Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Beginner's Luck?

Reaper extolled the virtues of beginner's luck in a recent article about my fortunate full moon flight. Well, beginners have another kind of luck: the kind that's pushed too far!

I had some work to attend to this morning, and was itching to fly right afterward, hoping I hadn't missed any windows of opportunity in the morning. I was in luck, it seemed, as Kahana became manageable in the afternoon. Alex and I conspired to meet there to sneak in a flight before Christmas, and everything seemed to be okay--a little strong, but okay.

I'm still too green to be confident flying solo, so I was glad Alex was with me to help out. Unfortunately, his radio was broken... but that was fine. I've flown Kahana before, I thought. Launch was overgrown, but I was in luck again: my lines were straight, and no snags as I popped my wing up! It was one of my better launches, although I lost altitude right as I was launching, as usual. Alex had some tips for me to mitigate that, which I will try on my next flight. This was, however, a little strange: we'd both expected that it would be strong enough that we'd get ripped off of our feet. No matter, it'll pick up any second here, I thought...

I was flying a good ten seconds or so before I realized I should probably look for lift. Normally, on launches, I have at least three different pilots telling me exactly which way I need to turn right after I take off, but I hadn't told myself which way I should turn, this time. Hadn't really given it any thought at all, to be honest. But that's okay, it'll get stronger here any second--I'll just hug the ridge, relax, and enjoy the flight for now. Alex says he yelled at me to come back, but his voice was lost in the wind.

As I progressed my way northward, I grew steadily more worried. Right after launch, flying seemed so free and simple and carefree. I'll just take off, and I'll go up, I had thought. But then the trees started looking a little bigger... and the power lines a little more menacing... and the LZ further away. I'd feel a little puff of lift here and there, not enough for me to stop and try to work, just enough to convince me that there must be more, just up ahead. Maybe. If I was really lucky. I passed low over the north launch ridge, and saw the rhino head to my left. A voice inside me said, "Maybe you should go back, now," but I could feel the wind on my face, blowing through my helmet, and clearly if the wind was in front of me, the rhino head must have plenty of lift. (This was, of course, just an illusion caused by my flight forward. The wind was east.)

A second, slightly more logical reason that I continued flying north was that, by this time, I realized I wasn't going to make it back to the LZ in time, if I did bomb out. Which I wouldn't. But if I did. If I went back now, it would be trees, power lines, or water. I remembered seeing some fields on the other side of the rhino head from my first free flight, a mere 10 flights ago, figured I'd make for those just in case, and promptly shoved the prospect out of my head. The wind was going to pick up at any second, after all.

A third, and totally illogical reason I flew north was, as I explained to Alex later, the same reason I'll keep driving for miles after missing a turn on an unfamiliar highway. I know I missed the turn. I know I should turn back. And there's a turnout right there... I could just pull over, let cars pass, then make a U-ey when it's clear. But there might be a better turnout, a bigger, safer one, just ahead. Or maybe there's an alternate route. And, heaven forbid, I can't let any of the drivers behind me know that I have absolutely no idea where I'm going. Then I'd just look like an idiot.

I looked below me, and three cows stared back from their corral ("possible LZ!" the voice inside me whispered). I had to face the facts at this point, so I took a second look, still hoping I'd feel a little lift from somewhere. Call it cow-lift. Besides the corral, there was a green field a ways north, and then several fields just around the bend that I remembered. But I also remembered Alex' story of slogging through knee-deep mud, glider in tow. That didn't sound like any fun at all. The green field was surrounded by tall trees, and it was a bit too close to the road, power lines, and possible laughing spectators for my comfort. So cow corral it was! I banked over the end of the corral, flying into the wind now by happy accident, glared at the cows, vowing not to land anywhere near them, and made my approach. I picked a spot on the ground, focused on it, and overshot it, as usual. Half of my runway gone, and still another four meters to descend. I picked another spot, right at the end of the corral, and heard Reaper's voice yelling at me to "slow the glider down... slow the glider down!" I always hear him saying that when I land, whether or not he's actually present. So I started sinking into the brakes, more and more, as I neared the end of my LZ.

