Mountain Launch

A pilot returning after a 1-year hiatus launches while we watch

A pilot returning after a 1-year hiatus launches while we watch

There are some moments in life that leave a lasting impression–a shadow of the experience that lives on long past the moment, perhaps even a lifetime.  One of those moments for me is the moment I crossed the “Danger!  Risk of Falling” line on the launch ramp on Lookout Mountain.  It was my first mountain launch as a novice hang glider.

The Danger! line is literally a line on the launch ramp

The Danger! line is literally a line on the launch ramp

We have returned to the Lookout Mountain launch a couple of times since that monumental day, but we haven’t been back to fly.  It’s been over a year now since I last hooked myself into a hang glider.  My husband has remained determined to return “eventually” to flying.

This is the view of the launch ramp that nearly caused me to lose consciousness the first time I saw it

This is the view of the launch ramp that nearly caused me to lose consciousness the first time I saw it

On Sunday, we found ourselves back up on top of Lookout Mountain at the hang gliding launch.  Soon, we were inside the office checking on our membership status and filling out paperwork to renew.  Then, we realized one of us was going to be out of town every weekend until July.  And so it appears we are likely to be celebrating our 18th anniversary on the training hills together.  At least, I will be on the training hills.  Pat may graduate to the mountain in a day (if hang gliding is like riding a bike), but I have no plans to go off the mountain ever again.

Hang glider pilots are not the only ones equipped to soar the ridge

Hang glider pilots are not the only ones equipped to soar the ridge

Of course, I had no plans to go off the mountain the first time either.  I just found myself there after getting to the point where I felt confident and comfortable enough on the training hills that it just seemed natural I would run off a mountain with a kite hooked to my body.

Standing there on the launch ramp, looking over the fall line, I found my knees remained solid.  I had only a brief wave of nausea thinking about stepping over that line, then, the shadow of the memory, the feeling of the hang glider on my shoulders kicked in.  The weight of it lifting in the wind assuring me I could, in fact fly.  All I had to do was look at the ridge on the other side of the valley and that’s where I would go.

I switched cameras to catch the hang glider as it pulled away from the mountain.

I switched cameras to catch the hang glider as it pulled away from the mountain.

Then, the memory faded and I looked down and another memory kicked in.  The memory of our first trip up to the hang gliding office–seeing the launch ramp for the first time.  The sudden terror that overtook both of us thinking we might be launching off that ramp.  The physical weakness, barely able to stand in the face of the fear of running off that mountain.

The bib on the launch slopes away from the fall line, making it more probably that if you fall, you'll fall away from the cliff

The bib on the launch slopes away from the fall line, making it more probably that if you fall, you’ll fall away from the cliff

The contrast struck me as profound.  I am the same person.  My response to the same stimulus went from paralyzing terror to confidence (with a few vestigial belly butterflies).  Like so many things in life, the launch ramp is what it is.  We can respond to it however we choose.  As I look over the mountain one more time, I find myself wondering if perhaps, one day, I will launch from this ramp again after all.

Close-up of the flight part logo on the side of the launch

Close-up of the flight part logo on the side of the launch


When Wrong Goes Right

We have been taking a break from hang gliding for several months now.  It’s one of those things–first we were taking a break so our knees could heal.  Then, Pat started working every weekend getting his new guitar-building business going.  All work and no play was getting old.

Then, when Pat’s family came to town to celebrate Pat’s milestone birthday with us, we managed to talk his sister into going for a tandem flight.

Talking someone else into doing a tandem flight is different from deciding as a couple that it’s something you want to do together.  There is a completely different sense of responsibility–probably heightened by the fact that this was Pat’s baby sister (never mind that she’s now in her 30’s and more than capable of making up her own mind).  While I felt obligated to make her aware that there were risks, I didn’t want to scare her out of it because it’s one of those experiences you keep for a lifetime.

