Making Space

From the morning’s hike, taken to clear my head in preparation for this writing session

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing. ~ Benjamin Franklin

On 3 August I saw a Facebook post by a friend stating simply: “Hey everyone! It’s been forever. After a long break, I feel like life is (a lot) better without Facebook in it, so I no longer intend to return. I’m not going to delete my account, but I don’t intend to log in either.”

That was all the nudge I needed to begin an experiment of my own. I did not imagine quite so extreme an initial play but decided to delete all social media apps from my phone, log out from them on all other devices, execute a ten day cold turkey period, then reassess.

The subsequent reflexive thumb twitch to bring up Facebook on my phone only to remember it had disappeared proved variously illustrative, entertaining, and disturbing. Cessation of this nervous twitch would require a few painful days. But lo — how much more tranquil, for instance, my aquatic routine became, as I proceeded from car, to pool, to hot tub, to shower, and then back to my car, all with nary an intrusion from the larger world. With this experience I could appreciate more fully the aforementioned friend’s out-of-band elaboration that “the social media trickle was just a constant background hum of attempted inducement to outrage, jealously, concern, and disappointed incredulity”.

Only a few weeks earlier I had had an interesting conversation with a pilot friend during which we unpacked my most recent paragliding brain-dump. Part of this write-up included a ten-point list of ways I had reformulated my approach to aviation with the goal of being a happier and safer pilot. From this list he noted that the second item, “more indifference to the progress of others”, causes him the most struggle. He further stipulated that this was quite ridiculous — he flies more than anyone he knows while living a nomadic life wherein he perpetually follows the best flying conditions from one region to another.

We talked about how the confluence of two things created the potential for frustration and disappointment in his fabulous life — firstly, paragliding is an extremely weather dependent sport, making it a fickle friend from day-to-day, and secondly, he has traveled to many paragliding locations and thereby curated a huge collected of geographically dispersed pilot friends, meaning that on any given day someone somewhere is having an amazing flight, leaving him fretting over whether his current geography is the optimal play when weather has him grounded.

In between these two interactions, and doubtless playing a role in the lead-up to yanking the plug, I was at the recommendation of a friend reading The Elephant In The Brain, the central theme of which is that nearly everything we do in life has a performative element. This stems inevitably from Homo sapiens being an organism simultaneously highly social, highly individualistic, and highly intelligent. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it is definitely a thing, and today’s social media giants represent merely the latest and most sophisticated attempt to yoke us with it. Elephant thus masterfully tied together many of the trends that of late had been fomenting in me an ever growing malaise with our hyper-connected reality.

Rewinding a bit, the pandemic exerted an extreme and weirding effect on my social media reality. In 2013 I attempted to use my Facebook account as an authentication method with AirBnb only to have their automated analysis assert that it was so little used as likely to be a fake. Facebook never held that much appeal to me and to the extent it did I imagine that living the SCIF-life from 2005-2016 did a lot to keep it at bay. After leaving the government, however, I suddenly found myself with my smartphone at my side at all times, the effects of which were gradual, subtle, and insidious. By the time the pandemic struck, a moment when I suddenly found myself cut off from everyone, social media was lying in wait. In the year-ish after the pandemic kicked off I must have used Facebook more than in the entire preceding ten years combined. It filled a vacuum that I never anticipated and knew not how to manage.

It admittedly did some wonderful things. It helped to rekindle connections with various friends with whom I had shared only the thinnest thread for a long time, facilitating Zoom calls with people who had largely faded into a hazy background over a period of disconnectedness spanning five, ten, even twenty five (!) years without a real-time interaction. This sustained me through a very dark period. I hope to hold onto these good parts.

Obnoxiously, though, it feels like these best parts are the most difficult to sustain. Far easier is to have the bite-sized transactions of Sharing and Liking a snippet of text or some carefully curated photos and videos. This has become increasingly evident as life has continually approached normalcy after getting vaccinated. After waking up to this reality I found myself incensed and wanting to fight back, to seize the best of what life has to offer instead of living in thrall to a trillion dollar company wielding weaponized machine learning to all our detriment. I found myself re-reading Flow and wanting to do everything I could to better find and protect that state of being. I don’t want to suffer the fate of George from Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron that our modern engineered society seems hellbent on inflicting on all of us.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

I remember really loving reading blogs in the 2000s — but eventually Twitter took the air out of them. I remember valuing the writing and reading emails at the office circa 2005-2016 — but chat applications such as Slack have almost completely supplanted email as a medium. I profoundly enjoyed Kuro5hin.org during its heyday, a place where you could regularly have wide-ranging conversations with a very diverse cast of characters — but now hyper-sophisticated engagement algorithms seem determined to feed me only the most potent brain crack from the content creators I am apt to find the most comfortingly agreeable or most outrageously disagreeable (and maybe also outrageously agreeable?).

These systems incentivize producers to dribble out content instead of synthesizing a high quality product, bombard consumers with an endless stream of alerts to trigger our pleasure pathways in a highly devious fashion, and increasingly connect producers and consumers in a manner that deprive us of interactions with people of adjacent thinking. Small wonder, then, that we continue the march toward being a hyper-polarized society, all the while suffering from extreme FOMO and frittering away our precious time.

How tragic that we should find ourselves in a normalcy-depriving pandemic just as the power of these digital drugs was peaking, calling to mind the discoveries of Rat Park, wherein we realized that the worst of addictive behavior stems from a lack of healthy social connection. And how deep must these grooves of habit now be after such a prolonged and contentious ordeal. And how lamentably quixotic and Sisyphean our fixation on misinformation and disinformation is when the whole ecosystem’s purpose of existence is to attract and retain eyeballs to be sold to advertisers. IT’S THE ALGORITHM, STUPID!

I could lament the lost era of dial-up Internet, dumb phones, and simple bulletin boards, but that would be fruitless. We will not be returning to that era and I cannot deny the value that our modern systems create. There are, nonetheless, approaches we can all take to safeguard our sanity, albeit approaches made all the more challenging by platforms such as Facebook penetrating the realms of Messaging and Groups (even if you’re not buying the advertised products you are still contributing to the stickiness of the platform just by being there).

I enjoy seeing what friends and family are doing via the conduit of Facebook. I just want to experience it on my own time and terms, this despite powerful entities wanting quite the opposite. To that end I feel that the foundations of a nuanced approach involve Activation Energy and Replacement Behaviors. A key approach with the former takes shape in mostly limiting my Facebook usage to a usually-powered-off virtual machine on my laptop, a place inaccessible to the nervous twitch of the thumb seeking out The Red Dot of an app promising entertainment and/or validation. The latter might include something like replacing a digital drenched morning routine with a highly choreographed one that progresses with such smoothness as to generate a Flow state, or having a highly targeted and thus very meaningful one-on-one interaction with a friend, or erecting a hard boundary between the production and consumption of content by variously writing a substantive blog entry or reading a long article in a physical magazine.

Happily, the more we work at this, the more the treadmill of social media seems to slow and the easier the whole affair becomes, and thus the return to a healthier way of being accelerates. Just think of all the weird and wonderful stuff you will do with the time you claw back from your phone.

