Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Part 3

The freshly-rennovated radial ramp at Henson's Gap is one of the nicest launch ramps in the world.

The freshly-rennovated radial ramp at Henson's Gap is one of the nicest launch ramps in the world.

Team Challenge is a hang gliding competition event sponsored and hosted by the Tennessee Tree Toppers hang gliding club based in Dunlap, Tennessee.  Their premier launch sight at Henson’s Gap is the location of the week long meet that is promoted as an event where cross-country flying novices are teamed up with more experienced pilots.  Scoring is based on a sliding scale where the distances accomplished by team members each day are multiplied by a factor determined by each pilot’s relative skill level and glider performance level.  Tom, a member of the Ohio Flyers club, had lobbied for our involvement in the meet each year, but to my knowledge no team made up of just Ohio Flyers members had ever competed.  Dad’s challenge to me to “go for it” prompted my registration for the event in the fall of 2008.  Some other Ohio Flyers registered as well.

Team Ohio, made up of Tom, Craig, Chris, Terry, John, and me, began making plans during the late summer and early fall.  We would all camp on sight, and we compared notes on the food, equipment and supplies that we’d each bring.  We also had to consider who would drive for us during the meet.  Part of the scoring involved glider retrieval (since each day’s goals were landing areas that were a good distance from the launch), and team members could earn extra points for tearing down, going back up, and launching again if the goal was not met.  Several of the vehicles that our team members would drive were capable of carrying 3 or 4 gliders at a time.  Though not part of the original plan, as it turned out Tom would do most of the driving for Team Ohio during the competition.  This was incredibly unselfish of him as he delighted in the accomplishments of the team each day, and supported us with loud and boisterous cheers and jeers through the week (you’d have to know Tom to understand).

Loaded up and ready to roll

Loaded up and ready to roll

I left for Dunlap late on a Friday afternoon, drove halfway there, and camped in my dome tent at a $5.00/night campground I found in Danville, Kentucky.  It was the initial night of a marathon 9 days straight of tent camping, a first in my life.  I arrived at around noon on Saturday, and I worked with the team members to set up Camp Ohio on site on the top of the mountain.  Enthusiasm and excitement levels were high as the competition would start the next day.  We each took a flight off the ramp to get used to the launch and the landing zone.  Another first – it was my first “cliff launch” off of a mountain.

My first launch from the mountain ramp in my new glider.

My first launch from the mountain ramp in my new glider.

At the organizational meeting Saturday evening, Team Ohio adopted an “A pilot” named Jim Lamb to be our mentor.  Each team was required to have at least one A pilot to lead the team and guide us as we learned more about mountain and cross-country flying.  Jim has a distinguished record of competition and a strong background in piloting many different aircraft, including sailplanes.  We all appreciated his level-headed guidance through the week.

The competition started on Sunday.  Mandatory all-pilot meetings were held each morning where we were briefed on the weather, the day’s goals were specified, and rules were clarified.  In the evenings seminars were led by the experts in attendance which included Mike Barber, one of the best pilots in the world, and Dennis Pagen, the fellow who writes most of the hang gliding training manuals used by pilots as they are learning to fly. Each day the weather was a bit different with most days bringing little wind and relatively light lift potential in the valley.  Even so Team Ohio, after the first three days, was in 3rd place among 10 teams.  On Tuesday we had a fantastic day where the bulk of our team met goals.  I accomplished my longest cross-country flight to date of 8.3 miles.  Spirits were high, the food was tasty, and we Ohio flatlanders felt very good about our team’s strong 3rd place position because most of the other teams were more accustomed to mountain flying.

On Wednesday no flying took place because the winds were far too strong for safe launching.  We participated in seminars on and off during the day.  That evening, I decided to make a trip alone down the mountain to Dunlap to get ice for our coolers.  I was happy to have some time by myself to reflect and pray.  After a while I flipped on the radio.  Without adjusting the tuner a local preacher was on the air talking about the suffering of Job and the trials we encounter in life.  He said that failures, difficulties, and pain are sure to come even to devoted followers of God, and that we should expect and embrace these difficulties.  And the part that really hit me – we can ask God “Why?” if we want to, but He is not obligated to explain why we suffer the things we do.  It’s all a part of His purposes that are far bigger than ours.  I listened a minute or two.  Then I nervously flipped off the radio.  Even though the message was troubling, it seemed as if it were meant just for me.  I prayed “God, I trust you, but I do not want anything to go wrong during this week.  But I suppose, if it is necessary, Your purposes override my preferences.”

It is now Thursday of the week-long competition. Team Ohio had launched earlier in the day, but most of us had sled rides to the landing zone giving us the right to “relight” for a second attempt, earning points for going again. We had done this most days, and by Thursday I was starting to show a little wear. Conditions were fairly light most of the week, and sledders among the less experienced were not unusual. When I stepped to the ramp there was a thermal working several hundred yards down the ridge to the left (south) as indicated by half a dozen kites circling up the face of the mountain. With the encouragement of the launch ramp directors, who were very helpful and fairly aware of where the best action was happening, I decided to immediately head south down the ridge and try to catch the thermal action.

The view to the south from the launch ramp.

The view to the south from the launch ramp.

