Archives for April 2007

Putting It All Together

Google Earth Landmarks

Today was an absolutely awesome flying day at Tiger, and definitely a personal-best. It was probably one part good fortune, one part practice, and five parts listening to and remembering the words of wisdom that so many other pilots imparted to me over the last two years. To all who are mentioned below, and the countless others who are not, thank you for your kind mentoring!

I took the 12:30 shuttle and conditions were looking good. Matt Senior was talking about going cross-country and I told him that it was something I wanted to learn more about. He gave me a few pointers, in particular about getting to the North ridge and working that up as high as I could get before going anywhere. He told me that if I thought that I was the top of my thermal, but there were still people a thousand feet higher, then it was a good idea to figure out how to get up there before trying to go anywhere on XC. He also gave me some pointers about getting to the north ridge – that sometimes the direct-route is not the best way to go because there is so much sink in the middle from launch to the ridge. Sometimes it’s better to go around the outside of the bowl. He also recommended letting go of the need to always land at the LZ – there are plenty of other places to land, and that one has to be comfortable choosing alternate LZ’s to have the confidence to go XC.

I made mental note of everything he said, soaking it up like a sponge. Most significant to me was what he said about confidence. So far, my only XC trips include one last year when I tried to get to the High School and ended up landing in Erickson’s field, and one in Italy where I missed the LZ by 5 miles and didn’t speak a word of Italian. Fortunately, in the latter case, there was a kid at the house where I landed who spoke French, so I asked “quel est le nom de cette ville?” (Where the heck am I?) and went from there.

Originally, I planned to just follow Matt and Steve Wilson as closely as I could, hoping to learn from them. However, I had trouble setting my radio to the frequency they were using and before I knew it, both of them were gone on their own adventure. I also managed to get behind a few folks who were having their share of challenges with the launch, and I could hear Dave Byrne’s words of wisdom echoing in my head “Get out of the truck, set up, and GO! I’m here to FLY, and I’ll save the chit-chat for later over a beer.” While waiting for the others to launch, a cloud came overhead, and I began to wonder if I had already blown it for the day.

Fortunately, the sun was only hidden for a few minute so the thermals were still working strong. I launched, flew to the Kingdome, and within a matter of minutes was flying at around 3500’ back behind the north Launch. I had tried the direct route to the north ridge before and only hit sink, so I following Matt’s advice by going around the bowl. It was working quite well. I was able to maintain altitude and gradually work my way around, but I was also getting blown back to the south a bit more than I wanted since there are just so many trees in that area. Shortly, I wound up in that that familiar sink that sits between launch and the ridge, except that I was so far back that I had doubts that I would be able to clear the bowl at all. Again, it was Dave Byrne’s words that I heard echoing from just the week before when he gave his presentation on XC at Chirico’s place. He spoke about the pros and cons of speed-bar. This was definitely one of the times when it was called for, and I stepped on it.


The red line is the North Ridge. All that space between it and the North Launch is the bowl I got stuck in.

I also heard the words of Cornell in my head. “When you’re on a line and your vario is telling you it’s really bad, try turning one way or the other. Even if all directions are bad, sometimes you can find that one direction is slightly less bad than the others. Find it and hope that it’s enough to make the difference.” All directions were definitely bad, but heading more to the right, towards the north ridge was less bad. It was challenging for me to go that direction because I so wanted to run for the LZ, except that there was no way in hell that I was going to reach it. In fact, I was really thinking that I was going to land in the trees and my heart began to pound accordingly.

Then it was Kingsley’s voice that I heard in my head, except that it was from the Michael Miller invitational XC from last year. I’m not sure where Kingsley was at the time, but at one point he came over the radio to let the rest of us know that he was going down into the trees. At the time, it sounded like a mixture of fear and “Oh, crud!” in his voice. As I was looking at the trees, trying to figure out which one I wanted to get to know up close and personally, it was Kingsley’s voice that I heard. Some have said that there are those who have landed in trees and those who will, but I really didn’t want it to be my turn today. Then I remembered that in Kingsley’s story, he did NOT land in a tree; he found lift and got out of whatever mess he was in, only to come back on the radio later to tell us he was fine! I could only hope for the best, and you can be darned sure that after my incident at Whidbey two weeks ago that I was going to remain pointed into the wind. I was maybe 300’ above tree-line when I heard a single “beep.” It was either my vario, or my mental heart monitor skipping a beat. Then there was another beep, followed by still more, and I knew just what to do.

