Yosemite and The Owens Valley: Beauty and the Beast

There are few sites in the world that symbolize beauty and adventure more than Yosemite National Park and the Owens Valley; Yosemite of course the beauty, Owens the Beast (and yet beautiful in its own way). Lucky me to fly both the same week this July.


The setting sun greeted me as I entered the park, producing a spectacular gradient of yellows to reds grander than any red carpet. What a welcoming! Winding my way along the curvy road, giant trees towered along the sides—moments like this are why sunroofs exist. My first visit to Yosemite and already living up to expectations.

Soon it was dark as if the curtain fell after the first act. Tomorrow, act 2. I pulled into a trailhead parking lot to sleep for the night. My cell phone stared at me blankly without coverage, and I happily accepted the broken bonds with civilization. So quiet was the night, and a nearly full moon illuminated the tree tops. I had no idea exactly where I was, though I knew the following day would be something special.

The morning came. Not knowing what time setup and launch was, I arose extra early. I completed the winding journey to Glacier Point. There it was, Half Dome perched above the valley. My ears made out the faint roar of waterfalls. Scents of pine and granite mixed into a freshness unpolluted by urban centers. Arriving early meant a solitude unavailable once the herds arrive, and time for me to relax alone and in peace before the focused ritual of getting ready to fly.

7am. Time to setup. The site monitor gave us the site intro and walked us out to launch. Without a glider, I sweated, inching my way across the steep granite face. One misstep and I would roll down rather than fly away from the cliff. Without a glider, like many pilots, my fear of falling is a very forthright, yet protective friend to have, saying “gravity is not your friend, and neither are your klutzy feet.”

And then 8am. The launch window opened. My turn came and again I inched my way, stepping carefully, across the granite, this time with a glider—my trusted Speedybird. I felt naked and vulnerable without being hooked in*. A few stops to rest later, my wing and I were in position to launch. I carefully turned to hook-in (ahhhhh, much better), and then pause to soak in the experience along with deep breaths.

(*I typically hook my harness in before getting in, but site protocol requires us to hook in just before launching.)

A dream awakened…

In a few steps I was in the smooth air floating near silently above one of the most wondrous sites in the world. As I launched, the whoops of the crowd made the experience even more memorable, reminding me that I was doing something few have ever done, and most people can hardly begin to dream of doing. Yet, here I was slipping past the sheer granite faces, the Yosemite waterfall, and above the meandering Merced river and the valley below.

That we are allowed to fly here at all is an exceptional privilege. Big props to the Yosemite Hang Gliding Association for managing the site and working with the park service to make it possible. And a special thanks to Arthur and Barton for assisting us this particular weekend.

Those that have flown here realize how lucky we are.


My friend also flew here recently and produced this awesome video that goes far in attempting to capture the experience of flying Yosemite.

Owens Valley

The mention alone of the Owen’s Valley can send shivers down pilots’ spines. The valley is the site of legends, and has been the cause of many “there I was, I was gonna die” stories. And yet, if you give the site the respect it deserves, safe flights are possible. A few very trusted friends planned to fly the weekend after my Yosemite trip so I decided to join them.

Located between the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west—some of the tallest mountains in the continental United States—and the Inyo and White mountains to the east, the Owens Valley is among giants. Mount Whitney stands at 14,505 feet, along with many other “Fourteeners” nearby.

My route to “base camp” rolled me down 395 past the small towns of Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and finally Lone Pine—the towns I’ve read about. The ride was a good intro to the valley, passing lava and boulder fields where I most definitely would not want to land. I half wondered if I’d have a Kari Castle sighting.

Lone Pine is an adorable town radiating adventure. Yes in our world of hang gliding it’s a famous hub for pilots, but it is also the closest town to Whitney Portal, the start for many hikers climbing Mt. Whitney, and any of the other many climbs nearby. Many movies are filmed there, and this visit the airport was a staging area for yet another film.

Walt’s Point launch sits 9,000 feet above sea level, 5,400 feet above the valley floor, and my highest launch ever. A couple other pilots were setting up when we arrived. We were more than happy to have “wind dummies”. The wind was light, the direction was good, and the day promising. The first pilot to launch immediately climbed well above launch and on his way up the range. 30-45 minutes later it was my turn and I was pleased to receive similar results.