One Line, Two Threads, Three Pearls

When I left government service five years ago my colleagues were kind enough to throw me a wonderful going away party. Most of the details now seem blurry but one stands out — toward the end of the evening someone asked me a simple question, namely “if you could offer junior software developers just one piece of advice, what would it be?”.

Not having a pre-canned answer at the ready I took a moment before finally proffering a reply — “Junior devs get pissed off with clients who don’t know what they want. The sooner they figure out that helping people discover the true requirements is central to their job the happier everyone will be.” One of the most wonderful (and terrible) things about software is its malleability. Treat the first version of a spec or a piece of code as nothing more than a conversation piece and have that conversation. People don’t know what they want until they feel it or something close to it. Help them on that journey.

Since then I have had opportunity to ruminate on whether that would still be my top piece of advice. It might be but I think it has stiff competition from what are at least its cohabitants in the top three.

In leaving the public sector for the private one I began developing a much more acute sense of the value of time, both in opportunity cost and return on investment. That had me formulating another of the top three — “Your job is not to write code. It’s certainly not to write perfect code. Your job is to deliver value to your customers. Your code is just a means to that end and we capture no value from it until it is in production. Every piece of code you choose to write represents a choice not to write an infinite number of alternatives. Every day a piece of code is not in production is a day we failed to capture a return on the investment of your time. Get your code to prod.”

There is a lot tangled up with that. You need an innate sense of what actually provides value to the business. You need to be able to reason about categories of risk, both the potential impact to the business and the difficulty of fault remediation. You need a well automated DevOps pipeline that keeps the transaction cost of deployment minimal. That’s too much to ask of a junior dev but we can at least encourage them to think in those terms, to ask knowledgeable folks to fill in the parameters, and to raise problems when they seem them. We must especially encourage them to raise problems despite not having a solution because a toxic “don’t come to me with problems; come to me with solutions” culture often marginalizes and alienates all but the most senior folks.

There is a third one but I will first digress into what triggered thoughts of it and its entanglement with the others while enjoying an afternoon swim today.

On Sunday morning I had a somewhat scary paragliding flight even though it proved wholly non-eventful as far as any casual external observer could tell. At the southside of Point Of The Mountain I ran through my customary checks, reverse-inflated, made sure all my lines looked good, spun forward, checked for clean Vs on the brake lines, kited for a bit, re-checked the brake lines , then launched.

Shortly after I took off I found that the aircraft of which I was part was singing to me. SINGING damn it. That offered a heretofore unprecedented experience which proved appropriately terrifying. I glanced around to ascertain the source and to my horror discovered that a buckle on my front-mounted reserve parachute container had snagged the right-side line of the speed system. “Fuck, oh dear,” I thought, “I have had enough low-altitude asymmetric deflations for one lifetime already THANK YOU VERY MUCH”, and began to fiddle with the trapped line but struggled as it appeared to be quite snagged and under a non-trivial amount of pressure. After some amount of time spent unsuccessfully resolving the SNAFU I found a portion of my brain screaming “FLY WHAT YOU GOT” and resigned myself to completing the flight with this liability in place. I vectored myself for the shortest possible flight, put myself extra at the ready with brake on the compromised side, delayed lowering my landing gear (legs) until the last possible moment to minimize any potentially incident producing perturbations while still at altitude, and blessedly touched down without drama.

Faaaahhhhhhhk

This brings me to the final piece of advice for junior (really, all) devs: “always be running two threads — the one that is actively solving the problem at hand and the one that is monitoring the progress of the former and has the privileges to interrupt it if reasonable progress is not occurring”. In engineering, Task Fixation may well kill productivity. In aviation, a far crueler master, Task Fixation may well kill you. In both we are prone to allow ego and mono-mania to cause a sustained laser focus on a specific problem (which may no longer be the highest priority) and a specific approach (which may not even be the right one). How vexing that we can’t fix this thing! What a blow to our self-image! And how much time and energy we have spent on this path! Yes, sure, maddening indeed, but don’t be a stubborn fool and ride it into the ground. Accept, pivot, and prevail.

Lastly, I find myself reflecting on something I prize in my reality — a highly connected life. For reasons not entirely clear I have tumbled down the life path of a generalist. I take joy in many things but generally lack a sustained obsession with any one thing. I am perhaps a nomad at heart, not because I wholly lose interest in things, but rather because I want to find new things that I can weave into a larger fabric where the sum offers a greater result than the individual parts alone would imply.

Paragliding represents perhaps the latest in that long tradition. Yes — it offers an intense state of Flow very reliably and upon occasion unparalleled joy. But — it also serves, because the potential consequences are so extreme, as a hyper-distilled version of the challenges I face in so many other arenas of life, spanning risk management, task prioritization, attention splitting, ambiguity navigation, procedure development, discipline sustainment, disaster preparedness, continual learning, extreme empathy, and true humility. I would do well to bring that newfound heightened awareness to every other aspect of my life.

Snag line once, shame on you. Snag line twice, shame on me.

Quiet Power

The USG probably ought have planned to stay in Afghanistan either for eighteen months or fifty years, the level of commitment of either a smash-and-grab or the rebuilding of post-war Germany and Japan, and acted accordingly. For want of time travel capability, however, the present administration had to choose from a different set of options and elected for a total withdrawal at the twenty year mark. Perhaps from this vantage something along those lines offered the least terrible outcome but it’s hard to say — the USG’s troop deployment and dollar costs were way down from the peak but Afghan civilian casualties have proven consistently awful for a long time.

Table that choice for a moment, however, and consider how we might have navigated the present circumstances under the auspices of an unavoidable total withdrawal in 2021. Within that narrowed context many choices still remained.

I find myself reflecting on the conflict last summer between Columbus’s Police Department and Black Lives Matters demonstrators…

On May 30th, the Saturday after George Floyd’s grisly killing, protesters gathered and the city police adopted an extremely aggressive stance. The latter’s non-nuanced engagement essentially guaranteed conflict by placing heavily armored shock troops at the frontlines. An entirely predictable calamity ensued.

The next day, however, cooler heads seemed to prevail. Riot cops and national guard soldiers took up position in the city. These heavily armored contingents, however, waited in the wings, while unarmored and cordial police had peaceful interactions with protesters and limited their work to directing traffic. It was, if just briefly, like night and day.

The present withdrawal from Afghanistan offered similar challenges along with analogous opportunities to take a robust and nuanced approach — the Afghan government fretted over how an aggressive preemptive evacuation would foment a self-fulfilling prophesy while USG intelligence agencies suggested a range of potential scenarios about the Taliban’s capacity to overrun the country. How to deal with with such ambiguity and risk of inadvertent tampering? Pre-provision capacity for contingencies and manage it quietly while simultaneously executing changes so incremental as to be imperceptible.

