Monday, January 28, 2013

Final flights over Kealakekua

Tandem glider in the air on my way back to launch
Whenever I'm driving to a site, it's usually pretty far (2+ hours) away. I always end up wondering "Is this day going to be the one? Is this day going to be epic?" I never really know if I am going to be up for hours or if I am going to be stuck with 7 minute sledders all weekend. As I wound my old '91 Explorer through the snaking roads of Naalehu and South Kona, I again found myself lost in these thoughts. Given that this was to be my weekend flying on the island, I wanted to end it with something big. Saturday started with the usual morning sledder. A couple of other guys always took advantage of the stable but smooth morning air for short flights. I'd catch a ride with them as they went back to launch. That morning the air didn't seem exceptional or even note worthy. Sitting in the back of the pickup on the way back to launch gave me a beautiful view over the bay. I couldn't help but take in the moment knowing this was to be my final weekend in Kealakekua.

The launches always grows crowded by noon
I returned to launch to find no one really eager to get into the air. A couple guys would launch and sink out. A few more would launch and repeat the process. I decided to join the third volley into the valley. I was met with little to no lift, so I set course toward the main LZ. Half way there, I encountered only the weakest bit of a thermal. It was weak, but I soon discovered it was wide enough to make shallow turns in. After a few 360s and a hundred feet gain, the thermal grew stronger. The other guys from my group had already landed at this point. I continued to climb. The 4th volley launch and sunk out. I had scratched from 100 ft above the LZ to now 1000 ft above launch and was still climbing. I eventually found a ceiling of sorts around 3200 ft. Following the track of the thermal, I was nearly a mile south of launch. After playing there and realizing I wouldn't be getting any higher, I headed toward launch to watch yet another group of pilots take off. By this point, conditions had improved. They stayed airborne.

I watched as one pilot, Neal, hit a strong thermal edge and stalled half his wing into a helicopter spin. He recovered, but not before giving himself a 180 degree riser twist and sending his glider downwind towards the hill. With a skill I only hope to one day have, he turned himself around beneath his glider and then turned his glider around. I thought he was going to try to crash land. To my amazement, Neal cleared the trees of the ridge, went out over the valley, and climbed to greet me. I could only congratulate him.

The lift improved as clouds continued to build. The 3200 ft ceiling disappeared. I reached 3900 ft, a previous record for me at Kealakekua, and encountered the base of the scattered clouds. Clouds are still a new and foreign feature to me. I am trying to figure out what their lift and sink patterns are. I may have entered a cloud or two that day to see what they are all about and discovered, as I had been told, that the latent heat of condensation produces fair lift. The lift was consistent, widespread, and mellow on the edges. I played by jumping in and out of the cloud margins seeing how quickly visibility disappeared and practicing using only a GPS to fly a bearing. Once, I cored up to 4600 feet at one point and used my GPS to set a course due W for the beach, where I knew I would meet blue skies. As fantastic as this experience was, I began to grow nervous as I stayed in this soup for several minutes. I thought for sure that I should have left the cloud by this point. According to the GPS, I continued to gain altitude and had positive ground speed. As terrain slowly faded into view and the sun warmed my face I released a sigh of relief. I played with clouds for a long time and then noticed most pilots were headed toward the bay landing site, the church. I flew out over the bay, where the air was smooth and enjoyed being on glide from 4000 ft to nearly 100 ft all the while observing the marine life and coral. I kept thinking how lucky I was to being experiencing that moment. As I dropped lower and lower, I noticed the onshore wind increasing in strength. I found my glider bucking into a 12+mph headwind as I set up for the church landing. Depending on what combination of brakes and speedbar I used, I could sit almost motionless above the ground. I parked my wing for a few minutes while another pilot landed and then followed his landing pattern in. In effect, I just hung above the LZ and waited until I gently descended straight down to terrafirma.
Last pilot landing Saturday

I spent over 2 hours and 20 minutes in the air on that one flight. The LZ crowd held a celebratory mood. I too marveled in the experience I just had and packed my glider with shaky hands. As much as I liked being in the air, I had been ready to land. I relaxed in the balmy heat of being at sea level in the tropics and enjoyed laughs with my soon to be old friends.

