June 4th, 2017 marked my inaugural flight in the world of competitive hang gliding. Although I’d participated in a mentored competition once before, this time I was truly on my own. This was also the first time I’d make real points that contribute to my international ranking in the sport. I was nervous. My journey into competition flying has been pretty tumultuous so far, and finding balance when faced with constant failure and rare success still seems far from reach. I’ve got a lot to work on.
I arrived to Wisconsin Hang Gliding at Twin Oaks Airport in Whitewater a few days before the comp to practice. It’d been a month since I had aerotowed and three weeks since I last flew. Few sport class pilots had arrived yet, so I was the only sport pilot flying the practice tasks. My first flight was excellent and challenging. I flew straight downwind 14 km to Palmyra Airport, and struggled directly into the wind on the way back. I landed in a field right before Twin Oaks and still managed to tag the goal cylinder just a couple seconds before I flared for landing. The day was a confidence booster; if I could make goal after taking some time off, then the week was looking good.
Practice day two brought another challenging crosswind task 15 km to the south and back. The first leg was uneventful, with slow and steady progress until I reached the turn point. I could have used some patience for the flight back however, and I ended up landing about 10 km short of goal. Although my hopes for the competition were still high, I really should have tried harder to make better decisions, like patiently sticking with my last weak thermal that may have improved and brought me back to Twin Oaks.
The first competition day brought strong northeast winds so we decided to launch from Palmyra Airport. Usually I take some time in between setting up and flying to unwind and remove myself from the hang gliding scene. This helps me destress and prepare for a relaxed launch and flight. However, since we were flying from Palmyra, I had nowhere to chill out other than the shade beneath my wing. Watching the open class launch was nerve-wracking. A few pilots blew launch, although no one was hurt. Pilots who needed to relaunch came in to land behind the line up even though they were instructed to land elsewhere, and some blew their landing because of that. That’s just one example of how pilots make poor decisions under competitive stress.
With only 30 minutes left in the launch window, the sport class was finally cleared to launch. The wind was crossing, and my right wing was lifted. I came out of the cart too early, and my chest grazed the runway. I was able to keep my base tube from touching the ground, leveled out, and had an uneventful tow after that. I’m still deciding if I should have chosen not to launch in the strong crosswind. It definitely taught me the importance of having a mega controlled, mega focused launch in stronger conditions. That lesson came in handy over the rest of the week.
I caught a thermal right off tow, and stayed in weak lift as it drifted me downwind in the direction of goal. Kelly Myrkle entered the thermal below me, did a few turns, and left. One of my contact lenses had fallen out during launch, so I didn’t see the gliders thermalling in the distance that he was going for, so I stayed, wondering what the hell he was doing. Turns out I should have followed him because he later made goal, while my thermal fizzled and I only managed to score minimum distance. Lesson number two learned: follow the good guys.
Day 2 was cancelled due to strong conditions, so we went paintballing. After getting absolutely pummeled (including a paintball straight to the back of my head), I made some money by swimming across a pond by the paintball field, fully clothed. I borrowed some tattered men’s jeans and a huge sweatshirt to get me through the evening, and earned the nickname Swamp Thang. Then we got tipsy at a lakeside tiki bar. Lesson number three learned: long islands have enough alcohol that I forgot to be self conscious about walking around in oversized, dirty man clothes with moss dangling from my dreaded hair.
The third day brought our second task, a 76.2 km dogleg to the southwest. I warmed up in the morning with a 10 km run through the Wisconsin countryside. I realized how comfortable I felt exploring and flying in the midwest, over the same landscapes I’d been raised in. Energized, I set up my glider but ended up having a pretty uneventful flight. I landed just a few km short of goal after getting up to 7000 feet over the city of Beloit and failing to find another thermal in the following 30 km glide. I was still jazzed until I checked the live tracking results and realized how many pilots had beat me. The resulting feeling of defeat was the first sign of my subsequent dive into several days of endless discouragement.
