2001: A Hard Year
February 17th, 2001. It was a good launch with a five-man wire crew - two men on each wing-wire, one on the tail, wind at a steady 15-25 mph coming from the valley 1300 feet below. The tell-tail stood straight up at the left of the launch as I stepped carefully forward slipping the glider nose into the wind. With the nose well-down, the wind curled under the wings lifting the glider off of my shoulders. The wire crew kept the wings from oscillating as I yelled into the wind "Left wing Back! Left wing Back!" in order to keep the wings loaded evenly. The left wingmen stepped back one step and the glider's wings leveled and tugged me insistently toward the edge. I yelled "Clear!", the men let go of the wires, I took two last steps and leaned forward into the wind with the glider nose still angled down at a 35 degree pitch. It was an "elevator" launch. As soon as my feet cleared the launch I was rising high above the wire crew, my wife taking a picture, and spectators saying "Wow!"
The surface wind kept most of the thermals from forming so it was a good day to ride the ridge-lift. And the ridge-lift was Big and Smooth. You get higher on a thermaling day, but ridge-lift is more dependable. As long as you have that NorthWest Wind blowing straight at the side of the mountain, you can stay up forever, riding the long wave of air that hits the side of the mountain with nowhere to go but up. It's like surfing on a 500 foot tall wave where the wave stays in place and is five miles long. And like water surfing, you don't want to go "over the falls" on the lee side of the mountain. There be deadly dragons, for sure.
So all you have to do is stay on that wave, running the length of the mountain. Every once in a while you find a thermal and can circle up hundreds or even thousands of feet getting so high that when you extend your arm downward the 34-foot wide glider four thousand feet below you appears smaller than your pinky fingernail. At that height, around 6,000 feet above the mountain, you can see all the way into Chattanooga. The temperature has dropped about 20 degrees. That's really nice in the summer time when the landing field is over 90 degrees. That's not so good in February when the temperature on the field is 50. It can get cold at altitude. Unless you dress carefully, you'll get hypothermia. For that matter, you can even get hypothermia in the summertime if you don't dress properly.
However, I was dressed warmly that February. I had a full face helmet, warm gloves, a puffy, down filled nylon jacket and jeans tucked inside my full length nylon pod harness that made me look like a monster moth ready to attack anyone on the ground.
So I flew that day for over two hours stretched out in a prone position, my arms in front and below my shoulders just like superman. Nothing at all below me for a mile and a half. There was solid cloud cover above me but I didn't want to get too close to it. Cloud suck, they call it. A voracious up-welling of air that disappears into the clouds. If you get caught in cloud suck, you see the earth below you fade into a gray nothingness. You're caught in a dangerous world where it is difficult to tell whether you're right-side up or upside-down. You don't know whether you're flying straight and level, or spiraling downward.
You control your hang glider with a five foot isosceles triangle of aluminum tubing, holding onto the base of the triangle with your hands. You pull in to go faster and descend, push out to go slower and upwards, and you pull the triangle to your right to turn left, and left to turn right. If a cloud threatens to suck you up, you can try to evade it by flying to the side of the cloud, or you can try to go down faster than it is sucking you up. You jam the base tube to the right and tuck your knees up to your chest, pulling the base tube down to your ankles. You're in a spiraling, slipping dive that maximizes your descent rate, but if the cloud's big enough, it simply eats you.
A small cloud is relatively benign. Once you are inside, you can't tell up from down, so the best thing to do is to let a stable glider fly itself for a while. Just like airplanes, hang gliders can be designed to be stable or unstable. A Cessna 172 will almost fly hands-off, but a jet plane will try to crash if you let it fly itself. Stable gliders are usually flown by newer pilots because they fly straight and level if left to themselves. On the other hand, high performance gliders are designed to be unstable. Flown by experienced pilots, they are instantly responsive to any attitude change initiated by the pilot.
If you get eaten by a small cloud, you can actually let go of a stable glider's base tube and the glider will usually fly straight and level. If you're lucky, you eventually pop out of the side of the cloud and you can then dive to get away from it. If it's a big cloud, it will suck you up to 50,000 feet where the temperature is way below freezing, and the air is so thin you simply die from lack of oxygen. Cloud suck definitely sucks. I stayed well under the clouds that day.
I flew for around two hours and decided I probably should land and check in with my wife and take it easy for a while watching all of the other pilots who were still flying. I gradually bled off my altitude and headed over the 40 acre landing field that was nicely mowed. I set up my landing pattern while I still had plenty of altitude. I noticed the wind direction and set up for a landing against the wind. It had rained recently and there was standing water on the field, so I moved my mental box landing pattern to where I would miss the water. My plan was to fly across the field (top of the box pattern), turn left to fly alongside the edge of the field (downwind leg), Turn left again to fly a short base leg, and finally turn left onto my final approach with a fairly long, straight shot ended by bleeding off speed and altitude so that I could push the base tube away from myself, stalling the craft and gently stepping onto the ground.
To this day I'm still not sure what really went wrong. But here's what I remember days and even months afterwards. I flew across the field setting up the box pattern and turned left as planned. I remember flying over a great big oak tree as I turned. For some odd reason I thought I was too high and so I made a tight circle over the oak tree. Bad idea, although I didn't realize it at the time. A tight circle causes you to lose a lot of altitude, and altitude, as they say, is your friend. I turned on my downwind leg and the next thing I remember is glancing to my left and seeing the roofs of a line of houses at the edge of the field. The roofs were slightly above me and the landing field was on the other side. Not good. I pushed the base tube outward and to my right, initiating a left turn that would also lift me up and over any remaining houses. The turn should have put me on my base leg in preparation for turning onto my final approach. Only later did I realize that I was experiencing tunnel vision with only a foot wide circle of sight in front of me. I had flown too far on my downwind leg and was beyond the end of the landing field where a gravel road, trees and a creek awaited me. I heard a loud crunch as my left wing hit a dead tree with few branches to catch or cushion the glider. Eye witnesses said that I hit the tree, turned upside down and dropped 60 feet straight down where I hit the hard-packed gravel road on my left side, breaking two ribs, my left scapula, damaging my T7 vertebrae, and crushing T12.
I remember lying on the ground looking up at my wife and saying I couldn't feel my legs. I remember being in an ambulance looking up at an interior light. I remember hallucinating vivid neon colors in Erlanger hospital, and I remember the doctor saying I would never walk again. He didn't tell me all the other problems I would experience.
It was several years before I put together what probably happened. I most likely got hypothermia while flying, although I have no recollection of being cold or shivering. Hypothermia is characterized by lack of coordination, confusion and poor decision making, and in some cases, tunnel vision. Of course, at this point, it doesn't matter. What matters is that I do the best I can, with whatever abilities I have at this particular moment. Hmm... I guess that applies to all of us.