As we headed out to the mountain for Pat’s sister’s flight, I had one of my mental glitches that caused me to take us completely the wrong way.

As we drove as fast as was allowed in the wrong direction on a lonely 2-lane highway, we spotted a large dog staggering toward us in the middle of the lane.  We also noticed it had a collar, so we swerved around it and started looking for houses, assuming its home had to be close–it was barely able to walk.

Pat’s sister immediately wanted to stop and pick up the dog.  I think we were all thinking the same thing, but we didn’t want to steal someone’s dog.  As luck would have it, we soon realized we were going the wrong way and needed to turn around.  By this time, we realized there were no houses in the vicinity and there was no way that dog had gotten there on its own.

When we got back to where it was, it had collapsed in the middle of the road.  We blocked traffic with our car, got out Tisen’s water bowl and gave the dog water.  Then, we managed to urge it to get into our van, although Tisen wasn’t so happy about sharing his ride.

Since our safe-harbor dog shelter didn’t open for hours, we went ahead and took Pat’s sister to the flight park.  When we finally got Pat’s sister signed up for her flight, we asked if anyone wanted a dog.  It looked like a poorly bred Mastiff.  Her hips were so bad, she could barely walk.  She was dirty and smelled like she’d been lying in poop.  She had ticks and probably fleas.  We were certain she’d been dumped.  No one was interested.

Pat’s sister took her flight full of joy knowing that the dog was safe. She said the tandem flight was 2nd to rescuing the dog on her list of things that made her trip.  She wasn’t alone in her thinking.


Tisen and I make it to the training hills.  It’s a mile walk in my barefoot shoes on rough gravel carrying about 40 pounds of gear, but we stop frequently along the way to shoot, so it doesn’t seem so difficult.

Tisen gets confused shortly after we arrive.  When a hang gliding student drives off on a Kubota, Tisen sprints across the field following him.  I don’t realize Tisen thinks I’m on the Kubota until he gets 100 yards away and shows no sign of turning back.  I call him and he hears me, but he can’t tell where I am.  A glider flies into the field about 10 yards from Tisen and he decides it’s me, running straight for the glider.  I call him again, hoping to prevent him from “playing” with the pilot.

Tisen hears me, but when he looks up, he sees a group of people and decides that’s where I am.  I keep calling him, hoping he’ll locate me.  He is now 30 yards from me and running from person to person, eliminating each as a possible me.  After he passes them all, I am the only person left.  I wave my arms high in the air and call again.  At last, he sees me.  He’s so excited, he practically knocks me down when he runs up to greet me.  Poor guy.

After I take a few shots of the training hills half wishing I were flying today, we walk to the top of the big hill.  I take only my tripod and camera with the 16-35mm lens on it.  At the top, one of the pilots asks if I’m selling pictures.  I laugh.  He says he was hoping maybe he could buy some from me.  I take his email address and tell him I’ll email some photos to him for free.  Now I have a client.

I take some rapid-fire shots of his flight, but the wide angle lens looking down isn’t the best view.  Tisen and I walk back to the bottom of the hill and I set up again with my 100-400mm plus 1.4x teleconverter.  I shoot my client a second time, but this time looking up at 560mm.  It looks like I’m standing next to him.

Unfortunately, I cannot pan and focus manually at the same time, so I only get a few good shots during the launch before he drops out of my frame and then I lose focus when I find him again.  This is exactly why I don’t ask for money to shoot people.

I pack up, load myself with all my gear, and Tisen and I head back up the road, stopping to enjoy the sun on more spider webs and the contrasting colors of bright, new leaves against dark evergreens.

When we make it back to the car, Tisen hops in like he wasn’t sure we were going to survive this adventure.  He’s tired.  Come to think of it, so am I.


Today, we drive up to Lookout Mountain.  It’s my 4th attempt at my 1st mountain launch and the wind looks promising.

When the glider is assembled, I do the pre-flight check of my life.  I check every nut, bolt, wire, and thread as if my life depends on it.  Oh, that’s right, it does.