Yet, we could only climb to about 12,000 feet. Puttering up the range we scratched every chance we had to stay above 10,000. Though not having an oxygen system I was somewhat relieved to know I would not be tempted to reach for the stratosphere. Ridge after ridge, that was the highest we could get. The site known for tumble producing turbulence was today a gentle lamb. I sank to less than 9,000—still high, but getting to a point where I needed to consider flying out to the valley to land near the road.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Win some, lose some. My luck was not over. I found some lift to slowly climb my way up a finger, and then WHAM! My vario howled and without even turning I seemed to hover above a spot and climb straight up in my winged elevator. A few thousand feet higher I began turning and watched as I finally passed 12,000, and then 13,000, and 14,000. That’s when it became turbulent and I realized the lamb could roar. My friend had continued on north and so in the turbulence I decided to leave the thermal and follow. “Stick with those who know the site,” I thought.

This is where we passed the Onion Valley. Before yesterday, the name was unknown to me. Today I had been warned. The valley runs from the Owens Valley west and is a funnel for west winds to flow. Apparently sometimes known for torrents of wind to flow. Though the winds were light this day, passing Onion Valley was not a smooth ride. Not scary, however not pleasant either. I gripped tight on the base tube and pressed on north. What would a flight at the Owens be without at least a taste of its potential?

Beyond the turbulence my next thermals drifted me toward the east. Were the west winds coming through? I decided to cross the valley to try my luck on the Inyos. My friend stayed back on the Sierras. I love learning from cross-country decisions, especially crossroads like this. From the middle of the valley, the view was impressive. Cinder cones speckled the landscape, appearing as merely hills from the ground, from the air burgundy dimples on those hills shed light on the dynamic geographic history that played out eons ago.

Once across the valley I realized that my lack of knowledge about the valley would likely doom me to the ground. Despite some light climbs, I found myself over lava fields and behind a river with no noticeable roads. To fully commit to the Inyos meant a possibility of landing in difficult retrieve territory. This is when I heard on the radio my friend was sinking like a brick on the Sierras, and heading out toward the road. I decided to meet him out there and try to work lift on the small hills in the valley. It seems either decision led to the same place today.

Three hours after launching, we met again in the center of the valley a few miles south of Big Pine. The wind was strong from the south, and a light thermal I found could have drifted me to Big Pine. I regret not sticking with it, but after a nice flight I like to land with company and especially when a nice LZ is below me. Yes, I succumbed to LZ suck. Three hours and 44 miles—I’m ok with that.

Now why didn’t someone tell me to pack a swim suit for the post-Owens dip in the river???

My track on Airtribune

Above the Sierras

Above most of the Sierras


Flying Goals: Mid-year Eval

Back in February I set out some goals to strive toward. About 6 months later here is my self-assessed report card:

  • Fly more sites

Success. Though I have not added a lot, I did fly in Americus, Georgia and recently Garlock, California on the southern edge of the Owens Valley. Americus was my first real experience in the flat lands and more towing for me than ever before. Skeptical about how I’d do in the unfamiliar landscape with no hills or mountains to rely on as thermal triggers, I could not have been more happy with my intro to flat lands taking home 3rd place in the sport class. Woohoo!

  • First flight(s) in the Owens Valley.

Nope. Not yet but possibly later this season. Garlock is close, and we hoped to fly over the back into the Owens, but that did not happen.

  • Fly more without my vario.

Half Success. I’ve found it tough to force myself to forgo the vario when flying challenging cross-country flights. I never fly Torrey Pines with a vario, but I hardly feel that counts. On a few flights I turned off the sound and rotated the display away for a while. As the season winds down I’ll focus on returning to my non-beeping roots.

  • Fly my first competition (and maybe more).

Success! Third place at my first competition, the Flytec Americus Cup. Racing some very good sport class pilots I am super ecstatic with how the comp went. Comp #2 coming up soon in September with the Santa Cruz Flats Race. Will I fly sport class or open class? That’s the big question, though it’s looking very likely I’ll get one more sport class comp under my belt (wing?).

  • Learn to think ahead on an XC.

Fully mastered. I’m an XC queen. Kidding! Definitely kidding. If I ever master this I’ll be surprised. So far this year I’ve experienced much trial and error. There’s a point in every flight requiring a critical decision, and often it’s a difficult decision. Figuring out which way the convergences meander around has proven challenging, especially on the days with fewer clouds or less defined markers. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve also both had a lot of luck, a lot of failure, and some limited success. I can only keep improving from here. I can tell I am getting better and I’m happy with that. Now I’d like to get to a point where I can “read” the land better so when I fly new territory I can know where lift will be.

  • Push a little harder to stretch my distances, but not so hard to stretch my luck.

