“Ty,… In hang gliding there are ups and downs, you’ve been having a lot of ups.” That’s what Bart said to me over the phone as I was standing back looking at my glider halfway up a tree. He called me right before I had launched that morning at 9:11 am and by 9:37am I was 15km away with my glider sail torn from a tree branch. This was on the third day of the 2018 Refugio Long Distance Encampment. I was posting VLOGs on the Houston Hang Gliding & Paragliding Facebook page and keeping everyone updated so if you are reading this and haven’t seen those you can scroll down on that page and watch the videos as it played out. Anyways, this year in Refugio I learned some real big lessons and flew a couple of really long XC flights!
The first day of the Refugio camp, we launched late and the winds were light. We had the classic Refugio cloud streets running just like out of a fairy tale…as far as the eye could see…until I got to the east of Austin (120 miles) and they all dried out. I used the big flag in Bastrop to get the wind direction, which had changed, and I set up a great approach and landing in a nice field. This was Charlies first time driving retrieve and thanks to the SPOT tracker and the Life360 app he was on the scene to pick me up within 15 minutes! Thanks Charlie!
The next day of the Refugio encampment the skies were again giving us the beautiful cloud streets… I managed only a 21mile flight and mistimed the clouds. There were these moments when the sky just “let out” and lift was weak everywhere…then the sky would turn back on again and staying up wasn’t a problem. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the clouds and I got caught outside the lift. Anyways, my landing was fine but I was attacked ferociously by large mosquitoes making my break down of the glider a very painful ordeal. The bug spray I kept in my harness only seemed to work briefly then, after several reapplications, the spray was working less and less until it made no difference at all. Thankfully, Charlie was there quickly to help me out of that buggy situation east of Goliad.
All the pilots were buzzing about how EPIC the cloud street was that morning. We felt like we missed the train because the Refugio cloud highway was so well defined at such an early time and us pilots hadn’t even rigged up our gliders yet. With that in mind, the pilots talked with Gregg Ludwig our tow pilot, and we confirmed a much earlier start time for the next day.
8:56am Jonny Durand is launching the Gecko 170 on the third day of the Refugio XC camp. I was already prepared to go and got on the cart right after Jonny. I paid little attention to the haze in the sky, I thought there was some humidity which was normal, but the visibility was lower than usual. As it turns out, dust from the Saharan Desert had blown across the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico and given us a grey haze. The wind was strong, 20-25mph, and the cloud base was low around 1600′. The classic conditions we had grown accustomed to were absent. I was sinking out, however, I was determined to save this flight and I was banking on a low save with a few buzzards. The ground was shaded in, the sky was hazy as if there had been a large fire upwind, the thermal I was working was punchy and small. I was drifting at an unbelievable rate. I had worked on this low save and ended up getting down to about 500′ and I thought I was going to pull out of it…but steadily I lost the thermal and my vultures flew in confusing directions. I hear on the radio that Jonny had landed and a flurry of chatter was clogging up the airwaves. I was down to 350′ and I didn’t believe I had enough altitude to make it to the large field downwind and I left myself with a slot to land in by highway 183. Looking at it now, I couldn’t believe that I was considering landing in that patch…but I was in a different mindset and I thought I was going to be able to get it in there.
Anyways, like I mentioned the wind was really strong and I figured I was going to be able to do a S- turn approach into the opening. As I burned off altitude along the tree line doing S turns I noticed that I was gaining on my LZ as the wind was not as strong as I got lower. When I made my final S-turn turn into my final I noticed that I slipped in my turn and lost a lot of altitude and I got a good glimpse of the tops of some trees. I stuffed the bar and came in with a ton of speed. I didn’t realize it at the time and I had forgot to take my VG off for landing and left it at 3/4s. As I round out I am flying along pretty fast but I’m in ground effect for only seconds before my left wing goes up dramatically, it was rotor from the trees. Even with the extra speed that I had I was having trouble bringing that wing down…by the time I got the wing down I was now flying off to the left directly towards a patch of trees still with a quite a bit of speed. “No, NO, NOOOO!!!” I yelled as the inevitable crash ensued. I was only a coulple of feet off the ground and right before I hit the trees I threw the bar up. The left wing snagged a branch and brought me to an abrupt halt as I went through the right downtube and on to my knees. And that was it… I got out of the harness and sat still for a moment. I was fine, without a scratch, but I couldn’t say the same about the glider, the left wing was torn and I had bent a couple of battens. I never thought I was ever going to crash into a tree and there I was…on the side of a tree, mosquitoes swarming, fire ants, thorn bushes, and a bruised ego.
