Monday, June 28, 2010

Another Way to Get High

By Jimmy Hopper

Team Member

Thanks to the introduction and encouragement from teammate, David “Dingo” Royer, paragliding has become one of the mainstays of my weekly routine here in the Bay Area. Our local site, known as Mussel Rock in Pacifica, CA, is a fantastic playground and a host to an eclectic group of pilots. These guys have become like family and we all thrive on the consistent conditions each summer season offers.

After a few years of paragliding I couldn’t help but to be a little envious of all the hang glider pilots who shared the skies with us. Sure, paragliding has its own unique advantages with transportability and ease of set up topping the list. The reality is both sports have their time and place. There’s just something about the maneuverability the hang glider offers. I mean these guys had literally been flying circles around me in my paraglider for years now! A hang glider pilot’s body position during flight is probably what attracted me the most to this new form of flight. Unlike the reclining seated position in a paraglider, the prone position assumed in a hang glider is much more like a bird and likely the closest we will ever get to flying like they do. To me it is reminiscent of flying wingsuits only we can now maintain and gain altitude. What could be better?!

This spring it was time to get on the path and add this skill to the quiver. Friend and fellow wingsuit pilot, Brian Drake, was also eager to learn the sport and we were soon introduced to instructor, Jon Blome. Under Jon’s direction we kicked off our first lesson at Ed Levin County Park where we spent the better half of the day practicing takeoffs and landings on a 50 foot “bunny hill”. All in all the day was a big success and we ended it by taking a test and receiving our Hang 1 rating. Unlike my experience with paragliding, right out of the gate it became evident that there were many more rules and hoops you have to jump through in order to earn the coveted Hang 3 rating needed to fly the most consistent local site, Ft. Funston. Convinced the payoff is going to be worth it, I didn’t let this get to me.

Over the next few weeks Brian, Jon, and I met nearly every Sunday at Ed Levin County Park to keep the momentum going. Once we could demonstrate strong takeoff/ landing skills, ground control of the glider, and the ability to change direction and fly to a target, the next step would be moving higher on the hill to the 150’ launch. To our dismay there were several weeks in a row where wind conditions proved to be challenging and we were confined to the 50’ launch at best. We were beginning to feel like we were stuck and would be “bunny hill” lifers. Right about when frustration was truly setting in, weather cooperated and Brian and I were granted permission to move up to the 150’. We each had 4 good flights and our motivation was restored.

The following weekend was looking promising and we were almost certainly going to have the chance to launch from the 300 footer. This would bring us that much closer to our Hang 2 rating which would allow us to fly a few more places than just Ed Levin. Typical of any three day holiday weekend, the coming Memorial Day weekend presented a myriad of action sport opportunities and the challenge was to figure out how to do it all. Dingo and several experienced hang glider pilots were planning to fly in the Owens Valley to celebrate his birthday, but this was thwarted by a sudden change in the forecast. With conditions looking favorable in the Reno area, a new plan was underway. This region offered something for all skill levels and it soon was agreed that Brian, Jon, and I would join forces with these guys.

A Bump in the Road

We arrived at our friend, Bill Cuddy’s house just south of Reno early that Saturday morning. Due to the amount of gear and number of people in tow, we were a comical caravan of five vehicles, though this didn’t seem to bother Bill. Time was of the essence since temperatures would be rising in an hour or two and would get too rough for Brian and I. We wasted no time and drove a short way to the landing area where we received a thorough briefing of the landing area. We then piled into 3 four-wheel-drive trucks and bounced our way up to the launch that Brian and I were suited to fly. I think I set a new personal speed record for setting up the glider. I did a quick pre-flight inspection, hooked in, and walked the glider to the launch. After a few minutes of assessing conditions we all agreed that they were nice and mellow and perfect for launch. Walk, jog, run and I was off with a strong launch. Almost immediately I felt a tiny bump of lift (rising air) so I pushed out on the bar to milk it for a little more altitude. This was the mistake that would lead to the next series of events.

In accordance with my flight plan discussed with the guys at launch, I initiated a left turn after flying straight for 10 seconds or so and flew along the ridgeline careful not to get too close. The glider suddenly seemed to want to bear left toward the hill so I immediately bumped to the right to point it in a safe direction. Nothing happened. I bumped right again even harder and more deliberate this time. Still nothing happened. The glider continued to come around to the left until I was now flying on a collision course toward the hillside. The terrain was formidable, littered with sage brush and boulder piles. This was all bad as it became obvious this is where I was headed. As the hillside got closer my ground speed became uncomfortably apparent. As a BASE jumper ground rush is a thrill you learn to enjoy and look forward to. In this case I was overcome with a sick feeling because I knew there wasn’t a parachute to save the day.

Just before impact I remembered the stories of crashes I had heard from other pilots. Natural instinct is to maintain a death grip on the control frame all the way into the ground which often is responsible for spiral fractures of the humorous. With this in mind I pushed out on the bar (flared) as hard as I could and let go of the control frame pulling my arms near my body. The wings weren’t perfectly level with the left tip lower than the right. This caused the glider to shoot upward and into a big left turn. With a loud metallic ‘clank’ me and the glider pounded into the hillside like a piano falling from the second story. I was quick to my feet and immediately started assessing myself for injuries. Teeth. Check. Legs. Check. Right arm. Check. Left Arm. Ch…Damn it!! There was a very visible deformity on my left wrist right about where it joins the hand. I let out a shout of disgust with myself which was a signal to everyone standing on the launch that I was conscious and more importantly, not dead.

The guys made their way to me pretty quickly with cameras rolling. I’m not exactly sure what I said but I’m pretty sure it was to the effect of, “summer has been canceled.” The glider turned out to not be damaged that badly with only one down tube bent. The hike on the other hand back up to the top was a bit uncomfortable to say the least. The scratches on my helmet and my face indicated that I had taken a bit of the impact on my head. This would explain why vision started to blur periodically and a break or two was required before reaching the top. At least this time everyone was spared the repetitive questions that are typical of a concussion. Before the inevitable bouncy ride down in the truck, Bill splinted my arm with a stick, a bath towel, and some duct tape.

So back to the mistake and what lesson was learned here. By pushing out on the bar right after launch I reduced my airspeed right off the bat. Instead of letting off of the bar and letting the glider fly I am almost positive that I still had the bar pushed out an inch or two the entire time. There was just enough energy left in the wing to make the left turn but after that there was nothing left to correct back to the right. In hindsight I could have pulled in on the bar generating more airspeed and turned to the right with no worries. Better yet, don’t kill your airspeed so soon after launch and so close to the ground! Let it fly! And in case you’re wondering, I look forward to picking up where I left off.

Big thanks to all of my friends on the trip for going out of their way to help me out. Special thanks to Anne Kroemer and Laure Willams for sacrificing their day to get me to the hospital and for looking after my dog. Thanks to the Cuddy family for opening their home to me and all of our riff raff friends.

Happy birthday, Dingo. This one will be easy to remember.

-Jimmy Hopper


Anonymous said...

Great post Jimmy. Recover quickly brother!


Geoff said...

Thanks for sharing the story. It's never fun to be down with an injury, so you have my sympathy for sure.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to flying Hang Gliders with you SOON!

Tim West
aka Capt. America

Anonymous said...

great to read such a well thought out recap. I look forward to helping you expand your skill set once you recover.


Kristen said...

You haven't changed a bit...I'm glad you cleared up where the injury came from...I just noticed the cast and was worried. Sending you healthy and healing energy!

Anonymous said...

Jimmy I want to know what they call you "The White Pony" I want to ride you sexy :)