Hanging Around at Sylmar

As you can tell by my lack of posts, it’s been a slow season for flying since the Santa Cruz Flats Race. Between unusually poor soaring weather here, a vacation, car shopping, and kitten rescuing, I’ve missed out on way too much flying for my liking. At least I have a more hang gliding friendly vehicle to show for it, good memories with family, and those kittens successfully found a great home together. Meow.

All set up on Kagel Mountain

All set up on Kagel Mountain. No, neither of those topless gliders are mine.

Up until Thanksgiving weekend, between October and November I only found time for two–yes, you read that right–only two flights.

After one of them at Palomar Mountain we came across three malnourished kittens. After catching them, and then recatching them in the car to put them in a box, we spent a few weeks getting our kitten fix and found a wonderful home for all three of them. A happy ending for all.

An (even more) hang gliding friendly brewery

An (even more) hang gliding friendly brewery

Over Thanksgiving weekend, which I like to dub Hangsgiving, I finally made the trip to fly with the Sylmar Hang Gliding Association at their historic site. Thanks to Janyce I had a place to stay, and to the local pilots for showing me around the range. Though we never journeyed too far, I realized that I’ve been missing out on this fun site. A wonderful LZ, a great atmosphere, and many budding pilots including a sizable population of women pilots. What a great club they have! Also finally, Joe Greblo graced my presence, imparting to me a few crumbs of his encyclopedic knowledge. Coincidentally my visit came on the same weekend as their holiday party where I met many more of their members, including the amazing Katherine Yardley who once held the world straight distance record for women. The event was held at Golden Road Brewery where they even have hang gliders on the beer cans!  I cannot wait to return to fly there. Between Sylmar and Crestline, we Southern California folk live in a paradise for hang gliding.

And of course, how can I mention kittens without at least having one pic? Sky, Taj, and Jasper!
The Three Musketeers found at Palomar Mountain

The Three Musketeers found at Palomar Mountain

Stay with your stuff — A lesson on keeping your gear happy and home

I cannot believe how lucky I am. After the last task of the Santa Cruz Flats Race, I packed up and started walking toward a friend that landed nearby. Bear in mind that we landed across the road from a large prison and the road was very lightly traveled—possibly only 3 or 4 vehicles drove by in the hour plus we were there; most cars turned into the prison. As I was walking a van passed by, and not long after I heard a door slam. Turning around I saw the van’s brake lights go out and the van speed off from near where my gear was.

A few curse words were said—especially since I was borrowing a friend’s harness—and I started running back toward my stuff.

“What else could it be?” I thought. “Stupid me for leaving it!”

Apparently prison is no deterrent for deviants

Apparently prison is no deterrent for deviants.

I approach my gear and the harness is gone! The glider is there. The two nice tie down straps are still there. But no harness. (After flights, especially comp flights, I closely guard my vario pod and carry it with me everywhere.)

About to truly and sincerely freak out, I looked down the road where the van went and was now far out of sight. A few thousand feet down the road I saw a big black mound. “Could it be?”

Helmet crackI run toward the mound. Soon I realized that, somehow, someway, for some reason, that mound is my harness. Whoever took the harness either decided to play a prank on me, or checked out his or her loot and found it unexciting for cashing in on and possibly felt some remorse. No matter the reason, I recovered my friend’s harness. Opening up the bag I did not see anything missing.

A week later on my first flight since the race I noticed a crack on my helmet. Though I failed to see the damage before launching, I noticed it soon after landing. I like to think the rough turbulence on the flight caused the damage, but now I wonder if it was when the harness bag was thrown from the van.

The moral of the story is NEVER LEAVE YOUR GEAR UNATTENDED! I’ve heard too many stories of gliders and gear stolen either on launch or at an LZ, especially after cross country flights. Hide it as best you can if you absolutely must go, but it’s always best to stay with it—apparently even if you’re just walking a thousand feet away.

Santa Cruz Flats Race 2014

Santa Cruz Flats Race here I come. I had so much fun last year I just had to come back again and actually compete this year. After watching my friends fly incredible flights at Big Spring last month, I am antsy to ascend the Arizona skies.

Harness all buckled in

Harness all buckled in

Sun Armor

Sun Armor

Packed with a car full of hang gliding gear, and the Arizona essentials of sun screen and bug spray, I leave dark and early tomorrow. Not that I’m superstitious, but I’m also happy to announce that my peace lily just bloomed, which can’t be a bad sign. The flower rose quite high above the rest of the plant (more than previous blooms) seemingly flying near the cloudbase of my living room.

