Chasing Ghosts

It is June 26th, 2017, six days after the summer solstice. Thad Spencer and I are chasing ghosts across Southern Minnesota. The ghosts are of course, thermals, stepping stones for cross country pilots travelling down a river of air. Thad is my mentor. Flying paragliders since 2002, he is an excellent cross country pilot and holds the current Minnesota State distance record of 116 miles/186 km set the previous summer.

It was late afternoon as Thad crossed Minnesota/Iowa border, approximately 110 miles/177 km south of launch. The character of the day had changed. The clouds disappeared and the ghosts became more elusive. Patience became the key to finding lift. After several more climbs and another low save, Thad was again on glide heading toward a small town.

At this point, Thad knew he had broken his own state distance record set the year before. It would have been easy to head for the town and call it quits. Determined to leave nothing on the table, Thad continued south. Two more times he found ghosts that lifted him up and swept him downwind for another thirty miles. Shortly after 7 pm, with the sun low in the sky, Thad touched down next to a grain elevator in Lytton, Iowa. His seven hour and forty five minute flight covered 179 miles/288 km, a new Minnesota Paragliding distance record.

June is prime time for Minnesota cross country flying. I had been watching the forecast all week. Launch Code forecast a low dew points, moderate winds of 13 to 20 mph up to 10,000 feet, and a monster lapse rate of 6.5 degrees per 1000 feet. XC Skies, Chris Galle’s outstanding forecasting tool, predicted an afternoon with a 6000-foot cloud base, strong lift up to 800 feet-per-second, and “Likely Good XC” conditions from 11 am to 7 pm. The National Weather Service in Minneapolis forecast excellent soaring conditions. The post-frontal Canadian air mass driving south would act as a dry sponge across a wet table, pulling the moisture out of rich farmland into dry air aloft. The moderate upper-level winds would make for high ground speed on glide, but not too strong to rip apart the thermals. The conditions were perfect for a big XC day.

That morning Thad and I drove out to launch together, a 90-minute drive west from Minneapolis to the small town of Cosmos. There we met up with Steve Sirrine and his brother Neil. Steve owns SDI Paragliding Academy and has been flying hang gliders since 1982 and paragliders since 2002. He also manufactures some of the best tow winches in the country through his company Airtime Solutions. Neil is an outstanding tow operator and spends most of his summer towing pilots in Minnesota and his winters towing in Florida. We have a close knit group and are always welcoming new or visiting pilots. I am continually impressed with the comraderie in this sport. No matter where I have flown from Santa Barbara to Jackson, Point of the Mountain, or Mt. Brace, I have been welcomed with open arms by local pilots.

I came to the sport in 2011 literally by accident. In January of that year, the ice I was solo climbing shattered around my right tool. I swung outward pulling my second tool and fell 30 feet on to my left ankle. I walked the mile back to my car and drove myself to the hospital. I was diagnosed with a fracture across the neck of the talus bone and spent the next three months in a cast not knowing if I would ever walk again. I had a lot of time to think. My climbing career spanned 45 years and included expeditions to Alaska, big walls in Yosemite, frozen waterfalls in Colorado, desert towers in Utah, and alpine climbs in Wyoming. I came to the conclusion at age 57 the risk was no longer acceptable and it was time to retire from difficult technical routes.

Something new called. I had spent countless hours on ledges 1000 feet off the ground watching cliff swallows dive, ravens barrel roll, and eagles soar. I wanted to fly. Six months after my accident I headed out to the Point of the Mountain Utah and earned my P2 from Super Fly instructor Chris Grantham.

Thad launched his Ozone LM6 at 11:15 am. His first climb was to base at 3000 feet. The lift was only 400 fps and strong winds blew the thermals sideways. It took all his skill to stay in the air those first three hours of his flight. He stayed aloft and by midafternoon the day changed. The wind speed dropped to 15 mph, lift increased to 800 fps, and cloud base rose to over 6000 feet. He was on the autobahn, leaving lift early, pushing out on glide at forty plus mph, and chasing the next ghost.

We are blessed with great flying in Minnesota. The cross country season runs from April to October and offers up 20 to 100-plus mile days. The flat landscape is crisscrossed with paved and gravel roads affording easy access and opportunities to tow. From the air you can see 10 miles in any direction, a checkerboard of deep green and brown fields, dark forests, lakes, and small towns. It is beautiful with the sunlight reflecting off the many lakes and rivers shooting forth bright spots of light from the water.  You can land anywhere: roads, hayfields, school playgrounds, town and state parks, even graveyards. There are no box canyons or steep hillsides of scrub oak and no getting blown over the back into the lee. You can focus all your attention on flying. It is a wonderfully safe place to hone your cross country flying skills.

