or Why I Was Afraid to Go XC
There you are, circling at 4000 ft. above the landing field. You
think to yourself, "Why don't I go XC today?"
Immediately, discretion becomes the better part of valor, to coin
a phrase. Your mind comes up with at least one hundred reasons
why you shouldn't leave Mother.
Mother is the old tried and true landing field that you always
know and fly to. The reasons are sound. You know what the ground
is like, and what the wind direction is, and neither last nor
least, your buddies will be there when or soon after you land
to pick you up and go to dinner. Last and least, of course, is
fear. We're hang glider pilots, of course, and we do not know
fear, but a lot of us experience a reasonable facsimile, thereof.
Myself, I was a late bloomer. I started flying in 1972, and the
only real XC flights I did, hardly even counted. In the standard
days, on a Sunbird Butterfly, 19 X 16 Standard, I duplicated Bob
Wills first XC flight from Saddle Back Mountain, with a flight
to Escape Country, one of the early commercial hang gliding flight
parks, closed in the '70s by a lawsuit. I followed Rich Grigsby
and Gary Valle also flying Sunbird Butterflies, and my only mistake
was that I was continually trying to catch up with them. They
were flying max LD and I was flying somewhat faster than that.
This was not totally a good thing, because there was a rather
deep valley between the two points, and while they arrived 1000
ft. or more above Escape Country, I only barely made it with 100
ft. to spare. If I had been flying yet a little faster, I probably
would have landed in the valley and never been found. This 6 mile
XC was accomplished via a 5000 ft. vertical descent and a little
lift along the way.
My next XC flight was from boat tow, and it wasn't really an XC
at all except that I thermalled to 3000 ft. and got back to the
launch zone from way across the lake, with a lot of altitude.
Certainly, it was a 1 mile XC as I released at least a mile from
the landing point.
So, when I went to the Uvalde Platform Towing XC contest in 1989,
I was more or less an XC virgin. I considered it a great opportunity
to start XC. I had been 4000 ft. above launch at Buffalo Mountain
in Oklahoma at least once, but I didn't like the desolation of
the area behind the mountain nor the lack of roads in there. I
could imagine leaving my glider in the woods to walk out, and
never finding it again. Uvalde, on the other hand, was surrounded
by Texas lands in which the highest tree was a Mesquite. Mesquite
trees never grow very high or close together, which stands to
reason as they only grow in semi-desert. Furthermore, since I
was entered in an XC meet, my flying buddies would not be caught
off-guard by my departure downwind. Sure enough, I finally caught
a thermal that carried me 5000 ft. above the ground, and that,
in combination with the fact that the thermal was drifting downwind
at a fair speed put me where going XC was not only an option, but
a fact accompli. So when I topped out in the thermal, I just turned
and went down wind, IFR. (I Follow Roads). This took me on a
20 mile journey which gave me a silver Lilenthal Award, and my
first real XC, only 17 years after I started hang gliding.
So, now I really owned my XC merit badge, excuse me, special skill
on my rating card. It also gave me ninth place in the meet as
not that many of the entered pilots even went XC. From that point,
I went in to a veritable frenzy of XC fever. I traded my Vision
Mk 4 for a Magic Kiss, then the current XC record holder. I built
my own platform launch system, and every weekend, I went out trolling
for thermals. Soon I had several 7 mile XC s, a 12 mile XC, a
25 mile XC and culminated it with a 36 miler from Lovington, NM
to the semi-high desert of the Cap Rock of New Mexico. Soon
after that, I broke my arm and was out of hang gliding for a while,
but learned to paraglide, and put together a few short paraglider
Recently, I was at the local hang glider club meeting, and a poll
was taken of the pilots who had gone XC. I was astonished to find
that many of the pilots, some very skilled had never gone XC.
I started thinking about it, and my 17 year dry spell for XCs.
I had read something about this from soaring magazines. Many sailplane
pilots never went XC. They would take off, work local lift for
even an extended period of time, then land right where they
took off. Why didn't they go XC? It came to lack of preparation
Ah, that fear issue again. Fear of what? Most of us have out grown
the boogie man, so rational fears come to mind. Fear of landing
out. For sail plane pilots that is a very legitimate fear. They
have less risk of it due to higher performance aircraft, but with
a much higher landing speed and greater weight and wing span,
a sail plane can do a lot of damage to itself and a farmers crop
landing in the wrong place. For a hang glider pilot, it is also
a legitimate fear as the pilot has to discern the wind direction
and location of obstacles from an altitude of 500 to 1000 ft.
