The last time I had an experience as disconcerting as my previous session, circumstances blessed me with a delightfully vanilla flight the subsequent day to reset my mind state. That flight involved a quick Northside circuit ending with a top-landing after which I said “good enough!” and shut it down. I am grateful to have accomplished similar today though having four intervening days provided a lot of time to allow recent experience to play havoc with my head. Generally the best thing to do after a rough ride involves getting back onto the horse as soon as possible while also scoping the experience to a very short ride.
I arrived at the park by ~1620, took a moment to help Joe set up on an unfamiliar demo wing, swung by the restroom, then found myself fully geared up by ~1645. The wind proved cycling in intensity, varying in direction, and generally gross. In no hurry to fly in such conditions I spent 45 minutes kiting and parawaiting. The experience played very “Walmart parking lot” and I tried hard not to inflate with anyone downwind of me lest I clobber them. On one occasion I found myself getting tugged gradually but inexorably toward the cars and so took an extra wrap of the toggles, sprinted forward, snapped the brakes hard, and had the wing come down satisfyingly… right up until the point it gift-wrapped another pilot. UGH. Then no sooner had I sorted out that situation did another pilot get dragged by their collapsing wing through my lines. What a mess! Thankfully an assortment of generous onlookers helped us muddle through the ensnarements.
By ~1715 I sensed I might have an opportunity to launch. “You should probably not stand so close to me” I suggested to a nearby observer who was watching a friend get set up for a tandem flight. With them clear I reverse inflated, spun forward, and began fighting my way up the finger. “Holy crap that’s a big wing” they remarked (all of your flights are tandem flights when you are two humans worth of human). They wished me a nice flight, I eked my way past them, and then I got hard plucked, spun around, shut things down, and replied, “weellllppp, I guess not yet”. Another pilot fought her way past me in an attempt to launch and had about as much success, her wing collapsing into the tandem setup in a way that required some help to disentangle. Setup to go again she had an explosive inflation that resulted in her nearly colliding with me but she angled sideward and just managed to get it under control. She re-inflated and in time successfully fought her way forward to the lip of the finger for a launch.
With this data point and others offering encouragement I again reverse-inflated, spun around, and began fighting my way forward. It was some work. On a few occasions I got micro-plucked but scrupulously avoided brake pressure to keep in control. On other occasions the wing strived to surge past me but a timely combination of brake pressure and forward sprint kept things on the level. Maybe thirty feet short of the lip I found the wind taking an increasingly vertical aspect to a degree that I regularly quasi-hovered with just my toe-tips grazing the ground. As I came within striking distance of the lip I glanced rightward at the windsock and noted a substantial eastward component. Visions of my two-months-prior bush-entangling tumble down this very hill danced in my head and so I angled eastward to ensure a wind aligned launch. I saw an assortment of menacing bushes but also a path between them that I would follow. Feeling the wing tug me aloft I swung my feet upward to maximize my clearance and then focused on preventing the wing from getting ahead of me like nothing else in the universe could be more important.
And I was off. I swung rightward, wriggled backward into my harness, and then proceeded to make two or three circuits. The wind proved somewhat rowdy but non-crazy. With greedy flight extension being the furthest from my intentions I took an extremely conservative approach regarding ground clearance and pilot distancing. Having launched at ~1725 I was happy to accept a ~1735 landing after an uneventful experience. Meanwhile keeping touchdown smooth required an extremely aggressive flare which would seem to indicate a substantial downdraft at the LZ, corroborated but several pilots sinking out during my return hike.
Reaching the top I watched a crew of folks collaborating on a Project Airtime wheelchair tandem launch…
… the first of which was unsuccessful but quickly followed by a successful one…
Between these two attempts I observed something alarming and heretofore unseen: a pilot attempting to launch while flying through the adjacent gully. After they dipped out of view I sprinted to the other side of the finger and was relieved to see they were merely horribly entangled, seemingly more embarrassed than injured. “Do you need help?”, I shouted down. “I think I’ve got it”, came their sheepish reply. “I don’t believe you”, I thought, knowing all too well from a similar recent misadventure of my own that having help in this situation makes matters 10x-100x easier both logistically and emotionally. I worked my way around to the other side of the gully, saw that they were still badly ensnared, came over to their location, remarked “I was rescued from this only worse just a couple months ago so I am obliged now to help you“, and worked at lifting and disentangling their wing while they balled it inward. Eventually another person came over to help and we sorted things out in short order.
Having resolved this situation I hiked back up the field, retrieved my gear, and hoofed it up to my car. Along the way I ran into Ted who had months ago been the first to arrive on the scene of an ordeal of my own. He asked if I had had a nice flight, I replied that I had, and remarked on how it was always a bonus to get to help out someone in trouble given how many times other pilots had rendered assistance to me in difficult situations, remarking on the experience I had had a couple of months ago where Ariel got me disentangled but quickly realizing that it was Ted’s own arrival in one of my moments of need months earlier still that was presumably on his mind. This would have been less ambiguous if I could have managed fewer misadventures over my first six months of flying.
Later still I ran into Jeremy and we chatted for a bit. He had been one of the first people to reach out after my terrifying Monday misadventure, for which I was very grateful, and we spoke more on this and related matters. He also noted that he had just returned from a California flying trip that had included “putting a friend on a helicopter”. Yikes. This shit is real and your only defense is constant vigilance (also humility and gradual ramping up through lots of practice). Our conversation proved wide ranging but in one of the more memorable moments I found myself recounting and analogizing to a technical driving course I took a decade ago during my government days. During the high-speed track driving component an instructor remarked that we would be training in a succession of short blocks because our brains were not prepared to deal with such a high cognitive load for sustained periods without unacceptable degradations to safe operation. This feels highly relatable to my present quest to survive spring flying: I must engage in active piloting at a heretofore non-required level if I am to remain safe, that work will provide a draining cognitive load, and I would do well to execute this training in small bites to ensure I don’t unduly fuck it up.