Thermal Flyer

This is a long article, so I divided it into two sections. The first section is about flying with the local TX pilots. For those of you more interested in the Lone Star National Competition and the fatal accident therein, that is in the second section.

Part I

When I had the opportunity to pick externship rotation sites for dental school, the first thing I noticed is that one of the sites is in Waco, TX. This is significant to me for two reasons: Waco is just an hour and a half from my last surviving grandparent, who I haven’t seen in a couple years, and it is just a little over an hour from Hearne, whose soaring potential is the stuff of legends. So naturally, it was my first choice for a summer rotation. The dates of the rotation happened to coincide with the Lone Star Nationals, so I was extra stoked.

Before I arrived I contacted a few people from the local clubs to find people to tow with. This part of the country has very few mountain launch sites, and when I arrived I heard that the Austin club’s only mountain site had been shut down due to new land ownership. So I hooked up with Russ Croman, who has a Quantum winch. I had to work weekdays, and during those first five days the fluffy white cumies had been taunting me. When the weekend arrived I was bound and determined to get into the air. The locals in Austin are blessed with many more low-pressure days than we are, so they had to be talked into flying on a less-than-ideal day. I was able to convince them that Sunday would be great flying, and arrived on that day at their local tow road just northeast of Austin.

Their whole club was very welcoming and happy to have another pilot there. I got a good tow at about noon and got up to around 3K. Convinced that was all it would take to start me off on a good XC run, I went on glide… and promptly bombed out 5 miles later. Another of the club members was gracious enough to retrieve me and I went back for a second tow. This time I got to 5K before I went on glide. The air was tough and punchy. I have seldom worked so hard for so little altitude. I eeked out a glide, grabbing on to whatever weak yet thrashy lift I could for ten miles or so, until I saw a decent-sized lake and bolted for it, knowing that it would be a good trigger.

The lake, Lake Granger, gave me a surprisingly smooth boomer which got me up to about 6 grand. I went on glide and was disappointed to find no more lift at all. I still got a good 20 miles out of it, so I was happy.

When I landed a local saw me and asked if I was alright, and if there was anything he could do for me. He said he lived just down the road, pointed to his house, and said it would be no bother. I told him that people were already on the way but my water was about the temperature of hot chocolate, and if he could get me some cool water I’d be much obliged. He was so impressed with my flying contraption that he came back quickly with a couple bottles of cold water. Now that’s Southern hospitality. After I got picked up, we all went back to Austin and had dinner and some brews. Good times, good people.

The next weekend I didn’t have quite so much luck. The winds were light so we decided to do a triangle course. A guy named Ris (last name Risser), who has the good fortune of being young, retired and able to compete in practically any paragliding competition he wishes, gave us the coordinates. Another high-pressure day, it was difficult to stay up. I had one tow-tech –aborted launch, one

extended sledder, and finally got up high enough on the third attempt to try my hand at the task. Meanwhile, Ris had been just hanging out in the sky waiting for enough people to do some group flying. When I finally got up to 4K or so, Ris had already been gone for a while. I attempted the first turnpoint but ended up a mile short. It was around five and the thermals were few, weak and far-between. Because I was en route to a turnpoint and still pretty close to the start, retrieve was quick and easy.

Part II

        My next flying opportunity was the following Monday, the second day of the Lone Star Nationals.  I was seriously looking forward to flying out of Hearne, which is slightly closer to the Gulf Coast and I hoped would have more frequent lower-pressure systems.  I texted Dave Prentice early the day before, who told me I could get tow and retrieve for a reasonable fee without paying for the entire competition, and that I should be there at nine for pilot briefing.

        I showed up a little late after stocking a cooler full of beverages.  I ran into Steve Sirrine on the airstrip.  I smiled at him and said hi, remembering him from the AZ Towfest.  He told me that today was going to be a search and rescue operation to find a pilot that was missing from yesterday.  I giggled and waited a few seconds for him to say he was joking, but his expression did not change.  He confirmed that he was serious.  He told me that Don Bayliss, a pilot from Atlanta, had gone missing yesterday at about 1500 hrs.  In his last radio transmission he said he was getting sucked into a cloud, pulling maneuvers and trying to get down.  I was in shock.

        I meandered over to the small control building on the airstrip and the sullen looks confirmed what Steve had told me.  Dave Prentice was on the phone with police, whom he had contacted as soon as Don was missing yesterday and who had continued searching for him into the night.  As soon as it was safe to do so after the storm, a trike had also been used in the search.  Dave divided a map into search areas, made copies, and we all split up into search and rescue teams.

        I was on a team with Darius, a Lithuanian paraglider pilot who lives in Grand Junction, CO.  We had been given a search area in which Don was pretty likely to be.  We went there as quickly as possible, taking every accessible road from the highway and doubling back.  Darius scanned the right side of the road and I the left, calling on the radio every minute or two.  We knew we were looking for a white and blue wing and we were determined to find it.

