Flying Sandia

When John suggested a trip to Sandia mountain in Albuquerque New Mexico, I jumped at the chance. I was there in 1995 on our nationwide first family outing and fell in love with the mountain. It is the most awesome (to use the word the way it was intended), intimidating site I had ever flown due to the sheer scale of the place. It looms 5000 feet over the city and the launch is at 10,600 feet above sea level. The trip was planned for the week of their (recently revived) annual fly-in, "The Sandia Solstice Soar'n."

John seemed to have all of the details in hand. Myself, John and Shawn would build a crate to ship out our gliders. We'd fly out for the week and then we'd ship them back when we were finished. He made it sound like he'd done it a thousand times.

It turns out none of us knew what we were doing so it was quite a learning experience. If we ever repeat it there are many things we'd do differently (like, perhaps skipping the whole idea of shipping the gliders). Anyway, we built a 12 foot long by 32 inches by 32 inch crate and short packed our gliders. Take a look here to see the three stooges in action. It turns out that the three of us were the three most pessimistic people to ever plan a trip. We were sure the gliders would be totaled before they ever reached Sandia, that the weather would be terrible, etc. One of Shawn's last emails before we left, though 'tongue-in-cheek,' says it best:


I just got a call from John in NM. He said the Albuquerque airport is shut down for the next week due to high winds. I think this might be a problem. Good news, the shipping company said they should be able to locate the other 1/2 of the crate by the weekend.


Click on pictures to enlarge all photos that follow

Shawn lounging in the lobby of the Wellesley Inn and Suites

We all arrived at different times (something else I would do differently next time around) and, on thursday, when I finally arrived, Shawn was ready to roll (as you can see).

Albuquerque from the Crest.

We wern't going to fly until the next evening but we wanted to take a look anyway so we headed up to the top of the mountain. The mountain has a tram that takes passengers to the Peak. There is another road that goes to the Crest. There are hang gliding launches at both the Crest and the Peak. We decided to go up to the Crest since John and Shawn had previously taken the tram to the Peak prior to my arival in Albuquerque.

The landing filed from launch.

Here are a few more shots from the Crest including a zoomed in view of the landing field, a few panoramic views, and some others.

Panoramic over the back
Down the ridge to the south.
Another shot looking south
Down the ridge to the south

Friday, June 18th

Better than shopping at K-Mart

The next day was the first day we were set up to fly. It was the Friday before the fly-in started and a few locals would be available in the evening to act as "guides" (a requirement to fly this particular site). During the day we went on a hike west of the city in an area where John used to ride motocross.

a new shirt and a new hat

While the desert scenery was great, the remnants left by the local population was .... interesting. Shawn seemed to enjoy adding to his wardrobe.
Mullet droppings
While I admired the multicolored array of shotgun shells (complete with matching holes in various road signs and appliances also scattered about).

John, though vehemently denying any liberal tendencies, managed to find "art" in the remaining shards of an old disk drive that was dismembered by some local NRA member who had previously left the scene after target
practice. After John had taken a few pictures I went to pick up the old drive at which point I was reprimanded by John; he seemed to be upset I might ruin the "art." I asked him how the meaning of the artwork would have changed if I moved it, at which point, in good artistic fashion, I was ignored after a brief huff.

Hey! If the shot up disk drive in the desert was art, and the photograph of the shot up drive in the desert was even better art, how much better then is the photograph of the photographer of the shot up disk drive in the desert?

Here are some shots of the area:

Loading up for the first flight
When the time came we packed up the gliders and headed over to the landing field to meet the guide.
Meeting in the LZ to car pool up
We loaded all of the gliders on one car and headed up to the Crest launch among the million watt beam antennas to set up and simultaneously be converted into what our wives might affectionately refer to as "the sports model."

The road over to the launch

To the right is a view of the road through the antenna's to launch. ...

The Crest launch

... and this is a view of launch itself. With hang glider pilots doing what they do best ... waiting.


We all set up and launched as the following sequence can attest to.

Charlie setting up Kent on launch Kent in the air Shawn on launch
Shawn launching Shawn in the air Me launching In the air

Over the back (notice the glider in the pic)

At some point it was my turn and the site was all I remember. Sheer intimidation! Even after launch the magnitude of the scene produces an incredible
Looking south from above launch
sensory overload. That, combined with the fact that all I could think about was whether or not I had put my glider together correctly caused me to fly out of the shoot with the bar stuffed and oscillating all over the sky.

Looking down on the Peak
the time I relaxed I had sunk nearly to Tram Tower Two. Flying low over the tram tower I'm sure the people in the tram got a great view. I was only a hundred or so feet above it
Looking down on the Sandia foothills
trying to work the lift. Of course, what I didn't know, was that I was in danger of not making the landing field from where I was (though, currently there are other options). I managed to climb back up over the mountain from there and took out my camera for some of my first in flight shots.