Sadly we took an entirely opposite approach. We abandoned the Bagram Airfield so abruptly and unceremoniously as to foment a crushing collapse in morale of Afghan forces. We then assumed an adequately large probability mass for the scenarios of the Taliban taking at least several months to overrun Kabul. Given the high stakes we clearly acted with criminal incompetence, accepting unreasonably high odds of placing ourselves in an horrific and entirely preventable situation. US service personnel and Afghan civilians alike find themselves in appalling and sometimes fatal circumstances. We are begging commercial airlines for last minute support. As we scurry to the exit the Taliban’s grip will become complete. Senseless, shameful, atrocious…

How woefully often we sacrifice robustness and humanity on the alter of efficiency and convenience, foolishly trying to wring every possible advantage by behaving recklessly optimistically, guaranteeing that in the fullness of time countless people will pay a terrible price for our failure to maintain slack in our systems…

Four Layers

On Friday I decided to brave the 93F desert heat, took my rifle to the range, and, having recently gotten my kit’s configuration and my basic skills to a level where such ambition would not feel like a total waste of ammunition, opted for the 200 yard lane for the first time. Working through a 20 round box of ammo I had a frustrating start, then managed a tolerably good run in the middle, then lost then plot at the end. This higher order pattern feels familiar, timeless, and universal.

On Saturday I made a late decision to join a group of pilots heading to The V for some evening paragliding. When we arrived at the Centerville Junior High rally point the wind was cracking. Shortly after getting out of the car a C-130 buzzed the LZ on its way to the fire in Parley’s Canyon that had erupted a few hours prior. We nonetheless opted to drive up to launch on the thought that we should at least give the out-of-town pilots a site intro even if there was no flying to be had. The wind attenuated as the evening wore on but stayed northerly and was highly variable, making for a high-commitment north-facing launch in unpredictable conditions, a recipe for ending up in trees if you botch it. C-130s continued to lumber through the area with some regularity, some on a path of no consequence unless you went thermaling, others on a trajectory that scared me about the possibility of being on final glide to the LZ while over rooftops only to be boxed out by lingering wake turbulence. I made my first ever decision to NOT fly having invested several hours to go to a remote site.

Today I find myself reflecting on the several layers of competence that have become unconscious where I am already an expert but that are a visceral struggle elsewhere:

  1. Do I have the ability to perform this task well at all?
  2. Do I have the focus and stamina to perform this task well in this moment?
  3. Do I have the awareness when degradations to (2) have compromised performance?
  4. Do I understand the risks in a given moment if I come up short on any of the former?

One of the watershed moments as a budding programmer involved learning to recognize when the best play was simply to quit and either take the time for a meal or go to sleep. Another big milestone that came much later centered on thinking in terms of of Photons, Electrons, Atoms, and Meat — essentially a hierarchy of consequentiality and reversibility of mistakes that underpins a risk-to-reward calculus. These are the tools of experts navigating high pressure and high consequence situations. Software in particular can be thorny in this regard as one day it’s Photons and maybe the next day it’s Meat.

With riflery I very much inhabit a toddler state. On a good day and with easy conditions I can do passably well — such as the previous week when I was still on the 100 yard range, the temperature was mild, the wind was light, my gear situation was in order, etc. On a marginal day matters prove disproportionately a struggle — such as on Friday when I set up on the 200 yard range, realized I forgot my spotting scope’s tripod, adjusted for the distance difference by turning the elevation turret in the wrong direction at first, found myself dealing with a strong and intermittent cross-wind, the mental strain of a new situation was taxing, and the 93F heat was wearing me down. Fortunately slinging lead at paper targets is a Photon level affair unless you’re being really reckless and stupid.

With paragliding I inhabit that particularly dangerous Intermediate state. With paragliding you are navigating a Meat situation every time you strap into a wing. More complicating still — your physiological state can exert huge effects on both your reaction time and your Aeronautical Decision Making. And even worse — making tactical use of your brain to assess the tactical efficacy of your brain represents the worst of potential Second Order Incompetence risks. These facets in concert imply huge error bars and in turn argue for huge margins if you are to treat safety as a priority in an attempt to stay safe while staying in the sport. They also argue for maintaining static thresholds for decision making, such as a floor on how little sleep you’ve had before you automatically cancel flying plans or a number of mistakes/oddities you encounter before you say “this is stupid; I’m out for today”. For my experience at The V yesterday I was good on the former but alarmed by the latter — the wind was much stronger than my previous five flights at the site, as the wind attenuated overall it still remained unsettlingly variable, the wind orientation demanded a north-facing launch which was both higher risk and non-familiar, and large cargo aircraft flying at high volume and low altitude to deal with a regional emergency was waaaaay outside of the norm. It was a painful decision, but I think the right one, and I have substantial respect for the other pilot who made a no-fly decision despite their being a non-local and it being their first time at the site.

Sometimes it feels like Systems Integration is the theme that runs through all my life, and other days it is Risk Management, but always I find value in a Recurring Babyhood that forces me to remember the meta problems that we all face in navigating a new body of knowledge or helping others do the same.

Grocery Delivery

Various facets of my being hold divergent opinions on grocery delivery:

  1. The Manager loves its labor saving properties
  2. The Epidemiologist appreciates the reduction in contact
  3. The Environmentalist frets over waste
  4. The Ethicist fears disconnectedness
  5. The Chef shakes his head at the quality of results
  6. The Explorer wants for inspiration and serendipity
  7. The Data Engineer recoils in horror at the range of failure scenarios

I tried grocery delivery ~5 years ago and it proved a short-lived experiment — the results disappointed mightily and the delivery area contracted to exclude me. Then we kicked off the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 so I tried it again with Whole Foods through Prime Now and the result was… less terrible, if still some combination of disappointing, vexing, and horrifying.

Eventual Consistency is the lazy Data Engineer’s best friend but boy how can it make for an awful end user experience. As I recently began tallying all the ways grocery delivery could go wrong this source of pain stood out. Clearly, though, there were others, not the least of which involve a workflow spanning multiple humans across large time windows as well as a “warehouse” that the general public is continually ravaging. The following list represents only the failures I can remember:

  1. Item presented during list build-out is not presently available
  2. Item included in list at checkout is not presently available
  3. Delivery window advertised during list build is not available at checkout
  4. Item included in completed order is not available at picking time
  5. Picked item is wrong, deformed, spoiled, expired, damaged
  6. Picked instances of a kind of item are of problematically non-uniform size
  7. Picked instances of a produce item are not of successive ripening times
  8. Picker fails to register a bag as part of shipment
  9. Delivery agent fails to onboard one of the bags to delivery vehicle
  10. Item suffers damage or spoils in transit
  11. Delivery agent fails to off-board one of the bags from vehicle
  12. Delivery occurs outside target window, exposing goods to theft and spoilage

And never you mind my growing alarm at the horrific packaging footprint or my woeful tendency to fall into a repertoire rut.

In fairness, over time the experience improved in many ways — they figured out clever techniques to prevent some of the more egregious workflow errors and they iterated on the packaging to make it far more recyclable. The eventual consistency of the architecture and the non-investedness of the agents, however, continue to offer disappointing quality, the lack of my presence in the store deprives me of inspiration, and the idea of someone making a drive to my remote-ish home just to drop some groceries feels wasteful.

With a couple of Pfizer jabs well in the rearview mirror, a Whole Foods conveniently located on my return from the rifle range, and a desire to do better across the board, I just might be done with grocery delivery barring the occasional emergency.

