Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Out for Lunch

It was a day to get going early.  With a northeast wind, the onshore breeze from Lake Okeechobee would certainly scour away any good lift.  I could already see the stable airmass approaching NeverLand Flight Park at 11am.  Neil and Tom rolled out to the tow pad around 11:30 and I quickly got ready.

In addition to the onshore breeze, a large sugar cane burn upwind filled the entire sky with a smokey haze, there were no cumulus overhead, and it was breezy.  Sigh.  I knew it was time to go even if the conditions weren't inspiring.

After Neil hooked me up, I had to wait a few minutes for the wind to become manageable.  I quickly climbed in the brisk headwind and released after hitting a strong shot of lift before Neil even made it halfway down the tow road.  I quickly centered the climb and drifted away happy I found something.

The smoke squashed thermals downwind on the way to LaBelle.  I was coughing as I flew through the thick irritating haze as I searched north and south of my course line looking for anything going up.  I got on the radio and announced that I might be landing south of LaBelle if I don't find something soon.  The large series of fields south of the airport finally offered the lift I needed.

LaBelle and airport

Conditions improved as I move west of LaBelle, but the texture of the air didn't.  The predominate wind was from the northeast at 24 k/h, but dropped to 8 k/h closer to base.  The changes in wind speed churned the air into a challenging mess of surges and snaky climbs.

I kept pushing north to avoid drifting into the controlled airspace around Fort Myers.  Three large plumes of smoke arose from a clearing project northeast of the Route 78 and Route 31 intersection.  I spent extra time getting high to cross that area; no way did I want to deal with rowdy fire-based climbs in that wind.

Once past that obstacle, I had the choice of blowing downwind a few more miles towards I-75 or flying crosswind to the north and trying to land at the Babcock Ranch housing development.  I chose the nice restaurant at the housing development over a cow field along I-75.  It wasn't really a tough choice!

Babcock Ranch development (right with lakes)

I was a little worried about the surface wind.  There was a peninsula in the development that was surrounded and also downwind of open water that would provide the best chance of laminar air.  The downside was downwind of the peninsula was another lake; if I got blown backwards I could get wet.  I positioned myself over my potential LZ and flew directly into the wind. I was still managing 12 k/h into the wind and I didn't see any whitecaps on the water.  Peninsula it was.

Had a nice landing and was soon talking with the grounds crew about my flight.  After a quick pack, I walked 5 minutes to the town center and started looking for a ride while sitting in the shade next to a fountain.

LZ peninsula across the water in both photos

Lucky for me, Jim was already on the road west of LaBelle and was willing to fetch me.  We had a nice lunch outside overlooking the lake and the peninsula where I had landed.  Thanks Jim!

Flight details available on Leonardo.

Flights: 1, Duration: 1:45, Distance: 51km

Friday, April 12, 2019

Missed Opportunity

The forecast looked great for a trip north along the center of Florida from NeverLand Flight Park.  Furthermore, Wills Wing was holding their annual demo days fly-in at Wallaby Ranch which is also near the center of the state southeast of Orlando.  I set a goal of landing at Wallaby so I could spend the evening partying there with many of my hang gliding buddies.

Dan DeLeo launched first in variable winds and was soon on his way.  I was up next.  A fellow pilot held the drogue chute on the tow line to prevent it tangling under my feet.  I told him it wasn't necessary, but he insisted on helping.  Ok, no big deal.  I waited for the wind to blow in a reasonable direction as I stood ready to do a reverse launch.  After a few minutes pulled up my wing.  The glider shifted to my right (east) and I was getting ready to take a couple steps to get back under it when Neil started pulling.  I was pulled around before I was able to shift so the wing continued arcing to the east while I was pulled north.  I was prematurely airborne with the wing going the wrong direction and not really flying.  Essentially a low lockout.  I followed the same arc as the glider about 1.5 meters above the ground.  I landed on my side on the road and was briefly dragged on the asphalt before Neil dumped tension and I released.

(Later Neil and I talked about what happened.  Neil saw the wing come up, but couldn't see me because the other "helpful" pilot blocked his view.  He saw the wing come up, thought he saw me turning and doing a running reverse, so started rolling.  His quick glance away was all the time I needed to swing onto the road and when he saw the carnage behind he quickly dumped pressure.  The biggest thing I learned was to not allow anyone to get between me and the driver.  I will politely insist no one hold the drogue chute (line) for me.  If faced with the same situation again, I might also wait for a lull and do a forward launch; if the winds are more variable in velocity than in direction.)

