Thursday, February 20, 2014

SoCal Winters

The onset of winter marked the end of another flying year and a third month in the job search. The overall mood was rather gloomy - that is until beautiful images of Arches National Park graced my monitor. The lady in my life also ooo'd and aww'd over the tan-orange sandstone and blue sky. We then realized, there was nothing really holding us to the Eastern seaboard. I wrapped up my standing job applications, engaged in the usual family holiday meet and greet, and, on December 26th, my lady friend and I set course for the West.

A wedding in Indiana and several national parks later, I found myself talking to my old Oregon flying mentor, Bill. He was in southern California, heading to Mexico for some winter flying, but was taking a few days to fly some sights east of Los Angeles. An acquaintance, Peter, was also with him. I jumped at the chance to fly a new region with some old buddies. The next day, Peter, Bill, and I were standing on the launch at Crestline. Crestline is typically a hang glider launch as it is a far glide to the Andy Jackson airfield landing zone, but the light winds and strong potential for thermals made this rarely (PG) launch an option. Usually paragliding pilots use the Marshal launch that is much closer and lower to the airfield. Peter intentionally  or unintentionally volunteered to be the air dummy that day and was the first to leave launch.

Peter (left), Bill (right) conversing before Peter's launch at Crestline.
The cycles were coming up light with a steady 6-7 mph wind. The launch was wide, grassy, and flat - perfect for me. I knew I would have no trouble penetrating to the LZ and enjoyed taking my time and calming my nerves while Peter executed a perfect launch into the light air.

Peter in front of Crestline.
Peter wasn't gaining altitude, but he was maintaining around launch. Bill insisted I be the next to go. Not knowing how conditions may change, I agreed. That's not to say that multiple pilots could not launch simultaneously at Crestline, but Bill was taking his time too. The launch was one of the easiest I had seen in a long time and loomed nearly or over 3000' of elevation change to the valley below. I jumped in my harness, which I had prepared and left sitting in the shade of a nearby tree. I raised the wing into what felt like steady 8 mph air (perfect) on the flat grassy bank. I kited the wing for a few seconds, and then turned to run.

Here, I am torpedoing towards the ridge face.
Once I turned, I assumed the torpedo position, which uses weight position and brake length to maximize airspeed, keep the glider over head, and help get the pilot into the air. Bill was cheering me on, which I appreciated. My lady friend, an wonderful amateur photographer, documented the event well.

Finally airborne
Seconds after launch

My feet left the ground and I found the wing had no problem penetrating. The downside, I could not rely on ridge lift to stay aloft. I immediately began hunting for thermals. I tried to stay with Peter, but eventually his wing was indisputably higher than mine. It was a loooooooong glide to the LZ, so I tried to plot what I thought to be the most efficient course and went for it. To get to the LZ, I had to fly over another ridge, one that boasts the Marshal launch. I tried my best to find something thermic along the crest of this ridge, but I had no luck. I had a 20 minute flight. It was fun and the LZ was easy. The only bumps I had were in my last 100 ft of altitude. Bill launched after me and joined Peter in the air. The two flew for another thirty minutes.

Bill immediately after launching

I found a ride back to the top in a van for $10. I was not thrilled to have to pay to return to launch, but I didn't have a ride, and I knew mid-day conditions were coming. The driver went by the name of "Annlow." I still don't know how to spell his name. On the ride up, I realized an old friend, an Oregon pilot, Jim, was sharing the van with me. It was a pleasant surprise to catch up with him. We arrived at Crestline around noon thirty to find several hang gliders in the process of being setup. I was a little dismayed, thinking conditions were too strong, but after observing a few cycles, I decided it was worth trying. All the other paraglider pilots agreed.

I was the first paraglider to launch from this group. I expected another sledder. My plan was to repeat my route from last time, but hope for better. After being in the air a few minutes, I found a strong enough thermal that I was confident it would be worth turning into. This gave me several extra hundred feet. Rather than try my luck at lee side thermals, I thought it best to use this altitude to get to the above Marshal and its ridge. I had more of a headwind than on my first flight, and I arrived at that ridge with only a hundred feet or so (no vario) more than last time. I could see the main gaggle of pilots 700" above me and a half mile away. If I could somehow make it to them, I would be able to use their wings to mark thermals. Then, I felt a bump. I turned in it. I rose. I climbed a hundred feet. I found a larger thermal and was soon rising above the wings that had been near me. I made my way to the main gaggle. The flying was tight, the thermals were small, but I could now watch each wing for signs of lift. I flew for nearly three hours. A few times, conditions weakened, and many pilots sunk out, but I always managed to find less sink or even the tiniest bits of lift to stay aloft. Other times, the conditions were strong, and my tank of a glider rolled, pitched, and yawed with the disturbance in the air.

The high pressure day gave me good practice to milk every bit of lift from each passing thermal sans vario.

