Fledgling Part II

Recovering from a long day on the mountain.

Continued from Fledgling:

After breaking a down-tube on my first mountain launch, I have to figure out how to pick up my glider and carry it off the field.  I make it across the field and a couple of instructors run over to help.

All-in-all, I am not sure I’m ready to launch again.  But, back up to the top of the mountain we go.  I spend the ride back to the top hoping the wind has shifted.

But, no.  The wind is still good and there are plenty more gliders for me to break.

I set up the next glider with my hands shaking.

When it’s my turn, I am feeling nauseous.  I contemplate backing out.  But, I step up onto the launch ramp for the second time.  I get set, the instructor tells me the wind is perfect, I call clear and start the approach without hesitation.

This time, the launch is good.  However, when I look at the airspeed indicator, it tells me I’m flying too slow.  I pull in for speed, but the glider starts oscillating like I’m flying too fast.  I go back and forth trying to decide if the airspeed indicator is wrong or not.  Then I hit a small bump in the air.  My glider rises suddenly and then drops back down like a giant puppeteer has just jerked an invisible string.  I experience a moment of panic.  I start talking to myself out loud, trying to keep my wits about me.  I keep it together through a few more small bumps and find myself safely over the landing zone.

I have a repeat problem with suddenly being out of altitude.  As I start to make the final turn for the landing approach, I realize I’m too low and I square up the glider and roll it in instead.  No broken down tube this landing.

However, I do end up far from the breakdown area.  Gliders are really not meant to be taken for a walk.

The instructor who helped me after my first landing comes over and congratulates me.  He compliments me for my decision making.  It’s like a consolation prize–in spite of all my mistakes, I didn’t make a final, critical mistake.  I appreciate the compliment none-the-less.  Focusing on small achievements is, after all, how I ended up here one minuscule step at a time.

On the way back to the top, I experience a sense of disappointment.  I remind myself that my learning process has often been one step forward and two steps back.  I remind myself that I just launched from about 1500 feet higher than I ever imagined I would.  I remind myself that I stepped off that launch ramp, focused on the horizon, knowing that I could.  And I did.  I did something I didn’t think was possible until two weeks ago.  I launched, I flew, I landed, I survived.  Twice.  Maybe I’ll suggest a new T-shirt for the pro shop.


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.


Our plan is to fly on the big training hill in the morning, with Pat re-clearing for his first mountain flight.  Then, we will go up to the office, Pat will complete the one remaining written test he hasn’t done yet and get the required chalk talk on his flight plan.  Finally, we will each take a tandem flight to learn how to recognize our altitude in preparation for our first mountain launch.  Then, we will return Sunday morning and Pat will fly off the mountain.  I get nervous thinking about it.

While this plan all sounds grand, the weather forecast has not looked promising.  I have been crossing my fingers that the predictions will be completely wrong.  Here I am, up at 5:30AM on a Saturday morning, standing on our balcony with a cup of coffee.  It feels like it’s close to 60 degrees.  The wind is whipping up, although we’ve found the wind on our balcony is no predictor of the wind on the training hills.  But the rain is holding off.  The clouds even appear to be breaking up a bit.  I decide maybe our plan will work after all and continue getting ready.

We start off on time–pulling out of the parking lot at 7:02AM.  But as we make our way down the road, lightening appears in the sky.  We drive to the hills anyway, arriving  in time to watch the storm blow across the field.  At least we didn’t set up any gliders.

Now it’s Sunday morning and it’s a rerun of Saturday.  With one major difference–this time we have a new foster dog, Tisen, who will join us.

Today, the weather is semi-cooperative.  I start learning how to make 90 degree turns.  Pat, however, isn’t feeling well and, after his first flight, drives for me until I call it quits after an imperfect landing.  I was coming in fast and hadn’t bled off enough speed when I started to flare the glider for the landing.  This caused the glider to swoop up into the air.  While this is scary, it’s not really dangerous because the glider will act as a parachute and set you down relatively gently as long as you lock out your arms.  However, at the last second, I dropped my arms, causing me to impact the ground harder than I’d like.  I also somehow managed to hit my knee with the control bar when I landed.  Given that my knee was hurting before I decided to whack it with a control bar, it seemed like a good time to call it a day.

Pat, feeling better, got in two flights before the wind started getting crazy.  We went up top for him to finish his test and get his chalk talk and discovered, at high altitude, there was no visibility and crazy winds.  No tandem flight today, either.

But that’s OK.  When it comes to learning to fly, I’m happy to wait for good weather.

Book Smarts

There’s an expression about being book smart vs street smart.  The idea suggests people are either smart in theory or smart in practice.  In reality, of course, no one is really all one or the other.

