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Pilot rescued

August 23, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

CASCADE - A Virginia man was suspended more than 50 feet in the air for two hours Saturday after his hang glider crashed into high trees near Cascade.

Chris McKee, 37, of Alexandria, Va., was not seriously injured, but rescuers faced unusual difficulties in bringing him down from his perch.

"I just caught a crosswind," McKee said shortly after he was safely lowered down by rope.

"That was my first incident," McKee said. "And hopefully the last."

McKee said he launched on his hang glider from High Rock, a popular hang gliding spot, when the unfortunate draft struck him. He said even though he has been hang gliding for three years, he was taken by surprise.

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McKee said all he could do was try to avoid striking a tree with his body.

McKee's $6,000 hang glider lodged itself in the uppermost limbs of two trees within eyesight of High Rock. McKee's body dangled below, harnessed to the winged craft with a single carabiner.

The 911 call was placed at about 4:50 p.m., according to emergency dispatch records.

Rescue crews from Leitersburg, Smithsburg and Hagerstown came to aid in the rescue, as well as two Maryland State Police helicopters, but it was a private tree-trimmer who in the end was the man who was crucial to McKee's rescue.

Below McKee was thick underbrush and a rocky hillside. Loose boulders dislodged and tumbled down the slope as workers guided themselves down by rope.

Leitersburg Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Kirk Mongan, who was directing the rescue operations directly below McKee, said rescuers first considered using the helicopters to pull McKee from the tree.

After that idea was scrapped, they tried to hoist lines to McKee by rope to have him secure an escape route with the extra lines. That didn't work either.

About 1 1/2 hours after rescuers arrived, a Hagerstown tree-trimmer who had been called to assist arrived. He would have to climb the tree, hand McKee the rope to attach to his safety harness and McKee would have to cut himself free from the hang glider.

George Haines, 36, said he has been trimming trees for 17 years. He said he never has aided in cutting down anything but tree limbs. It would be his first time helping rescue a human.

"My biggest concern was, how's we getting out of there. It was a dead tree," Haines said.

Haines scaled the tree, using cleated boots and ropes to fasten himself to the tree.

There were two thick limbs that could have served as joists to hold the rope to which McKee would attach himself. Both were shaky, and one wasn't strong enough.

Using the best limb, Haines wrapped the main line and the safety line around that limb, and handed them to McKee to attach to himself. McKee cut himself free, and the ropes held.

After being lowered to stable ground, McKee guided himself up the slope using the guide ropes that rescuers had used.

Back at the top where his adventure had started two hours earlier, friends stopped him, patted him on the back and congratulated him for making it back alive.

"I just called you," one man told McKee.

"Aw, I was just hanging out," McKee said.

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