In Brief—The author’s experiences with hang gliders and sailplanes. Photos of those halcyon bygone days are included.
NOTE! As you may have noticed, I’ve added photos to occasional blog pieces, this being one. I hope you’ll enjoy some of the thrills I experienced. For depth, I’ve written comments below each photo.
CLICK HERE to be transported back in time.
If you like what you see and read, tell your friends or share the blog on your favorite social site.
Soaring With the Eagles—
“Ooh-h-h God!” She sounded like she was getting off…er, coming…er, having an orgasm. Margot Kidder, Superman’s girlfriend, was experiencing her first high flight in a hang glider. I was transfixed as I watched “Wide World of Sports.” The program showed what it was like, from training on shallow slopes to a leap from a steep hillside in Colorado.
“I want to do that!” I exclaimed. I grabbed the phone book. Seagull Flight School was the first hang gliding ad I saw. A few days later, I stood atop a little sand dune on the beach as huge passenger planes loudly passed low over our heads to land at LAX. My teacher—now my close friend of many years—Dave had the duty of converting anxious ground-bound beginners into humans willing to risk life and limb.
After eating my fair share of sand at the bottom of the shallow dune, I got the idea. Exhilarated, I opined that if a flight of five seconds was great, imagine what five minutes would be like. Ah, what aerial joy the future held for me. Before long, I was invited to join Dave at the big dunes up the coast. And thus began a friendship that has lasted and grown.
Guadalupe Dunes, on the coast near San Luis Obispo, is where the big dunes whisper to the sea. A flight of maybe two minutes was my next step toward the really big stuff to come. I recall watching Dave’s wife flail her legs and scream in fear as her kite grew small in the distance. To my knowledge, she never flew again…but she stayed airborne a few feet above the dune all the way to the bottom. A successful flight. Frightening for her, but successful.
Pine Mountain in San Bernardino County. My first really high flight—maybe 2,000 feet above the valley floor—made my heart pound and my breathing accelerate…and that was even before I took off. Dave, ever cautious, felt I was up to it. Until I took off, I had my doubts, but they were soon dispelled as I was lifted into the air and marveled at the valley below where tiny spectators, like ants, watched the fliers circle in search of the next thermal, the rising column of warm air that formed on the flats below. Those few seconds of exhilaration months earlier were as nothing compared with this. I was now in the realm of the birds, where the mythical Icarus and Daedalus had once experienced the intoxication of flight.
Over the ensuing months, I loaded my kite on the car and headed for whatever mountain beckoned. One afternoon years later, I found myself overlooking the remains of what had once been a hospital in Sylmar before being destroyed by an earthquake.
I sat on the hillside contemplating the rubble below and waiting for the little flag to announce a suitable thermal. When it fluttered, I took off and shared the thermal with a hawk that scanned the valley below for its next meal. It was a long and exhilarating flight that finally ended when the fading afternoon warmth ended.
Above the rubble-strewn valley, I headed for the landing field with plenty of altitude to spare. Unfortunately, the late afternoon air turned around, pushing me toward the rubble below. Survival told me that I needed to dive to make it over the fence to the landing field and safety. I picked up speed and barely made the field. The flyer behind me was not as fortunate and was injured in the rubble. That frightening experience ended my hang glider days forever.
One day, Dave suggested joining him in Tehachapi, two hours north of Los Angeles, where he had learned to fly a sailplane. A sample flight in a Schweitzer two-seater resulted in reigniting my love of flying, and I began taking lessons with veteran instructor, Jim Canard.
Weeks later, the ever-calm Jim announced that I was ready to solo. Gulp! Figuring Jim knew whereof he spoke, I buckled into the Schweitzer, calmed my racing heart, and stayed low behind the tow plane to keep it from nosing into the ground. Seconds later, we were climbing to the release altitude. At 3,000 feet, I pulled the release knob, the tow plane dove away and I headed for the landing pattern. I turned into the base leg, then the final approach and touch-down. I rolled to a stop and breathed deeply, probably for the first time since buckling up. I had succeeded in my first solo flight. The traditional bucket of cold water over the head told me that I was now a sailplane pilot.
Trips to the Sierra foothills of Tehachapi, past the tightly- packed wind farms, became an almost weekly ritual. When Dave finished building and test-flying his beautiful Woodstock, we would chase among the clouds and experience the joy of flight.
On one occasion, approaching dark clouds told me it was time to land. Unfortunately, the threatening clouds were like a gigantic vacuum cleaner and the spoilers on the wings were ineffective. At risk of being sucked up into the clouds. I remembered that a plane always loses altitude in a tight turn. Sure enough, it worked. I landed and tied the plane down. Dave and another friend were close behind. Sadly, a lovely single-seated sailplane got caught in a strong gust and did a damaging wing loop. Then came the heavy rain promised by the dark clouds.
In the following months, I made frequent trips to Tehachapi only to experience a quick and disappointing sled ride down. The usual lift had disappeared. Because sailplane rental and a tow to 3,000 feet were expensive, that and my disappointment resulted in my sailplane days ending. Though the friendship has continued, my flying days became part of the past.
I still dream of flying. I know Dave does.
I hope you enjoyed my experiences and the photos. If you have any questions or comments, let me know.