For a paraglider pilot, it is almost no problem at all as long
as the pilot avoids power lines and pastures with canopy eating
cows and territorial bulls. Retrieval for a sailplane requires
a trailer and may require access to someone's property in order
to remove the glider, where as a hang glider can sometimes be
loaded on the back of a friendly farmers truck. What can I say
about paragliders? Obviously, the problems vanish when you fly
an aircraft that will comfortably fit in the trunk of a VW Beetle.
Preparation is the key. If you go XC, all that is really required
for easy retrieval is a central communications point and a buddy
with a set of your car keys, or solid radio communications. But
many adventure-some pilots have gone XC with no retrieval preparations
at all. They call home, say "Honey, come pick me up. I went
XC and landed in Podunkville. By the way, get the truck, it's
at the launch.". This just is part of a really well established
and understanding relationship,. Of course, if your relationship
is hanging on a thread, this may be the final snip, but, eh, it's
Another part of preparation for XC is having the proper equipment.
I permanently have stowed in the back pack of my harness a small
flashlight, a signaling mirror, a longer antenna for my radio,
a small first aid kit, a thermal blanket, a compass, a map of
the area I am flying in, matches, backup lithium batteries for
my radio, a vest which says "I am a downed hang glider pilot
and I need a ride", morphine, condoms, a bottle of Champagne
and a phrase book which has in it, how to say " My name
is Bond, James Bond" in 40 different languages. Most of this
equipment will seldom be needed, but in case you land back in
the mountains with a 2 day walkout, some of these things might
come in right handy. One item which is so obvious that you might
not think of it is water. I fly with a Camelbak from which I can
drink in the air. It also serves as a water container for hiking
out, which means that you might want to have the necessary items
for water purification as part of your equipment also.
Another part of the preparation is to practice scoping out a landing
area from the air, determining what the surface is like, what
the wind direction is and where the powerlines are. Almost every
dream of flying I have had over the last 20 or so years has featured,
not the joy of flight, but the concern of being trapped in a maze
of power lines through which I have to maneuver in order to take
off or land. Freud might have some opinions about the meaning
of these dreams, but on the other hand, he hasn't flown around
power lines. You and I have. They have a characteristic of being
totally invisible from 1000 or even 500 ft. We have to look for
power/telephone poles as an indicator of their presence. Most
farm houses have electric power these days and almost none of
them have underground lines (which cost 10 times as much as overhead
lines) In fact, most buildings out in the country are going to
have lines going to them. You cannot go wrong by assuming that
they are going to be there and looking for them until you have
them located. And remember that it is 100 times better to land
crosswind than to hit a powerline.
There are numerous methods for determining wind direction. Each
has it's up side and it's down side. Emergency smoke bombs are
nice but can set grass fires or go off accidentally and ruin your
equipment. Some drop metal spikes with a wind flag attached. These
should have about the status of lawn darts, as something so incredibly
dangerous to those below that they shouldn't even be considered.
A much safer alternative is a dual colored ribbon with a weight
at one end, to drop and indicate the wind direction. This requires
experimentation to determine the proper weight so that it lays
out nicely down wind without drifting into the next county or
total burying itself underground. It also requires remembering
the arrangement of colors to allow you to land up and not down
wind. A plastic film can with one of these devices taped to your
control bar is a possibility. On the other hand, there are a number
of methods for determining wind direction as without special devices.
The wind on a pond or tank, or the direction of smoke is another.
If you have time to make two passes over your desired landing
area at 90 degree angles to each other, you should be able to
determine the wind direction by the drift. Of course, if you have
been flying downwind in a strong wind, just landing pointed back
the way you came is a good choice. I have found that if I land
within 90 degrees of the right direction, I will be able to turn
into the wind as I get closer to the ground. There are a myriad
of ways to land into the wind, just practicing them is worthwhile.