I sent the message on our WhatsApp group that I was in a tree and I was OK and before I knew it Charlie was there to greet me as I walked to the road. We were both thankful that I was OK and a white Ford pickup pulled up behind us. “You OK?” asked the man. “Yeah, safe and sound.” I replied. It turned out that the man was the property owner and he was relieved that I was OK and I told him I was going to be off his property quickly. Right before the man was about to drive away he stopped again and rolled down the window. “Hey just to warn you boys, there is a bull in that pasture. He is a cross-breed and he is angry all the time…. and if he sees y’all he is going to come after ya! Especially while his cows are around!” said the old man. “You’re just pullin my chain!” I said. Then, with a serious face, and eyes that were staring a thousand yards into the distance, he said “Nah, I ain’t kiddin’, he’s mean and he will come after y’all!” Charlie and I looked at each other with somber faces as the old ranch truck drove away. You could hear the “GULP” in our breath. We had to get the glider out of the tree, roll it up, and get out of there! As quiet as a couple of church mice we pulled up the barbed wire fence and slowly made our way back to the glider scene. As we were walking out it dawns on me that Charlie is wearing a solid red T-shirt, “Poor Charlie” I thought, and I turned off my phone so I didn’t attract a raging bull. The mosquitoes were having their way with us, and the task of getting the glider down was more than we anticipated. Soaked in sweat, mosquito splattered blood, and repellent burning our eyes we carried that glider off the premises. We were in such a hurry to get the hell out of there I left my battens on the ground by the fence and we drove off with out them.
As it turned out everyone bombed out that morning and we ended up meeting at the Best Western pool and swapped stories.
The next day was really exciting for the pilots because there was even stronger wind in the forecast, making the idea for setting a world record become very real. The word got out that I needed a glider and I was getting so much support from the flying community to let me borrow their gliders so I could get back after it. I decided to fly Greg F.’s U2C-160. Without a doubt, I was a little bit shaken after the crash, and I wasn’t in a rush to set up the glider either. The wind that morning was blowing a solid 25mph and it was the strongest wind I had seen people launching in on hang gliders. But that was the purpose, we were there to get early launches with a brisk tailwind to send us 100 miles before noon. I was torn…the conditions didn’t look great for soaring but we were in Refugio and amazing long distance flights happen here. I would never have launched in such windy conditions but I also wanted a shot at flying far. It also dawned on me that I was in the midst of some of the greatest hang glider pilots in the world. Jonny Durand, THE no.1 pilot in the world, has been flying HG since he was 12. Robin Hamilton, Glen Volk, Greg Dinauer, Larry Bunner, Mick Howard…all these guys have been flying hang gliders since before I was born. “Who the hell was I to try and hang with these guys?” I thought to myself. I was really upset that my glider was ripped up and I was even more down on myself for getting into that situation in the first place. One by one all the pilots launched, and some of the launches were “sporty” to say the least. By the time it was down to Rich R. and I, Gregg, our tow pilot called it quits for flying for the day. It was too rowdy for even Gregg who will fly a trike through anything. We broke down the gliders as the wind gusted into the 30’s.
The next day the winds backed off a bit and I got to launch around 9:30am. Full disclosure, I was nervous when I launched that morning. It was my first flight after the crash. It was a borrowed glider and I was so nervous my legs were shaking while I was on the cart. But as soon as I was flying I felt a lot better and by the time I released from tow I was back to my old self. I KNEW how to fly and how to land a hang glider. It was classic Refugio again and I was able to cruise downwind at ease and make some miles. But by the time I got to Cuero, Robin and Mick were catching up to me and our cloud street was evaporating quickly. Next thing I knew I was down low working a low save again, down wind was a forested area with out any options. I had set myself up this time with a ample landing field this time, and instead of trying to work a low save in the blue without any good LZ’s I focused on setting up a nice landing. I had a perfect no step landing out in the middle of this big pasture and I let out a hoot, 78kms from where I launched. By the time I walked the glider to the road where a big shade tree was my new driver Craig was pulling up. “If you fall off the horse, you gotta get back on.” The Thermal Cowboy was back on the horse again and feeling great!
