Sailplane in Arlington

For my birthday, I gave myself a ride in a sailplane with the Evergreen Soaring Club. I fly paragliders whenever I can, and it’s been maybe 18 years since I was behind the yolk of a Cessna 152. But the moment I stepped foot onto the tarmac, I was hit with a flood of joyous memories and sensations.

There was the sound of the prop-planes on the taxi, runway, takeoff, and landing – that distinctive sound of the prop slicing through the air and the Doppler effect as it goes from approaching to fading into the distance.

There was the faint smell of airplane fuel. The smell of Jet-A is quite distinct, and unlike the smell of gasoline, it conjures a sense of power and freedom to travel into the skies.

Of course, there was the sight of all the small planes, tied down to the ground, wheels chocked, and cockpits covered from the outside to protect them from the sun. Unlike a commercial airport where I only see them from the window, here, I could walk among them, place my hand on their fuselage or wingtip and admire their sheer beauty, power, and grace. Even when dormant, they created a sense of walking between the gods of the sky.

There was a gigantic windsock in the center of the field, as well as scattered flags, all giving pilots information about the winds. Ah, yes, the wind! I know it oh so well from my own flights off of Tiger Mountain, but here, on the tarmac, it boldly proclaims “Launch this way today.

There were other people on the tarmac, most of them pilots, and there’s a subtle yet distinctive look of shared honor exchanged between people of the sky. Even being here for a “demo flight” in a sailplane, the feeling is unmistakable. It says “Welcome. We are people of the sky, our hearts live amidst the clouds, and we fill our lungs with the wind. Spread your wings and join us!”

At the far end of the runway was a Piper Arrow, reminding me of the times I flew with my father as a child in his plane. So from a very early age, the spirit of the sky had been seared into my soul.

But for today, here in Arlington field, I am a student. Tory, my instructor, takes me to the plane, waiting on the grassy field. He asks if I’ve flown small planes before, and I confess my sin, having been so many years away from the cockpit. He assures me “So you’re still a pilot… you’re just not current.” Never mind my frequent forays in my paraglider, his words still ring true. Once a pilot, always a pilot. There is something of the sky, which, once it takes hold of one’s soul, will never let go.

At last, standing alongside the glider, he reviews the basic controls of the aircraft. They have not lost their familiarity through the years, but they are different in this craft. And unlike a solo-launch in my Gin Rebel, a sailplane requires a tow pilot, and somebody walking, then running alongside the wing until we get enough speed to keep the wings stable.

The tow plane slowly takes up the slack, and once taught, begins to throttle up for takeoff. We are airborne well before the tow leaves the ground, so we stay low until he too enters the embrace of the sky. Tory has the controls through all of the takeoff, and I follow his instructions, learning what I can about the differences of this craft from others in my history.

At about 5,000′ AGL, we release our tow-line. The tow-plane banks left and we bank right. From here on out, we’re on our own. Tory demonstrates a few maneuvers and asks if I understand. I let him know that it’s all conceptual unless I feel it in my body with the controls. So he hands them over to me, and once again, I’m the pilot in command of my craft.

Gingerly, at first, I play with turns to the left and right. I gently maneuver the ailerons and the elevator with the stick in my hand and then re-acquaint myself with the rudder at my feet. In almost no time, I join the three controls back together in my mind and rewire my brain for this new configuration of flight. Pitch, roll, and yaw – the fundamentals of flight control are nothing new. It is only the connection between which input on my side translates to the proper motions on the outside that I need to relearn, and it comes back remarkably fast.

Tory can probably hear the gears turning inside my skull and in just a few minutes, he asks me to practice some steeper, coordinated turns. All the while, I’m not merely playing with flight – I’m building out a mental spreadsheet! Maneuvers are down the side, aircraft are across the top, and the center squares are the motions and actions required to effect the maneuver in the craft. Except that I’m not really building this sheet at all – I’m passively watching the cells get filled out as my body joyously experiments in this new craft.

Prior to coming here, I acquainted myself with some aerial maps to aid in orientation, but it hardly seemed necessary. I always knew where the airport was, and we seldom ventured far for my inaugural soaring flight. I set us up on the downwind leg of our approach for landing, but Tory took back the controls for base and final while I followed along, maintaining gentle contact with the stick and rudder as he flew the plane in.