Shortly after 8AM, I am standing on the launch, ready to go.  I am having progressively more difficulty breathing.  I take a few deep breaths.

Alas, so does the wind, and in the wrong direction.  I sit on the ramp and we wait, hoping the wind will settle.  It doesn’t.  I back up off the ramp and set my glider down.

Three of us wait for our virgin flights.  We’ve been there 2 hours when at last, it happens.  The wind dies and starts to come in as a slight headwind.

I watch my 15-year-old fellow student launch like a pro and then step up for my turn.  I remind myself to breathe.  The instructor reminds me to breathe.  I stand ready.  I call clear and start my approach.  My eyes are on the horizon; I don’t see the ramp at all.  I have no sense of falling, but I’ve made a major mistake–I’ve let the nose of the glider pop up during the approach, which means I am, in fact, falling off the launch for a split second.

Thankfully, due to the design of the glider, I’m not in serious danger as the glider will recover on its own.  Even better, I realize the nose is high and pull in quickly, making the recovery almost instantaneous.

Surprisingly, I am not scared by this mishap.  I go through the checklist:  1) Fly away from the mountain.  As I look around and try to decide what the definition of “away” is, I am overwhelmed with giddiness–I am actually flying.  I cackle with glee.

Then, I move on in my checklist:  2)  Check your speed.  I look at the speed indicator and I am flying nearly 25 MPH.  I ease out a bit, take a deep breath, and remind myself to relax.  That’s about as far as I get before it’s time to start the box pattern around the landing zone.

I can only judge my altitude when I am level with a landmark; I completely lose track as I begin the final landing pattern.  I cut the approach pattern short when I realize how low I am.  I pull in for speed, begin the round out, and then suddenly go into brain freeze when my feet drag the ground.

Proximity to the ground does not determine when you flare and I know this.  I flare anyway.  I balloon up and then, even worse, I let the nose drop.  I try to flare again, but this never works.  I land hard on the wheels. I am unharmed but the left down tube breaks.  I get up, unhook and feel grateful for modern engineering.

To Be Continued . . .

Waiting on the Wind


Saturday afternoon, we returned to the mountain launch  at the Lookout Mountain Flight Park.  We called first and learned there was about a 50-50 chance that the wind would quiet down as the sun got lower.

We stood at the top of the launch for the second time that day.  I stood on the steeply sloping concrete ramp and imagined the steps I would take to launch.  I even took the first few steps, pretending I was holding a glider on my shoulders.  I managed to get almost up to the “fall line” without getting gelatin knees.  Normally, being close to the edge of a precipice makes me feel faint.  Today, with my eyes on the horizon and the imaginary glider on my shoulders, I barely notice how close I am to the edge.

I feel invincible.

I hear my husband in the background, “Careful–don’t forget you don’t have a glider!” He knows exactly what is going through my mind, having stood here himself more than once.

The windsock doesn’t turn my way.  It continues to blow “over-the-back,” as they say.  In other words, a tailwind.  Launching in a tailwind is not an option.   We hang out on top of the mountain for an hour, walking Tisen in the woods and watching the sun get lower in the sky.  But, the wind only gets stronger.

We return home.   I’ve been cleared to launch from the mountain 3 times now, but this is the first time I’m disappointed the weather kept me grounded.

The next morning, we get up early and head on over to the mountain again.  Now that I’m ready to launch, I want to launch.

On the way, I do a calculation.  I have done approximately 150 training hill flights of 7-12 seconds each, or about 1500 seconds of total flight time.  So, in exchange for 150 landings (the part that’s hard on my body), I have gotten 25 minutes in the air.  By comparison, I should get at least 5 minutes in the air in a fledgling flight off the mountain launch.  That means I only have to land 5 times to get the same amount of air time I’ve had to land 150 times for in the past.  My knees are also excited about the mountain launch now!

