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High hopes pilot will walk again

An experienced pilot’s crash-landing in Papawai had everyone fearing the worst.
But after several hours under the knife, it seems glider pilot Michael O’Donnell will walk again.
Wellington Wairarapa Gliding Club [WWGC] president Simon Casey said O’Donnell suffered significant injuries in a “hard landing” at Papawai Airfield on Saturday.
However, he said the prognosis was “looking good” after O’Donnell underwent surgery this week.
“Feeling is starting to return to his right leg.
“He may have back pain, or walk with a limp, but he is going to walk again, and that is the main thing.”
Casey said O’Donnell, a senior glider pilot and former Carterton District Council candidate, would be transferred to Christchurch’s Burwood Hospital today for an expected three to four month’s rehabilitation.
Burwood is one of two service providers in New Zealand renowned for spinal injury treatment.
O’Donnell was flying his personal glider on Saturday when it detached from the winch launch for unknown reasons.
Emergency services responded to reports of a crash at the Tilsons Rd airfield at 3pm.
The Greytown Volunteer Fire Brigade was forced to use specialist cutting equipment to extract O’Donnell – dismantling the glider around him in a prolonged operation.
Life Flight’s Westpac Rescue Helicopter flew O’Donnell to Wellington Hospital for initial treatment.
He was subsequently transferred by plane to Christchurch.
Casey said the incident had left the entire club shaken.
“It’s the first injury accident we have had on the airfield in the six years here.
“When a glider stalls it’s like a free fall. It just drops.
From 100 feet, it’s going to hurt, there’s no doubt about it.”
He said O’Donnell’s glider, an older model, was a write-off, and was not equipped with the crash protection present in more modern iterations.
Casey said the Civil Aviation Authority had been notified, and the club’s safety officers were conducting their own investigation to ensure there was no repeat.
“We have two senior and very qualified people at the club who are looking into it.
“We are still coming to terms with what actually happened.
“The glider stalled to the ground, but anything at this stage is just conjecture.”
He said, however, the club had identified one change in procedure concerning the winch launch, to minimise the risk of pilots believing the winch was underpowered.
Casey said wind sheer would also be an avenue of investigation.
“Further up you can have wind at a different velocities. Gliding is surfing the sky, but you can’t see the air, so you have to feel for it.”
Casey said the officers would eventually speak to O’Donnell to try piece together what happened.
Yesterday, the CAA confirmed it was working with Gliding New Zealand to investigate the causes of the accident.
“At this stage evidence is still being gathered and it is too early to draw any conclusions.”
Casey said O’Donnell had been flying gliders for a number of years, and joined the WWGC when the Wellington and Wairarapa clubs merged six years ago.
In his council candidate biography, O’Donnell said he came to the region in 2008, originally settling in Gladstone before moving to Carterton in 2019.
He said he had a varied career in Catchment Board Civil Engineering and 30 years starting and running two businesses.
O’Donnell said he been volunteering since he was 18, serving on several committees, including aviation and gliding at Papawai Airfield, Hood Aerodrome and Kuranui College.

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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