When I finally did start to descend for good, it was like someone had flipped a switch. There were no more thermals to be had, and everything was extremely smooth. The air was buoyant and I enjoyed a fifteen minute, ~1500 ft descent to the LZ, where I was one of the last gliders to land. It took me a few moments to collect myself once on the ground. The flight was long and mentally draining albeit fantastic. I was exhausted. As I was packing, I heard talk of where the flying would be the next day.

The next day:
I took the hour long drive to Lake Elsinore. While trying to find launch, I found a bunch of men standing on a ridge line. They had weirdly large bags in their cars. Not knowing the area, I stopped and joined their group. Our first launch was at E launch. The E launch and its LZ are not exactly established. The launch is short, with barely enough area to lay out a wing. The LZ was described as pack up immediately and don't hang around. Landing short was ill advised as you would end up in the "shanty town".

The "shanty town"
The cycles were very light and I was the second to last pilot to launch. When I brought the wing up the first time, it did not want to fly. I gave it a more aggressive tug with a dynamic reverse the second time, turned, and torpedoed hard. I felt a rush of air as my feet left the ground and the wing picked up speed. I had only a short flight, directly over the shanty town, and landed in the "pack up and go" LZ five minutes later.  A few times, I wondered if my wing was going to give me the glide to get to the LZ. A large bubble, probably one big enough to turn in, gave me the lift I needed to make the distance.

When I returned to the top, I found Bill and Peter at Edwards launch. They were ready to go. Peter was in the air first, Bill was quick to follow.

Bill launching (left), Peter flying (center glider)
Edwards launch is rather tricky as it is essentially a small pinnacle. If you lay the wing out, the wing sits below you, and you do not have a lot of ledge to run to get the wing above you. There is the option to launch next to this pinnacle, but there your wing is in rotor and you have a far ways to kite your wing before you become airborne. Bill and Peter chose the latter. Rather than risk potential injury, I chose the more latter as well. When I raised the wing to join Bill and Peter in the air, I found kiting difficult. The airspeed a few meters overhead was also much stronger than at head ground level. I struggle to move the wing toward the ledge. After a moment of struggle and another inflation later, I finally made it. The air was light. Seven or eight wings struggled to scratch while staying out of each other ways. After a mere 20 minutes or so, we all sunk out. The LZ was large and treeless. Landing was easy. We packed up and returned to launch.

Returning to launch, I found over two dozen gliders in the air - mostly paragliders, but some hang gliders. Conditions were now strong, around 15 mph. Some paragliders appeared parked. I tried launching again, but was denied by the rotor many times. Eventually, I determined it best to listen to my wing. I put my wing to the side and helped the pilots still wanting to launch. Many fought their wings for several minutes before struggling to fly. Others ended up in the burnt underbrush that marked the landscape. After an hour or so of this circus, "Annlow," the van driver from the other day appeared. Turns out, "Annlow" is a rather famous paragliding pilot. Some said he invented the first SIV clinic. "Annlow" pulled out a small wing and began doing acro and AMAZING ground handling in the rotor that had trashed so many other wings. I guess he got bored after a bit. I was in awe when he came over and asked if I wanted to try a lesser used launch that faced directly into the wind. I immediately agreed as did a few other younger pilots.

It was a bit of a hike as "Annlow" led this small group of gentlemen, boys really, with promises of a secret launch and wind going straight up the hill. He was right. When we got to the clearing on the side of the hill, the air was clean and smooth. "Annlow" launched first to try to prove how good the air was, but at that point I was convinced that "Annlow" could fly through a tornado.

Another pilot tried first. Everything went well, except he turned the wrong way to launch, giving himself a full riser twist. He worked it out to a ha;f riser twist, but was now facing the wrong direction. Worse, he was flying toward the hill, but he did not know it as he was facing the back of his wing. At the last possible second, he turned his body around, and then turned his wing around. His glider sat there, in a venturi caused by the ridge, but he slowly worked his way forward and out in front of the ridge. I was next.

I have to admit, I had a good launch. It was a bit strong, but not unlike launching at the coast. I was surprised to find that maintaining above the ridge was difficult and I had no problems penetrating. Conditions had certainly mellowed out in the last hour; however, after nearly an hour of glass-off flying, conditions began to strengthen again. Bill, Peter, and I flew around each other a few times before they went to land and I realized that I was having an increasingly difficult time penetrating. After an hour, I pointed my wing toward the LZ. I never had too much doubt I would make it, especially by the time that half of the exceptionally long LZ was behind me, but I was startled to discover that the lower I got to the LZ, the less ground speed I had. In my last 50 vertical feet, I traveled less than 10 ft, and I was already on full speed bar!

I landed with no ground speed, said good bye to Bill and Peter, and went to find pizza. The next day, I was Death Valley bound.