In my paraglider, I set final glide to land where I want, and I have minimal control over vertical or horizontal speed at lower altitudes. Final approach is the last hundred feet of descent, and coming in ‘hot’ means anything faster than I can run after flare – maybe 10 knots across the ground. In the sailplane, however, final is still a good 400′ AGL, and we put the nose into a dive to travel closer to 60 knots for greater control. It’s hard to keep my eyes far ahead to avoid the sense of ground-rush.

We appear to be 20′ above the ground at the end of the grassy strip, and 60 knots is COOKING across the ground compared to my paraglider. Descending that last bit of altitude seems to take forever since the wings are long enough to create ground-effect. Plus, with a wheel on the belly of the plane, our final flair is much less pronounced. A perfect flair in my paraglider drops both my vertical and forward speed to almost zero. In the sailplane, we kiss the earth with a gentle descent, but we’re still rolling at a good 30 knots or more for another 500 yards until we finally come to a stop.

It’s a different craft indeed. Precision landing in a sailplane means landing in a soccer field. Precision landing in a paraglider means landing on a frisbee. One is not better or worse than the other – just different – and both are imminently enjoyable, and worth every minute and dollar invested into the experience.

Learning to Fly (Again)

I’ve got probably 600 flights or more under my wing as a solo paraglider pilot.  I’ve reached a level of unconscious competence that’s nice to be able to draw upon when I need it.  But having just started learning to fly a tandem wing, with a passenger, I find myself very much a beginner all over again.

Yes, I know the basics of how to control a wing, to launch, to land, thermal, and all.  But there is enough different in the world of tandem that I find it takes far more concentration than I would have expected.

When one moves from, say, an economy car to a sports-sedan, all the skills from one car apply to the other – just be mindful that the car is bigger, and you need more space.  But I find the switch from solo to tandem wing more akin to switching from a car to a boat.  Sure, there’s still the notion of steering and navigation, but the dynamics are all different.

On my 2nd tandem flight, Maikel was chatting to me about something and I had to tell him “umm….  I don’t actually have the capacity to carry on a conversation right now.”  And I didn’t!  Literally, doing an activity I had done over 600 times was inadequate preparation for the level of focus and attention that flying a new wing required.  I knew that “talking” was dangerous because it could put me over the edge and have me lose focus.

At one point, we were circling in light lift, and in my solo wing I would have easily done a complete 360 degree turn towards the mountain to stay in the lift.  But in this new wing, which was not even mine, and with another life literally “on the lines” at the end of the wing, I was not willing to make the turn.  Maikel could tell the calculations I was making based on how I was leaning, and even said “go for it,” but I chose not to…. not now.  Not with so little mental capacity to spare should I need to make quick adjustments.

On the next flight, done by tow over water, he asked me “If the tow line broke right now, where would you land?”  Oh yeah… that’s important!  Always have an LZ in mind, if not on glide.  The moment he spoke it, it was obvious I needed to do that, but in truth, it was the farthest thing from my mind.  And when on approach for landing later in the flight, I was more focused on a nice pattern, leaving out our ground-track.   These are obvious things to pay attention to!

So what I’m learning in this new developmental path is that I get to be a beginner all over again, even in an activity where I have already acquired some level of expertise.  I have not lost that expertise, but until I develop my skills again as a tandem pilot, I simply cannot rely upon them being readily available for a while.  Essentially, I’m learning to fly all over again.

Leaving the Nest

Despite having well over 500 flights under my wing, I’ve never really gone cross-country, unless you consider landing at the Issaquah high-school, which hardly counts.  Many are the times when I’ve launched in close proximity to the “big boys” (or Merydeth), only to be left in the dust, sometimes not even making it over to the North ridge.

Today was different.  After a hike up through the heat and launching before the next wave of pilots from the shuttle got there, I managed to climb well above those hovering over the King Dome, and found my way over to the North Ridge without too much difficulty.  There were two other pilots over there, and even as I climbed up through 4,000’, they were still well above me and already over I-90 towards the Sammamish Plateau.  I thought about joining them for the company (and guidance), except that I didn’t see how they were going to get back to the LZ.  Then I looked over at Rattlesnake, knowing that if I went over there, chances are that I would not get back either.