That night I was invited to dinner by a neighbor of the launch. Several other pilots were there. Everyone else was in their 60s or 70s. The conversations varied from flying to former lives to how everyone ended up in Hawaii. As the groups split and rejoined, I eventually found myself at the balcony starring into the evening sky and wondering just how I started hanging out with a group of people that were all at least twice my age. The funny thing is, before that moment I had never viewed them as being that old. They all flew in strong conditions and landed like spry 20-somethings. I began to understand how odd paragliding is, to bring such an unusual group of people together - Scotty, a sky bum and contractor; Gene, a retired commercial fisherman from Alaska; Charlie, a retired teacher and construction worker; and then me, a volcanologist. Last October, I was only a random person that materialized on their launch one Saturday morning and they treated me like family from the get-go. Returning to my tent on launch, I realized this would be my last night in Kealakekua. The moonshine was surprisingly bright, but sleeping wasn't difficult.

Sunday didn't return the same air time. I enjoyed a half hour of flying, but conditions over developed early and I ended up saying goodbye to the closest thing to a family I have had on the Big Island with handshakes and hugs.

Again I find myself saying goodbye. That's something that most other pilots don't really talk about. You meet so many unique and interesting people. Some you get to know well for an extended period of time, but you eventually say farewell to all of them. Flying is a bittersweet thing.
View S from launch with my glider before the final flight

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Last Time at Kealakekua

I arrived at launch last Saturday before 9am. The wind was reported to be a strong 35 N. Given that we were on the lee side of the island, it seemed unlikely the SSW launch would work. I decided to head out and try flying anyway. I found Scotty and Moku already on launch observing conditions. The flags were blowing directly up launch (SSW). They said it was rotor. Being a lowly P3 and knowing the wind forecast, I did not dispute their conclusions. I waited until other P4s, Sammy and Gene, arrived. Sammy and Gene are both retired. You wouldn't know it, but Gene is the oldest pilot in the area at 76. He launched first without showing much concern. Gene said they would report conditions once air borne, but he never got the chance. The air was rough, really rough. Collapses were happening every few seconds, but it wasn't unflyable. Sammy launched. Their gliders would shimmer and shudder in the air, but they were gaining altitude. I looked at Scotty. He looked at me. We both knew what was to happen.

Sammy and Gene were not in trouble, but they weren't having relaxing flights either. As part of my self  duty, I wanted to launch into that circus of air currents. I unpacked my wing and launched.

The air was the toughest stuff I have been in to date. I was getting knocked around hard. Later, Sammy would say it was P4 air. I fought to stay in a thermal only to take a major collapse, recover, find lift, and take a collapse again. I was cursing and laughing, terrified and exhilarated  Eventually, I began to lose altitude and began to think about landing. I made sure I kept the an LZ within an easy glide. I felt like my glider kept getting swatted by some invisible giant.

When the time came, I began the standard approach that involved killing as much altitude as possible before flying between two mango trees and then swinging some really aggressive S-turns to bring me down on that down hill slope. As usual, I found almost flyable lift right as I passed the two trees and had that half-second inspiration of "I can fly out of here" but soon came to my senses that it would be better to just land than to try to be a hero in marginal air. I fought through the thermic turbulence until I could engage my short final and stuck it perfectly. I turned around, quickly killed the glider, radioed in my safe landing (a requirement in Kealakekua) and reveled in the excitement I had just been through. I felt like a king.

This coming weekend will be my final weekend at Kealakekua. Next Friday, I sell my car. So all coming flights will be bittersweet as I say good bye to all I have just begun to meet.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hawaii: The Big Island and how I learned to love the bump

During my last months in Oregon, I was offered a temporary position in the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. As a young aspiring geologist, I was and still am stoked; however, I was concerned because contacting the flying group on the Big Island was proving to be especially difficult. Oahu's flying group was alive and active online, but the most I could get about the Big Island was three phone numbers. No one answered on those numbers when I called before leaving.