Yesterday, after a semi-successful first attempt at upping my game from 100 yards to 200 yards, I stopped off at Whole Foods to leisurely stroll the aisles looking for both staples and inspiration while savoring the contrast of the refreshingly cool air with the oppressive 93F at the range. Along the way my gaze lingered on some crab and I thought “omelette”. When acquiring some Yukon golds for upcoming scalloped potatoes I carefully selected ones of appropriate and similar size. At checkout I handed over four reusable insulated bags that accommodated everything. I had forgotten what a Flow state one can experience while exploring a good grocery store in the right state of mind.

And yet, if we are being honest, grocery stores themselves pose their own sort of problem by offering a tidy and pleasing abstraction layer for the messy business of food production. To the undiscerning eye the pasture raised and factory farmed animal products look much the same. The water hungry produce grown in drought prone regions and harvested in harsh and sketchy labor arrangements seem innocuous enough. The roll up of production into an ever smaller number of margin conscious conglomerates continues apace as the appetite of a voracious and ingenious species grows without bound.

And yet, compared to nascent alternatives, such a place still offers an opportunity for evolving experiences and greater awareness. I shudder at the prospect of a food ecosystem overrun by fully roboticized ghost kitchens — an accelerating arrangement where we no longer gather in communal spaces to break bread, a complex web of loosely connected processes obscures the origins of our nourishment, the trash and transportation footprint becomes enormous, and a prioritization of mass producibility obliterates creativity, variety, and quality.

I get it — we collectively have wildly varying predilections toward the culinary arts, appreciation for food itself, and resources to invest. But with the sudden shock of pervasive remote work and the increasing mechanization of the entire food ecosystem we seem perched on the precipice of losing a key component of our social fabric.

Paragliding Days 101 Through 114, or… An Exercise In Recalibration

One week ago I flew a double-session that in some respects represented the most positive aviation experience I had enjoyed in months. In the morning I headed to POTM’s Southside, found conditions supportive of a gentle sledder, geared up to a degree excessive for the anticipated flight but useful for routinization of procedures in more complex circumstances, had a smooth launch and uneventful flight, and then eschewed a return-ride to the top in favor of an invigorating hike. In the evening I went to The V, had a nice launch, got too fixated on tracking to thermal triggers, allowed this lack of situational awareness to create marginal circumstances for reaching the main LZ, made the relatively conservative yet absolutely fraught decision to land on the fire road, managed the situation of a cross-wind landing in a messy LZ competently, and then had a sweltering hike down to a location whence I could summon an Uber.

After that SS morning I found myself reflecting that this had proved the first flying experience in months where I was not scared. I just showed up, did my thing, and felt competent, safe, and in control through the whole process. Patience, persistence, and diligence were gradually paying off.

During the V evening I got myself into a gnarly situation but, realizing my peril, managed every subsequent step calmly and competently. I heard “that’s a bold move, buddy” from Joey Jarrell over the radio, realized I had suffered task fixation to the detriment of total situational awareness, went into problem solving mode, acted strategically on prior anecdotes from other pilots landing on the fire road, and then made it to a fairly optimal touchdown location. I was angry at myself for getting into a bind but also happy I had the ADM and tactical technique to muddle through.

A couple of quotes from the How To Recover From Frightening Experiences section of Gavin McClurg’s recently released Advanced Paragliding book resonate.

Fear comes from the unknown. If we can analyze what happened and understand the process that led to the accident or incident, the fear goes away and understanding takes its place. To reduce fear, we need to understand. ~ Veso Ovcharov

I think you have to be really honest with yourself and accept the fact that it will take time. … We have to live with the fact that paragliding is dangerous. Sometimes you get unlucky. We have to either accept that risk or go home. I decided I have to accept it. ~ Tom Do Dorlodot

I had been doing a lot of analysis and drilling to sort through the former since my Spring mishap — diagnosis and focused training with Chris Santacroce, SIV with Brad Gunnuscio, supervised flight with Ben White, boatloads of ground handling, as well as serious thinking about my gear, training, body morphology, personal psychology, etc. Nonetheless my amygdala doubtless needed lots of the latter — time and positive experiences — to get past the recency bias we all experience.

And yet recency bias, almost by definition, offers a double edged sword — recent smooth and joyful patches leave us just as over-confident as terrifying misadventures render us unduly timid (woe betide the new pilot yet to experience their first ordeal). I don’t doubt the relevance of this in my fire road landing at The V. Two days prior, likely owing to the smoke cover of nearby forest fires, I had had a preposterously mellow flight there with Andrew Ross and Alex Bogner. The morning prior I experienced a super chill Southside session. And then maybe I got over-confident. On my first ever V flight I was hyper-fixated on being absolutely sure I would make the main LZ, the subsequent two V flights doubtless built complacency, on the fourth one I got myself into a pickle, and on my fifth one a couple days ago I was once again hyper-vigilant about making the main LZ (which was exciting enough because substantially thermic conditions made the LZ feel much smaller than any previous landing). I should have been roughly equally concerned with every flight but damn our monkey brains.

As I zoom out to look at how I’m approaching the sport differently, a few areas emerge:

  1. greater conservatism about the conditions in which I fly
  2. more indifference to the progress of others
  3. improved exposure to serendipitous mentorship opportunities
  4. more skeptical assimilation of the advice of others
  5. bigger focus on drilling versus flying
  6. increased emphasis on understanding weather
  7. versatility of equipment for varying conditions (now 37m, 25m, and 14m wings)
  8. rigorous change control of variables (waited for SS flight to first fly new harness)
  9. enhanced appreciation for being a multi-sport athlete with no urgency to fly
  10. more liberal “permission” not to fly if I’m just not feeling it in that moment

There are people who started flying around the time I did who have progressed to a level I’ll be lucky to match in five years. That’s OK.

I’ve missed a bunch of flyable moments because I was perhaps playing it a little too safe. That’s OK.

I’ve cultivated a habit of asking myself a simple question before every flight — “Do I want to risk the next several decades of flying and everything else I love on this one flight?”

We all come to launch with a wildly different collection of parameters:

  1. Innate personality
  2. Accumulated experiences
  3. Body morphology
  4. Historical injuries/ailments
  5. Athletic conditioning
  6. Life priorities
  7. Perception of risk
  8. Tolerance of risk
  9. Momentary distractions
  10. Financial resources
  11. External obligations
  12. Social network
  13. Living setup
  14. ???

How wise would it be to compare yourself to others in such a high-stakes sport when so many variables govern your experiences? This game is a risk management pressure cooker like few others. Don’t take that lightly.

You have your whole life to fly. Ensuring that that life is not unduly disrupted or truncated is left as an exercise to the reader.

Recurring Babyhood

I have been navigating the software development game in some fashion for a quarter of a century and gotten passably good at it. I can probably reasonably claim to inhabit the unconscious competence quadrant by now. That station has its perks but also its liabilities.

I have been muddling through learning to paraglide for two thirds of a year. On a good day I feel like across various skill categories I inhabit a blend of conscious incompetence and conscious competence. On a bad day I may receive a brutal reminder of where I inhabit the unconscious incompetence quadrant. The latter occurs with regrettable frequency.

