This morning’s wind at FPS proved marginally cooperative, a bit strong up top but nonetheless amenable to valuable practice with the shielding of the training hill. At this stage of my evolution, a point where I can navigate messier circumstances, the training hill takes on a new character, offering a taste of launching off the side of mountains in more complex situations while ranging farther afield.
By the time I had hiked uphill to a reasonable launching point the wind had adopted a decidedly westerly direction. The hill furthermore sported an assortment of early stage students who provided an obstacle course during take-offs. Lastly the terrain offered substantial thermals near the landing zone which added an extra element of spiciness.
In anticipation of my first flight I set up for a rearward inflation with a line twist requiring a right turn as has been my custom. Ben suggested that I might prefer a 90 degree leftward turn into the westerly wind versus a 270 degree rightward one and so I grabbed the lines and performed a preparatory 360. Ben also suggested I might try kiting up the hill a few steps before going. Upon inflation I briefly found myself in a position where I might have spun around and gone, but I hesitated on the thought I would try to kite uphill a bit, and in this moment of indecision I allowed the wing to collapse. Whoops.
The next time I got the wing up I quickly spun around and started running downhill but found the strong crosswind aggressively dumping my wing leftward. I ran under the collapsing side to right it but then found that my track was intersecting with a student who had unfurled their wing across a large swath of ground. I ran just far enough to the side to clear the pilot, leapt over their wing, and finally was aloft. Nearing the point where the hill levels out I caught a thermal that buoyed me upward so I banked leftward to begin an S-turn to bleed off some altitude before landing. As I approached my aiming point I caught another thermal which again added a good deal of altitude but then very abruptly I found myself dropping. This proved a bit unsettling but I fought the desire to flare prematurely, not wanting to find myself 20-30 feet up and having spent all my brake travel. In the end I came in short and a bit fast but nonetheless satisfyingly under control. Successfully navigating so many curveballs for an ultimately uneventful flight felt good.
My second flight would prove less smooth but at least as educational.
My first attempt to get going failed when I belatedly remembered I needed to do a left turn to face forward, the wing started getting a little ahead of me, and while I correctly realized that I had let things go too far to execute a leftward turn cleanly I took too long to realize I needed to start backpedaling hard and run under the wing to save it. Flop. So I balled it up, hiked it up, and tried again.
The next time I thought I had gotten going cleanly until the radio crackled and Ben told me to look at my right brake. ARGH. I had taken off with it wrapped around the other lines, probably owing to a last minute fiddling to grab the rears with one hand for a preflight fluff-and-wrinkle. I had a brief flirtation with the idea of releasing the right brake toggle to undo the twist but then decided that would be A Very Dumb Idea. So low to the ground and facing a wind from my right I had visions of the wing dumping leftward and then plowing me into the hill with the force of a tailwind. And so I decided to roll with the nuisance I knew rather than the potential catastrophe I might foment. Next I found myself turning more rightward than I wanted. I imagined afterward that this owed to the tangle which meant that equal brake deflections were yielding unequal brake pressures. From the ground, however, Ben noted that I was putting in a glut of right hand. I don’t remember this, and I don’t know what I would have done that, but I don’t doubt it. I managed to land more or less into the wind and at a gentle trot but I collapsed my wing messily and into a patch of brush. DOH.
My third flight bore many similarities to my first one, albeit with less messiness at the outset (though some when I stumbled and applied adverse brake pressure) and more messiness at the end. Whereas on my first flight a thermal lofted me a good deal slightly shy of my aiming point and then dumped me hard for a short landing, on this flight I was more solidly lofted in a way that sent me in long, and then in a bit of novel weirdness I found myself almost hovering for a little bit just before touchdown and then had the wind abruptly stop and drop me the last few feet. The touchdown was mostly under control but in hindsight the circumstances caused some vision lock on the ground I imagined I would contact any moment. Consequently I lost my horizon reference and landed with a slight rightward drift. I rolled onto my right knee but happily, unlike in many other circumstances, I managed to keep my leg-and-torso tumbling decoupled from my brake inputs, which meant the wing stayed stable and gently tugged me to my feet, after which I took a few forward strides and collapsed the wing cleanly.
At 1540 I looked at the weather report, saw 13G14 at FPS, got into my car as fast as I could manage, and zipped on over. By the time I arrived the wind had damped a bit but still offered some nicely flyable conditions. Ben was just about to leave on a circuit to pick up pilots from the bottom and told me I was good to go if circumstances proved fortuitous and that he would watch from the bottom. As it turned out by the time I was ready to launch he was driving back up so I waited for him.
I performed a reverse inflation thinking I would kite for a few moments but Ben came up just as I was doing that and said “you can go!” but I was a little flummoxed by that unanticipated moment and collapsed the wing. I quickly gathered it up, repositioned it a bit further up from the ledge, re-inflated, briefly stabilized the wing, and then started running hard. I had to run downhill more than perhaps any previous day on southside but got aloft quickly and had a short but nice flight. There were moments where I felt uncomfortably close to the ground but I think I managed to time my turn initiations reasonably well. As I approached the bottom of the slope Ben remarked over the radio that I seemed likely to overshoot my aiming point but I had another S-turn in me and managed to touch down just slightly short and slightly right of the tarp. My actual landing proved somewhat messy, a consequence of my not flaring as aggressively as I ought have for no-wind conditions. I touched down a bit fast, skidded my feet at first, then bounced my seat off the ground, shredded the knuckles on my left hand, and then had the wing come over my head and land in front of me, a slightly disappointing finale to an otherwise great flight. I balled up my wing, hopped on the trailer, and rode back to the top.
By the time we arrived at the top the race was on. The wind was quickly dying and everyone wanted to eke out one more flight. I hurriedly set up for a forward inflation, waited for a few other folks to launch so I would have the space I needed, and then girded myself for the moment of truth. Ben cautioned me to be aware of how good things felt as I approached the slope and told me to abort if it didn’t feel right. The wind was alternating between calm and tailward. I decided to go for it, heaved myself against the harness, felt the wing come over my head, let my thumbs fall off the A’s, and gave myself a split second to assess the situation. As I reached the point of no return I went all in and started running hard, finding just barely enough airspeed to get my feet off the ground. As I whizzed over the ground with maybe a foot or two of clearance I gritted my teeth and prepared to have to run hard again and wondered if I was going to eat it and get dragged by my wing. Then I suddenly ballooned upward, all was well, and I found myself on a flight similar to the last one. Mostly. As I scanned downhill to begin plotting my landing I noted that the flag down there had gone from dead to substantially easterly. Whereas I habitually land in the right of the parking lot and generally pointing southwest I instead set myself up for a final approach that would put me on an eastward track solidly perpendicular to the hill. This mostly worked out pretty well except that I was intending on landing atop the berm on that side of the parking lot but I came up a bit short. I was worried that I would instead land on the upward slope of that berm but thankfully managed to come up just short of it. Unlike the last time I recognized how the weak wind had me coming in hot, flared aggressively, and had to run hard but did so smoothly and deflated the wing tolerably cleanly for a nice finish to the night.
Southside evenings are a rare and magical experience.