After arriving on the island, I tried again. I spoke with a local instructor, Scotty, who said the only flying was in Kealakekua Bay. That was a problem for me. Kealakekua Bay was two hours away by car. I had no car. I really didn't want to buy a car because my time in Hawaii was to be a brief five months. I search for junkers, but finding a vehicle on the Island was difficult. That is, until a co-worker gave me a number of his friend. In the end I bought a 1991 Ford Explorer 4x4 for $900. It ran fine. Mostly.

On my 4th weekend on the Big Island, I was Kealakekua bound for the first time. I met Scotty face-to-face and he gave me site intro. All the landing zones were classified as restricted. Restricted, really, was a euphemism. Even at the most forgiving LZ you only got one chance to land once you committed and you had to commit well before you final leg of approach. This gave the air lots of opportunities to raise or drop before landing. Landing too early or too late meant power lines, trees, or bees. The area to land sloped down in the direction of the prominent wind direction at a gradient steeper than any modern glider's glide ratio. For these reasons, any flying on the Big Island was P3 or higher only. I was intimidated, but I knew that it was either fly here or not fly on the island. I told Scott I could do it. I had doubts. As bad as the LZs in Kealakekua are, the launch is good. It's wide, grassy, gently sloping, and without too much rotor producing objects. I knew launching would be no problem.

So I launched early in the morning to avoid any thermic activity. I knew I was in for a 7 minute sledder. I spent half that time following the procedure for the main LZ approach. I came down almost too early and dropped the glider in a bunch of coffee plants. Moku, another local pilot, watched my landing. He wasn't impressed, but it wasn't bad enough to get me kicked out.

I've flown just about every weekend I could have in Kealakekua since and am still counting. In doing so, I have more flights and hours flown over Kealakekua than at another site. More importantly, I have learned to thermal. Kealakekua is only thermic. There's no ridge lift. That's right. Remember my great enemy at Pine Mountain and Woodrat? It's been a learning process, but I've had a flew flights over an hour now, which I consider an accomplishment. Even though most flights are somewhere between 20-30 minutes, I still have a blast. Just writing that puts it all into perspective. Less than a year ago, a 20-30 minute flight would have been akin to a miracle. Now it's average.

Learning to thermal was surprisingly easier than I thought it would be, grant it sometimes you don't find anything and you just sink out. Figuring out efficient turning and what good lift feels like is easy. The hard part was just increasing my tolerance to turbulence - being OK with getting knocked around in the air. When you are hundreds or thousands of feet in the sky and your glider is getting thrashed around, taking deflations, and generally just misbehaving, it's pretty damn unsettling. Even with SIV training, I found myself (unnecessarily) scared at many points. However, I made it a point to keep launching into stronger and stronger air. Somewhere between last September and now, I started flying mid-day. I have learned to embrace "the bump" as it's called. I learned that high pressure days meant smaller, stronger thermals than low pressure days. Thermals I once thought too small to use, I learned to core into. The complicated landing zone has become almost routine. Almost because the LZ also happens to be one of the most thermically active surfaces in the area. You can ALWAYS expect a good 50-100 foot kick, if not more coming in. That said, sometimes the kick doesn't happen, but you need to be ready for anything. That means coming in on a final that will put you where you will want to be without lift but also a final that will let you bleed out an extra 200-300 feet if things go crazy and things do go crazy. Here is video is from my first four weeks of Kealakekua flying.
One day I found myself in 1400+ foot per minute lift with comparable sink. My poor wing was taking collapses all over the place. One collapse was 70-80% of my wing. Given that it was my third week at Kealakekua, my brain was in crisis mode (not to be confused with panic). I used spirals to get down, but it still took me a long time because every time I would exit the spiral, the lift would suck me back up several hundred feet. It was a day I kissed the ground after landing. In hindsight, I should have stayed airborne and just rode things out another hour or two until the lift calmed down with the setting sun.

Did I improve those landings? Did I become a thermal pilot? I can answer unequivocally 'yes' to both these questions, but I was still a P2, a subject I discussed with Scotty when I met him, but I told him I was an advanced P2. This was true. I had over 25 hours, 100 flights, and experience in wide range of mellow conditions. Kealakekua was the place to grow. If Oregon had been my cradle for flying, Kealakekua is my playground. After observing my good landings, honestly my landings have become something I am proud of, my budding thermaling skills, and giving me a little exam, Scotty and Chris, another instructor, gave me my P3 license. Ellis had commented once long before that if I could just stay alive long enough, I would turn into a decent pilot. I think that's true now.

