Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Zen and the Art of Paraglider Maintenance

On the bookshelf of every philosophy professor, psychology student, wanna-be-hippie, pseudo-intellectual, and punk rocker in western civilization is a pinkish-purple paperback. The thing is nearly four inches thick, with very small type, and weighs more than a paperback has the right. If you inspect this weighty tome, you will find that, in better than ninety-percent of cases, the binding shows evidence that its owner has never finished it; most likely, only about a third of the book has ever been read. Go look at your own library. If you were a young person in the 1960’s or 70’s or if you’ve ever been interested in the “Big Questions” about life, the mind, and the nature of the Universe, chances are you’ve bought this book; odds are, you’ve never finished it either. You’re in good company.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig has sold millions of copies. This 1974 book is not about “Zen” or “Art” or even “Motorcycle Maintenance.” Instead, it describes a journey across the United States, punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, among them: epistemology (philosophy of the mind); the philosophy of science; “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” It has become one of those books that everyone seems to own, but has never managed to read cover-to-cover; like Atlas Shrugged or the Holy Bible.

My old professor and mentor, a Zen Buddhist and Epistemologist, recommended it to me when I was a sophomore in college. It wasn’t until my second year of graduate studies, after many stops and starts, that I actually finished it.

If you’ve never read it . . . well . . . after a long treatise, it leaves the reader dissatisfied, by offering no new insights into “Life the Universe and Everything.” It simply reminds you of some things that we all know.

I’m not going to drone on about Pirsig’s philosophical inquiries, this is not a book report; this is a dialogue between pilots . . . and it is not about “Zen” or “Art” or “Paraglider Maintenance.”

Ya see . . . I was standing in the middle of a rock slide, on a nearly vertical cliff face, staring up at my beloved Ozone Vulcan as it flopped about precariously in fifteen miles-per-hour winds at the base of a telephone pole, five feet from a busy state highway – several break-lines snagged on sharp lava rocks and thorny plants. That's when I finally accepted the fact that I had several lines that needed to be changed. I should have changed some of them months before, but I always seemed to put-it-off. I tend to put-off a lot of stuff. I decided that I might as well change all of the lines. After all, many of the lines had long been stretched by acro and snags. Plus, it would be cheaper than buying a new glider.

It wasn’t that I had crash landed in this paraglider pilot’s nightmare. I hadn’t gotten blown off course and landed in an “alternate LZ;” just to save my neck. This is one of our most popular launches.

Yes, that’s right . . . I said this is a “launch.” We call it “Crazy Man” . . . “Crazy’s” for short. It’s one of several of our launches that have “power lines” or “major highway within fifteen feet” or “only works in winds of 12-18 miles per hour” as components of the “degree of difficulty.”

But, this is not a critique of launch site safety . . . it is a dialogue between pilots.

There are 280 individual lines connecting the fabric to the risers of the Medium Vulcan. It took a long time for the manufacturer to fabricate them and our Ozone representative to get them through customs. So, I continued to fly the glider. One day, as my vario was screaming something about going up at a very high rate, my right break felt mushy. I looked-up at a deformed trailing edge and realized that one of my break-lines had snapped as I was launching (getting dragged about on launch) in high winds and there was a small hole in the lower skin of the glider; both victims of the lava.

I’ve changed a few lines over the years, but I’d never stripped and redressed an entire glider before. So, naturally, I discussed the task with a couple of instructors and some of my flying buddies. They all had plenty of advice. The most common tidbits were: “Save the old lines, ‘just in case’,” and “make sure you have ‘ample time’ to complete the task.” Also, it was important to have a quiet, wide-open, and windless environment in which to work. I chose the parking garage under my office building on a hot, humid, windless Sunday afternoon. Feel free to question the wisdom of that decision.

I could have just cut the lines from the glider. Doing so would have saved a great deal of time; and to be honest, the old lines were in pretty bad shape. However, as instructed, I was intent upon saving and labeling all of them, “just in case.” Besides, I had all day. So, I began untying the lines, one riser at a time. This is a very time consuming and difficult task; it causes you to bloody nail beds and abrade fingertips.

You learn a lot about your flying habits when you are this intimate with the components of your glider. For example, it is apparent that I muscle the heck out of the right break in high g-force maneuvers; as evidenced by the unbelievable tightness of the lines closest to the left wing tip as compared to the right. I have been meaning to “go left” more often. I guess I’ve just gotten comfortable “going right” since I injured my left arm a few years back. Also, I don’t seem to take very good care of my toys, because I discovered two new pin holes that I would have to patch when I finally got around to patching that little rip that occurred when that break-line broke. I’d been meaning to get to that. I’d just kind of put-it-off. I tend to put-off a lot of stuff.

I was looking forward to kiting my glider once the lines were tied and the trade winds returned to the islands.

Most people who know me would think that someone other than I must have written that last sentence. Up until very recently, you would never see me ground handling. My flying buddies have challenged me about this deficiency on several occasions in the past. I knew, darned well, I needed the practice and I’d been meaning to put in the work. But . . . well . . . Have I mentioned that I tend to put-off a lot of stuff?