Gus, and a parade of other pilots launched while I reviewed the damage.  My flight computer, new GoPro 7 camera, iPhone, harness, and my clothing were badly damaged.  The glider seemed untouched and I got away with just a couple fabric burns.  The camera isn't necessary and the flight computer and iPhone still worked in spite of their looks.  My clothing looked like I was just dragged down the road.  ;-)  Three layers on my shoulder were wore away with frayed edges flapping in the breeze.  Good enough for me.  The harness however, was another story.  The pod was torn in multiple spots and the equipment pouch that holds my instruments and phone was ripped to shreds.  George came to my rescue with a roll of color coordinated (black) duct tape.  Duct-tape engineering ensued and, as we say in aviation, "it will probably work".

I composed myself, double-checked the conditions and my wing, and decided to give it another go.  However, it was now at least an hour later and my chances of getting to Wallaby were becoming more of a dream than a goal.

I had an uneventful tow with Neil, quickly found a climb, and was on my way.  Rob and I bounced around base as we approached the area we call the "triangle of doom" due to its lack of retrieval roads.  Rob turned back as I ventured north.

I was 2/3 of the way across when Tom and another pilot approached from the south.  They found a climb and I backtracked to get some of that goodness.  Around here the duct tape started coming loose and I had to put up with constant flapping for the rest of the day.  The three of us roughly flew together until we approached Lake Placid.  My timing was off and entered the Lake Placid area as the clouds had overdeveloped and shaded the ground.  My wingmen were a bit higher and sneaked away leaving me to grovel for far too long until the area heated up again.

The trip to Sebring was quick, but once again, I was greeted with dying clouds and shaded ground.  David Prentice was holding an SIV clinic on the big lake in town and I could hear them on the radio and see them over the water.  I considered landing at their LZ, but just couldn't give up on the long convergence line forming just north of town.  I had to get up.

I pushed upwind of the lake and found a climb that got me across the lake but left me in the lake shadow downwind of the lake.  I had an LZ picked out but found an area of weak lift that slowly got me high enough to move on.  I was thrilled to fly past the airport at Avon Park where I landed many times when flying hang gliders south from the Orlando area.

I was finally cruising the convergence line just as the day was dying.  The climbs got weak and buttery, the clouds dissipated, and my hopes of reaching goal were extinguished.  However, it was still nice flying and I used about 700m of altitude to play around in the smooth evening air before landing at the intersection of Route 27 and Route 98 in Frostproof at 6:40pm.

Gus, touching down at roughly the same time as me, landed in Clermont after flying past Wallaby Ranch for 200km!  I got several texts asking if I was the paragliding flying past Wallaby.  Alas, I was not.  Dan, who was beating himself up over his recent flights, set a new personal best 100+ km flight that was at least 4 times greater than his previous best.  Way to "knock it out of the park"!  Tom landed in his friends back yard in Lake Wales.  Indeed, a good day.

Audry and a load of happy pilots picked me up on their way back to Sebring, where we shared dinner and drinks with David's SIV students before heading back to NeverLand.

Although I didn't get to make the flight I was hoping, I was lucky that only equipment and not flesh was damaged and I was still able to enjoy a good day in the air (and in the SUV on the way back) with friends.  Next time.  ;-)

Details available on Leonardo.

Flights: 2, Duration: 5:03, Distance: 119km

Thursday, April 11, 2019


With clouds calling my name, I moseyed to launch as everyone watched.  Neil dropped me off at 400m near a miserable little climb that drifted more than climb.  Returning and lining up with the road where Neil was towing Dan.  I moved aside as Dan rose above me then swung around below and behind Dan getting ready to land.  A few vultures popped out of the trees upwind of launch, I snagged a workable parcel at 200m and latched on.  I drifted away in a slow climb, but got high enough to make it back where I found another low climb to the south of launch.  That climb finally lifted me to base around 1300m.

Meanwhile a parade of pilots were launching and struggling to get up.  Gus and Jeff joined me dancing around cloud base as we waited for others.  Gus glided off to the north while Jeff and I played in the wisps forming far below base.

I lost patience after an hour and took off to the west by myself.  My day might have ended early when I was below 350m east of the LaBelle airport before I was drawn into a strong solid climb back to cloud base at 1500m.

I was "dropping liquid ballast" west of LaBelle when Gus flew in below me.  We shared climbs and glides as we flew over the Babcock Ranch Preserve but parted ways as Gus made an aggressive move he could pull off with his higher performing wing but I couldn't.

I floundered over a dirt bike park until I found a sweet climb to over 1700m that allowed me to fly along base on a well defined convergence line.  I kept pressing on as the sea breeze front kept creeping closer.

Gus came in below me from somewhere to the southeast as I raced the sea breeze.  Not sure where he got delayed, but I was glad to have a wingman again.  We drifted apart on our approach to Arcadia.  I had a good line and was settled in a good climb when I noticed he was also climbing to the west.  Not wanting to split up the team, I started gliding towards his position.  Alas, he abandoned his dying climb while I was on glide.  Crap.