Just like Pavlov’s dog, conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell, I had become conditioned to turn in lift. And it worked! Slowly at first, then stronger and steadily, I got lucky and pulled off a frightful low-altitude save that brought me back up to about 1800 and level with launch. At this point, despite the comfort of a bit more altitude, I was still quite shaken and wanted to return to familiar territory. However, I was now dead center between the launch and the north ridge. I also believed that if I needed to, I could land at that road behind the church that looked like a key-hole. Again, it was Matt’s words that guided me. He said that the house at the base of the north ridge was often really good for lift to start working up the ridge. So with my fears directing me towards the LZ and my desire for courage and experience not unlike the Lion from the Wizard of Oz, I headed for the base of the north ridge.

There were two other pilots already there, so I could see that it was working. I headed their way, except that I caught really good lift slightly higher up the ridge than where they were below. Soon, I found myself at 3,500’ and wondering what was really powering the lift that I found myself in. Again, it was David Byrne’s voice that guided me. “When you get high enough that you’re not so focused on where you are going to land, you can start to fly by the sky rather than by the ground. Look up! Find the clouds, figure out what’s feeding them, and then try to get yourself on that stream going up.” I saw where the air was going, adjusted my course slightly, and before I knew it, I was at 5,200!

At one point, I looked down and saw two things that caught me way off guard. The first was a small plane maybe 2000’ below that was flying through the valley. The second, the one that literally made me gasp for breath, was seeing a jumbo jet at my altitude. Never mind that it was many miles to the west. Honestly, my first thought was “David Wheeler is going to kill me!” My second thought was to re-confirm my altitude to make sure that I was OK, and I was. The lift was still going up, but it was also getting bumpy, and I didn’t want to press my luck. That was doubly true if I were going to submit my GPS logs to Wheeler if I managed to tag anything.


Issaquah High School from 5,200′

From where I was, the high school was a piece of cake. So was the gravel pit. For the first time, I had actually managed to tag not just one, but two points on Tiger Tag, and I still had plenty of altitude to safely choose whatever landing I wanted. Well, almost any landing. Even though I was not sure I could make it back to the LZ, I knew I could be safe. So rather than heading straight home, I returned towards the north ridge where I managed to join up with Meredith and one other pilot while the three of us worked a thermal together.

What made this so unique and fun was that unlike the lift over the Kingdome where there are multiple pilots in lift at the same time, here, there seemed a much greater level of silent communication and cooperation. I wasn’t even sure who the other pilots were at the time. Sometimes I was on the bottom, other times I was on top, but the three of us were all circling around and around together as a group, adjusting the center of our circle slightly based on whatever we saw happening to the others in the loop. For the more experienced pilots, this may be old hat or just what thermaling is all about. For me, the level of aerial teamwork was still quite new, exciting, fascinating, joyful, playful, and also highly effective.

GravelPitThere was one unfortunate side effect of maintaining the tight circles with such a high level of active piloting and head-turning to keep mindful of where the other pilots were at all times. I could not shake the feeling that my shoulder straps were falling off. They were not falling off, but it continually felt as if they were. I just got the new Peak-2 harness, and it has elastic that actually keeps slight tension on the straps, as well as a sternum strap which I had buckled. I knew that nothing was wrong despite the persistent feeling I had to the contrary. It was only later that I realized that my straps WERE falling off my shoulders, but it was not the straps to my paragliding harness. Let’s just say that I inadvertently took the term “free flight” to a different level this afternoon and leave it at that, please.

At some point above 4,000’, I parted ways from the other pilots when I chose to return towards launch while they continued upwards. My intention was to head for the LZ, but I got back to Tiger with enough altitude to actually consider a top-landing. I had been flying for about an hour and a half at that point and needed to use the restroom. The area near launch was rather crowded, which was not unusual. What was unusual this time was the number of different creatures in the air. There were no fewer than three tandem pilots with passengers, probably 15 or more solo pilots, at least one hang glider, a few feathered friends, and a remote-controlled Styrofoam plane flying amidst the other pilots rather erratically. Watching that plane fly amidst all the other traffic made me think of a single white rat trying to make its way across a three-dimensional ball-room dance floor. Does anybody even know what the right-of-way rules are with an RC plane in the mix? Making matters slightly worse for my restroom goals was the fact that the launch was just teaming with other pilots waiting to take off and a handful of hikers and children running around. No, this was not the time for a top-landing.

