I am standing on the ground. Over my shoulders and strapped to my legs, a harness connects me to lines and a wing that is virtually spineless. Looking at the windsock I see the wind is basically coming from the right direction, so I take a step back between the lines and get ready for the next wave of breeze.
I hear it before it reaches me, rustling the grass along the edges of the runway. As I feel it brush past my face I lunge forward. The risers begin to lift and I feel the wing behind me inflate. At about three quarters of the way to its highest point the wing pauses and almost feels like it’s going to drag me backwards. So I bend into the harness and drive my legs harder forward fighting for purchase in the grass. With this added effort the wing slides above my head and becomes almost static above me.
The wing will not stay there by itself. I must run forward to keep it above me. As I run it starts to drift to the left, so I pull the right brake slightly, and run left. The wing and I are on the same straight path. I am running down the runway into the wind, the wing hovering loyally over my head. Looking up I see the wing sway slightly towards the right, so I brake left and run right to stay to stay underneath. Again as before the wing and I reunite in one motion moving forward.
This flowing dance continues and I realize I am almost three quarters of the way down the runway. I also realize that I am tired and somewhat bored. I feel like I could run all day under this thing, and sure that would be cool, but I want to fly.
So as my dad approaches and congratulates me, I tell him basically what I had just felt. “Dad I’m tired, and bored, I want to fly this thing.”
He knows I am serious, but is hesitant. After all I am his only son, a son who he has raised and guided for twenty seven years, many of those years single-handedly.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think you need more practice.”
“I could run under this thing all day, but what am I practicing for if I’m never gonna fly.”
I can see this hit a cord. He has himself experienced this very thing. The runway we now stand on is in his back yard, quite literally in his back yard. He built it to fly in and out of with his ultralight air planes. I remember the care he took making sure the grass was just right; squatting close to the ground and surveying the rolls and dips in grade, methodically driving over the high spots with a roller until they were flat.
Finally, after his flight training was complete he found himself taxiing his plane up and down the runway. Then came the final decision, ‘ok,’ he must have said to himself. ‘This is it.’
Ok, I see this understanding in his eye. So, I step back, shut up, and think about flight. Soon my father starts to assess the air. My father knows air. He flies in it and is aware of the signs and breath of it. I have at this point really no idea if this is good, or if this assessing eye of my fathers will find a reason to keep me grounded.
Finally, when it seems like minutes of silence have gone by he starts telling me about how the air works above the ground. He tells me where to watch out for thermals and where to watch for turbulence from trees and structures. This I can tell is a good sign.
Let me tell you, that at this point I have resigned myself to leave the final decision in my father’s hands. I do encourage him towards the fact that I do want to do this, but if he says no I will pack up my wing and come out again another day. I do at this point understand what he is talking about, and he recognizes this, which I in turn see as another sign of encouragement.
So I say, “Ok let’s do it.”
“Ok,” he says. “Let’s try it.”
I am almost a little shocked at this. A little part of me thought he was going to say no, and maybe even hoped he would say no. But he said yes. ‘Wow,’ I think ‘he said yes.’
We start by laying the wing flat on its top. Check the lines to make sure that when pulled on they will come free and clear from the other strands of line that lay on top of each other in long straight piles on the ground. Ok, the wing is ready.
Now its time for the motor pack; the motor pack is a large awkward thing, and at first seemed very hard to carry. I remember stepping under the harness and hoisting it off the ground for the first time, wondering how I was suppose to run with this thing on. The motor pack consists of a motor, propeller, harness, an aluminum cage with a mesh of plastic wire to keep you from accidentally reaching your hand back and chopping your fingers off while also keeping a rising or falling line from your wing clear of the propeller, and a thin sheet of plastic to slide under your ass and sit on during flight. Filled with gas the whole unit ways about fifty awkward pounds.
