Is it possible to have friend-overload? Being around so many encouraging, badass and lovable people has me saying, "I wanna be like them when I grow up!" My heart has been endlessly full since arriving in Groveland for the Quest Air Nationals.
As for the flying, it's been going really well! I haven't flown in six months, and I haven't aerotowed since June, so I kept my expectations low. In that time, I've focused on my emotional game. Competitions are a week long. During Midwest 2017, I (unwillingly) rode the emotional roller coaster of success then failure then success and failure again, which took a massive amount of mental energy. I've focused heavily on mental endurance training these last months so that doesn't happen again.
And then there's my landings. They suck and that can be so dangerous. The last time I towed was the last day of Midwest. I made goal, then piled in downwind - my worst landing ever. My other landings that week were nowhere near as bad, but they sure as hell weren't that good either. Cue the landing anxiety that I'd carry with me to Quest.
On day 1, I set up my Sport2 early, prepared to pattern tow until I could goddamn land like a goddamn pro. I would not go into comp week without utter confidence in my landing abilities. The night before, I'd discussed my landing anxiety to a table full of pilots, and listened to every strategy they provided from the highly technical to the ridiculously simple. And then like a brick through a window, the answer hit me in the face: I was overthinking.
That's probably not a surprise to most pilots who are reading this, but on the most basic level, I just needed to dial down the angst and breathe. Fellow lady pilot Heather Renihan suggested the Yogi Stare method. In ground effect, zone out while looking forward like you do when you're flowing through a sun salutation. Then when the feeling's right (AKA hitting trim speed) think, UP. And push that goddamn A-frame UP!
Out of all the wonderful feedback I received that night, I knew she'd hit my nail on the head. That was the mentality I entered those gentle morning pattern tows with. Get this: I launched, followed the tow plane, and nailed my landing on my first try. That was all I needed. I didn't have to drop $15 per pattern tow reinforcing what I already knew. I am back, and I feel so good.
Of course, I didn't take one example of a great landing as gold, but I was keenly aware that all my mental preparation leading up to this meet had made a big difference. I had other things on my mind that I'd have to deal with early in these practice days too. Mainly that as a new member of the Wills Wing team, I had a shiny Sport3 waiting for me, and she was PINK. As only the third size 135 out of the factory, we knew from early test flights that she'd need some adjustments before being race ready. And would the Sport3 be too difficult for me to fly after taking so much time off?
After my smooth morning flight, I felt 100% confident that I was ready for the Sport3. I set her up... more double surface, sprogs tucked into the sail, speed batons standard. She was beautiful! You've seen her by now; yellow accents, white mylar leading edge, dark laminate under-surface, more stickers than a bumper, and the brand spankin' new Wills Wing magenta dacron gracing the top surface. PinkLemonade had arrived.
I felt loose on launch. I had practiced this moment in my head. Any nervous energy was identified, bundled up and expelled in a few deep breaths. Just like starting up a hard climb, I focused on execution with confidence. I didn't have a tow point set up on the Sport3, so I fumbled with my 3-point system until it was attached to my hang loop. I checked, checked, and checked and felt good about my set-up. Then with little issue, I launched and rolled and left the cart. A few seconds later, I felt a familiar slackening feeling, and saw the tow rope coiling away from my glider behind the tow plane. I had detached from the plane 80 feet above the ground.
I knew immediately that my weak link hadn't broken but my tow release cable had gotten kinked in the hang loop, causing the clasp to open. I pulled in to recover from the stall and landed well. Then I reevaluated. Spinner suggested I clip the tow release to my carabiner instead of my hang loop for a cleaner set-up. Rookie mistake, but everyone gets to be the rookie at some point.
Here again I saw my growth as a pilot and an athlete. I acknowledged the accident, fixed the issue and moved on without feeling stupid or like I'd failed some test. Maybe I'm finally going easy on myself when it matters.
Okay, now reset. I was back on launch and feeling just as good as I had earlier. I had the funny realization that I'd already knocked out my first launch and first landing in the Sport3 in a matter of seconds, so any remaining pressure was gone. Go go go, roll, exit, tow. And then, everything felt familiar. Besides lighter bar pressure, I was in my Sport2. Towing felt like riding a bike, and the Sport3 did it so well. I was on my game, and PinkLemonade was on hers.
I released and found some light lift, and turned in it. Dave Aldrich had informed me that this glider liked to dip into thermals and didn't want to hold her bank angle, and I felt this right at the get-go. After thermalling, I played with the VG. The glider got way tighter than the Sport2 (in my opinion), and she flew super stiff on anything from 3/4 to full. When VG was pulled this tight, she handled like a bear. I went down to 1/2 and enjoyed the rest of my flight, playing with stalls until setting up my landing approach. I thought of Heather's advice, zoned out and then back in, and pushed that goddamn A-frame UP! I plopped in on both feet, no steps. YES!
After sending Dave my feedback, he suggested loosened the tip wand levers. Ken Kinzie let me borrow a screwdriver (why didn't I bring mine?) and I got to work on the wing tips. I'm really good at taking stuff apart, but not so good at putting stuff back together. Cue John Simon to the rescue. After two vise-grips were put in play, we fed the screw in the right direction and changed the second wing tip in a flash. Tomorrow, another flight...
The second flight was nothing special. I was waved off another mellow tow at 2000 feet and the lift was weak and broken. With my limited altitude, I played around with the glider again, pulling VG, thermalling in the little lift I could find, and gliding around the field. Again, she dipped steeply into the turns and was hard to handle above 3/4 VG. I had another great landing, and felt okay about an okay 20 minutes in the sky.
I was stoked about my landings and stoked to be back in the sky on such a beautiful wing. But after not feeling much of a change after adjusting the glider, I was worried it wouldn't be the best wing to fly in the competition. So again I reached out to Dave and he helped me adjust the glider. Turns out I accidentally tightened the tip levers instead of loosening them which explains a lot. We loosened those and the leading edges and planned to fly again the next day, the last day before the official start of the Quest Air Nationals, AKA Crunch Time.
Learning how incredibly adjustable this amazing glider is! Photos: Jonny Durand, April 2018.
The official practice day was rowdy out of the field. Weak link breaks abounded, no one was sticking, and hang gliders were whacking left and right. I stayed happily groundside until conditions calmed around 4 pm. I was in last chance mode. If the adjustments didn't work, I'd be flying the first task with my trusty Sport2.
Launch and tow went beautifully as usual. Jim Prahl towed me high and let me off near 200 ft/min lift, which quickly turned to 400-600. I banked up, the glider locked in and soon I was at cloudbase. CLOUDBASE! at 5500 feet, smooth as butter. So PinkLemonade checked off in thermals, now to see how she glides... I pulled full VG, pointed straight upwind and went and went and went and went. I was moving upwind and not losing crazy amounts of altitude! This glider is not a Sport2, not even close. The Sport3 is her own creature. She launches and lands with all the ease of the Sport2 but she glides like a U2 and thermals like a Gecko. The Sport3 deserves the hype.
After a glorious 40 minutes, I came back home and did some baby wingovers, just to get a taste of what she can do. I landed in front of a 30-pilot peanut gallery, and nailed it.
Me and PinkLemonade are two peas in a pod. My landings needed adjustment so I could finally fly confidently, her sail needed tweaked so she could really spread her wings. I am so excited for the week ahead!