Click on the strip below to see a few more shots I took from the air:

Saturday, June 19th

The setup area for the Peak.
next day looked like a good flying day and we made arrangements to fly from the Peak. This is a rare opportunity for a non-local; the site is the most restricted I had ever been at. Thanks to Bill Lemon for being our guide and getting us up there.

The setup for flying the Peak is one of the best I've seen. We leave the cars at the bottom, throw the gliders onto the tram, and then ride up on the tram. The local club buys one-way tram passes in bulk so they get a break. It's a great setup and I can certainly understand the local's sensitivity to the site. This sequence shows the trip up:

Colorado pilot on launch

We got up top, unloaded from the tram, and got set up to fly. The owner of the Tram and the Restaurant, George, came out to talk to us for a while. Being a former hang glider pilot himself he told us he had over 1000 flights from the Peak launch.

Well, the sky rapidly developed and Sean (the pilot
Shawn pointing out the gust front
depicted in the picture waiting) launched and got hammered pretty good right off launch. My heart was in my throat watching him and we weren't sure he was going to make the LZ. "Conditions look great, you go first!"

The giant cummie out front started dropping virga and a visible gust front began to sweep across the city. You can't see them in the east. In Albuquerque though, it kicks up enough dust to be visible.

Sunday, June 20th

Well, as a result of the weather we packed it in and decided to meet early on Sunday. We left the gliders on top and returned in the morning to much smoother conditions. The wind was right and we all launched in succession.
Shawn on launch Shawn on launch Getting ready   Launching
In the air Me on launch Getting ready Launching John on launch

It was early and I ended up over the landing field getting ready to set up an approach. Fortunately I ran into a light thermal and decided to stick with it a bit. I took it from about 500 feet over the landing field back up to over 9000 feet MSL (The landing field is at 5600 MSL) where I snapped off the following shots:

Waiting to get picked up from the secondary LZ at noon

John in the middle of Albuquerque
Because we were warned about landing mid-day I decided to get out of the air by about 11:30 and
Mid-day landing
landing was fairly simple and uneventful. Though the middle of Albuquerque, John decided he needed to change his clothes before moving on. As the proof to the right depicts, he was once a Calvin Klein underwear model.

Later in the day some of the others flew. We decided we wanted another smooth flight to get used to the site before taking on the mid-day thermals. Here is a shot of one of the guys coming in for a landing.

More stone kicking watching the OD
Unfortunately, when we went up later in the evening, it had overdeveloped quite a bit and we decided not to fly.

Panoramic of the crest launch with development

Monday, June 21st

The next day the call was for North West. Instead of flying Sandia we decided to head out to a site called Farley's in the town of Grants.
Checking out the cactus
The bane of the New Mexico XC Hang Glider pilot is a cactus called Choilla (sp?). It's spindly form makes it difficult to see from higher than 1000 feet or so, so a field that looks great to land in from 3000 feet might be completely covered with this cactus. The local pilots all fly with a Leatherman so that they can remove the thorns if they land on one. In these pictures you can see a choilla cactus and the result of very lightly brushing up against one.
If it actually was northwest it probably would have been a great day. Unfortunately (again) it was actually southwest. All of the signs at the base of the mountain were indicating a southwest wind but when we arrived at launch, it looked like it was blowing in with occasional crossing.
The three PA pilots waited while a few locals and some comp pilots set up. The first person launched and the wind was clearly southwest. He tried to soar the point of the which faced more northwest but wasn't successful and he landed with a whopping 1/4 mile (or so) XC to add to his comp mileage.
Coming up to launch in the mandatory 4WD
Then a local pilot launched and I witnessed an event that, in all of my years of flying, I'd never seen before. His left wing bowed as if it was experiencing a muscle spasm. The tip of the wing was moving down and the middle was moving up simultaneously as the pilot went negative, right off of launch. When he recovered from this after the wing snapped back into shape, he continued to try soar the ridge when he was dumped straight toward the mountain
Another launch, same game.
and he disappeared from view below the crest of the hill. As we all ran toward the launch to see what happened we saw the glider flying straight away from the mountain.

At that point I was sure I wasn't going to fly and a brief hike revealed the cause of the turbulent conditions. The wind wasn't cycling in on launch because it was coming around to the northwest. It was actually blowing about 35 MPH southwest and wrapping or rotoring into the northwest launch. The pilots were launching into a rather violent rotor.

