Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The dought is over - a flying day!

Finally, after scheduling every Tuesday in December and 3 of the Saturdays, my last planned lesson, on the 26th, held. It's been over a month since my last tandem and weeks since my last beach bunny hill session. My last tandem was over an hour long, so I've been going into serious withdrawals.

The winds at Crestline were strong, about 12-20 mph, but a little off angle, more Southeasterly than the optimal Southwesterly. Still, we got in about 20 minutes of ridge soaring until the conditions shifted and we went down the face and back to the LZ, for a flight that was roughly a half hour. The air was bouncier and a bit rougher (for lack of a better adjective) than it was the last time, so I found myself wrestling a little more than I wanted. But, I was happy for the experience, especially on a tandem, with Rob there to 'splain the wind and its wacky wonts.

Once we got off of the highest ridge, Crestline, and over the one above the LZ, things smoothed out. There was a slight wind on the LZ and I did a better job on the approach (before Rob landed us), so, for the first time on a tandem, I didn't fall to my knees.

Next up: a radio assisted solo off Marshall. Rob has trained peeps by the thousands, so, if he think it's time, I'm pretty comfortable with the idea of a solo. As he points out, it's physically easier than a tandem flight due to the better flight characteristics of the solo Falcon vs. the tandem one. Everything is easier, 'cept that he's not there to answer questions (there is the radio) or take over if I pooch something. The big challenge now is scheduling lessons and hoping they hold.

Friday, December 15, 2006

You know you are hooked when...

Well, I got a rack set up for my minivan. The only drawback is that I... own a minivan. And now, I'll keep it for another 100K miles to justify dropping the money I did on the rack. Part of it is a standard Thule rack that fits in my van's existing rack slots (the existing rack wasn't quite high or straight enough). The hard part was the front portion, which I had to have custom made at Hitch Crafters. Here we go... pics of a minivan, this'll drive traffic to my site.

I figured I needed to be able to drive the glider home when I bought it, which I've done... sort of. I've ordered one, but it has yet to be built. Wills Wing is the last manufacturer in the US and they are based in Orange, closer to my house than to the mountain. I picked Red and Blue accents on a white glider. White is the main color because its material is the best, in the same way that vanilla is, technically, the best ice cream (or at least my Pop said so from his days making it in college). My Falcon 3 will arrive somewhere at the end of January.

A lot of beginners buy used gliders to get rolling on the cheap, but I suspect that Icarus got his feathers off Ebay. Besides, $3K is not much for what you are getting (a flying contraption). In less gliding-friendly places (East of the Rockies, IMHO), there's more pressure to transition to more efficient (and harder to fly) gliders, but in the sunny skies over the windswept mountains of California, a beginner's Falcon has been known to keep pilots happy until the Sun's ultra-violet rays wear out the wings.

Wills Wing test fly every glider they make. When the test pilots come in for a landing, their feet often glaze the tops of the weeds for the last hundred feet or so. They are so efficient and smooth, they take full advantage of ground effect. Knowing they will test your glider is like knowing that the third baseman for the Angels took a few swings with your Louisville Slugger before it was shipped it to you... except, if your bat breaks, you don't have to reach for your 'chute.

I'm really looking forward to its arrival.

Friday, December 1, 2006

A liightbulb goes off over my head... hang gliding?

Early December 2006

In November of 2006, my brother Brad ( came out for a rare visit. He had a conference in L.A. for Sociology, a subject in which he is a professor at U Conn.

"Hey," he asked, "could you find a place for me to take a hang gliding lesson?" Or two. I googled 'round and found Rob McKenzie's Rob is one of the most (if not the most) experienced Hang Gliding pilots and instructors in the US. Shortly after getting Moses to a Hang 2 rating, Rob got the FAA's first (and last?) FAA Tandem License.

I have always wanted to pursue some form of aviation. Schlepping a Cessna around the sky is expensive, and though the view is nice, the power of a Cessna is riveled by a... Soviet-era Lada? And the expense makes boats look like a bargain. Soaring gliders seem pretty cool and I think a fair few hang pilots go that direction, but there seems to be a lot of monkey biz involved in getting a glider and getting towed up. So, when Brad asked for a place to train out here, to compliment his training at Morningside in New Hampshire, he talked me into taking a tandem familiarization flight.