        After a few hours of searching we realized how futile our efforts were.  The vegetation surrounding the roads was sometimes so thick that he could have landed 15 feet off the road and we still could never have seen him.  We knew before starting that Don had been called many times, and that his phone would initially ring for quite a while before going to voicemail, but recently went straight to voicemail.  We had been checking our cell phone signal and everywhere we were had at least one bar.  Though we knew his radio battery was likely exhausted by that time, we kept calling him on the radio.

        Afternoon crept around.  We looked at the clock and it was 3:30, about 24 hours after his last radio transmission.  Darius called Dave Prentice.  I couldn’t hear what Dave was saying.  Darius hung up the phone and said that the police had found Don about an hour ago.  I inhaled a big breath, preparing for a sigh of relief.  I then realized that I assumed too much.  I looked at Darius and asked, “…is he alive?”  Darius paused, looked down, and shook his head ‘no.’

        There was an awkward silence that lasted several minutes.  The drive back to Hearne was

seasoned with conversations about life, death, religion, the purpose of life and the irony that flying is, to some extent, our religion.  When we arrived back at the airstrip we got as many details as we could about the incident.  The task had been called due to a visible gust front, and Don continued flying shortly thereafter.  The police found him still in his harness in a field.  His reserve had not been deployed.  His wing had been gathered around him, likely for warmth.  The only visible injury was that one of his arms was broken.  Despite this, he had managed to pull his wing around himself.  His water was empty, his flight deck was open and an apple core was inside.   They tried to turn on his radio and it flashed for a second, but they were unsure if it was a residual charge or if he had had enough power to transmit.  They tried to retrieve his tracklog from his GPS but for some reason it had failed to record.  There was no way at this point to determine time of death until an autopsy was performed.

        His condition at death, however, had confirmed our worst fears.  He must have still been alive after impact, or he wouldn’t have been able to gather his wing around himself.  Considering his water was empty and his flight deck open with an apple core inside, he was probably alive for some time after impact.  He was probably paralyzed from the waist down, or he would have gotten out of his harness.   He was likely in incredible pain due to his arm and possible back fractures.  Though I did not know him as more than a passing acquaintance from Valle those who knew him well said that he is the type of guy that, if given the choice between death and life as a paraplegic he would have chosen death.  This might explain his lack of phone call.  We don’t know why he didn’t pull his reserve, but the likely scenario is that the violent air of the cloud into which he was sucked caused a serious collapse, which caused his glider to enter a high-G spiral and him lose consciousness, which he likely regained sometime after impact.  Another possibility is that he just thought he could control it and was too proud to pull his reserve.  We’ll never know.

        With much trepidation, the following day Dave put to a vote whether or not we would continue with the competition.  It was unanimous that we continue.  I know that if I had died I would not want my fellow pilots to waste a week of good flying, especially since all of us were from out of state.  So we started anew, with heavy hearts, on Tuesday.

        I was able to get out of work on Tuesday, so I joined them.  It was some of the most beautiful air I’d ever been in.  Though it was difficult to initially get up to sufficient glide altitude, once we were there it was on!  Blue holes surprised me with strong lift, and a couple of times I noticed wisps of clouds developing above me as I was tugged skyward.   Being fairly new to cloud flying, I erred on the side of caution as I saw others fearlessly allowing themselves to be sucked smack-dab right into the middle of clouds and spat out the side.  I talked about it with them later and they giggled at my timidness.  “There’s cloud suck, and there’s cloud suck,” they said, inferring that the cloud suck of a lone cloud that size that is just developing is not usually something to be worried about.

        I tried my best to keep up with everyone, but most of them were so skilled that they could start below me, core up right beside me and end up on top of me before I knew it.  And most were on such high-performance wings that they made a mockery of me on glide.  After the above-mentioned cloud we went on glide towards the river.  Dave Prentice noticed a large gust front similar to the one two days ago that had killed Don.   The gust front was still probably 40 miles away, and Dave radioed that we’ve got ten minutes before the task is called and we have to land.

Just then I seemed to get lift everywhere.  My vario was acting like a penny slot machine that just put out a million dollars.  It just wouldn’t shut up!  The gust front was still many miles away, no

clouds anywhere above me, and I was seriously tempted to keep going just a little longer.   The fact that I hadn’t had a good flight in a few months had me so horny for air that I allowed my judgment to entertain a potentially lethal lapse.  Then I remembered Don, who had been caught in almost the exact same situation and died only days ago.  I reluctantly decided to spiral down and landed in a beautiful green pasture.  As I was packing up my wing a light rain started to fall.  The rain was pushed away by a serious gusty wind, probably up to 25 miles per hour at times.   As I was packing it up it was excruciatingly evident that I could have made a decision that might well have cost me life or limb.

