Catch a Tiger By Its Tailwind

Today was my first solo flight off of Tiger Mountain, and it was quite an event.

The day began with some additional practice kiting on the South end of Lake Sammamish. The wind was rather erratic, sometimes from the South, and sometimes from the West. That made practice and control a bit more difficult, but it was also a realistic environment in that even at launch the wind direction can frequently change. When the wind began to die down to almost nothing, I practiced forward launches.

Normally, one launches by facing the wing, with your back in the intended direction of travel. The advantage is that you can see the wing as it rises, and make corrections in tension, brakes, and the speed and direction you are running as the wing dictates. Then, once the wing is up and over head, you turn around, face forward, and keep running into launch.

In a forward launch, you start out by facing forward, with the wing to your back. Your arms are outstretched with all of the risers draped evenly across your forearms. Then, with a quick and even motion, you start pulling the wing forward, which causes it to rise up and over head. The advantage is that you don’t have to turn around, but the disadvantage is that you cannot see the wing and instead have to rely almost entirely on the way it feels as you pull it forward and up. Reverse launches are better for higher winds, and forward launches are better for light to no wind conditions.

So when we traveled to the top of Tiger Mountain later in the afternoon, I was glad for my practice launching forward, since the wind was rapidly dying down due both to the setting sun, and that some significant cloud-cover had just come in.

Yaro, my instructor, had asked what I thought of the conditions and how I felt. I told him that I was nervous. “Nervous” would actually be an understatement, but that’s what I told him. He gave some speech about why I should not be nervous. He said that it was no different than practicing at the lake and that I was not here to launch. He said I was just supposed to get the wing up and under control, and only then to consider whether I wanted to launch or not. Nonetheless, I was still “nervous,” and that was not going to go away regardless of the truth of what he said.

Ultimately, however, he was not there to coach me off the mountain. He was there to impart the skills necessary for me to make my own decisions regarding how to make a safe launch. I would only go when I was good and ready, and when I felt safe enough and comfortable enough to start hurling myself forward toward the edge of an ever increasingly steep slope, 1,570 feet above the valley below, and out into the wild blue yonder. Except that this was Seattle, and it was actually the wild gray yonder, but that’s beside the point.

Eventually there was a brief puff of wind maybe 3 miles an hour and I knew that it was not going to get any better as the conditions began to deteriorate for the evening. And so I began to run. My eyes were fixed upon the horizon and I could hear the WHOOSH of the wing coming up from behind me. I could also feel the pressure upon my harness and sense the angle of the wing based on where the risers lay in my hand as I continued my forward journey.

There came a point when I knew that the wing was directly overhead and stable, and, without stopping for a moment, I knew that I was now committed to continuing the launch. Had anything gone wrong, I still could have aborted, but all systems were GO and my little feet were pushing me towards that precipice with full conviction and force. At last I was airborne, but far from safe and secure. My feet kept running and running despite there being no ground beneath them. That was a good thing, because for the first 25-feet of my flight, I was no more than a few feet off of the ground before the mountain all but disappeared beneath me and I began to enter cleaner, more open air. As it was, I still picked my feet up too soon in desperation to get out of there.

Over my radio, I could hear Yaro telling me to “Relax. Relax. And BREATHE!” It was not until that moment that I realized that while I was not really holding my breath, I still needed to exhale for the whole breathing thing to really work. I let out such a gasp that I was sure it affected my airspeed, but at last I began to breathe more normally.

So now I could actually begin to think about my flight plan. Straight out, away from the mountain, turn right at the nudist colony, and then start looking for the landing zone on the right. Mind you, I was way too high to actually see anything at the nudist colony except for their swimming pool, but quite frankly, that was more than enough for me.

My flight path took me through a few bumps, and despite knowing to expect them, they still shook me up quite a bit on my maiden high-launch voyage. It was only when I remembered that those bumps were probably thermals that I started to circle around them. That was followed almost immediately with elation and surprise as I realized “Oh my goodness!! I’m actually going UP!! WOW! This is incredible!!”

By that time I was plenty far off the ground and maybe 1000 feet away from the side of the mountain. Yet no matter how far away I was, any 360-degree turn had me facing the mountain at least once and I did NOT like the sight of a mountain heading in my general direction. Whereas Yaro flew within 25 feet of the trees when we were on Tandem, my own comfort zone was threatened with anything less than 500 feet.