We both glided north with Gus finding a climb just in front of me near Limestone.  I came in underneath and found absolutely nothing; no lift, no sink, nothing.  Gus climbed away in that bubble and I went into search mode with no good candidates.  Gus moved on assuming my day was done.

I searched the area, keeping a good LZ within reach.  I stumbled into a region of broken lift and was joined by a gaggle of birds also looking for free lift.  We bounced and slowly climbed until I could move on again.

The clouds ahead were dying as the sun sank to the west.  I knew my chances of finding another climb this late were slim, so I stayed close to a road as a glided off my altitude in the smooth evening air.  I spotted a nice green field ahead with a small pond that would be a good indicator of the surface wind.

Birds were flying toward a complex of power lines and 4 stubby towers connected to large pipes that came out of the ground as I approached my field.  I assumed it was a pumping station co-located with an electric distribution center.  Since I didn't see any smoke or steam, I also assumed it was inactive.  The birds were bouncing around but definitely going up.  I starting climbing as I approached then noticed it got much warmer.  At first I assumed it was just me getting lower (350m) but as I got even closer my exposed skin started to burn as if I was standing too close to a fire.  I looked over and thought I saw a blue flame down the throat of a tower.  Crap.  Then my glider decided to repack itself into a convenient sized package.  Double crap.  No way I wanted to deploy my parachute over a maze of high voltage lines.  A couple quick ninja moves and I flew away yelping like a scared puppy.

The surrounding air was turbulent, but there was a relatively sane parcel of air at the far end of my chosen LZ and I had good safe landing.  I was talking with Peter Judge later and he suspects I flew over an operating gas-powered generating station.  Each of those towers were equivalent to a jet engine pointed upwards.  I was very lucky and implore pilots to avoid these things in the future.  Much worse than any sugar cane or forest fire.  This one, the Vandolah Power plant, is remote and had no external indications that it was operating.

However, my adventure was still not over.  I was half-way packed when a young guy in a pickup truck stopped and offered me a ride.  (I knew that Gus landed about 7 miles away in Wauchula so that was my destination).  He wasn't going that way, but if I wanted to tag along for awhile, he could get me a ride there.  Sounded good to me.

He reminded me a lot of my nephew, who also grew up in Florida.  He was proud of his truck and I was impressed with the camo material he lined the inner cab with.  He also talked about his dogs he trained to hunt wild boar.  He showed me pictures of his dogs and his buddy roping and carting away a live boar.  Think flying sounds exciting?  I'm sure those hunts are just as intense.  We drove to his grandpa's place to hook up a trailer to go fetch his car.  After that we drove around looking for his buddies who were loading kitchen cabinets on another trailer.  We eventually found them, helped them load and tie down the cargo, and then his friends gave me a ride into town.  They dropped me off at the Walmart plaza on their way home.

Meanwhile Gus was being fed, given vodka, and entertained by a nice lady that owned the field he landed in.  I was treated to a gorgeous sunset and an outdoor meal at the local Subway.  We both enjoyed our evenings.

Neil convinced Neco to fetch us, which was no small feat since we were a couple hours away by car.  I bought Neco breakfast for the next morning at Walmart before he picked up Gus.  Gus, who just arrived before we flew, quickly fell asleep as Neco tried to teach me a little Portuguese on the way back.  Thanks Neco!

Not a bad day of adventuring and, oh, a personal best distance.

Details available on Leonardo.

Flights: 1, Duration: 5:35, Distance: 122 km

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Florida Wildlife Adventure

Sometimes the adventure starts after you land.  Today's flight was like that.

We launched early since the clouds looked good and we worried the outflow from Lake Okeechobee would wash the thermals away by early afternoon.  Yuri, Kelton, and John G launched before me.  Yuri stayed airborne awhile but was on the ground before I launched, while the other two drifted away.  Neil pulled me to 600m where I found a weak climb and started floating westward in an east-southeast wind.

Since I didn't want to blow downwind and end my flight early due to controlled airspace along the coast, I kept pushing crosswind to the north whenever possible.

Shared a nice long climb with a bald eagle north of LaBelle, helping each other find the best lift.  I was disappointed that our paths lead in opposite directions once we reached the top.

I needed a climb to get over a large swath of trees and swamp at the Babcock Ranch Preserve.  Found bits of lift but nothing solid enough to risk venturing over inhospitable terrain.  Even as preparing to land in a huge field, mother nature teased me with chunks of lift; enough to stay in the air but not enough to get up and away.

I landed in a nearly perfect field.

It needed just one thing; access!  The closest road was 7.25 km (4.5 miles) away.  Undaunted, I packed up and started walking north.  I soon discovered the road was flooded with at least a meter of water filled with fish, wading birds, and probably alligators.  Time for plan B.

