Resurrection and Erosion

It’s been almost two years since I last flew my Vision Mark IV. I picked it up for a pretty good price with the intent of having it for a beach glider, and wound up flying it as my primary wing for a while because I was quite pleased with it. But then I had an unfortunate incident at Plymouth that resulted in the glider being unflyable, with the main point of damage the bent crossbar hinge. Repairing the glider was pushed to the back burner for a while, since I had just bought the Ultrasport, and the subsequent break from flying. But last year I managed to track down a set of replacement hinge plates (from Matt Taber at Lookout Mountain), and spent some time last summer out on the lawn taking the whole thing apart, inspecting it all, replacing the hinge, and making other small repairs. It had been waiting for months for an ideal opportunity for a checkout flight at Wellfleet.

Last weekend Randy B did an annual on his glider, assisted by Tom L, and I was invited to stop by and watch. During the course of the afternoon, Randy mentioned that it looked like the latter part of the week would have some good weather for flying at the coast. The east winds were associated with an incoming storm, but as Wednesday approached, the forecast continued to look good. I had a window of opportunity that morning when I could fit in some flying time in a gap between work and some other obligations. I called my friend George, who lives on the Cape, and found that he was home, so I drove down Tuesday night to catch up with him and stay at his house in order to be in a good position to get an early start.

The sky was already getting light when I rolled out of his house at 5:30 AM, and I got to Wellfleet around 6:15. After scoping out the access situation at Lecount Hollow, I drove up to White Crest Beach and checked out the wind. Tom and Randy were on their way, so I sent a text message, “36F, 20 mph straight in. Mostly sunny.”, to which Tom responded, “Yahoo!”. I had already started setting up the Mark IV when Keith B rolled in, followed a bit later by Matt M. I got concerned when the wind picked up to 25-30 mph, and had to consider the possibility that I’d have to pack up without flying if that continued. Tom and Randy pulled in, followed by John B (and later on John M showed up as well). Keith was ready, so Matt and I helped him out to the sand and he made it look easy as he took to the air. The wind had come back down to 21-23 mph, so after coordinating radio frequencies, I climbed into my harness.

As Matt was giving me a hang check, he made a comment about my going to be on television. He had been chatting with some people who I had taken to be wuffos, but I guess they were actually a reporter and cameraman, and they asked for the spelling of my name (as of this writing, I don’t know whether the story appeared anywhere). I was now facing a moment about which I had some anxiety. I was hooked in to a glider that I had taken apart and reassembled, without any expert oversight (or any instructions other than the user’s manual). This moment had been previewed in my mind numerous times. If I had done everything right, the glider would fly as it’s supposed to, but if not, it could have a tendency to turn, or have pitch problems, or… The truth is that hang gliders are pretty simple machines to operate (though subtle to design), and I am competent in this field, so although I had some anxiety, I wasn’t actually worried. I had run with the glider on my lawn when I finished assembling it, and I knew that it behaved properly in ground handling. The glider lifted off my shoulders as we approached the edge, and the hang strap went tight. Everything seemed quite fine, so I called clear and just sort of strolled into the air, as uneventful a launch as you could imagine.

The eastern shore of Cape Cod is constantly eroding away, while the tip up at Provincetown is continually growing as sand is deposited there. In 1903, Guglielmo Marconi send the first transatlantic radio message from a transmitter at South Wellfleet. At the time, the closest of the four antenna towers was 165 feet from the edge of the bluff. The towers are long gone, but the bluff has receded so far that the tower foundations are now down on the beach, visible only when the tide is low.

Houses along the shore are pricey real estate, but a questionable investment because they are destined to eventually be claimed by the ocean — there are occasional news stories about the town condemning houses and demolishing them because they’re too close to slipping over the edge. For us pilots, this is a mixed blessing. It’s the erosion that created the scarp that gives us ridge lift, but our access to the beach sometimes gets complicated. We launch at White Crest Beach, where I suspect the town sometimes dumps truckloads of sand in order to create a ramp that beachgoers can walk up and down. Last winter a steep step, about head-high, appeared in the moist sand down at beach level, which was difficult to lift a glider over to carry it back up to launch. The step is gone, but the beach has moved back to the base of the slope, so that the lower 2/3 of it has slumped to the angle of repose. When sand is this steep, it is constantly on the verge of sliding, and it’s virtually impossible to climb, let alone carry anything up.

