Sunday, January 8, 2017

Adventure in training

“An adventure is never an adventure when it happens.
An adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.”
― Tim Cahill

Ready. Set. Go!

If a year ago our trip to Florida was more or less a spur of the moment thing, it was such a nice trip that I wanted to do it again. I now had a new glider. I needed more practice and, maybe, fly XC. This time I took a couple of weeks off so I wouldn't have to be stressed about not flying if weather turned bad on some of those days.

We made trip to Florida a few times by now, and the best way it worked for us was driving in one go. 20-22 hours of driving then rest for a day. Two days are lost to travel no matter how you slice it but we'd rather spend second day relaxing under Florida's sun than doing yet more driving.

We left on a rainy afternoon a day before Christmas.
Ready to roll
Our first destination wasn't even a hang gliding one. We wanted visit friends down in Florida that we haven't seen in 10 years. The drive was uneventful. We pulled into our friend's driveway the next morning and got greeted by a couple of horses.

After spending a day with our friends, we left in the morning and headed for Quest. It was just an hour away. We set our camp, and I assembled Sport2. I wanted an easy glider to fly first. However, the day was too windy for my liking. I had to wait till next afternoon to spread my wings again.

Camp Skymax. Sport2 edition.
Beautiful but windy day
Tandems are always going
We spent that day relaxing and watching sunset at a local restaurant. Not a bad way to spend a day...


The next day looked great. No wind, plenty of sunshine. I launched around afternoon but cloudbase was very low - 2400' MSL. I was flying too close to the clouds. Lift was everywhere though and I stayed up easily for 40 minutes. Eventually I started gliding to other clouds and, with only 2000' to play with, I couldn't get another thermal, and had to land.

As day progressed, cloudbase lifted up. I launched again around 3PM. This time day really worked. Nice big thermals taking me to 4500' MSL. I boated around, making a triangle. The day started to shut down early. It's winter after all, so just another 40 minutes of easy flying.

Not a bad start of my flying vacation. At the end of the day I broke down Sport with intention to fly Combat the next afternoon.


I was a bit anxious flying Combat. I had a dozen flight on it and about 12 hours of soaring. Not enough to be really in-tune  with this high performance glider. A good level of anxiety is healthy, though. It keeps one focused and alive... maybe...

Rhett towing at Quest
I launched around afternoon. Rhett was towing. I set angle of attack lower than I did for Sport, but there was not much wind on the ground, and the glider didn't come out of the cart the way I expected it. I probably pushed out a bit too early, too. Should have waited a second longer. Glider popped out of the cart pretty high. I thought I was fast on the controls trying to get it back down... but Combat doesn't handle the way Sport does. Weak link snapped.

That was the first time I snapped a weak link on that glider. My initial reaction was to belly it in, but with no wheels on the basebar, I changed my mind. I popped high enough, and this glider retain energy really well, so I had time to get my feet out and start running. It all ended well, and it gave me a false sense of security (more on this later).

Here is a video of this incident:

Spinner helped me to adjust the cart, and I went for another launch. This time everything went smoothly. Very soon Rhett pulled me into a thermal. I could feel the lifting air but decided not to pin-off until Rhett waved me off. I needed more towing practice.

We barely made a complete circle as Rhett waved me off. I went up at solid 200-400 fpm. This was gearing up to be an awesome soaring day.

A few minutes later I made it to cloudbase. 4500' MSL. Great! Now what? Wind was very light. Drift was taking me south-east. With a day like this - I couldn't resist. Let's start with a trip to Wallaby, eh?

I radioed to Natalia that I was going to attempt Wallaby. There was a pretty big blue hole south of me, and a nice looking set of cloud streets to ESE. I set on a glide in that direction, around the blue hole.
First glide
4 miles later I reached the set of clouds I was going after. A thermal was where I expected it. Good! I got to 3800' MSL and lift became very light. I was right in the middle between route 33 and route 27 with other clouds SE of me. I had at least another 1500' to play with before I should start worry. Back on a glide I went.

For the next 7 miles or so I was gliding between cloud streets toward route 27. I took time to recharge each time I felt air coming up. Never got higher than 3700' MSL but never got lower than 2500' MSL.

Then I finally flew into a stronger thermal that took me back to the cloudbase - 4400' MSL. But it was too early to celebrate. As I set on a glide to the next cloud, that cloud started to disappear as I was about to reach it. I corrected the course, and hit a lot of sink. My altitude dropped to 2000' MSL. As I was considering my landing options, I  reached another, very strong, thermal. Back to 4500'MSL. This day and this glider were working marvelously!

