Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Wind Dummy

Here's another long (and probably unpublishable) piece, written out of memory and a little research for the record.

Memories of Early Hang Gliding

One afternoon in early July of 1974, as I sat in my office as assistant registrar of the now-defunct Notre Dame University of Nelson (Nelson, British Columbia), I saw an amazing sight: reflected on the glass front of my office, through the window behind me, was the familiar mass of 2,200-foot Elephant Mountain, which rises across the narrow West Arm of Kootenay Lake and overlooks the town, and the tiny figure of a man on top of the "elephant’s" head with what looked like an enormous kite. Turning around to look directly out the window, I saw the man lift the kite, run with it off the mountain—and fly!

He took off parallel with the Arm—into the wind, I supposed—tilted into a turn, straightened, and began to glide over the water. His delta-shaped kite, painted yellow and black, was like a giant butterfly. I stood at the window, watching his slow flight, until he arrived above the sawdust flats along the shore of the Arm, went into a downward spiral (what I would later know as a diving 360), came out of it alarmingly close to the ground, I thought, then tipped the nose of his kite upward and landed, on his feet, as neatly and gently as a bird.

What I’d just seen, I gathered, after checking the current Nelson Daily News, was a competitor taking a practice flight off the launch site in preparation for the Canadian National Kite Flying Championships to be held in Nelson that weekend. It would be the first event of its kind in Canada, a result of the growing enthusiasm for this latest daredevil sport that had found its way north from California, where it originated.

Sixty flyers competed that weekend in Nelson. I missed Saturday’s action, but my wife, April, and I were in town on Sunday to join the crowd at Nelson’s small-plane airport for the finals and watch as a helicopter, in several trips, lifted fliers and slingfuls of their folded kites to the top of Elephant Mountain. Through binoculars I watched them assemble their kites up there, and then, one after the other, take off, all trying for the target on the flats, a square of canvas with a 30-foot bulls-eye painted on it. Most of the flyers landed, more or less skillfully, within five minutes, the best pilots, a couple of them flying prone (eventually the only way to fly), on the square of canvas or on the bulls-eye itself. One or two landed in the lake, and at least one, wildly off course, put down on the roof of somebody’s house in the uphill section of Nelson.

Later that hot afternoon several of the best fliers put on a demonstration of ridge soaring, for as long as half an hour, in the updrafts along the face of the mountain.

It was all too exciting. As a farm boy in Minnesota, I’d watched redtail hawks soaring above the fields and had longed to fly as they did. Now I could, if I had the nerve and what I supposed was considerable skill. I doubted my ability to learn the required skill, and I wasn’t too sure about my nerve either. Nevertheless, after learning the name of the instructor in town and that he charged a modest $35, I signed up for a week’s lessons in hang gliding.
* * *
Humankind has wanted to fly since who knows when? There’s the legend of Icarus, who in wings made of feathers and wax flew so close to the sun that the wax melted and he fell into the sea. There are drawings from the sixteenth century by Leonardo da Vinci of batwing flying machines, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sketches of gliders that may or may not have been tested. So far as we know, glider flight was first achieved by an American, John J. Montgomery, and by a German, Otto Lilienthal, in the years around the turn of the last century. Montgomery flew as early as 1883, Lilienthal in 1891; both men were eventually killed in crashes, Lilienthal in 1896, Montgomery in 1911. Meanwhile, there were other pioneers of flight, England’s Percy Pilcher, killed in 1899, and America’s Octave Chanute, who flew countless times off sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan in the 1890s, and survived.

Then came the Wright brothers, who first experimented with hang gliders between 1900 and 1902 before achieving powered flight in 1903. After that, powered flight was all the rage, and hang gliding was lost to history—until an engineer named Francis Rogallo, in the 1950s and early ‘60s, patented designs for a "limp"delta-shaped wing, a kind of parachute reinforced with metal tubing, that NASA considered as a device for gliding space vehicles after reentry into the atmosphere back to earth. NASA ultimately rejected the Rogallo wing, but it led, in 1964, to the "Bamboo Butterfly," a bamboo and polyethylene adaptation of the Rogallo by a daredevil named Richard Miller, who learned to fly with it off California sand dunes. Soon other crazies were running off hills and dunes under various contraptions made of bamboo and plastic, and hang gliding (called "skysurfing" at first, suggesting seaside launches and the initial low-level flights: "Never fly higher than you care to fall," was an early adage, soon ignored) was reborn.

The first modern hang glider meet reportedly was held in 1971, in California. At this and at subsequent gatherings flyers swapped experiences and the practical knowledge they’d gained—often the hard way. Refinements to the Rogallo wing were introduced: notably the swing seat and the triangular control bar (also called the trapeze bar or A-frame), developed in Australia along with probably the first true Rogallo hang gliders and brought to the U.S. by Aussies Bill Moyes and Bill Bennett. Moyes had served as a test pilot of Rogallos built by John Dickenson, an Australian engineer, for towing behind speedboats. Moyes eventually realized that by taking off a height of land you could fly free, without a tether. He started performing at fairs in Australia.

His friend Bill Bennett, another hang glider barnstormer, went to the States in 1969 and did stunt flying with the Rogallo. Moyes followed him in 1970 and also put on hang gliding demonstrations, once flying into the Grand Canyon, another time having himself lifted by an airplane to some 8,000 feet before releasing.

The swing seat and A-frame control bar made obsolete those early gliders strenuously and rather awkwardly guided by hanging by your armpits from parallel bars and shifting your weight by throwing out your legs or sliding back and forth on the bars. The swing seat gave you a comfortable ride, and with the control bar, you shifted your weight simply by pushing or pulling on the bar, or cranking it to the right or left, to easily increase or decease your speed or effect a turn.

