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!

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.

Teaching Hang Gliding: Spreading My Passion

Another goal crossed off of my list for 2014! As of last Wednesday I am now a certified USHPA Instructor thanks to Rob McKenzie of High Adventure Hang Gliding and Paragliding. It is truly an honor to receive my instructor rating from him as he is a model for instructing and has been for decades.

The evaluation also provided an opportunity for me to try for the first time the Condor 330. What a great glider to learn on! With very little wind this day it allowed a first day student to get a good taste of flight and the slow speeds give enough time to react and associate actions with reactions. Of course flaring that big bird reminded me just how nice a higher performance glider rotates for landing.

Photo by Jeff Bohler

To top it off, after the evaluation I had time for an enjoyable two hour plus flight from Marshall launch followed by a great landing near the spot—oh my would I have been embarrassed to be the new instructor who whacked. With good thermals to about 7,000 feet and lift extending well into the valley I was able to explore the mountains and start branching out from merely flying near Marshall and Crestline. With a fellow pilot we headed south a few miles and returned. With the lift in the valley I then passed Andy Jackson Airpark and headed northwest a mile or two.

Of course, now that I am an instructor I have many details to consider. First and foremost, San Diego needs a decent training hill. Once I can locate that, then I’ll need training gliders and equipment. The great thing is I already seem to have a few interested students. Yesterday I gave my first lesson using a friend’s glider at a community park. Neither the glider nor the park were ideal, however, for a first lesson I think we all had fun and learned a lot, and I gained valuable experience teaching. Even better, the exposure at the park connected me with a potential future student, maybe a driver, and allowed the opportunity for community relations. A successful first day.

Packing up after a successful (and fun!) 2 days

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.

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!”