Success. First 50 mile flight this year! That’s my big accomplishment so far. It was not an easy flight by any means, including a low save about 300 feet off the deck, but except for a few critical points the miles came easily. The real lessons I’ve learned were from the flights where eking out only 10 to 20 miles was difficult. I have found myself down and out with no good place to land within gliding distance, and pushed myself to climb out of the hole I dug.

  • Graduate from my Sport 2.

Success. I had my doubts about jumping, or is it giant leaping, to a topless glider, but found it much easier than many made it out to seem. Of course I cautiously approached the new gliders, first flying in smooth evening air, and then on later flights making sure I stayed aloft beyond the roughest times of the day to land. As of now I have time on the Moyes Litespeed RX 3 and the Wills Wing T2C 136. I can’t wait to get my very own.

  • Get instructor rated.

Success. Sooner than expected, I passed the tests and got my rating from Rob McKenzie. I am still collecting gear to teach with so have not yet began to teach much, but soon. Next year the plan will be to get tandem instructor rated.

  • Concentrate on refining my techniques.

This is more difficult than it seems. With at most two or three launches and landings a week, most of my effort has been focused on cross country flying. I need to make more use of Torrey Pines to get touch-and-goes in, though the launch there is primarily one variety of the many types we see flying the many sites we have. Palomar always challenges with a low-wind, shallow slope launch. I’ve noticed that at sites I rarely fly, my launch techniques are less than ideal. Recognizing more closely the differences and adjusting is my goal moving forward.

  • The cop-out to make it an even 10 goals…have fun, be safe.

Success. I have definitely had fun and flown within my safe envelope. At the same time I’ve kept moving toward the stretch envelope to improve my flying.

It’s been a wonderful year so far. I’ve flown 80 hours, should top 100 by the end. August has been a light-flying month after the marathon of flying in July. September will again be a flying-filled-fest. Bring it on!

Goodbye July: Flying high on new gliders, landing short on old ones

July started with a bang, and ended with a whimper. All said and done I flew over 15 hours, had quality time on both the Moyes Litespeed RX 3 and the Wills Wing T2C 136, enjoyed a few cross country flights, and flew a new site. But my last flight of the month fizzled out and sank me back to terra firma for a big fat reality check. I’ve been flying so well lately I nearly forgot that gravity still applied to me.

All setup on Garlock. Bruce would ultimately fly back to Andy Jackson Airpark. I landed after two and a half hours of yo-yo up and down flying. Should have followed Bruce!

All setup on Garlock. Bruce would ultimately fly back to Andy Jackson Airpark. I landed after two and a half hours of yo-yo up and down flying. Should have followed Bruce!

The month left me with an appreciation for where I need to go to grow as a pilot. Weekend warrior is great, but not enough to take my flying to the next level. August will be a month of decisions: decisions on my next glider, decisions on training, decisions on life. What I love about the hang gliding community is so many have reached out to me to help me learn and grow, and still more form a foundation of support.

Starting tomorrow is the Big Spring Nationals race. I’m wishing I was there flying, hanging out with friends, learning, racing. Maybe I should have just said screw work and headed out there. Next year I’ll be there. The Santa Cruz Flats Race in Casa Grande, AZ in September will be my next big race and I can’t wait. Just a month and a week to go. After that it’ll be fly fly fly until the season starts up next year…hopefully on a slick new ride.

Beyond flying, I’m happy to report that I biked 300 miles in July. I find cycling an excellent complement to flying for whole body fitness. Mostly I bike to work 16 miles each way, though in August I’m going to add a few longer rides.

Follow my rides on Strava.

Good luck to all my friends at Big Spring. See you in Casa Grande!

Setting a Personal Best: 51.4 Miles

Goal reached! Two weeks ago I set out to fly to Coachella hoping to fly over the festival and land nearby. Two days straight I tried but two issues: 1. the lift did not flow that way and, 2. I’d be the lone hawk to try.

Last weekend another opportunity arose, but I was not even thinking of heading that way. Of course, if conditions allowed and my buddies were willing, I wouldn’t say no.

That’s just what happened.

A happy me in the Coachella Valley

A happy me in the Coachella Valley

Soon after launching from Laguna Mountian we climbed to nearly 10,000 feet. One by one we began to head north. A few pilots in front of me chose a more northerly route toward our first cross-country LZ. Watching my friends climb in good lift along the route, I, choosing to head a little more easterly, began to regret my decision. I aimed for a mountain known for being a thermal trigger, and by all accounts it worked its magic earlier.

As I approached the mountain from the south, I ran into a stiff headwind–and some accompanying turbulence. Fighting my way to the peak I finally arrived only to find few signs of lift. Off to the west my friends continued north thousands of feet above. Another fine mess I found myself in.