Flights with the Rogallo wing in Canada were first made off ski slopes. Willi Muller, manager of a ski hill outside Calgary, Alberta, watched a skier fly off a hill at Lake Louise in 1971, started building kites for himself and then for others, flew off various ski hills in western Canada, and eventually competed in meets with the likes of Bob Wills, Chris Price, Dick Eipper and Dave Cronk, early heroes of the sport.

In 1973, Willi and his brother Vincent formed Muller Kites, Ltd., in Calgary, and soon after bought land on Cochrane Hill, west of the city, for use as a launch site. The open slope there and Alberta’s prairie winds made it a great place to hang glide, and many, if not most, of the flyers who competed in the Nelson meet in July 1974 were graduates of Cochrane. Many, if not most, flew Muller kites. The organizer of the meet, Leigh Bradshaw of Nelson, was himself a Cochrane graduate, and he was the guy, it turned out, who would teach me, and others in the Nelson area, how to fly.
* * *
Exactly a month after first seeing men fly like birds, I was one of a small group of would-be hang glider pilots who gathered one evening on the lawn in front of our instructor’s house in Nelson. We were there for a "ground school," preliminary to practical lessons. Nose down on the grass for our inspection was an assembled Muller hang glider. It was a delta-wing made of Dacron sailcloth and aluminum spars, and standing beside it was Leigh Bradshaw, who turned out to be a gangly youth with a bandaged arm. He’d been flying that day and crashed, skinning his arm to the elbow.

He took our names, checking them off the list he held. Then he asked our ages, eighteen being his minimum for instruction. A couple were boys just out of high school and precisely at the minimum age. Most were in their twenties. I was thirty-nine, which made me the "old man." Leigh himself was twenty-four.

The kite before us had a twenty-foot wingspan and weighed forty-two pounds, Leigh said. He had each of us take a turn at strapping on the swing seat, hung by nylon ropes from the kite’s central spar, its "keel," and grasping the control bar to lift the kite up and get the feel of it. It wasn’t easy keeping it balanced. When taking off, Leigh said, you grabbed the control bar and lifted the kite over your head to the extent of the seat’s ropes, then ran with it as hard as you could. "You keep running," Leigh told us, "lifting the nose of the kite up slightly to fill the sail and as you lift off, you pull the bar in slightly to dive a little and reach flying speed. That’s fifteen miles per hour with a Muller. Then you level off and you’re flying!

"Thumbs up, though, on the control bar," Leigh warned. "Know why? Cause if you crash with your thumbs around the bottom of the bar, you’ll break’m. Snap! Just like that."
Lessons would start that Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. (agreed on as the time we’d all be off work) on Leigh’s "practice hill" in Krestova some ten miles out of Nelson. We were to come in long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and bring gloves. Helmets weren’t mentioned. Few wore them in those days.
* * *
Two days later, from the rim of a little "bowl" in the hills around Krestova, we "fledglings" started the humbling business of learning to take off and land with Leigh’s "trainer," a somewhat battered old Muller. We took turns with it, lifting it over our heads and running down the slope with it, "goat jumping" into the air at first, despite Leigh’s yelling at us not to, and falling back in a stall on the kite’s tail or crashing headlong into the dirt—eating the dirt, driving your face into it, tearing your shirt sleeves, wrenching your back.

One poor bespeckled fellow broke his glasses his first or second try down the hill. It was awkward running while strapped to the swing seat and trying to balance the heavy kite over your head. The trick, as Leigh kept stressing to us, was not to run and then jump into the air, but rather to keep running until the kite itself lifted into the air and took you up with it.
My first go was a classic failure: I "goat jumped," let my legs stretch out in front of me, and sat down hard on my rump. "I broke my tail-bone that way," Leigh commented.

My second attempt started out fine. In a sharp wind, I took off like a bird (my light 120 pounds under the twenty-foot kite gave me an advantage) and sailed out over Sandy, our assistant instructor, who yelled "Stall!" I pushed on the control bar, the kite tipped up, then heeled over in the wind and came down on one wing, which held me up for an instant, dangling in the swing seat, until the wing’s aluminum spar buckled and I fell to the ground. That ended our lessons for the evening.
* * *
The next evening, our painful lessons resumed: slogging up the training hill with the heavy, awkward kite on your back, swinging it into the wind at the top, trying to balance it, hold it steady, as you wait for the right aerodynamic (the right psychological) moment before starting your run down the hill and, hopefully, taking off. You crash. Then puffing, sweating, hurting, you slog up the hill again. You’re like a penguin trying to be an eagle.

We were helped, at first, with "keel-assist" takeoffs. Leigh or his assistant would grab the kite’s tail and run with you, tip the kite’s nose up for you to fill the sail, and give you a last push into the air. That sometimes worked to lift you off.

But then you went back to unassisted takeoffs. I bombed twice unassisted after a successful keel-assist, the second time really hard, wrenching my back. Then, third try, I tripped while running, "fell" into the air, and actually glided down the hill before landing, more or less successfully. "Good," Leigh said, "but you’ll need more lessons before I let you fly off a mountain."

That next week, after a day of sedentary work at my desk, I’d leave for more physical punishment at Krestova—more painful attempts, more humiliating failures, to fly.

But then, on Thursday of that week, I flew!—and flew again that Friday, repeatedly, running down the hill at Krestova and taking off to glide to the other side of the bowl, the sails luffing behind me as I dove before flaring the kite to achieve a landing. The sensation wasn’t at all like one’s dream of flying. Hanging in your seat below the kite, you felt the air’s power, an invisible force that held you up and carried you over the ground as if being swung from a crane, while the kite itself, constantly in need of control, didn’t let you feel much like Peter Pan.