Editor's note: the East Coast sucks. You have to love the California sun.

It was not only a fun couple of days getting a taste of hang gliding, it was the most fun I've had with my Wright Brother in years.

Brad and I took tandems the first day, after which I ran up and down a thirteen foot bunny hill like Corky trying to get off a short bus with his seatbelt still on.

The quote of the day: Right before launch, Rob turned to me and asked, earnestly:
"You're not going to hyperventilate, are you?"

The second day, I took another tandem, but the big story of the day was Brad's first solo!!!! (video here) Big bro had brass ones. When he first launched, he put in a pound of pressure to turn right, when an ounce was needed. The hard right he took made Rob think he had tried to get his feet in the harness with a bit of difficulty. After that, he was as smooth as butter. I hope my first solo is as slick. Great job, Brad!

Watching him land, I decided I had found the form of aviation I'd been looking for, the hobby my stressful So Cal life needed, the release from the grind.

So, where do I start? FNG on teh hill.

Rob warned me that Nov/Dec was the worst time of the year to learn, but I decided that I had waited long enough. The first hang gliders I saw would run off of Sky Harbor Road above Millerton Lake and go up, not down. Until then, I thought all hang gliding flights were "sled rides." A sled ride is when there is no lift, you just run off a mountain and go down. Turns out, there are two types of lift: ridge lift, which is what I saw at Sky Harbor road, where wind hits the side of a hill or mountain and goes up, and thermals, where hot spots of land (or me after some Taco Bell) cause pockets of air to rise. In November and December (and January), the winds tend to blow down the ridges, nullifying any thermals that might break through the winter skies and making launches and landings unsafe, to put it mildly. And, of course, there's rain. This is not to imply that I want to live on the East Coast, where everything is flat-out shut down.

Well, despite the Santa Ana winds that have been plaguing us, I have managed to get a third tandem in, this one an hour and ten minutes long. On top of that, altruistic Rob referred me to a (closer) beach training site, operated by a competitor, to do my initial takeoff and landing practice. The instructor there, a super nice guy named Paul Thornberry, helped me quite a bit. In this part of the training, you run off sand dunes only 25 feet high, but consistently good winds make it an ideal spot to learn how to do takeoffs and landings. This bit is the only strenuous part of learning the sport, as you have to hump the glider back up the hill. The wind makes carrying it easier, the sand makes it harder.

Here are my initial thoughts on Hang Gliding:
- I'm surprised it's not more popular. The danger is overrated (11 mos. into 2006, no fatalities nationwide). It's not that expensive ($4k to $8k to get into, gas money after that). And, it's, as Chuck Yeager said, the "the flyingest flying there is."
- I've scuba dived, bungee jumped, flown, flown in a helicopter, flown in a glider, and dated a redhead. There's no thrill quite like looking down on top of a red tailed hawk (no, that's not another reference to the redhead). Hang gliding is both peaceful and thrilling at the same time. It's like an interesting woman who knows when to stop talking (that's definitely not the redhead).
- The biggest challenge for me to learn is scheduling. You have to book a couple of days a week and hope one holds. That's not easy while running a business. That's probably impossible for a nine-to-fiver.
- Every person I've met through hang gliding is nice. Maybe the assholes auger in. Or, I'm the first one. News at 11.
- I wish, for yet another reason, that my brother lived in California.
- Hang gliding feels to me like surfing with no wave below you, or skiing through powder, with no mountain under your feet.
- My wife is totally cool about this. First of all, she has a horse, which makes this hobby look cheap and safe. Secondly, she's glad I have an outlet.

So, I am looking forward to my first solo, then my first unassisted solo ("solo" still allows for radio assistance). My first glider is on order from Wills Wing. I want to get out to Morningside to fly with Brad and to drag his sorry butt out here. On top of all that, it sure would be nice if a friend or two got into this with me.