My peace lily just bloomed!

My peace lily just bloomed!

Though I’m still flying my Wills Wing Sport 2 135 glider (possibly the last comp with it), I’ll be flying with a new-to-me single suspension harness—all buckled in and ready to go. My generous friend has loaned me his old competition Aeros Myth harness and I’ve replaced the zipper, cleaned it up, and adjusted it’s fit. So far I am loving the harness and the feel of the glider that a single suspension harness provides. How much extra glide it gives we’ll find out.

Sadly, this year’s event will be in memory of Mark Knight. I only briefly got to know him at last year’s race when he helped me with my aerotow rating. I will be forever thankful for that help. His passion for the sport, love of life, and selflessness toward helping others attain their dreams goes beyond words, and I am one of many affected for the better in life by him.

Follow me live at either:

Live Tracker or Air Tribune (if we create an event page—at the time of writing none has been setup)

I hope I have time for updates from the race, at least some Tweeting. Wish me luck!

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!

Hang Gliding Competitions 101

This post begins a series of what I hope will be articles educating the general public, friends, family, and anyone else curious about what we do. In honor of the World Championships held this week in Annecy France (Women, Sport Class, and Rigid Wings), let’s talk about hang gliding competitions!

>>> Watch the Worlds Live <<<

Recently when I participated in my first competition I ran into the issue of explaining to others what it is exactly that we do. My experience has been that when I tell someone that I am going to a hang gliding competition, they will think a second and then ask questions like:

What’s a hang gliding competition?
How do hang gliders compete?
What do they judge you on?
Do you do aerobatics?

…and the age old, “What happens if the wind turns off?”

In my experience it is rare to meet a layperson who associates hang gliders with cross-country or distance flying. Most people I meet have no idea even that we go farther than the distance we can glide from launch. Many people I have met don’t even think we have much directional control. Mom, no, I won’t be drifting out into the Pacific ocean from Torrey Pines.

No, these are not aerobatic competitions. Though in the past there have been hang gliding aerobatics competitions, the primary method of competition in the world is what’s called Race-to-Goal format, which is pretty much just as one would think it is. There is a start, a course, and a finish.

No, we’re not “judged” on anything. A computer program calculates points based on our flight (how far we went and if we made it to the “finish line”) and how everyone else did on a particular day.

Don’t know the terminology? How about a few definitions. These are a little simplistic but good enough for an intro:

  • Task – A series of points that mark a course from start to finish. A task varies day to day depending on weather conditions. See a sample task below.
  • Start Cylinder – The area where pilots must fly within until all or most other pilots are in the air. It allows for pilots to launch, gain altitude, and then start the course at the same time as other groups of pilots.
  • Start Times – Think of start times as the start of the race. More specifically they are times when the time clock begins and when pilots can leave the start cylinder without penalty. There are typically multiple start times and a pilot can choose when to begin their clock by when they leave the start cylinder.
  • Waypoint – A point on the course surrounded by a cylinder. We only have to cross into the cylinder for the track to count. They are ordered in a task so we must arrive to each waypoint in the correct sequence.
  • Goal – The place where we’re supposed to get to. Think of it as a finish line, though it really is another cylinder (usually). This is when the time clock ends for a pilot. Many times we yell as loudly as fans do at soccer/football matches if we make goal, especially if we’re first.
Sample task
A sample race course. From Day 1 of the 2014 Women’s World Championship.


How do you takeoff?
Either we run off a mountain or we are towed up behind a light aircraft designed to tow at slow speeds. When we tow we release at about 2,000 feet above the ground.

How far do you go?
Believe it or not, the non-competition record is just under 500 miles (800km)! That’s straight line, as the crow flies, but I’m not sure a crow has ever flown that far at one time…especially not without flapping its wings. The road back to launch is often much longer. Typically competition tasks range from 40 (64km) to about 120 miles (200km) or more, requiring us to be in the air for 3-5 hours. The task distances are different for each class of glider.

How high do you go?
That depends on the location of the competition. One U.S. site that I know of allows us to climb over 18,000 feet (5,500 m) above sea level (with FAA approval of course). However, most sites we can only dream of flying that high. Usually we fly between 3,000 (900 m) and 10,000 feet (3,000 m).

How do you stay up so long?
We find rising currents of air, known as thermals. Hot air rises—think about a hot air balloon—so when the ground warms during the day the air warms with it and rises. We go up with that air. (Note that there are other ways air rises, but generally in competitions it’s the thermals that allow us to go far.)