At this point terrain below me started to look vaguely familiar. I've flown here only twice before, and I wasn't sure how close I was to Wallaby. I didn't have its waypoint in my instrument. I thought, I might have Wallaby on a glide now, but as I stumbled into yet another thermal I took it anyway, just in case.

Very soon I saw the ranch and other gliders flying around. I arrived with 4K feet MSL to spare. Not very efficient, but then again, I wasn't racing.
Hello Wallaby!

I flew to the south end of the ranch, circling with other gliders for a bit. I was trying to figure out what to do next now that this goal was obtained. Keep flying south? Land at the ranch? Go back?

I decided to fly back. The day was still working, and even though I thought I might not have enough time to get back before day shuts down, I went on that mission.
Away from Wallaby
Blue skies widened to the north of my position, but west side, over route 33, looked much better. There were a couple of other gliders in the direction, so I went there with intention to fly parallel route 33 when I reach it.

I think, I spent too much time trying to climb as high as I could. Another glider that was constantly outclimbing me, was a distraction. In anycase, when I was just a couple of miles from route 33, I couldn't find another climb. Other gliders most likely returned back to Wallaby.

Last climb of the day
I started looking for a good place to land. A few big fields with cows in them. Another field next to the road, with a cow far away from where I intended to land. Ok. That one will do. I completely ignored the fact that there was no fence between the field and the road. My lack of XC experience didn't trigger a warning. In retrospect, it is kind of obvious - cows in a field with no fence... fence it somewhere else, probably far, far away, so no retrieve vehicle can get to me.

As I was boxing the field, I saw a couple of vultures circling below me. I tried to get what they were getting, but it was only good enough to prolong my decent. Vultures just climbed through me, probably laughing at that heavy oversized bird.

Final, ground effect, early attempt to flare, hold it, whack. Dammit! I left some VG on and I didn't have much experience landing this glider with VG. Oh well, everything seemed ok. I missed all cow dung piles.


Cows in the LZ
As I carried my glider to the road, trying not to look at a very curious bull 100 yards away, a realization that I landed far, far away from a real road started settle in.

I sent my location to Natalia and started breaking down the glider as fast as I could. Fortunately, the bull lost all interest in my activities and didn't come to investigate. A few minutes later, 3 donkeys showed up from another part of the ranch. They were very curious and stopped just a few feet away from me.
Curious donkeys approaching
Attack Asses
The white one was the most curious. He was standing just 4 feet away from the glider for 10 minutes, but eventually moved onto more interesting, donkey appropriate, activities.

Natalia texted me that she was at a closed gate. We exchanged our positions again and, as I was suspecting, I was far, far away from the rescue. A 1.6 miles hike to the gate.

Well, this wasn't time for self pity. You do what you gotta do. With a harness backpack on my back, and the glider on my shoulder, I set toward the gate... I managed 100 yards maybe... Combat is 80 pounds, harness is another 20 or 25, but the biggest problem was that Combat is very long and wide. It doesn't simply fit on my shoulder the way Sport does, especially with harness in the way...

I started to hike just the glider for 100 yards, and then come back for harness, and hike harness for 200 yards. Come back for the glider. Hike glider for 200 yards. Rinse and repeat. The only problem - my progress was very slow and sun was setting in an hour.

I made just over a quarter of mile when I saw a pickup truck driving in a distance. Phew! I felt physical relieve. I knew the rancher wouldn't be happy with me, but then again, I hoped, he would want to get rid of the problem on his property as fast and as trouble free as possible... meaning, give me a ride.

I started apologizing way before truck stopped. Rancher was an old guy, I would say in his late 70s, chewing a cigar. He just asked where my airplane was, and then said, "load it on the truck. I'll give you a ride". Yes, sir!

I threw glider on the back of the truck, resting it on the top of the cabin and the gate then got next to my glider so I could hold it. Rancher turned truck around, and we were at the gate a few minutes later.

Natalia ran toward the truck as it was clearing an automatic gate, with intention to stop it and ask for help. Then she saw me happily riding in the back. As soon as we unloaded the glider and harness, I went to offer this nice rancher $20 or something for his troubles. He declined, and actually smiled at that point. Asked where I was flying from.... Life was good again. Thank you mister rancher. I promise not to land on you property ever again.

