The following is a post of RW Blackbird's to the CHGPA listserv on 12/23/97, describing a day at High Rock in the late 70's when conditions suddenly changed and several pilots found themselves unable to stay in front of the ridge.


Blown Over the Back

By
"R.W. Blackbird"1

Have you ever seen a hang glider tumble like a leaf? Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were blown over the back in gale force winds into a rotor zone? Could someone go through these two scenarios and survive without a parachute? Well, as the embers in the fire burn low let me tell you about a time when....

It was sometime in the fall of 1979, late October I think, that a number of us had what I would later come to call a "valid experience." For those who don't know the term rest assured that it is not in anyway analogous to the concept of "fun", at least as far as sane people are concerned.

It may have been a Sunday. It was a "classic" day at High Rock. The mountains were colored with their fall glory. The wind was straight in at 12 to 17 mph. The sky was mostly cloudy or partly sunny, with troughs parallel to the surface topography reflected in the higher-level cloud deck. Fat wet looking cumulus clouds hung heavily on sun lit pillars in the few places where the sun had heated the ground long enough to cook them up.

The set up area was crowded with kites. It seemed like everyone who was flying High Rock in those days was there, certainly all the hard core regulars were. Time and a few unfortunate impacts have erased most of the names from my memory. The few names I still recall are Ron Higgs, John Middleton, Juan Sonen, Steve Kritchen, Ron Benschneider, and Woody Jones.

I was flying my recently acquired Fledge IIB. Ron Higgs had a brand new crisp out of the shipping tube Wills Wing Raven. John was still flying his Eipper bowsprit Antaries that looked more like a wire sculpture than a hang glider. Juan I think still had his Olympus 160. Steve was flying his blue and black CGS Falcon 5.5. Benschneider was on a unique Red and White Falcon 5.5 prototype from Chuck's Glider Supplies. I'm not at all certain but Woody may have had a newer Seagull of some kind. Regardless all the flex wings there that day were the antique single surface gliders of the day, with the exception of my Fledge. Again I could be wrong on who and what but it's the best I can do from memory alone.

The ridge was working real well that day. In the thick fall air the lift band was wide, smooth, and tall. People were easily getting 300 over launch. It really looked like the perfect day to be flying High Rock. There were the usual lift/sink cycles, so you played yo-yo. Sometimes you were high and other times the sink would jam people up on the ridge a little bit. In no way would you consider it a strong day, Ron Higgs was boating around on a Wills Wing "Reverse" as it later came to be called.

I guess Ron Higgs was comparing the sink rate of the WW Raven to my Fledge cause I found we were flying together a lot that day. A nice thermal would come through and we'd chase it back almost to the microwave tower. He'd out turn me in the thermal and climb better, but once we left the thermal and headed out front any surplus height he'd gained would rapidly disappear. He must have felt the way I did the time I tried to match L/D with a Red-tailed Hawk.

We were cruising side by side, only a few yards apart, about a thousand over launch and back from the main ridge lift line no more than 250 feet. We were "fat" with altitude or so we thought. I was looking Higgs' new glider over very carefully. It was pretty, the sail was clean, huge amounts of billow, and it had those new fangled "luff" lines hanging off the kingpost. I wondered how effective they might be at preventing a crosstube slapping vertical luff dive. That was something I didn't have to worry about on a rigid wing.

Because I was studying Higgs' wing I didn't see any indication of trouble coming. The first I knew that there was trouble was when I saw Ron pull in and start to lose altitude. Perplexed I assumed that an anomalous strong cycle was blowing through. I was not concerned. I increased airspeed just enough to maintain zero ground speed and watched Higgs involuntarily park. We were still high, if we'd known what would happen next, Ron would have been high enough to turn over the back, and avoid the worst of the lee side rotor.

About a full minute later the wind speed rapidly increased to a range of 40-50mph. Higgs had the bar stuffed, but he was going down and backwards anyway while doing some mild "Dutch Rolls." At that moment I remembered something Pat Johnson told me about Manta Fledglings way back in 1977 at Telluride, "Fledglings always penetrate." Pat was the only female Fledge flyer I'd ever heard of. She and Erich Raymond were doing a lot of on top landings and "sky camping" out there in the desert southwest back then. Sure enough all I had to do was pull the bar back even with my shoulders and maintain zero ground speed while the Raven was in reverse. I wasn't even losing any altitude!

A number of people were in trouble and being blown back. I think Vic Ayers or somebody landed in a church parking lot somewhere on the mountain. John Middleton bushed his Eipper Antaries in the trees somewhere near launch. With all those wires I'm sure it stuck, rather than fell through. The old ridge rocket Falcon 5.5's with a 65-mph top speed both made Emma Janes'. Ron Higgs however had easily the most "valid" of all the valid experiences that day.