That weekend, I "graduated," off Mount Hardy, outside Grand Forks, B.C.
* * *
Grand Forks is a former mining town in the idyllic-looking Kettle River Valley, some seventy-five miles west of Nelson. It’s in B.C.’s Boundary Country along the U.S.-Canada border, a region of semi-desert where the bare hills outside town are perfect for flying off because of their steady updrafts and the absence of trees to crash into, and because the agricultural fields in the flat valley are ideal for landing. With other members of the club we soon formed and jocularly called Acrophobia, I would fly many times at Grand Forks during the long, benevolent fall of that year and into the following summer.

At Grand Forks, that graduation weekend in late August, I mostly waited—waited on top of Mount Hardy for my turn to fly in a state of controlled anxiety, wondering whether my legs would buckle when I started my run to take off. Mount Hardy was a lot higher than the training hill at Krestova: 700 feet vertical, Leigh said. (Actually it was 1200 feet above the valley floor, but he didn’t tell us that until afterwards.) Watching others take off from it was almost unbearably exciting—and not a little frightening—especially as there were a couple of very bad takeoffs and one potentially fatal stall.

One student crashed on takeoff, just over the edge of the mountain, breaking his control bar. Another flew through bushes and bounced off rocks before sailing out over the valley. Another took off all right but stalled maybe a hundred feet above the ground, sideslipped into a dive, and pulled out just in time to make a rough landing in a bean field. Another executed an ugly, heart-stopping takeoff, banging into a rock and losing his grip on the control bar. He got hold of it again but lost so much altitude he barely cleared the power lines along the road in front of our designated landing field. The day ended before I’d had my turn at risking disaster.

My turn came, finally, the next day. By that time, after tensely waiting until late afternoon, I was as scared and yet ready to go, I imagined, as a paratrooper the night before D-Day.
It had been a hot day, the thermals building, making lots of lift and by the afternoon some turbulence. I bent under the trainer and strapped into the swing seat. Leigh said to wait. A downwind tipped the kite forward. Another student pulled the tail down and held it. Squatting under the sails, I winked at April, standing nervously nearby. Then Leigh said, "Okay."

I stood up and adjusted the seat, straightened the ropes, lifted and angled the kite into the wind.
"Go," said Leigh.

I ran down the shallow incline and off the edge of the slope and into the air. It was that easy. I pulled the bar in and picked up flying speed. The sail began to rap in the wind. Behind me Leigh whistled, my signal to turn. I turned, swung around the hill and started down, down the mile-long glide to the landing field. I was flying at incredible speed, it seemed (maybe forty mph), because I was diving all the way, as instructed, to avoid stalling. (After yesterday’s student mishaps, Leigh had gotten nervous about stalls.) Vaguely I was aware of the town of Grand Forks, off in front of me, and of the ground below me. Once I looked directly down and was struck with vertigo at the sight of a house the size of a child’s toy block under my dangling feet. The kite bucked and the sails snapped in the afternoon’s hot-air turbulence. I watched the angle of the nose (again according to instructions), watched it pitch and yaw as I fought against its tendency to tip upwards, leaning into the A-frame and holding the control bar in tight against my chest. The feeling was a little like surfing (sky surfing, yeah!), though more like a toboggan ride, fast, bumpy, as you slid down the hard, invisible air. Leigh had said to do S-turns to lose altitude as I approached the field, so as not to overshoot it, so I wrenched the kite back and forth, sideslipping, the control bar wanting to tear itself from my hands.

I cleared the power lines by some fifty feet, then saw the field rushing up at me. I pumped the bar out a couple of times to slow the kite; then, as my feet neared the ground, I pushed out and up into a stall and settled to earth. "Wow," I said. And again, "Wow." I could hardly wait to try it again.
* * *
I didn’t fly again, though, except for a couple of little practice flights off a small hill near my home, until mid-September, during another weekend at Grand Forks. The week before, word reached us that a flyer from Calgary, Bill Taylor, had been killed at Hope, B.C., near Vancouver, after taking off from a cloudy peak and, no doubt becoming disoriented in the fog, crashing back into the mountain. He was the first hang-gliding fatality in Canada (one of fifty worldwide in 1974). That was grim news, but it didn’t deter me or my comrades. Hang gliding, like flying generally, was a calculated risk. You accepted the risk for the absolute thrill, the transcendence, of flying like a bird.

There were more accidents—one spectacular one—my second weekend at Grand Forks. Like most of us in our club, I kept a flight log. Here is my entry for September 14:

Mount Hardy. Four flights, the first three in the used Muller 18 Wayne and I bought from Leigh for $200, the fourth in Leigh’s new 18. All lovely flights. I was more relaxed, learned to "trim" the kite for the best glide angle. Got lift and accepted it. Can fly now without coaching.
Three accidents, though, two of them horrendous. Andy, a fledgling starting his second flight, dove too steeply, crashed just below the launch site, and suffered a broken shoulder and cracked vertebrae. (He was taken by ambulance to the Grand Forks hospital.) Cam stalled on takeoff and has cuts and bruises. Wayne, on his graduation flight and in our kite, took to fooling around in the air and flew into the power lines. The kite looped around the wires, shorted out the electricity in Grand Forks, and he was shocked unconscious. I had taken off right after him and lost sight of him until, after landing, I turned around to see him and the kite hanging upside down from the wires. He’s dead, I thought, as I approached, but then he came to and pulled his head up. Suffered burns on his legs and one side of his body and the Dacron on our kite is singed all along the wing spars, one of which is bent. He hung up there in the wires for 45 minutes, beginning to freak out after the power went back on, before being rescued by West Kootenay Power workmen, who arrived from Grand Forks with a cherry picker. The second ambulance that day took him to the hospital, where he was given a tranquilizer, treated for burns, and released.

