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Marty and Bill on glide
Josh and Robb climbing high
Lockwood Valley with Frazier Mountain Ahead
Gliding over Gorman toward the I-5
Magic Mike is hypoxic, we went 52 Miles not 25!
Birthday boys flashing their 52 mile smile
Everybody still high from a great day of flying
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50 Miles on my first XC flight
by Tom Brand for Paragliding Magazine
On a weekend in September, I had the best flight of my paragliding career. I had driven to the south coast of California to attend a thermal clinic with accomplished competition pilot Josh Cohn, and Eagle Paragliding's Instructor of the Year award recipients Marty DeVietti and Rob Sporrer. My instructor, Matt Gerdes, joined us for what turned out to be an incredible weekend of flying.
After arriving on launch, the instructors went over the weather one more time, and Rob Sporrer explained the specifics of the site-- which had its share of challenges. Getting up and flying over the back side to land in the wider valley to the north was a much more appealing option than landing in the LZ on the front side, which was a pretty long glide.
Rob stressed the importance of landing safe preferably in an LZ. It was more important to land in clean airflow possibly somewhere far from a trail or a road where we would have a long, hot hike through evil Manzanita. Landing near a trail would be nice, but only if the conditions permitted doing so. It's better to have a longer hike and land in a safer spot as opposed to landing in a place with rotor or turbulence for convenience sake. This meant we needed to try and make sure we had enough altitude to make it to an LZ, and not paint ourselves into a corner with minimal altitude. He also made sure that each of us had plenty of water in case we needed it.
Before we launched, we got to watch the local hero, Tom Truax, sky out above us. Rob told us Tom held the state distance record of 145 miles, and although we didn't know it yet, he was about to fly 121 miles this day! As he disappeared into the atmosphere, we prepared to launch. Josh, Marty and Rob were all flying Tandem with the lower airtime pilots in the clinic. I thought the tandem would be an excellent experience to thermal and fly cross country with one of the legends, but I was after a good flight of my own.
The forecasted lapse rate was excellent and the winds aloft were light all the way above 13,000 feet. At the pre-launch briefing Rob, Josh, and Marty all gave great tips on how to catch the lift, stay with it, and get high. They told us to try to stay together and thermal as a gaggle, trying to mark the areas of stronger lift. On glides, we were to spread out more and seek out usable thermals in the line of our intended route. Apparently it was an excellent lecture on thermaling, because out of the 14 pilots there that day, every single one of us got up! It wasn't easy either, it took a great deal of patience to reach cloud base, and we hopped from thermal to thermal until we found the one that took us all the way up to base, which was at just over 13,000 feet, the highest I had been by far.
There was a lot of information being fed to me. I had a lot going on going on in my head, but I focused on the task at hand. The instructors stressed that once you had altitude your options open immensely. I made connecting and staying with the lift my focus. Things started to click as I climbed out in front of launch. At first, my turns were too steep and I was falling out of the backside of the lift. Matt Gerdes coached on the radio and advised me to flatten my turns out and track the lift a little better. I was turning to abruptly diving my turns and throwing altitude away. The air was smoother in the center of the thermal and my climbs were much better than they had been when I wasn't in the core. It was nice knowing that those guys were watching, and soon several of them were in the air with me and we were working the lift together. Until this point I had never tried to work the lift with other pilots, mainly because I was nervous about being so inexperienced and flying next to other pilots in big thermals, and I had only thermaled a handful of times before. The tips that they had given me were making plenty of sense, and I could see the line of clouds forming in the direction we were going to fly.
I climbed high, and after about half an hour we had a good gaggle forming over the top of the ridge. The air was much cooler at altitude, and the view was amazing.
I tried to remember what the instructors had said about spotting other pilots in better lift while still searching on my own. I would find nice thermals and notice other pilots flying toward me to join in on the fun. I started to watch others get lift and if it seemed like they were doing better I would join them. I have to admit I was more comfortable thermaling alone at first, but after a few thermals with other pilots I found that we all began working together really well.
Soon, the majority of the group was over 13,000 feet MSL above launch! I saw Rob and his student Mike who were sharing a birthday this day. They had been the last to launch, because Rob was on launch helping people until the last person had launched, while Marty and Josh and Matt flew around us, herding us up to cloud base. When we were all together, Josh led the charge with Marty and Rob close behind. Josh took a slightly more daring route into some road less terrain, while Marty and Rob opted to be closer to the highway. Although no one doubted that Josh would get up, I decided to follow Rob and Marty. It was along time before we found another climb, and we were over some wicked looking terrain, so it was pretty exciting. We still hadn't caught the next thermal when I looked back to where Josh had gone. I kept looking over his way to see how he was doing. There was absolutely no sign of a cloud ahead of him when he went on his glide. The next time I looked back to check on his status he was screaming upwards towards a forming cumulus. He must have known that was going to happen, but I have no idea how.
