This First-Flight tale was sent by Bob Peterman to the CHGPA webmaster on Jan 6, 2006. The flight described is believed to have taken place in December 2005.
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This is about my first "Mountain Flight". I'm a 56-year old retired USAF fighter pilot with 3,300 hours of jet fighter time. But, allow me to digress for a moment. My relationship with flying may be different than yours but I'm sure I share a love for aviation and adventure just like you. Mine started a long time ago.
In the 1950s, I use to buy 5-cent balsa wood gliders and 5-cent packs of baseball cards (I still have Mickey Mantle's rookie card - used as a flapping-motor on my bicycle spooks). I also built and flew gas-engine u-control airplanes until I was a teenager. My High school football coach had his private pilot license and took me for a ride in a Cessna 150, my first flight, it was great! I actually remember more about the ride home...going 90 mph in his red 57 T-bird convertible!!! The flight confirmed that flying was what I wanted to do.
My first commercial airline flight was going from Boston out to Colorado Springs to attend the Air Force Academy. As a cadet, I made my first parachute "flights". The first 5 jumps were on a static line; the next 5 jumps were "Free-falls". Then came my first jet-fighter ride in a T-33 "Shooting Star" flown low over the Rockies. Later, as a senior, I received my Private Pilot license flying in a "T-41" (Cessna-172). After graduation and Pilot Training, I flew the F-4 "Phantom" and the F-16 "Fighting Falcon". My last USAF flight was in Aug 1990...fast-forward 15-years to Aug 2005.
John Middleton had been giving me training-hill lessons for more than a year. Today we were off to Woodstock for my initial Mountain Flight! Arriving at 1 PM, John declared it was too gusty for Hang-2s. So John flew for ~3 hours while I anxiously waited for the winds to calm down. They did! I recovered John from his flight and returned to the launch site to find the winds were swirling around but generally around 10-12 knots. I was ready...a little nervous too, but definitely ready! Besides, I wasn't sure how much longer my old body was going to be able to handle the training hill climbs. So I was anxious to move on to something less physical and hopefully one takeoff run a day instead of six - ten.
Using wire assistants, I perched on the launch and found myself staring down at the rocks and stumps below the launch site wondering what a failed launch would do to me? Hooked-in? Doubled checked! Now the winds were a steady 10 mph headwind....I mentally reviewed my takeoff run, pitch attitude and control-bar position, declaring I was "Ready". John confirmed the winds were OK and gave me his familiar "Go when ready" clearance. I was pumped! At last I was really going top launch my glider off a mountain. "Clear!" I shouted. As I started my short sprint John yelled "Run Hard" as he has probably done with every student launch for 25 years!
Clearing the stumps and rocks was instantaneous and quickly the treetops were falling away below me. I'm excited to be airborne and quickly gaining altitude far above anything experienced at the training hill. Continuing the climbing out, I'm getting my first real feeling of accomplishment. Once again I've defied gravity and as we say in the Air Force, "I have slipped the surly bounds of earth"!
Next step, get my legs into the harness and think about turning. But be prepared for a sled-ride. I'm struggling with the harness zipper when John directs over the radio "Turn right". Turn??? I was barely clear of the treetops. There was no-way I was going to turn crosswind and get any closer to the trees. "You're in some good lift, turn right" John called again. OK, I'm a little further out from the ridge and the trees. I can do this without landing in the top of an Oak tree, so I turn, slowly. "Tighten it up" John directs. Mechanically I pull in a little. I feel the turn is going too slowly so I pull in a bunch of bar and shift further right on the control bar. I turn 90 degrees to parallel the ridge and roll out. Did I climb? Did I dive? Beats me. It's OK I think, I can easily glide to the landing field on a sled-ride. Take that Mr. Falcon - Hang Glider. I've put you where I want you, so far - so good.
