How not to fly

The background:
This summer I’ve been busy, and every weekend I can, I go hang gliding. I went on a such a trip to Hull this weekend, up in Lake County, near Lake Pillsbury, about 45 miles north of Harbin Hot Springs.

Lately, I really haven’t been flying that well. Oh, sure, I’m safe (aside from one scary launch), but I don’t stay up as well as the other pilots. On Saturday, I sunk out after 20 minutes, while Mike stayed up for 2.5 hours (without a variometer!). It doesn’t help that I’m heavy on my glider, but still: I kinda suck.

So, on Sunday, I borrowed Anthony’s bigger glider. It’s much like mine, but a little newer and noticeably bigger. That means I don’t fly as fast, but I don’t go down as fast either. I was hoping that would help me thermal better and stay up longer.

The story:
I didn’t fly well on Sunday. I foolishly left lift (I blame it on some distraction), and then I found a little more, but after a short gain, I lost the altitude again. My altitude was low enough at that I headed out toward the landing zone, taking the usual flight plan down the ridge (where you’re most likely to find lift). On my way, I hit a lot of sink. The ridge has a high knob at the end, and I found I was going down too fast to get over the knob! I went left around the knob (bad idea: I should’ve gone right), and was still going down too much to make it to the landing zone.

Going down at several hundred feet per minute, unable to land where I should, I had a few options. The ground was mostly pine forest, which is not a good place to land. There was a patch of low bushes on the side of the knob, and I didn’t see anything better. There’s a feeling I’ve had where everything is going wrong and there’s only one right thing to do, like being in a slow car accident or making a mistake in a performance. I did what seemed the only right thing, and combined two techniques I’d learned but not practiced: First, to do an uphill landing, I dove down to land up the side of the hill; it’s always best to land uphill, since that takes away your speed quickly. Then, to land in bushes, I just acted like the tops of the bushes were the ground, and landed on top of them.

The landing went more beautifully than I could have expected, though the bushes were also higher than I’d expected. I ended up as an undamaged pilot, hanging under an undamaged glider, which was resting on the tops of the 6-foot-tall manzanita bushes. I managed to stand on the bushes enough to detach myself from the glider, and radioed to the others so they would know I was down and safe. (It’s possible that I yelled, “I’m alive!,” but I’m pretty sure no one can verify that.)

I made a GPS track of my flight, but the relevant part is this picture. The airstrip below the knob is where I’d meant to land, and you can see I landed pretty far from that. Unfortunately, there’s a registration error with the GPS and Google Earth, so the last part of my landing looks like it’s inside the hill. Fortunately for me, that’s just an illusion.

A GPS track showing me landing in the bushes

After having to make that emergency landing, things started going my way. A pilot in the air above me pointed his glider in the direction of a path he could see, and the path was easy and clear. I recorded a GPS track of my walk, so the glider was easy to find later. I had great supplies: enough water, a makeshift hat, some granola bars, a pocket knife, a working radio, and a GPS-enabled phone. I easily walked out, and, once Barry and Mike landed, they hiked the 2000 vertical feet back to my glider to help me pack it up and carry it out. It’s not easy folding up a glider in 6-foot manzanita bushes, but the scratches I got from that were the worst injury of the whole day.

The embarrassment:
In the end, the only injury was to my pride. I should definitely have done some things differently: It’s important to use your launch lift, and it’s best to go right around the knob at Hull; that side has fewer other hilly structures, and the dry creekbed is a better emergency landing zone than any bushes.

But, given my failures, this was the best possible emergency landing I could have made!

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