Leaving Mother

or Why I Was Afraid to Go XC

Dave Broyles © 1996

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 XC s.

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 and fear.

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 an adventure!

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


by Dave Broyles

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 wasn't.

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 at once.

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 land.

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.


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