I shook off the bad feelings and got hyped when I heard the rumor of a triangle task for Day 4. Triangles are particularly challenging because you’re pitted against the wind in a different way for all three legs, and each leg presents a different level of difficulty. I had to relaunch for the first time ever, which was frustrating because I thought that meant I’d failed. It didn’t help that I had a shitty landing. Later, I started to understand that relaunching is just part of the game. Sometimes you get a crappy cycle or a blue hole overhead and conditions are simply not conducive to staying up. Better to try again.
After relaunching and chasing a thermal wildly off-course, I turned to bag the first turnpoint. I tried to return to the thermal I’d left after tagging the point, got really low over a town, played in some crappy lift, and ultimately whacked into a large, beautiful field. Cue the anger. What happened to my good landings? Where did my decision-making abilities disappear to? What the hell was I doing flying in competition conditions when I couldn’t do a single thing safely or right? Not wanting to spread my bad vibes, I put on a good face for the pilots in our retrieval vehicle and largely ignored my growing self-disappointment.
That evening, a buddy from college drove up to fly tandem for the first time. As Troy and I walked between the gliders that made it into goal, the other pilots and I traded the day’s stories of success and failure. I glazed over the personal idiocy I was feeling with beer-slung banter and hoped I was showing Troy a fun side to our sport. When he came down smiling from his tandem with Zac Majors, I eased up on myself and remembered the way it felt when I was first learning to fly. I freakin’ love it up there.
I should probably mention how even though my flights weren’t going well, at least I was having a blast morning and night. I was meeting insanely talented and friendly pilots from all over the world, there was an entire trailer filled with free, local beer, and I couldn’t spend a quiet minute at my car camp without being approached about the evening’s adventures to be had. Competitions are a magical place, where kid-grown-ups take a whole week off of work or whatever the hell they’re doing to participate in one of the most freeing sports in the world. Not a bad place to be having an internal breakdown.
On day 5, I hit a new low point. I woke up totally discouraged. I avoided friends and hid how upset I was behind my sunglasses. It felt like a chore to set up my glider. The clouds weren’t looking good, and a front was moving in from the west. I was less than stoked. The task was a short 39 km to the north northeast, but I had zero belief in my abilities or the conditions, so I shed my second warm layer and CamelBak, and subconsciously decided that I wouldn’t be able to leave the field anyway.
I watched the open class launch, scratch, stay up, and leave. I was impressed by how few pilots came back to relaunch, but barely felt a shred more confidence in the conditions. I actually think that my dejectedness made my shoulders a little more lax, and launch came and went without issue. I parked myself below the pack to the north of the field, and slowly, slowly, slowly moved up and away. As I neared the edge of my Sport2’s ability to make the glide back to the airport to relaunch if I needed to, I had to make a decision. Leave the start cylinder low and risk barely making any distance, or turn around, relaunch and try again. As I watched the gliders above me make upward progress I decided to leave low and work the cruddy lift with everyone else.
As the sole pilot down low, I had the ability to find the core of the thermal without needing to accommodate or push past other gliders. Suddenly, I hit a sweet spot, dropped a wing low, and began an unbelievable upward spiral. It wasn’t the most impressive thermal core in the world, but dammit, I was in it, I was going up, and… I made it to the top. I was above the gaggle, nonplussed but still certain I’d mess it up and deck it. I considered my options. I was a Sport2 in a sea of U2s. If I went on glide and no one came with me, I’d have a hard time finding another thermal on my own. I wanted to fly alongside other pilots so we could look for lift together. The thermal we were in had obviously gotten weaker since we’d topped out, so I made the decision to leave.
Thankfully, several pilots came with, passed me, and started looking for thermals out in front. I was able to shuffle behind in my little Sporty and pick the best line with the least sink, since I could see everyone’s performance out in front. I chose to stay further west than most of the pack, and we were all nervously watching the front coming from that direction, clouds shading the ground beneath and shutting off the thermals. I hit a crappy intermediate thermal and John Blank and I stopped and did a few circles in it. I made up a few hundred feet before I saw the front of the pack in a better thermal ahead, and joined them.