Fall turned to winter in Hawaii and flying conditions improved as they usually do in Kealakekua. The days became sunnier and nights cooler - a recipe for good flying. Here is a video of the early winter flying there.

That's it. That's a quick summary of everything to the present. From here on out it's current.

Farewell Oregon

The summer of 2012 saw my presentation to and submission of my thesis to the University of Oregon. My time there was at an end. With a position in the US Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on the horizon, I found myself headed to the Big Island of Hawaii. I would be living on Kilauea and working on Mauna Loa. I didn't know when I would fly again.

In Oregon I had rediscovered flight among countless other things of which I am grateful to have been a part. From snowshoeing and skiing to running, playing dodgeball, and paintball. I had crashed my motorcycle and resurrected it. My new home had been more than just the cradle Maryland had been. In Oregon, I had thrived as a person.

Leaving behind a place I had finally begun to call home stung. It was nearly as the difficult as the time I moved west from the East Coast. After leaving my apartment and saying good bye to my friends, I threw my glider on my back and departed. The flight was twelve hours with two layovers. I landed in the dark. Even in an age of modern maps, GPS, radar, and transponders, I still tried to wrap my brain around the idea that our plane was going to land on a very small dot in a very large ocean without enough fuel to turn around should we miss our mark or any other improbable circumstance occur. I arrived in the land of perpetual summer and sat alone at the airport until my ride showed.

This video is a farewell tribute. Oregon, I shall return.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Learning to fly (part III)

View from Peterson Butte Launch
Over the course of that spring and early summer, Ryan and I, together and separately, few Cape Lookout and Sollie Smith, all the while practicing our kiting skills at Cape Kiwanda. Matt Hensley even spent a day with us at Astoria teaching us how to kite with As and Cs. If nothing else, the spring was a time of learning. The coastal air was clean and smooth. The wind was predictable even when the pilots weren't. Bill also spent time with me a site closer to Eugene - a place called Peterson Butte. He worked on the As and Cs with me there. Despite him being twice my age, he treated me like a peer. Through these combined efforts, I began to fill in all the holes of P2 training that my first instructor had left behind.

It was Ryan who had the idea Cape Perpetua. Cape Perpetua was and remains an old site not often used. I am fairly certain that the story you are about to depicts its most recent use. Having never flown the site before, we arrived early to find the wind, as far as we could tell, coming in perfectly. We scoped conditions for two hours, checked potential landing zones, and observed conditions longer still. Finally, Ryan had had enough. He reversed and found superb, smooth lift. As I prepared to follow him into the air, the wind died and clouds blanketed the cape. I was fogged in - except Ryan reported that the fog only veneered the cape. He was a few hundred feet out in lift and could still see the beach. I forward launched. My plan was to go straight out until I cleared the clouds. I told him my plan on the radio before launching so he would stay clear as I emerged from the cloud bank. Then I went for it. It was a dumb thing to do, especially without a GPS. I felt lost in the fog and did my best to keep my bearings.  I was lucky. It worked. A minute after launch, the clouds began to part and I could see the coast. The rest of the flight went well, until I went in to land. I had chosen a small beach. It was the tightest landing zone I had ever attempted. In the end, I felt too confined and low to turn. Forced into a gully,  I landed downwind and in a stream. My glider filled with water and I struggled for over an hour until Ryan landed, packed, and came to help. I broke a few rules to make this flight happen and I know it was stupid. Was it worth it? I don't know. I got away unharmed, but, as I said, I was lucky. Everything else aside, I survived and learned from this day. There is something to be said for that.
As April rolled to May and May to June, the coastal winds began to take up their summer regime, a non-flyable regime. Rather than wind going up and over capes, wind goes around them instead in the summer - in other words, no lift.