Determining the surface is usually easy, but occasionally, from
500 ft in the air, the surface looks much better than it really
is. Try to learn the terrain of the area you usually XC in so
that you have a clue as to what the ground is really like. Crops
and tall grass can be tricky. Remember to land as though the top
of the crop is the surface. If you fly into a crop, you may well
end up ass over teakettle and testing the quality of your helmet.
Remember if you are landing a hang glider on a slope that it
is usually better to land up slope even if it is down wind.
If you are prepared physically, then you are much closer to being
prepared mentally as well. The final step is commitment. If you
would like to be able to do XCs, then you must come committed
to going XC. Much as you must have your glider set up in order
to fly, you must have your whole outlook setup in order to go
XC. Every time you fly, you must be prepared to turn and go. When
you take off, you must have already said to yourself, "If
I get the chance, I will go."
So let's walk you through one of my XCs. This one I call
So there I was at 600 feet circling in a sort of flying trash
dump. I knew that the thermal was pretty healthy by the grass
and weeds whirling around in it. My greatest fear at this point
was not that I would lose the thermal, but that I would get some
of the trash under a contact lens. Flying blind is not one of
my strong points.
Andy said that there was a house thermal at the North Site intersection,
but it had been my experience that it was only a house thermal
if it happened to be there at the same time you were, and it usually
I had taken one flight and gotten drilled, then Rick Chastain
took one and got drilled too. There were cumulus clouds overhead
unusual for the North Site which was usually the location of a
blue hole. I noticed that for both flights, the whole tow road
had been under cloud cover. I stood, ready to launch when I noticed
that the sun was shining on the south end of the tow road. This
was my cue to get my act in gear, so I towed up. I hit enough
turbulence to indicate that there was a thermal lurking somewhere,
cut loose at 900 ft. and arrived at the location of the "house"
thermal just as it lifted off carrying the trash up with it.
I cored the flying trash and sure enough I started going up. I
circled there for a very long time, climbing slowly, but committed
to maxing out before leaving the premises. I got to 4100 feet
MSL and noticed an airline passing in front of me at eye-level
perhaps 2 miles away. I considered this then bailed out of the
thermal, pulled my string, and settled down for a long glide northwest.
I probably looked sort of funny trying to watch in all directions
I was making haste, slowly, northwest, trying to avoid an impromptu
ride on Southwest Airline Flight 112 and I gradually passed Highway
380. I got down to about 1500 feet MSL and hit another patch of
dirty air. This one had a flock of birds circling in it, gobbling
bugs, way down below me, but it also had a serious invitation
in it to go 600 to 800 fpm up. I took the invite. Soon I got up
to 5300 feet MSL. I approached cloud base, and wanting to maintain
the legal 500 ft. separation, I again pointed NW. I could see
a large lake off in the distance, but I was sort of getting close
to the ground over a chicken farm with an ugly pond sort of the
color of blood behind it. I knew I didn't even want to land close
to the pond which looked like it may have been the site of the
Chicken Chainsaw Massacre. When I caught a thermal I labored
carefully to travel away from it. A few more thermals passed,
and I approached the lake. I crossed over a highway heading towards
a large town. Being without a map, I wasn't sure where I was,
but being all out of lift, I decided to glide to the town and
I landed on a horse ranch at the city limit of Pilot Point which
had a very nice house with swimming pool, but darn it, no one
was home. A ranch hand drove up and gave me a ride to the nearest
phone at a service station and bait shop. The lady managing the
store gave me some free food and loaned me her car to go buy a
book to read while I waited for my ride home, and she didn't even
see me land. Ah, the glamour of being a hang glider pilot. She
probably just had rather I steal her car than stick her up.
I had taken 2 and 1/2 hours to fly 25 miles, no speed record,
but a nice flight for Labor day.
This flight was done on Labor Day of 1990, and remains the best
flight I have had from my home site which is about 2 miles from
my house. It may or may not illustrate a bunch of the points I
am making, but it does show the joy in leaving your home site
for places unknown. I wasn't flying to a declared goal, I just
drifted downwind for the pure joy of going XC. I knew the territory
there. I had been bike riding through the area many times. I knew
I had a way home. I was able to rely on the good will of the people
living near where I landed. A few flights like this totally convinced
me that XC is where it's at.
So take your guitar and put it in tune, oops, wrong song. Prepare
your glider, your crew, your harness, yourself, then when you
are 3500 above ground level, turn and go downwind.