The end of the corral was marked by a wire fence (I hope that's not barbed wire, I thought to myself), beyond which was the nice, thick forest that I really didn't want to land in. About two meters above the ground I realized I had forgotten to stand up, and I hopped out of my seat. Right after that, I realized I wasn't going to land in the corral after all, but was going to hit the fence. I ran through my options... When I landed at Nanakuli, I thought I was going to run into the baseball diamond chain link fence. There, I just turned left, and landed alongside it, instead. But here, left would put me going down a steep hill, and I'd end up in a tree or a fence anyway. Going right would drive me into the slope harder and faster, and my glider would probably end up straddling the fence... which I really didn't want to have happen. I had seen Britton pump his brakes and pop up and over an obstacle at the Makapu'u LZ before, but I wasn't confident I could reproduce that trick right then and there--with my luck, I'd just slam into the fence even harder! So I did the only thing I could think of: I braked as hard as I dared, put my feet out in front of me, and cursed at the top of my lungs.

The landing was actually pretty gentle. My feet went underneath the fence's lowest wire, my glider went over it, and my harness' ass-protection stopped me and kept me from sliding any further. Which was a good thing--I had succeeded in putting one leg on either side of an iron fence-post... I know, I know, I should have put my feet together. It turns out that the fence was barbed after all, but only on the top and bottom strands. Of course, those were the only two strands that counted: I was touching the bottom, my glider the top. As always when I take a spill, I just lay there for a second, heaved a sigh of relief, and enjoyed the peace and quiet for a minute, trying not to move. I really needed the relaxation.

I got myself extricated from my harness, glider, and wire, and gave Alex a call. He was airborne already, but answered, and flew over atop me to get an aerial view, which reassured me a bit. Extricating my glider was a little trickier--two barbs had hooked the right side of the wing, the rest of the wing had gone in the trees on the far side of the fence. There are a couple little holes, but other than that the wing was undamaged, luckily. I rolled up my risers, tossed them over the fence, crawled underneath, and pulled my wing down without much difficulty--it was certainly a hell of a lot easier than the tree-landing at Makapu'u that Joey helped me sort out! My glider jammed into my rucksack so tight the pack burst a seam, I made my way out, Alex giving me directions. Five scared cows, one stroll down a hill, two muddy roads, and three hopped fences later and I was back on the highway. By the time I got back to the LZ, Alex had landed, and we settled in for some brews and a debrief to calm my frazzled nerves while we watched Jim soaring, and Rich prepare to hike up.

And that is the tale of my 31st flight. Rather embarrassing, but I lived and learned. I'm going to let Alex go first and play wind dummy, next time.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great story Harris. As you probably know, when flying on O'ahu, it's not if you'll end up in a tree, it's when, so the way I see it, you got that little problem out of the way early in your career. Looking forward to flying with you.
I also have some clear repair tape if needed.


Anonymous said...

Nice work Harris, I am just waiting for my turn to end up in a tree. As they say, there are pilots who have landed in trees, and those that will.

Maui Jon

Brazilian Ray said...

Thanks for sharing the story with great detail. I am glad you're ok. Now, let's try not to make it a habit,ok? hehehe.
get your radio fixed too. it could have helped.

Anonymous said...

Hi Harris,
I will wager that many pilots have experienced the same mental rationale "there might be a better turnout".
As for your recollection of my "pop up and over an obstacle" it can be done, but you need to have lots of energy stored in the glider. The way you described your situation I doubt you had the energy. So, good choice.
Hey, glad you and your glider are okay. Hope to fly with you again in a few months!

Gravity said...

Harris "Slow Down" hehe. I'm glad your OK.
Wished you guys would have called me. I would have flown with you...
Alex, you need a new radio for xmas, too.

Funny, the cows I'm sure have a few issues now after seeing a large flying humanoid coming at them from the sky like a bat out of hell. LOL


Anonymous said...

Hehe, another tree condom! Glad you were all right. Alex is a good teacher, but lessons learned at the school of hard knocks are not so quickly forgotten and can sometimes be expensive, so a few little holes is pretty cheap. As Bob said, its not if, but when you land in a tree, and lest you be bummed about not having anything to look forward to, remember the corollary to that saying: If you fly in Hawaii, its not if you will land in the water, but when!

Anonymous said...

Wow, great story Harris! I'm glad you are OK! It's good for me to hear these flight school type of stories! It adds another dimension to my learning process!