About six years ago, on July 16, 2006, I headed up to Morningside for my 14th hang gliding lesson, and realized en route that I was wearing sandals. I’m not a steel-toed boot guy, but I don’t consider sandals to be appropriate hang gliding footwear either, so I stopped at Wal*Mart in Keene and picked up a pair of sneakers. They didn’t have the cheapest ones in my size, so I bought the next-cheapest model, the Carson, which was either $10 or $12 for the pair. I then put them in my flying bag, and I’ve had them with me every time since. For several years they were the only shoes I wore to fly, although lately I’ve occasionally worn something else. I was amused to learn at some point that they are considered so horrible that at one point Adidas sued Wal*Mart, more or less claiming that they shouldn’t even be allowed to sell them as shoes. They were not very good sneakers, although I’ve had worse. I put about 120 miles on them in about 50 hours, mostly hiking gliders to launch or climbing back up to launch sites to retrieve vehicles. I’ve been thinking that they’ve been getting too worn to use any more, and today the sole on one of them really started to fall apart. So that’s it, they’re going in the trash.
Saturday was all overcast with a little rain, but for Sunday the NW forecast meant either Ascutney, the Trail, or Skinner. One of the other pilots was concerned that the wind was going to be really strong, indicating that Skinner would be the best choice of the three. I wasn’t so concerned about the wind, but it did look to me like the thermal potential was huge. On the drive out, in fact, the cumulus development was looking somewhat scary. Four of us rendezvoused and went up in one vehicle, then hiked out to launch and set up. When we arrived, the speed was about 2 mph, gusting to 3 mph, so we took our time, because the wind was supposed to increase as the afternoon went on.
One of the pilots was interested in launching first, when he’d have the most wire crew available, and wasn’t that concerned about staying up. We munched on lunch while the breeze picked up, and when it was feeling substantial, he hooked in and moved out to launch. Although he waited for the strongest part of a good cycle, something didn’t work out right, and he sank too much in the first 50 feet. The trees in front of launch at Skinner are pretty tall, and he clipped them — after that, the next few seconds didn’t go well at all, but he successfully flared into the canopy. Uh oh. We left the spectators behind and scrambled down the steep basalt slope to get to him.
I won’t bother with the details, but I’ll note that assistance from the fire department was needed because we didn’t have a rope for belaying, and that dental floss once again came in handy (put some in your harness now!). The pilot was uninjured, and the glider was nearly undamaged. He walked out, and we packed up his gear and hauled it back to the car. However, for various reasons, he seems to be of the opinion that this incident was enough for him to call it quits. We’ll have to see whether he sticks with his decision, but as of now, he says that he’s hanging up his flying shoes in the metaphorical sense.
So. So, so, so. Hmm. That left the other three of us with all of our gear out at launch and set up, with an annoyingly long haul to get it all back to the car. And the wind had increased — conditions were even better. The treehugger jokingly asked if he could borrow one of our gliders, then urged us to go ahead and fly if we thought it looked good, and said he’d drive the car down. Certainly a lot easier than hiking back to the parking lot, so… we all flew.
And how was it? It was trashy. There was enough ridge lift to stay up, but the thermals were all kind of shredded, and I couldn’t figure out how to work them. I got up to 1200 feet over launch at one point, and the other two did better, one of them getting to about 2600 over, I think, but most of my flight was a few hundred feet above the ridge, getting kicked around. It honestly wasn’t all that much fun. Later in the flight it smoothed out some, and I was able to climb slowly as I crept all the way out toward the river. It was also a bit boring. Skinner can be that way, I’ve really only ever flown it in ridge lift, and since the Holyoke Range is not a particularly big ridge, you can get tired of looking at the same scenery. It does have the benefit of being relatively close to home, only about an hour and 40 minutes drive from my house.
And we landed and we got ice cream and we drove home and got back late because we had stayed in the sky until the sun was getting low.
It’s not an issue of any particular pilot, because the circumstances were all different, but I’m getting weary of all this crashing. This was the fourth time in less than a year that I’ve watched something go really wrong that required a rescue. And in the past I’ve been part of the problem myself, with a blown launch a few years ago (at a site where the consequences were minor), a couple of beach mishaps that resulted in bent aluminum, and my major screwup that resulted in a parachute deployment and an involved tree rescue. I’ve managed to avoid any injuries, and I haven’t had the misfortune of watching anybody die, though I know other pilots who have.
And as I was doing laps back and forth along the ridge, I was thinking to myself, “Why am I doing this?”. Hang gliding takes a lot of effort. Doing it where I live means committing an entire day to what might be an hours-long flight or might just be a sled ride. There are a lot of pieces to deal with (glider, harness, helmet, vario, radio, headset, GPS, camera, appropriate clothing that’s hard to guess sometimes, gloves, camelbak, etc. etc. etc.). Properly setting up and preflighting a hang glider takes a lot of time, and a lot of time to break it down as well. Some of our sites require moderately strenuous hikes in. Trying to predict the weather is dicey, and even when conditions are good, there are sometimes odd gusts and things that can cause trouble. But we go through all that hassle because flying is so awesome. Right? Except that fishbowl flying at the same sites is starting to lose its appeal for me. The obvious remedy for that is to stretch out and do XC flying, but I honestly have to say that although I used to think I’d be very excited about XC, I’m actually kind of lukewarm about it.
Sorry that this post may come off as something of a downer. When we landed, a guy drove up and asked if he could ask us some questions. We said sure, and he wanted to know how one learns to hang glide, how much it costs, where to take lessons, etc. He said he had been watching us for the past couple of hours, and it looked fantastic. We answered his questions and steered him in the right direction to get hooked up with more information. But as he was turning to leave, knowing that I was standing right next to someone who had launched that day but was already referring to himself as “a former hang glider pilot”, I said to the aspiring guy, “But you know, I really can’t recommend it”. We joked around about what a hassle it is, but I honestly meant it.
The Wal*Mart sneakers are done. As to whether I have a lot of flying left in me, well, we’ll see.
flights: 1, airtime: 2:28