Success yields comfort and familiarity which in turn breeds complacency and callousness. As we navigate life, and if we are lucky enough to experience success, the natural gravity well takes us from an exploration phase to an exploitation phase. Very easily this may land us on a plateau where we leisurely spend the rest of our lives. There lies the road to mediocrity and cruelty.

To continue the climb we must forgo that comfort and deliberately place ourselves into contexts where we may again live as a baby. Those circumstances will humiliate, frustrate, disorient, and weary us. They will also keep us sharp, build a broader skillset, and foster empathy and patience.

When I experience my fuck-ups in the paragliding reality, the community proves generally empathic, supportive, and patient, but some folks will act with indifference or callousness. What a great reminder this provides of the risks and opportunities in contexts where I am the expert.

When I breeze through software development tasks and have to help others who are struggling, meanwhile, what a great reminder this proves of what is possible in contexts where I am the baby with persistent application of effort and also of what huge efforts one must apply over long years to get there.

My patience with less experienced developers and my own paragliding ineptitude becomes that much more natural if I remember that some of the aerobatic ninjas around me have been at the flying game as long as I have been at the software development game and some of the engineers around me have scarcely been cutting code as long as I have been flying.

Oh that we might spend our whole lives repeatedly finding a way to be a baby again. What a more pleasant and wondrous world we might thus inhabit. Ego is the enemy and a regular ass-kicking keeps it in check.

Paragliding Days 83 Through 100, or… Back From The Dirt

The past two weeks have seen multiple milestones in my paragliding epic.

A couple of weeks ago I had an awesome time partaking of my first SIV training with Brad Gunnuscio…

… during which I should note that James Lewis’ expert captaining of the tow-boat saved my ass on at least a couple of marginal launches…

On Thursday I experienced my first mountain flying at The V with an excellent site intro by Joey Jarrell…

… and just yesterday my log reached its 100th day. Nonetheless I would be remiss not to mention that this bright spot comes after a very dark and difficult period in my paragliding journey, the echoes of which still prove a challenge every time I strap into my gear.

On 22 March I suffered a low altitude asymmetric deflation while ridge soaring an eastward track toward the East end of the Southside of POTM. The causes may have been manifold: wind intensity stronger than the bulk of my experience, wind direction suddenly shifting from SSE to SE causing a gully to begin throwing off nasty rotor, the down portion of a thermal adding pressure to the top of my wing, a nearby pilot doing aggressive wingovers generating problematic wake turbulence, insufficient nuance and/or attentiveness to brake pressure, inadequate appreciation for the evolving conditions during a long and very enjoyable flight.

With the right/outside half of my wing gone I experienced an initial wobble followed by a violent 180+ degree rightward turn presumably owing to an under-correction that sent me spiraling toward the hill. I leaned left and pulled hard to avoid impact, but doubtless far too much, now proceeding to over-correction and whipping 180+ degrees leftward, a combination of my penduluming body and a surging wing creating the terrifying arrangement of my wing being fully ninety degrees in front of me. I brake-checked like my life depended on it only to have the rising curtain reveal that I was now hurtling toward the nearside berm of the gully. Some part of my brain screamed that it wanted to throw the reserve parachute but another part knew this would be fruitless defeatism and so I instead leaned and pulled hard to the right. I avoided a full-speed/bad-angle impact with the berm by just a few feet and immediately flew to the bottom.

You might say that I was lucky to get away unscathed, and in one sense you would be right, but only in the physical one. This terrifying experience doubtless had a profound psychological impact on me and my subsequent flying. I found myself living in constant fear of catastrophic deflation. With hindsight I can say with clarity that I was over-correcting. With hindsight I can see that my problems with over-correction are fractal.

The day after this scare, at Janica’s suggestion, I signed up for the September session of Cody Mittanck’s SIV course in which she had recently enrolled, and convinced Joe Hastings to do same. September seemed like an eternity to wait for this plus-up in safety, however, so when Joey Jarrell mentioned that Brad Gunnuscio had opened up a May session for his SIV course I jumped on that as well. Sadly even that would not prove soon enough.

On the morning of 10 April around 0930, again ridge soaring at Southside with maybe ~25-50 feet of altitude above hilltop, this time on a westward track toward the far west end, I was hit by a strong updraft. Instead of giving the wing what it wanted I had a fear response that led to premature and excessive brake input. I heard an explosive crinkling and looked up to see a wing that was already progressing from stall to independent spin.

Throughout my whole life I have always experienced “time warp” during high pressure situations where milliseconds count. In this case, however, my personal memory between incident initiation on a westward track and the moment before ground strike on an eastward track is blank, as is my memory between ground strike and finishing a violent tumble. I am left to piece together what happened by interpolating between the points I do remember and integrating various third party accounts (thanks, Austin Shultz, for recording and later sharing your notes on what you saw).

As best I can fathom — the wing stalls, some residual/asymmetric brake pressure causes it spin toward the hill, I am momentarily in free fall still on a westward track, I go hands-up and the wing re-inflates facing eastward, I am in back-fly with a riser half-twist the unwinding of which has my body rotate toward the hill, the wing surges in a way I fail to adequately check owing either to the riser twist or extreme disorientation, and as my last act I blessedly somehow find a way to tumble versus pancake on impact so the energy can dissipate relatively gradually. I remember getting up with just enough presence of mind to know that I urgently needed to reel in lines to prevent involuntary re-launch but then I “teleported” to sitting in a sheriff’s truck waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

Doubtless this teleportation was greatly aided by Mark Malouin beelining to me and Jordan Porter simultaneously sprinting to my wing. Depowering your wing in strong wind with a head injury near a cliff is not a game you want to play if instead you can have friends short-circuit that tenuous affair. Do yourself a favor and never fly alone.

Enroute to IMC’s trauma clinic by ambulance, strapped to a gurney and stabilized with a cervical collar, an EMT commended me for my excellent choice in helmet if not my choice in hobbies. “MIPS”, he said, giving me a thumbs up. It certainly it earned its keep that day.

“Sweet beard, man”, remarked one of the people getting me into the CT scanner. I can guess at who keyed in my pseudonym upon arrival.

Lying in a hospital bed, still waiting for radiology to clear the removal of the C-collar, I looked at my phone and found a message from Ben White asking me how I was doing. “I guess I am some combination of lucky and durable”, I replied, noting that a full body’s worth of CT scans had failed to find any notable issues apart from the slings and arrows of earlier outrageous fate. Shortly before my discharge, after a quick visit of just three hours, one of the attending doctors expressed astonishment at how relatively unscathed I was given what I had endured, remarking that I was probably the most intact paraglider who had ever paid the clinic a visit. Apart from an unreasonable amount of luck perhaps the rest of the credit goes to performing hundreds (or is it thousands?) of semi-controlled falls as a passable soccer goalie and a mediocre skier as well as always sporting a fully-integrated certified-organic cervical collar purchased with regular deadlifts, shoulder shrugs, and pull-ups.

At around 1330 I got out of the hospital bed, dressed, ambled outside, and called myself an Uber home. In the Uber I had all the windows rolled down which made for a deafening highway drive. As we got off the highway the driver asked why I had wanted all the windows down and I told him, fully aware of the irony, that I was a couple weeks out from my second Pfizer shot. After thirteen months of being incredibly fastidious about social distancing I went and crashed a paraglider and thus had an ambulance ride, my first After Times medical visit, and my first After Times Uber ride, all just weeks before the vaccination finish line. FAIL.