We kept gliding and getting lower, and I noticed Rob and Mike had found a nice one up ahead of us. They were really climbing fast, so I was eager to get where they were thermaling. We flew underneath Rob and Mike, but didn't find the lift we saw them climbing through. This was pretty frustrating. The gaggle just boated around in zero sink for five minutes until something finally let loose. Marty and Bill cored up a nice one and we joined in the climb. About half way though our climb I heard Magic Mike on the radio saying he and Rob were at 13,500 and getting on course for Lockwood Valley. At the top of this thermal I caught up with Matt, and we worked a nice thermal together and set out on glide.
Climbing to cloud base with my instructor Matt was an amazing experience. I watched the edges of the cloud change, and Matt and I flew just to the south of a huge line of clouds. All of a sudden, we heard a very loud noise, and it got louder, "FIGHTER JETS!" I thought to myself. They went right under us, just a couple of thousand feet below. That sounds like along ways, but the noise was incredible. Later in the flight we flew over a Cessna 172, and a helicopter!
As Matt and I connected the dots under the clouds, we sometimes had to glide with big ears and speed bar to keep a safe distance beneath them. We didn't want to be in the clouds with all this air traffic. I hadn’t been this close to a big cloud at altitude and decided to keep a safe distance so as to not violate FAA regulations.
At this point I was so excited to have been in the air for such a long time, I could hardly believe it. When I looked over my shoulder I couldn't even see launch, just the mountains around it. The distance we had traveled really hit home when I saw Interstate 5 in front of us, with Lake Castaic to the south and the Tehachapi Mountains to the North.
I saw Rob and Mike up ahead waiting for the gaggle to catch up at the junction of the I-5. I had just seen Marty and Bill with Josh and Robb Milley climb out from really low above what I found out later was Gorman. Matt and I glided to where Rob and Mike were thermaling and for the first time I discovered a thermal for the group.
Rob and Mike came over to join us and we all climbed out together. Josh and Robb with Marty and Bill had set out on glide on the tandems with good altitude after the climbs they had from being so low over Gorman. We all started a glide together after our climb, and continued what we had been doing all day. We saw some clouds a little more on the south side of the Antelope valley and we pushed in this direction, keeping highway 138 East within an easy glide the entire time. We were over the flatlands now, and the terrain was much mellower than it had been for the first part of the flight.
We were getting nice thermals and I was leading on some of the glides. It felt strange to be out in front, and I wasn't sure where we were supposed to land, so three times I turned around to come back and join the gaggle of pilots who were making more turns in lift. I had been flying straight, going up without turning for several miles. Josh was the only pilot in front of me and I wanted to fly closer to Rob and Marty and Matt, so I kept doubling back. Later I talked to Josh about this and he said that I was probably in a nice convergence line over the valley. Matt, Rob, and Marty teased me about my turning back, they were pretty amused to see me coming back for them on my first XC flight ever.
We were getting reports of 15-20 mile per hour winds on the ground from our chase crew, so we had a good ground speed over the valley and we were covering ground nicely. It was much different to be thermaling over the flat ground instead of the mountain terrain. I liked having so much terrain clearance.
We could see some pretty tall clouds out on the horizon, so Josh and Marty and Rob all landed together, and I landed with Matt. The three tandems had flown 52 miles from Pine, and Matt and I had flown 50 miles on my fist ever XC flight! I was as excited and overwhelmed as I was totally exhausted.
The next day of the clinic we flew a small competition-like cross country task at another site in Ojai called Chief's. The instructors told us about how a cross country task in a competition is called. We all sat in as guest members of the task committee and came up with the day’s task. Flying the task was challenging because a section of high clouds shaded us for over an hour, and made it difficult to stay in the air while the heating had stopped. A gaggle of six of us survived the shade, and a few of us set out on the course. Josh Cohn and Casey Rodgers were the only two pilots out of the eleven to make goal. After the flying we went to the local pizza joint for a debriefing.
On day three, the wind had picked up in the mountains so we decided on some ridge soaring. We spent the day flying a cliff in Santa Barbara. I learned a great deal about soaring at the ridge and top landing, and had a great time.
I can't say enough about the Instructors and how professional they are in every aspect. I will definitely be attending more of their clinics. I'm already planning on joining them for their trips to Valle De Bravo, Mexico or Brazil this winter. They are also threatening to do a trip to Hawaii and Peru sometime in the future as well, and these guys are who I would want to travel to new sites with.