As the ambulance carrying Wayne headed into Grand Forks, the power boys stayed behind to deliver a lecture. "You shouldn’t be flying over these wires," we were told. They carried 2400 volts and our friend was lucky to have survived. One man pointed to the high-tension lines in the distance, going down the slope of Mount Hardy only a few hundred yards from our launch site. "You fly into those and you’ll be incinerated."

To allay their fears for us, to show that Wayne’s accident was a fluke, we had them watch as three or four of us drove up the mountain and flew off to glide over the lines with a couple of hundred feet to spare. That so excited the workmen they were ready to take up hang gliding themselves.

Wayne, acting on the same principle that a rider, after being thrown by a horse, gets back on the beast, flew again the next day—twice. Then he gave up hang gliding, though not flying altogether (opting for powered flight, he got a pilot’s license about a year later), and not without leaving a cautionary image of himself hanging from the power lines at Grand Forks in our broken kite (Leigh took the picture and sent it in) that appeared in the accidents section of the January 1975 issue of The Flypaper, the official organ of the Alberta Hang Glider Association.
* * *
Following that weekend, I called in sick one day to fly with Leigh and some others off Buchanan Lookout, 4,500 feet above the town of Kaslo, up the shore of Kootenay Lake from where I live near the ferry landing at Balfour. Didn’t land in the lake, as I wrote in my flight log.
Flew twice that day, long, ten to fifteen-minute flights, including, on my second, a soaring lift above the Kaslo golf course, situated on a knoll overlooking the town, which provided a sudden bump of air as I passed over it. Stalled and lost my stomach. But such lovely smooth flights overall, the wind flowing audibly through your sail, your wires faintly humming, your wings slightly flapping (like a bird’s!) as you float, intensely alone, some thousands of feet above the earthbound world. You’re buzzing, all your faculties are engaged, you’re entirely in the here and now. Still nervous on takeoff, I told my flight log. Have to psych myself up to it. The launch at Buchanan is off a ledge below the Lookout, out of the wind with the kite’s full weight on your back as you run off the edge, trusting that you’ll fly. You drop, your sail fills, and you’re flying!

After our last flights that day, Leigh asked, "Wanna fly Lavena?"

I knew about Mount Lavena, just north of Kootenay Lake, above the farming and logging community of Meadow Creek. At 5,880 feet vertical, it was maybe the highest peak one could fly off in the West Kootenays. While still taking lessons, I’d watched Leigh and his previous class of students fly off it about a month earlier.

"Sure," I said.

"How about tomorrow?"

It would be my eleventh flight—and was almost my last.
* * *
Leigh organized the flight, arranging with a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation maintenance crew for the four of us—Leigh himself, Ted ("Terrible Ted," a onetime professional wrestler), Brian (a B.C. Hydro employee), and I—to go up with them in the early morning to the top of Lavena where, along with a forest lookout tower, there was a CBC relay station. I called my office to say I was taking another half day off and that I’d probably be in for the afternoon.

It took an hour and a half in the crew’s 4x4 van to reach the top of Mount Lavena. Switchbacking up through the forested lower slopes, we were lost in the trees until, above tree line, we came out on the bare summit and got our first unnerving look at the valley floor, more than a mile below us, over which we would launch ourselves. "Your mouths dry?" Leigh laughed, then passed sticks of gum around. "Little trick," he said. Chewing gum did work up some spit in your mouth.

At the lookout, the CBC guys parked their vehicle and helped us unload our kites. Then they stood watching as we carried our kites to a narrow point of rock jutting out into sheer space just below the lookout. The air was chilly at that altitude, and much too still. I had a sense of unreality and started to tremble from the cold and, yes, with cold fear as I assembled my kite. We were up so high! You could look across, level with us, to the snowy field of a glacier on top of the opposite range of mountains; look down through wispy clouds, as if from the stratosphere, to the little patchwork of Meadow Creek, five miles away yet seemingly right under our feet.
It was difficult to tell where, exactly, to face into the wind. There was no wind, only whiffs of air now and then that your telltail, the nylon ribbon on the nose of your kite, told you were as often at your back as in front of you. We waited, crouched under our kites and strapped to our swing seats, for the air to settle.

It was scary. I was so scared, in fact, my hands were shaking as I gripped the triangular sides of my control bar. Then the air stopped moving. Leigh said, "All right, guys. It’s now or never."
Ted went first. He was a powerful, stocky fellow weighing over 200 pounds whose philosophy when taking off was "Do or die!" He did, running the short length of rock (hardly a dozen feet) to literally dive off the edge and sail out into the emptiness with a warning shout back, "Little updraft, boys!"

I should have noted that as, the second to go off and thoroughly spooked now by the stillness (I felt every one of my eighteen-foot Muller’s thirty-eight pounds as I lifted it, felt I would drop like a stone instead of fly), I raised the kite’s nose to "grab" for air as I ran and at the edge, consequently, struck the updraft as if it were a wall and hung there, suspended, one foot on the rock and the other in space.

I tried stepping back but couldn’t. Tried pulling down the nose of my kite and pushing off with my one leg still on the rock: couldn’t. Finally, I did push off, dropped and felt the tail of my kite crash sickeningly against the rock, then the kite begin to tip over toward the forested slope, some two thousand feet below me. This is it, I thought in that dreamy state of dissociation, as if "it" were happening to somebody else. I’m going to tumble into those trees.

