My mouth tasted like cotton and I couldn't stop licking my cracked lips, despite realizing they would hurt worse in a minute than they did already. My vario wailed a flat serenade as the lone town in the distance sank out of view. It was a final predicament Ñ an end that fit the day.
Joan would never understand. "Please tell me you are not really leaving on your business trip looking like that?" she had asked. "A little ground handling on my new Fusion will do me good. Besides, it will give me something to do while I'm missing you." "You don't have to rationalize it to me dear," she replied, "but normal people don't stroll through DFW wearing a paraglider backpack over their business suit."
Ground handling was all I had planned on that morning. A sunny day, puffy cumies, and southeast winds forcasted at 10-15 mph. It was hot for this early in the summer but the air seemed void of the normal Dallas humidity. The abandoned drive-in theater next to my hotel on the north side of town seemed like a decent spot to practice reverse inflations without attracting much attention. The theater's lot was a series of terraces, dropping into a clearing that once housed a playground at the base of the screen. The wind was blowing down the terraces directly towards the screen. I carefully laid out my new wing on the wild grass that sprouted through the thin layer of pea gravel still remaining after years of Texas-style winds. I paused to admire the Fusion's sleek planform before donning my harness and helmet. I couldn't wait to fly it, to see if the claims of an easy handling glider with a 9/1 glide ratio were really true. But that would have to come later. This day I would get whatever satisfaction I could with my feet on the ground. I tucked my ever present tow bridle out of the way and began kiting.
For 20 minutes I tried every reverse inflation method I could remember. British standard, crossed-hands on the brakes with opposite riser, left hand on the A's and right on the D's... I was running out of ideas and didn't want to let the sun fade my canopy unnecessarily. I decided to kite it for one last time before packing it up for the day.
The gust hit with no warning, pushing the Fusion back and pulling me off balance. I let the brakes up and took a couple quick steps to get underneath but after the second step my feet were no longer touching the ground. I cringed, having visions of the canopy hitting the screen and my body swinging into the earth like a big pendulum. I yanked on the A's and the wing surged back overhead and stabilized. I still hadn't landed.
Momentarily at a loss, I stared at the canopy as if it could give me a sign. I looked back down and was twenty feet high and climbing. I worried that the canopy might crest the top of the screen and collapse on the back side. "Fly the damn thing, don't just be a passenger!" I admonished myself. I spun around, grabbed the brakes and kicked into the speed stirrup as I heard the sickening sound of crinkly new sail cloth rubbing against plywood. After what seemed like an eternity, the glider inched forward and the sound stopped. A few moments later my peripheral vision noted the top of the big screen passing below. I felt like I was at least momentarily out of danger but that didn't stop my knees from shaking.
The large walls bounding the drive-in formed a natural venturi, the wind accelerated into the screen before ricocheting skyward. With the paraglider stabilized I entertained thoughts that this could actually be a real flight Ñ one I shouldn't necessarily rush to end. I relaxed the pressure on the stirrup and continued upward while drifting slowly back. I finally hung motionless, suspended 120 feet above the ground. "I know where this glider got its name," I thought. "It makes its own energy!"
After a couple of minutes I began to relax and explore the lift band, crabbing back and forth, drifting in and out; trying to define the crest. I didn't notice the police car until it was halfway down the parking lot, a trail of white dust rising behind. It coasted to a stop, red lights flashing and the siren quiet. I wondered if I had done something illegal. Was the cop sneaking up to arrest me for trespassing? The officer opened the car door and spoke through a bull horn. The echoes distorted the sound and all I could make out was ".... come down."
The dust trailing the car coalesced into a ball that rolled towards the screen. The blossoming thermal rose, fed by the sun-baked gravel of the lower terraces that were shadowed from the wind. I had never seen such an infant thermal, it was not a swirling dust devil Ñ more like a building bubble. The Fusion dipped slightly when it met the downward curling air at the edge but then immediately tugged up on my risers. I thought of my vario, still tucked away in my harness pocket. I didn't need it, there was no doubt which direction I was headed. Nearly 200 feet high I again heard the bull horn Ñ this time loud and clear. "LAND IMMEDIATELY."
Although normally a law abiding citizen, I did what any red-blooded paraglider pilot in the same situation would do. I banked the glider up on a wing. As I began my rising spiral I cried out in my most desperate voice, "Help me.... Please."
I was in the core, easily rising at a grand per minute. I glanced at the cop one last time. He was gesturing wildly into his radio. I bit down hard on my lip, not wanting him to hear me laughing. With each circle, I gained 200 feet while drifting about the same distance downwind. Several minutes went by. The Fusion had treated me well so far, no partial collapses, no tip folds, not even any real surging to speak of. I loved this glider. Leaning into the turn I unzipped my harness and with two hands carefully removed my vario. By the time it was strapped to my thigh and initialized, it registered over 4000 msl and 900 fpm climb.
The lift finally petered out at 7800 feet. The wind was stronger at altitude, an the DallasÐFort Worth metroplex began to recede in the distance. There was no question which way to go, I could not penetrate back. Besides, cloudbase was higher downwind.
The next several hours passed in a blur. The thermals were abundant and each one seemed to take me higher. When I left the lift I pointed downwind and mashed the stirrup to overdrive. With each mile I became increasingly aggressive. For the last hour I hadn't even bothered to turn much. I slowed down in each thermals and sped between them, only bothering to circle when I dipped below 6000 feet. The occasional small town passed by but without a map I had no idea where I was, how far I'd gone, or where I was going. The cloudstreets pointed downwind and I followed.
Perhaps it was the altitude but I found himself thinking it didn't really matter what I did. I was chilled to the bone in my short sleeves and fiercely in need of water but ignored my discomforts. Perhaps a divine force had preordained this day to be mine. I would end up wherever I was supposed to, whenever I got there.
