Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Catching up

I thought it was time to catch up.

I guess I should write something first about my deployment flight. It was never the case that I didn't want to revisit it, it’s just that I never got around to writing up a flight report. If you've seen the video and read my intro I state that I didn’t want to indulge in excuse making for the decisions I made leading up to the deployment. I guess what I’m about to write here reneges on that promise a bit.

I actually chose to fly on Sunday rather than Saturday, because the forecast called for less moisture. Both the top of the lift and cloudbase were pegged to be close to 14k. But nowhere was there any indication of overdevelopment. And, really, there wasn’t any. By the time I got up and out from launch there were a few clouds on the backside of Pine and some development over Lockwood Valley and Frazier. But other than that there were blue skies everywhere.

I think I left Reyes Peak somewhere near 12k for my glide over the “Badlands.”  If I remember correctly, I came into Grade Valley comfortably without having to stop for a boost along the way.

Updated video of the flight from start to finish

Although the skies were dark above the eastern side of Lockwood and Frazier there wasn’t any towering development. Frazier’s “whaleback” ridge runs SW to NE; most of the major development ran from the south side of Lockwood right over the ridgeline. There was, however, a line of clouds that joined the main development from the south. As I began to work lift just on the east side of Grade Valley, right below the western terminus of the cloud street running over Frazier, that other street was just a line of individual clouds. Beyond that there wasn’t another cloud in the sky for twenty miles.

It wasn’t long after reaching Grade that I was turning circles near 14k and cloudbase. I purposely stayed below the southern edge of the cloudstreet to give myself an out. Despite that, I still had to dive away from wispies on my glide to the SE; my glide angle putting me a couple of miles south of Frazier and away from the main development. I just had to scoot under the clouds running in from the south and I’d be in a great position for my glide out into the desert, where as mentioned, the next cloud was twenty miles away.

The southern cloud street had filled in from when I first arrived at Lockwood. Despite that, from my angle near base, the cloud line didn’t look very wide. The shadows on the ground should have been a tell, but at the time I thought most of the darkness was caused by the stuff billowing up above Frazier. The fact that there was nothing but blue skies on the other side of the clouds was probably the main factor for me continuing on. That, and the fact that I’ve seen these conditions before near Frazier, and made it through to the other side without issue.

As I left the lift near Grade to go on my glide I thought I was in perfect position. By the time that I would reach the last line of clouds I would lose enough altitude to scoot underneath them. If I did encounter any lift I would already be close enough to the other side to avoid any trouble. Of course, that didn’t happen; if anything I gained altitude.

From the video it looks like I flew right into the clouds. But it didn’t quite happen that way. On the way to the cloud line my focus was on its dark edge. I hadn’t actually reached it when I became engulfed in white. It all happened rather quickly. Of course in hindsight I should have whipped the glider around to head back from where I came. However, my first instinct was to try to fly fast and straight and to keep the wings level. As I mention above, the cloud line didn’t seem all that wide, and so I really thought that I’d pop out the other side rather quickly.

It should be noted here that this was not a cu-nim. Cloud base was 14k, but the tops, even above Frazier, were no more than 17k.

Once in the cloud conditions became very turbulent. To avoid PIO I popped the VG (after a few tries) and slowed the glider down. It doesn’t show it in the video, but at one point the control bar was almost ripped from my hands. Soon after that I no longer had control of the glider. Thinking about it, more than likely I was in a spiral dive. Regardless, I no longer had command of the situation; to take it back, I decided to throw my reserve.

Perhaps I should have let things play out. After all, one way we are told to escape cloud suck is to put the glider in a spiral dive. But bad things can happen from a spiral dive, especially when you’re not in control. Not long before this I watched an aerobatic pilot die after a stall during an attempted loop when his wings folded up around him, which made it impossible to get out his reserve. Thinking about my kids, I wasn’t going to take the chance of something like that happening so I threw the reserve. I think, violent, would best describe the situation after the chute inflated. The pull with just one hand on the base tube was enough to destroy the control bar.