After a little time struggling with the engine it fires and we run the engine up. Running the engine up is a process meant to see if the engine is running properly and also to warm the engine for flight—a warm engine is more reliable and runs smoother. One thing we notice during this process is that the fuel in the tank is only half full. I am an optimist in the matter. Affirming my resolve to fly, I say, “It’s half full, that should be enough for a while. I’m not going to want to fly around forever.” This is an attempt to counter the pessimistic fact that the tank while being half full, is also very much half empty.
“We don’t have anymore two cycle oil on hand to mix a new tank of gas.”
“I know but this should be enough,” I say.
I can see that he is starting to get excited about the whole idea. As this change begins to unfold itself my thoughts are reaffirmed.
At this time he remembers that the Air Force base tower is still open. We will need ground clearance to take off. My dad lives about two miles as the crow flies from Volk Field Air Force base. When the tower is closed we can fly anywhere, if it is open we have to get permission to fly.
Throughout this whole process the sun is slipping closer and closer towards the horizon. Dad runs to the house to call the tower. As he runs to the house, I walk to the wing with the pack on, preparing myself for flight. This gives me a few minutes to think.
A thought goes through my head. It’s something I heard once that Native Americans said before battle. ‘Today is a good day to die.’ I also think of something I heard Samurai warriors are trained to think. ‘The strongest warrior is the one who does not fear death.’ I don’t know a Native American or Samurai warrior to confirm the truth of these mantras, but I assure you these both ran through my mind at this point.
I look at the grass around me, the corn field at the end of the runway, the sky and the swafts of clouds high above me. ‘If this is my last day, it has been a good run.’ This is the only startling thing about the revelation to this point. I resign myself to this, and to my own amazement I am not scared.
I look up and notice my dad jogging down the runway towards me.
“They say it’s clear, they don’t expect any traffic until about nine o’clock, and then it’s only one cargo plane,” he says.
This really can happen. I am standing on the ground right now, but within a few minutes I could be in the air. I look up to see the wisps of clouds above my head wondering how close I could get to them, and what they would look like if they where directly in front of me, or around me.
“Are you ready to attach the wing?” Dad says.
I’m almost in a daze. Maybe that’s not the right way to explain it. I’m in a different frame of mind things seem to happen in slow motion at this point. It’s almost as though my body and mind are being pulled through these motions and I am allowed to watch the process. I do not, however, want to give the impression that I feel in any way out of control. On the contrary, I am right where I stand. My shoes are atop the soft grass. The harness is strapped to my body; the motor is warm and ready to start at the first tug of the cord. The risers are attached to my harness, and in turn to the cords which now lying in a pile on the ground, will in the air act as my life lines to the wing.
“Are you ready for me to start the engine?”
The only thing I can think at this time is what I know. How the wing handles from the ground. My father pulls the cord and starts the engine, then steps back.
I look down the runway, and glance behind me at the wind sock. ‘Wind looks like it’s coming from the right direction.’ Now I wait for a gust. I realize that with the propeller spinning it’s hard to use my face as a wind indicator. Air is moving all around me. So I look at the grass. I see it wave and swath, and can make out patterns. The grass ahead bends towards me, and it stays bent.
I step back and then…lunge forward into the harness. I pull up on the leading risers, there is a pause at three quarters mast and then the wing is over head. This is when I realize I have not let go of the risers. The wing continues over my head and gets in front of me. So I halt forward progress, step back and the wing falls to the ground in front of me.
“Nice abort,” Dad says.
“Thanks,” I say, and unhook from the harness to ready the wing for another attempt.
Again facing the wind, feel air all around me, look for the signs, ready Go! The wing comes up I hit the throttle when it’s overhead and continue running. I don’t quite realize how much the torque from the engine wants to twist my body to the right. I become unsquare with the wing, and the wing topples over to the right.
At this point I wonder if this is really going to happen tonight. I am almost feeling indifferent. If it does it does; if not, that’s ok.
“You know,” my father says. “If you don’t get in the air tonight you still made a lot of progress today.”