How do you find thermals?
With lots of practice. We learn with experience what topography or features on the ground help produce thermals. Certain types of clouds are also good indicators when they are around.

How do you know where you’re going?
We fly with a GPS. Prior to the flight we program the task into the GPS. During the flight it tells us where the next point is, and ultimately where goal is. It’s up to us to find the lift, stay in it, and know when to head toward the next point. The GPS also records our flight paths which are then submitted to determine points.

Where do you land?
We find open fields, and hopefully choose wisely. Sometimes we find surprises that we cannot spot from the air, but we learn with experience the signs of good fields and what obstacles look like from the air.

What are the different types of gliders?
For competitions, there are primarily three classes of hang gliders: Sport Class, Open Class, and Rigid Wing Class. The sport class is comprised of gliders with less performance, which are usually more docile for less advanced pilots. The open class gliders are more streamlined, are faster, and glide farther without losing as much altitude. But performance comes at the cost of maneuverability and ability to land in smaller fields. The rigid wing class is a more complex class of gliders (which I won’t get into here) and in some ways are less hang gliders and more mini sail planes.

So what happens if the wind “turns off”?
The wind turned off? The wind merely affects our speed over the ground, so unless we are using the wind to stay up (such as at a cliff where the wind is forced up), the wind speed only affects how fast or slow we travel toward our destination.

There you have it. Most of the basics to a hang gliding competition. Have other questions? Contact me or leave a comment. Enjoy following the World Championships and future competitions!

An Rx for an RX: My First Flight on a Topless

A week ago I was given the unbelievable opportunity of Jonny Durand Jr. driving pour moi as I fly a topless glider for the first time, a Moyes Litespeed RX 3. It just so happened that Jonny was in town and Kraig Coomber, our Moyes USA representative who I’ve been in contact with about flying the demo (Thanks Butch for connecting us!), set Jonny up to show me the wing.

Post-RX Flight

Post-RX Flight

I’ve had my Sport 2 for a year and have about 100 hours on it, but I’ve been hesitant to make the jump straight to the topless wing. Despite some very trustworthy pilots and mentors reassuring me that I have the skills, the opinions I’ve received from a larger sample pool are all over the board (as one can imagine). Moreover, access to a more advanced intermediate glider for my weight has proved difficult. That opportunity will come, but this one was here and now.

When Kraig contacted me the day before to see if I could fly, and that Jonny would be there, seriously, how could I pass up on that opportunity? Sure he’s a legend, but more importantly if you could choose anyone to coach you on your first high performance glider flight, he’d be a top choice.

We arrive at launch and the wind is blowing in smoothly about 15-18 mph. A little strong Jonny thought, but the forecast was for the wind to back off, which it seemed to as we took our time evaluating the conditions. Also with us was my instructor, and another legend of the sport, John Heiney. I think I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Standing at launch I’m nervous. Not only am I making the leap to a much higher performance wing, but I’m also flying Crestline which can prove challenging on approach—at least I’ve heard and read about enough topless gliders overflying the field. Crestline (i.e. Andy Jackson Airpark) requires a low turn to final and I knew I’d likely have little to no wind at the LZ, a combination setting people up for failure. I’ve flown there a lot, but I’m stepping into the unknown. I knew all this though and prepared mentally. Still, I’m nervous. Did I mention that I had two legends watching me?

Finally, after what seemed like 30 minutes, I took the leap. In a few seconds I am in the air, the smooth, dreamlike air. No turning back. I make my first turn. I do not feel much lift, likely because I’m giving the mountain a wide berth in case the glider chooses to surprise me. I love how smooth the glider seems to turn. Yes, it takes more control bar movement to bank the glider, but it feels effortless. A few passes later I’m a few hundred feet below launch and ready to head across the gap toward the landing field. Time to feel what the glider can do with full VG. Pull, pull, pull, pull….pull. I think it’s all on. Never before have I felt more comfortable gliding over the gap. I’m really going somewhere.

Out in front of the Marshall launch I cruise back and forth on the ridge hoping to find something going up. But it’s 7:30pm and only very light puffs could be felt. I circle in whatever I think might help me resist gravity. Being a test flight, I took time to simulate approaches on the down tubes, and also pull full VG on and try adding speed. In all the aspects of flight I felt comfortable. Before too long I’m ready to set up my approach—forced may be a more appropriate word than ready.

