Fight or flight
The Australian Women's Weekly|March 2021
When hang-gliding champion Helen Ross Lee suffered a traumatic brain injury after a crash, she had to learn to walk, talk, eat and write again. She shares her story of courage, resilience and love with Alley Pascoe.
Alley Pascoe
“Not being earthbound is quite extraordinary. It feels like total freedom,” says Helen Ross Lee, describing the transcendent experience of soaring through the air while hang-gliding. Helen was first introduced to the sport in 1984 when she ventured down to the hang-gliding launch site in Newcastle’s Merewether. At the age of 23, she fell in love with flying – and with her first husband – on the same day.

“Flying a hang-glider felt as natural to me as writing with my left hand,” says Helen, who is indeed left-handed. At the start of her hanggliding love affair, she spent months soaring back and forth along the Merewether cliffs, before moving to the Murray River with her new husband. There she honed her hang-gliding skills at Mount Elliot, while trying to raise her profile in the sport and find sponsorship deals.

In 1991, Helen travelled to Austria to compete in the Women’s World Hang-Gliding Championships. Later that year, she became the first person to launch a hang-glider from Australia’s second-highest peak, Mount Townsend (2209 metres) in the Snowy Mountains. The next year she competed in the Australian Open championships, where she won the women’s title. For four consecutive years, she was ranked among the top 10 female hang-glider pilots in the world.

“Helen was well known through the hang-gliding community for her passion and dedication to flying,” says Brett Coupland, the Chief Operations Officer at the Sports Aviation Federation of Australia. “She played a pivotal role in encouraging women to spread their wings and progress their flying abilities through hang-gliding.”

After cementing her place as one of our most successful female hang-gliding pilots, Helen left the sport when she started a family with her second husband, giving birth to her daughter Gretel in 1997 and son Stewart in 1999. For the next 10 years, she threw herself into motherhood and her career as a nurse in Queensland’s Currumbin Valley. But as her children got older and her marriage dissolved, she developed an itch to return to her first love: hang-gliding.

In early 2008, Helen took her first flight in over a decade along the cliffs of Byron Bay. After finding her feet – or rather, wings – at Tamborine Mountain, she travelled to a crosscountry flying competition in Dalby, Queensland, in March that year.

There’s a photo of Helen taken just before she set off on a practice flight at Dalby. In it, she’s standing under the A-frame of her hangglider, looking selfassured and calm. Moments later, she would be crumpled under the weight of the hang-glider, unconscious and fighting for life. Helen has no recollection of the accident or the subsequent 37 days in intensive care.

“My last memory is lying prone in my harness pushing the bar as the glider lifted into the air,” she says. “I didn’t even have a chance to feel fear.”

From witness accounts and accident reports, Helen has pieced together what happened that day. She was towed into the air by an ultra-light aircraft, but when her glider reached a height of five metres it went into what’s called a left-hand lockout, turning very sharply. The ultra-light pilot noticed this and released the tow rope to give Helen a chance to recover from the failed launch. She didn’t recover. Instead, she crashed into the ground beneath her, hitting the hard Dalby dirt face-first. Helen’s delicate features were buried in the ground when the first person to reach her checked for a pulse. It didn’t look like she was breathing, so they started CPR and called an ambulance.

Helen was rushed to the local hospital, where she was stabilised, then sent to Brisbane in a helicopter. Her right cerebral artery had been sheared and she was diagnosed with an acute traumatic brain injury. Death was the most likely outcome. Two weeks later, Helen remained alive but unconscious, and when a blood clot lodged in her bronchus, she suffered a cardiac arrest.

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