It is now 2:30 pm, and I am in the air on my fourth attempt to follow Thad south. By this time Thad is already past the Minnesota River and 70 miles from launch. Now I am chasing his ghost. Having lost 3000 feet of altitude from my first climb, my ears are filled with the annoying sound of a sink alarm. Ahead and below, tractors are cutting hay. Hoping to catch a trigger, I head for that field. Nothing. Beyond frustrated, my altimeter reads 300 feet as I near the end of the field and a paved road. Finally, my glider stiffens, sensing the presence of a ghost. The sound of the wind in my lines changes pitch, and my nose fills with the pungent smell of fresh cut hay. The vario screams as my Advance Epsilon 7 catches a strong thermal, triggered by the surface wind pushing the warm air of the field against the road embankment.

It is a young ghost, strong and violent, like a rodeo bronco kicking and twisting to throw me off. Cranking tight turns and hanging my body to one side of my harness, I grit my teeth keeping myself centered under my glider as it yaws, pitches and rolls. Up and up we go, making asymmetric turns as strong winds push the thermal south. It takes less than a minute to climb up 1000 feet. Still angry, the ghost does not give up trying to get rid of its unwanted rider. Finally, at 5000 feet the ghost mellows. Strong, but more consistent lift carries me another 1000 feet to cloud base. I turn south, push out my bar, slip out the downwind side of the thermal, and with one final kick the ghost sends me on my way.

Most of the people we meet flying are Minnesota born and raised. Some come from families that have worked the land for generations. They take care of their neighbors and that is the way they treat us. One time I landed on a grass strip between a power line and a highway. A man in a pickup truck watched me land and came over to talk with me. Not only did he end up giving me a ride back to launch, but he wrote a story in his local newspaper about our sport. Another time, Thad Spencer and Andy Dahl landed at the Hector, Minnesota airport. The owner of the airport was a hang glider pilot from seventies. He befriended Thad and Andy and gave them a ride back to launch in a four seat Robinson helicopter; arguably the best retrieve ever! I remember a story in this magazine about some pilots who landed in Wyoming and spent hours walking and trying to hitch a ride as a stream of pickup trucks passed them by. That would never happen here. People stop when they see us on the side of the road just to make sure we are okay. We call it Minnesota Nice.

It was 5 pm and 40 miles from launch as I approached the Minnesota River valley; a two-mile-wide sink hole of forest, swamp and river. In past flights it has been a physical and psychological barrier. It was late in the day, and here again I faced my nemesis. Patiently searching for lift on the north side of the valley, I flew right into the arms of a big ghost. It was strong, but gentle, and it lifted me up to base now at over 8000 feet. I pushed bar and crossed the valley. The late-afternoon buoyant air and persistent north wind carried me another thirty miles south. Shortly before 7 pm, I landed at the St. James, Municipal Airport. My flight lasted four hours and fifteen minutes and covered 74 miles/119 km, a personal best.

There were several pilots at the St. James airport when I landed. After packing my gear I went and talked to them. We shared a common bond; the love of flying. Before they left, they gave me the door code to the pilots briefing room. I spent the next three hours waiting for retrieve in air conditioned comfort, sitting in an overstuffed recliner reading Aviation Week and Popular Science. Life is good.

Steve Sirrine was in his car chasing Thad, following his “breadcrumbs:” location updates sent from his Garmin inReach Explorer.  After picking up Thad around 8:30 pm, they headed back north. At 10:30 they retrieved me at the St. James airport. I slipped in to the back seat next to Steve’s sleeping grandson, Tyler. I softly pried a bag of cheese puffs from his fingers and gabbed an ice cold Coke from the cooler. We shared stories of the day on the 90 minute drive back to our car at launch. We laughed and joked, basking in the afterglow that comes with putting oneself at risk and achieving something special.

The flying season in Minnesota is coming to a close. It has been a great year, a breakthrough year. One hour flights have become three hour flights and 40 miles flown now 70 miles flown. Beyond the numbers something even more important has changed: my attitude. I have become better at accepting what I have been given and happy for what I have. I am learning to be more patient.

My goals as a pilot are simple: don’t get hurt, continue to improve my skills, and be able to fly with competence when I am 80 years old. I read Mike Meier’s outstanding article “Why Can’t We Get a Handle On It?” in the September/October issue of this magazine. During my climbing career, I made a number of bad decisions with good outcomes. The good outcomes ended with my ice climbing accident and a near death experience soloing the Grand Teton in Wyoming. You can read that story, if interested, in the November 2017 issue of Rock and Ice Magazine.  I intend to enjoy flying and hope to make good decisions. I don’t need to be scared. I have done scared. I want my flying career to end with a whimper, not a bang.

Originally published in Hang Gliding & Paragliding Magazine

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