Not one for being particular empathic, later that evening my Apple Watch chided me for a lackluster day on my Exercise and Move goals. Fuck you, Apple Watch, I’M HAVING A MOMENT HERE.

The next morning Chris Santacroce reached out saying that he had just heard about my accident, was relieved I was OK, and wanted to follow up with me when I was ready. We would speak briefly on the phone a few days later. During this subsequent chat he mentioned his own accident from over a decade ago, remarked on how I was at the beginning of a multi-layered process, and offered to help me navigate it, the latter being something on which he has since delivered in spades and for which I will be permanently deeply grateful. Over time this has included a journaling exercise to begin the reflection process, a subsequent long session at SuperFly to unpack and analyze the event and its run-up, and a bunch of opportunistic supervision at the hill to assess and work on related technique issues. Getting to work with Chris has been one of the unexpected silver linings of my horrifying mishap.

The weeks subsequent to my accident proved extremely difficult. I was grateful to have gotten off so lightly, but in addition to a sore upper back and lower neck I did have a mild concussion that needed protecting, so I found myself abruptly transitioned from a multi-sport daily regimen to being woefully sedentary and focused entirely on work. The support of various pilots/instructors/friends was key to muddling through this period. Jeremy Pottenger, as with my March scare, reached out immediately to offer support, no stranger himself to paragliding ordeals. Joe Hastings and Ben White were regular sounding boards. Janica linked me up with a long and much appreciated phone call with an instructor, Greg Kelley, who happened to be renting a room from her around the time of my accident. Joey Jarrell hung out, talked at length, and loaned me a wing he wanted me to use for kiting practice.

About three weeks out from my crash, and one week out from my second Pfizer shot, I figured it was as good a time as any to get back to climbing, acquired a Momentum membership, and began some extremely cautious indoor bouldering. This provided not just a much overdue release of pent up energy but also a palpable reminder of how many non-flying activities I love that can be dashed in a moment as the result of bad luck, bad judgment, bad technique, or more likely than not a combination of all three.

About four weeks out from my crash I finally cautiously poked my wingtips in the air. The first four sessions were deliberately a kiting-only affair — a POTM Northside evening on 5/5, a Galena Park evening on 5/6, and then two more Northside evenings on 5/11 and 5/12. In the middle of this, on Friday 5/7, I had the aforementioned “unpack” session with Chris. Among many valuable insights were the ones that we are all on a brake pressure journey, my next scare could be a whole other class of journey (e.g. conditions, maneuvers, etc.), I need to damp my oscillations in approach because every flight is different, I need to find a better balance of conscious and intuitive understanding, and generally I need to make things flow better by cultivating softer arms that are always giving the glider what it wants.

By the fourth kiting-only outing I was starting to feel an urgency to fly again coincident with an extreme trepidation thereof. My upcoming SIV with Brad was scheduled for the 20th, and I felt that a successful experience there was critical for my having a successful return to flight, but I really did not want to have my first return flight be a tow-launch to intense maneuvers. And so, on the evening of the 12th, I went to bed praying that the forecast of a smooth Southside morning would hold.

I woke up to an early alarm on the 13th in the hopes of a close-to-dawn flight that would provide the simplest and safest experience possible, found promising conditions in the current report, worked my way through the morning routine, was at the hill by 0700, and was ready to launch by 0715. I had not been this anxious about a flight off the top of Southside since my first one back in October. Ben happened to be out with some of his current students and as I edged resolutely toward the lip I heard his voice come reassuringly through the radio indicating that he would be watching over me.

The launch was smooth, the air was boosty but consistent, and I found myself quickly above launch height, using the generous lift to maintain huge margins by staying waaaaaay out front compared to what I might previously have done. I performed a few ridge soaring circuits before deciding that I had had enough after ~15 minutes. The whole flight was smooth and sensible, my descent well calibrated, and the landing gentle. I would be remiss, however, not to mention that every time the wing made the slightest crinkling sound I would have to bite down hard on a rising panic, never mind that it was just doing something I had handled countless previous times without incident. Throughout the whole flight I found myself repeatedly mouthing Chris’s mantras of “soft arms” and “give the glider what it wants”. After my flight I managed to catch a ride back to the top from Jordan who, having been one of my first responders, noted that he had been imagining that he would likely never see me at the hill again and was happy to be proven wrong.

There would be more action prior to SIV — a couple of Southside sledders the morning of the 14th, a long Northside kiting session on the evening of the 15th, and some uphill kiting work to a side-hill Southside launch on the morning of the 18th followed my a Northside kiting session in the evening — but the most psychologically important thing was that initial breaking of a nearly five week flying dry spell.

On the 19th I was a basket of nerves in anticipation of beginning SIV training. We had ground school on the 20th, after which I felt pretty good, but the 21st ended up being a weather day during which I returned to a state of extreme anxiety. I had shared with Brad everything that had happened to me recently, and he was amply empathic and thoughtful, but nonetheless by the time I was on-deck for my first tow-up I was fighting down dry heaves.

My first launch was clean but the actual tow-up was an ordeal as I could not seem to find my stirrup to get properly seated. I struggled to maintain a good heading for the tow while distracted by the diverse challenges of expanding my lungs and not crushing my testicles. Blessedly I managed to wriggle myself fully into a seated position just as the tow was ending and the maneuvers were to begin. And then it was off to the races practicing asymmetric deflations.

And, oh, what a wonderful thing it is to practice navigating your wing through wacky misconfigurations in the controlled context of being over water with a rescue boat nearby and a master instructor on radio watching you like a hawk. I dearly wish that my first experience with an asymmetric deflation had been in this rigorously controlled environment versus 100′ over hard ground with nobody to guide me.

How different might the preceding two months have thus been? Hard to say… Maybe that would just have postponed a reckoning with my relationship to flying? In my first post-accident chat with Chris he posited that nearly everyone who is to have a long and happy relationship with paragliding will at some point have had an experience as terrifying as mine. Sometimes it comes within the first year, sometimes it takes a couple of decades, but generally it is a necessary ingredient in calibrating one’s risk management to something sustainable.

Doing this SIV course was probably the highest adrenaline experience of my whole life but after my first tow-up I converted from hyper-anxious to hyper-focused. The anticipation of the unknown was the only truly scary part of the affair. Everything after that offered an amazing state of flow in the moment that in turn has provided me a much needed boost to my confidence. Although the nose-down spirals and asymmetric spirals were certainly the most thrilling moments of the course, when Ben later asked me what was my favorite part of the course, my answer was not those but rather “executing a smooth-as-butter 360 turn with full speed-bar while holding in an asymmetric deflation”. I’m not looking to be a dare devil but damn does it feel good to have a toolbox full of techniques to deal with the occasional calamity. How great is it to know that you can still be the master of your destiny even when half your wing is gone? I am incredibly grateful to Brad for playing this key role in salvaging my self-confidence as a pilot.

This sport will always throw some wrench at you but if you can keep calm, keep current, keep practicing, keep getting mentored, and listen to your gut then hopefully you will find a way to muddle through.