With the coast dying, Ryan and I took the sage advice from a man by the name of Blizzard and threw money down for an SIV course. It wasn't cheap, but it was worth it. SIV stands for some French shortening of a French term for an emergency maneuvers paragliding course. I experienced being towed by a boat for the first time, something I do not remember fondly. A paraglider feels sluggish under tow. The wing never feels like it is in the correct position overhead. The vibrations coming through the mile long cable are not reassuring. I was always eager to hear the "NOW" over the radio, telling me to cut the tow and be free of the whole thing. Then, I would find myself over a half mile high with a guy on the radio telling me to foul my wing in various ways. It started with collapsing the wing, and moved on to flying backwards, stalling the wing, wing overs, cravats, spirals and, for some, reserve tosses. If I told you I was anything but terrified each flight, I'd be lying to you, but I learned more about my glider in those two days than the 10 hours of air time I had had since I started flying. Check out the video for what I'm talking about. The next day I presented my thesis to the geology department. I did so with a grin and sore neck.
I left the SIV course with a better understanding of my wing and a better understanding of what to do should things go wrong. It was an excellent experience and well worth the cost. Since then, I have saved myself from at least one incident that probably would have destroyed me or my wing.

With a dead coast, I headed east, to the high desert, for a different sort of flying - the fabled glass off.
Glass off is the term given to air that rises from the ground after the sun heats the surface of the earth all day long. All the warm air releases skyward and creates a very smooth but strong lift event. If you catch glass off early enough, you can fly for hours. Pine Mountain is world renown for its glass offs. As a member of the Cascade Paragliding Club, I was a little surprised by how welcoming the Desert Air Riders were. Despite my affiliation, they treated me as one of their own.

A toward the setting sun and other pilots
Somewhere above Pine Mountain
On my first flight at Pine, I was warned about the venturi effect, an increase in wind speed due to topography, near a saddle in the ridge. I noted the advice along with everything else thrown at me during the site intro. After launching, I stayed out in front of the ridge for some time and then slowly worked my way back toward the saddle and summit. At the point of my path closest to the saddle, I turned to fly away from the ridge. To my horror, I found myself making no positive gain on the ground. The speed of the wind coming at my glider exceeded my gliders maximum air speed. I was moving backwards. I fully engaged my speed bar to steepen my wing's angle of attack and leaned back in my harness to reduce drag. Nothing was working. Going over the back of a ridge is a very bad thing. The wind ward side contains stable rising air. The lee side is an area of sink and turbulence. I had already been warned that more than one pilot had broken their back after being pushed through the saddle. After fighting the wind for more than 10 minutes, I looked behind me. My horizontal position had not changed, but I had gained over 1,000' since the ordeal began. I added a slight angle to my yaw to try to slowly work away from the saddle. After another 5 minutes of sweating pure fear, I broke free. I stayed well out in front of Pine Mountain the rest of the night - not venturing near the saddle again.

I would end up riding 3.5 hours to Pine Mountain every Friday that summer. Launch elevation was around 5,000' ASL. It was not uncommon to exceed 7,000' ASL. I would spend the night in my tent near launch, fly the next morning, fly glass off again Saturday night and head home Sunday morning. The flights were great. I eventually overcame my fear of the saddle on the calmer days and checked it out from a safe perspective. I also flew mornings before the thermals started acting up and it was at Pine Mountain that I finally exceeded my first 20 hours of flight time.

The glass offs were noticeably more turbulent than the coastal flying. Even during glass, there were thermals that would produce stronger lift. It was unsettling at first. I eventually grew accustomed to it increased turbulence, but never really acquired the taste for textured air. At the end of summer, I rode the 3 hours down to Woodrat and participated in Star Thistle. Kevin Lee, a well known instructor the Rogue Valley Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association, gave me a well developed site intro and made sure I was able to handle big air of Woodrat.

On my first flight from Woodrat, I saw my first reserve toss (not including the SIV clinic). The pilot fell behind the ridge, an easy feat at Woodrat. The turbulence turned his wing into a ball and 5 seconds later he lost nearly 700'. His reserve toss was almost too late to matter, but he walked away unhurt. I never flew midday at Woodrat, being too weak in my thermaling skills. I did, however, fly the glass off there. It was even more turbulent than at Pine Mountain. I couldn't become comfortable in the stronger air. After an hour, I chose to land. Learning to thermal would come later.