“I know,” I say, and I really mean it. I also feel that I don’t want to give up, without giving it my best shot. ‘Well it’s do or die.’ Then remind myself that this is an unusual situation. ‘If I do I might die,’ I correct myself. But this is where I am, and this is what I am doing. So I brush these thoughts from the front of my mind.
We ready the wing. I step up and attach. My father starts the motor and steps back. I look at the wind sock, watch the grass, step back and lunge forward. The wing comes up and forms a canapé above me, then starts to veer right; I brake left and run right. It seems steady, so I hit the throttle. The wind from the propeller pushes me forward, I correct for the torque of the spinning prop.
As I run my feet start to get light. Soon I realize that now my feet are not only light, but also about five feet from the ground. Ok, reality check. I am off the ground, I am going straight and I am going up. The end of the runway is coming and I am not in between the gap of trees that border the runway near the hanger. I am however rising, and it feels as though I am probably rising fast enough to clear the large bush/small tree that I am quickly approaching.
At this point I realize I know nothing. I have never been off the ground this high in a vehicle guided only by my own power, nor have I been off the ground in a vehicle of this type. I have read a couple of books about it. I have watched a video of some the things an instructor would teach—if I would have had a formal instructor. I have seen a friend of my dads, take off fly around and land a powered paraglider similar to this. But nothing in my life has been like the experience I am involved in right now.
Somehow this does not scare me. I do not have time to be scared. So I go with it. I attempt to slide the seat under me. Simultaneously, I rocket upwards about twenty five feet. ‘This is very weird.’ It does startle me a little and I let off the gas, still not quite in the seat and start to sink.
At this point I am what might look to the observer as dangerously close to the large bush/small tree. So I lean back in the seat and once again throttle up. This again sends me quickly forward and up. I am reminded of reading about the dangers of the pendulum action that can be caused by throttling up too fast and letting off too quickly. Also of a brief conversation my father and I had prior to my take off about how to counteract this phenomenon. ‘Ok, steady with the gas.’
I am up and over the first obstacle, but it is not time to get comfortable. There is, below and ahead of me, a small clearing. Further to the left is a field, and to my right the river and a wooded area.
Assessment of the situation:
I am traveling at a speed fast enough and just high enough that if I wanted to land in the small clearing now, I don’t think it could be safely done. I am also due to the torque of the motor being pushed right. I am high enough to clear the trees but I don’t want to be over them, at this height there can be turbulence from the trees, there may also be thermals above them. It feels as though I am being sucked towards them. I am also getting the slight feeling of dropping down. Both of these feelings are uncomfortable, but at this point there is no time to think about comfort. Thoughts are broken down in two ways, good and bad.
I don’t think about how I will react; I just do it. Throttle up, sit back in the seat. These two things I have already learned. I am now going up, but am still over the trees. I do not want to be here. So next is steering, I want to go left.
In the books I remember them saying, “Start your turns gradual. Try pulling the brakes down in two inch increments at first and feel what happens,” although, while reading that book I was not sitting where I am now. I do however pull the brake down about two inches and it does not give me the effect I want. This is still more bad than good.
Still through this, for what ever reason, I am not afraid. I am just here. I pull the left brake down to about shoulder level, and increase the gas. I go up and to the left. I have made my first turn.
I am about sixty feet above a small field. This small field is subsequently getting smaller by the second, as I take a heading towards the hill in front of me. This hill is where my father’s neighbors reside. Their house is nestled on top of this hill, amongst trees that are just slightly higher than my current elevation.
At this point I know a little more—I know how to go up and I know how to turn. So I climb, I turn and just catch the edge of some turbulence rising up from this new tree line. The bumps are fairly minor and I complete my turn.
I am going across another little field. I have made almost a half circle from the end of the runway. I am about one hundred feet off of the ground. I am flying smooth, and I feel that I am safely above everything. I also feel for the first time something strangely close to fear. At almost this exact moment I feel and intense appreciation for the beauty of where I now am. I look to my left and see the landing strip.