I had a scary bush-grazing launch experience at the Northside on the evening of the 27th after a long kiting session, my first post-SIV flight no less, but some combination of prior experience and practice made it a non-event — being sure to keep my feet up to avoid a hard snag, having soft arms that gently searched for just the right brake pressure to clear the obstacle, and delicately weight-shifting to counter an undesirable rotation.

On the morning of the 28th I had one of those everything-goes-wrong kind of days — wind gets a little too strong just as I arrive at the Southside, I go to my roof box for a smaller wing but realize I left the key at home, I drive to the bottom for side-hill practice but realize I’ve lost the buckle to my helmet strap, after I procure a loaner helmet and start uphill kiting the wind keeps getting too weak just in advance of my position, I start to get so frustrated I begin to curse — and then I made great decision, namely to do the annoying hike down the hill instead of trying for a sledder and then to just go home. Persistence is my double-edged sword, and three-months-earlier-Andrew likely would not have packed it up like this, but maybe today-Andrew is just that little bit smarter about avoiding hairy situations.

Over the next few days there was LOTS more kiting and only three little Southside sledders. One of the outcomes of my recent traumas has been a happiness to spend a lot more time kiting. And one of my happiest memories from this little slice was getting smacked hard by a gust during an evening’s NS kiting, being plucked and dropped on my butt quite rapidly, finding myself momentarily being dragged toward the cars, but calibrating just the right toggle inputs that I could gently coax the wing back to an overhead position that allowed me to progress smoothly from my tailbone, to a knee, and then back to my feet. The March version of myself would not have had the finesse to do that.

I should also note that I had another unsettling (but again uneventful) bush-grazing Northside launch the evening of the 6/2, the day before I was intro’d to The V, one consequence of which was that I was dead sure I was NOT going to attempt The V’s north-facing launch which is a high-commitment hope-you-clear-the-bushes affair. If you’re struggling with something in particular, then best to avoid high-consequence situations that hinge on it, instead finding contrived and safe ways to work through the challenge. Hope is never a good strategy but it is an exceptionally stupid one when flying.

And thus we arrive at the present day where I am incredibly grateful to have ultimately managed such an optimistic story arc. The fact that I could come back from such crushing adversity says a lot about the quality of our little community. I have benefited hugely from this support network and hope fervently that I can in time find adequate ways to pay it forward.

I am nonetheless struggling to ascertain the key parameters that led to my experience — What was unique about my situation? What was just plain bad luck? What drove me to certain bad outcomes? What somehow blessedly made all my trials relatively cheap lessons? What can I do differently going forward to have a more mellow paragliding experience? What can other newcomers do to avoid the drama I experienced?

The first thing that someone will realize about me is that I am an outlier physically, substantially from the general population, and extremely from the paraglider population, weighing in at 300lbs and standing at 6’6″. Firstly, this creates challenges around finding gear — finding a harness that fits me nicely is tough and the wings suited to me are tandems where I roughly inhabit the midpoint of a huge weight range. Secondly, this has doubtless governed my collection of experiences — all sports have elements of finesse, but perhaps several of the ones I have done over the years entail a certain brutishness, ranging from being an indoor soccer goalie, to doing martial arts, to wrestling, and maybe that renders me prone to fighting the wing instead of flowing with it.

Another salient detail about myself is that I am hyper-analytic. This is extremely valuable for developing a conscious understanding of a subject but perhaps slows the transition between the “conscious competence” and “unconscious competence” quadrants which is perhaps severely punished in a problem space as fluid, varied, fast-paced, and high-consequence as flying. It probably also plays into challenges around fixation on details and over-compensation in the wake of adverse events.

And then there is the determination thing… Am I admirably persistent or willfully stubborn? That varies from moment to moment, and depends on who you ask, and ascertaining the difference continues to be a life-long project. To have a long, happy, fruitful life flying the key doubtless is to be persistent over time and unwavering in emergencies and yet perfectly willing to pack it up when a specific situation feels off.

And what of things that could happen to any novice pilot?

I had an overall fantastic experience doing my P2 with Ben White during October and November of last year. The weather was shockingly cooperative and I was thus able to experience a hyper-density of high-quality instruction. I then went on to have four months of relatively incident free flying. What might have been interesting about that period? For one, it was winter, a period known both for the smoothest flying conditions and yet also the ones where relatively few pilots and students (and thus mentors/instructors) are in evidence either because it is unpleasantly cold or because there is snow to play in elsewhere (I was extremely fortunate to link up with Ariel Zlatkovski for mentorship during this period but there is only so much one person can do). That provides ample opportunity to get over-confident in your ability while allowing latent bad habits to re-emerge just in time to get smacked down by the more complicated and turbulent conditions of Spring. Meanwhile, local SIV courses tend to be offered late-Spring and late-Summer/early-Fall, making the time I did my P2 somewhat misaligned with doing an SIV shortly thereafter (and I was uncomfortable traveling for one before getting vaccinated).

There exists also a huge risk around false familiarity for pilots who have yet to see a full turning of the seasons once or twice, a major call-out by Chris during his interview on the Cloudbase Mayhem podcast in addition to developing a discipline around choosing not to fly. By some measures my incidents/accidents occurred while I was doing things that seemed entirely familiar when in fact conditions were somehow outside my experience in problematic ways.

Lastly, perhaps we all need to ask for help more proactively when we experience the kind of adversity that shakes us to the core. I remember on 6 April I had a flight at Northside that just felt off. I kept having a wonky experience in thermals that in hindsight was predictive of my 10 April crash. I was continually braking prematurely, anticipating a surge instead of breaking one, a problem that Joey had wisely called out in February, that I had spent the subsequent month focused on correcting, but that had then suffered a regression after my deflation scare. In this case I had the good sense to abort my flight and go land. What I failed to do was proactively seek out help diagnosing what was going on. After my accident various people have been awesome in helping me return to flight and become a more safe and proficient pilot. I was foolish not to seek out more of that help before going for an ambulance ride.

Paragliding Days 81 + 82

Two Utah Biathlons on consecutive days… my brain feels tingly and my lungs feel scoured. Yesterday consisted of a morning’s flying at FPS and an afternoon’s biking at Corner Canyon. Today involved an afternoon’s crowd-free skiing in fresh powder at Alta and a return-drive stop-off at FPN for a similarly crowd-free evening flight. I am glowing from the physical exertion and mental intensity.

Yesterday morning I found myself with the constraint of needing to be on an 0900 call so I pushed myself to arrive at FPS @ 0730. The wind was hovering at the edge of launchable up top but had been gradually ticking upward so I parked at the bottom and hiked up to the shelf. Joe, meanwhile, running about 15 minutes behind me, opted to go to the top but then found himself momentarily stymied by 17G20 wind. I had made the right call based on my constraints but was experiencing moderate frustration at the margins I needed to build. I might have hiked a little farther up but, among other things… well, let’s be honest, I had made the foolish decision to put a whole jalapeno plus a large amount of Cholula on my nachos the previous evening, thus generating another sense of exigency. With my wing cleanly horseshoed and the wind somewhat weak at my location I tugged on the center As, began backpedaling, scanned the wing long enough to see a clean configuration, spun around, jogged hard and to the left to counter the wings forward and lateral dumping tendencies, and was off for an uneventful flight. I dashed home with adequate expedience to wrangle all of my constraints.