As August turned into September, Pine Mountain glass offs became colder and weaker; however, the end of summer meant a return to coastal flying. The Cascade Paragliding Club had just finished its revitalization of the Yaquina Head site. I arrived around noon on a mid-September day to find the wind coming straight up launch at 9-10 mph. I called Ryan. Given that he only lived 10 minutes away, he showed up promptly. It was blissful to return to the smooth coastal ridge lift that I had spread my figurative wings in so long ago. The conditions were perfect. I was also surprised to see my flying had improved since my last coastal flight in June. Yaquina flight felt like a summarization of all I had learned since I first unpacked the wing the February before. My wing had a character I was learning to understand. I could read the wind. I knew how to react. Yaquina Head was the first time I felt like a pilot who completely understood the science and mechanics of flight.
Sadly, the day would also be my last day flying with Ryan. We had basically learned to fly together and from each other, but it was time to go. I said farewell to my partner in crime and rode home thinking of what the futures may lay in store. I was moving to Hawaii at the end of the month.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Learning to fly (part II)

When I moved to Oregon, I did not fly for nearly a year. Grad school was time consuming. Furthermore, I had no car, only a small motorcycle. One day I threw the glider in the back of my girlfriends jeep before we went off camping in the desert. Coincidentally, there were gliding pilots at the same campground (Pine Mountain) that night. They invited me to fly with them. The next morning, I did an early desert flight before the thermals began to build. It was just a sledder and it was also the roughest flight I had had to that date. Once we separated, I lacked, among other things, the transport to really put an effort in continuing to fly.

Then my buddy, Ryan, gave me a call one day in September. After college back east, he moved to lake Tahoe and became a ski bum, but he now had a position starting at the Rogue Brewery in Newport, Oregon. Newport was only two hours away from my school in Eugene. Nothing really happened at first. Then one day in February I figured out how to carry my glider on my motorcycle. The next day Ryan and I started kiting on the beach near his house. It was a little random, but fun. It was nice to have a familiar face in flight. Two weeks later we talked each other into going to a training hill of sorts, the Cape Kiwanda Dunes. It was early March, and I will remember that day for the rest of my life.

When I had launched at Pine Mountain, the August prior, I was terrified. It had been over a year since I had even pulled the wing out. I was even having trouble hooking up my speed system with confidence. I did a forward because a reverse was out of the question. Cape Kiwanda changed that. I screwed up a few times. But the dunes were broad and barren. The sand was soft - relatively. I ate sand. I intentionally stalled my glider a few feet above the ground. I landed cross wind. I landed down wind. Ryan was as rusty as I was. Together, we re-learned what we had learned. I walked up that training hill no less than 12 times that day. I can only describe that time as pure joy. I was exhausted by the end, but I could reverse launch again. The day was magic. It was also my first time flying with a camera. I had too much fun making this video, though I am ashamed to say I stole the song from another paragliding film - a sin I will never repeat again.
Ryan kept telling me we needed to get in with the local paragliding group. I don't know why I was so reluctant to do so before the suggestion. I left an email with on the listserv, and was soon called by a guy named Bill (P3). He said the flying was going to be good that weekend at some place called Cape Lookout. The next Saturday, I rode to his abode, threw my stuff in the back of his 4x4 and we were off. I sat in the back, listening to Bill chat with another pilot, Mike (P4), in the front passenger seat. I didn't really care where we were going or how long it would take to get there. I had felt like I already had success. I was breaking the barrier. Even if today was blown out, it would be fine. A sledder would make me happy. I would learn the site - a real soaring site, not just some low dunes.

After a couple hours we arrived at Cape Lookout. I didn't really know the geography. I could see the beach from the meager roadside launch. The wind was dead, but Bill didn't seem too concerned. We ate lunch and waited. Around 2 pm, the wind began to pick up a little. More pilots began arriving. Eventually, there were over 20 pilots gathered around the small launch. Some were taking off into sledders directly toward the beach. I got in line telling myself a decent launch and a solid landing would make the day a success. The wind steadily built...