But those trees are still too close for comfort. I crab back left into the wind a little so I don't get blown in any closer to the ridge. Its one thing to glide over Taylor's Farm; it's entirely different to have nothing below but trees. Like they say in aviation: "Speed is life". But I'll settle for a little more altitude and lateral separation too. I'm getting more comfortable, flying along side the slope about 100 yards out. It appears I may not be on a sled ride...all right! My first real solo 90-degree right turn at altitude and I'm feeling proud when the moment is shattered by the radio, "Bob, do a 360, you are still in good lift." Hhmm, a right 360 takes me into the hill...downwind, while a left 360 starts out into the wind...I think I'll ignore John (at my own peril) go left and attempt to stay as far away from the trees as I am right now. I wonder if John will think I've forgotten my left from my right but he is crazy if he thinks I'm starting a turn towards those dam trees!
I'm pretty jerky getting around the circle but confidence is building fast. I pause to locate the landing field again and connect it to the Shenandoah river loops as a landmark for future reference. It remains my imaginary lifeline. I don't think this is going to be a sled ride but what do I know....I'm just a training hill rookie. John directs more turns and keeps me in close visual range of the launch site. I'm gaining altitude. I'm over the launch site looking down at John, almost level with the top of the ridgeline. A paraglider is below setting up to launch. I have a strong desire to push the nose down 30-degrees and make a high-speed pass when I'm reminded this isn't a jet-fighter. I don't have an afterburner that will boost me back up to altitude at 10,000 feet/minute. I accept a shallow dive and wave to John. "Just keep flying within visual range of the launch-site, about ¬ mile up and down the ridge, you're doing fine."
Check the landing field...good, it's right where I expect to see it. This is definitely not a sled ride but I'm not letting the landing field out of my sight...ever. John's radio has gone silent, I know where to land and I'm flying up and down the ridge putting my glider exactly where I want it to go. I'm in complete control...doing tiny pitch changes and gentle turns in perfect ridge lift conditions. Climbing higher I go back to the ridgeline and John calls "Don't go behind the ridge line". Seeing nothing but forest behind the ridge this guidance gains my immediate approval...nothing good can happen by venturing behind the ridgeline. I hear voices? There are people in the Woodstock Fire Tower. From my altitude, I again envision rolling into a vertical dive and doing a surprise attack and high-speed pass! If only I had 18,000lbs of afterburner thrust and an F-16 "Fighting Falcon" strapped on instead of my WillsWing - "Falcon".
I caution myself, "Calm down, you're retired from the Air Force...this is hang GLIDING!!!" The desire to put on an Air Show subsides; flight discipline and judgment prevail. I recall a San Francisco, WWII Flying Commander's flight discipline vignette: "I don't want anyone in my outfit who would be reckless enough to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge! But I don't want anyone in my out fit who wouldn't want to fly under the Bridge!" OK, I'll settle for; I want to dive-bomb the tower. I fly back over launch headed south and yell down, "John, pick me up in Harrisonburg." The radio reply, "Sure, you can walk home!" I find the lift so predictable and my confidence growing every minute that I seriously think I could do it. I recently read that Hugh McElrath flew 39 miles from Woodstock and he's a Hang-2! I have the confidence (probably false confidence) that I could head south, keep the ridge ¬ mile off my wing and go forever.
This is so much fun, wish I had something to drink and my legs are falling asleep, this harness is tight. I had never put the harness on for this long let alone having my glider cover stuffed inside? I think about unzipping and dropping out 1-leg at a time to get the blood circulating...could I fall out? I'm convinced I can't fall. I'm 100% sure I stepped through the leg-straps, so why am I doubting yourself. It's only a 500' drop to the trees? Cautiously I drop 1-leg out, shake it around to get the blood moving and hope John won't notice. I watch two more paragliders launch...I've got company! Wow, wish I could climb like them. They're climbing twice as fast as I am, but hey....I've got wings, I'm lying down in the attack position like a fighter pilot, they're just sitting there like couch potatoes!