So I found a decent thermal near launch, somehow managed to climb to the top of the gaggle, made my way back up to 3500’, then went towards the valley before going right towards the north ridge. This time I managed to reach the ridge without repeating that harrowing adventure with the sink over the trees. With far less effort than the first time around, I found myself traveling about the sky with much greater comfort and ease, managed to make my way back up to 4500 again, and did another lap around the high school, gravel pit, and then back to the launch again. When I returned to the launch, it was nearly deserted. I had been up for nearly three hours and nothing was going to stop me from landing up top to use the restroom.

There was a young couple and their child sitting on the launch carpet when I landed and I heard the boy ask his mother why the pilot landed. Maybe it was how fast I bunched my wing, or maybe she saw the look on my face, but she told her boy to stay out of the way because she knew right where I was headed.

After my brief rest at the summit, most of the other pilots had already sunk out to the LZ, but I still found the lift was plentiful. It’s possible I could have played for another hour, but I was tired. I had just achieved my personal best as a pilot and I finally had the sense that I was beginning to put together all of the advice and wisdom that so many others had graciously shared with my over my brief tenure in the sky. Among that wisdom was something from James Bender about not realizing how tired we get after a full day of flying, and the need to just stop. I knew how spent I was. It was nearly 5:00 PM, the gibbous moon was just beginning to rise in the east, our spring sun was still hours from the western horizon, and I was most definitely ready to call it a day. And a very good day at that.

Not Quite What I Planned…

On Saturday, it started out as such a beautiful day at the Fort …
It ended up being simultaneously the best flying I have ever had there, and also my worst day flying ever.

Around 3:00pm there was a steady westerly wind of about 5-8 MPH. It was enough for some kiting, but not enough to sustain much lift. At first, it was just Murdoch and myself, though soon Patti joined us as well. By around 4pm, the winds were finally picking up, and a flock of other park visitors kept asking why none of the paragliders were taking off.

Soon enough, there was adequate lift to carry me from the south to the north end of the field (flight #1), but I was still cautious about launching over the precipice at the top of the bluff. That caution quickly faded as the winds lifted me straight up even before the edge and from that point onward I was in heaven (flight #2). Patti and Murdoch soon joined me, along with Andrei and Irena who had recently arrived.

At one point, there was a family of eagles soaring the ridge – an adult and several little ones, apparently learning to fly. To be soaring the ridge while these natives were just beginning to explore the wonder of their home domain in the sky was both beautiful and somehow an honor just to watch. These young fledglings, if they had not already, would gain a level of mastery over flight in a matter of hours that I could not hope to achieve with a lifetime of flight, and yet at this point, they were still students. Wow.

After around 30 minutes, I was getting cold, so I came back around over the field, landed gracefully by the picnic table where I had an extra jacket and warmer gloves. In less than 5 minutes turn-around, I had returned to the sky to join my comrades again (flight #3), including Andrei who was doing a series of wingovers out over the water only to rise in the lift to do it again and again. It was so much fun to watch and soar with these other pilots. Wow.

After about another 45 minutes, I came in for a landing to use the restrooms and grab a bite to eat. Conditions were such that it reminded me of being a child at the swimming pool, where I could play all I wanted to, get out when I wanted to, grab a snack or use the restroom, and yet still had the freedom to jump back into the fun and play at will. It was just that kind of day.

My fourth flight was deceptively uneventful, given what would follow later in the evening. I flew for maybe 30 minutes, and then it began to rain, though still quite gently. I brought my wing back over the Fort for final approach and made what was probably one of the slowest and most graceful landings I had ever had. It took maybe 30 seconds to finally descend that last 15 feet before landing gingerly on my toes, kiting the wing and bringing it gently back to the ground. Thinking that the rain might pass quickly, I covered my wing with my rucksack and waited it out as the other pilots landed to do the same. Well, all except Jim Martin, who had recently arrived and flew in the rain, showing no more concern for the gentle trickle than the birds who were still flying about, probably happy to have more of their playground back again.

