Thursday, March 1, 2007

Last Call

Well it’s all over. It was an amazing trip, and surprising in so many ways. I have many new friends from Australia and around the world, and I have a new place which feels like home. The flying was spectacular, but there is much more I would like to do. I feel I have only scratched the surface, and I am already looking forward to my next trip.

A retrospective is not complete without some statistics. To get to Australia and back I flew over 15,000 miles in a Boeing 767, spending over 30 hours in a luxuriously roomy and comfortable seat (not!) While in Australia I traveled nearly 4500 miles in my van, yet I only saw a small corner of southeastern Australia including some of Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. My trip lasted for 83 days including travel. During that time I made 29 flights from 10 different launches at 7 different sites for a total of 41hours and 43 minutes in the air. I flew 824miles of cross country, averaging 20 miles per hour overall. I made goal 3 times during the competitions, and those three flights totaled 287 miles. Two of those flights were out and return, and over the three tasks I averaged just over 28 miles per hour, successfully meeting my goal of flying faster.

Certainly one of the best parts of the trip was the people I spent time with. I have many new friends, and enjoyed the company of some old ones. I was consistently impressed with the skill and character of the pilots that I met, and I feel privileged to be a member of this elite group of individuals. I look forward to flying with them again in the near future.

As promised, now that the trip is over, this blog is officially closed.

Leaving OZ

By the time you are reading this I am already at home. I left Australia tomorrow and will arrive home yesterday. At least that’s how it feels. It’s maddeningly difficult to keep track of the time zones with the International Dateline putting a time-warp through the middle of the Pacific.

As I write this I am sitting in the Honolulu Airport. It’s sunny and warm here, and the trade winds are blowing through the terminal. I just talked to my neighbor Charlee and she says it’s snowing off and on today. Perhaps I’m a little hasty in returning home? It was definitely a little sad leaving Oz, but it’s time to get home and start preparing for the flying season at home. Looking at my plans for the spring and summer I can hardly imagine that I will have enough time to plan my next trip to Australia before it’s time to go!

I spent my last day doing some final sightseeing and saying goodbye. The goal for the Paragliding Worlds was right next to the caravan park. I got to see two huge gaggles go over on their way to the turnpoint, and I got to see many “interesting” landings at goal. One pilot accidentally spun his wing close to the ground after a very showy approach, then stalled it trying to recover. He fell from about 15ft and landed with a sickening thump. Last I heard he had a broken hip – that will be his last goal crossing during this comp.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Packing it Up

It’s getting near the end of my trip. I’ve already packed up my gear and made my plan for getting to Sydney. I’ve sent the glider with Pedro to the Moyes factory, then on Wednesday Jill will drop me off at Moyes and they will deliver me and my gear to the airport. It sure is great to have so many people willing to help out. Since the glider is gone there will be no more flying this trip.

It’s a bit sad to be coming to the end of the trip, but I’m also looking forward to getting home. I’ve had a great time flying, exploring, and making new friends. I’ve left enough undone that I m already looking forward to coming back.

The Paragliding World Championships opening ceremony was last night and the competition was to start today. The opening ceremony included a parade, fireworks, an air show, and a concert by a well known Australian country singer. It was a good show with a small town lack of sophistication. Today was to be the first task, and the event had been highly promoted for spectators. A steady stream of cars made their way up to launch. There were several hundred spectators in addition to the 150 or so competitors, several dozen free-flyers, and myriad of competition crew and support. It was quite a carnival atmosphere. The day looked a little weak as compared to the weather we’ve had lately. There was some high overcast to the southwest that definitely looked like it had the potential to shade it out and shut it down. Several free-flyers flew while the task committee decided on a task. Eventually the task was set and the “wind dummies” were called to launch. About then a really nice line of clouds formed above the mountain and the wind started to pick up. It was getting questionable for launching, and soon it was announced that the task would be delayed. Within 15 minutes the sky was full of clouds, the wind was whipping at launch, and there was obvious overdevelopment and rain to the west. The task was cancelled. It was the right decision, but a real shame since this was the first day and the best opportunity for spectators to see the comp first hand.

By the time we got down the hill the whole sky was overcast and threatening rain. We eventually got the biggest storm I have seen here yet. It deposited about 2” of rain in less than an hour. It’s good for the farmers and for the town, but not so good for the comp. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Thunderstorm Flying

It has certainly been interesting to be a spectator here in Manilla with so many paragliders in the air. Having been here during the thunderstorm flying event that has now made world news, it amazes me to see the contrast between the news reports and reality. Some of the errors are due to the reporter’s lack of knowledge about the sport, but you can also see the spin that has been injected into the news by the parties that have a vested interest. The whole thing just sickens me, and I feel that I can no longer refrain from commenting. In the unlikely event that you haven't already seen news coverage, you can find the stock story here.