This evening I arrived at FPN @ 1800, found wind distastefully poppy, and took my time by swinging by the restroom and chatting with other pilots, eventually being fully strapped in by 1835. I have of late developed the habit of fully loosening my shoulder straps before clipping into my harness and then cinching them down as appropriate, this providing the necessary flexibility in the face of wearing a widely differing amount of clothing from day to day, one consequence being that I find I can more consistently snug back into my harness post-launch with ease. Once reverse-inflated I worked with the wind to gradually make my way rightward to one finger over whence I usually launch, wanting both to break out of the habit of doing what is familiar and to launch from a location where the brush entanglement risk seems much lower. Having reached the desired finger I began forward kiting to the edge but, having reached it, opted to hang out for several minutes to sample the wind for adequate smoothness. After what felt an adequate period of tasting and having selected a good looking runway I was off.

I sustained flight from ~1845-1930 and generally felt pretty good. The conditions proved moderately thermic, I think I was extra anxious about my wing getting ahead of me owing to a recent misadventure, and consequently I may have had a few undue puckering moments, but never an “oh fuck” experience. I managed to spend a fair amount of time moderately above launch height while ridge soaring, but never quite got high enough to feel comfortable top-landing, and definitely never had the opportunity to bench. Toward the end I had successive passes on a particular location that offered an updraft sufficiently burbly that it creeped me out a fair deal. Between that, plus a recent resolution not to be greedy, plus some exhausting skiing this afternoon, I made the decision that I ought proactively land. The approach to landing, however, proved unusually laborious, with a good deal of lift extant quite far out from the ridge. Eventually, however, I found myself on what appeared to be a perfect trajectory for the aiming point tarp at the bottom and… maybe 30′ short I found my horizontal speed disappear and my body adopt a hovering position quite unexpectedly. Then, maybe 15′ above the ground, circumstances quickly converted from hover to plummet, I punched my fists to my hips to immediately engage a full flare while uttering some manner of curse, and hit the ground hard enough to be like “DAFUQ?” but gently enough that I rolled forward onto and through my knees without injury on the blessedly soft sand.

Moments later I looked up from packing my wing to see another pilot, Alex, suffer a similarly janky landing. Presumably the bottom LZ was offering some unusual low-level wind shear, the bane of pilots everywhere. But, happily, he was also sufficiently non-injured from the mishap to have his priority be getting me to take a photo of him. He turned out to be an out-of-town student of Super Fly who had just had his first experience of ridge soaring at the northside. It is kind of magical so I understand the desire to record the moment.

Paragliding Days 78, 79, and 80

Journaling immediately subsequent to a flying session offers the best value, but we cannot always attain Perfection, and insisting on it may thwart Good Enough. So, laggard though I have been, here I am playing catch-up.

Thursday left me tingling. Circumstances made for the first day in a while where I could ski in the afternoon then fly in the evening. And ohhhhh the sunlight, leaving me drenched in sweet delicious Vitamin D… I was peeling off layers while skiing then dressed lightly when setting up at FPS ~1730. When I arrived at the flight park the conditions up top were wildly beyond my ability but down below I could get a good workout kiting in dynamic circumstances. The wind continually attenuated and as it did I forward kited my way up the hill. Eventually the wind dropped enough that I felt compelled to grab a sledder back to my car. At the bottom, however, I found the trailer arriving and grabbed a ride back to the top for one more sledder in the dying wind. On both flights I found no-wind conditions at the bottom, and thus my approach feeling quite hot, but both times I held my flare to the last moment then put it in hard and touched down gently. The next morning my L5-S1 disc offered its silent approval.

Friday morning’s session found me pinched between business obligations, before flying some contractual wrangling around an upcoming opportunity, afterward an exploratory conversation around another. I found myself again working uphill from the bottom to an eventual vanilla sledder. The interesting facet was the work toward a launch. Finding a moment to launch when I had neither a twig induced line pinch, nor a gust triggering cravat, nor competing traffic offered a struggle. Eventually, however, I made it work and chalked up a more-than-zero-but-not-that-inspiring kind of flying day.

Today, Sunday, offered nothing particularly inspiring in the realm of actual flying, but the ground handling component was fantastically valuable and confidence inspiring.

I arrived at FPS ~0815, was ready to inflate ~0830, found wind conditions just tipping past my comfort level, but decided to power through anyway. By the time I was inflating ~0835 the nearby sensor already showed 13G14, that inflation suffered some delays due to wing folds and line pinch knots, and yet with some help from nearby folks those impediments proved surmountable with an As-and-Cs inflation. By ~0840 the sensor showed 14G15 and it might have been that late by the time I got the wing up. I had to sit waaaaaay back to prevent the wing from pulling me toward the back of the hill, and I had to be very careful about brake pressure, but to my surprise I made it work. Sort of. I could not make it to the lip but never once did I feel out of control. At one point I yelled at a nearby Richard “I am regrettably close to you!” to which he calmly replied “I’ll stay down.” “What is the wind?” I asked, to which he replied “fifteen gusting seventeen”, which I felt ought have been alarming, and yet there I was managing my 37m wing tolerably well. Twice I got close to the edge, spun forward, and tried to approach a launch, but got plucked and tugged slightly backward. I vaguely recall a nearby instructor on one such occasion shouting “HANDS UP!” but on both occasions I touched down gently, spun back to a reverse position, and kept it together. Eventually, however, some manner of turbulence managed to deflate my wing, and before it could execute an explosive reinflation I ran askew it and rapidly spooled in 4-6 rotations of brake line to shut it down with confidence. I then took in several coils of rears before coiling the rest of the lines, ensuring no subsequent inflation would catch me off guard.

I decided that the strengthening wind and the messy state of my wing argued against attempting a side-hill launch and so packed up, drove to the bottom, and set about cleaning up my wing in controlled circumstances. I then forward-kited my way up the training hill to two successive sledders. On the first one the most notable thing was that on my final inflation the wing came up with a huge twig in it, I got plucked enough to end up in a forward facing position, I leaned backward while looking upward and slamming on the brake toggles to dislodge said twig, saw it come loose then pressed the gas to get going. I was mindful of safety issues and resolved them pre-flight but don’t love the possibility that I could have been forced into flight before fully resolving them. Probably the line pinch would have been no issue, but… more margins less problems. For my second flight the most interesting component involved the uphill progress to launch. The wind had gone very cross and I found myself struggling to accomplish a pre-flight ascent. At Joe’s suggestion, however, I worked on a technique whereby I would take two sets of As in hand wind-side and one on the other while also having the Cs in the other hand and brake toggles at the ready as well. The first few tries were a hot mess but then… everything just kind of clicked and I managed a really clean ~100′ uphill run with my wing diagonal to the fall line. It was like finally living first-hand the thing I had long jealously watched other people do. WOO! At the end of this run I spun forward, executed a snap safety inspection, then flew down to the bottom.

No epic flights today but a whole other level of ground handling that just shortly prior I did not know was within my power!