Today, I Learn to Fly

Saturday, 13th February 2010

Above it all

This was it: the day I was going to learn how to throw myself off a hill and soar into the clouds. Ted picked me up in time for the 8.30 start at the school and we met the other 4 guys who were also in for 9 days of awesomeness. Before we could get down to the serious business of matching the right size wings to the right pupils, there was the small issue of sorting out what we would each be called, seeing as 3 of the 5 of us were called Kieran. For once in my life I didn’t bother promoting my nickname, so I got to keep my real name, or to keep things clear(ish) when talking on the radios, I was ‘Kieran-that-is-Kieran’. After doing the usual signing our lives away to the school and the HGFA, we hit the road, heading to the Reeds training slope.

First Impressions

The training hill is sloped just enough to let us charge down it, as we are launching, but without dropping away from us so much that we end up suspended in the air high enough that we could do much harm if we pulled a control too hard. Bill, one of the instructors, showed us the forward launch technique then we got hooked into harnesses and tried it ourselves. Forward launching is the easiest way to launch: basically just run forward and the wing that’s attached behind you is thrust into the air and flies forward above your head, much like what a kite would do if you faced away from it and ran forward. The trick then is to balance running speed and brake pressure on the wing to keep it from overtaking you, or falling back down behind you. My first attempt looked good: wing up above me nicely, running down the hill, then for some reason I stopped running so fast and the wing mercilessly overtook me, leaving nothing for me to do but nose-dive into the ground with such determination that I became an instant contender for the bloopers video compilation.

CommittedAfter lunch it was time to fly, thankfully not solo just yet though. Up at Mystic launch, Adam – the instructor who was going to take me for my tandem flight – unpacked the wing we were about to fly the 400m down to the landing paddock, while I took measure of fairly sizeable drop in front of me and felt excitement give way to adrenaline and nerves. Even though my part in the launch was simple – when told to run, run, and don’t stop, not even when you think you’re in the air, until told to – I was still weighing up the chance of me not running right, tripping us both up and rolling down the rock-strewn hill-side. Now strapped into the harness which was in turn attached to the paraglider and my instructor’s harness, I was standing on launch, looking straight out over Bright below, eyes fixed on my target, waiting for the call…and go! Leaning forward into a run, I took one step, two steps, maybe a third, then I was just running in the air, and before I knew it Adam was telling me to get comfortable in the seat of the harness. It had taken 5 seconds to go from standing like a turkey on launch to floating through the air, wind blowing past my ears, totally at ease with the fact my instructor and I were suspended from a glorified piece of tent by a few dozen bits of string each about a millimetre thick.
Rock & Roll

The conditions were calm and stable, meaning we had roughly 5 minutes in the air as we glided along the ridge extending towards the landing area. Adam passed the controls over and let me steer the wing, bringing it over the paddock and flying a figure-of-eight formation to loose height over the downwind end of the field, before we came down, fairly gently, in the middle of the paddock. Before any of us had time to reflect on what we’d just done, Ted came over and coyly asked ‘now do you want to do that on your own?!’, and in a moment of blind courage we all said ‘hell yeah!’.

Base viewBack up at launch, the fact that I’d just successfully flown down from here did nothing to calm my nerves, as this time it was all on me: nobody to launch, and nobody to fall back if it went wrong. Glider unpacked, rolled out, lines untangled and checked, harness strapped in, checked and re-checked, harness attached to glider, brakes and risers in hand, and I was ready, watching the wind streamers down the slope, waiting for the wind to blow steadily up the face of the launch, and then Ted came across the radio Run! And I was off. Leaning forward I felt the wing rising up behind me, a little crooked but I could still hear Ted repeatedly saying run so I kept going, then run, run, release and I released the risers, but now the wing felt as though it was overtaking me – not a good scenario – Ted was now a little more insistent RUN!, but I could feel the wing struggling to stay aloft now that I’d let it get ahead of me, and I hesitated to run further down the slope, although I already felt that at this point I was in for a rough tumble down the hill if the wing didn’t fly. Ted, seeing that things were past the point of a safe first-take off came through the radio ok, ok, abort, pull down hard on both brakes, but I was now at the edge of the astro-turf launch and entering the steeper, rough part of the slope. Doing as I was told, I pulled the brakes down past my waist – theoretically stalling the glider so it would fall behind me – but instead of stopping, the glider filled with life, lifting me just off my feet so only my toes could vainly try to gain some purchase on the ground that was fast falling away from me. For a second, I looked at the ground, down the rough slope, over the hundreds of pine trees that I was heading for, dangling in suspense, not falling, but not quite flying, as I was still choking the wing’s desire to fly with the brakes. Ted called through brakes up, and then I was flying, not struggling down the hill with a half inflated balloon tied to my back, but actually flying.
On FinalIt took a few seconds to digest what had just happened, as I dangled in the running position in my harness, watching the ground now steadily falling away from me and the air beginning to rush past my face. After that I was a robot, Ted may as well have been holding a radio-controlled joystick as I followed each of his commands – get comfortable in your harness, a little more brakes, turn right 40 degrees, keep that heading – but after a minute, I was flying out over the spur of Emily ridge, taking a few seconds to enjoy the view – Wandiligong valley to the right; Bright to the left – now being guided down by Adam in the landing paddock. The rest was fairly simple, although coming in to land, the nerves edged up a little, and I found myself not running out the landing and having quite sore feet because of it.

The timings of the troop-carrier’s runs up the hill meant that Kip and I got the chance of a second solo flight before the light faded, and thankfully that launch went a lot more smoothly than the first, although the landing was just as heavy as the first. The 3 Kierans all ended up staying at the hostel, and high from our day’s achievements, we headed to the Bright Brewery for a celebratory pint.

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