When I launched, I was nervous. I pulled the wing up twice trying to do a reverse launch. Both times, it fell flat, with not enough wind. I fly a small Ellus 2. The wing is known to be a tank in that it's heavy as far as wings go and needs a bit more wind that most to launch. After more effort, I finally got the wing up! I was running forward! My feet left the ground!! I cleared the launch and made a gradual left, staying in the lift band of the cape out over the water. I turned away from the hill and then back toward launch. Unlike any other flight I had ever had, I maintained altitude. I didn't know what to do other than to keep doing what I was doing. So I just worked my way back and forth along the lift band. The other pilots, seeing my success, began launching one after the other to take advantage of the soaring conditions.

Only after I managed a couple hundred feet over launch, did I see the majesty of Cape Lookout. It extended a mile out into the ocean, covered by beautiful towering pine trees. Clouds blocked some of the higher parts of the cape. We were only flying a small part of it that day because the lift was light and ravines in the cape reduced the lift windward of their presence making a crossing of the ravines too risky.

Conditions remained light all day. Many launched and, during the lighter periods, many sunk out. I came close a few times to doing just that, but I always managed to hang in there. I had worn my summer motorcycle riding gloves - a mistake in the Oregon winter on the coast. My hands felt like they had frozen to my controls and I was just applying weight to my arms to turn. I also had a pee terribly after over two hours of being airborne, but I did not want to land. This was it. This was what I had been chasing whether I had realized it or not. Everything, at that moment, was perfect. Life was good. Tomorrow was not now and yesterday wasn't real. All the above rang true - until the urge to pee overwhelmed me and I went to land anyway. I CHOSE to land. I left the lift band, set up my approach and brought the glider down on the wide long sandy beach and was welcomed to a balmy 49 F. I took care of business and packed up. Fifteen minutes after landing, the wind died and dumped all other pilots from the air. I hurried to finish packing my glider as 20+ gliders rained down around me. I did my best to be courteous and stay clear as they had no choice about coming down.
No one really got high or left the immediate ridge, but it was amazing
I sat in the back as I rode home in pure ecstasy. At Bills, I loaded the packed glider onto my back and rode an hour in the dark through the farmlands until I reached the comfort of my dorm. I dropped everything as soon as the lock clicked behind me. I passed out on by bed in my riding gear. Waking the next day, most of my muscles were soar. Everything was tired. I had never thought about the muscles flying would need. I tried to explain to my friends in the geology department what I had experienced. The elation I wanted to share went mostly unheard. There was curiosity from most, but they just didn't know. They couldn't understand without having done it themselves. I was alone - at least until I called up Ryan, who had had to work that Saturday, and gave him the details. Ryan understood. He was jealous. I was still learning to make videos at the time, so please forgive the over dramatization from that day.
A couple weeks later was the Oceanside fly-in. I could only make it Sunday. I rode the bike the whole three hours to Cape Lookout from Eugene. I arrived at 10 am to already see pilots in the air. I called Ryan, told him it was on, and ran my pre-flight. I was in the air 15 minutes later. The cloud base was lower, but the lift was stronger. As I flew, more pilots arrived and launched. The sky was filling with more than 30+ gliders. Over two hours passed before I saw Ryan's wing below mine. I worked around and pulled along side him. We chatted a bit and then he took lead. I followed. We crossed the ravine nearest launch, a feat I had never dared before. Together, we worked further down the cape. I followed him into the clouds. We played a cloud base. I know it was unsafe, especially with all the other pilots in the air, but it was worth it to me then. It was all surreal. It wasn't real. I never felt safe, but I didn't feel unsafe either. The video below captures among the things already mentioned, a close call I had when trying to report another glider that had crashed. I escaped narrowly as my wing was brushed by pine needles.
After 3 hours of flying, I had had enough and Ryan landed too. I didn't realize it until I was on the ground, but I was shaking. I didn't stop shaking for many minutes. I don't know if it was the cold, adrenaline, or exhaustion. Again, the wind died shortly after I landed and the pilots were forced to break away from the cape to land.