The video cuts off soon after inflation, but you do get a glimpse of how I was tossed about. That went on until finally clearing the clouds on my descent. With SW winds I had hoped that my drift would take me to Hungary Valley and civilization. If anything, I headed west instead. I think the position of my still intact wings had something to do with that. 

During the ride down I managed to unzip my harness to get my legs out for impact. After doing so, I climbed over to the top side of the glider to avoid getting entangled in the wires and metal of the broken control bar. I came down on a ridgeline just south of Frazier. I did what I could to land on my feet, but the canopy draped over a tree twisting my body so that I hit the ground with my shoulder. Luckily, having the canopy catch the tree minimized the impact. Besides a gash along the back of my neck – one that I didn’t notice until it was pointed out later – I walked away unharmed.  

After thinking, “well, I survived” as I sat there on the ground, the second thought that came into my mind was that it was probably a good time to give the sport up. Not because I was worrying about my own well being – I’ve been well aware of the risk since leaving the training hill back in 1984 – but being a husband and father, of course, made it more than just about me. I guess one could argue that, no, it has always been about me, because a responsible father wouldn’t assume that risk in the first place. Frankly, I don’t really have an answer to that, other than to admit that it has been and is selfish of me to fly.

A little help from my friends, Dan DeWeese and Owen Morse. That's Dan up in the tree. The reserve made it though the ordeal intact.

I used to fly every weekend. But the agreement I made with my wife curtailed my flying to once a month once our first child was born in 1996. However, for the last few years leading up to here, the time between flights seemed to get longer and longer. Some of that had to do with the internet and modern weather forecasting. If I was only going to fly on occasion, it would only be on a good day. These tools made it easy to stay home on marginal days. But leading up to the flight I found myself looking for reasons not to fly rather than the opposite. Quite frankly, hang gliding just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. This flight was only my third in the previous 365 plus days.

Looking at the glider on the ground it was obvious that the repairs would be costly. Besides my family situation, I didn’t think whatever interest I had left in the sport was enough to justify paying the expenses needed to get back into the air. I decided right there and then to call it a day.

But a month or so later I was sitting on a picnic bench at my In-Laws’ property near Santa Cruz when I noticed a redtail take flight from a nearby tree. As he turned lazy circles above me I thought, “I used to do that,” “Maybe I want to again.” As the hawk climbed out above me I decided I would at least go ahead with the repairs, which included a need for a new sail. If when finished I still didn’t want to fly anymore I could always sell my equipment with a minimal loss.

After the repairs were done the glider just sat in the garage. Every time that I thought I wanted to get back into the sport I would think of all the hassles involved, from securing drivers to long days in the desert to my airsickness problem. But, I wanted to at least fly one more time before making a final decision. That day came two Februarys ago in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, it ended up being a marginal day. After turning circles over the same spot for an hour I flew out to the beach with the same feeling I had going into the flight. The glider went back to its same resting spot in the garage. Then that summer my flying partner and best friend had a near fatal accident. A funny thing, though: as he lay in the hospital during his long recovery, I actually felt an obligation to fly again for his sake, rather than looking at the accident as the final nail. Despite that, the glider didn’t budge from the garage.

That was until last January in Santa Barbara.

Cloud cover made the day a carbon copy of my last flight, but with one major exception: I felt excited about flying again. Of course, that didn’t get me back in the air again until June. 

My attitude after the January flight was that if things looked good and it was convenient I’d fly.  One place that is never convenient is Blackhawk. It’s over 3 hours to launch and I’m usually flying away from home. It’s a leave home early get home late place, and more often than not, triple digit temperatures on the ground. But my two longest flights have been from Blackhawk and conditions looked good and we had a driver and so I decided to go out there again. 

Light and variable conditions made launching a bit sketchy. It’s a good thing I still have some umph left in my 55 year-old legs because it took an awful long run to get airborne. Blackhawk is a funny place: it probably has more 100+ mile flights than any other site in Southern California; despite that, getting up at launch takes work and is never a sure thing. Because of that, it tasted extra sweet to climb out soon after launching. The forecast was for 12k cloud base. I left launch on my way east with 10k.