The next day Jonny was going to rest up since he had some traveling to do to get ready for the European Championship in Macedonia and he let me fly his Moyes Gecko 170 that just the day before he flew 160miles on! I love flying hang gliders and I love getting the opportunity to fly new hang gliders. So I jumped at the chance to fly the new Moyes glider! Jonny just so happened to have a hang strap that fit my harness perfectly and I got to set up the glider while talking to Jonny. The only Moyes I had flown was an old Xtra-lite and I wasn’t accustomed to how some of the setup went for the glider.
I was up on the cart again launching before 10am and the Gecko 170 towed very nicely. The towing was a non-issue and I got pulled up along side the cloud streets so I could take my pick. The first 15 minutes of the flight I was getting used to a few things. Since the basetube was different my vario didn’t mount up so I put on my backup Flytec 3005 vario and Garmin 76 combo. I also ran a Renschler Solario as a back up vario because I didn’t know how reliable my 3005 was going to be. There was a lot to get used to, the vario, the new glider, so I took it real slow and drifted to get myself acquainted.
Right off the bat, the Gecko 170 has a VG system that means BUSINESS!!! When you pull in full VG the wing is very hard to maneuver, but, I was enjoying some really tasty long glides! The sink rate on the Gecko 170 is fantastic and I didn’t find myself too low scratching very often. The other thing that took some time to get used to was the VG cleat, coming from Wills Wing background I found the cleat kind of cumbersome. I think I burnt my hand when the cleat came undone and the VG rope zipped through my palm. But that is only a small price to pay for the Geckos’ performance.
Being my first flight on the Gecko 170 it took me a while to get used to the handling and I wore myself out trying all different VG settings to get the best handle on thermaling. And my soreness might have had something to do with the previous 5 days of flying with 10 hours in the air, sleeping in the Relax Inn motel with the diesel powered air conditioning, and crashing into a tree a couple days before.
The classic Refugio conditions were on, and I was pleased to be up in the air with Nate on his T2C, trading out climbs and glides. Soon, he pulled off to head northwest while I continued due north. That is the way Nate is, he likes to fly on his own. Our clouds were drying up again and soon we were in the blue completely. But somehow there was an invisible cloud street that was keeping me up no matter where I went. There was an inversion at about 4000′ and I was able to punch up through the inversion a couple of times on the Gecko. There were some climbs up to 5200′ and I was getting 700fpm on the averager. The wind was very light, around 4mph, and I thought it would be a miracle if I could make it 100 miles out in the blue.
Soon the 100 mile mark came up on my Garmin 76 and I was high and happy. “Did I have enough time to make 200miles?” I thought to myself. I finally hear some crackle on the radio, it was Mick who had launched first, he was about 35miles ahead of me and he was scratching. I was still finding climbs out in the blue and it was impossible to tell where they were coming from. I almost forgot to mention the sink. The sink was everywhere too, bad sink 400-600fpm down everywhere, there were no guarantees. I was flying from landing zone to landing zone. I was flying a brand new glider and I was keeping my LZ’s within easy reach.
I was 140 miles out and I thought I was going to get another random thermal but I didn’t. Not until about 350′ off the deck, that was my thermal but downwind I had high tension poles and wires, towers, support cables, and fences running all over the place. I said no way Jose to that idea and I set up a beautiful landing on the new glider. The Gecko rounded out smoothly with 1/3 VG and I bleed off the speed. I was pleasantly surprised by a very large and blatant flare window and I executed a perfect no step landing. I let out a big ole’ hoot! Yewwww! What a day!
Thanks so much to Jonny Durand for letting me fly his glider! Special thanks goes to Gregg and Kim Ludwig, without them the whole operation wouldn’t have happened. Thanks to Rich R. and Nate W. for giving me the support when I was down and out. Thanks to Charlie and Craig who did an awesome job driving for me and picking me up on these crazy adventures. Thanks goes out to Greg F. for letting me fly his U2C!
I learned that I have to give myself plenty of margins for landing, especially in the high wind when the rotor effect is the worst. I didn’t give myself enough space and I paid the price for it. I was extremely lucky that I walked away from the crash and didn’t get hurt. It was a lesson that I wish I could have avoided because it will be expensive to repair my glider, but as someone once said, “Good lessons don’t come cheap.” I learned a lot listening to Jonny, Larry, Robin, and Mick during the whole week. I had an eye opener, and I can see clearly now, and I see what is most important and that is my safety.
The Refugio camp was over and as fast it started it was coming to an end. The Weather was looking bleak for the next upcoming days and the second week of flying was suspended until further notice. Today 7/16/18 : The last day of the Refugio XC Camp Robin flew 200 plus miles!Help me repair my glider! Donate! 🙂