But then our driver began reporting the wind directions on the ground. Just to the west of me the wind had already switched to westerly. The convergence had passed, at least on the ground. Then a friend out front on the more northerly track reported sinking like a rock. He would soon be the first to succumb to gravity.

Taking the diminishing altitude I did have, I decided to turn east. If nothing else, there is a landing area in that direction with a store across the street. “I can land there if I have to and get a refreshing cold drink,” I thought. On the glide there I found neither lift nor sink. hmmmm.

Arriving with about 1,000 feet to work with, I found a few burbles of lift. For a few minutes I patrolled the air, a shark in the sky, for anything to feed on. Slowly I sank.

Within 500 feet of the ground I was able to milk more thermals and maintain altitude. Knowing the convergence could potentially begin to pass through I was hoping to either stay aloft until it passed—and pulled me up with it—or gain enough altitude to head further east where a ridge began.

Our driver came on the radio, “low level military jet heading into earthquake valley.” I may have cursed hearing that. There are low level VFR military training routes where jets hug the ground within a few hundred feet. I was still scratching right in that “uh oh” range. I began to pull in to get on the ground and pulled my feet out of the boot. A few seconds later our driver announced that the jet took a different route.

“Phew!” Letting the bar out I slowed down again to thermal milking speed. “It’s not over ’til my feet hit the ground” I kept telling myself. The heat on the ground was likely over 100, further encouraging me to stay aloft.

In a few more minutes a flock of birds—hawks, crows, ravens, perhaps multiple species—in a tight circle approached from the west. “They’re climbing! They’re climbing!” Whipping the glider around I aimed for them. The vario soon began chirping its happy song.

An RV at the landing field began to shrink. Smaller and smaller, I climbed. A friend who had joined me, and thought he may too be forced to land, began climbing well also. Together we followed the lift to over 11,000. “Let’s head east,” he said on the radio. “Ok, let’s go.”

A long, smooth glide over Borrego Springs finally gave me the gift of a few moments to take in the extraordinary view. The Salton Sea to the east, and an unfamiliar desert below me. If I squinted I could barely make out my goal, Coachella.

At Coyote Mountain, our next waypoint on the flight, we found lift plentiful. Before long we were back to over 9,000 feet. Following my friend we went on glide for the Santa Rosas. Perhaps the most unfriendly area of the entire flight, should we have to land between Coyote Mountain and the Santa Rosas it could be a long hike out. We flew a path that minimized risk and gave us ways out, but as I learned a few weeks ago, sometimes sink has other plans.

Celebratory pizzas at our post-flight Italian restaurant

Celebratory pizzas at our post-flight Italian restaurant

Luckily once we arrived on the Santa Rosas lift rocketed us to the summit. Not satisfied with the altitude for glide I hung around a little while longer hoping to climb higher. Nope. A lighter lift cycle passed through and I found myself ridge soaring my way north to Rabbit Peak just barely above the ridge.

“Be patient,” I told myself. Minutes later I was happily climbing well above the ridge and ready to glide into my personal record book. Coachella was set in my flight instrument and I could arrive with over 1,000 feet to spare. Let’s go!

My friends landed in a field a few miles short of the the actual Coachella festival field, at just over 50 miles. I continued another mile or so. Knowing that my goal was confidently attainable I turned around to land with my friends. More than just friends they have mentored and guided me since my early solo flights. To celebrate with them would mean a lot.

On nothing more than the wondrous air that we breath, my feet touched down 51.4 miles from where we launched, 3 and a half hours later. My smile could be seen from launch. What an amazing flight.

Watch my Track: Doarama

3 Weeks to Americus

Americus is fast approaching. In three weeks I’ll be arriving for my first comp and I am as ready as I’ll every be.

Pre-flight rituals at Laguna launch

Pre-flight rituals at Laguna launch

Flying has been great the last few weeks. 5 hours in the air just last weekend alone. Over 30 hours so far this year. I have pushed myself to go XC more, and in doing so found new challenges and compromising predicaments. I’ve grown more confident and yet very humbled all in the same weekend.

Last Saturday I dug my way out after getting very low far from any roads, and then continued on for an incredible flight. What a great feeling that was! I’m told the area I was low is littered with cacti—certainly a lesson best learned by someone else’s mistake.

The following day after starting the flight well and in half the time getting to where I landed the day before, I ran into insurmountable sink. So much sink that I was forced to land in a small field more than a quarter mile from any road. Officially that makes me a cross-country pilot, right? The hike out would have been more enjoyable had I set a personal record or could not blame my in-flight decisions. Instead I feel deceived by the convergence line which started to zig-zag. Following the convergence and staying under the clouds, I kept up with every zig, but then ran into a zag full of sink. Some very valuable lessons learned in only two days.

