by Monica Mendoza
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Craig Denton was in shock as he lay on the side of a mountain in Hawaii with two broken legs, a black eye, cuts across one side of his face and a crushed cheek bone doctors would later say looked like a bag of crushed potato chips.
He was in and out of consciousness, hearing bits of conversation. He remembers only part of the rescue, when the basket he was being lifted in by helicopter kept spinning around until he was inside the helicopter.
“Everything is going to be OK,” he heard before he blacked out that Memorial Day 1994.
Memorial Day weekend kicks off the Air Force’s safety campaign’s 101 Critical Days of Summer, which runs to Labor Day weekend in September. Summertime is when the Air Force sees a spike in vehicle and recreational accidents.
Already this year, the Air Force has seen an unprecedented number of safety related deaths. And, nobody wants to see an increase in those stats this summer, 21st Space Wing safety officials said.
“We can’t wrap you in bubble wrap and send you on your way,” said Tom Quinn, 21st Space Wing ground safety manager. “You have to ultimately take responsibility for yourself.”
Mr. Denton, retired Air Force master sergeant and now 21st Space Wing Public Affairs visual information technician, always had a penchant for adventure. He has done rock climbing, skydiving and paragliding. He even bungee jumped from a hot air balloon.
When he got stationed in Hawaii in 1990, he took up hang gliding.
“I was attracted to it, it looked like a lot of fun,” he said.
By Memorial Day 1994, Mr. Denton had completed more than 20 hours of hang gliding flights – 95 percent of those were tandem flights with an instructor. He had even launched from the north west side of the island, where instead of launching from a cliff over the ocean, he was in the mountains where the air was not as stable. But, he felt confident. There had only been one close call, where after flying for an hour over the ocean, the instructor somehow didn’t make a necessary left turn and they landed in someone’s backyard garden.
With that same instructor, Mr. Denton clipped in that Memorial Day and the pair launched. His wife Jamie was waiting on the beach. At the glider port, some men were looking through binoculars. “They told her a hang glider went down,” Mr. Denton said.
Doctors repaired his broken legs with titanium rods and screws. One side of his face was paralyzed and doctors replaced his cheek bone with titanium.
“I remember when I first looked in the mirror, I had been in the hospital a week, and I was all mangled,” Mr. Denton said.
Before taking his first hang gliding lesson, Mr. Denton had requested permission from his squadron commander and he also talked to the base safety office before he started training.
In the hospital, Mr. Denton got a call from the wing safety office.
“One of the first things they asked was if I was wearing proper safety gear,” he said. “They wanted to know if I was going to recuperate.”
There is no Air Force requirement for programs or briefings about high risk activities, said Darron Haughn, 21st SW risk management program manager.
“But, the way the process is set up, every unit has an operational risk management program and we provide all the units and their supervisors with the high risk activity check list and documentation.”
There is not a higher probability of accidents in high risk activities or extreme sports, Mr. Haughn said. The injuries, however, are worse – life altering, even death.
“We are not trying to prevent anyone from doing high risk activities,” Mr. Haughn said. “We just want to make sure they do it safely, make sure they’ve got the right training and make sure they are going to a reputable (training) location . . . especially, when you’re going hang gliding or parachuting.”
Within a couple of weeks of his hang gliding crash, Mr. Denton was learning to walk again and two months later he regained the movement in his face. Not long after that, he gave away his hang gliding gear.
“When you are younger, you think about how much fun this is going to be,” Mr. Denton said. “A lot of times you don’t think about the long-term consequences, or you say, nothing will happen to me.”
Lt. Col. Allen Reeves, 21st SW safety chief, said he hopes Airmen visit with safety officials before trying extreme or high risk activities. The safety managers at each squadron have books of information on just about every activity there is.
“We’re the good guys,” he said. “It’s our job to establish a safe environment for you to work and play, anything punitive comes from command level. Our job is to help members be smart and know the risk and how to avoid the risks and provide a safe environment.”
The 101 Critical Days of Summer is a time to focus on safety to try and minimize accidents. Over the next few months, safety officials will hammer the points: use a wingman, take care of each other, be responsible on and off duty, and to assess, consider, and take appropriate action – when confronting an unsafe situation.
Mr. Denton fully healed from his injuries and continued his career in the Air Force, until he retired at Peterson Air Force Base in 2007. Sometimes he has knee pain and he’s been known to set off the metal detectors at the airport. These days, he’s more into less extreme sports, like mountain biking, hiking and snowboarding. And, he never tells people they shouldn’t try adventurous sports. He just says, “think things through carefully.”
“Wearing high quality safety gear is important as well as receiving instruction from a qualified instructor,” he said. “Find out what safety gear is available for your sport and then invest in the best.”