Monday, June 05, 2006

Hawaii Heroes: Twelve Monkeys at the Rat Race

Greg and Alex in the Launch LinePilots from around the country and the world attended the double header 2006 Starthistle Fly-In and Rat Race Competition this past week at Woodrat Mountain outside of Medford, Oregon, and we all enjoyed some great flying in spite of inconsistent weather. Seven heroic Hawaii pilots competed for the first time (Don, Alex, Sandy, Jeff, Greg, Ray, Peter), one competed for the second time (Bob), and the one veteran competitor among us volunteered to help the organizers make it all work (Pete). Plus we had Paul and Troy and Don's pal Tom in our group to help out with the flying, driving, and partying to make us an even dozen flying monkeys from Hawaii. Collectively I am sure that we flew more miles and drank more malted, fermented and distilled beverages than on any group flying trip in our simian history. And that's saying a lot.


Cold HawaiiansThe weather started out marginally flyable but cold, with a snow flurry on launch the first morning of the fly-in the weekend before the comp started. Snow! The thin-blooded tropical primates were wondering if they'd made a huge mistake. But then over the next few days the weather turned gorgeous and perfect ahead of an advancing cold front. The only snow we'd see would be high in the air or blanketing distant high peaks on the horizon. The weather allowed us to fly two great practice tasks during the fly-in, and then one great first task for the competition, before the cold front brought rain and south winds to shut us down for nothing but damp sled rides for three long days. Finally the front passed just in time for one great last day's task. Throughout the meet we relied on the weather knowledge of locals and other experienced comp pilots, because our tropical weather experience doesn't prepare us for the world of mountain weather phenomena: atmospheric stability, lapse rates, convergence, shearlines, valley winds, and gust fronts with no wind lines on the ocean to warn us.


Dummies OverheadGail and Mike Haley hold this event each year in an effort to promote the pursuit of cross country flying and to grow the competition scene in this country. For pilots at our level, the main point of this event is to provide a venue where we can venture outside of our comfort zones and expand our thermal and cross country horizons in manageable air, while surrounded by a large number of experienced and helpful competition pilots. At home, most of us are generally trying to stay within our comfort zones, but an event like this provides a structured way to push us beyond our normal limits.

For me, each task I flew was scarier and more challenging than the preceding one, with the thermals becoming bigger and less friendly, and every task entailed landing in some strange field I had to choose myself as I got low. I mustered up courage I really didn't know I had, and found myself making a lot of successful and safe decisions while building my tolerance and understanding of mainland mountain air. At least I think they were safe decisions -- I got away with all of them, so that proves it. I also figured out my GPS well enough to use it adequately by the end of the meet. I recorded ten flights, ten thermal hours, two forward launches, four outlandings, a max altitude gain of 5000 feet above launch, and 57 total cross country miles.

Fly-In Task #1

Suicide and Ray heading upThe first task of the fly-in was a short 5 mile race over the back of Burnt Ridge to a designated field in the next town of Jacksonville. I wasn't patient enough to get high before I left the launch area, and after heading over the ridge I encountered nothing but sink over valleys and hills blanketed with tall trees. I soon landed short on a nearby hilltop covered with poison oak, followed by another pilot, Tristan. We hiked five minutes into town and then waited 12-24 hours for the poison oak to flare up - but somehow our superhero powers protected us and the itchy welts never appeared, other than several times in my imagination. Whew. This was for sure one of my scariest flights ever, heading out into unknown territory and picking a really sketchy place to set down (the best of a handful of available sketchy spots, I think).

Fly-In Task #2

Cloudbase on Last Practice DayThe second fly-in task was a 35 mile race out and back over a bunch of big scary mountains covered with very tall pine trees, with only a few scattered landable fields in steep valleys that seemed very remote. I worked hard to stay at (and a few times inside) cloudbase on the way to the turnpoint. While I was still over the worst of the tiger country, I heard Troy's voice on the radio announcing an emergency: a pilot had just thrown his reserve near the turnpoint, to sink into the trees on the mountaintops. I saw the last few seconds of his descent and I have to admit that it didn't fill me with confidence to complete the task. (Later we found out it had been Rob Sporrer, Doug's buddy and an experienced instructor and comp pilot. Yikes! But he was lucky to escape with bruised ribs and was back in the game the next day.)

Somehow, after more help from the nice clouds overhead, I was able to make the turnpoint with lots of altitude. That was an incredible feeling. I was so relieved that I think I ran out of gas mentally. And there were very few pilots around me at this point, and few clouds overhead in this area. After I turned around I found myself losing height, and I couldn't quite muster the courage to head back over the mountains low, so instead I veered wide over the side ridges and ended up sinking out in the valley before very long. For sure this was my scariest and best flight ever. It helped to have lots of pilots all around for most of the flight, including Don, who turned back just before the turnpoint and made it all the way to the vineyard LZ for a bacchanalia with Troy and Tom. After landing, I was soon picked up by Pete, who was in the area gathering up pilots in the trusty Hawaii Bronco, and we headed around the whole mountain area trying to find a way up to where Rob had come down before we got word that he'd already been picked up. I also heard that Troy had completed the entire course. Wow! We sure miss him flying with us here in Hawaii but he is still my flying hero.