I am very happy with myself for about 50 miles of XC in one weekend. Soon, very soon I feel my day will come for a (first) 50 mile flight.

So yes, I am excited about the upcoming trip to Georgia. My experience flying flat lands is limited, but as we always say, the secret is to turn in lift.

Five Dollar Challenges

There’s nothing like having a friend who pushes you to greater heights (puns always intended) and challenges you to progress. For me that friend is Butch Peachy, who seems to have the remarkable talent to pull off 100 mile flights on 40 mile days…among other things like being the human jukebox that won’t turn off. Oh, and if you’ve got time, lots and lots of time, ask him to tell a story.

One of those he tells is how when he was training to fly comps, he and a friend would make bets on flying tasks. And for the first many bets he lost, but the small incentive, and friendly competition, kept him scratching until his feet were on the ground. “Not another $5,” he’d think. Over time these challenges made him the amazing pilot that he is, and hopefully earning back much of what he lost. Of course, his story is much longer with tangents, twists, and turns, but you get the point.

My El Cap Hat Trick

My El Cap Hat Trick

He has told this story to me a few times, but we rarely get to fly together, and when we do it’s not an XC day. Then came our flight at Laguna a few weeks ago. He casually mentioned betting $5, but we never settled on a task, nor shook to seal the deal—after all, who am I to race someone flying a higher performance glider? I had in my mind that it would be nice just to get out of the valley we were launching into. But then I had an incredible flight after almost sinking out, eventually leaving the valley and landing well before him. I still consider it a victory and I’d be lying if my confidence didn’t soar. Read more about it in my last post.

Well, this week was payback. We were flying a site called Blossom and we actually did settle on a task (and shook on it).The task was to make two triangles between launch, a point we call El Cap (the mountain looks a lot like El Capitan), and a point slightly west of El Cap nicknamed the Cauldron. The entire triangle is only about 6 miles, but you are flying into a stiff headwind on the way back. The second triangle/lap would be open and continue westerly down the range after the second turn point.

After launching we scratched around waiting for an up-cycle. We would jockey up and down for a while, never climbing high enough to jump the valley. Finally, I caught a thermal that felt like the one. Circle, circle, circle. Then next thing I know I’m peering straight into the eyes of Butch. His glider is aimed straight for mine.

I guess he lost the thermal he was in and wanted to piggyback on mine—nothing wrong with that, I’d do the same. But feeling like I was in a game of chicken with the Red Baron, I turned out of the thermal and tried to circle back around. This came to bite me. He “stole” that thermal and circled up high enough to launch across to El Cap.Now it sounds like I’m painting him as a villain. In actuality, the thermals this day were small punchy ones and we were all up and down trying to catch and stick a thermal. Maybe there was enough room for him to join up in my thermal. Maybe had I kept circling he would have entered the thermal just behind me, or I would have climbed above him. But I’m sure I’m not the only one to freak when another glider is at the same altitude and close enough to read their vario (ok, perhaps a bit of hyperbole).In any event, Butch flew the first circuit and took a huge early lead. As he was heading back to launch, I finally caught the thermal with my name on it and shot over to El Cap, where after a few minutes I had another great thermal lifting me to over 4,000 feet or about 2,500 above launch. Without losing much altitude I rounded the second turn point and headed for launch. Butch was now climbing again and heading over for lap two, but I was catching up. Without losing much altitude, I rounded launch and could head straight back.

When I reached El Cap for the second time, Butch was at the Cauldron (2nd turn point). We both realized he was far enough ahead to win the bet, so he—being the former world competitor and mentor that he is—turned around to team fly with me a little. However, with the strong winds that day, there were parts of El Cap that felt like being in a washing machine. After a while of trashy air over the Cauldron, and not climbing much, I was ready just to head home to where my other friends were soaring.

Of course, once back to the launch area I caught the best thermal of the day drifting me high and back to El Cap again. I always feel that when the sky gives you a great thermal you take it. So I did. Three trips to the Cap and back is a good day, whether or not you complete a task or win a bet.

Without the friendly competition, I likely never would have challenged myself to fly back to El Cap. I have only previously flown there once, and every time I am somewhat nervous due to (1) the lack of good landing areas in that part of the valley, (2) tall, high tension power lines, and (3) the upwind battle trying to get back to our primary landing area. This time, though I was nervous still, each triangle I became more comfortable with my abilities, and more confident to push myself (and still keep a good margin of safety).The lesson of the day? Being somewhat nervous is good. It means you are pushing your abilities and learning. Being terrified is having pushed too far, too fast. Having a friend to give that extra nudge in the right direction is the gift we need to get better. Thank you Butch. That was well worth the $5.