This is when I wonder if I will make it to the ground ok. I am, in fact, on my own. I am, if I need to remind myself, very far above the ground. These thoughts do not really bring fear, but they do bring realization. I have a strong urge at this point to see how I am going to land this thing.
I can’t from this position go straight to the runway and land. Not safely anyway. I have to land into the wind. So from where I fly now I will have to circle around and approach the runway from the same angle that I left it from. This means I have to complete a full circle.
I fly straight for a while and climb gradually. There is a tree belt ahead and I’m not sure how the air will react over top of it. I don’t want to be turning while I find out. So I fly straight over the top. As I fly over I gently rise up and then come down slightly, it is not uncomfortable.
I start my arcing turn back to the runway, and as I come around I climb high above the large corn field that borders the end of our airstrip. I am at this point what feels like simply put, very high. I am between one hundred and fifty, and two hundred feet.
Something else happens as I make my wide sweeping turn back to the runway. The wind which was just now at my back doesn’t change but the wing and I change to meet it. I feel the wing, and then myself start to move sideways. This feels very odd. I hear the wing ripple slightly and wonder for a split second if it’s going to collapse. I wonder what the hell I’m doing up here. I wonder if this is enough of this for me and if this will be the last time I will ever do this.
I continue turning, check the wind sock and conclude I am in the correct position for descent. Then I realize I have never landed one of these. I have seen it done. I have read about it. Now I have to do it. So I let off the gas, this slows me, but since I am now facing into the wind, this gives my wing lift and I stay relatively level. I wonder if I will reach the ground safely, but quickly brush this thought aside.
I am looking down at the runway my father is a little speck facing up at me. I do not feel as though I really see this. It just is. This is where I am. I am only here. I am dangling two hundred feet from the ground. The only thing separating my ass from the ground is a thin sheet of nylon and my feet.
So I do what I have to do. I pull the brakes, both at the same time, gently at first and I feel myself drop. Gradually I pull them a little harder.
‘I’m not going to force a stall, am I?’ I think. ‘No, your ok,’ I reply to myself. ‘Your doing fine. Am I coming down too fast? No, this is about right. How about my trajectory—I’m not going to overshoot the runway am I? Just a little more pull. Careful, evenly now. See the wind sock, gonna have to correct left. Just a little, that’s it. Wow, there’s the ground, it’s getting close. The wind sock says I’m aiming the right way. The ground is coming fast. Keep those brakes steady. Twenty feet, ten feet, three feet. Now pull the brakes all the way down! Ok. Holy shit you’re touching. Well what am I waiting for, take some steps forward, hold those brakes, spin 180 degrees and drop the wing. Now breathe, yeah go ahead take a couple more good clean breaths. Shit I forgot to kill the motor on my approach.’
At this point I suddenly realize, I am not the only one on this ground, this earth. My dad jogs up to me; he is whiter than I have ever seen him. His face is smiling, but tears could pour out at any second.
“I have never been that scared in my entire life,” he says. “Give me a hug.” His voice is almost shaking. At this point I am more than happy to oblige this request. I can only speculate at what my face looked like to him at that point. Probably wide eyed and grinning.
I am now safely on the ground. The wing is down. The engine is shut off. I am safe.
“How was it?” my father says.
“It was the most incredible thing I have ever done. I want to do it again.”
He smiles, “tomorrow, we need more gas.”
“Yeah, tomorrow,” I say, as I look at the sky in a new found wonder.
Adrenaline is coursing through my body and I am feeling like I am right here. I don’t know if I can explain the feeling. The greens, they are so green. The blues, the yellows and browns, the breeze and its smell, it all feels so very real.
As I walk back to the house the adrenaline starts to weaken its hold, and my stomach almost betrays my elated state. But in the end I have made it through unscathed and I am left with only my thoughts. I am left to analyze the thoughts that went through my head. The choices I have made. I feel good.
Since this first flight I have made several journeys into the air. All have been exciting and exhilarating, but none of them have compared in shear awareness. The only thing I could come close to comparing these hikes into the sky with would be a dream of flying.