But, alas.  The wind is no more cooperative Sunday morning.  I stand poised once again on the ramp, visualizing my flight plan.  We even go so far as to assemble a glider and have it ready to go just in case the wind turns around.  But, by the time of the morning where the valley is in the sun (an event that can make the wind change direction), the wind is still blowing the wrong way and far too strong.  Even the tandem flights that are towed up are grounded.

We return home disappointed for the third time in a row.  But I retain the feeling of excitement anticipating that first launch.

Tisen wags his tail listlessly on the drive home as he cuddles Minnie Teddy.

Ready for the Mountain

I hop out of bed Saturday morning looking forward to hang gliding.  The weather is supposed to be perfect.  Even more exciting, I had an epiphany on Thursday that I am ready to go off the mountain.  Oddly, I don’t remember why.

We arrive at the training hills and get up on the big hill as quickly as possible.  There is a gentle headwind that makes launching an absolute breeze (I know, bad pun).

I have 3 fantastic flights.  I launch strong, control the glider well, and land on my feet like I have been doing this for a long time.  Since I”m on about my 150th launch, maybe I have?

Then, the wind that is supposed to be calm today starts to misbehave.  It picks up speed and strength and starts to cross.  When it’s my turn, the instructor has decided we will wait for a calm cycle so we can fly back down to the setup area, but no more flying today.

I wait and wait.  Then, the wind calms slightly and stops crossing.  I call, “clear” and start the approach.  I’m 3 steps into the approach when a crosswind grabs my glider.  I run to my target and try to straighten it out on the ground, but the wind carries me off the hill–I am airborne and headed for the trees.

I attempt to turn, but the glider doesn’t respond to my inputs.  For a split second, the thought, “I could actually die doing this” pops into my head.  Then I say to myself, “DON’T PANIC!” (yes, this is an exact quote from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”).  Instantly, the magical words that have been drilled into my head follow: “Pull in for Speed.”  And this, my friends, was the moment when I knew I was going to be OK.

Not only today, but on the mountain.  Because in a moment when my brain might have completely frozen, I gained control and was able to turn the glider away from the trees.

But my ride wasn’t quite over.  As I approached for landing, the wind picked me up again, lifting the entire glider.  I was a bit torn on whether to pull the nose down again this time since I was awfully close to the ground to try to pick up speed.  I compromised by pulling in the nose slightly and then pushing out just a little as I got close to the ground, managing a nice gentle landing on the wheels.

Ironically, I came out with fewer bumps than when I walk from the bedroom to the bathroom.  Maybe I should just do dangerous things all the time?

Tisen came running down the hill to greet me a few minutes after I’d started carrying the glider to the break down area.  I’m not sure if he was afraid he was about to lose his new mommy, but he certainly seemed happy to see me in one piece.

No photos or video from today, so I’m afraid this is a re-run:

Here’s a new one of Tisen doing Yin and Yang with Pat:

Not 25

Today was a hang gliding day. I didn’t take the helmet cam this week. This is mainly because I got to the car without it and going back up 4 floors to get it when we were already running late was just too much for my “don’t go backwards” approach to life.

I hand my iPhone to Pat when we arrive in the hope that he might take a useful video from the Kubota, but he was too busy driving to do any filming. I did take one still shot from the hill of the gliders lined up on the small hill in the distance.

I have a really good day flying. My first flight is just plain fun. Even though I flared too late and didn’t land on my feet, it felt good to be in the air. It’s flights like these that make me think maybe I really do want to fly off the mountain–after all, wouldn’t it be nice to have 8 minutes in the air instead of 8-12 seconds?

All the landings on the training hills–all 150+ of them–have taken their toll. My knees and hips feel like they’ve aged 20 years. While I joke about getting old, I’ve usually had a hard time remembering I’m not 25 anymore. My knees and hips scream “YOU’RE NOT 25!” at me every time I stand now. I’m sure walking dogs in heels all winter hasn’t helped. I’ve started wearing my fivefingers shoes again now that it’s warming up. It’s helping, but it does look pretty silly.