In the mean time, I knew that I needed to use my altitude to practice some maneuvers and to get comfortable with the wing and harness because I had no idea what my wing could do. Well, the real issue wasn’t what the wing, but rather the constraints imposed by my own fear and staying within my meager skill-level.

Still, I made sure that I did a few complete turns to the right, and a few to the left. That’s when I realized that my harness is probably too big for me. I know that you are supposed to shift your weight from one side to the other, but as far as I can tell, your tuchas is not supposed to slosh from one side of the harness to the other in the process. I knew that I could tighten that up a little bit, but that would require letting go of the control toggles to grab the webbing for the buckle adjustment. Cognitively, I knew that there was no way for it to release under pressure, but the very notion of touching anything even related to my harness was just WAY to scary for me at that point.

OK, be calm. Breathe. Relax. Now sloooooly, let go of the control surfaces. There. See? The wing can fly just fine without any help from me, thank you. Conversely, anything that might go wrong would therefore have to be my fault — so be careful for goodness sakes! So I grabbed the buckle and gave it a tug. Nothing. Again. Nothing. So I wailed on it and it tightened up a bit. Unfortunately, that also shook the wing and had my hands racing for those control toggles while my butt cheeks slammed shut tighter than a steel vault.

Around that time, I was heading out of visual range of the launch site and Yaro called on the radio to another instructor named Lawrence at the landing zone (LZ) that he should be able to see me. Lawrence said that he could not see me. In a deep Czech accent as thick as paste, Yaro said “Uh oh… Vhere iz Ahshley?” I knew exactly where I was! I was half a mile south of the LZ, directly between the highway and the power-lines, dangling 25 feet below a gigantic piece of gold-colored nylon the size of a VW microbus! How could I possibly be invisible? I wanted to scream “Here I am! Up here!” but I knew they could not hear me. I though about pushing the button on my radio, but I was not about to let go of those control toggles again after what just happened moments before. Instead, I just kept flying towards the LZ, and then Lawrence acknowledged that he had me on visual and began guiding me down.

Now, the landing pattern at Tiger Mountain is really not all that complicated. When facing North, there is a mountain on the East, and a highway with power-lines on the West. The North end is covered in blackberry bushes that precede some tall trees, and the South end has lots of bushes. In the middle is this great big field with wind-socks all along the side and a cone that screams “land here” to everybody from above. The wind was blowing stiffly from the North so I flew down-wind along the side of the mountain, going well past the edge of the LZ before making a right turn onto my base-leg, followed by another right turn over the power-lines as I started lining up for my final approach.

Lawrence was on the radio helping me out when he told me that while on final, the wind had just switched directions. Now, rather than landing into a slight headwind from the North, I was actually flying across the top of the runway with a stiff tailwind from the South. Normally, a good pilot would use any number of tricks to quickly bleed off altitude or turn around to face the other way, except that I was not a good pilot. This was my very first major flight, and I could see that I was going to run out of runway before touching down. That’s when I realized that I was so focused on the end of the runway that I had forgotten to put my landing gear down! I was still sitting in my harness, rather than having pushed my way out to extend my legs to start running. I quickly stood up, barely touched the ground with my feet, and promptly fell backwards onto my rump just 6 inches away from the blackberry bushes at the end of the runway. My wing, however, kept going and landed on top of them, thus requiring a bit of extrication before I could leave the field.

If nothing else, however, it meant that I was out of the way for the remaining pilots who were still trying to land. By that time, the other pilots had turned and were landing towards the South. Unfortunately, most gliders only go about 15 MPH when flying full speed, and the wind was now over 20MPH. That meant that pilots were landing directly into the wind, and still traveling backwards over the ground. That’s when I got to see some of those altitude-losing tricks I just mentioned, like “Big Ears”, “Speed Bars”, and tugging on the C-Risers. These were experienced pilots, exercising great skill while trying to control their crafts safely to the ground in weather which was rapidly becoming cold and unpleasant.

Another minute later and I had my wing stuffed into a sack as I started walking towards my car.  “Any one you can walk away from is a good one,” Dad used to tell me. Perhaps that’s true, but I left the field with a massive combination of gratitude for a safe journey, a deep appreciation for the skill needed to participate in this sport safely, a sense of accomplishment for my first mountain flight, and an awareness of a budding addiction to paragliding that I can only hope will stay with me for years to come. My feet may have come back down to earth, but my head and heart were clearly still up in the clouds.

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