For example, I can study how people move their bodies up stairs, determine an appropriate exercise regimen, and create a plan that will make me better at climbing stairs using book smarts.  But I can’t actually get better at climbing stairs except by, well, climbing stairs.

Since there is no room for trial and error when hang gliding, knowing what we’re doing and why helps.  And, since hang gliding truly is the application of physics, it makes sense that getting rated as a pilot would require some book smarts.

Here is where I run into a line that divides book smarts from street smarts.  I am able to read the material through once, review it quickly, and then score what would be an “A.”  However, when I return to the training hills, I am unable to translate what the material said into what my body does.  This disparity between concepts in a book and physical application frustrates me.

But today, we are in my element.  We are taking our final two tests.  I read through the materials and took notes the day before.  I think we will be done around noon given that it’s only 10AM.

As it turns out, I finish up my second test shortly after noon.  Pat, on the other hand, has not finished the reading material for the first test yet.  Mind you that Pat is someone who fully understand mechanics and physics in a way I never will.  However, his in depth understanding of how things work doesn’t seem to help him speed through test taking.

At 2PM we run out and grab a bite to eat at the closest place around. It’s a combination gas station, convenience store, hamburger joint–an honest to goodness family owned place.  After filling our stomachs, we return to the office and Pat takes his first test.  I, thankfully, have my iPad for amusement.

I’ve gotten through an episode and a half of Glee by the time Pat takes his completed test up to the desk.  After a while, I hear him talking.  He has met Matt Tabor, the owner of Lookout Mountain, and they are gabbing.  I finish the second half of the episode I’m watching and decide I need to intervene.

It’s an interesting conversation and I get sucked in.  I eventually remember that my goal was to get Pat on task and I remind him I am waiting on him to finish his second test.

At 6PM, we have to leave because they are closing for the night.  Pat has 15 questions to go on the test, but he calls it a night and we head on home.  Since completing the test now requires backtracking, I am more irritated than he is.  I remind myself that this is fun.

Pain in the Neck

The alarm goes off at 5:30AM even though it’s Sunday morning–I have to remind myself we’re going hang gliding.  I get out of bed feeling stiff and sore.  My right shoulder and the right side of my neck are especially sore.  I move my head gently trying to loosen things up.  Then, I get the coffee brewing and start on my morning routine.

When I lean over the sink to wash my face, the entire right side of my neck goes into muscle spasms.  I can barely hold my head up long enough to rinse the soap off my face.  My shoulder is likewise screaming–stabbing pain shoots down my right arm.  I reach up with my hands and hold the weight of my head in them.  Carrying my head, I walk into the living room and, as carefully as possible, lay down on the floor.  With the weight of my head supported, the pain lessens.  Instead of feeling like someone is stabbing me in the neck with a slightly dull knife, I feel like the stabbing has stopped and now I’m just in pain.  I lay there and think, “Oh. I am not going hang gliding today.”  Apparently I paddled my kayak unevenly yesterday.

I manage to get up off the floor after about 10 minutes, get a cup of coffee and move to my office chair where I can prop my head on the headrest.  This feels good, although I’m still very ouchy–I try not to move my head in any direction that offsets the weight of my head from directly over my neck.  I drink my coffee with my left hand so as to prevent using my right shoulder by accident.

Turns out my eye-hand coordination is even worse with my left hand and I dump hot coffee down my chin, onto my shirt and into my lap.  I’m in too much pain to worry about it.  Since I’m wearing dark fleece, I figure the stains won’t show much.  I wipe my chin off with the back of my hand and keep sipping coffee.

Pat gets up and I explain to him what’s going on.  I decide I will get ready to go just in case by some miracle my neck rights itself by the time we get there.  If it doesn’t, I will drive the Kubota and tow hang gliders.  If it does, I will fly.

The hardest part is putting on shirts over my head.  But, I need multiple layers to stay warm driving the Kubota, so I suffer through.  I pull on my down jacket before pulling on my rain jacket.  My rain jacket is still stained from the mud I drug myself through last Sunday.  I make a mental note to wash it when we get back.

The drive to the training hills is so uncomfortable I worry that I won’t even be able to drive the Kubota.  But, given that there won’t be any traffic passing me, I won’t have to worry about looking over my shoulder before changing lanes, so I think I might be OK.

It’s still in the 20’s when we get there.  The sun is rising, but the almost full moon hasn’t set yet.  I attempt to take a picture of the moon hanging just above the horizon over the small hill.  I have only my iPhone and I use a camera app with zoom.  Unfortunately, I guess I don’t know how to save the picture from this app because it disappears on me.

