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.


Tuesday looked like it might be windy and stormy. There was a bit of hesitation to send us up the hill, but by 11:30 it looked like it would be OK, so up we went. It was blowing west, a bit strong for the paragliders, but just fine for us. A cross wind out and return task was called to Cobbadah 31 miles to the north.

In spite of the generally ridge soarable conditions at launch, many pilots struggled to get up, and several flush cycles saw many in the bomb-out. I spent more time than usual around launch trying to get high – as it turned out this was a good strategy, as those who left low struggled on the course line for a long time. I finally went on course, 2 minutes late for the 2:30 start gate, but happy to be high and on my way. Many of the best pilots had taken an earlier start, so I was on my own most of the flight. The pilots I encountered on course were generally flying slower than me, and were more hesitant to go on glide. It was nice to feel that I was making progress in the pack and not being left behind for a change!

Slowly as the flight progressed I got more comfortable and felt my confidence returning. I only made one poor choice of glides – a long 8 mile glide that got me lower than I was happy with. Even at that I was still nearly 3000 feet AGL, and the first ground trigger I went to netted me a 600fpm climb that took me to nearly 11000ft. From there the flight was fast. I definitely could have been flying faster, but I was quite comfortable to be high. I rounded the turn point after a smooth 7 mile glide under a cloud street, still above 9000ft. I glided back to Barraba under the same cloud street, staying above 9000ft the whole way. At Barraba, 20 miles out, I found a smooth 1200ft/min climb that took me to over 12000ft. My flight computer told me I had goal on glide with lots of margin. I went on glide choosing a line that would take me under a couple of nice looking clouds. I was flying fast, trying to use the flight computer to its best capability. 8 miles out I was starting to worry about my glide numbers. It really takes a lot of nerve to trust the glide computer on final glide. A difference of +/- 1000ft can make the difference between arriving in the stratosphere and not making it. I found that the numbers were fluctuating by thousands of feet. I decided that I need to go back and understand the basis of the calculations so I can make more informed choices on glide.

Right about then I hit another smooth 1200ft/minute climb. This was too much fun not to stop for. It would also definitely alleviate any fear I had of not making goal. I took the climb all the way to 11000ft before I pulled on the VG and pulled in the bar for a fast glide to goal. I was only using ¾ VG, and at that I was only able to maintain airspeed of 55 or 60mph. I’m still getting used to flying this glider fast, and I wasn’t comfortable going to full VG. It was great practice flying fast and keeping the glider straight with no worry about not reaching goal. As it turned out, taking that last climb was a good move, as many who trusted their glide computers struggled at the end. Their glide put them below the Borah range on the lee side close to goal, resulting in more than the calculated sink. I definitely had many thousand more feet than I needed, and could have saved another 5 minutes by leaving that last climb earlier. In spite of that I found myself in goal in 14th place with a time of 2hours and 12 minutes. My average speed was 28mph. A couple of pilots who beat me were actually slower, since they received departure and arrival points, and only Jonny did the task in less than 2 hours. I lost two minutes by leaving the start gate late, five by taking the extra climb I didn’t need, and probably one or two minutes on final glide not using all the VG. It’s definitely nice to find myself getting faster and understanding the choices that I make that make me slow. This was definitely another example where I felt I flew at the level I am capable of. If I can just start doing this consistently, from there it is only small refinements that will start moving me up in the standings.

Get the Google Earth file here.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Exorcizing Demons

I woke up today thinking about yesterday’s flight. I knew that I needed to do something for a little mental reset.

At the pilots meeting this morning the weather forecast looked much like yesterday. That didn’t do anything for my mental state. Once on the hill, however, we found it was coming in nicely at the west launch. That seemed a bit better. The conditions in the air, however, were weak. The paraglider pilots and free-flying hang glider pilots that flew early were struggling and bombing out. Most of us were waiting for it to get better and, of course, I had my own demons to contend with. Finally a few pilots started lining up and launching - with mixed results. I took a deep breath and got in line. Two pilots in front of me had made a track down the ridge to the north and were not finding anything. I had a feeling that the north spine was working, but further out. After a clean and uneventful launch I made a beeline that way and was rewarded with a nice climb, right where I expected it. A couple of pilots that launched after me joined me and then a whole crowd piled off launch. I managed to find the strongest core and soon saw the other pilots receding below me. Now that was more like it! I felt one or two demons drop away. I went on course, a bit more relaxed but still thinking about how every flight ends in a landing. That demon was still clinging tightly.