The Sport 2 Wins the Day

My ego received a healthy boost of confidence last Sunday (and maybe even my id and superego). No need to name names, but let’s just say it was me on my Sport 2 versus three guys, one a former world competitor, on their topless gliders. Now I typically am not one to brag, especially concerning myself, but this post will be an exception as I savor this rare moment.

The wind was easterly, meaning Laguna was our only option short of the longer trip to Elsinore, but conditions looked great for early season cross-country flights. I was super excited to finally get another flight in March. So far this month we’ve had a rained out weekend and a blown out weekend, and my only other flight between the rain and the wind was a short lunch break flight at Torrey Pines.

Launching first, I easily soon found myself a few hundred feet above waiting for the others to join me. Lured into the ease of altitude I dropped my guard and flew the ridge without a care, enjoying the view, giving up altitude for fun. …never take altitude for granted.

Within 20 minutes of launching, my altitude—and attitude—rapidly changed. Gazing up at launch, and my friends just launching, the day suddenly called out with a challenge. With a 4 mile glide out to the LZ I was tasked with a fight just to make it to our primary LZ. Without a few thermals, I’d be buzzard food in the land of cacti. Luckily this time of year it’s still only about 80 degrees down in the valley.

Working every little ridge and finger, I chose areas that seemed both more in the sun and facing the wind. I sought thermal trigger points, which everyone seems to have a different opinion of where they are. I tried many points on the ridge that seemed like good triggers, and usually I found light bumps and small thermals good enough for a turn or two, but no elevator to the sky.

The landing area lies at about 2,200 feet MSL, and I had sunk to close to 3,000′. With only 800′ feet remaining in my altitude account, my opportunities were diminishing. Altitude bankruptcy seemed likely. Damn you greedy gravity!!!

And then, finally, at one of the last potential trigger points before heading out for the LZ, after a few bumps and half turns in lift, a strong push from below hit me. Banking hard into a turn I determined myself not to fall out of this elevator. …and that I did.

Soon I was back to launch altitude and still climbing. After ascending more than 3,500′ in that one, beautiful thermal the prospects for a decent cross-country flight were good again. Peering down on everyone with a Cheshire grin, I was happy. The drift of the thermal carried me north toward the next large lift generator, Granite Mountain. Just minutes later I was there. Calling out to the other pilots, “I’m over Granite heading for Banner!”

Apparently though, one of my fellow fliers, knowing that the last time he saw me I was close to landing piped up, “I don’t hear any wind noise in the background,” implying that I was full of something other than air, unless it was hot.

But for once, the joke was on him. Soon, after an attempt to keep going my wing and I softly touched down about 12 miles from launch. My ride met me there before even fully breaking down…what perfect timing. As we pulled away heading to the LZ below launch to retrieve two others, the radio crackled, “What are the winds in the LZ?” My friend finally made it over Granite. 45 minutes or so after I landed, he and his higher performance topless glider appeared. Knowing I needed to make the most of this rare occurrence I hollered back, “I beat you to goal!”

That day my confidence grew in knowing that when I get low I can work my way back up. That the saying is true that there are more thermals than LZs–or at least I believe it more than I did before. And though I’ve made low saves before, this time I had to work every puff and think through to my next source all while under pressure to get to a landing area.

What a great training day!

I regret there are no photos to post, but a video is forthcoming.

Cross Country Season Officially Arrives in San Diego

It is only February 23rd and San Diego’s air is beginning to boom. Today five of us flew Horse, a site in Buckman Springs.

First, a little bit about the site. The namesake is Horse Canyon located just behind launch. Despite having a tendency for the wind to cross from the north (the launch faces west), Horse perhaps is our most consistent site. Some days it gives us the excitement of a full blown buckin’ bronco ride; some days the lift is nearly magical. No matter what, the site continues to provide great conditions for many types of flying. I cannot remember the last time I was the unfortunate recipient of a sled ride…though I’ll take any airtime and be happy. Moreover, I am partial to the site as my first mountain solo came there, as well as my first flight over 10,000 feet—and many memorable moments with friends. One of our local pilots suggests renaming it to Area 51, after the exit number. Ok with me. How else can we compete with sites in other parts of the state, like Santa Barbara’s Eliminator?

