Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
It was 19 years ago Thursday that Los Altos resident Hans Nilson experienced a nearly fatal Thanksgiving tragedy.
When his reduction gear failed while hang gliding in a mountain range near China Lake, Nilson crashed into a canyon. In addition to being stranded 8,000 feet above sea level, the crash broke his back.
“It was a close call,” he said.
As he lay motionless on the floor of the canyon – without food, water or a radio – freezing temperatures set in. When rescue workers discovered him by helicopter three days later, his legs had to be amputated, leaving him paralyzed and permanently wheelchair bound.
Although the accident was life altering, Nilson remained resilient through his hospitalization and recovery, imagining how he could soon return to the sky.
Today, more than 100 flights and 3,000 miles later, Nilson, 73, continues to take to the air as a hang glider and licensed pilot.
“For me, after my accident, I knew I wanted to go back to hang gliding,” he said. “That was why the hospital stay wasn’t that bad.
Living close to the edge
An unadulterated sense of exploration has permeated Nilson’s life since his teenage years in Sweden, where he explored the country’s islands on a sailboat.
“That started the freedom,” he noted. “I realized I could do whatever I wanted.”
Indeed, even before his crash, Nilson took risks as he challenged himself with new adventures. After he was laid off from his job as an electronic engineer at Hewlett-Packard during an economic recession in the 1970s, Nilson embarked on a seven-month sailing excursion across the Atlantic Ocean.
“I realized I could create a sextant combination with my calculator, and then I found the formula to calculate the distance between two points on the earth,” he said. “I was the first person to cross the Atlantic with a calculator.”
Although he misses hobbies like backpacking, Nilson rarely makes mention of the burden of his wheelchair. He is more interested in defying gravity through flight and outdoor activities like sit skiing.
“I like to be active,” he said. “Too many people get lazy or get a motorized wheelchair and after a few years they die.”
Nilson and his wife, Betsy – who took to the air for the first time on a date with Nilson soon after meeting him – used personal savings to buy their first plane two years after they married. Shortly thereafter, both became licensed pilots.
“I’m so lucky,” he said. “Many pilots’ wives don’t like to fly.”
Challenges don’t keep him grounded
Although his disability presents obstacles, Nilson perseveres, exemplifying the spirit that anything is possible.
When he wants to take to the air, he drives himself to the Palo Alto Airport, jumps on the wing, opens the door, folds his wheelchair and puts it in the back seat of his Piper PA-28-181 and prepares for flight. The independent Nilson relies on his wife, flying partner or friends when he needs a push for a hang-gliding takeoff or a pickup during landing.
Otherwise, “I can do it myself,” he said.
Flying is therapy for Nilson’s body and soul. When he is in flight, he said, his pain disappears and he feels liberated. Using Federal Aviation Administration-approved hand controls, Nilson is able to pilot his own aircraft and glider.
“Suddenly there’s a 200-foot drop,” said Nilson, recalling the first moments of a ride on a glider. “Then you come to the lift and it’s like God picks you up. You fly around and have total freedom and you’re like anyone else – you’re not disabled anymore.”
Nilson’s free spirit allows him to soar alongside the birds – one 200-foot drop at a time with just feet between him and the cliffs.
“Sometimes it’s nice to take chances in life,” he said.