Should I dare cut the psychological umbilical cord to the Tiger LZ?  Would I at least be able to land somewhere other than a tree?  At last, I climbed up over the towers to 4,500 and decided to keep going.  Mind you, that’s probably plenty of altitude to play with, but as it was new territory for me, my sphincter started to pucker when I dropped to 3K, only to find another thousand foot ride back up again.

OK, I’m here… this is new… I don’t think I can make my way back.  But since I’m already going to need a ride when I land, I suppose I should just keep going!  I always kept at least one LZ on glide, seldom going too far one way or the other of the freeway, even though in retrospect, I probably would have been better staying more over the hills.

At one point, I figured I would need to land in what I later realized was Preston.  However, I can be stubborn sometimes, and despite dropping down to about 1,200, I managed to find something over an asphalt park that took me back up to a more comfortable 4K again and I kept going.  At this point I had no clue where I was and no idea where I was going.  Also, having drank all that water on the hike up, staring at the lakes and Snoqualmie river was not doing me any good at this altitude.  I thought about landing on purpose, but after more than 5 years flying, I had never been this far from “home” and didn’t want to land because of an itty-bitty-bladder.

It seemed to me that the LZ’s were getting farther apart at this point.  Sure, there were many places I “could” land, but fewer that I would actually choose to land.  Plus, I vaguely recalled that there were one or two places that looked great but that we were supposed to avoid, but I had no idea what those places were.  (Mental note… do my homework before my next XC flight.)  So instead, I was focusing more on schools with big football fields and golf courses.

I’ve known since I was a student pilot that the more altitude I have, the more options I have, but in traveling XC that became all the more true.  Not only would regaining altitude allow me to see farther, it also increased the range of possible LZ’s that I had on glide.  But regardless of how high I was, there always seemed to be this mental transition point between where I had one LZ in mind, when it was no longer in range, and when the next one came into my comfort zone.  It was akin to Tarzan swinging from vine to vine, where there is that point of letting go the old vine and hoping that the new one will be where it needs to be in time.  The difference was that rather than swinging through the canopy, I was several thousand feet in the sky.  I hardly got so high as to have the air go thin, but I swear that I could actually breathe easier with every hundred feet that I gained in a turn.

When it became clear that my trip was coming to an end, I had two schools to choose from, so I picked the one with a bigger field.  It turned out to be Twin Falls middle and high school, but since this was a Saturday, I could not see any flags flying to give me an indication of the wind.  So I put myself into a gradual turn while watching my GPS.  At one part of my circle I was doing 35 miles an hour, whereas the other side had me going closer to 5.  OK, so it’s clear what direction its blowing up here… I just hope it’s the same as I get closer to the ground.

Ah, yes… the ground.  That thing I should start looking at as I come in for landing.  That field that should be getting closer, was mysteriously getting ever so slowly farther away on my ground-track.  CRUD!!!  That meant that my numbers were 35 MPH to the southwest, versus 5 miles an hour to the southwest, and the “best” number still had me traveling freaking BACKWARDS!  I had set up for what should be a long final, only to realize that I was getting farther away rather than closer to my landing zone!

Fortunately, I was still at about a 700 feet, so I had plenty of space to change the pitch of my wing with the speedbar and increase my forward speed.  I wanted to land as close to the downwind side of the field as I could in order to stay out of the rotor from the trees on the upwind side, but not so close that I risked missing the field altogether.  For goodness sake, we just had the 4th of July last two days ago… couldn’t somebody have enough patriotism to leave their flag up through the weekend?  I was developing a greater appreciation for the traditional LZ with wind-socks on both ends and the chance to watch others come in for landing to see what happened to their wings before I set up for my approach.

Alas, I came in almost dead-center of the field with a ground-track just slightly more than a walk.  I flared my wing like the dickens, but still managed to hit the ground with a grunt before killing my wing so as to avoid getting yarded across the field.  The unfortunate part about the center of the field, however, was that after quickly putting my wing into a rosette, the edge of the field where I could pee was now that much further away.

