Lessons Learned The Hard Way
Keep Your LZ Options Open

On April 5, 1998, I learned a lesson about flying conservatively during an XC flight from Woodstock which I thought might be worth sharing. George's account of that day can be found in the April issue of Skyline 1998; I'll stick to the aspects relevant to my "educational experience".

George, Mike, and I all left the Woodstock ridge at about 4500' above launch, just north of the observation tower. After crossing the first ridge over the back, we were above the valley on the west side of Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. This portion of the Blue Ridge is poorly defined, there is no single ridge face per se. Instead, multiple low, meandering ridges form some complicated terrain; you'd have to be very high to consider flying over them.

Mike headed more directly to the south, but George and I stayed together, using a "bump and run" strategy : follow the thermal drift towards the ESE, bump up against this convoluted terrain, then penetrate back into the valley, find another thermal, and repeat the process. If we could work our way far enough to the south, we would be able to "round the corner" of this gnarly area, fly into a much broader portion of the valley, and then proceed towards Stony Man (where the Blue Ridge presents a much more vertical, organized character).

Here's a map to give you a better idea of our plan.

This strategy worked well for 3 or 4 thermals and about 45 minutes of wonderful cross-country flight. I would feel a little bump on one wing that hardly seemed worth turning in, but I'd give it a try and find 50-100 fpm, which would just get better and better with every circle. I was at 3000, 4000, and 4500 msl several times in these subtly-announced thermals.

But eventually, just as we were about to round that corner, we found ourselves unable to find a thermal and started sinking out. A huge field was nearby and we both headed for it. George landed easily in the middle of the field, into northerly winds (the surface winds in this narrow portion of the valley are often channelled north or south, in spite of the direction aloft). I was about to start running my approach, about 600 over the trees, when I found some light lift over the eastern side of the field. I played with it, and found myself about 1000 AGL, excited now because I was pulling off a low save. I repeatedly tried tracking the thermal to the SE, but would lose it as I left the confines of the field. I returned, found the same thermal, and then tried E: no luck. Ditto for S. So I eventually tried a westward track: by damn, the thermal was drifting crosswind! I took the thermal to about 1800' over, and was ready to continue my flight, happy with my low save. Surely this thermal would prove to be as reliable as those I'd encountered all day long?

Poor Judgment #1: Do you know why?

I looked to the west and saw that the terrain was visibly nasty looking: I would have to cross a large-ish area of trees, and the fields on the other side were clearly sloping. But one of them, the farthest, looked like it might make a reasonable LZ. And there were fields lining a road to the north that looked ok, though possibly planted. So I decided to continue working my thermal, which would drift me into this unpleasant terrain. Surely that field way-over-there would be landable?

Poor Judgment #2: Do you know why?

After making my decision to go, I took one last look at my target LZ and then started concentrating on the thermal; there was clearly some risk involved in this choice, so surely I should pay attention to my thermalling technique, to make sure I don't lose this one?

Poor Judgment #3: Do you know why?

About halfway over the trees, at perhaps 2500' AGL, I lost the thermal. I was a little concerned, but I don't believe I actually looked at George's LZ and my potential LZ, to compare them and then consciously choose a course of action. After all I was pretty high, surely I would have time to go somewhere else if my intended LZ wasn't landable?

That's when the sink alarm went off... 15 seconds... 30 seconds... 45 seconds! I pulled in more with every second, to gain speed and get out of the pothole. When things stabilized I was only 1000' over the deck, and I'd reached my putative LZ. I made one pass around it and realized that it sloped downhill, into the wind, toward a road and a phone/power line. There was no way I could punch north to the next road and those planted fields. So now what?

I decided that an uphill downwind landing would be my best option, but if I was going to do that I wanted some more room. So I headed over to a larger field nearby (one of those which I had earlier noticed was clearly sloping, how ironic) and started an approach. I failed to notice that the driveway bisecting the field had a berm on the uphill side. The wind at my back blew me beyond the lower section of the hill, straight towards that berm. I finally saw it, pulled on some speed, and tried to pop over it...but I didn't have enough airspeed. I took my right hand off the downtube at the last second, but wasn't quick enough with my left, so that wrist absorbed a lot of energy on impact. What I initially hoped was a bad sprain turned out to be a break, and *poof* my spring flying season for 1998 was history.

There was some bad luck on this flight, no doubt: that ridiculous sink, the damn berm which I missed clearing by about 2 vertical feet. But I can't shake my fists at the fates, truth is I shouldn't have been in the situation to begin with! I've accumulated several hundred hours of airtime in the last few years, but I can still count my "real" XC flights on two hands. So what the hell was I doing placing myself in a situation where I had (effectively) only a single landing option, in terrain that was clearly questionable? I'm no Larry-Tudor-XC-skygod fer chrissakes!

So I've learned another valuable lesson the hard way: Don't Limit Your LZ Options During an XC Flight! Perhaps a reader or two of this account will take my message to heart, and learn this lesson the easy way?

By the way: It's not my intent that readers of this account walk away with an impression that XC flight is unduly difficult. If I'd simply done the obvious thing (land), at the obvious time (when I got low), in the obvious place (that huge field), my flight would have been a hugely fun experience!

Mark Cavanaugh
June, 1998

Educational Resources for Hang Gliding

Poor Judgement #1 : Thermal Character

I was about 2000' below the altitudes of those nice earlier thermals, it was drifting in a completely odd crosswind direction, and it was much less organized. There was no reason to assume this thermal would have characteristics similar to those encountered 10 minutes before.

Poor Judgement #2 : LZ Options

The fields further to the north were directly upwind, since the wind direction closer to the valley floor was out of the north (remember George's landing direction?). So if I got low, I probably would NOT be able to make those other fields. Which meant that I really had only one landing option if things didn't work out with my thermal.

Poor Judgement #3 : Awareness

By focussing exclusively on the thermal, I neglected to re-evaluate my chosen course of action. My attention should have been split between the thermal, the huge LZ I had just opted not to land in, and the field that I thought would be landable. This situational awareness would have provided me with the option of reversing my decision, if the potential LZ started to look more marginal as I drew closer.