Circling over the field to lose altitude, I enjoy the sunset and take a moment to soak in what I am doing. Never can I forget what it is just to fly, whatever the glider. A higher performance glider is just icing on the cake.

My approach went well. Although at one point on my base leg I felt a little high, I pulled in and cautiously checked my glidepath as I descended toward the field. I could have circled again, but found that unnecessary. With a smooth turn onto final I was setup to nearly hit the cone. “Focus on the flare timing” I thought to myself. I chose wrong. Just a hair late in the light wind conditions I tried to run it out. The glider charged ahead of me leading to a light whack (but oh so close to the cone). Oh well. Good launch, good flight, good approach. I’m happy with that.

I can’t wait to get time in soarable conditions.

Setting up amongst two legends

Setting up amongst two legends


Thanks for the Memories 2014 Flytec Americus Cup

Finally finding a few moments to write another post. Time surely flies when you’re having fun flying. The 2014 Flytec Americus Cup has ended and I am back in San Diego with wonderful memories and tons more experience. I’m sad that it’s over, but all good things must come to an end I guess.

So what can I say about competing? How about simply woohoo!? The competing community is truly a huge asset to the sport. Our shared passion pushes us each individually to succeed, to learn, to grow. Though there were certainly a few days near the end when I asked myself whether competing is for me (oh the nerves associated with being near the top), once in the air I was competing with myself and flying for fun. I enjoyed thermalling with friends and toasting a drink (ok drinks) at the end of each day.

In the end I placed third, made goal twice, should have made goal a third time, and came disappointingly close twice more.

Before day one I asked Zippy to summarize the prior week’s competition camp in five minutes. Instead he abridged it to three words, “Turn in lift.” Thanks Zippy, it worked!

My goal for the comp was to get up, stay up, and stay high. For the most part I succeeded. The first few days tested my patience thermalling in very light lift, however in time I realized patience would lead to longer flights.

My week in a Nutshell:
8 Days Flying
12 Tows
15 hours of up
165 miles flown
1 Superstar Squirrel
A bunch of awesome people
3rd Place in the Sport Class

Getting There



The logistics of getting me and all my accoutrements actually turned out to easier than expected. I sent my glider and harness ahead of me on the Moyes trailer from LA (Thanks Kraig, Konrad, and the other drivers!). Delta had a direct San Diego-Atlanta flight which got me in early afternoon and with enough time to get to the hotel and relax. My flight landed on-time but, long story short, never had time to relax.

The hardest part of preparing to go was trying to fit all my stuff in a carry-on, which I eventually gave up on. Why I tried in the first place is a good question. I always overpack, however for this trip it was a good thing. I never had the opportunity to do laundry during the week and having tons of clothes helped during the marathon of flying eight days straight.

Practice Day


Beautiful clouds approaching Atlanta

The practice day gave me an opportunity to get back into towing. The last I towed was with Jonny Thompson at the Santa Cruz Flats Race, 8 months ago. Though I was nervous, I arrived at the airport early and called on the awesome Jim Prahl to help setup my towing system and ultimately tow me up. Ready in the cart and all hooked up to the tug, a hesitant me gave the “Go Go Go!” and into the air I climbed. I think I may have popped out of the cart a bit aggressively, but to be towing again felt great. The second tow that day went very well. I was comfortable towing again and, gulp, ready for the comp to begin.


The historic Americus airport

On a side note, the Americus airport is in the heart of Georgia farm country. It’s a huge crop duster hub and the historic site of Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight. He also bought his first plane there for $500. During the comp we had a few aircraft cause us to scurry off the runway, but generally we had the airport to ourselves.

Day 1 — 66.6km Task
The anonymous “Stig” called a 66.6km task to the east. Lots of high clouds killed the lift, but puffy cumulus clouds marked the sporadic light lift. The sport class chose to launch last after the open class so in the air the topless gliders marked lift on our route. I mainly hung out with them but occasionally would venture out toward a cloud that looked promising. At one point I found good lift and had the gaggle chasing me, but my luck would soon change. The next cloud jump was quite a distance away and top of lift was only 3,800 to 4,000. Most of the flight I ranged between 2,500 and little over 3,000, and compared to the California air I am used to the lift required saintly patience. Nevertheless, I chose to glide toward the next cloud. As I arrived the cloud was breaking up. Spotting a few gliders circling just a bit further and to the south I aimed for them. Luck would have it that when I got to them, they all deserted me to better lift. Searching for a few minutes I found nothing of significance and prepared my tray tables and seat back for arrival. My feet hit the ground only 10.3 km from the airport, but outside of the 10km start cylinder. Bummed on such a short flight, I found relief in learning that no one performed very well. After day one I was fourth in the sport class. I was happy enough with that.