But it wasn’t my time, as my Catholic mother might have said. Instead of somersaulting into space, the kite slid with a grinding sound off the rock—and I was flying! Astounded, I looked back to see my tail wires still miraculously intact, though with part of a bush hanging from them, and the dumbstruck faces of Leigh and Brian staring after me as I flew away. Then I was out over the valley, in perfectly smooth air, standing still, it seemed, over Meadow Creek. The town seemed gradually to move away from me as I lost altitude; then, at a certain level, the illusion disappeared and I was definitely gliding toward it. Relaxed now in my swing seat, I was enjoying the flight.

Even in the "dead" air of that morning, without any lift at all and with the Muller’s low four-to-one glide ratio (a drop of one foot per four feet of horizontal glide), my five-mile flight to Meadow Creek took a glorious, almost twenty minutes. I passed over Duncan Dam, over the Duncan River, over Meadow Creek itself. I might have practiced a hammerhead stall, something Leigh liked to do, in which you pushed up on the control bar to cause a stall, then had the bar slap you in the chest as the kite went into a steep dive and you lost your stomach. I had the altitude for it, and I knew the kite would pull out of the dive almost of itself. But I was anything but a stunt flyer. So I flew straight on, passed over a line of trees, and landed perfectly in a cow pasture.

A man appeared with a movie camera and shot pictures of me as I nosed the kite over, unhitched my seat belt, and stepped out from under the wing. A teenage boy helped me fold the kite up and carry it out to the road. "How do you learn to do that?"he asked excitedly. "You think I could do it?" It struck me that I was like a barnstorming pilot out of the 1920s. But I was shaking. My adrenalin had stopped pumping and the reaction had set in. I kept hearing the grinding crash of my kite hitting the edge of Mount Lavena and seeing myself tumbling, over and over, into extinction.

I looked around for Ted, but he’d come down, I learned, on the other side of town. Then Brian passed over, shouting wildly, "Which way is the wind?"

"There isn’t any!" I called up to him.

Then, as he landed, I noticed a back wire dragging from his kite: one of the four wires, front and back, that attach to the control bar and help hold the kite together. Jezus. He’d taken off clumsily as I had done, he told me, snapped the wire and had anything but a relaxed flight as he crabbed the weakened control bar, pondered his weakened wing, and wondered whether his kite would collapse if he hit turbulence. But he made it down okay.

Then Leigh swooped by overhead to land perfectly on the road. We were all down then, all safely back on mother earth, having flown from the highest launch point that most of us would ever experience.

I was sleepy suddenly, and slept in the back of Brian’s car all the way into Nelson. But by the time I was dropped off at the university, I felt rejuvenated, and I worked through the afternoon with that powerful sense one has, after staring death in the face, of being marvelously alive.
* * *
That long, mild fall of 1974 in southeast British Columbia, I racked up 32 flights, flying as late as early December. A great thrill during Octoberfest in Nelson was to fly with fellow members of Acrophobia off Elephant Mountain, recreating in our minds the championship meet in July in Nelson that had inspired all of us to take up hang gliding. Like the competitors in that meet, some dozen of us were helicoptered to the top, where the view of Nelson, some two thousand feet below, wasn’t so breathtaking as Meadow Creek from Lavena or Kaslo from Buchanan Lookout, but it was exciting enough. There was a good wind, and our takeoffs were easy. I had lift until I was over the water of the West Arm, after which I glided across to arrive some hundreds of feet above the sawdust flats, when I put my kite into a diving 360. I spun down, leveled off, and landed upright. Felt a wave of confidence; felt I knew now how to fly.
The next weekend, still feeling confident, I drove to Kaslo with April and flew alone off Buchanan Lookout. It was my 17th flight, and I had another close call.

Before going up to the Lookout, an hour’s steep drive, I stopped in Kaslo to check the wind. It was very windy on the beach by the Moyie (the last paddlewheeler on Kootenay Lake, installed as a museum on shore) but a little less windy along the wider stretch of sand by the city park. Decided to land there.

Up at the Lookout, there was virtually no wind at all, just a gentle updraft at the edge of the cliff below the lookout tower that barely moved my telltail. Strapped in and ready for takeoff, I had second thoughts. Should I do this? Could I? There was no one to push me (April stood quietly behind me, assuming I knew what I was doing), no fellow flyers around to lend me the courage of camaraderie. I faced into the wind, such as it was, took a deep breath and expelled it, lifted the kite and positioned the nose slightly down, leveled it as I ran toward the edge—and flew off. I turned in my seat and waved goodbye to April. She stood on the ledge and waved, somewhat half-heartedly, after me.

The three-mile flight to Kaslo was exhilarating. I got lift a couple of times, got the usual lift over the Kaslo golf course, where a twosome of tiny golfers looked up at me as I flew over them, still at least a thousand feet high. I sailed toward the lake and, above the sawmill’s teepee burner, its smoke bending horizontally in the wind, I was able to hover directly over it and look down into the flames. Then I turned downwind to start a diving 360, changed my mind when I saw the altitude I lost, swung back into the wind, then back and forth, S-turning, trying to lose altitude. The kite wanted to soar, and I wrestled the control bar, S-turning, until abruptly the kite flipped over and I peeled off like a fighter plane toward the lake. The water rushed up at me and I expected to crash into it, be knocked unconscious, drown. But then, cranking at the control bar, I pulled out, still some fifty feet up. I was over the water and flying again, but when I turned downwind, toward shore, I quickly lost the rest of my altitude and just managed to turn into the wind once more to land on a gravel spit at the mouth of the Kaslo River. It must have been pretty to watch.

"Where in the hell did you come from?" the man standing there, fly fishing, asked. I’d flown right over him before touching down.

