Putting It All Together

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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.

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