Whoa...what's that...a feathered friend? Hmmm, he has his wings tucked back and is tracking fast westward into the wind. I follow him for a ways hoping he will show me a thermal or better ridge lift but I lose sight. I'm reminded of the lift rule: Fly faster in sink, slower in lift. I keep going in his direction and sure enough, the slope contours appear to be making a ridge lift funnel and there is better lift. The radio screeches, "Bob, I'm going to launch my paraglider, just stay within a mile of launch." Cool! I'm gaining John's confidence. I'm pretty sure he didn't see my legs dangling out of the harness. I wonder what the USHGA would say about John supervising me from his Paraglider? The airborne position actually provides him a better vantage point to watch me...dangling my legs out of the harness. No matter where he is, it's a good thing he can't read my mind and doesn't know about my dive-bomb tendencies or he might send me down to land.
I'm really thirsty. I never thought to bring water. You don't need water for a sled-ride. The sun is getting lower; I've been flying a long time especially by training hill standards. I'll have to be careful on landing, looking into the setting sun. Soon John calls on the radio: "Bob, you have been flying for an hour and a half, better take it in to land." Landing? If I had position lights I could fly all night! I wonder if any hang-gliders carry a battery and lights? Stupid idea...that's the Air Force in me again. I reluctantly accept the fact; this flight is terminated. I need to get serious about the landing sequence but first I've got to get more feeling back into my sleeping feet. Find the landing field, check John's windsock. It is limp and the landing area is in the shade. As I leave the ridge lift I wonder if I'll arrive over the landing field with maneuverable altitude. I attempt to fly at max glide speed, guessing at a neutral bar position or at least a very light grip. It takes a while as my ground speed is pretty slow, but I get over the landing field with plenty of altitude.
Circling lazily overhead, I visually map out the landing pattern around the field and its surrounding tree-line, just as John described in our pre-flight planning. The Hang-2 essay question about landing long is all I can think about...hitting the trees at the far side of the landing field...I'm not going to let that happen but I don't want to land so short it looks like I misjudged the pattern either. I start the downwind leg, I feel too high. I fly slightly outside the tree line although John said the pattern is over the trees. I turn base, this is still too high...I think? This isn't like Taylor's Farm...I'm not confident anymore. These are all strange references. Time to turn final...no, lag a little; I'm sure I'm too high. Now it looks good, pull in, lean left, roll out....my subconscious reminds me "SPEED". At my last training-hill flight, John had me practice holding more speed until I reached the round-out in preparation for this flight.
I pull in a lot and head for the center of the field. It's hard to judge my altitude, the brush and grass is all different and in the shade I'm not getting the depth perception I need. Is it time to flare? I'm worried. Is it too early, too late? I'm getting some ground rush, I push out to break the sink, more, more, now flare - hard. My feet hit on the upslope 100' short of the intended landing area and there's no head wind to help me roundout and flare. Boom. I go feet to chest and rollout a few feet. Damn it. It was great flight followed by a "Crash and burn". My ego is crushed. I haven't landed that bad for 6 months. I'm pretty sure John can't tell how badly I blew the landing. He is still out over the river and behind me so he probably doesn't know I'm flat on my belly. Quickly, I'm on my feet clearing the landing area.
Emotionally I'm somewhere between a wry smile transitioning to an outright grin. No one is around to hear but I'm shouting out aloud "I did it, I did it!" Like every other solo ride before, this one is special. It has been 15 years since I was the "Pilot in Command" of a flying machine. This "Falcon" didn't burn 6,000lbs of jet-fuel. It didn't go 500 mph at 35,000'. It didn't pull 9-Gs. But it was just as thrilling to use gravity and wind to conquer flight...serenely. To fly in ridge lift for over 90 minutes...the airborne playtime, the make-believe dive bomb passes...once again, I am a pilot! The feeling is in my blood. That's why I got back into flying after 15 years of being "Ground bound". And like every flight before, I've learned from this one too. I know I was lucky. I had a great day with ideal flying conditions. Thanks to John's patient instruction, hang-gliding is everything I hoped for. For me it is peaceful and graceful, but at the same time it is thrilling and dynamic. I can't wait to master my new "Eagle" and do this again. But for now, it's back to the training hill and more of John Middleton's "Run Hard!"