First Altitude Flight

Kirkridge, near Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. April 5th, 1997 Launch: about 1460 ft MSL. LZ: about 820 ft MSL. Launch to LZ: about 3/4 miles.

What an experience! I just had another of my flying dreams. But this time it wasn't a dream - I was actually doing it. Flying. In the air. Looking down from hundreds of feet. My first flight ever that lasted longer than 40 seconds. And it lasted 50 minutes!!! Curtailed only by onrushing darkness.

How many first high-flighters get to soar? Not many, I'm told. But the ridge lift this day was really working. Jeff Harper, my instructor (one heck of an instructor, and one heck of a nice guy to boot) had had me take 3 flights from the training hill (Chapel Hill) in the morning. Then off to Kirkridge, a site that had been closed for a while, then newly re-opened. It was a SE day, and this was the only option for a first high flight this day. Jeff had never been to Kirkridge, so he got a bunch of intelligence reports from people he respected before we headed out there.

We carried some of our gear to launch and checked out the wind. 10-20, but straight into the slot. Kinda strong for a first high flight, but with 180-some flights from the training hill, including 3 that morning in some mildly trashy air, Jeff was confident I could handle it, and so was I.

We drove down and walked the (huge) primary LZ. Then we walked the long, narrow, and sloping bailout LZ, and decided it wasn't a great spot. But it was there in case I needed it. Launch to primary LZ was about 6 to 1, so against that headwind I wasn't going to make it on my Pulse without some gain from the lift band.

Back up to launch. We launched Doug Rogers (the club Prez) for his second flight of the day, then got me ready. Jeff stuck a vario and radio on my control frame, and I carried the glider to launch, Jeff on one wire, James Gill on the other. By this time it was 5:30. The air was a little rowdy, and for several minutes at least one of the wireman had pressure. Then both said "neutral" - I quickly asked "still neutral?" got yesses, and that was it. "Clear!" and I'm out of there. Never got chance to get anxious about launching - the cycle came and I went for it.

Great takeoff. Zoomed up in the liftband. Turned right to hug the ridge. Soon turned around and came back so Jeff didn't lose visual contact. Slowly gained altitude. Slowly gained, because I was flying real fast. It wasn't the infamous "dive syndrome" - the zero groundspeed didn't really bother me at all. No, it was the proximity of the ridge with all those menacing looking trees, radio towers and such. I wanted the speed for controllability, since the wind was gusty. Jeff was telling me through the radio to slow down to trim, but with all that airspeed, a crackly radio, and my less-than-perfect hearing, I couldn't tell what he was saying. At that speed, the glider was really easy to control - all I really had to do was think it around. Still, some aspects of its behavior surprised me. Like the way it yawed into the wind when the windspeed gusted higher (standard stuff for a Pulse, Jeff explained later).

After I'd made a few passes, James Gill got into the air (I later heard that his launch was a real epic - Jeff was the only wireman) and quickly got above me. He seemed like he was parked. By this time I'd been up there about 20 minutes, and was trying to fly more slowly. Seeing James parked encouraged me further, and I slowed down and got some more altitude. Jeff eventually launched, so there were four of us Wind Riders up there now - all the locals had already landed.

I guess I maxed out around 300 over launch. I didn't remember to read the altimeter at launch, or my Avocet, which in any case was underneath my sleeve. Great planning. The vario was chirping the entire time, and it continued to do that after I'd landed, so I guess it was kidding. Every time I looked at the dial it was either zero or very fractionally above.

So there I was, boating around, trying to avoid the other guys (who were giving me a very wide berth anyway), enjoying my real life flying dream. My arms started to get tired. My legs started to get heavy, and sagging down out of true prone (%^&%^ knee hanger). The light started to fade. Then I got anxious when I could only see two other gliders. Where was the other guy? I had to know before I felt really safe turning. But then I spotted Doug on his way to the LZ. I waited until he landed then pointed the nose over there.

The glide to the LZ was really cool. Now instead of 300 foot clearance above the ridge I suddenly had 700 or 800 feet of clearance. Awesome. The lift band extended way out from the ridge - I hardly seemed to lose any altitude all the way to the LZ, but I think I must have lost two or three hundred. Got to the LZ maybe 500 over, did a 360 and found myself about 300, or three times tree height. Okay, time for the landing pattern. Downwind, base, final, stand up, pull in, roundout. Now it's getting quiet. My logical brain is saying "it's time to flare," but after 50 minutes in bird mode my emotional brain won't accept that I'm back on the ground. Finally my emotional brain realizes it really is time to flare, but by this time it's too late. I come down ever so gently on the wheels.

A crowd of maybe a dozen people greeted me in the LZ, making a tremendous fuss over the guy who'd just done his first mountain flight, and got to soar. I tell you, you meet the nicest people in this sport. A guy from the local club (Delaware Water Gap) gave me a beer. We broke down in the dark - real dark, moonless night. Then we retrieved the vehicles from launch and headed home.

My feet may be on the ground now, but my spiritual self is still boating around above that ridge.

Bill Buffam, hang glider pilot