Back To First-Flight Tales
Friday night, Paul and I solidified our plans. Saturday would be my first mountain flight, and the wind was right for Bill's Hill. I dreamed about Bill's and flying all night. In my dream, the hill was rich with grass, and the valley stretched below, bejeweled with small ponds that reflected the sun. When I sprinted down my dream slope, the air was perfumed with clover, and the clouds were tinted gold. But then, events don't always turn out the way you imagine they might.
Saturday morning, Brian -- our observer -- insisted that Jack's mountain, in Pennsylvania, was a better bet for the anticipated conditions. I protested to Paul that I was fated to fly at Bill's, but as he pointed out, it wasn't our decision.
Jack's didn't bear much resemblance to my dream slope. The launch was so steep super glue couldn't have clung to it. And it was gravel, not grass. Further, it ended in a trash pit. Skeletons of dogs and deer -- some with bits of hair clinging to them -- littered the mountain, along with a refrigerator and an old chair. No flat spot existed at the top of the launch, where you could balance your glider and collect yourself. You had to step over a guard rail, and then plaster your rear end against it, leaning back so you didn't tumble off the mountain and end up with the decomposed dogs.
As soon as I saw the launch, my stomach began to chew on itself. I worried that I would pause in my run, or stumble. Worse, if I tensed and held my glider on my shoulders (a trick I had favored during early, practice launches), I might not make it into the air before I cleared the trees.
I glared at Brian. "I'm not going to buy you dinner tonight, because I'm going to be dead. I've never run down anything this steep."
Brian laughed. "Intimidating, isn't it? The first time I was here, I asked where the real launch was. I thought they were joking when they showed me this." He assured me that the launch was safe. He said I should watch a few pilots take off, and I'd see how easy it was.
But no one was flying yet. The experienced pilots brooded, waiting for the wind to increase; to shoot up the ridge so it would boost them high and then hold them in the sky. My concerns weren't theirs. I didn't want to crash; they didn't want a "sled ride" (the derogatory term for a flight with no lift, where the pilot merely coasts down to the landing area).
Nearly thirty gliders graced the parking area, colored so bright you could have spotted them at midnight. Pilots and wuffos rested on the guard rails and rocks. I chatted with Sparky and Bacil, and met Gary, Spoons, and lots of other folks. But I wished nobody was there. If I decided to slink back to Virginia without flying, I wanted to do it without an audience.
Brian guided Paul, Hugh, Chris, and I to the landing zone, so we could figure out our approaches and plant his wind sock. The field was bigger than Nebraska. I liked that lots, though I wasn't thrilled about the power lines strung across the road. Brian promised that I would have the altitude to clear them, though, even if I had plummeted a couple hundred feet from the launch before I decided to soar to the landing.
When we returned to the top of the mountain, the wind had intensified. An experienced pilot launched, to test the conditions (this human guinea pig is called a "wind dummy" -- very apt). Instantly, he was pulled towards the clouds, not earth. It was what the serious pilots had waited for. Hang gliders lined up for their turns.
I helped "crew", holding the wires of the gliders of those launching. Those that waited until the flags blew directly at them all escaped the launch easily. Even the pilots plagued by bad habits, like "stepping" into the glider before it was flying, or holding their glider's nose at the wrong angle, flew safely away. However, those that launched when the wind was crossing were more frightening to watch. Their gliders dove sideways and their wings scraped close to the trees, though nobody even skimmed a wing tip on them.
I was engrossed watching and helping. Pretty soon, though, the parking lot was almost empty of gliders. Paul mumbled about wanting to fly soon. I hiked out to the bushes to potty and think. I practiced dashing down the hill a few times. If I could hold my downtubes lightly, focus on the horizon, and run fast, I should be okay.
I climbed into my harness, a Chinese puzzle of a thing, and Paul stuck my verio -- a device that tells you how high you are -- on Ms. T (my glider). My new radio got stuffed into my harness pocket, and Brian gave me a hang check. My time had arrived. My carabiner was locked, my lines were straight, and all my excuses had evaporated.
I climbed over the guard rail. Ms. T was animated by the wind and considered catapulting of the cliff without orders, so Brian and Paul and John wrestled with her while I stood. Ignoring the pitch of the hill, I stared at the silo in the distance. But the flags blew crooked at me. Ms. T crept to the side of my shoulders disobediently, smelling the air like she always does.
I remembered the gliders that had nearly scraped the trees, and set Ms. T down again. Someone mumbled about me missing a good cycle, but I waited, envisioning my take off, until I noticed both flags reaching towards my face. And then it was really time.
I yelled "clear" and ran. Ms. T knew just what to do, though. She was never confused. She flew straight and high and missed the trees by a mile. I could hear the crowd cheer behind me like I had just won gold in the downhill.
I smiled, and turned to fly parallel to the ridge. I was concerned about being too close in and smacking the mountain, but I was overly cautious. Brian warned me on the radio that I would have to land if I didn't push closer and find some lift. However, my vario was there, my new best friend, telling me I hadn't descended too much.
I pivoted back towards the launch, so if I had to high tail it towards the landing I would make it, and in the meantime, squeaked closer to the ridge. There, the air ripped upwards like the tide over a rock, and Ms. T felt it. She wasn't waiting for instructions from me, and rocketed upward. In seconds, I was a couple hundred feet over my launch height (my vario later reported I was getting lift of seven hundred feet per minute). Brian yelled over the radio to work it, baby, but when I wasn't worried about bashing into trees it was easy.
Ms. T flew still higher. I could have cruised down the ridge forever. It was like fishing on a Sunday afternoon. We climbed six hundred eighty feet over launch, and held there, as easily as if we'd been suspended in Jell-O. For over an hour, Ms. T soared, and I remembered why I love to fly. The training hill is a recipe made of mud, sweat, and bruised knees. Flying the mountain was another animal altogether. Sometimes I banked Ms. T hard, so she screamed around the turns, and then I let her whisper around others. I stalled her a few times for fun, pushing her nose high until she quit flying and dived. I watched cows eat and the other gliders float. Paul zoomed by, screaming and waving. My sweet fifty four pound kite -- an amazing machine -- seemed to move with no more effort than my thoughts. Finally, the sun crept lower, and my back began to ache.
Still five hundred feet higher than I had launched, I coasted towards the landing zone. I had planned a perfect approach, but like I said before, things don't always happen the way you think that they will. Brian radioed that another glider was close on my tail, and I couldn't see the wind sock. I was distracted from concentrating on my final angles because I was worried about drifting out and frying myself on the wires. I had lots of speed, and my wings were level, but I landed on my wheels. I stripped my harness off quickly so everybody wouldn't see the mud smeared on it.
And then I got hugged and congratulated, and had my picture taken. As I disassembled Ms. T, I noticed how green the pasture looked. I couldn't detect a whiff of clover, but the clouds were tinted gold.