Soon I found myself north of Barraba in what by now was familiar territory. I knew there was one section of trees and hills with few good landing options. As luck would have it I found myself there low. Well, I thought, this was as good a place as any to wrestle the last demon. I picked out a nice field in easy glide and close to the road. I could have made an effort to get back up, but today I had other priorities. I carefully scanned the field for obstructions, then set up a perfect approach and landing.

I carried the glider to the gate; demon free and quite content with the days flying.

Happy to be Alive

Yesterday (Sunday) was the first day of the NSW State Titles.

On Saturday many of us went up the hill for a practice day. The conditions didn’t look stellar. The wind was quite south, forecast to be southeast, and there were already tall cumulus in the distance at 10:30 in the morning. I set up anyway, but it soon looked like I might be breaking down on launch. Both the south and west launches were working, but it was crossing on both. I decided to try and fly early, and to launch from the south – my plan was to dive off to the left and just head out and land at Godfrey’s – better to break down next to may van in the shade than on top. It looked like the pilot in front of me had the same plan. He launched, turned left, flew through the lift and continued on out. I waited for a reasonably straight cycle, and followed him. By now I could see him very low on the way out. I decided to try and get high for the glide, and stopped in a choppy climb. It was no fun, but it was getting me high, and I watched the other pilot land far short of Godfrey’s – barely making it to the east bomb-out. Once I was sure I had enough altitude I went on glide to the farm, set up a good approach and made a nice landing. OK, that felt pretty good, but I was getting tired of these short flights in rough conditions. I felt prepared for the next day, however, and I felt I would be prepared to work a little harder even if it meant risking landing in the bomb-out.

At the pilots meeting on Sunday we learned that it was supposed to be blowing 15knots from the southeast, going to 30knots from the east-southeast above the inversion at 4500ft. Once the inversion broke things would likely get rough down low, and if we were going to fly it would be good to go early. As many of us found yesterday, flying from the south launch when it is windy can be pretty rough. The Borah range continues to the south from launch, curving to the east. It’s a perfect setup for turbulence and sink in the rotor behind the range. On launch we found it to be southwest again today. In many ways it was like yesterday, but dryer. The task was set for Moree, 151km to the northwest.

Many of the top pilots launched early, concerned that launch conditions would deteriorate as they had yesterday. I got in line on the south launch, but launching was slow, with pilots having to wait a long time for lulls to safely launch in. Some pilots launched from the west, but they all came around to the south to try and get up. The odds were definitely favoring the south. The pilots who were successful launched into a lull, then just hung out and tried to maintain in front until a thermal came through. Once pilots were climbing in front, conditions were usually not safe to launch. Typically only one or two pilots were getting off in the lulls and the cycles were far between. Finally the pilot two places in front of me launched. He flew out and started searching. The next pilot launched and joined him. Now they were starting to climb weakly, and the wind was still light on launch. I launched just as the lull was ending. I had to correct aggressively as the glider started to turn, then felt myself get behind the glider as it accelerated off the hill. I got away cleanly, but I wasn’t happy with it. As I entered the thermal under the other two pilots I turned right and looked back to make sure I had enough altitude to safely turn in front of the hill. It looked good, so I continued around. Just as I was headed back at the hill my left wing was hit hard and I found myself banked at 90 degrees and sliding quickly towards the tress below. It happened so fast I don’t even know what I did, but I got the glider level and away from the hill. Now I was much lower than the other two pilots and if I didn’t want to get trapped on the saddle I had to make a move. I decided to go to the west along the low ridge in front of the saddle – this seemed to be where the thermals were feeding from. I was still trying to calm down after my scare, and I wasn’t willing to be overly aggressive. I chose instead to work my way down the ridge hunting while staying within easy reach of the bottom landing. It wasn’t a strategy with high odds of success, since no one else had gotten up there, but I was still just trying to calm down. I saw another pilot ahead of me and lower heading for the bomb-out. I wasn’t having fun and I decided that that was the prudent choice. I followed him, trying to hang out and maintain altitude to give some separation to our landings.

At the bomb-out the wind was so strong I was practically hovering. I didn’t want to get behind the tress downwind of the field, so I just hung in front of the tree line. By the time the other pilot had landed I was still a bit high and had made my way forward a bit into the field, so I decided to make a turn to lose some altitude and drop back a bit. Suddenly the glider was turned downwind and screaming away from the field. There was no way to make it back; now all of my options were downwind. I had to fly slalom style through the trees to a small clearing. I only had a moment to decide that the risk of hitting a tree was too great; I would continue downwind to the next paddock – a large plowed field. I cleared the fence low. Now I was in the clear, but going downwind low and fast. I had to get the glider into the wind somehow. Fortunately the field sloped gradually down to my left, and I started a gentle left turn. I watched my left wingtip, allowing it to just drag across the furrows, kicking up a plume of dust. If I had to, I would dig in with that wingtip and cause the glider to ground-loop into the wind rather than land downwind. Better to tear up the glider than to pile in downwind at this speed. Amazingly I was able to get the glider into the wind, but I was still prone in my harness. I let the bar out a bit, the glider climbed a few feet, I kicked out of my harness, up on the uprights, and a perfect landing into the wind. It was the only thing that went right the entire flight.

