhead, the Hogsback ridge was no longer giving off the strong thermals that Swayze had benefited from on his flight on the way up to Franconia.

Flying loops across the ridge, Swayze hoped to snag a thermal to gain altitude. But each time he turned to make another pass over the ridge the glider lost more altitude than it gained from lift provided by the weakening thermal and the glider sank closer to the canopy.

“I was going up and I was going down and I was going up and going down by the net result I was losing more altitude than I gained,” he said.

At this point, Swayze said, he should have abandoned his attempts at catching a thermal over Hogsback and instead flown to the airfield in North Haverhill, about 17 miles away, which he had enough glide slope to reach. Once safely landed at Dean Memorial Airport he could have gotten a tow for the jaunt back to Post Mills or have a friend drive his trailer to North Haverhill and load the glider on it,

“That’s my stubbornness,” he said. “I should have said, ‘Hey, this isn’t working. I shouldn’t be here.’ ”

“I could have flown away from (Hogsback) and to Dean. Even if I didn’t get to Dean I could have landed in a farm field,” he said.

Finally, on his fifth attempt, as Swayze was banking in a turn the glider was hit by a “downdraft of air that was pretty severe,” which pushed the tip of wing into the tree canopy, catching the glider like a fly in a spider’s web, Swayze said.

It had been two and a half hours since he left Post Mills.

Passing the time

What might strike most people as a terrifying moment wasn’t all that big a deal, according to Swayze.

“I didn’t feel anything but a pinch on my harness,” Swayze recalled, estimating the length of time between making contact with the treetops and the glider coming to rest was “four to five seconds.”

A disorienting moment later Swayze realized he faced a new predicament.

Each wing of the glider had nestled neatly in the Y connecting the trunks and branches on two yellow birches about 40 feet apart. The fuselage of the glider was now hanging vertical, like a bat on a tree branch, and the nose was pointed straight down at the ground 30 feet below.

Because the pilot’s seat in the cockpit of a glider is reclined like that of a rider on a recumbent bicycle, Swayze was in effect positioned standing upright in the glider. But, as gravity tugged on his 6-foot, 4-inch and 200-pound frame, Swayze was uncomfortably straining under the tension of the shoulder harness and lap belt holding him in the seat.

Fortunately, lodged 30 feet from the ground in trees atop the mountain meant that Swayze’s cell phone could get a signal.

He called the glider club to report what happened and then called 911, sharing his coordinates so that the rescue team would be able to precisely find his location.

But even if the glider’s location could be pinned on a map, getting to it would be an ordeal for rescue crews. Old logging skidder roads that reach the vincinity are rutted in mud patties and obstructed by thck growth, ooup the mountain. Anyone coming to the crash site would have to forge a path through the forest.

Swayze knew it would be a long wait before help arrived.

From his perch in the cockpit he see “a beautiful view of trees” and “the sun getting low in the skies,” Swayze said. To mark time, he activated a phone app that identifies bird calls and discovered he was serenaded by a blackburnian warbler.

He had a water bottle to stay hydrated but the only thing he had to eat was a “stale, 2-year-old Cliff bar” that he took a couple bites out of and then tossed on the ground “for the birds to eat,” he said.

Swayze managed to maneuver his body in the cockpit to take some of the stress off his legs but he could only get so much relief.

“Landing in the trees was just fine. Staying in the cockpit for nearly five hours was torture,” Swayze said.

Most of the time he spent thinking about how he could be extricated from the cockpit. He ran through various scenarios involving ropes, belay lines, carabiners and pulleys that would likely be required to lower his body to terra firma.

Rescuers arrive

Four and a half hours later, at 6:55 p.m. a conservation officer from New Hampshire Fish and Game was the first to arrive at the scene. Trudging up behind him were fire department and rescue teams from Haverhill, Hanover, Lebanon and U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement.

Rescue teams assembled a rope and pulley system outfitted with a harness in which Swayze was lowered to the ground. By the time he touched down on solid earth it had been more than five hours since he left Post Mills.

By the time Swayze and the crews hiked down the mountain and through the forest to reach the road, it was 9:55 p.m. Waiting members from the glider club drove Swayze back to Post Mills — he didn’t feel the need for medical attention — where he picked up his car to drive home to Tunbridge, it was midnight before he went to sleep.

“I was pretty wound up,” said Swayze, who doesn’t consider himself a risk taker.

No fear of flying again

Swayze said the experience does not dissuade him from soaring again.

“It doesn’t give me any hesitancy,” he said on Wednesday when he was in Franconia for a holiday soaring outing with friends.

“I have to think long and hard about how I got myself into trouble from being careful,” he said. “I think my flying abilities are good and it’s just (about) not overreaching myself.”

The next step is to retrieve the glider out of White Mountain National Forest. Last week, hiking to the crash site with a friend from the glider club to assess how he might do that, Swayze concluded that the trees’ branches would have to be cut to lower the glider to the ground. Then he would need to dissemble it, removing the wings — together they span 50 feet — and carry the pieces to an ATV vehicle to haul everything down the mountain along one of the skidder roads.

But in order to do that, Swayze is required to get a permit to bring a vehicle onto forest land, a process that could take a couple months because it is bat breeding season and the U.S. Forest Service does not want the bat habitat to be disturbed.

Swayze said leaving the glider — which he estimates would cost more to repair than to buy another one — in the trees is not a good idea because the fiberglass material from which the 540-pound plane is made does not decompose over an acceptable time span (even if the open cockpit could in theory make a good nest for bats).

“I’m an environmentalist,” Swayze explained. “I clean up my mess.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.