Tuesday, June 22nd

Tuesday was John's last chance to fly since he was leaving early the next morning. Unfortunately it didn't work out that well because of the overdevelopment. John broke his glider down and we put it in the crate for the return trip. Nothing to do but hunt for mullets, one of Shawn's favorite leisure pastimes of late.

Wednesday, June 23rd

Shawn never looked so at home

At this point, since John left early in the morning, Shawn and I immediately downgraded all of our accommodations (John has expensive tastes). We moved from the Wellesley
Couldn't keep the women away.
Suites to The Econolodge and dropped the rental van for a loaner VW Vanagon, which Shawn was sure was the best chick magnet he'd ever ridden in. I would have disagreed had this view not been verified by the numerous stares we got while driving. All we needed was a couple of Mullets and we would have been indistinguishable from the surroundings.

On Wednesday we got in our first XC, though I'm embarrassed to admit the mileage, as I looked back at launch after landing and thought 'Man! I could have almost made that on a glide.' Shawn did much better reaching the field almost everyone else landed in with five to six thousand feet to spare. He and Larry West (one of the locals) could have easily kept going but both opted to land with everyone else (except me, who was about five miles short of the rest).

Thursday, June 24th

Thursday held the potential for more overdevelopment. At this point it was obvious that the monsoons had started early, usually
Familiar pissed off look on launch.
holding off until mid to late July. Now the choice of when to fly came down to balancing conflicting constraints. Launch late enough to avoid a mid-day landing but early enough to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms. Shawn and I set up, but because of the thunderstorm developing over and right behind launch, broke down again and went to the Crest House to get something to eat. Surprisingly,
Nice sky. Glad I'm not in it.
when we got back out the storm had broken up so we hurriedly set up again. Though there were other storms in sight, they were all many miles away. We decided to fly and keep an eye on the conditions. It was a nice flight with only a taste of the texture the high desert is famous for. Once over the mountain though, it smoothed out significantly. After landing well before the storm developing out front got dangerous.

Friday, June 25th

Another setup at the Crest

Well, we're still wanting to get some good XC in but today looks like another repeat of the previous days.
Getting something to eat at the Crest House
All XC routes blocked by thunderstorms. This time the OD above launch doesn't look too bad. Once again we opted to launch mid-day, after lunch at the Crest House. It was another great flight and we all landed safely before the thunderstorms actually hit.
The view from the Crest House balcony
Thunderstorms behind
Thunderstorms in front

I landed early and Shawn got pretty high (I think, about 15,600 MSL). The brief conversation between Larry West (a local pilot) and Shawn over the radio tells the story of the afternoon.

Shawn: Hey. Are those dust devils out there past the river?

Larry looks out over the river from the landing field

Larry: Shawn. Get out of the air now!

Shawn cored down from 12 grand or so to beat out the approaching gust front.

Saturday, June 26th

Thunderstorm panoramic from the LZ

As far as the flying conditions were concerned, Saturday was a carbon copy of Friday. This day I had another low save (under 500 feet over the landing field then back up to 11,500 MSL over the golf course). Again we landed before the thunderstorms hit. Of course, with 70 days straight with no rain, we knew it would pour when we got there. This time I took some pictures from the LZ of the approaching storms.
LZ Thunderstorm - So much for the drought
Down safely in the main LZ

Saturday evening was the fly-in party and awards at Bill Lemon's house. A few people talked about landing out near his house but no one actually made it there (though a few probably could have).
Shawn and Cat again Dallas Awards
Kent Me Bill,Charlie, ... Shawn and Hal
Andrew doing the
Kent accepting, yet
another, award.
  Robin playing guitar
with John (left)

Sunday, June 27th

9:30 AM development in NM

Sunday was a travel day. The picture to the left was from the plane window and shows the development already taking place at 9:30 in the morning as the monsoon weather pattern continued.
Shawn coming in at philadelphia

After landing in Philadelphia I waited for Shawn's plane to come in for a ride home. All-in-all it was a great trip. A big "thank you" to the Sandia locals that put the fly-in together.


Well, the trip is becomming a memory now (albeit a good one) though, to close the story mention of the return of the gliders must be made.
Sail off of the frame
If I only had my camera when we picked up the crate at the trucking terminal. The dock workers found (or perhaps placed) the crate in such a condition that they were afraid to take it out of the truck with a forklift.
What am I doing?
Frame inspection
The end of the crate was torn off and forklift holes could be found in the sides of it. We opened the lid of the crate there to see if there was any obvious damage to the gliders and didn't find any. When I got home I decided to do a full sail-off inspection (as the pictures show) to make sure none of the tubing was dammaged. Thankfully, it was not and my Fusion is ready to fly again. If it doesn't look like I know what I'm doing in the pictures .... ;-)

Happy Flying