Four other pilots had landed in the same field, including Gerolf and Peter. We called Mary-Eve on the radio, only to find out that the basher had broken down and she had no way of getting us. Gerolf had left his glider and was hiking back to launch with his harness. Eventually Mary-Eve called on the radio to say that they were coming to get us in Gerolf’s car. It was about a kilometer walk uphill through plowed fields to the road. We had to make several trips but we got all the gliders and harnesses out by the time Mary-Eve and Gerolf got there.

By the time we got back it had been a very long day for a short and scary flight.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Busman’s Holiday

Yesterday was an interesting day. It was blue in the morning with a forecast for scattered thunderstorms and light east winds. It sounded like it might be a good day. I headed over to Godfrey’s where I found a definite lack of enthusiasm in the group. Eventually, however, we headed up the hill. As we made our way to launch, clouds started forming. These weren’t nice puffy cumulus clouds, but row upon row of smooth lenticulars. Clearly there was some wind aloft and I was sure when it mixed down things would get ugly. I left my glider on the basher and just waited and watched. After a while, nice puffy cumulus did start to form. Hmmm… this didn’t look too bad. A few other hang glider pilots showed up and started to set up. That was all it took to get me going, and soon I was set up too. I still wasn’t feeling super motivated, but I really didn’t want to ride down the hill with my glider – better to fly it down. About this time some of the nice puffy cumulus to the north turned into nice big cumulo-nimbus. That didn’t look too good. I launched, made a few half-hearted turns in the choppy lift and flew out to Godfreys to land. I made a nice approach and a clean fast final in no wind. I waited a bit too long to flare, couldn’t run it out, and WHACK! Damn – that’s the third time this week I flared too late. I’m really not paying attention. After thinking about it some more I realized that I am feeling just a bit burnt out. It was time for a day off.

Today I had a relaxing morning doing errands, making phone calls, and generally taking care of things. Eventually I went out to Godfreys to see Jahn. Jahn and Mary-Eve are a French couple
who are staying at Godfreys for the summer and driving the basher and generally being quite useful. Mary-Eve is a massage therapist, and Jahn is a very good cartoonist. He made some really creative signs promoting Mary-Eve’s business. I am making a casual attempt at selling my glider here so as not to have to take it home. I was going to make some signs to have up during the upcoming comp, but after seeing Jahn’s signs and given the poor quality of my penmanship I decided to ask Jahn if he would make one for me. He was quite enthusiastic about the project, and offered to do it for free, but of course I won’t let him do that. I’m really curious to see what he comes up with.

Naturally since I was already out at Godfrey’s I decided to go up the hill. Everyone had already gone up in the basher, and since I wasn’t flying I decided to see if the van would make it up the hill. It did quite well, only spinning on the steepest, sharpest corner. Successful, but something I will not likely try to repeat. I hung out and watched, helped a few pilots launch, relaxed and visited. It was nice not to be setting up a glider and putting on warm flying clothes in the heat.

After everyone had launched I headed back to the van. I had this eerie feeling that I was being watched. I looked around and was startled to see an Eastern Grey Kangaroo watching me from a few meters away. I didn’t have my camera, and I was sure she would be gone by the time I got it, but she waited patiently and posed nicely for several pictures, proudly displaying the little Joey she had in her pouch. You can find a high resolution picture of them here.

Lesson Learned

After the visit to the bomb-out LZ I was feeling a bit of wear on my confidence. Pedro, Heikki, and I made our way to launch nevertheless. The wind was northwest again, and fairly strong. The forecast was for “moderate to fresh” east later on. We could see clouds forming over the range to the east fairly early, but it was completely blue to the west. Slowly as the day developed the clouds advanced into the valley behind us, but still nothing in front. Because of the wind direction and the lack of clouds in front no one was anxious to launch. Today could easily see more visits to the bomb-out.