Rat Race Task #1

Low Gaggle on Day OneThe first competition task was a 42 mile race with lots of waypoints, extending to a point further than the previous day, and then returning to jump over the back to an LZ quite a long way downrange in the neighboring Rogue valley. I was hopeful to duplicate or extend my flight from the previous day, but somehow I found myself really struggling to make good use of the day's thermals. I soon found myself left behind by the entire gaggle, and straggling low and alone over the forested peaks with very few clouds overhead to help point out the lift. As I got lower I veered out from the mountains and soon landed in a vineyard not far from the previous day's landing spot, in the same valley, but with a lot less distance under my belt. Unfortunately the vineyard was closed so I waited alone and unquenched for a retrieval van, this time driven by Delia, a super nice volunteer pilot from Vegas. I was feeling a bit dejected upon my return, so to salve my spirits I went back up the hill with Motorhead, Greg, Peter and others and relaunched for a nice sunset glass-off flight.

After landing I heard that another pilot had thrown their reserve during the task - the reserve deployed through the stirrup so the pilot descended head first, but she was able to grab some tree branches as she approached the ground to cushion her descent. I tried to soothe my sense of inadequacy for the day by feeling grateful that at least I had landed under my wing and not my reserve.

Cool DeterminationI also heard an incredible story about Sandy on this day. Apparently she launched with her speed system somehow wrapped up beneath her derriere, and fully engaged, and she began to suffer a cascade of collapses in the turbulent thermic air just over the tall trees below launch. With the calm presence of mind for which she is becoming known, she assessed the situation quickly and did what any one of us would have done in her place -- she tossed her laundry. No, wait! In the split second before that would have been necessary, she whipped her hook knife out and sliced both speed lines completely through! Instantly, the wing recovered and Sandy flew out from the hill as her speed bar dropped into the trees below. She considered trying to bench back up, but she though better of continuing the task without a speed system, and went for the LZ instead. Was that it? Was she done for the day after that close call? Not our Sandy. Even though she knew it would be for a zero score, she caught a ride back up the hill, got a replacement speed system installed on launch, and flew to meet the comp gaggle halfway back on the course to go with them almost all the way to goal, catching a retrieval ride for the final few miles. Wow! Sandy is truly my hero.

Rat Race Task #2

Looking over Rabies towards Grants PassAfter three days called with no task because of poor weather, including rain and hail, the second and final competition task was called for the last possible day as the weather began to clear up. But the lift was expected to be weak and challenging, so instead of a long epic trip, they called for a double fishbowl circuit around the launch valley, followed by a turnpoint and goal over the back into the Rogue valley, similar to the ending of the previous task, for a total of 26 miles.

The wind turned out to be still quite southerly, which is a terrible direction for Woodrat, and many pilots were flushed early into what they reported was some violent air down over the landing zone. The air above the valley was extremely rough too, and many pilots took collapses as they were shaken around. I took a couple of huge frontals but never got turned around too bad. It wasn't a fishbowl after all, it was a washing machine on a heavy duty cycle. There was talk on the radio of cancelling the task midway, but I don't think anyone was quite ready to make that call. I was definitely ready to land after each collapse, except that the LZ sounded just as scary. I forced myself to stay up and try to make the next turnpoint, and then I promised myself I'd find a safe place to land. Then I would notice that Bob and Ray were still up in the air near me, and I would force myself to stay up just a bit longer, just for one more turnpoint.

After what seemed like forever, I realized that somehow I had completed the double circuit and I was high enough to head over the back, so to my great relief I soared out of the nasty air into the very light and gentle airflow of the Rogue Valley. I made the final turnpoint easily enough and turned to head for goal, but it was a very long way and I was out of gas again mentally. Also I'd heard that someone had suffered a traumatic back injury in the LZ back at Woodrat, and an ambulance was coming for them. Boy was I glad to be gone by that time. (Later on I found out it had been Ernie from Seattle, and he thankfully just suffered some bruising).

Landed out on the way to goal at DonatosTired and losing my focus, I was unprepared to work the ridges low enough to scratch back up in the weak lift, so after veering out from the mountains I found a field just a little ways past some other downed pilots and 3 miles short of goal. As I was getting low and picking out a landing field, I heard Pete's voice out of nowhere over the radio saying "way to go, Al!" and I suddenly felt like a superhero even without making goal. He found me shortly after that, and I crammed myself into the capacious Hawaii Bronco for a ride to goal and a frosty malted beverage. Without a doubt this was my scariest and longest XC flight ever. I didn't really know if I had successfully tagged all the turnpoints on the course, but at this point I was just psyched to have tried and made it this far.