Last year, two weekends in a row proved the quality of the site. On each weekend a flock of us climbed to over 11,000 feet, followed the lift over the back and flew north for at least 35 miles. Though not our best XC site, it certainly has great potential on the right days.

Yesterday and today were again great flying days at ol’ Horse. Cloud cover yesterday brought down the altitudes, but that did not stop four of us hangs and a swarm of paragliders from enjoying wonderfully smooth air. Then today we arrived to find the clouds gone and hawks circling up. The forecast predicted lift to 7K, which was fine with us. I mean, it is February after all. No one planned to fly XC.

Some forecast. The first pilot to launch climbed quickly to 8K. After launch, I circled and circled in light lift but never could quite get there. After 30 minutes or more at over 6K—in February remember—I was beginning to get chilly. Getting cold easily is perhaps my greatest weakness in the air. Hanging around at that altitude and not getting much higher, I decided to head off for a high school a couple miles southwest of launch to see what lift existed in the valley, hoping to practice a bit of somewhat flatland flying, defrost a bit, and go on a mini excursion away from the mountain. Descending, the air became rough but pockets of lift could be found here and there on the flats. Farther out though, the lift died leaving sink to rule the sky. Just short of the school my decision was to turn back.

Back at the mountain the lift was broken up, allowing me to only maintain a few hundred feet above launch. Wind streamers at launch confirmed somewhat gusty conditions. But did I give up? No. I chose to fly north to a rocky pointed ridge. Initially only the mild lift persisted. In time though the lift grew. The pilot at the top of the stack called from over 9K, “I’m thinking of going XC.”

Well below him, I relegated myself to landing at the usual field. But the lift continued. It seemed like no time passed before I was climbing through 8K, and had drifted well north of launch. Looking out at nearby Pine Valley I said, “Let’s go!”

Combining the glide out toward the southern turn point, and the flight back to Pine Valley, the distance was about 7 miles. Not great, but not bad for a first XC flight in February. Entering the flight in my logbook I noticed that today’s flight also happened to be my 50th flight at the site.

At Pine Valley after XC. From Horse to Horses.


Setting Goals and This Site’s Flight Plan

Sadly I am back from vacation, but happily back to flying…with a long weekend coming up. During my trip I had time to think about where I want to take myself, and this site in 2014. Admittedly, this isn’t the most interesting post, but hey, it helped me focus my thoughts and formulate a plan. I’m a big fan of setting goals, if for no other reason than to force oneself to consider the status quo, and where to go from there.

My two main objectives for this site, this year, are to:

  1. Document my continued training to better qualify my progress and force me to think about how I am flying and my weaknesses; and,
  2. Document what it’s like to begin competing, how one gets started, things to consider, and hopefully show my improvement as a pilot because of competing.
Now these goals may sound boring, so know that they do not at all limit me from posting about all my flying adventures along the way, with more photos and videos. I also invite you to write me with suggestions (the little @ icon up on the right).
My Goals for 2014 (in no particular order). They are mostly general so I expect to revisit each of these in future posts:
  • Concentrate on refining my techniques. Launching, landing, thermaling, XCing. Whatever it is, do it better and more efficiently.
  • Fly more sites. In the past year I branched out to aerotowing (which opens many new doors), and traveled to Santa Barbara for a week to experience their amazing sites. I’d love to travel more (don’t we all?). On my list are the bay area, Utah, Arizona. This brings me to my next goal…
  • First flight(s) in the Owens Valley. Either early season or late season. I suppose my goals of 50 or 75 miles may be more easily obtainable…or not. Our San Diego site Horse Canyon can have comparable turbulence and big air many compare to the Owens, so I feel comfortable and ready to spread my wings there. And I’m sure I will have good guides on my first flights.
  • Learn to think ahead on an XC. I’ve heard cross-country flying is like a chess game. One must be a few steps ahead to fly well. This I need to work on.
  • Fly more without my vario. My first 25 hours were without a vario. I learned a lot and became very good at it. I need to return to my roots.
  • Fly my first competition (and maybe more). A few local pilots urged me to begin competing, and so I gave it some thought. In 2013 I attended the Santa Cruz Flats Race to see what the fuss is about. I drove for the Norwegians, earned my aerotow rating, gaggled in gaggles, and met some very cool—and legendary—pilots. I took in the whole experience. I quickly realized that to improve my flying and connect with others who share this affliction—I mean passion—competing is the way to go. Above all, believe it or not, I had fun. So now the question is, which comps? Santa Cruz Flats Race is nearby but the last of the year. It is definite. Do I debut with the Americus Cup or Big Spring? Will I sky out or bomb? How does one support this?
  • Push a little harder to stretch my distances, but not so hard to stretch my luck. Last year I flew flights close to 40 miles. On one I was 30 miles into a flight at 10,000 feet in the convergence over the LZ where everyone else had landed. It was a nice airport with drinks and snacks that we have permission to land at, so I don’t blame them. Being the overly courteous person that I am, I joined them…this after two low saves and my current state of ecstasy high above the plains. This year I want to continue until my abilities bring me down, not my conscience. I am confident that on the right day I can surpass 75 miles.
  • Graduate from my Sport 2. Now this is very debatable and everyone seems to have an opinion on this. Some say skip to a topless, others say get more time on the Sport. I certainly do not want to be one who rushes a decision like this. At the very least I would like to test fly other gliders to begin to sense the different characteristics of different gliders. “What’s wrong with the Sport?” you may ask. Nothing. It has served me well for nearly a year, and I do not yet feel it is holding me back. However, I feel I am ready to begin experiencing other gliders so that I can make an educated decision. I do know that if I do graduate I will do so cautiously—flights at well known sites with comfortable LZs. No cross-country flying until thoroughly familiar with the new wing. Another consideration: First I will need to get comfortable in the “new clothes” of a new harness. Stay tuned for a post specifically addressing the advancement to a higher performance wing.
  • Get instructor rated. I would love to begin passing on my passion and love of flight to others.
  • The cop-out to make it an even 10 goals…have fun, be safe. Enjoying hang gliding should always be our number one priority. It is why we started and why we fell in love with it. To forget this is to risk losing focus to secondary goals. Besting personal records is very satisfying, but nothing can beat those moments of realization when you look out from high above launch and recognize, in awe, the sheer beauty and indescribable essence that our sport offers.
I hope you’ll join me for the journey. Happy Flying!