While the rain remained quite light, it also failed to let up for quite some time and I decided to pack up to go home. Having more than once forgot something behind at the Fort, I returned to the field to do one last look around. That’s when Irena invited me to stay just a bit longer, as she and Andrei had just brought down some delicious rhubarb pie that they had bought along the way. It was messy as all can be, absolutely scrumptious, and best of all, it was still warm. I could have easily left just 10 minutes earlier, but then I would have missed the joy that is the camaraderie of this wonderful group of pilots. Wow.

Best of all, the rain did finally let up, and conditions were still good for more flying. It was now close to 7:00pm. Plus, with some rhubarb in my belly, I figured I could go a bit longer before wanting dinner. The flight started well enough, and I launched using the technique that Jim had shown me before: no brakes, palms up, gingerly controlling the D’s. The launch was a little rough, but soon I was in the air again, traveling to the north. Unfortunately, I never quite got the altitude to fully enter the lift band. I tried going back and forth a few times, all the while remaining just 20-40 feet below the ledge.

Soon, it became clear that I was losing altitude, and would be making a beach landing. That was no big deal, as there was more than enough beach to land on, and I had done that twice before on earlier trips. I decided to fly south, so as to land closer to the trail that went back up the bluff. Here is where I made my first major mistake in judgment: seeking to get closer to the trail, I waited too long to turn around and face back upwind. By the time I realized this, I was too low to execute the turn safely. A fraction of a second later, I saw that given that there were more rocks than sand on this part of the beach, my chances for a safe down-wind landing on unsure footing was also more than questionable. I had way too much forward speed with the wind to my back and would have most likely landed and fallen on my face even with loads of flare.

Despite the low altitude, I turned steeply to the right, towards the water, with far more lean than break, hoping to complete as much of the turn as I could without sacrificing as much altitude. Despite the outcome, I think that that still might have been the best course of action to prior poor judgment given the circumstances, and I’m open to hearing otherwise. I had completed maybe 150 degrees of my 180 turn when things started to move at break-neck speeds… literally.

As best as I can tell, I landed first on my right butt cheek, with the padding on my harness directly below me where it probably did the most good. I still had plenty of momentum towards the south and rolled violently and diagonally across the rocks from my right tush, then striking my left thigh/femur, my shoulder, and my head in who-knows what order. I have a distinct memory of an incredibly loud crunching noise which I knew to be my helmet, which I believe I hit first on the back-left, but I’m not sure.

Presently, as I’m writing this up and looking at the helmet, it would appear that there is very little of the helmet that did not strike the rocks at some point. There is damage to the upper right crown, scrapes on the lower right at the base, and much more significant scrapes and scratches to the entire left side. Then, of course, there is that pool of blood on the helmet padding above the left eye.

My glasses were destroyed, bent horribly out of shape with both lenses having popped out somewhere on the beach. I was in no condition to look for them even if I had been able to see at that point. I was incredibly disoriented, foolishly tried to stand, but whether from the uneven ground, the head wound, the loss of my glasses, or the blood dripping down my face, I never made it above my knees before falling down again. I did not feel my head injury, but just noticed all the blood dripping from my forehead. Now here’s the really stupid part: for some reason, I was thinking “I just got this new flight suit… don’t bleed on it!” That was followed shortly by another voice in my head that said “shut up. Be still. You’re messed up here, and don’t even know it yet. Just be still and breathe for a while.”

I listened to the second voice – I did not have much choice in the matter at that point. I wanted to lie down and go to sleep. “NO! You can’t do that! Pull out your phone and call for help!” I called Kristen, whom I had traveled with to the Fort, but got her voice mail. I left her a message that I had crashed on the south end of the beach near the trail, told her to tell the other pilots, and that I was injured. That was all I said, and I also knew that her cell reception was terrible in that area. I tried calling a number that I had for Murdoch, but there was no answer on that one. For some reason, calling 911 never entered my mind. I can’t explain why.