Airwave Gliders

We were very fortunate to be joined at the Rat Race by Bruce Goldsmith, the Airwave Gliders designer and top world competititor, along with owner Markus Villinger and associate Martin Gostner. They handed out demo wings and Bruce gave talks most evenings to an eager audience of pilots in various states of sobriety, on the subjects of competition formats, incident recovery and wing design.

Forward launching the M4I was super excited to get a chance to demo the Magic 4, an upgrade to my Magic 3, and after a few sledders on the poor weather days I put it through some serious air on the last comp day. I really loved it - I would have bought it on the spot if I weren't practically bankrupt by coming to this event in the first place. But sadly, I lost the glider during the ride back from goal - it must have toppled off the Bronco on one of those winding mountain roads. Of course I'm sure Airwave must have insurance to cover that sort of thing, right? Well, they didn't buy that story either, so I reluctantly handed back the magical new aircraft in return for my own trusty but very tired glider. Once my cashflow is positive again, I know you will all see me in the tropical skies on the hottest glider in town. Until then, I'll just savor the memory of that fantastic machine and an epic flight.

Mentor Program

Roger makes his point to BruceWe also were lucky to have other top pilots give talks on various subjects, including GPS use and competition scoring, as part of the traditional mentoring program. In addition to these scheduled talks, each of the new pilots was paired with an experienced pilot to help them get up to speed in the competition. My mentor, Tom McCune, was a previous year's winner and a super nice guy, full of encouraging advice and valuable information. I wish I could have taken better advantage of his tips on strategy, but most days I was frankly doing well just to stay in the air at all. I remember Bruce explaining to me at one point that to the experienced comp pilots, the flying itself was second nature, so they were free to concentrate primarily on strategies to fly fastest and win. That sounds like a far off goal to me, but I would like to think I can get there one day with the help of events like this.

Thank You!

Mike and Gail Haley and supergirl Amity deserve our sincere gratitude for pulling off a well-run meet in the face of unsupportive weather. Thanks to Hayden and Paul and all the other local heroes in the Rogue Valley Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club for their support and help throughout the meet.

I am grateful to Bob for suggesting we all go to the Rat Race when he first heard about it, and to Dorothy and her parents for encouraging me to go, and to Gail for encouraging us to stick to our guns despite the initial waitlisting. Thanks to Doug for the GPS class before we left, and for encouraging me to compete every year for the last five years. I'm so glad I finally tried it!

Sardines in the Hawaii BroncoThanks to Pete for his selfless efforts behind the wheel and on launch -- he was truly a heroic volunteer for the cause. Thanks to all the other volunteers as well: Safety Director Tom Chesnut, Mentor Coordinator Len, Driver Delia from Vegas, Driver Bob from Portland, Driver George, Driver Tom from Hawaii, Scorer Jim, Coordinator T, Bartender Steve, and all the other volunteers too numerous to list.

And I'm super happy that all of our twelve local monkeys were able to show up and make it such a great group event for everyone. I know each of us played an important role in making it work, and we all learned a lot, no matter where we were in our thermal and XC experience.

Thanks to Paul for the crash pad on my first night (or two) and for a tasty campfire lunch, and to Don for the awesome motel on the subsequent nights. Thanks to Pete for running the Coconut Casino, and for sharing the contents of his secret bell jar, and to Peter for the cigars and the BBQ meat coordination, and to Jeff (and partners in crime Don and Tom) for thinking up some novel post-flight adventures, and to Tom for fronting my share of Don's birthday dinner tab.

Also a special thanks to Troy for making the long drive -- I didn't get to see as much of him as I had hoped but maybe that's just a good reason to schedule a trip to Bend sometime soon.

Thanks to Tom McCune and all the other top comp pilots for their advice and encouragement, and to all the Airwave guys for the amazing demo wing that I wish I had with me right now.

And of course my sincere thanks must go out to the Deschutes Brewing Company. I never dreamed I'd see (and imbibe) so much Black Butte Porter over such a short period.

I hope to see you all at next year's Rat Race if not before.


Alex said...

Other good reports and pictures I've found:

Official Results
Jeff Wishnie's Blog
Chris Amonson's Photos
Nicole Mclearn's Photos
Nicole McLearn's Blog

Alex said...

More great pictures:

Josh Cohn's Photos
Photos by Bo Criss
More Photos by Bo Criss

Onomea Eric said...

Well written article. Really gives the flavor of the event. You guys have the best web site, always changing and current. Most of all, your enthusiasm comes through.

Aloha, Eric jealous on the Big Island