I backtracked 0.8 km (0.5 miles) and tried the road along the west edge of the field.  Getting to the corner was difficult due to holes dug by wild boar that recently filled with water.  Once again the road disappeared into flooded forest.  The road on the other side of the fence looked marginally better so I crossed the fence and started walking.

I soon came across large cat tracks.  Maybe a very large bobcat or a panther.  Since the rain washed everything clean 2 days ago, I knew the tracks were fresh.  I search for a club before continuing.

The water gradually became deeper until none of the road or surrounding area was above water.  That is when I saw a small 1 meter (3 foot) alligator swimming away from me ahead.  I found another large stick and continued.

I had hoped the ground would rise ahead, but I rounded a small curve and saw nothing but flooded forest.  Sigh.  No turning around, time to press on.  I came to a flooded fence corner where I perfected the delicate act of climbing over barbed wire fence while not injuring myself or dropping my pack into the water.  In this next section, where small sections were above water, I spooked two white tailed deer in separate locations, saw where a large alligator had crossed my path, startled several wild boar that were enjoying their wallow, and flushed a large group of turkeys.

I was so happy when a dry pasture finally loomed ahead.  I saw two dung beetles rolling a jaw-breaker size ball of dung across the cow path I was following.  They were going to dine like kings tonight!  I spooked my second flock of turkeys and then approached 40-50 beef cows.  A large Charolais bull stood about 10 meters (10 yards) away from my path along the fence.  The cows ran and bellowed, but the bull stood his ground.  I continued approaching (with my two sticks), but we both maintained our cool as I slowly walked by as the cows positioned the bull between them and me.

I thought my wildlife adventure was complete when I saw a very large wild sow with piglets and a couple friends heading across the field towards a grove of trees where I was also heading.  No way am I going to tangle with a mama and her babies in trees.  So I headed west around the boar and then continued north.

I left the pasture, and the wild boar behind, only to come across a very nice airstrip in the middle of nowhere.

At least I wasn't walking through swamps!  Shortly past the airstrip, which didn't really have an access road, I emerged along Route 74 and in a few minutes Dave and Subodh drove up after waiting for me to escape.  We drove east to pick up John, who was sitting at a bar, and then back to LaBelle to get Dan.

I'll sleep well tonight.

Flight summary is available on Leonardo.

Flights: 1, Duration: 1:10, Distance: 31 km

Friday, April 05, 2019


The day started slow and was predicted to end quickly with showers and thunderstorms.  We still managed short flights north to the Placid Lakes Airport.

George launched and flew away while others had short flights back to the towline.  I got a high tow, released almost at noon, climbed to base, and headed north.  Base was relatively low as I ventured into the "adventure country" we affectionately call the "triangle of doom".  I wasn't happy when I found myself low in the middle and without an obvious climb.  However, the universe smiled and provide the lift I needed to get up and away.

Approaching Palmdale north of the triangle, I spotted George approaching from the east.  We were briefly in the same area, but I kept moving on as he tanked up.

I cautiously watched a cumulus tower in front of me before it died and shaded the ground.  I tip-toed through that area and then pushed further west to avoid more ominous looking clouds directly north.  Those clouds, now east-northeast of me started dumping rain.  I kept pushing west around them until I noticed a cloud north of me was also looking too energetic.  Since my path was blocked to the north, I decided to land at the airport.

Airfield (right center)



Deciding to land was easy, getting down wasn't.  I searched for sink, then pulled big ears, and then started spiraling down.  Added to the show, was a yellow turbo-prop ag plane landing, refilling, and taking off.  It took persistent effort and a watchful eye to get safely on the ground.

I was packing on the mowed green lawn when I heard Dave on approach.  Hearing my comments about abundant lift, he went on glide assuming he would climb all the way in.  Unfortunately, he didn't and landed off the south end of the runway.

As I was checking the best route away from the airport, I heard John overhead.  Like me, he had problems avoiding lift.  In addition, a weak outflow from the showers to the east had swung the wind 90-degrees cross to the runway.  John landed like a pro and began packing as the showers from the north approached.

John and I were huddled under a tree when those showers arrived as a pickup pulled over and the driver started giving us grief.  Turned out the driver saw Dave huddled in the rain, picked him up, and came to rescue us.  Of course, Dave prompted him to hassle us.  Thanks Dave.  ;-)

Our new best friend, Todd, has a house/hanger on the field and invited us in to wait out the rain.  We talked about flying and all types of adventures.  We hung out there until Dan and Subodh showed up with the van.  After we said farewell to Todd, we jumped in and headed a north to pick up George who threaded the needle between the two showers and landed dry.

We drove back in pouring rain congratulating ourselves for making lemonade from a day that was such a lemon.

Flight details available on Leonardo.

Flights: 1, Duration: 2:12, Distance: 57 km