After six hours in the air, I wished I had a barograph and wondered if the policeman would make a willing launch witness. Barograph or not, witness or not; I knew this flight was the flight that would be talked about for years to come. I envisioned fame and fortune, manufacturers begging me to fly their gliders and Europeans sending me Christmas cards asking for flying tips.
For the last couple of minutes the whistle of my lines had been joined with a low chorus from my vario. This was the first time in the flight I had been in extended sink. I locked my knees trying to minimize the time spent on this downward escalator. I was hot and sweaty before I noticed I was no longer cold. I was below 2000 feet and the sink still hadn't let up! For the first time I began to notice just how tired, thirsty, and lost I was.
I knew I shouldn't give up hope and swiveled my head looking in vain for a circling buzzard or any sign of life. The only possible sign of habitation in the brush-covered high plains was a lone microwave repeater tower. I altered my course towards it. Perhaps a caretaker lived nearby. In any case, a rutted jeep trail cut across the endless series of gullies leading to it. It would probably be the best way to hike out.
Closing on the tower, I toyed with the idea of top landing on the antenna platform. Perhaps I could relaunch when a cycle blew through. The mental image of the "Fan Man" catching some wires just before the boxing ring snapped me back to reality. I didn't need to snag myself on one of those support cables. "No thousand-foot back gainers for me, thank you," I thought. I turned the glider into the wind and pushed for speed. The Fusion couldn't quite buck the strong currents and drifted slowly backwards toward the eastern and uppermost wire. Not wanting to lose sight of it, I turned and paralleled the wire towards the ground.
I had a suitable landing area but realized my first landing on this glider would be in winds that exceeded 20 mph! Without any forethought I released my leg and chest straps, thankful my harness had quickÐrelease buckles. Holding full stirrup I had nearly stopped my backwards motion just prior to touchdown. I bent forward trying to dig my feet in while holding the brakes. The canopy pulled up and back stripping the harness from my body. I remained on my feet, left holding nothing but brakes. As they pulled tight the Fusion rolled over backwards and fell to the ground like a dead duck. "Better lucky than good," I thought.
I gathered up the glider and surveyed the situation. I had followed miles of cumulus clouds strung together like popcorn on a Christmas tree but there were no clouds within five miles. In my quest for fast miles I had overflown the cloud street and put myself in a blue hole. How could I have been so oblivious? One last thermal and I could have reached civilization. Now I seriously wondered if I could endure a hike out.
I sat down to gather my thoughts. I pondered my alternatives for twenty minutes before a passing dust devil snapped me back to attention. My best solution would be to get airborne. If there was only some way to tow up. "Hell, a static tether would work in these winds," I thought. I had heard of an experienced pilot who tethered his paraglider to a car in strong winds. It immediately locked-out, ripping itself apart. I needed a payout winch to keep the pressures under control.
Like a bolt from the blue it came to me. An outlandish idea that Ñ if it worked Ñ would even make McGyver proud.
I removed the carabiner attaching the left side of the tow bridle to my harness, tieing the bridle back in place with a bowline. I laid out the canopy on the downwind side of the support cable and climbed into my harness. Next I fastened my three-loop tow release around the base of the spare carabiner. I mentally double-checked my equipment before turning around to face the cable. Inclined at a 60¡ angle, it stretched to the top of the tower perpendicular to the wind. Without allowing time to second guess myself, I hooked the carabiner to the cable, leaned forward and pulled the risers tight. The canopy jumped up with a start, pulling against the restraining cable. I leaned forward and the canopy arced overhead, lurching me off my feet.
The carabiner made a highÐpitched metallic "zing" as it ran along the cable. The wind velocity increased as I rose, pulling harder on the tow bridle which responding by sliding faster. The acceleration reminded me of the one time I had bungee jumped Ñ only this force wasn't stopping. I looked to my right at the approaching tower. The release would be critical. When within a couple of hundred feet of the top I applied right brake, swinging the canopy towards the rapidly growing girders. I waited a couple of seconds until I felt the canopy lock-out before jerking the release with my left hand.
The paraglider, suddenly released from the off-axis tether, immediately snapped downwind. I eased off the brakes and accelerated safely away. At just over 1200 feet AGL, I needed to find a thermal soon. The first nibble was at 800 feet. I rose slowly, working it with everything I had. It was after five o'clock and the thermals were starting to wane. Only after I crested 2000 feet did the size and strength increase enough that I could start to relax. It wasn't until I topped out at 5800 feet, with what I would later find out to be the town of Oklaunion under my knees, did I feel assured of a successful end.
Like all flights, it wasn't over until it was over. The winds were so strong I had to pull a B-line stall for the last 2000 feet to stay within the city limits. At 200 feet AGL I was still racing backwards so I unfastened my chest straps. I released my leg straps at 100 feet and spun my harness around. Keeping the speed stirrup engaged I flew my "reverse inflation" until impact. I hit with a thud, rolled and held onto a single brake.
A passing trucker who was heading south on HWY 287 witnessed my landing and was all too happy to take me the 137 miles back to Dallas. The long drive back gave me time to reflect on the day's events. I dismissed thoughts of a world record and began wondering if I would even be able to convince my buddies that the flight had really happened.
I read the newspaper over coffee the next morning before my meeting.
small headline on the back of the first section caught my eye
Ñ Police Search
For Missing Parachutist. They were requesting public assistance
query of the local skydiving clubs had revealed no leads. Feeling
ashamed about causing a wild goose chase I decided it would be
write a post card to the police department. I explained I was
and described my emergency situation and eventual landing nearby.
what any red-blooded law-abiding paraglider pilot would do. I
signed it D.B.