Day 2 — 47.0km Task
After such a short day 1 for many pilots, the task called for day 2 was a relatively shorter 47km dog leg. Clouds were bigger and a little higher. Due to the sport class deciding to launch last, me having tow release issues, and not finding much lift, I dove for the ground to get a re-light just before the launch closed for the day. This was my only re-light of the comp. The second tow did the trick and I finally found lift, and a few other sport class pilots hanging around the airport. Climbing to cloud base no one chose to glide on course. Not yet fully learning the lesson from day one, my patience got to me and I took off on glide. No one followed.


Caught in a rain storm on day 2

Following the clouds, I found enough lift to keep me up. I was happy to find climbs to cloud base a couple more times, but soon I was well north of the course line and running into a line of rain. As the rain moved closer the lift weakened. Turning back toward the waypoint and hoping to find lift I could only stay aloft a little while longer. Eventually the rain caught up with me and with a few drops splashing across my face I found a field. A national park ranger pulled over to watch me land. Just a minute after parking my glider the rain started pouring. The ranger walked over to me with curiosity. As if not even realizing it was pouring rain, he asked me questions. Happy to answer his questions, but not so happy to be drenched, I invited him out to the airport some time the rest of the week should he want to see more of what we do.

Next thing I know a farmer’s truck approached me. Two guys were inside. One rolled down the window. “Care to sit in here out of the rain?” he asked.

Ummm. I’m not the most trusting person, in an unfamiliar city, but a dry seat surely sounded nice. I told him my glider made a great umbrella, but he insisted. Grabbing my harness and electronics I jumped in the truck. I don’t remember your names, but thank you for the dry seat and the conversation while the rain passed. Matt, another sport class pilot, just a mile or two down the road fared less well. Already packed up, he didn’t even have a glider to duck under. Such a hard life it can be flying XC. Fun memories though.

Day 3 — 35.3km Task

A appropriate fortune on the day I made goal

A appropriate fortune on the day I made goal

With still no one making goal on day two. An even shorter 35.3km task was called for day three, to the Buena Vista Georgia airport. Today the sport class chose to launch first. Despite the tug pilot finding me a super thermal (thanks Jim!), after topping out I failed to stick with it and sunk down to about 1,000 above the ground. I’m not sure where I would have gone had I stayed in lift as there were still few pilots in the air. Scratching for a while I finally climbed back to cloudbase. With a few open classers enroute, I began to glide toward the mega gaggle a cloud or two away. It always seemed as though as soon as I arrived to the gaggle, they all pushed onward. A few stuck around for a higher climb and I found a good balance between aiming for the scattering open class pilots ahead of me and areas where I decided good lift would be. If one area failed to pay off the other area kept me in the air. Hopping cloud to cloud I soon was pleased to see my goal, a small airport just a thermal away. Would I be the first to goal?



Out of the corner of my eye I spotted another kingposted glider beginning to overtake me. It was Mark in a U2 and he was speeding past me. Maybe I could have raced him in. Maybe not. I didn’t care. I just wanted to make goal, and the best way to ensure that was to find more lift. One last thermal and I had more than enough altitude to race into goal.

Celebratory margarita

Celebratory margarita

After reaching goal, and sadly not hearing the rewarding beeps of my 6030 (wind noise is the sound of freedom), I climbed back up in a great thermal over the airport. The open class goal was back at Americus airport after a second turn point so I planned to either meet them back there or at least save some time on the retrieve. The clouds were dissipating, and after three hours I was waning. About five miles into the return I both was tired and losing lift. I saw another glider on the ground and landed with him. It just happened to be Rich with the U.K. team., joined by the property owners, a grand daughter, and a teeny tiny puppy—swell company for a post-first-time-making-goal LZ celebration (and yes I did just use the word swell).

Day 4 — 37.1km Task
I should have made goal for the second day in a row, but instead I learned a valuable lesson on racing. A few of us sport class pilots were sticking together. One raced ahead and I later learned he made goal flying alone. Knowing I was in second by only a few points, I thought that I could make up some points by racing ahead of #1. Gazing ahead I saw a few inviting clouds and knew that with the tailwind all I should need is one more thermal. Moreover, my vario said I should arrive at goal with 800 to 900 feet altitude. I left our little gaggle and pulled in for goal planning to slow up in any lift ahead.