First, I must say that there are definitely a significant fraction of hang glider pilots who are vocally “anti-paraglider”. I want to make it clear that I am not one of them. I could easily see myself flying a paraglider at some point. I simply see it as another way to get in the air. Just as hang gliders are different from sailplanes, paragliders are different from hang gliders. They each have different performance envelopes, and different conditions in which they are appropriate to fly. I simply believe that for the type of flying that I like to do a hang glider is the best machine. In the future I may fly a sailplane or a paraglider.

The day of the incidents I was on the mountain watching the competitors launch. These were not pilots “practicing for the worlds” as most news reports have stated, but instead it was the first day of an Open XC competition. In this competition format, each pilot chooses their own course, and they receive a score based on the distance that they fly. Many of these pilots would be flying in the worlds, but this was also a competition open to less experience pilots who were here for the opportunity to fly with and learn from the best.

Tall cumulus clouds had started forming early in the day – an almost sure sign that there would be overdevelopment and rain later in the day. It was a pattern that had already been established for several days during the hang gliding competition that had just finished. Some days the hang gliding tasks were designed specifically to direct us away from storms, and on the last day the task was stopped due to thunderstorm development.

By the time the main group of paragliders launched there were already two very obvious large storms to the north. These were not “freak storms” and they didn’t “develop suddenly” as some of the news reports indicated. They were already there before most of the field flew. What was amazing to me and to the other hang glider pilots watching was that of the 200 paragliders that launched it appeared that every one took off and flew directly towards the storms.

There are probably several reasons for this. Because it was an open distance format competition, each pilot had the goal of making the longest distance. Usually the way to fly the longest distance is to fly straight downwind. The main exception to this, of course, is if there is an obstruction downwind that must be avoided. Often during competitions we will fly dogleg tasks in order to avoid controlled airspace or some other undesirable feature. These storms were obvious obstructions that should have been avoided. From the point of view of a hang glider pilot, the storms were relatively close, and would likely shorten a flight made in that direction. Flying a cross wind dogleg would have been the obvious choice to maximize distance and remain safe. I can imagine, however, that due to the lower performance of paragliders the storms seemed relatively far away, and flying cross wind would possibly result in such slow speed that a flight made directly downwind, even if it ended before the storms, would be a better choice. In addition, because of the relatively slower speeds, there was more time for conditions to change on course, possibly improving, if one was flying a paraglider.

Even with these justifications, however, some very poor choices were made. Clearly, once the area near the storms was reached, many pilots chose to continue on. One who didn’t was Kari Castle. Kari is the top US women’s paraglider pilot and former Women’s World Champion. She chose to land near Baraba before reaching the storms; her comment afterwards when she saw gaggles of pilots continuing on was “What do they see that I don’t that makes it OK?” Here you have one of the best pilots in the world questioning her judgment because so many others are exercising poor judgment. I definitely think that “group think” must have played a role. Pilots looked around and saw other pilots continuing, so they figured it must be OK.

Again, contrary to what many news reports implied, it was definitely not OK. These pilots were putting themselves in a situation that was not safe, and often not legal, and all the signs were there ahead of time. Clearly, people make mistakes, and accidents happen. The troubling part about this to me is the widespread scale of the mistakes and the lack of acceptance of responsibility for them. This is particularly troubling since these are some of the best pilots in the world here to represent their countries in the world championships. I was not here for the second day, however, I was told that even after these incidents the pilot behavior was much the same; taking off and flying directly towards storms. This was such a problem that for the following days the meet organizers added mandatory turpoints that the competitors had to fly to in order to direct them away from storms.

The flying behavior of the pilots was not the only problem, however. I also see a huge lack of responsibility in how the incidents were handled after the fact. I heard one of the pilots who threw his reserve gleefully telling an audience of his fellow pilots about the entire heroic (to him, anyway) experience. I have not seen any acknowledgement from the pilot who survived that she did anything wrong – in fact those I have spoken to who have spoken to her indicate that she only feels that she was “unlucky”; an absurd viewpoint at the extreme. The main focus of this pilot and those around her now seems to be how to capitalize on the media attention. Of course we have no way of knowing what the pilot who died was thinking or how he felt about it. Perhaps he was merely naively following one of these other idiots thinking that “it must be OK” Surely if I was one of the foolhardy ones I would be wondering if I helped draw a fellow pilot to his death.

