Fri 9 Sep 2005
As we often do, my family and I headed up to Hyner for Labor Day weekend for some camping and hang gliding. All in all, we had a great time.
On Sunday I got to about 5000 feet over launch and got an arial view of my friend Ken blowing launch (not that it was very entertaining at the time). Being the good sport (and great pilot – minus his last (attempted) launch), we had a good laugh (at his expense, of course), and shared a glass of Port or two (or ten) around the fire.
In retrospect this should be a lesson in how dangerous pressures from other pilots can be. It’s been said “Hang glider pilots eat their young,” and apparently their prune eating, Geratol swigging elders (OK, OK, Ken’s not that old) also.
I was on top for a while; set up, and watching the conditions when I began to sense the time was ripe. I’m not sure I can describe what factors contribute to this “sense,” but after hang gliding for nearly 15 years you begin to develop an ability to compile all kinds of little signs, even if you don’t consciously recognize it when it’s happening. The clouds, the wind, the sun all contribute. The subtle shifts in wind direction as thermals roll through or nearby; bug-catching birds leave their low perches to go after insects caught up in rising air, temperature differences as pillars of lifting air roll along with a light base wind. All of these things create a sense that there the time is right to launch and I was practically pulling my hair out (and I really don’t have much to spare) eager to get in the air.
There had been no one in the air for a while and when I got in the launch line I was third in line. Usually, this is right where I want to be. That “sense” is better in some pilots than others and it is far from infallible in my case (very much unlike the “sky-gods” in our club – Doug and Bob). It’s great to have a couple of “wind-dummies” in front of you; they act as “trial balloons” for the conditions. If they launch and sink straight to the field – you can always reconsider. While that is usually where I prefer to be, it can get exasperating if that “sense” is strong yet you are behind a “potato” or two (a “potato” is the hang-gliding term for a pilot on launch that has grown roots where he is and seems to take forever to launch – especially when there is a line of eger pilots behind him).
Shawn, in the front of the line, watched. … and watched … and watched the conditions. I was so sure it was soarable I got out of my harness, walked out to launch, and tried to figure out what he was waiting for. Between Shawn and myself was Ken. On my way back to my glider I said to Ken in passing “if he gets off launch soon I give him better than 50/50 that he goes to the moon.”
Shawn’s launch was uneventful except that I remember when he turned right I yelled “NO! Don’t go that way. Go to the point.” The configuration of Hyner is such that turning right off launch is usually what you do when there is enough wind to create ridge lift; not when there are thermal conditions and very little base wind like this afternoon. “The point” is the end of a spur of the mountain and seems to be the best place to pick up thermals. Whenever I’ve gotten high at Hyner it has invariably been by picking off a thermal somewhere between launch and the point.
Eventually, when turning to the right didn’t work for Shawn, he headed to “the point” and ran smack into nice consistent lift. Now, I’m second in line, and not only is the sense that the conditions are perfect overwhelming, I’m watching someone out in front of launch following an invisible corkscrew up and over the mountain thereby confirming my subjective sense. These are the type of conditions that even Doug, the most patient person in our club, would drive mad – and I’m certainly not known for my patience.
OK. So there is this unwritten rule about putting pressure on a pilot to launch. You NEVER do it … unless everyone else is. When Ken waited through, what seemed like, some launchable cycles, other pilots watching from the wall above launch stared yelling down about “making french fries” (see the comment about “potato” a few paragraphs above). SOMEONE even called Ken “Claire” (no – I will not explain that one). Unfortunately, from second in line, you cannot exactly see the conditions that the person on launch is seeing right in front of him. So … I waited … and waited …. and waited … for what seemed like several hours as Shawn soared overhead and a minute or two clicked by on my watch.
Eventually a particularly perfect cycle came through. I could tell there was wind and it was in the right direction. Other pilots were reading the flag that is above the launch (and not visible by the pilot) and telling Ken the conditions were right. Ken picked up his glider to get ready to launch … and stood there. I whispered several times under my breath “come-on” but eventually he waited out that perfect and long cycle and put the glider back down.
The goal for the pilot is, of course, a safe launch. So just because conditions seem launchable while you’re waching someone else try to launch, when it’s you standing there getting ready to try to run off a mountain, the conditions can seem much different. I’ve been in this situation myself and rather than deal with the pressure, I’ll usually just back off launch and pass it on to the next person in line. This is one of the protocols in hang gliding; that if you’re not going to take it, you offer it to the next pilot in line. If he (or she as the case is too rarely) won’t take it, the pressure is off. So Ken turned to me (actually for a second time, the first time I declined) and asked “do you want to take a ‘no-winder’?”
Launching in no-wind mid-day is not exactly the most pleasant experience, but I had done it enough that I was comfortable that I could safely get away from the mountain. So I “bumped” Ken and got on launch. Now ALL of that pressure was on me compounded by the fact that I had just bumped Ken. I checked the wind indicators. They read a very light (1-2 mph) with a very slight cross. I had just done that this morning so I picked up my glider and began my acceleration. It’s a bit disconcerting to be up to near full running speed and closing in on the shrubs and small trees at the end of the launch and yet the glider was barely flying. I managed to pick my feet up but the glider wasn’t really flying. It was more like falling along the contour of the mountain.
I have enough experience to have immediately realized two things. 1) I was going to get away from the mountain without an incident. 2) It probably wasn’t a smart thing to do as there really wasn’t much margin for error. The thought “rotor” flashed through my mind as the glider seemed like it didn’t want to fly away from the mountain but simply follow terrain downward. As the glider flew and I came away from launch I though “that was tight” but was immediately into flying the glider and I put the launch behind me.
What I flew into was a PERFECT thermal right off launch. I began to turn and climb as Ken moved back over into the launch spot.
Now consider his state of mind. He was just under an enourmous amount of pressure to launch from all of the other pilots, from watching Shawn climb out, and finally from being bumped (though having been bumped myself many times, I never take this as additional pressure, but I can see how someone can). Now he’s back in front of lauch with the same conditions I just succesfully launced in, and with me out in front ascending another thermal staircase.
At about 500 feet over launch I looked down, and seeing his glider as it passed through the shrubs and trees and finally settled in the bush facing the wrong direction, way below launch, this sick feeling settled over me. I almost went out and landed, not sure if he would need help (not that I could have gotten back up there to do any good) or maybe to clear the air for a Medivac when I saw him climb out from underneath his glider.
When people reached him and other pilots launched I knew he was fine so I continued my flight though it took me a while to shake off my funk. Getting to 5000 feet over launch with a tee shirt and shorts froze it out of me.
Again, Ken was a great sport about it at the fire and thankfully not a scratch on him OR the glider. He managed to get it out of the bush, get it set up on top, and go over it good.
In thinking about the lessons learned, the closing lines from a Simpson’s episode come to mind. Lisa (I think) turns to Homer and asks “So dad, what have we learned from all this?” To which Homer replies “Nothing Lisa. Absolutely nothing.”