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.

Flytec Americus Cup Here I Come

It’s official. I am registered for the Flytec Americus Cup. My first comp. So many things to figure out to get my gear and myself there. Here we go, what have I got myself into this time?

Flat lands flying will be new to me, but I know Georgia well. My mom grew up not too far from Americus. My grandfather worked at Warner Robins AFB just outside of Americus. Growing up we’d frequently take trips to Georgia to visit family or take a vacation. Though I remember the mid-summer big fat Georgia rain pelting our car and forcing us to pull off the road, I also remember the small southern towns, beautiful countrysides, barbecue, and lush forests. A lot probably hasn’t changed, but no BBQ though for this vegetarian, as hard as it may be to resist.

Though I won’t have a new harness by then, that’s ok. Slow and steady is fine by me. My goal is simply to make goal…actually, my primary goal is to have a blast and learn as much as I can.

Also harness related: I now have tow loops sewn on! In Santa Cruz last year we had to loop the bridle and release around the harness straps. It worked, but sure is better to have loops. One worry I do have is not having towed since September. By the end of the week at SCFR, I felt very comfortable towing—of course I did, Jonny Thompson taught me—even in midday conditions. I plan to arrive in Americus early Friday to have all day Saturday to scrape off the rust.

To recap where my yearly goals stand (see this post): I’ve already flown more without my vario, I’ll be flying a new site going to this comp, I’ll be flying this comp, and I am already working on my instructor rating. I’m excited with my progress so far.

Ok then, guess it’s time to see how this San Diego pilot stacks up. See everyone in May!

Rainy Day Task

I didn’t expect to start work toward instructing this early in the year, but the opportunity is a-knockin’. Hopefully in a little over a month I’ll be California’s newest instructor. I can’t wait to start helping produce more pilots to fly with. San Diego can definitely use more hang pilots.

Of course, instructing would require a lot of new gear. For me I would also need a more site accessible vehicle. However, the biggest issue standing in the way of teaching is finding a suitable training hill. Still new to the politics of free flight in San Diego, I am unclear where we are and are not welcome. Then there are commercial activity restrictions imposed by San Diego government in parks and open spaces. Despite the road blocks, I am undeterred from pursuing a path toward instructing.

This area of the country offers flying conditions that are much to great to only have advanced sites and no training.

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.


Turbulated Speed Sleeves and Helmets?

Under Armour’s Mach 39 Speed Skating Suit may not have lived up to the fanfare, but the ideas are introduced to the world including two years of research and development. Though still too early to tell whether the suit failed or lack of on-ice testing accounted for the U.S. Speed Skating team resorting back to their World Cup suits, I will be interested to see if the technology finds its way into hang gliding. Certainly new speed sleeves would be easy enough. However, in a sport where milliseconds are less crucial perhaps dimples will only up the cute factor. Maybe I can request that my new harness be polka dotted.

Photo by Under Armour


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!