Miraculously, I was able to core out again and swiftly made it to the top of the thermal with Richard Milla and Knut Ryerson. My vario said I had goal on glide, but holy shit, I was nervous. Final glide was crowded with forests, a huge lake, and a residential area just before the airstrip we were going to land at. If I came up short, finding a landable area would be really, really difficult. My gut told me to go for it. The weather front was encroaching from the west, and I knew we’d be shut down at any moment. It was just me and my Sport2, chugging out ahead, knowing the U2s and Discuses weren’t far behind. I wanted to stay in front so bad.
The line I chose was riddled with 500 down, but I kept trucking. Halfway to the airstrip, I realized that most of the other pilots had found a thermal behind me to the east and were all gaining plenty of altitude to guarantee their arrival into goal. It was extremely likely that I was going to pull up just short and fail again. But then, Knut snuck up just to my right, and we were neck and neck, racing to the finish. I couldn’t fly as fast as Knut’s Discus without losing too much altitude, so I eased up. He finished ahead, but I thought he’d left the start cylinder earlier than me, so I may still have beat him. Another glider had already landed ahead of us. At 400 feet, I tagged the cylinder and let out a big yell. To top it off, I even had a beautiful landing. What the heck had gotten into me all week?
Turns out I made goal 5 seconds behind Kelly Myrkle, the winner for the day. Knut was a mere 16 seconds behind me. Talk about a close race! It was absolutely the most fun I’d had all week. Like the rest of my flying, I had too extreme of an emotional reaction to my success, and was wide-face grinning into the next day. I blindly reveled in the idea that all my issues were solved.
Our final task took us 54 km southeast. After a slow start and a low-ish save 1000 feet off the deck, I enjoyed a cloud-tastic jaunt downwind. At one point, I was thermalling right along, banked up and thinking I was a badass, when a pilot entered the themal below me, casually climbed past, and took off ahead. How the fu…?? It was impressive how fast he was able to gain altitude and leave for the next objective. It was like I could feel his focus radiating off his wing. Mega awesome! And something to learn from.
I arrived at goal with plenty of altitude, a far cry from the stressful low entry from the day before. Totally jazzed, I did a bunch of wingovers to lose altitude, but that was definitely a poor decision. At ground level, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction than it was up top. I should have paid more attention to the pilots landing before me and to the wind ripples in a few nearby ponds. I should have used my extra altitude to confidently plan and execute my landing. Instead I celebrated myself into a horrific downwind landing in a rough field, completely turtled. My left arm showed signs of a nearly missed spiral fracture, the injury most signature to the sport of hang gliding. I made the exact wrong decisions, and I’d made it out with nothing but a sore wrist and a dusty glider. This is the lesson that’ll stick with me the most from that week: always, always, always stay focused. I allowed the joy from my success to distract me from safety, and I almost got really hurt.
I tried not to put too much pressure on myself to perform well at Midwest 2017. After all, I’m completely new to competitions and the atmosphere can easily become stressful. I knew it would be difficult not to be absorbed in the chaos, so beforehand, I set a specific goal to stay happy during the comp. My secondary goal was to place in the top ten out of 21 pilots in the sport class. I accomplished my second goal, but at what point did making the top ten become more important than focusing on a positive mindset? Obviously, my emotions are deeply entwined with my ability to perform and to make safe decisions, and that can be really dangerous. I had my best flights on the first practice day and on the day I was so discouraged that my ego totally dissolved.
It’s become exceedingly apparent that the safest mode of action is to keep my emotions and decision-making separate. I absolutely must learn to deal with the disappointment of unsatisfactory performances so I can keep improving. I can’t keep letting poor mentality get the best of me. I need to be a better loser, and I need to be a more level-headed winner.
My perspective on competitive hang gliding is all about finding balance. That overall, the environment is stressful and insanely fun, even if we’re not flying. The community is so obviously at its strongest and most supportive, ironically, when we’re pitted against each other. What I know for sure? I love the roller coaster, I love absorbing everything there is to learn, I love when I pull it together and kick ass, and I love the challenge ahead of me to figure out how to keep it together and keep it safe.
Thank you so much for reading this. Please write me in the comments your thoughts on competitive hang gliding mentality. Any tips or tricks for keeping a level head? All advice and ideas are encouraged and welcomed. I want to be better at this, and I need your help!