Prepping for Cross-Country Season

This is it. The first year where I am ready to cross-country from the very beginning. In 2012, my first year flying, every flight was a new first. First flight above launch. First hour flight. First two hour flight. First landing in what we call the postage stamp. Later in the year came first flight above 10,000 feet. What more could a fledgling want in her first year? Well, San Diego kept giving.

XC Season in San Diego @ Mt. Laguna

Late September back in 2012, my power purple Northwing EZY and I went on a trip. On an amazing climb to 11,500+ feet, with a friend and his T2C on my wing, we went on glide for new territories. Correction. He went on glide. I mainly just sank like a somewhat aerodynamic rock. I pulled in for best glide–or what I guessed was best glide–and aimed for the next LZ. Now from the highest I had ever been, I felt like I could go anywhere. I could smell the salty air from the coast, see Catalina island, and peer far east into the desert–Arizona must be out there somewhere. But my single-surface glider had other plans. Seeing the T2C pulling away and nearly disappear above me I immediately gained appreciation for double-surface wings (oh I can’t wait for the triple surface wing!). Having passed the point of no return, I watched intently as the LZ seemed to move up in front of me.

Pushing onward I had no choice. Certainly on a big air day there must be another thermal around here. But where? The moments slowed. Wondering if I would ever near the LZ I began to look for alternatives. Not that I was super low, but on my first flight away from the local pattern I wanted a full report on my options. Now, Butch Peachy tells me, there are more thermals than LZs. Too bad I had not yet met him. He was right though (don’t tell him I said that). Just as I seriously began to wonder whether I could make the LZ, my vario began to chirp. Up. Up. Up until I knew the LZ was mine. As if to add an exclamation point, over the field another thermal rocketed me back up to 9,000! For a few moments I considered whether I could continue on. Tired, and unsure where exactly to go I found sink and floated down. 11 miles from launch, my first cross-country was complete.

Of course, what is a cross-country flight without a long retrieve, packed between gear and guys in a dusty old SUV? Perhaps it was midnight before I half-asleep/half-reliving every circle of my flight opened the door to my home and flared into my bed.

2014 – The Year of the XC
Skipping ahead to today, with an upgraded glider (Sport 2, check), instruments that rival a Cessna 150’s cockpit (Flytec 6030 and Garmin 76S in a cool pod, check), an amateur radio license (call sign, check), and hopefully a slick new harness on order soon (my current harness has so many lines it might as well be called the Flying Spaghetti Monster), I cannot wait for San Diego to once again breath life into the air. This year is the year to hone my skills and soar beyond new horizons.

Butch also tells me he counts Super Bowl Sunday as the kickoff to cross-country season. And he would know. So let me be the first to say, screw football, let’s go fly!

The Ranchita Yeti says, “Y’all fly back soon!”