Friday, May 29, 2009

Turning the tables

We've returned to my trailer in Florida for a week before heading north to Ridgely, Maryland for Zhenya's last competition in the States, after which she'll return to Russia.

Zhenya has dedicated her final days at this airpark to learning to fly the Dragonfly, something in which only two months ago she was thrilled to simply get a ride.

She soloed two days ago. Her instructor even made of movie about the event (found here.) Afterwards she given carte blanche to take one up whenever she chose. Believe me, she chose often.

This morning she rose so early to fly that not another soul was stirring on the airport. After pulling a Dragonfly out of the hangar and preparing it for flight, she returned to my trailer and poked her head in.

"Can you come out in a bit and make sure I'm still alive?" Usually there had been many Dragonfly-qualified people about to passively oversee her flying but not this morning. I understood her concern and, once I'd make a cup of coffee, I walked out to the grass runway carrying the coffee in one hand and dragging a chair in the other. I sat down just off the side of the runway to take a few pictures of her alone in flight. After a few landings and take offs, she taxied over to me. "Do you want to take some pictures?" she asked.
"Yes, I am," I said. "I've taken quite a few while you land."
"No," she said. "I mean up there. Do you want to come along?" She nodded her head towards the empty back seat.

I've been flying aircraft since I was 14 and, though I've never been checked out in a Dragonfly, I have no doubt I could fly it right now without instruction. That's the logic. The emotion of that moment, however, was very, very different. It felt like I was being offered a ride on the back of an eagle's wings where my faith was far more important than my skills.

Our twenty minutes of darting between and around the low clouds of that morning felt like the ride of a lifetime to me. It felt like the greatest dance I have ever shared with anyone. Moreover, the tables had been turned. It was a gift to me...the gift of flight I'd been giving others ever since I got my license on my 16th birthday.

Life is good.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Coast to Coast

Zhenya and I had planned to head to Schwängau in southern Germany right after the Jamie's Flytec Race & Rally so that Zhenya could participate in the Pre-Worlds, the warm up competition the precedes the actual Women's World Hang Gliding Championship at the same location by a year. Logistical issues, however, seemed to dictate there would be a good chance Zhenya's glider wouldn't make it there in time for her to compete until the last two days of the meet, and perhaps not at all. So we canceled a slew of airline tickets and opted to head to San Diego instead, where Zhenya could join Jonny Durand in participating in the Torrey Pines Gliderport Flight Fest.

When Jamie, who lived and worked many years in San Diego, heard of our change of plans, she was quick to change her own and join us.

Zhenya's good friend Mita (the familiar form of Dimitri, as Zhenya is the familiar form of Evgeniya) makes the fifth person we've crammed into a hotel room for two. When I met him last October back in Chelyabinsk, Russia, he talked of his plans of coming to the States for four months, long before Zhenya even pondered the idea. By a coincidence of events, he had selected San Diego as his destination and, by a further coincidence of timing, Zhenya and I were able to pick him up at the airport.

The five of us, hang glider pilots all, are now enjoying the combined pleasures of both a familiar (Jamie and I) and a new (Jonny, Zhenya, and Mita) location. Only Jonny and Zhenya are flying, however. The rest of us are happy to just share the company, location, and spirit.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Flytec Race and Rally

Russia's Zhenya Laritskaya and Australia's Jonny Durand ready to launch

We're in the middle of the second competition that brought Zhenya to Florida; the Flytec Race and Rally, conceived of and organized by Jamie. Flytec produces the most popular hanggliding instrument.

This unique event stages each successive task every morning from the airport that had served as the previous day's goal. In this manner, this competition is working its way north from La Belle, Florida, the location of last week's competition, to Lookout Mountain in the southeast corner of Tennessee, home of one of the east coast's most well-known hanggliding sites.

Jamie, in addition to running the meet, is driving for her boyfriend Carl and two other friends. I'm far less ambitious, content to drive for Zhenya alone. Often Jamie and I will use our GPS navigators to locate Starbucks along the route where we can track our respective charges (using SPoTs: Satellite Personal Trackers).

David Glover, who is assisting Jamie with running this meet, made the video below of the second day of competition. Among other things, it makes gentle fun of the morning Zhenya set up her glider wearing a white bikini.

Here's a video made by Australian competitor Jonny Durand (top ranked pilot in the world at the moment), much of it filmed while in flight. It gives you a fair sense of what the competition is like, both on the ground and in the air.

Here's another short one by David Glover that also gives a feel for the competitions.

Here's five minute video of a few of the competition's better pilots filmed by the helmet-mounted videocam of Bobby Bailey. Bobby is the designer of the Dragonfly, the first ultralight with both enough power as well as the ability to fly slow enough that opened up the possibilities of hang glider aero-towing. This, in turn, truly opened up all the possibilities of hang gliding in general.

Bobby is one of the few pilots that hang glider pilots would trust to fly close enough to film this kind of footage. Jeff O'Brian is the pilot who drags his leg on the lake before landing. Zhenya makes a few appearances both in the front seat of Bobby's Dragonfly and in her own hang glider in the air. The loops and spins filmed at close hand are of Jonny Durand, who is probably the only hang glider pilot Bobby trusts to do such things so close to him. Though it's easy to miss, early in the video Bobby even flies close enough to Jonny to touch his wingtip.

Lastly, here's a :33 video of Jeff dragging his foot across the lake, taken from the ground. You'll see Bobby in his dragonfly in hot pursuit. If nothing else, you might get a feel for how casual flight is to so many people who frequent this airport. A general aviation airport is like a small military establishment with rules, procedures, lines not to be crossed, and the threat of law hanging over everyone's head. Here it's like a skateboard park with everyone flinging themselves into the sky with abandonment, thoroughly enjoying the discovery of what else they can do that they haven't done before. I've seen two people killed here, one just 100 meters from where I stood during an act of recklessness that we all unfortunately encouraged, and one from a freak accident that felt more like the random act of chance than anything that could have been avoided.

Still, we all love to fly. It's about living.