After a long glide and some struggle in a bit of ratty lift, I managed to dial into something that got me to 12k and cloudbase. Besides just getting back in the ball game, it felt good working the lift. It wasn’t straight forward as the core would change directions on the way to base, forcing me to make adjustments along the way.

Photo by Jonathan Dietch

I would work one more thermal before a long glide to the deck, with thoughts of my deployment flight the main reason for landing early. Ahead of my course line sat a fairly wide dark bottomed cloud. At the time I was probably 2,000 ft below it. As I flew under the cloud I told myself that if I found lift close to the other side I’d work it, but if I found it on the near side I’d fly though it without stopping. The lift was on the near side. The extra 1,500 ft or so would have gotten me above Copper Mountain, which in the past has proven to be a pretty reliable thermal generator. I ended up landing at its base. The flight was just under 40 miles, but it was rewarding in its own way.

Despite feeling good about flying again, I didn’t get airborne again until just a couple of weeks ago. I made an attempt to fly Crestline in September, but for the first time in my flying career, despite my motion sickness problem, I felt nauseated at launch. We had hoped to go over the back for a long flight into the desert, but overdevelopment put a stop to that. So as it turned out I didn’t miss much anyway.

Two weeks ago I flew Oat Mountain above Fillmore. Because it is part of the Sant Clara river basin Oat generally is not the best place to fly. It's only about 15 miles or so from the coast and under normal conditions the sea breeze funnels right through the basin. We were actually supposed to fly Ojai, but idiot me didn't remember to call for a permit until 4:44; the ranger station closes at 4:30. However, the forecast was calling for SE winds, which would keep the marine air at bay. The lapse rate between 3 and 9k gave us hope that we might be able to get up high enough to connect into Ojai and eventually to Santa Barbara, a flight that has never been done before. However, the surface temperature never got close to what was predicted. And as you can see in the video we didn’t get very far.

If there is one aspect of this sport that is not "just like riding a bike" it would be landing. The more time that passes between flights the more apprehensive I've become about it. Anyway, the flight wasn't what I was hoping for, but I felt good about the landing. It gave me a bit of a boost in confidence to go forward.

Now I do believe we're done caught up.


Anonymous said...

Wow thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the write up, John. I think past a certain point pilots become "lifers". Even if you give the sport up for years it never leaves you. 25 years ago when were all riding in the Topa van I knew most of us were already at that point. I haven't flown for almost 10 years and it still hasn't left me. Narratives like yours inspire me to get back in the game... someday soon.

John Scott said...

Thank you. Hopefully, you'll come back. I know one of the reasons I wasn't enjoying the sport that much was because Team Topa no longer existed. At least not in hang glider form. To me, flying XC with a bunch of your friends was what the sport was all about.

Anonymous said...

Great write up. It is hard to explain why we fly.

I used to say that being a dad, I'd likely quit if I saw someone get hurt or someone in our local club got really hurt.

Then comes a fatality in the club. Lots of justification, but with my flying friends, we work through it and decide to keep flying.

Forward now some years and my flying buddies are my best friends. We all know the same thing, we watch each others back. We also know but never say it - if something bad happened to my best friend here, I'd still fly. It is in me.

If I ever quit, it will more likely be out of boredom. Or maybe someday, I'll finally be happy on the ground like "normal" people.

Thanks for the write up!

Stewart Midwinter said...

Thanks for sharing this story, John. As a pilot whose injury prevents him from flying actively, I appreciate the chance to fly precariously.

John Scott said...

Thanks for the comments.

Stewart, sorry to read about your accident. I don't know if you remember this, but I'm the one who started that world XC challenge a few years ago where scores were based on how far pilots flew in relation to that site's distance record. You were one of the pilots that helped me get it off of the ground.

John Scott said...
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