I was just about finished setting up when Radek and Susanna showed up. Radek was the only hang glider pilot to not land in the bomb-out yesterday; he flew straight out from the hill and found a weak climb right above us that he took all the way to cloudbase. From there he flew 200km to the southeast – almost to the Hunter Valley. I chatted with him a bit about the flight, and then he invited me to fly with him today. He was planning on trying to fly 300km to Narromine. Susanna would drive for both of us. I was flattered at the invitation, but not feeling all that self-assured after yesterday’s flight. I politely declined due to my lack of confidence, but he insisted that if I didn’t make it the whole way the retrieve was still available. I compromised by setting my radio to their frequency so we could connect once in the air.

I was the first hang glider to launch again today. Conditions looked a lot like yesterday, though the wind was perhaps a bit more west. I was determined not to end up in the bomb-out. I waited longer than I normally would have for a good cycle, then launched and turned right. I was reasonably sure there was a thermal feeding up the spine to the north. Sure enough, it was right where I expected it to be. This time I stayed in it all the way to cloudbase, drifting far back into the valley. Pedro launched shortly after me, and then Heikki followed him a bit later. I started to make my way cross wind to the north. Pedro climbed nicely, and then made a turn to the south. His plan was to just fly locally. Heikki wanted to go XC as it was his last day before heading home, but he was still struggling low. Radek had not launched yet. It was still blue in the direction of Narrowmine, and the wind was quite strong from the west, rather than the predicted east. I didn’t think we would be flying 300km – certainly not in that direction. Though Heikki didn’t have a radio I was pretty sure he would fly north once he got high, and Pedro had offered to come get us if we landed out. The valley had filled nicely with clouds so I decided to try for Bingara and back. It was the same flight I had made just before New Years, but it looked like the best option for the day.

The climbs were reliable but turbulent. I anticipated each thermal with a fair amount of trepidation, and looked forward to the smooth glides in between. In no time at all my arms ached from hanging onto the bar in the choppy lift. I was about half way to Barraba when I decided to see what Radek was up to. I called Susanna on the radio and she reported that Radek had just launched and would also be flying to Bingara and back. She would start on course in case we needed retrieved. Great! It’s always nice to know that the retrieve is taken care of. Now I could focus on the flight. Some of the clouds were getting big, and it looked like there might be rain in the distance. I had just passed under a monster at Barraba when Susanna called on the radio. Radek wanted to know what I thought of the weather. I reported that there were some towering clouds but I wasn’t too worried – yet. I could see one starting to build on course to the north that could stop the flight. By the time I got to the cloud it had grown considerably. Either the shadow from it would have shut off the lift below or, if it had started to auto-convect, the lift from the growing thunderhead could suck me up like a vacuum cleaner. I decided to give myself 1500 feet of margin below the cloud before venturing under it. Sure enough it was sucking, but with a straight fast glide I cleared the far edge before being drawn in, with my vario singing “up” the whole way. I still couldn’t tell if it was raining at Bingara, but there was nothing else threatening looking for a ways to the north so I continued on. By the time I got within sight of Bingara there was a large cloud shadowing the town, but no sign of rain or other overdevelopment. I weighed my options and decided to dive in for the turnpoint and then head for the sunny hills east of town where I had gotten a good climb out on my last flight here. This time the big smooth climb wasn’t waiting for me. There was just broken lift that was drifting quickly to the east. My choices were to follow the lift and possibly end up behind the main range out of easy retrieve, or to work my way along the ridge and hope for something better. It seemed the polite thing was to make things easy for the driver and work my way along the ridge. After dribbling along in this fashion for a while I finally decided it was time to face reality and land. I called in my position just before landing, and then had a nice landing in a big field where I was greeted by a very friendly dog. Just as I was zipping up my glider bag I saw Susanna “zip” past. I called her on the radio and she turned around – the perfect retrieve. Radek was still 16km from Bingara, so we sat and visited for a while to make sure he made the turnpoint. The sky had changed considerably in the last 20 minutes. All of the big clouds had disappeared, and it looked increasingly blue to the south. As Radek made the turnpoint high we headed south to wait for him at Barraba. It looked very blue further south; very reminiscent of my flight in December. Also similar to that flight, Radek found that he was facing an increasing headwind as he made his way south. Fortunately the clouds seemed to cycle back on and he was able to make it back to Godfrey’s, landing after 7pm.

I had given Susanna $50 for the retrieve, but she and Radek had had a discussion on the radio; they concluded that this was too much and that we would use the money to all go to dinner at the Royal Hotel. We made a plan to meet for dinner and after a much needed shower I walked to the Royal where I visited with Pedro and Heikki about their flights until Radek and Susanna arrived. We had a very pleasant meal and I heard some great stories of Radek’s flying adventures, including learning to fly in the Czech Republic with Tomas Suchanek. All in all it was a great day spent with my new friends. My only regret is that they will be leaving in two days, but I’m sure we will be crossing paths again some day.