For a while I watched Higgs vainly try to fight the inevitable. He had the bar back to his knees and all he did was go down and backwards at an alarming clip. Turning my head from one side or the other I tried to keep him in sight. I soon realized that it was a lot easier to keep the Fledge flying straight ahead without crabbing and losing ground if I simply dropped my head and looked back at an upside down world. It does strange things to your head and stomach when you do that but at least I could see him. He was getting so far back there that if you took your eyes off of him for a second it was real hard to find him again among all the trees.

I was hoping all along that Higgs would lose enough altitude that he'd bush it in the trees before he went over the back. But as he got back there it didn't look like that was going to happen. At some point Higgs figured that out too. When he did he was way too high to bush it and way too low to go over the back. After he made the turn downwind it was less than thirty seconds later he was over the back and into the rotor. Ron was flushed over the back with no more than two hundred above the ridgeline.

Now you have to realize this wasn't your ordinary 10 to 20-mph lee side mountain rotor, which is bad enough. Ron Higgs was flying into a 50 to 60-mph kite shredding monster. I expected to see pieces. Another thing, Ron didn't have a parachute, at that time most people flying didn't. When he hit the rotor, things happened so fast that I couldn't make sense of what my eyes were seeing. How Ron kept the control bar in his hands I'll never know. I saw every side of that glider more than once and in a matter of seconds. It looked like an autumn leaf caught in the turbulence generated by a tractor-trailer doing seventy. I wouldn't want to have been where Ron was in a Cessna! If that Wills Wing Raven could have turned inside out it would have. The show didn't last long; the glider disappeared behind the ridge. I prayed that God would somehow spare his life, he did that day.

Everyone was down, I didn't see another glider in the air, so I effortlessly increased speed and flew out to Emma Janes'. "Thank God I'm flying a Fledge," I silently said to myself. I couldn't begin to guess how many times I've said that to myself since.

The wind was a hard west cross in the LZ. I was sure another rotor monster was lurking on the lee-side of the upwind tree line. So I landed over the border in the field just upwind. It was a rare helicopter landing. I just picked a smooth spot (wind wise) and with zero ground speed, just flew until my feet touched the ground. Then a big wrestling match ensued between an unruly Fledge and me. I won barely.

After packing down and hiking over to the LZ, I found out Ron's fate. He'd landed safely with an intact WW Raven in a gravel pit on the backside of the mountain. The luff lines had worked in so far as the Raven had not turned into a lawn dart. I was amazed. The old willow branch concept, "bend don't break" had proven itself again.

Meteorologically I think what happened was this; there must have been a strong temperature inversion somewhere between 6 to 10 thousand feet AGL. Above that level the wind was much stronger than the surface to 2 or 3 thousand-foot winds. The parallel troughs in the upper cloud deck are typical of a wave, which needs coincidentally a strong wind and a temperature inversion in order to form. The wet fat cumulus clouds indicated instability in the atmosphere below the temperature inversion. At some point in the afternoon the lapse rate became great enough that the thermals punched through the bottom of the temperature inversion. When something goes up something else has to come down it's a zero sum game. Consequently some of the high-speed air aloft was brought down to the surface. In the old days we use explain such instances as "a wave touched down." Which is correct in some respects.

Another trap you can fall into is when you've got a northwest flow coming off of a big deep low pressure up in the Great Lakes. Cold fronts rotate around those things like the spokes on a wheel. Often when the temperature contrast isn't that great, or if they're moisture starved, the weather forecasters won't bother to mention that there is another cold front due to pass say, Saturday afternoon. So there you are soaring in your happy little hang glider when the first clue you have that something besides you is up is when you see the virga blanketing the western horizon. About the time you see snowflakes whirling around you, you discover that you're going up and backwards. Just ask Reann about that. You can also ask her if she knows any "Rocky The Flying Squirrel" jokes. Some of us used to indulge in telling those to a particular captive audience, hang glider flyers stuck in treetops.

Back then we didn't have PC computers, Web sites, or WXP Purdue 850mb maps or any of that. Most of us didn't bother to call any "flight service" either. We'd just watch the ex-cheerleaders on TV give the "weather forecast" before "sports" and hope the bimbo would correctly parrot the forecasted surface wind direction and velocity, while wondering if one of the surgically enhanced boobs was going to pop out. Then we'd load up and go to our favorite mountain and hope the weather turned out all right. We didn't know about "jet streaks, vort maxs, or PV lobes." I'd bet that most hadn't even made it through Dennis Pagen's "Micro-Metrology and Flying Conditions." In which among other things there might be an explanation as to why no matter where you stand around the fire the smoke always gets into your eyes.

1. Pseudonym of a cautious writer.