Earlier in the week the little lady had taken a fall on muddy slope outside the church and managed to snap her fibula. On Saturday I had to do the grocery shopping, the next day was Mothers Day and the kids had not bought her a card. I needed to buy a costume for my son who was going to be in the neighborhood play. So when John Middleton called me and asked me if I wanted to go to Woodstock and take my First High Flight, all I could say was: "How soon can we leave?..."
Not the best day. It had rained for the last 8 days straight. It rained on us as we sped through the gap at Front Royal and the clouds were bumping against Strasburg dam. There were occasional 5 mph puffs from the north but otherwise it was dead calm. Down in the LZ the gnats were so thick that we got a snack with every breath. John verbally marched us through the flight plan, approach and eventualities and then set up a four foot wind sock.
We drove up the switch backs to the launch site. There we met Dan Tomlinson who was already set up. There was more wind at up top and Dan was hoping to get some soaring. Chuck Pyle had come with us to observe, never having seen Woodstock in his career as a Hang I. Chuck had almost as many flights as I did and we have progressed in parallel for the last few months; he was almost ready to pass his Hang II. It was really big of him to come along and lend a hand. Every time I looked at him I could tell he was eating his heart out wanting to do his own first high flight. John and I started setting up our gliders. I realized I was excited when I found myself stumbling on the mountain side while I worked with my glider. I mentally stepped back and made myself be more present by going back to my mountain basics and looking for each footstep before I made it.
John thought it was best if Dan flew first so we could observe him, then I would launch, then John would follow. There wind had obligingly dropped off to almost nothing by the time Dan was ready to go. He was determined to wait until he got a good cycle. Why not? It wasn't like there was a big waiting line. Tourists drove in and noisily clambered up the tower, then they spotted us and gathered to watch the launch. It worked out that when the crowd was at its peak of twelve or so Dan was able to provide the exciting moment, by unhooking and lightening his load by 6 fluid ounces. Then the crowd dwindled down to a forlorn teenage couple huddled together in the sputtering drizzle. "c'monnn.....WIND."; muttered Dan. I gave him five more minutes. I didn't care if I got to soar or not. One sled ride would make my week, two was more than I expected.. "Tell ya what," I said "Let me go and you can have this spot back in ten minutes. Er.., if that's ok with you, John." John said "Fine" and Dan moved off.
It had been a long journey. If someone had told me I could learn to snow ski with 50 lb skis, no lift, spend over $3000, and after going every weekend for 9 months, still be on the BUNNY SLOPE! I would have laughed at them. However, here I finally was, ready to make my first high flight.
I felt pretty calm. I didn't want to be over-excited and get sloppy at launch. But in the back of my mind and in the deepest pit of my stomach there were two demons: One frothing with testosterone and the other screaming for adrenalin. I breathed deeply into my lower intestines several times and moved my Falcon into launch position. I looked down into the Landing Zone 1100 feet below, it seemed that I could hit it with a well thrown rock. Just barely discernible like a single stitch on a pillowcase, the wind sock hung sometimes flat sometimes slightly extended. I was flying with a parachute for the first time and it bumped into the crossbar causing some last minute readjustments of the hang strap. Finally I thought everything was ready to go. I looked out through the clearing of trees, there was no wind in the slot. I had forgotten to bring a jacket and Chuck had loaned me his. I had also forgotten to change into my tennis shoes and still had on a pair of Reebok walking shoes. I didnt like these omissions because they were indications that my excitement was masking my thoroughness. I went through my checklist again and came up with the same two omissions, one unchangeable and the other, while not optimum, would have been nitpicking to change at this point. Still no wind. On the grassy training slopes I had always worn my soccer cleats, but here in the rocky launch area they were a bad choice.
Finally a puff rolled slowly up through the slot. "Looks like this is it!" I said and picked up the glider. The trees at the end of the slot were still moving slightly and the streamers at the top waived lazily. These were not very exciting conditions, but still friendly and pretty good for a first flight launch. I put my hands high up on the down tubes for an aggressive start, checked my nose, my wings, said clear and drove forward as hard as I could. In two steps I felt my perceptions go through the confusion of changing their point of reference from the weight on my feet to the alien point of balance somewhere in my lower spine near my center of gravity. I could still feel my feet tapping the stones and I knew that the name of the game in this launch was aggressiveness, so I continued to do a flailing run for two more steps before my legs swept clear air. I hit some light turbs getting away from the mountain and then, it was if everything stopped.
I was frozen in space, my arms limp on the bar, the glider at trim. I couldn't tell if I was moving up or down, backward or forward. There was no rush of wind. I heard no birds chirp. The landscape was frozen in front of me, appearing exactly the same as it had moments before when I was standing at launch. I was a little disappointed. I had kind of expected the giddy euphoria that weightlessness brings the first time astronaut. Instead I lay prone on a hammock hung at the end of a long flagpole that extended out over a bend in the Shenandoah River.
I could have hung like that for a while before I realized that I needed to think about landing, but John's unusually soothing voice suddenly came over the 2-way and broke the reverie. "Ok, that was a good launch, now you need to start making a right turn." I suddenly realized that there was some wind in my face. I sort of blinked, came to and gave the glider a little nudge to the right. It was like butter! Not the hectic freneticism of cranking intense turns on a short training slope. I just sat back and watched the glider swivel a lazy yaw to the right, when I was pointing up the ridge I gave it an ever so slight nudge to the left and it straightened out. It was so easy!
Was I going down? Was I getting lift? I tried some quick glances back to launch to get my bearings but couldn't pick it out. Right away I believed all I had been told about needing a vario. I looked down and watched some power lines roll beneath me. I was barely touching the bar. Like Major Tom, my spacesuit knew which way to go. I thought of being at the State Fair and sitting in the chair stopped at the top of the Ferris wheel. Some light turbs from the next cycle bobbed me around and I got back to the business of flying. At the same time I was trying to take in every moment. The 2-way came on, "Ok, your doing real good, your just flying along. You can just kind of enjoy the flight". I thought "Yeah! Shut-up so I can enjoy the flight".
I sort of followed the bend in the river to the right of the LZ. But I didn't want to look at the LZ because that implied the end of the flight. However I couldn't help noticing that it was a good deal closer than when I started. The 2-way: "Ok, you're a little low so you want to make a left and go over the middle of the field". A little low? I was supposed to go over the top side of the field, not the middle. I felt cheated. He could see that all the way from up at launch? But a quick comparison showed me he was right. Darn that guy's good! I made my turn. "Ok, now you want to start increasing speed for your approach". At the other side of the field I pushed back the bar and made my downwind turn. For the first time I started to feel like I was flying and not just along for the ride. It struck me as backwards from what I expected.
I wanted to be at twice tree height when I made my upwind turn for final, but I had dove a little hard and ended up eye level with a larger distant tree. No problem, I used some of my speed to bump myself higher and made a good final left. I felt my legs and stomach tingle as I went upright. Every pilot knows that no one ever got hurt flying. It was usually in the landing part, one way or another. But then there I was; my shoes started slapping the high grass. "This is so much easier than the training hill" I thought "I never get such a long run as this." It was time to flare. "I am going to nail it!" I thought, "It's going to be a perfect first flight!" But because I didn't have my cleats I slipped on a fresh cow-pie and ended up on my butt. I waited. I knew that I was going to get some comment from John. "Ok, you did it. A real good first flight." I laughed! He was too far away to see my final slip! I wasn't going to tell him. I unhooked, took off my helmet, and gave a Rebel Yell that was clearly heard at launch.