Hancock man on the road to recovery after hang gliding accident

  • This is about as close to flying as Eric Masterson of Hancock will come anytime soon after a serious hang gliding accident in August. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Eric Masterson of Hancock is recovering from a serious hang gliding accident. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Eric Masterson of Hancock is recovering from a serious hang gliding accident. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Eric Masterson of Hancock is recovering from a serious hang gliding accident. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Eric Masterson of Hancock is recovering from a serious hang gliding accident. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/16/2020 4:07:54 PM

Eric Masterson is thankful every day – that he is still able to walk, to still be alive.

What was supposed to be an afternoon of gliding through the skies like the broad-winged hawk, a bird that Masterson has fawned over for years through his work with the Harris Center for Conservation Education, turned into a 10-second ride and a horrific hang gliding accident that Masterson fully understands could have resulted in a much different outcome.

It was Aug. 9 and Masterson, a Hancock resident, was set to embark on a trip that – if the weather cooperated and things worked out just so – would have him soaring from Hedgehog Ridge in Deering all the way to Concord.

On that day, he was with two other gliders. His friend Sam Washburn of Andover, Massachusetts decided not to fly because of the conditions, but as Masterson waited for his window, the cloud cover cleared. It looked like it would finally be the right time to step off the cliff for his flight. But looking back, he realizes the wind may have shifted.

“I should have walked away,” Masterson said.

Just after takeoff, his wing clipped a tree, slowing him down. Then he hit a thermal, stalling his glider and sending him back into the cliff he just took off from. He fell an estimated 20 to 50 feet on to a rocky terrace below, landing suspended upside down in his hang glider. 

“I had flown there several times,” Masterson said, including twice this year prior to that day in August, and never had an issue, though he had noticed the trees around his takeoff spot and even had asked to trim them at one point to avoid clipping them with his glider.

At its highest point, Hedgehog is at 1,300 feet of elevation with a landing zone around 700 feet. On that particular day, Masterson had bigger plans than merely gliding to the landing zone. He wanted to go further, having mapped out a series of potential landing spots over the 20 or so miles – as the crow flies – between Deering and Concord, preparing for changes in conditions. Of course, to pull off that kind of flight, the weather has to be just right.

“You can do what the weather will allow you to do,” he said. “You really have to take what the weather god gives you and the day gives you.”

Masterson said he did a lot of planning, looked at the wind for the day, its strength and thermal generation as he equates the weather elements to having enough gas in the tank.

“I had a goal, which in retrospect, it’s never good to fly with goals,” he said.

He remembers taking a couple steps forward to launch and then “I essentially don’t remember the next two weeks,” Masterson said.

After Masterson crashed and fell, Washburn called 911 and Masterson’s wife Tricia Rose Burt. It took rescue crews from Hillsborough and Deering, as well as a ropes crew from Henniker, three-and-a-half hours to get him off the mountain for transport to Concord Hospital.

“I’m incredibly grateful to the EMTs,” Masterson said; he has visited with s everal of his rescuers since returning home and made a donation to their efforts. “These are people that volunteer their service.”

Masterson’s love of hang gliding, of soaring like the broad-winged hawk, developed during his 2016 cycling trip to Central America where he followed the migratory pattern of a kettle of hawks. He’d heard about a hang gliding school in Texas, so during his ride through the state he decided to check it out.

“I had never really considered flight as an option,” he said.

He went for a tandem flight with an instructor and quickly fell in love with the sport. When he returned to New Hampshire he connected with Morningside Flight Park in Charlestown. He was hooked and wanted to learn more. His accident in August was not his first in the sport after breaking his arm in 2018 on Cape Cod.

Hang gliding, Masterson said, is the closest thing to flying like a broad-winged hawk.

“Their strategy is to soar,” he said. “And I was fascinated because they fly just like a broad-winged hawk.”

Given the injuries he endured, Masterson knows his life could have been altered forever thay day. He had a fractured vertebrae in his neck, a crushed vertebrae in his back, a broken elbow, right leg and hand. He broke eight bones in his foot, which he said was pointing backwards. There was a puncture to one of his lungs and two brain bleeds.

“I’m very, very lucky I’ll be able to walk,” he said. “I was incredibly fortunate.”

His injuries were identified at Concord Hospital, but it was clear he needed to go somewhere else for surgery and treatment and was airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital.

There he had four separate surgeries, the first being eight hours that included a number of different specialists to address the breaks in his back, neck, leg and elbow. The remaining three included an an exploratory surgery to determine the extent of the injuries to his right leg and skin grafts to repair a massive wound.

In total, Masterson spent five weeks between Massachusetts General Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Center before going home on Sept. 15.

It’s hard for Masterson to truly express his gratitude for the care he received between the emergency responders and the staff at MGH and Spaulding.

“The compassion and kindness had me in tears several times,” Masterson said. “I have a new respect for them I never even thought of.”

And the support he received from the community has been nothing short of humbling.

“I was not aware of the degree to which people really cared for me,” he said. “I’m forever grateful and changed for that.”  Adding “I’ve just had nothing but grace and kindness shown to me. Humanity was on full display.”

Because of that he is not trying to look at his accident in a negative light. He instead wants to use it as a defining point in his life.

“I look at the accident as an opportunity for growth,” he said. “This has been a life-changing event for me in many ways.”

One thought is to help create a handicap accessible trail network through his work with the Harris Center.

Masterson said that “99 percent of the time, a tree landing, people walk away from,” he said. “It just didn’t work out that day.”

At the time of the accident, Masterson was working on his advanced rating. He had been flying for four years, with 60 hours in the air, and learned very quickly that “you have to plan for the worst case scenario.”

“But no one ever expects to have an accident,” Masterson said.

Masterson said that hang gliding is 80 percent judgment and 20 percent skill. He understood the risks he was taking each time he strapped into his glider.

“It’s a dangerous sport, but accidents on the level I had are rare,” Masterson said.

While Masterson will walk again – something that is incredible given his injuries – he realizes how close he was to life changing forever.

“It’s not my doing that I can walk. It’s some other intervention,” he said. Currently Masterson use a cane to get around, but on good days he can walk without it. His neck is still in a brace and will be until mid-January, as it is healing slower than expected. During the chaos of the accident and rescue, Masterson’s GoPro camera was lost. If anyone found it, he said he would love to recover the footage of the crash. You can contact him at erictheirish@gmail.com.

And while the road to recovery will be filled with ups and downs, he knows it could have been much worse for both him and the people around him.

“It was a miracle to be quite honest,” Masterson said.

What the accident did take away from him was his love of hang gliding, soaring in the same air space as the birds he’s spent his life following. He enjoyed the sport, but sadly will never take to the skies again.

“I’ll miss it,” he said. “But I feel incredibly fortunate. But I felt more fortunate the day after the accident when I realized I would walk.”


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