        The next day I was able to fly with them was on Saturday, which was the end of the competition.  We started out having to work extremely hard just to stay aloft and find something that would get us more than 1500 feet AGL.  The thermals were erratic and poorly organized.  When the launch (in this case, glide) window opened many of us were still too low to risk going on glide.  The more seasoned pilots went ahead, while a few others and I wanted more altitude before starting.  I finally was able to get high enough to be comfortable pushing out, so I did.  Only a few miles later I was having trouble finding lift.  I’d find some, boat around but never go anywhere, keep searching to no avail.  During my search I was in complete awe about how incredible these competitions were; I could see people in the distance in front of and a couple behind me—some sinking, some boating, some scratching low.  All were showing me where to go and where not to go.  The spectacle of being half a mile above the earth’s surface and seeing the speck of my fellow pilots in the distance, the amazing panorama that exists in not only two, but three dimensions(!) astounded me.  It was literally awesome.   I’ve never been competitive, but at that moment I understood exactly why people love these competitions.

        The lift was getting scant, and though I tried widening and narrowing my circles as needed many times I just couldn’t get up.  Then I looked at my GPS and the time read about 1:30.  I thought, “you know, peak thermal activity is just about right now, and you’re in Texas in the summer and you’ve got 1500 feet between you and the ground.  There’s got to be something stronger than this around.”  So I examined the terrain and found a wind-break treeline that could act as a trigger, and pushed out toward it.  Sure enough, it fired off a nice, big, collected thermal that took me to cloudbase at 7000 feet.  I was in the middle of a huge blue hole, clouds around me in all directions about 10 miles away.  I was ecstatic. After topping it out I only had 1000 feet or so to go to the first cylinder, so that’s where I went.  Still had plenty of altitude to make the second cylinder once I got there, so I changed course and hit that one up.

On glide to the second cylinder I caught another nice, smooth, collected thermal that took me back to cloudbase. I was nearly still there when I hit the second cylinder and turned toward goal. This task was an open triangle, so goal was into the wind. I started to get low but saw some crows circling and heeded their call. The sun was losing its intensity and the air was starting to turn more yellow. It was around 4 o’clock and the thermals were getting weaker. I made the most out of every little thermal I could find as I was battling a mild headwind toward goal.

I kept in radio contact with Dave, who was coaching another pilot into goal. He told me what goal looked like from the air—a moderate-sized pasture just on my side of the river. He saw me eeking out some lift and told me that I had plenty of altitude to make goal. I disagreed and continued to thermal for a few minutes, arguing that the headwind was killing me. Dave finally insisted I go on glide. When I got above goal I had a couple thousand feet. I guess Prentice knows what he’s talking about after all. Dave told me to use some of the stuff I learned at his SIV clinic the previous summer, so I spiraled down and landed, stuffed my wing in a stuff sack and exchanged high fives with everyone. I

loaded in the van and we were off.

I’ve had longer flights in terms of both duration and miles covered, but this was my favorite flight. This was my first taste of competition, and though not everyone made goal that day, I did. And though a lot of that is just plain luck, I attribute a good portion of it to my insight early in the flight that I should look for stronger lift despite my newbie desire to not leave the lift I had. That moment highlighted to me why paragliding is so amazing: it takes skill to handle a wing on the ground and to keep a wing open in the air, but more than that it is a potentially intensely rewarding game of mental acuity and decision making. It’s like chess in the middle of the sky. All this was put into grave perspective when I realized I could have permanently forfeited my chance to ever see any of this god-awful beauty if I had succumbed to the desire to keep going only several days ago.

We got back to the place of one of Dave Prentice’s friends for the post-competition party. Much beer was drank, and many beasts were eaten. Dave broke out his cooler and treated us to duck, goose, deer and javelina, of which the big game he had himself killed with his bow and arrow. We shared stories of Don. Dave was very fond of a particular story in which he hid and popped out as Don turned a corner and softly said, “boo”. Don reportedly jumped about three feet in the air and shrieked like a little schoolgirl. Don was hardcore, though, and took fitness seriously. He was known to invite paragliding buddies for extremely long runs or swims before or after flying. Nobody would ever join him because they knew they’d get smoked.

Dave announced the awards, and we generally had as good a time as we could considering our loss. It was a giant elephant standing on a sheet of plywood, gently squashing the mood. It’s really hard to have a great time when someone we all knew died less than a week ago. It’s also hard to have a good time knowing that we all could have been the spirit haunting the party if we had succumbed to the same single bad decision.

So the unequivocal moral of the story is, live to fly another day—because the next day you fly might be the most incredible flight you’ve had to date!

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