After packing up my wing, I opened Google Maps on my phone to see where I was, and to figure out how to get towards the freeway.  Two kids were walking near the back of the school and I asked them which way was the quickest way to the front of the school.  They looked at me like I was an idiot, and one said “just go back the way you came,” but then I told him why I couldn’t really do that.  “Oh.  Really?  Cool.  That way.”

I had a sign on the back of my pack that said “Glider pilot needs ride” as I started walking down the road, but nobody was stopping.  I probably wouldn’t stop for me either, as I looked pretty ragged at that point.  Just as I was contemplating tossing a lightweight cotton skirt into my pack for next time, some 86 year old guy in a pickup truck honked and gave me a ride all the way back to the LZ nearly 20 miles away.

He refused any compensation, and I thanked him profusely.  After the requisite “whoo hoo!” and sharing the tale to a fellow pilot or two, I still managed to get home in time to tuck the kids into bed and have dinner with Kristen.

All in all?  An extremely good day!

 

TwinFalls

Click on image to download the Google Earth file

Landing to Hugs

You little ones got up at 5:40 this morning, and we spent some time playing, and hanging out on a hammock in the back yard. After a pancake brunch when mom finally got up closer to 9 AM, we all went to Tiger mountain.  It was your first time there.  The point, of course, was so that you could see the paragliders, including me when I went flying.

Conditions were fantastic, but after about 45 minutes in the sky, the batteries in my vario died, so I turned around to fly over the park where you were playing.  I had my phone set up so I could call you by voice control, since my hands were busy flying.

Mom put the phone on speaker and Anna, you wanted to know if I was “winning” and didn’t get that it was not a competition.  Lucas, you wanted me to wave, so I waved my legs, then did some asymmetric spirals overhead.  I came down to land with you in the park, rather than the traditional LZ.

Touching the ground, followed by you two little ones running out in the field to give me a hug made it the best flight ever.

First Tandem Flight

Today was my first paragliding flight as a tandem pilot. My “passenger” was Drew McNab, who is a tandem instructor. Unlike when learning to drive, especially if your instructor had dual controls, the tandem instructor can only do so much if the student pilot screws up. That, and there’s no way to slam on the breaks in the sky. So in that regard, the instructor must have nerves of steel, considerable trust, or be a massive adrenaline junkie. Maybe all three.

We had almost no wind, so we launched forward. Despite not being able to SEE the wing come up, I generally don’t mind forward launches because I have a good feel for the wing. In this case, however, it was a wing I have never used. Also, there’s that awkward two-step on launch akin to a potato-sack race with all four of our feet shuffling around as we add power to the wing.

The wing came up fine, I think, but when it was at maybe 70 degrees of rotation, I tripped and fell to my knees. Drew asked “do you got it?” (So there’s the blind trust, since he couldn’t see it either), and I yelled GO GO GO!!

As soon as he pulled, I was able to get back to my feet and continue the controlled launch off of the south side of Tiger Mountain.

In the air, but still with little more than a few hundred feet of altitude, it felt like I was driving a large boat. The wing felt huge and sluggish, despite the acrobatics that I’ve seen Drew do with passengers. I missed having a stirrup to put my feet into, as my legs hung down a bit with drew just in front of my lap. There were no real thermals to be had, but this flight was more about launch and landing, anyway.

There were two other pilots in the air at about our altitude, one of whom was a new solo pilot with the long pink tape that screams “I have NO idea what I’m doing, and am under radio control from the ground.” I thought that this time, maybe I should be wearing the streamer, except that I knew exactly what I was doing, but merely lacked skill or experience with this wing or with a passenger.

We pulled Big Ears (made our wing smaller) and sank faster than the others so as to have the landing zone to ourselves. As we set up on the downwind leg of our approach for landing, I started paying closer attention to my glide-ratio so as to gauge the turns I would need to make.

I was maybe 300 feet too high when I turned final in what was anything but a standard pattern approach. I was glad we had dropped down below the others to give more leeway in bleeding it off with additional turns, despite making drew nervous turning that low. I still over-shot the target on the field, but landed several hundred feet from the edge of the field with both of us coming to a full stop, landing on our feet, with the wing collapsing gingerly like a descending cobra behind us.

About this time, I think Drew started breathing again, and said that I actually did quite well, especially for a first-time tandem pilot. At that point, I think I let out a loud Whoo Hoo, as I was pretty stoked! Now, its only three more with an instructor, about 25 with other pilots, and then I can take passengers.