Later, I learned that this ranch is hang gliding infamous. They never were excited for us landing there. Even if we landed close to the gate/fence... All is well that ends well.

"Anything I got ain't worth your life"

Now, back to my flight, this was my best XC flight to date. 36 miles. Combat makes thermal jumping is so much easier. Total flight time: 2h18m. 

Also, in just 2 flying days, I exceeded airtime I got last year in Florida from 7 days of flying. I could drive back home now. It was a good adventure!

In over my head

About that false sense of security I mentioned.... When I handled an emergency landing well, I figured, I was close to finally figuring out landings on a Combat. All I had to do was to experiment with different settings. Like - slightly more VG on landing for flare authority. I also started to tow with half of VG. All was going well.

The weather for the next week was all windy. And I was taking pattern tows on Combat early morning and late at night. Take off and land. 6-9 minutes per flight.

A couple of flights went well. I figured that more VG on landings doesn't help me yet. OK, let me try it again without VG. That worked better. Let's go again! Next take off... and I snap a link again. I wasn't sure why. I was doing something differently than I used to, and maybe not paying as much attention to it as I had to.

Anyway, link snapped, I tried to do exactly the same thing I did the last time - pull in, legs out, quick transition, run. But something went wrong. Either I pushed out too early, or glider didn't pick up as much speed as the first time, or I got hit by prop wash... Or a combination of all of the above... Left wing started to drop...

I know it sounds silly, but before that moment, difference in handling between kingpost and topless, was mostly a theoretical thing. Yes, I could feel harder handling at lower speeds, I could feel adverse yaw, but all those things didn't affect the result of my flying much. A dropped wing on a topless on landing... no recovery from that. On a Sport, I could shift all my weight to one side while in ground effect on final as a matter of last second recovery. Topless glider didn't care to react. I hit ground with a corner of the control frame and cartwheeled. Glider stopped. I stopped. Quick check. Nothing hurts. Good.

The only thing that saved me from more damage to myself was that vertical speed was close to zero, and horizontal speed was pretty low too. Otherwise, it could have been much worse.

But there was some damage to the glider.

It's repairable... And I have a spare aluminum basebar, too. The crash was hard enough that I would need an inspection on the glider before I fly it again.

As I was contemplating my poor landing skills, Mike Barber magically appeared at Quest. Talking to Mike was very therapeutical. It didn't cancel the fact that I was trying to take things a bit faster than my skill level progressed, but it helped to map certain things. Like very obvious ones that weren't obvious to me for some reason - when aerotowing, launch with VG you want to land with. I had too much VG on. Great at 200' and up, but not so great when link snaps right out of the cart.

Also, Mike said he doesn't try to save a snapped weak link launch (get his feet out and flare), he just bellies it in. In his experience, trying to save it works 50/50. Too many things can go wrong (as being hit by prop wash), and once wings are not level, there is no recovery. So just pull in hard, and belly land. If you are lucky/good, basebar will slide on the grass. If not, you will whack, but it will be way gentler than what I did.

Anyway, what's done is done. I broke down Combat, trying to find any other obvious damage. Everything else seemed to be ok, but still need to pull the sail off to be safe.

Then I assembled Sport and took a nice evening sledder. Ended it with a perfect and easy no-stepper landing. That reminded me why I thought I was ready for a topless... Anyway...

The next day, I thought I noticed something on the Sport wire. I took it out of the down tube, and there was a slight kink. I couldn't see it on normal preflight inspection. I decided not to test my fate any longer. Sport was overdue for annual inspection anyway. Time to learn how to do that thing.
While showing Rhett this damage, he pointed out that I had more damage on that glider that I missed earlier. This was from a crash at Wallaby in April. It shows how well those gliders are built, and how one can get away with lack of maintenance. Once I knew the damage was there, I couldn't claim ignorance anymore. I packed the gliders, and we drove home the next day.

This trip was a mixed bag. A super awesome flight, a crash... It was educational as always.

A few photographs from the trip:

Useless End Of The Year Statistics

2016 was my best flying year so far. I got most airtime, got new rating, got new glider, new experiences, plenty of XC flights, my personal best for distance... I hope the next season will be even better!

  Total Hours        : 43h 38m
  Total Flights      :  60
  Longest Flight     :  2h 48m
  Longest XC distance: 36 miles