I wish it was warm enough to wear them on the training hills today, but it was only in the 20’s when we first arrived. Fortunately, it warmed up quickly. After getting in about about 10 fantastic flights, 8 of which I totally stick the landing, it’s time to head up top.

The wind isn’t acceptable for a novice rated pilot, so I am relieved I don’t have to decide if I’m really ready to launch from the mountain. Instead, we do some paper work–I am now an officially rated pilot with a membership in the USHPA and Pat and I are official members of the Lookout Mountain Flight Park. Since it doesn’t look like the weather is going to be good enough for a tandem training flight either, I cancel my tandem flight and we head to the Longhorn (not to be confused with the chain steakhouse) to gorge on eggs and bacon.

Apparently Tisen is not the dog-years equivalent of 25 anymore either–his walk mimics mine after running free all morning.

At sunset, I continue my HDR experiments with some high-contrast photos. This time, I find the info button so I can make sure I get the exposures I need to maximize the effectiveness of this technique. I figure this will be a better test.

In the end, I still like the lighting effects achieved this way in the black and white shot, but generally prefer the manually adjusted photos over the multi-exposure combined images. Which do you like?

Accidental Goal

I achieved a goal today I’ve been moving towards almost by accident.   I earned my Novice hang gliding pilot rating and am allowed to do my first mountain launch.  The funny thing is I’m almost disappointed. It seems improbable if not impossible that I am now licensed to fly a hang glider off a 1600 foot mountain launch.  How did that even happen?  I am reminded of a quote that we have all probably heard that goes something like “half the battle is showing up.”  I guess I kept showing up.

The good news is, now that I have purchased unlimited training hill flights, I can return to the training hills as many time as I want before I go off that mountain.  It’s comforting that I don’t have to choose between going off the mountain and giving up hang gliding all together.

While I had a good day on the training hill and came away with little damage, I still had a few rough patches.  One of the tests required is a speed test.  On my first speed run, I had a great time.  It all went well except when I realized it was time to flare, I discovered I was already so low to the ground that the belly of my harness was dragging the ground and I was so horizontal that my legs were still up in the air.  In this position, raising my arms over my head to flare the glider did absolutely nothing.  The surprise of discovering myself on the ground made me burst out laughing (3rd flight in video).

This little boo boo turned out to be far preferable to my next flight.  I did a repeat speed run and, over compensating for the previous flight, flared too soon.  When I pushed up my arms, the glider ballooned upwards for what felt like a good 20 feet.  I panicked.  And then I was in a state of confusion–I did the worst thing, which is let the nose back down.  It was just a split second and then I pushed upwards again, but it sent me and the glider back down to earth a lot faster than either of us would like.  Be sure to listen for my scream in the video–it’s a little hard to tell what’s happening because of the fisheye effect of the lens.  Fortunately for me and my already sore knees, I landed flat out on my stomach.  (I love the part in the video after I land and I’m under the glider and crawl out making all kinds of ridiculous noises.)  Fortunately for the glider, it’s a training glider built to take a lot of abuse.  Both of us walked/rolled away uninjured.

I finished on one last, perfect flight, turning 90 degrees and landing near the breakdown area.  At this point, most students would be rushing off to the mountain launch.  For me, it was a good time to call it a day.

Winter After All

Apparently I am all-powerful.  I wished for winter, and winter was delivered.  Is it too late to un-wish?

I passed a clump of blooming daffodils yesterday, I suppose they are not happy with me and my wish for winter, either.  The temperature started dropping yesterday, but today it was in the “bitterly cold” range.  Or, at least compared to the near 70 degree temperatures we had last week it felt bitterly cold.  There was a lot of snow in the air, although none on the ground.  For a while, the flakes were large and fluffy looking.