As with most accidents there is not just one thing that you can point to as a cause. Certainly the pilot’s lack of personal responsibility coupled with the open format of the competition contributed heavily. Had it been just one irresponsible pilot, however, I think things would have ended quite differently. Instead I think that it is a culture of irresponsibility that inevitably ended in this tragedy. Had this event (I still have trouble calling it an “accident”) occurred in the United States I am sure there would already be a call for legislative action to prevent similar incidents in the future. This is exactly what we claim we don’t want or need. As soaring pilots I believe we need to prove that we can be responsible in our actions and make it clear that our culture doesn’t embrace irresponsible behavior. I just hope that’s true.

Monday, February 19, 2007


As I made my way north towards Queensland I was reminded of what Jill had told me about The Gold Coast. She described it as a “Concrete Jungle”. Even so I wasn’t prepared when I rounded a headland and looked across the shallow bay to see a city of towering skyscrapers. I struggled to place it for a moment. Surely this wasn’t Brisbane already? It took a moment before I realized that these were beachfront condominiums. Soon I was out of the remote stretches of lonely beach and deep in “The Jungle”. Even so, it was uniquely Australian and surprisingly accessible. I found a caravan park right on the beach at Burleigh Head and decided to stop for the afternoon, then changed my mind and made it two nights. It was time to take a little break at the ocean. A couple of days at the beach swimming, walking on the sand, and generally soaking up the sun had me feeling like a new person.

I was only about 45 minutes from Canungra, and although the weather didn’t look too good I decided to go and have a look. As it turned out I found eight or ten pilots at the meeting spot debating going up the hill. We eventually made our way up to Beechmont, but it didn’t look promising. It was blowing in nicely, but cloudbase was below the hill, and we could see rain squalls scattered around the valley. As the squalls came over launch visibility dropped to 100ft and rain poured down. All but two of the guys gave up and left. As luck would have it the fellow I rode up with wanted to stay – I certainly couldn’t see why – and none of the others were going back through Canungra. Oh well, I was stuck here until my ride decided to leave. We huddled in the small picnic shelter and shared flying stories while waiting for something to change. It just seemed to get worse, and then slowly a faint blue line appeared on the horizon. Soon we could see a definite band of blue studded with fair weather cumulus. Before long that blue was over launch and it was a different day. I had already decided not to fly so as not to put my still wobbly knee at more risk, but the other two started stuffing battens. In no time they were soaring at over 4000ft in 400-500ft/minute thermals. It was just amazing. The mountains and the valleys were magical looking; all crisp and green and glistening in the bright sun. Without my even flying the site captured me at that instant.

I was kicking myself for forgetting my camera in the van at the bottom of the hill – I really wanted to record this moment. After about an hour and a half the guys top landed and after chatting and breaking down we made our way back down the hill. By now it was late enough that I decided to stay in town for the night and make my way back to Manilla in the morning.

I woke early, and was ready to hit the road by 6am. I decided to make one more trip up the hill to try and get a picture of the launch. It wouldn’t be like yesterday, but at least it would be something. In fact it was even better. It was unreal to be standing there in the bright sun at 6:30 in the morning with the wind blowing straight in and puffy clouds above and behind launch while a thin layer of fog still lay in the folds of the valley. It was easy to see how Jonny was able to start a 500km flight here at 8:30 in the morning. The place was just mesmerizing. The site has incredible potential for sure. Jonny has made two 500km flights from here and many of the locals have made flights of over 300km. Beyond that, however, it was just a beautiful place, and surely a beautiful place to fly. I hope to be back.

On my way back down the hill I stopped to take some pictures of a colony of fruit bats to add to my animal collection, and then I headed on my way. I was going back to Manilla via the inland route through Beaudesert and Boonah, and then down the New England Highway. It was certainly some of the most picturesque scenery I have seen in Australia. Much different than the dry flatlands of Forbes, the smoke choked valleys around Bright, or the low scrubby hills of Manilla. I would definitely like to get back here and fly.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Great Dividing Range

It’s now less than two weeks before I leave Australia. I’m looking forward to my departure with mixed emotions. As I reflect on the two and a half months I’ve been here I’m amazed at how fast it has gone by and at how much I have seen and done. At the same time I realize that I have only scratched the surface and there is much more for me to see and do here and much more for me to learn.

The hang gliding competitions are all done. Looking back I am sure that I am capable of far more than the results reflect. Just the same, I met many of my objectives: I made goal three times, and when I was flying at my capability I was flying fast and efficiently. I found myself succumbing to the psychological pressure of the competitions on several occasions, but I also have started to become familiar with and comfortable in the competition environment. I am now seriously considering going to the Flytec meet in April. It will be a great opportunity to see what I have learned and apply it in the familiar environment of Central Florida.