So alternative LZs come into play. I had been thinking that Lecount Hollow would be a good bet, based on my memory of what it looked like. It has suffered from the same erosion problems, though, to the point where the beach parking lot is currently barricaded off, and the asphalt has been sawed back, presumably as a first step in some kind of renovations.

The other possible LZ that had been mentioned is the Beachcomber restaurant at Cahoon Hollow. That’s where Matt and Keith landed (they had to quit early due to schedule constraints), and there’s a good path that descends about 2/3 of the way to the beach via switchbacks, though they had to deal with a bit of steepness at the bottom.

I flew south to Nauset Light while waiting for the others to finish getting ready, and John was in the air when I got back, though Tom and Randy weren’t. Turned out that they both had harness issues to work out: Randy was flying with a new harness for the first time and trying to get everything to fit properly, and Tom had to deal with a malfunctioning zipper. Tom reported that it was blowing about 30 mph when he walked Randy out to launch, but that when he brought his own glider out a few minutes later, he just walked across the parking lot, onto the sand, and into the air without stopping.

There was a bit of a resurrection going on for him, as well: he recently sold his glider in advance of taking delivery of a new one for the upcoming comp season, and is temporarily without a wing. Randy loaned him his backup glider for the day, an Ultrasport 147. And not just any Ultrasport — though it has had several owners, when this particular glider was built, in the first year of production, Tom was its original owner. This was also the first time I had ever seen Tom flying with a kingpost! (He reported that it flew fine, and would make a great beach glider if anybody is looking for one — it’s for sale.)

Randy, Tom, and John all took off to the north toward Highland Light. I considered joining them, but didn’t work up the motivation to try jumping the gap at Newcomb Hollow, though I had looked at it several times and was pretty convinced that I could make it. Instead, I headed back to launch, arriving just in time to see John take to the air for his first coastal flight.

I flew around with John for a while, listening to the radio chatter from the crew headed north, then decided to land. The tide was coming in, and I wanted to get onto the ground before the strip of beach got too narrow. Unfortunately, the wind was straight in and still quite healthy, so I wasn’t having much luck losing altitude. The easiest way to find sink in this circumstance is to fly out over the water, but this entailed putting myself far enough out over vigorous surf that I didn’t really feel comfortable. I weighed my options, and decided to head for Newcomb Hollow.

Newcomb Hollow is the first major beach access point north of White Crest, and is the first big challenge when flying north. You need to tank up on altitude (and maybe go in with a little speed), then wisely manage your airspeed and sink rate if you want to get to the lift on the far side before hitting the deck. Because it’s tricky to cross, I knew that it would also be easy to land there. A simple trip about halfway across put me low enough to go on final, and the return leg had me on the ground directly in front of the parking lot, almost hovering in for a landing. I misjudged my altitude over the uniform brown sand and flared a couple of feet high, so instead of landing on my feet, it was more of a six-point landing (two feet, two control frame corners, one keel, plus my butt) in a heap on the sand, but I guess it looked stylish enough, because a woman in the parking lot remarked that it was beautiful!

So, the Vision Mark IV 17 returns, phoenixlike, to flight, and is declared airworthy. I should have taken a picture as soon as I landed, but I forgot until after I had pulled the battens.

I packed up quickly, and got ready to jog the 2+ miles back to get the car (not so bad in my book, and this is where I plan to land from now on). There was one other picture that I’m sorry I didn’t get: I noticed something on the sand as I was flying over, and realized it was a seal sunning itself. At the time, I was busy setting up my landing, so I didn’t take a picture, and after I was packed up I couldn’t remember exactly where it had been.

First flying in over three months — the 2011 season has begun.

Update: Turns out the reporters were the CapeCast guys — I’ve watched their videos before. And sure enough, they did a piece on us: check it out!

flights: 1, airtime: 3:11, XC distance: 3.5 km


About cleversky

Hang glider pilot in New England since 2004. Also an avid orienteer, and an embedded systems firmware engineer. And some other outdoor stuff.
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