Flight log: Learned another lesson. A strong wind near the ground is dangerous. You can stall. So keep your nose steady, come straight in and keep your speed up.
* * *
We were all learning such lessons through raw experience: learning by our mistakes, by surviving accidents and near-accidents; learning that up in the air you were out of your element, really, and that you had to be careful, you had to be focused. Somebody else said it: The Rogallo wing is a beautiful butterfly with a deadly sting. You never forgot that.
The wind! It was a flyer’s friend. But it was also frightening at times and could be your enemy. The wind could slam you against a mountain. It could cause you to soar. It could tip you over. It could catch you in a downdraft, invert your sail, and drive you into the ground.

When the wind was uncertain, we flipped a coin to see who would be the first off. That flyer, who would test the wind for the rest of us, was the "wind dummy." We were all wind dummies, now that I think of it, in those early, trial-and-error days of hang gliding when, as a Nelson helicopter pilot, who’d several times had the "grisly" job of picking up injured or dead kite flyers after they’d crashed and thought the sport was crazy, put it, "Basically [these guys] are jumping in ignorance and hoping they’ll reach the ground alive." There was truth in that.

In fact, most of us were completely ignorant, at least at first, of aerodynamics, of weather and air currents, of the dangers of flying off a place like Buchanan Lookout, where three valleys converge and the air is often turbulent. Dan Poynter’s Hang Gliding: The Basic Handbook of Skysurfing offered practical information on the sport, and there were tips in every issue of the Alberta Hang Glider Association’s monthly Flypaper, of which I was now a member: how to achieve a level 360 without stalling; how to tell, in mild air, the direction of the wind in order to make a good, upwind landing. There were warnings about checking your kite for kinked or metal-fatigued spars, frayed wires, bent or cracked bolts, particularly for damage to the kite’s center bolt, the so-called Jesus bolt, which would cause the kite to collapse were it to break in flight. But there was nothing like up-in-the-air, hair-raising experience to teach you things you couldn’t get from your reading.

Rank stupidity was something else. Drinking and flying, for instance, which was a habit of many flyers. (Not me, though a beer certainly tasted good after a physically and emotionally draining day of flying.) Worse: doping and flying. Somebody asked me once, "You ever get high before you fly?" My response: "Are you kidding? Flying itself makes you high!"

Yet there were those for whom smoking a joint offered enhancement of the experience or perhaps eased their nervousness before flying. Marijuana was probably involved in the case of a pilot who, in 1977, launched himself off Buchanan Lookout after failing, or forgetting, to attach his prone harness to his kite. He and his kite separated, and he fell a thousand feet to the rocks below.

Flight Log: Buchanan Lookout, 20 October 74. 20th flight. Met Ted at his place in Kaslo and we went up in my truck. Ted’s girlfriend drove it down.

As windy on top as yesterday. I went off first, sailed out, and was tossed around like a leaf in the wind. Not so scared this time that I’d I lose control of the kite, but I had to fight the control bar. At times it seemed I’d be blown out over the lake. Once the wind pushed me into a steep dive and I lost my stomach; made me yell. Leveled off within a hundred feet of the trees. Finally came in low over the last ridge and saw I wouldn’t make it across the bay to the public beach. So I S-turned down, over the highway, over the power lines, and landed on the dirt road by the boat harbor. Ted sailed over me, crossed the bay, and landed on the beach.
Didn’t fly again (I’d been spooked), but Ted went up and soared for 15 minutes. Beautiful to watch.

I flew a dozen more times with fellow Acrophobes before winter closed us down (some who knew how to downhill ski tried flying, with some success, off ski hills), lovely, silken flights most of them, off an old mine above the town of Ymir (1200 feet vertical), off Buchanan Lookout, off Spencer Mountain (1500 feet vertical), a new site out of Grand Forks, during which I felt no fear of the wind anymore, only a healthy respect; felt almost no fear at all, only an awareness of the risk, in that instant before takeoff, which I likened, romantically, to the bullfighter’s "moment of truth" before he lunges at the bull to plunge his sword into its heart. It was Terrible Ted’s moment of "Do or die." You felt it in your crotch.

My twenty-third flight, at Ymir, I crashed into a tree.

What happened was that after takeoff I experienced so much exciting lift I decided to take a tour of Ymir’s narrow valley, flew into the shadow of a mountain, got caught in a downdraft, and ran out of air, as we called it, which felt like the hand of God was pushing me toward the ground. Below my feet, getting closer by the second, was a whitewater river, and beside it a railroad track lined with power lines, neither of which looked like a good place to land.

Then I was out of the downdraft and flying again, but I’d lost so much altitude I doubted I’d make it to the field now. Nevertheless, I tried—almost made it. But then, as I was about to clear the last of the trees before the open field, I hit a rotor, the kite suddenly dipped, and I slammed into a tree—was thrown against the ropes of my swing seat, then left hanging, without a scratch, some twenty feet from the ground, my kite bent like a pretzel. I unbuckled and climbed down.

With help, I got my kite out of the tree and carried it home on the roof of my car. My wife met me in our driveway. "That’s it," she said. "You ready to quit now?" No. But I had to replace both wing spars.

I wasn’t the first, I heard, to crash at Ymir. The weekend before, as windy as it had been for me, two flyers flew into the trees, one almost exactly where I put down, and a third landed in the river. Live and learn.