…and that lift never came. I followed a road below me with trees on the left, and big fields on the right. It was fun cruising at 40-50 miles per hour down the road. At the last moment, as low as I could, I made a 180 and landed into the wind. Soon I was watching my competitors sail over my head and into goal. At this point the realization hit me that making goal, no matter how slow, is much more important than a few seconds, especially only half way into a competition. Who was I to think that I could race a faster glider, in my first competition, on day 4, and in light lift??? Who? Stupid me that’s who.

Day 5  — 71.8km Task 
With strong westerly winds, the longest task of the meet was assigned. 45 miles and goal would be mine. After the day we all agreed the lift was strange and difficult to core. For half the flight a few of the sport class pilots gaggled together, along with the occasional open classer. Then one by one a sport class pilot would go off on their own. Still in lift, and drifting well I decided to stick it out with what I had instead of following. Patience. For a few miles more an open class pilot and I kept together, but enough apart to find lift. This worked well, up until he headed back upwind. Still in lift, I watched him leave and determined myself to be independent for a while, which would turn out to be the rest of the flight. Continuing east I found lift often enough to remain above 3,000 feet. Sadly though, my last remaining lift puttered out and a glide toward goal would be my last, landing me about 10km short of goal. Later I learned this would only be good enough for third. Mark was the only one to make goal and won the day, but I gained a lot of points for almost making it…

Day 6 — 71.8km Task (Same as Day 6)
Third place! After the great flight on day 5 I moved up to third. Today the Stig called the same task. The westerly winds were a tad lighter, but the lift ceiling was forecast to be slightly higher. The flight was similar to day 5, except I followed a more southerly track passing over the town of Cordele. Again patience played a key role, that and vigilance for noticing gliders climbing better. On at least two occasions I decided to leave a comfortable gaggle for a single glider climbing well. This paid off.

Once again, however, once on my own away from others the lift played hide-and-seek. With just 2km to go—just a small climb!—I landed.

Thanks to the kind folks who owned the fields where I landed for the cold Pepsi and company while I packed up.

Day 7 — 39.4km Task 

April's Tug

April’s Tug

Last day. Time to monkey up. I’m sitting somewhat comfortably in third place. We were initially given a 70km task, but with high clouds the sport class pilots met and discussed a shorter 40km task. I voted for the longer flight but was out numbered.

Once in the air, lift proved abundant enough, but again light (maybe I’m just spoiled by the California boomers). Another day of circle circle circle drift drift drift. With enough persistence though our ceiling was the highest of the week. Some of us climbed to 6,000.

And again, sticking with gaggles for half the flight worked well, but eventually we all separated and moved on. Spotting a few straggler open class pilots, I was able to glide to lift when I couldn’t find it myself.

After entering the goal cylinder I looked around for other gliders on the ground so we could all celebrate together. Never finding anyone, I made it my mission to start an LZ. Actually, there were a couple options where I could land next to a gas station and store. One was a tilled dirt filled field, the other a somewhat difficult field boxed in on three sides, but it appeared to offer a nice grassy place to touch down. Going downwind low over some power lines, and then turning over a house and lining up on final everything was going well, until I noticed that the “grass” was really long reedy-like stuff. “Oh well, flare high and plop down” I thought. Executed well in theory, but not in practice my landing was ok but not the most graceful. No whackage however. Just to the side of the field was a great breakdown area next to the store parking lot, and a store claiming, “You never sausage a place!”

Soon enough another sport class pilot, Felix, followed me in and the final day celebration began. All packed up it was bittersweet to stuff the car like sardines for one last drive home.

Breaking down on the final day, in the goal cylinder!

Breaking down on the final day, in the goal cylinder!

Last ride home for our sport class team. Left to Right: Matt, Felix, Me, Patrick, and Don.

Last ride home for our sport class team.
Left to Right: Matt, Felix, Me, Patrick, and Don.

Fruity the Hollywood star squirrel (On his way to North Carolina after the comp)

Fruity the Hollywood star squirrel
(On his way to North Carolina after the comp)

Open Class Awards. Congratulations to Oleg, Christian, and Mike!

Open Class Awards. Congratulations to Oleg, Christian, and Mike!

I never was the fastest pilot but I achieved my goal each day to stay up and go as far as I could. I cannot be more thrilled with third place, and an incredible competition debut.

Thanks to everyone for making the comp such an incredible event, and to the so many people who supported me.

See y’all at the Santa Cruz Flats Race!

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