It was cold enough I was glad we decided not to go hang gliding today.  That is the offshoot of me wishing for winter and having my wish granted–we will not hang glide this weekend.

Today, it was probably a good thing.  I agreed to shoot the hand-carved plague S.O.A.R uses for its logo so they could have a high quality image of it to use for printing.  Since it was easier to shoot at our place with my lighting and equipment, Dale came to me.

This was a milestone occasion for me (although I didn’t tell her).  Dale was our first in-town guest since we moved to Chattanooga.  I spend the morning cleaning and rearranging, although only partly because she was coming.  We needed to rearrange anyway and when I rearrange, I have to clean because I always uncover something icky in the process.

About a half an hour before I expect Dale, I realize I have absolutely nothing edible to offer her.  As I contemplated trying to fancy up the two handfuls of raw almonds left in the cupboard or heating up some tomato soup,  I get a text from Pat telling me he is on his way with snacks for us.  No wonder I married this man!

I set up my tripod and diffused light in the middle of the living room.  I have my long lens on the camera, but I wait until Dale arrives to choose a lens.  I end up using my wide angle lens because the plague is large.  For whatever reason, autofocus is confused into believing the image is in focus when it isn’t.  My first set of shots are all a big blur.  I switch to manual focus and get much sharper images.

Another milestone, I use the feature on my tripod that allows spreading the legs wide to get the camera closer to the ground for the first time.  The images turn out pretty good.  I do some cropping and cut out the yoga blanket background just to see if it looks better on white.

After doing some photo editing, I discover I’ve left the diffused light on.  It must be generating heat because Tisen decides to lay on the floor under the light.  I can’t resist moving in and shooting him from above just like the logo.  Tisen really wasn’t meant to be shot from above, however.

Eating Virtual Space

I mentioned before that I am volunteering to help organize a fund raising event for S.O.A.R.  Well, I decided to donate a matted and framed photo for the silent auction.  It seemed like a simple enough thing to do.  After all, I have thousands of photos, a handful of ones I actually like, and the matting and framing part can be taken care of inexpensively.

But, today, I spent time culling out the handful of photos I would consider hanging on my wall.  Then, I pulled in the few that were of birds (since S.O.A.R. is all about birds) and a couple from hang gliding.  It’s a difficult thing to judge.  First, I have to step back and see photos the way normal people see photos.  It’s hard.

I find myself noticing when the rule of thirds hasn’t been applied and trying to decide if it works anyway.  Then I notice when bits of things in the foreground have popped into the frame when I’d rather they weren’t there.  Then I try to decide if the color looks off or if it’s just my imagination.  In the end, I’m down to 16 photos I will put in front of Dale, the woman running the show, to see if she thinks any of them will inspire bids.  If not, we can always make it a raffle item.

The process of filtering through the past 8 months of photos (thank goodness I stuck to the Chattanooga theme–otherwise I’d be going through 9 years of photos!) was an interesting one.  First, I realize how little time I’ve actually spent doing wildlife photography, supposedly my preferred form of the art.  Second, I realized how I don’t like to choose.  I end up with collections of extremely similar photos where the lighting is slightly different and the angle might change just a hair, but I can’t come to a conclusion as to which one I like better.

I have gotten quite strict with myself on that point.  I am trying to limit the number of photos I keep.  Given that most of my pictures are over 13 MB (and I’m shooting with an older camera–I can’t imagine what will happen the next time I upgrade), I’ve run my 120 GB hard drive on my laptop out of space more than once.  I now have a collection of disk drives lingering about in various stages of fullness.  I am constantly worried that my  2 TB backup drive will fill and overwrite some critical photo I’ll never get back.  Not sure what it would be critical for, but who knows?

What amazes me is for the number of photos I have and the amount of disk space I’m maintaining, there are so few pictures I really like.  There are even fewer I would say I’m proud of.  I wonder if this is the unintended consequence of digital photography or if film photographers have the same problem?