We talked to some other pilots, who said they were headed to a nearby site, Sollie Smith, where the light thermals would be fun to play in. We followed them in Ryan's car. It was a sledder. I'll just leave this video here to describe the flight. The date on the video doesn't match the story. Either my logs are wrong or my memory is. It doesn't matter though. The flights happened either way.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Learning to fly (part I)

I started flying at a particularly turbulent (yes, there will be puns) period of my life. I had just returned from study abroad to a failing relationship in the January of 2008. The other party to said relationship had proposed the idea of paragliding lessons over a year earlier. Despite our unraveling of the ties that bound us, we went into learning to fly together that January. At the time, we both lived in Washington, DC. Yup, on top of everything else, it was the mid-Atlantic.

I pioneered the cross-wind forward launch 
The early flights were your standard training hill activities, including a lot of forward launching and even, in our naive ways, cross-wind forward launches. The training hills were gentle, which made up for the little to no instruction our instructor gave us. We landed down wind. We landed in the rotor from tree lines. We even landed backwards. 

Our instructor eventually said we were ready for the big league and off we went to a high launch. The other two students, including my (lessening) significant other, launched first and enjoyed sledders to the large landing zone that remains a large plowed corn field. The the wind started blowing from over the back. I practically pleaded with my instructor to sit things out and see if conditions improved. The cycles began to vary from over the back to maybe 1-2 mph straight up launch. He said OK. I was elated and did a forward launch with nearly zero headwind. Now, I am only shocked he would have sent a student in those conditions.

The first time I was airborne, the air was gentle
Not having a radio, I was fortunate that sky had clouded over and thermic activity was basically nil. I had a smooth sledder to the landing zone with not a hint of lift. In hindsight, I consider myself lucky that I did not encounter rotor from the ridge. I was ecstatic as I landed. I had flown a solid 10 minutes without immediate guidance and landed safely. Years later, I found out I flew a DHV 2 wing, an Aspen Gradient. To those who are not savvy rating of paragliding wings, a DHV 2 is not a beginners wing. Should something had happened, I probably would have been in real trouble.

Our instructor told us that we were then, at that moment, P2s - Novice Pilots - and that his job was done. We never saw him again. Upon contacting others in the DC flying community and meeting up with them we talked our stories. They were excited to have a couple new P2s in the area and asked to see our licenses. "Licenses?" We asked. "No, (Instructor's Name) told us we're good..."

Turns out to get the P2 rating we had to taken a written exam. Only an instructor could do that and ours, as we later discovered, had left the country. The only other guy in the area, Jim Kaplan, stepped up and took us on for free. He gave us lectures and quizzed us on the theory and principles of flight. He proctored our written exams. I learned a lot from him, but more than anything, I learned of the many, many ways paragliding can be hazardous, scenarios our previous "mentor" had never mentioned. Eventually, we became real P2s a year later in winter of 2009. I and the once-significant other went our separate ways. Neither of us were very tactful dealing with the matter. I don't know if she flies today or not. I know she lives in Chicago, so I suspect not, but I won't assume. Either way, this is where her part in the story ends.

Ellis and her crew
Hours after she moved out, the only other paragliding pilot, also a budding P2, at my college moved in. My new roommate, Ryan, would become my "paragliding buddy" that I still highly regard to this day. Over the next year, we only flew once together. It just never worked out. Like the moon and sun, it was just unusual to see us in the sky together. Instead, I flew frequently with a P3, an intermediate pilot, named Ellis. She took me under her wing and taught me the more than anything that my learning had just begun. There were so many things I had yet to know and experience. I made mistakes. At one point, I crashed into a bunch of trees and was stuck for over three hours. I and my glider escaped without damage. In the end I only accumulated 2-3 hours of air time and a couple dozen flights before finally moving out of the Maryland/DC area. I was headed to Oregon, to start school at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I would later come to remember my mid-Atlantic flying as an intro tutorial into something that would soon become much bigger than I could have possibly imagined...
I got picked up, spun around in a bad way and found a tree

Sunday, January 13, 2013


In an effort to exert my flying influence in a direction that is not an annoyance to others, I decided to write these things down as a record of flights passed, current endeavors, and present anticipations for the future. I do not make any promises about the regularity of posts, but if on that far chance someone takes enough interest to follow, I apologize now and only this once. However, my love for free flight is the first real activity I have felt like I can pursue for a lifetime, so, though posts may become far in between, they will persist. 

Look upward and behold the wanders I have seen...