I help Pat assemble his glider by reading the directions to him so he doesn’t have to put his reading glasses on.  I don’t even attempt to bend over to do any actual assembling.  So far, as long as I turn my whole body when  I want to look at something, I’m doing OK.

When the first pilot is ready, which turns out to be Pat, I pull up the Kubota and let him load his glider.  When we get to the top of the hill, I hold the nose while he gets down and picks the glider up instead of taking the glider off the trailer myself.  I won’t be carrying any gliders today; that much is for sure.

I make several more runs back and forth picking up 5 more gliders and students.  By the time I’m done, there are already 3 students at the bottom of the hill waiting for a ride back up to the top.  One has given up and is walking his glider up.  I circle around and start picking up students and gliders and driving them back up top.  With 6 flying and a 7th on his way, I can’t seem to keep up.

By the time the 7th student looks ready, I need to use the facilities.  I hand the Kubota over to Pat to drive while I walk down to check on the last student and use the outhouse.  With everyone off on the hills, I opt for the woods over the outhouse–much more pleasant.  Then, I get on the four wheeler to tow the last student out to the hill.

I’ve never driven a four wheeler before.  The angle is bad for my neck, but not so bad that I’m not going to drive it.  The shifter is like a motorcycle–down at my left foot.  The other student keeps telling me to raise it up to put it in gear.  I keep telling him I can’t find the clutch, but he can’t hear me.  What should be the clutch doesn’t squeeze like one.  I finally turn around so he can hear me and he informs me that there is no clutch.  I’m a little confused as to why it has a shifter like that with no clutch, but sure enough it works.  The accelerator, however, is like a waverunner–a tiny little lever that you push with your thumb.  When I push it, I have trouble accelerating gently and I jerk the trailer hard.  I’m sure that student number 7 is wishing he had just driven himself up by now.

As the wind starts to pick up, there is a pause in the flights.  I actually get ahead on picking up students.  I make it to the bottom of the hill and sit well out of range so I can watch Pat’s next flight.  Pat is now learning to land on his feet.  I’ve only gotten to see one of his flights so far today, I’ve been so busy driving.  I watch him soar off the hill, speed up, slow down, and then flare.  He still has too much airspeed when he flares and he balloons up a bit too much, then drops the nose (which you’re never supposed to do) and, remembering, quickly brings it up again.  In the end, he lands on his knees instead of his feet, but not hard enough that he gets hurt.

When I pick him up, he’s disappointed that I saw his crappy landing instead of one of his good ones.  I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get my iPhone out in time to get a video. He’s happy I didn’t.

At the end of the morning, I’m actually tired from driving the Kubota.  But, what I notice is that my neck and shoulder feel considerably better.  Instead of laying around feeling sorry for myself, the activity not only kept me distracted from the pain, but it seems to have loosened up some of the tight muscles.  I still can’t turn my head far enough that it would be safe for me to drive on the highway, but I’m glad that I came out.

These Boots Were Made for Walking

Today, we return to the hang gliding training hills.  I am part nervous and part excited.  I love the 7 seconds of flying when I launch properly, but I hate the race down the hill when I don’t.  I’ve been getting better at launching, but not consistently enough that I feel confident I will get airborne every time.

When we arrive at 7:30AM, it’s frosty out.  The water puddles shine with a thin layer of ice.  And there are plenty of puddles–there have been many rainy days of late.  We assemble the gliders as quickly as we can, pausing periodically to warm our hands when they get so cold they refuse to work.  I am wearing my hiking boots with warm socks, but my feet have solidified inside my boots before I’ve finished assembling my glider.  I jump up and down to get the blood flowing back into my toes before finishing up and loading the glider on the trailer.

As I stand on the trailer holding the nose of the glider, my feet slide across the wet metal platform I’m standing on.  I realize that it, too, is covered in a thin layer of ice.  I have to switch hands on the metal bar my glider is hitched to–my hand goes numb in a matter of seconds even with my gloves on.  It’s hard to believe we’re South of home–or that it will probably be over 60 degrees today.

The trailer bounces along the rough ground as we make our way to the small hill.  We break through the ice on many puddles along the way.  As we climb up the side of the hill, we leave a trail of mud in our wake.  I’m happy to see the mud only because it means a softer landing than ground that’s frozen solid.

As I get set for my first flight, I line up with a target that will take me to the right of two large puddles; the ice on their surfaces is just starting to crack in the rising sun.  I tell myself not to worry about those puddles and to just stay focused on my target.

I am relieved that I launch successfully.  I launch, I fly straight, and I land on the wheels.  It all goes quite smoothly.  I seem to have learned how to keep my eyes on the target and how to let go when I launch.  These are two key steps forward and I’m pleased that I’ve retained these skills since we last flew, which has now been three weeks.