My last three flights that year were off Spencer on December 8. With 32 flights recorded in my logbook, I was eight away from "advanced" standing, had managed to live and learn without crippling or killing myself, and felt I knew now most of the risks of hang gliding. But I was still largely ignorant of the ways you could reduce risk by learning about atmospheric conditions and how you could gauge them by studying the sky; how you could determine wind currents and where there were liable to be crosswinds, wind shear (a sudden change in wind speed or direction—or both at once), or rotor (caused by obstructions—trees, as at Ymir, hills, mountains. Think of water in a stream curling over a rock or eddying against a bank and your kite as a wood chip caught in the swirl). You could anticipate the flow of air by the look and location of the peaks and valleys, by the look of the clouds, by an educated study of the terrain. I did some meteorological reading that winter. Then spring came, and another flying season.
* * *
Mount Hardy, 23 March 75. Three good flights, my 33rd through 35th. Erratic weather but a nice wind. My second flight Leigh had to hold my nose wires before takeoff. Walked me to the edge, then let go and jumped aside as I stepped off and was immediately lifted, up some 50 feet above the ridge, to hover for almost four minutes, Leigh said. What a thrill. Our last flight, the bunch of us, Leigh, Cam, Blair and I, saw a snow shower approaching that had all of us scrambling to our kites. We flew into it, just for the hell of it, dry, hard little flakes that stung your eyes and had you flying blind for a few moments. Another thrill! No fear anymore, just excitement.

There followed in April a series of flights off comparatively low launch sites: Duncan Dam Lookout at the head of Kootenay Lake (150 feet vertical), and an outcrop above Notre Dame University of Nelson and the Kootenay Forest Products sawmill on the edge of town (only 500 feet vertical) that we dubbed Red Sands for our beach landing down the shore of the West Arm. I racked up seven flights off Red Sands, a tricky place to fly from because of its shifting winds and the fierce crosswind along the Arm that you flew into after diving between the trees on the slope. Being so close to the university, though, I could fly on my lunch hour or right after work.

One Saturday, after the appearance of a group of jolly flyers, I let myself be talked into leaving the student whose examination I was invigilating for a quick flight off Red Sands. Locking the student in my office after telling him I had an errand to run, I left him, flew happily without mishap, and returned to find the student still intent over his exam and the university president, who happened to live next door, outside my office with a troubled look on his face. Where had I been? Why had I left the student? I talked fast, and somehow avoided being fired.

In May, the warm weekend of Kaslo May Days, I set out with two members of the Kaslo Hang Gliding Club to fly for the first time that year off Buchanan Lookout. We were driven up the steep, gullied road by somebody in a 4x4 until we ran into a couple of feet of slippery snow. From there we waded through the snow, carrying our kites, for more than a mile to the Lookout.

At the Lookout we found a pair of hikers, a man and his wife, who followed us excitedly to the launch site to watch our takeoffs.

We assembled our kites and waited. The conditions were chancy: updrafts and downdrafts, crosswinds, swirled around us. Over where the Kaslo River comes out of the mountain pass between New Denver and Kaslo to empty into Kootenay Lake, we saw changing weather coming in: snow flurries even. The air turned cold. Downdrafts chilled the back of our necks.

There was a lull. The two Kaslo flyers, one after the other, lifted their kites and ran off. The first flyer got out beyond the slope of the mountain and began what looked like a bumpy ride toward town. The second sailed out, smoothly at first, but then his kite tipped violently sideways, nearly throwing him out of his seat. That gave me pause.

Alone now (except for the couple behind me, waiting impatiently, I thought, for my takeoff), I knelt under my kite and watched the weather deteriorate. Finally I unbuckled, stepped out from under the kite, and folded it up.

With the man helping carry my kite, I did what flyers had to do sometimes. I walked off the mountain.
* * *
Later in May I flew off Ymir, three good flights, and in June off a new place, Silver Dollar (2,200 feet vertical), near Salmo, where the ridge lift was so great that Jim, a teenaged Acrophobia member who flew prone in a Seagull, a bigger, better kite than the Muller, was carried swiftly up another thousand feet above the launch site to soar back and forth, whooping, above those of us still on the ground. We stood marveling at him for a couple of minutes (such soaring ability was new to us then; later, as gliders improved, it became commonplace), then rushed to get into the air ourselves. Somebody else in a Seagull rose up to Jim’s altitude, but the rest of us, in Mullers, had to settle for more or less rough glides, through gusting winds, down to the valley.

My second flight I crashed on takeoff, plowing into the brush on the gradual slope just below the launch site. Unhurt but humiliated, I struggled with my kite back up to the launch site and tried again. Took off correctly this time, flew out into the turbulence and soared a bit, came in high over the landing field, circled it, then S-turned down to be further humiliated when I landed too fast, nosing over in front of my wife and our friend Sheena, who’d watched me fly that day for the first time.

That was the end of my fiftieth flight—and the end of hang gliding for me.

A couple of weeks later I fell out of the sleeping loft to the first floor of our cabin and suffered compression fractures of two vertebrae. That grounded me for the rest of that year. By the following spring, however, I was ready to fly again and thinking of buying a new kite, one with a better glide ratio than my old Muller.

Meanwhile, my wife and I had applied for adoption. That led her to declare, assuming we were to get a child (which we did, the following year), that she didn’t want "a cripple" for a father, nor to find herself a widow and a single mother. So I allowed her to clip my wings, gave up flying, in fact, with a kind of relief, as something I no longer had to pump myself up to on weekends, no longer had to prove to myself I could do. I had done it. So now I could relax, and get on with the rest of my life.

And yet it was hard to let it go. To paraphrase what Hemingway once said of his obsession with bullfighting, for a whole year hang gliding filled my inner life. That summer after my accident, I visited old launch sites, saw old comrades and new faces, felt estranged from their brotherhood of daring.

Acrophobia membership rose to include at least one daredevil female over the next year or so, and then fell. Enthusiasm for the sport waned after that except among the happy few who could afford it and keep at it as hang gliding faced regulations and kites became more sophisticated, more expensive, and certainly a lot safer. Flyers dwindled, I think, to a dedicated cadre whose skill with their high-performance gliders made them something like professionals. Gone were the reckless, amateur days of hang gliding that I had known. By the 1980s the simple Rogallo had become a true gull-or hawk-like wing, with glide ratios of 10-1 or better (14-1 is now common) that gave pilots the ability to soar for hours, climb to cloud base, fly across country for more than a hundred miles.

