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Air Ballet

My wife and I spent the Labor Day weekend in Indian Valley on a hang gliding trip.

Bea & I reconnected with friends and acquaintances we had not seen in months and years. Running a growing company, flying has been a rare luxury over the last few years. I’m trying to change that through recognition of the fact that I’m at my best when taking the time to do some of the things that most touch my spirit. Hang gliding is near the top of that list. Nothing so terrifies and delights me at the same time than taking a 70 lb. structure (1/3 of my own weight) of aluminum and Dacron, launching it by foot, and sniffing out rising air currents to heights thousands of feet over my point of launch.

Some people take advantage of those climbs to travel cross country, often over hundreds of miles: climb, glide; climb, glide; etc. It’s the Holy Grail of hang gliding, and though I’ve had a few short cross country fights and I yearn for the satisfaction that surely must come from accomplishing something that only a handful of billions could accomplish in their lifetimes in this particular regard, the all-consuming desire to actually do it eludes me. Most mysterious to me is that I still can’t discern in my own self whether my reluctance is through trepidation or a real lack of opportunity—though I tend to think the latter, since I believe that successful cross country flight is at least half about support. One really needs a support team, even of one person at one’s disposal, and such is very difficult to come by. Please don’t take that to be an indictment of my wife. I’m eternally grateful for every second of her life she’s chosen to share with me in the world of hang gliding—and it’s a substantial contribution already. I know she’d agree that she’s gotten a lot in return. Beatrice ceaselessly marvels at how the folks she meets on hang gliding trips are the most intelligent and interesting people she’s ever encountered.

I tell her, tongue-in-cheek, it’s because hang-glider pilots are eternally looking for drivers and always honor them with good and witty conversation, dinner when applicable, and shotgun on the ride up to launch. She thinks they’re deeper than that, and I concede the point.

We’re geeks—only our geekishness doesn’t reside in capacitors, resistors, transistors or software code (except for the already geeks who fly hang gliders, which is no small percentage). Rather, it resides in pitch, angle-of attack, bar pressure, speed-to-fly, climb-and-glide, rotor, wind gradient, and a host of other specialties that would cause the most inquisitive wuffo* to become glassy-eyed.

So, on day one of the adventure, we were disappointed to find the weather predictions ringing true. The wind was blowing down slope. We took the opportunity to 4-wheel around the ridge at 6,000 ft. MSL and explore. Day two offered a different opportunity. The thermal cycles were very long, creating upslope drafts of 5-10 MPH, with moderate gusts to 15-20. Perfect.

We all set up. Don Burns, a 30 yr. pilot and one of my early instructors was first to launch. I was next and followed suit. A turn to the left to the spine off the burn yielded the lift that would take me from 6,000 ft. at launch to 8,000 ft.

So, I tool around over the ridge for a good while. I loose some altitude, and then gain it back. Don was already out of sight. This time I would have to rely on a local—a hawk—wings spread out and turning in circles. I maneuvered over to him (or her—I’ve not a clue how to tell the difference) and sure enough, the strong bump was accompanied by a steadily chirping variometer. 400 feet per minute up. I’ll take it.

After such an encounter with nature which I can’t begin, nor will I fumble at trying to put into words, I was satisfied. I decided to work my way down the spine, off the ridge, toward one of the landing zones in the valley below. I arrived at the large brown field with 2,000 feet to spare. As I remained in sinking air to descend, I watched the American Flag in the field go from a west wind at 10 MPH to an east wind at 10 MPH. I watched this through three cycles as I’m getting lower and lower. The field is such that you effectively have to take it on approach either east or west, so in this instance, I have a 50/50 chance of landing into the wind, decreasing my speed over ground by 10 MPH, or landing downwind, increasing my speed over ground by 10 MPH. Not great odds. On the one hand, a perfect situation awaits; on the other, sure pain.

At 4,000 feet MSL, mere hundreds of feet above the LZ, I decide to take the first elevator out, if I can find it. Just then, the several horses below begin to scatter. This can be caused by a variety of things, but one of them is a gust of wind (a thermal kicking off). I happened to be just downwind of them and sure enough, within seconds, WHAM! I rode that from 4,000 feet to 6,500—just enough to jump back to the ridge where I’d launched from.

Behold—Don Burns is now back down to just over launch level, from wherever he’d been. Then, he’s caught a whopper—I can tell. Within seconds, I’m just under him and gaining “ground.” My vario registers 1,000 feet per minute up and is screaming a chirp that focuses attention like no other sound you can imagine. Before long, we’re climbing on opposing sides of a circle defined by the nature of the thing that has our full and complete focus. We ride it from 6,500 feet to nearly 11,000 feet in under 5 minutes. At that altitude, the cold begins to bite, traveling through the air at 25 MPH. But you try not to think about it.

Don moves on and I do as well. I meander about, losing altitude slowly over the next hour. By the time I next arrive over the LZ, it is late in the day and the thermal activity had subsided. I land into a nice and steady 10 MPH from the west.

An hour and forty-five minutes of solar-powered flight. I’ll call it a day—a great day.

*("Wuffo" denotes a term coined by hang-glider pilots to describe everyone else. It’s a contraction for "what for," denoting those curious spectators at launch and in the LZ who continuously point out various things and ask what amounts to "what for?")

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

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