So, not knowing if my message got through or not, I performed a secondary survey from my toes to my head, determining that my leg was the worst, but that I had no idea how bad my head really was. I moved slowly, staggered to my feet (barely), and began to gather my gear with some difficulty. Andrei reported later that having seen me standing and packing my gear, that he thought I was OK. There was no way he could have seen my wobbly stance from that far away in the sky. I’m sure I still had adrenaline pumping a mile a minute at that point. I had only just made my way to the base of the trail when I heard Kristen calling from the top of the hill. She had received my message, and apparently relayed that I was on the beach to the other pilots, but not that I was injured. They pointed her to the trail where I could be found.

She made her way down the hill while I basically hobbled my way slowly forward. Only upon seeing my blood covered face did she realize that this was a bit more serious. I told her to take my gear, go back to the top, and to get help. In retrospect, she probably could have just left the gear. I can only guess that once a pilot, always a pilot, and a pilot never likes being separated from her gear. While she went back up, I had a walking stick and basically tripod-hobbled my way slowly up the hill. I so wanted to just lie down and sleep. I was afraid to rest, too, fearing that if I stopped, I would never get going again or that I would pass out. Something deep inside me just kept screaming to keep going, regardless of how slow my progress. And so I did.

Sometime thereafter, Andrei made his way down the hill. Uncontrollably, I began to cry. He probably thought I was just in pain, which I was, but I was also just SOOO glad to see him. Even now, I don’t recall if I ever thanked him (thank you Andrei !). Together, we made our way up the steep slope to the top, whereupon I sat down and Irena was the first with enough good sense to call 911. That alone was a bizarre story, as there was some difficulty communicating to them where Ft. Ebby really was.

After waiting for a while (my sense of time is way distorted here), I recommended that we just get me to the parking lot and that Kristen take me to the hospital directly because I did not know how long help would be and I was so sleepy. (I’ve got one of those on-board navigation things that could direct us the hospital). Andrei and Patti helped me closer to the car when help arrived just before we got to the steps that lead down to the launch/LZ.

At the top of the stairs, the EMT’s strapped me into a transport chair to take me the rest of the way. Ironically, I think the most painful part of my whole ordeal came when one of them quickly pulled a strap to lock me into the chair and managed to do so directly across my injured femur. I know that I let out a yelp like an injured dog, and despite the EMT’s need to look more closely, I guarded my leg rather fiercely after that blunder. Regardless, I was now “in the medical system” and would be getting help.

Skipping most of the rest of the details from this point (for they are many and colorful), they ran a battery of tests, including a CAT scan and a few X-rays of my femur, neck, and chest, all of which turned out clean. Blood counts showed no internal bleeding. Net result: A concussion without loss of consciousness; a laceration on the scalp that looks like the mark on Harry Potter’s head, but which was glued back together; abrasions on the left shoulder; a significant contusion to the thigh; minor bruises to the left hand, and (hopefully) a few lessons learned.


  1. My shooting to land by the trail and failure to turn upwind was essentially the common problem associated with trying for a spot-landing. It’s really not worth it.
  2. I would recommend that all of us, myself included, keep the phone numbers of more fellow pilots in our cell phonebooks.


How on earth did I manage to get the head wound so far up my scalp, even with a Charley Insider full face helmet?

I know that it was the right size – it was snug all over my head.

I know the chin-strap was fastened, and it was still fastened when I took it off down below.

All I can figure at this point is that the chin-strap slipped under the impact and exposed my forehead. Even now, the strap is properly threaded, but it does appear to have slipped quite a bit. I’ll investigate that more later when my head heals and I clean the blood from the helmet. If the strap DID slip, this could be a serious issue that will most definitely need closer attention for the safety of all pilots… I will follow up on this one in a week or so.


  • To my fellow pilots at Whidbey Saturday afternoon…
  • Thank you so much for your assistance getting back up the hill and tending to my injury.
  • Thank you for your care and concern, your friendship, and camaraderie.
  • To Andrei and Patti for their assistance walking.
  • To Irena for calling 911.
  • To Murdoch, for letting EMS know where to go.
  • To Irena and Andrei for stopping by the hospital, and of course, for the rhubarb.
  • To the good Lord, that things were not far worse, for they easily could have been.
  • To Cindy, Jenny, and Jackie who work at Whidbey General.
  • And lastly, for health insurance and for Percocet. Oh, man! Far out and WOW!