I take my second turn.  As I launch, I get a bit of a cross-wind and I need to turn to get back towards my target.  However, I move my shoulders instead of my hips, which pushes my feet the wrong direction and prevents the glider from turning.  I actually have the wherewithal to realize I’m cross-controlling and to swing my hips over and turn the glider properly just before landing.  I am ecstatic that I managed to have sufficient brain function to accomplish this.  It’s the first time I’ve realized I was cross-controlling while still in flight.

My confidence increasing, I line up for my third flight.  The wind is blowing more from the right now.  I point the nose of the glider as much to the right as possible, aiming for trees that will take me to the right of the biggest puddle.  I get set, I launch successfully, all is well, and then, I have the realization that I am now headed straight for the giant, still melting puddle below.  I panic.  My eyes lock on the damn puddle below me.  I try to tell myself to look back at my target, but now I am trying to remember how to turn at the same time.  My brain does a complete scramble and by the time I attempt to turn the glider, I am completely cross-controlling.  Then, it’s too late.

Instead of turning, I land squarely on the near-side of the puddle and roll all the way through what must be a 20 foot wide puddle with at least 4 inches of water–perhaps a small pond would be a more accurate description.

My chest is about a foot and a half above the ground and my belly and legs are dragging on the ground when I land.  As a result, all the water plowed up by the wheels forms a wave that dumps directly up my nose, into my ears, and down the top of my waterproof jacket.  My lower body drags through the water directly, shooting up a rooster tail that would rival a professional slalom water skier.  I burst out laughing about half way through the roll, which results in muddy water dumping into my mouth as well.

When my glider comes to a stop in the mud on the far side of the pond, I am laughing so hard I’m actually cackling.  I see the entire landing in my mind as if I were one of the spectators up on the hill and I can’t stop laughing.  This is a good thing because otherwise I might have noticed how cold I was.  Cheryl, our friendly Kabota driver, pulls the trailer around and I set the glider on it, climbing on the trailer and grabbing the strap.  Cheryl looks at me and asks, “Back in?”  I give her a confused look.  She tries again, “You calling it a day?”  Surprised, I tell her I’m going back up for another run.  If there’s one thing I know about trying to learn something new, unless you’ve really broken something, don’t stop on a low note.  Stop when you’re starting to get tired, but you just had a really good run.

She looks surprised and says, “Bless your heart!” as she turns to face front and starts back up the hill.  The rest of the group at the top of the hill is serious.  They all want to make sure I’m OK and not too cold.  However, once they’ve established that I’m not hurt, not horribly cold, and still laughing, the jokes start.  My husband describes watching the water and how unbelievably much water there was shooting up as my body drug through the pond.  One of my fellow students who flies with a helmet cam apparently stood there watching and then quietly said, “Oh, damn.  My camera’s not on.”  I would love to have had a video or even a photo of that landing!  I, of course, decided not to bring my camera today (the photo above is from earlier this year).

Fortunately for me, I am wearing all hiking clothes.  Everything I have on retains most of its insulating properties when wet and dries fast.  The only exception is my waterproof boots.  Funny thing about waterproof boots–they’re not so waterproof if you turn them upside down and drag them through water like you’re trying to scoop all the water out of a pond.  And, because they’re waterproof, once you fill them with water, your feet are pretty much like goldfish in a too-small bowl.  Fortunately, the temperature is going up, so I start warming up again almost immediately.

However, I start having troubles launching on my next run.  The pond is now occupying so much of my mind that I can’t keep track of what I’m doing.  It’s like I went backwards 3 months again.  The more I try not to think about that damn pond, the more I find it in my head.

On my next turn, I’m determined to do better.  I manage to launch, but then find myself flying towards the damn pond again.  This time, I push my hips over hard, determined I will turn before I hit that water another time.  However, turns out you’re not supposed to push your hips over; you’re supposed to pull.  I think I knew this at one time, but I forgot.  In any case, pushing lifts the nose and lifting the nose while turning puts the glider into a flat spin.

Fortunately for me, I’m not far enough off the ground for it to be much of a problem.  I make a hard right turn more or less straight for the ground.  It’s not the kind of flight that makes me proud, but it sure beats another dunking.

I struggle the next flight and the next as I try to pull my attention back from the pond.  Each good flight is followed by a bad one.  Finally, I decide I need to get one last good flight in and then call it a day.  I manage to get my head back to this flight and this flight only.  I launch, I fly, I turn without putting myself into a spin, and I land.  It’s a good flight and it’s just in time–I am spent and my toes feel like reconstituted prunes inside my wet boots.  All I can think about is how I need to find some shoes made for flying as I ride back towards the parking lot.