And the driving force for wanting my tandem rating? I so want to be able to share the joy of flight with my children. They are the two of the bigger sources of love in my life, and I hope to share the love of flight with each of them. That, and if I can take them with me, then it becomes that much easier to go flying on the weekends

Flying High

First off, let me preface this story by asserting that this never happened…  But it is a dream that I have had on several occasions, and I thought I would share it for the purpose of seeing a) if this is a dream other pilots have had, b) to get some perspective, and c) because few things are as much fun as taking a completely fictitious midair collision and ridiculing it to absurdity, which I know this group can do like no other.

In the first variety of this dream, I am paragliding in Eastern Washington somewhere, and a low flying jet plane manages to hook my wing over top of the jet engine.  My wing does not get sucked INTO the engine, but I’m sort of hanging from it, below the intake area, and bouncing around pretty fiercely underneath the wing.   It’s some kind of corporate jet, rather than a commercial jumbo-jet.  Anyway, I think about pulling my reserve, but decide against it because I am still otherwise attached to the plane.  I know that I need to detach first, so I pull out my hook-knife.

I recall hearing something about it being better to cut the risers than all the lines, so I do that.  Except that when I cut the first one, I end up hanging quite precariously sideways, and I find it quite difficult to reach up and cut the second one.  Plus, I’m still banging around on the underside of the wing having none-too-much fun.  Meanwhile, the plane has started descending rapidly for a landing, and I have no clue if they are even aware that I’m hanging on out there.  For all I know, they think they just sucked a pigeon into the engine.  I finally manage to cut the second riser, and as I’m in free-fall, I start to wonder when I should pull my reserve?

I mean, would I really have the wherewithal in that moment to be thinking that?  Probably not.  But in the dream, I’m trying to decide if I should pull right away, perhaps before I hit terminal velocity, or whether to wait until I get maybe a thousand feet or so off the ground.  It’s all moot, because I’m falling all topsy-turvy and can’t get myself into a stable position with my harness on, and when I see the ground, I know – PULL NOW!

The reserve deploys without error, and it turns out that I am right over some small airfield.  That’s when I see some corporate jet coming in for a landing with half of a paraglider wing draped over one engine, heading right towards me.  And it’s some time around here that I wake up.

In the second version of this dream, I’m flying in the Issaquah region, and I know that I am clearly VFR, and well under the 6K ceiling.  Then some small, single engine plane that is also flying VFR and under the ceiling runs into me, and my wing somehow goes over the nose, completely obscuring all the windows on the plane.  Never mind that the prop would have caught the lines and either torn them or wound me up.  This is a dream, so normal rules of physics that I’m sure people will comment on simply don’t apply.  I’m hanging well below this plane, and although I cannot see him, the pilot is probably freaking out.

Yes, I’ve just been hit by a plane, and for some reason, I’m worried about the other pilot.  Probably, that’s because he puts his plane into a steep climb, since he knows he was below the mountain peaks when he hit me.  Except that he rapidly breaks through the class Bravo, and though I know darn well that I’m not supposed to be there, I don’t think the other pilot knows that.

So we’ve got altitude, which means we have time, and I’m actually quite calm and collected at this moment.  I reach down for my radio, switch to 121.5, and ask to speak to somebody in Seatac Air Traffic Control.  They ask if they can put me on hold, and I tell them that I’m already on hold, on the underside of another aircraft, climbing through 8K now somewhere over Renton.  The ask for my call-sign, I tell them that I don’t have one, and they are about to hang up.  Wait a minute!  This is a RADIO, not a telephone!  You can’t hang up on me!

“Ma’am, this is Seatac ATC, and we serve the commercial and recreational pilot community.  I’m going to have to ask you to clear this channel.”

I try explaining my predicament to the person on the other end, but to no avail.  They simply don’t want to talk to me.  So then I ask for the frequency of the pilot with a paraglider over its windshield flying at my approximate location.

“Ma’am, what makes you think we know what frequency the other pilot is on?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure that if you stood up inside that control room of yours and asked ‘is anybody talking to a panicked VFR pilot who just lost all visibility?’ that somebody would speak up.  I need that idiot’s frequency.