Ya see . . . I recently went through a T-3 clinic so that I could have the USHPA authority to take friends and family tandem. There were a bunch of us in the clinic; some of us were seeking the credential, others just wanted the information. I wanted to be a Tandem Instructor. I have wanted it for a long time. I really wanted it.

It was a great course and I learned a lot . . . but . . . well . . . long story short: I did not receive the rating. I had some additional work to do – mostly ground handling.

This was very difficult for me. I was angry and humiliated. I am not accustomed to failure.

Of course, humiliation and determination finally made me get off of my lazy rear-end and kite. For months, while everyone else was flying, I was kiting. When one of my best flying buddies, who was just getting back into paragliding after a bad accident and had been going through some tough times, would ask me to hike-up to launch with him, I’d suggest that we do some kiting instead. When newer pilots arrived at the LZ and saw me kiting, again, they would ask me, “Don’t you ever fly?”

Replacing line after line is a long, fairly monotonous task. The thing about a long, fairly monotonous tasks is, your mind tends to wonder: a form of mediation. Of course, I thought about a plethora of topics related to flying. For instance, I began to consider how high paraglider pilots in general, and our club pilots in particular, have raised the bar of acceptable risk. A few years ago, most of us would NEVER consider launching under a power line. Now, I can name at least four launches on Oahu, two on the US Mainland, and one in Chile that are nestled snuggly beneath “the juice.” Not long ago, an “S.A.T.” was a test you took to get into college and a “Helicopter” would “chop-your-ass.” Now, P-2’s are pulling S.A.T.’s and P-3’s are transitioning from Helicopters to Ass-Choppers. The risk reward ratio has started to spiral (pun intended.)

Inevitably, my mind wandered towards other more philosophical issues, such as: the nature of God; whether or not the brain can understand the mind; how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; and the apparent paradox of the lack of orbital decay of an electron around a proton. But, as usual, I had no good answers . . . so . . . I won’t bore you with the details.

I decided to make it a point to call one of my best flying buddies, who was just getting back into paragliding after a bad accident and had been going through some tough times. I had been meaning to invite him and grab a beer and some ridge lift (Not in that order!) . . . and . . . you know . . . just be there if he needed an ear. That’s what friends do. But, I’ve been busy . . . and . . . well . . . I tend to put-things-off.

It took thirteen hours – thirteen long, hot, thirsty, painful, bleeding, sweaty, hours – to change my lines, patch my holes, and stuff hundreds of old, dirty, useless (yet, labeled, “just in case”) lines in a plastic bag.

After more than two weeks of bad weather, there was finally a “marginal” flying day. A bunch of airsick pilots were out para-driving, para-hiking, and para-waiting. After weeks of being land-bound, these addicts needed a fix. I was coming-out to join them after the football game.

Then, my phone rang.

One of my best flying buddies, who was just getting back into paragliding after a bad accident and had been going through some tough times, had been in an accident: A bad accident.

He had executed a perfect launch in good conditions, but about forty feet from launch, he began to pendulum. He collided with a set of power lines. There was a “Big Blue Flash” as the ghost left the machine and he drifted back onto the ridge, plowing through a fence.

The details aren’t important. I’m not the person to detail the accident. Besides, I have trouble seeing the words through the tears.

Ya see . . . I had been planning to fly with him that day . . . I was gonna come-out earlier . . . but I put-it-off.

The following week was spent dog-sitting and helping the family and the girlfriend and the two little dogs clean-up the details of a life cut short.

Last week, I received a letter from our regional director informing me that I had been promoted to Tandem Instructor: The yin to this terrible yang.

So . . . just like Mr. Pirsig, after a long treatise, I will leave the reader dissatisfied, by offering no new insights into “Life the Universe and Everything.” I will simply remind you of some things that we all know . . . you need to kite; you need to take better care if your toys; you need to call your friends and family . . . invite them out for a beer and some ridge lift (Not in that order!) . . . don’t put-it-off.


(Author's note: I have submitted this article for publication in Hang Gliding & Paragliding magazine. C.J. has informed me that it will be published in the Feb. 2007 edition)


firedave said...

A very interesting short story, kind of like the ones you read in college, seemingly pointless.

Maybe Little Brown can publish you. How about " The Selected Ramblings" by Peter Arroyo.

I have read Pirsig cover to cover, but not recently, it is a classic.
Keep tinkering. DAVE

launch potato said...

Congratulations on getting a publication date! Thought I would throw in a possible added incentive for changing lines...

I've been able to install the lines for a next years model on an old glider, when the bridle was the only thing redesigned for that years upgrade. It was so cool to have the glider transformed into better handling and performance.

In that case I had complained about spectra lines of a Nova getting erratic in length after only a year of light use, with performance getting muddy. I got an email from Hannes Papesh saying how proud they were of a newer lineset, and they would send me free ones for me to install and return the old ones - Thanks Nova!

Nick said...

As usual, your written words rock! I look forward to seeing your article published so I can feverishly point at it and brag to my friends that I know you. I wish it was a cheery subject.

Keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Well Done Peter! When you told me about your article I had to come read it. Its too easy to "put off" those neccessary things in life, but not so easy to ignore the consequences...

Anonymous said...

peter, I always enjoy reading your articles. And this one I will place in the excellent category. My only negative critisism is to stop pulsing to mention that you tend to put things off. It feels like an andy rooney bit....love dad