I have also met many new and interesting friends, and I have had many fun and memorable flights. And I’ve had a chance to reconnect with some old friends. Bob and Jill have returned to Manilla, and Cookie, Bri-Dog, and Kari are here now too. It’s the same crew from the Owens last fall, and it is fun to spend time with them here; sharing, laughing, and enjoying each others company.

Though lulled by the now familiar surroundings of Manilla and the presence of my friends I was also feeling an odd disquiet. Comfort and familiarity are not what I am looking for here. There is still more exploring to do, and time is getting short. Propelled by this thought, I set out this morning from Manilla through Bendemeer and Armidale, then across the Great Dividing Range to the coast at Coffs Harbour via “Waterfall Way”. I’m staying tonight at the beach at Evans Head, and tomorrow I will continue north towards the Gold Coast and Canungra.

Canungra is the Durand’s home, and the site of one of Australia’s more active hang gliding clubs. It’s where Jonny Durand set the Australia Record of 500km this past November. Right now the weather doesn’t look promising for flying; we’re in a pattern of strong afternoon thunderstorms which have broken the drought in many areas, but which also puts a damper on the flying for all but the most foolhardy. The foolhardy are flying, however. Yesterday was the first day of the Manilla Paragliding XC Open. One woman flew into a thunderstorm and was unable to get out. She lost consciousness but survived with frostbite and lightning burns; her instruments recorded that she was lifted to over 30,000ft. Two other paraglider pilots had to deploy their reserve parachutes after flying into clouds, and one Chinese pilot was still unaccounted for when I left town this morning.

This afternoon as I was driving I was thinking about the name “The Great Dividing Range”. It is in fact a mountain chain very reminiscent of the Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern United States, but the name gives it a power which transcends its modest elevations. It makes one wonder: “What is it that is being divided?” That is, of course, a question that can only be answered after having seen both sides. Metaphorically I see this trip as my own “Great Dividing Range”. It is a rich and exciting transition that divides the past from the future. I can’t wait to see what’s on the other side.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007


Today’s task was a downwind dogleg to Quirindi. The turnpoint was inserted just to keep us out of the Tamworth airspace. It was a relatively short task of 60 miles, and we were expecting a moderate tailwind the whole way. Yesterday we didn’t fly due to strong north winds, and it overdeveloped in the afternoon with a strong line of thunderstorms that lasted into the evening. Today promised more possibility of overdevelopment and thunderstorms, hence the relatively short downwind task. The challenge today would be to get off the hill safely and get up and away. By the time we got up the hill there were small cumulus around, and even a towering one in the distance. The forecast was for northeast winds, but it was blowing mostly north on the hill with occasional cycles coming straight in from the west.

I was feeling a bit nervous about the task, mainly because I knew it might be hard to get up at the hill, and I didn’t want to end up in the bomb-out LZ. I’ve had a run of poor landings lately, and the bomb-out is tough at the best of times. I tried to remind myself that I have had good luck climbing out if it was at all soarable, and a nice line of clouds was starting to form out in front of launch, indicating good lift. As I got ready to go, pilots started to line up. I was a few places back in line, but everyone wanted to get off soon. There was a long delay while we waited for launchable conditions – it had been blowing almost due north most of the morning. Finally a nice cycle started and pilots started piling off. By the time it was my turn a few were climbing above the north spine and there were a line of gliders headed that way. I launched, turned right and followed them. As luck would have it I didn’t hook the climb, but watched the other pilots climb out above me. I moved further out front to try and find something, but to no avail. Now I was north of the official bomb-out, and low. Several paraglider pilots had landed in a paddock just out front, and rather than working my way back to the bomb-out I flew out over the paddock to see if anything was triggering off there. I didn’t find anything, and since there was no windsock in this field I yelled down to the pilots on the ground to give me the wind direction. I didn’t get any signal from them, so I assumed that it was still north and set up my approach that way. Later I learned that the pilots had yelled the wind direction back to me, not realizing that due to the wind noise you can’t hear voices from the ground in a hang glider. Too late I discovered I was downwind. I was headed straight for a large pile of rocks at the end of the field. I tried to avoid the rocks and I tried to flare, but everything was happening fast. I pounded in hard just in front of the rocks, banging my right knee hard on a rock that had escaped from the pile. Amazingly both I and my glider escaped relatively unscathed. I ended up with a large hematoma on my knee and the glider got a small ding on the leading edge near the nose plate. I was feeling very lucky, but also very frustrated for getting myself in that position.

I find that landings seem to run in cycles for me. If I am landing well, I seem to have good landings no matter how challenging the conditions, but when I am landing poorly it is devilishly hard to break the cycle. It is surely a psychological phenomenon, but of course the psychological challenges of flying are the ones I am struggling with right now. In any case I will have a few days to relax and think about it while I give my knee a rest.