So  manage to get the right frequency, switch my radio over, and find myself in the middle of a conversation with a very agitated, purely VFR pilot, and somebody else from ATC.  ATC is trying to calm this guy down, telling him that they have cleared traffic from the area, and that they will guide him down into Renton air field, but he has to level out, and then descend well below the 12K he’s flying at now, which explains why it’s so dang cold.

The ATC guy is a real professional… calm, soothing, and gets the VFR pilot’s head back on straight as he starts descending.  Part of me is thinking that I don’t want to do anything to upset this fellow, but I also still think that neither ATC, nor the VFR pilot have a clue what’s going on.  Finally, I interrupt with something innocuous like “Dude!  Are you the guy with a paraglider draped over your cockpit?”

“A what?”

“A paraglider.  It’s red, probably translucent, and depending on what part of the wing you’ve got up front, you might even see the word ‘Gin’ on your window somewhere.”

“Yes!  Yes!  So THAT’s what happened!  I hit a paraglider!  Now it makes complete sense.  How did you know?”

“Hang on for a second,” I tell him, and I somehow manage to knock on the bottom of his fuselage with my fist.  “Did you hear that knocking?”

“Yes!  What was that??”

“Good.  That was me.  It means I’m talking to the right idiot.  I’m the paraglider pilot on the other end of that wing, hanging out down here by your wheels… on the freaking OUTSIDE of your plane.”

At that point, the two of us actually start carrying on a casual conversation about the merits of each of our respective aircraft, when I get a brilliant idea.  I look down at my GPS, then direct the pilot on a course bearing 150 degrees for about 3 miles; then 0 degrees for a mile or two; then 310 degrees for a few miles.

Technically, I’m still on a paraglider flight – I launched from Tiger, and I’m still attached to my wing.  I’ve got this guy running Tiger-Tag points with me.  Let me tell you, Dave Wheeler’s gonna scream!

After raking up a few bazillion points, it dawns on me that I’ve still got to find a way to get both of us back on the ground.  I don’t actually remember the landing much, except that after we were on the ground, there was a fire truck, an ambulance, a few policemen, and more paperwork than I can describe.  Plus, I know that when the local flying club hears about this, I’m never going to hear the end of it.

By the time I get back home, it’s close to midnight, but I upload my GPS track to Leonardo and submit it for tiger-tag scoring.  Wheeler calls me first thing in the morning to say that he disqualified my flight because I broke airspace, and to point out where I could have scored a few more points.  Despite my best efforts to convince him that there was actually a working transponder and two-way communication with ATC, he simply refused to hear it.

And then I wake up.

Flying by Instruments

I may have inadvertently discovered how to create a flying instrument that works as an artificial horizon.  It is suitable for ensuring straight and level flight for those times we get sucked into low visibility environments.  It’s completely free, uses no batteries, and runs completely on water.

This afternoon, I was trying out a Gin Rebel that belongs to a friend.  His wing is a size larger than the one I should be flying, so before I went up the mountain, I brought along plenty of extra water for ballast, and I ate an extra cookie or two for good measure.

Perhaps because the Rebel is a new wing to me, I failed to notice when I launched that the drinking end of my camelback was actually in my seat, rather than tucked into the side pocket like it usually is.  I still didn’t notice until about the time that I was well into flight.  At that point, I couldn’t figure out how or why I would be feeling such a cold breeze in my lower back.  So I pushed on my stirrup, made sure that I was properly seated all the way back in my harness, and in short order it became abundantly clear what was going on.

My two-liter camelback was full to the very brim because I wanted the extra weight, and by sitting on the bite-valve, I was summarily dumping its  contents down my back side, through my flight suit, through my jacket, and down into my shorts.  At this point, I was still within a hundred feet of the trees, and there was a mixture of people who were ridge-soaring and trying to thermal.  Meanwhile, I was trying to avoid any sudden moves in what was to me a foreign, over-sized wing.  But dang it, it was COLD!  I squirmed a bit in my seat, but that only made it worse.

I took my hands off the controls momentarily to pull the fire-hose out from my tush, only to discover that I was about to enter the path of an oncoming wing.  Fortunately, he saw that SOMETHING was wrong and gave me space for the brief period of time that it took me to fix the problem.