Accidents ended flying for some I knew. Young Jim, at Grand Forks, trying to land on the ridge he’d been soaring over in his Seagull, had the wind catch his kite and roll it, slamming him against the ground and breaking one of his hips. Ken Greene, brother of Olympic champion skier Nancy Greene, whom I met once in Kaslo, died from massive internal bleeding after crashing into Mount Swansea at Invermere, B.C. Leigh Bradshaw quit flying and quit instructing, I heard, after seeing too many of his students crash and not wanting to feel responsible if one of them was killed. Others, I think, just quit after they got older, maybe wiser, or like me developed responsibilities that made risking one’s life and limbs kind of foolish, if not selfish.

My kite still hangs in our shed, a relic of those dumb, early days of hang gliding and a reminder that I was part of them. I took it down once, some years after I’d put it away, to demonstrate the sport, in brief little flights off fifty-foot Duncan Dam, to a young aspirant, who suddenly lost interest. He was a wind surfer and decided to stick to that sport. "Water’s a lot softer than the
ground," he told me.

In my seventies now, I probably couldn’t foot launch anymore, and besides, my old Muller with its probably fatigued aluminum spars and dried-out, brittle Dacron would be much too dangerous to fly. In fact, all Rogallo wings, slow to respond, their "limp" Dacron sails prone to inversion in turbulence, are relics now, no longer flown.

At times I think excitedly of owning an ultralight airplane. For around $5,000 I could order a kit and over the winter build a plane in my shed, as a former schoolmate of mine has done, several times, in his barn in Minnesota. But that’s just an old man’s fantasy. I’ve accepted that I’m permanently grounded now, a victim of caution as well as age.

And yet to this day, I watch soaring birds with something like an educated eye, and in summer or early fall, I can’t drive past a rocky peak or a high outcrop or a high, bare slope in these mountains without seeing it as a launch site.

"Look!" I’ll exclaim to my smiling wife. "What a place to take off from! What a day to fly!"

19 July-11 November 2004
10-12 November 2006

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Intimations of Fall, Preparations for Winter

Rain, finally. Yesterday it rained a good part of the day, afterwards putting clouds of condensing moisture in the air and mostly clearing it of smoke. This morning we hear no fire-fighting helicopters. The sky's partially cloudy, alternately sunny, the temperature comfortably cool. One feels fall's intimations.

A couple of days ago my wife, whose Spanish is adequate to the task (mine isn't), arranged by phone to rent our favored place in Yelapa, on Mexico's west coast, for what will be our fourth winter stay there. Last night, via Expedia, I booked our flights to and from Puerto Vallarta. We'll fly there December 12, spend that night in Vallarta, and next day take a water taxi the 22 miles down the coast to Yelapa, where we'll settle in for another three-month stay. We're scheduled to fly home from Vallarta on March 19, which means our stay will be closer to three and a half months. I hope to get some writing done while there.

We look forward to a Mexican Christmas, something we haven't expererienced since our winter in Oaxaca, 38 years ago. Look forward to meeting the friends we've made down there, some of them permanent residents, most winter escapees like ourselves.

Our son, his ex-partner and their six-year-old daughter, our only grandchild, will fly down for a two-week stay with us in December. We'll miss our daughter, who'll be in Victoria, enrolled in the music program at the University of Victoria -- she went down with us last year for two weeks -- and probably won't see her until she and her boyfriend come back to Nelson for a visit next summer. We might, however, make the nearly 500-mile trip to Victoria to see them before we leave for Mexico.
Meanwhile, my son and I have the next three months to fill our woodshed for winter. We heat with wood, and though we'll be far away in the south this winter, our son will be here, staying in and looking after our house.
Just heard a helicopter fly by. So summer's fires are still burning. . . .

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Waning Days of Summer

Seems like only yesterday it was the first of June and I was just back from a successful promotion of my book in Minnesota and we had the whole summer ahead of us. Now here we are in the middle of August already and summer's definitely on the wane, signaled by the singing of crickets at night (they come to life as summer is dying, it seems) and the end of July's record-breaking heat and tinder dryness that caused a rash of forest fires and filled the air with smoke and the sky with helicopters and water bombers these last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, since August started the nights have been getting cooler and the mornings colder. We've had some rain, finally, though not enough yet to put out all the fires. Anyway, there are streaks of snow now on what had been the bare summer peak of Mount Irvine. Looks like both summer and the fire season are about over.

Many people look forward to fall, and I admit that I enjoy it myself -- October's golden days, anyhow. There's a quickening in the fall air ("Football weather," Scott Fitzgerald called it, ackowledging its excitement), but there's a sadness in the season, too, because after autumn comes winter. And I, for one, have never looked forward to winter. Winter is a dead time, the long, long wait for spring and then another summer, which always passes too quickly.

Many people look forward to winter, especially skiers and other hardy outdoor types, but I've always preferred swimming to skiing or hiking through the snow, and being able to enjoy the outdoors in jeans or shorts and a tee-shirt rather than all bundled up. I grew up in Minnesota, after all, where it was mostly below zero Farenheit in the winter and our house was uninsulated and the pisspot under my bed sometimes froze in the night. I got my fill of those cold Minnesota winters, and have gotten my fill of the milder, though darker, winters here in B.C. after thirty years.

Still, I don't dread the coming of winter here anymore because my wife and I are snow birds now. Now when the ospreys disappear from Kootenay Lake and we know they've flown south for the winter, we also know we'll soon follow them.