At least, I thought I had fixed the problem.  It was at that point that I realized I was unquestionably sitting in a rather large puddle.  I mistakenly thought that in short order, the water would somehow drain, or that perhaps that my clothes would soak it all up like a sponge.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Instead, I found that as I put the glider into a turn, even the most gentle and shallow turn, that the puddle sloshed from one cheek to the other.  Despite the awkwardness and discomfort that this created, it was at that point that I made my discovery.

When the left tip of my wing entered even the lightest of thermals, my right cheek could feel the increased depth in the bath tub that was now my harness.  The opposite was also true, and when I was flying straight and level, both cheeks were equally submerged.  I decided to test my new-found instrument, and I discovered that my sloshometer gave readings that were consistently faster and more reliable than my vario.  The moment one cheek became submerged, I leaned the other way, into the thermal, and a second later my vario would start to beep.

I’ll be submitting detailed plans to the R&D department at FlyTec shortly after my patent application is approved.  In the mean time, does anybody have a towel?

Watch Out For That Tree

There is a common saying among paragliders that they fall into two distinct groups: those who have landed in trees, and those that will land in trees. I may have just moved from one group to the other… I’m not sure.

All this past week, I have been flying in the Rat Race, off of Woodrat mountain in southern Oregon. It was my first paragliding competition. On this fateful day, however, I had an unplanned outcome to a forced landing on the side of the mountain. It started with significant sink right after launching from the upper part of the mountain, and continued as I made my way down the hill, approaching the second (older) launch that is maybe half way down the mountain.

It looked like I had a good setup to land in a moderately sized parking lot. I was facing south, the parking lot was right in front of me, the peak was to my left, with a ridge going down to my right. Unfortunately, 5 seconds before touchdown I hit even more sink and found myself rapidly heading right towards the backside of the ridge. I turned right to avoid the hill, but I was still clearly in trouble. However, there was a road below that gave me another 50′ of altitude above the ground and maybe another 2 seconds to think. That was good, because I needed 1.5 seconds to figure out what to do.

I could see that by going straight down the road, I would not have the horizontal clearance for my wing. That meant that one or both tips would catch high up on the trees, killing my wing and sending me forward to land on my back. So that option was out with half a second of precious time wasted.

In next half second, I chose to deliberately wrap my left wing tip on a rhododendron, anticipating that I would become a human tether ball spinning around at the end of my lines. Believe it or not, knowing that I was going to crash, I was actually picking and choosing which trees I wanted to land on.

In that last second before impact, I had time to take a deep breath, fly the wing at my target, and relax.

George of the JungleAs the road sloped upwards, my left tip caught the tree, I was spun left and UP, my seat remaining parallel to the ground. I flared like the dickens on the right to slow down and was placed on the ground as gently as a feather. I didn’t need to turn towards my wing because as the human tether ball, the tree did that for me.

With my feet safely on the ground, I switched to the retrieve frequency and let the support team know that I was OK. I did not yet know if I needed help extracting my wing or not.

That’s when an older man who was parked on the hill walked down and asked what the heck I did that for.Poison Oak

“umm, because I botched my landing, and this was better than landing at the top of the oak tree?”

“Well, maybe, but this poison oak is not much better.”

While my wing was mostly over the Rhododendron, all behind it was poison oak. I would have to carefully extract my wing, trying to minimize contact with the itchy shrub right next to it. The older gentleman tried to be helpful, but I had to continually tell him to not use brute force on my lines to get the wing out.

After about 20 minutes, we had my wing free, and I had a massive rat’s nest of lines to untangle.  15 minutes later,my lines were clear, and I walked up the road to that parking lot that I missed on my landing. From there, I was able to launch again from the middle if the hill, heading for the primary LZ.

I packed up, keeping my gloves on, and put all my outer garments in their own stuff sack. I washed up back at HQ and wouldn’t know about the poison oak for another day.

But at least I was safely on the ground.


P. S.: Two days later, I did indeed develop a small rash of poison oak. I was lucky enough to only break out in two pin-sized dots, one on the back of my hand, and one on my forearm.

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.

BowlAndNorthRidge

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.

HighSchool

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.

Lessons:

  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.

Questions:

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.

Gratitude:

  • 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!