Each day of the competition the event director, Ollie, proclaimed the thermalling direction (left or right) that was to be used within the vicinity of the launch ramp. The day’s direction was right, or clockwise. I took off and estimated that by the time I reached the gaggle I’d be coming in at the bottom of the stack. In the thermal the kites were circling up at about 30 degrees from vertical, so the “column” of circling gliders was leaning to the left as I headed their direction. I decided to enter the gaggle at the bottom, shifted a bit to the right, picturing myself entering low and then altering my circles each time to the left as we climbed in the thermal up the face of the mountain. This decision (and the mental picture I formed) was wrong and was the cause of what happened next.

I think because I developed an aversion to getting too close to the trees (I was warned earlier in the week after my first flight that this was not Ohio, and “ridge scratching” like we use at our smaller hill was highly discouraged), so I shifted my entry point too far to the right. Remember, the circling direction was clockwise. As I neared the gaggle, a rigid wing high performance glider was coming around the backside and turning toward me as I got closer. I saw him, but I did not think much about it because he was somewhat higher than me. Well, I could feel quite a bit of turbulence as I neared the thermal, and then I hit strong lift! I instantly shot up about 50 feet, putting me on a head-on collision course with the glider. We both took evasive action, and because of this it was not a super close call. But we both were bumped out of the thermal. I did not successfully make it back into the lift, and I found out later the other pilot must not have either.

Ollie, the deet director, and his rigid wing glider I almost trashed.

Ollie, the meet director, and his rigid wing glider I almost trashed.

At the all-pilot meeting the next morning, the meet director, with much irritation in his voice, told about a near miss he had with “a small glider with red leading edge and a yellow streamer on the king post.” Immediately I knew it was me! No other glider at the meet fit that description.  My whole hang-gliding life flashed in front of me and, before I knew it, I shot up my hand and said “Ollie, that was me!” I apologized to him publicly and recounted my thought processes and actions that led to the incident. I asked for clarification and guidance.

At that moment I felt like Jonathan Livingston Seagull must have felt when he was called before the Council Gathering of Elders immediately after he accidentally zoomed through the Breakfast Flock while pulling out of a high speed dive at 212 miles per hour.  He had not hurt anyone, but his exuberance could have caused much damage.  Even though Jonathan tried to explain to the Elders that he had just discovered the secrets to high speed flight, the Flock was like stone.  They banned him from the Brotherhood of the Flock forever.  Fortunately for me, the meet elders in my situation were much more forgiving.

I learned that it was wrong of me to shift my entry point so far to the right as I entered the thermal for exactly the reasons I explained above. When entering a gaggle, a pilot must plan on the potential that he will be kicked upwards when encountering the lift. I should have timed my entry so that I would maintain proper horizontal and vertical spacing with the other gliders no matter what happened. Ollie and the other experienced pilots (including Dennis Pagen and Mike Barber – talk about being humbled!) said we were not as close to the trees as I thought, and the trees should not have been a consideration.

Ollie told me later that he saw me coming a long time before I got there, and it wasn’t as close a call as he made it sound in front of the group. But he needed to use it as an example. Ollie also told me that he heard of quite a few close calls during the first several days of the competition.  Two pilots had even bumped their wings while circling in a thermal earlier that day! We all should know the ridge and thermalling right-of-way rules, but the unfamiliar circumstance (for me) of circling in a gaggle up the face of a mountain put me in a situation that I did not anticipate.

It went from bad to worse that day. After the meeting, as I was setting up my wing, a hippie guy in a wheelchair rolled up and said “Man, where did you get that girlie glider? That thing is puny.” I wanted to roll his wheelchair, with him in it, right off the end of the ramp. Instead I educated him a bit about how the glider was exactly the right size for my hook-in weight, and he should talk to Wills Wing (the kite’s manufacturer) about his concerns. The first flight on Friday was a sledder for most of our team, and by the time Tom got us back on top, we were hurrying to get off before the launch deadline closed. John helped me set up, and I did a very quick pre-flight inspection. I got up to the ramp, and as I was doing my final hang check, John (who is now way in the back of the set-up area) yelled “Mark Thogmartin, your right undersurface zipper is open!” The whole set-up area went quiet, and the hang check man said “You didn’t do a thorough pre-flight, did you?” I said “Obviously not sir” and I backed off and zipped up.

Even though I was not at all rejected by my team and the rest of the pilots in the competition, I felt incompetent and very lonely.  I remembered the words of the preacher I heard on the radio Wednesday evening – that sometimes God allows us to experience painful and humbling circumstances, and we must trust Him in the middle of the pain.  That night, alone in my tent, the words of the song “Lonely Looking Sky” from the soundtrack of the movie Jonathan Livingston Seagull comforted me as they played in my head:

Lonely Looking Sky

Lonely looking sky
Lonely sky, lonely looking sky
And bein’ lonely
Makes you wonder why
Makes you wonder why
Lonely looking sky
Lonely looking sky
Lonely looking sky

Lonely looking night
Lonely night, lonely looking night
And bein’ lonely
Never made it right
Never made it right
Lonely looking night
Lonely looking night
Lonely looking night

Sleep, we sleep
For we may dream
While we may
Dream, we dream
For we may wake
One more day
One more day

Glory looking day
Glory day, glory looking day
In all it’s glory
Told a simple way
Behold it if you may
Glory looking day
Glory looking day
Lonely looking night

– Neil Diamond

I (and the other members of Team Ohio) could tell you a few more stories about how we all were humbled that week. Even so, the competition was one of the best experiences of my life, and Team Ohio ended up in a very respectable second place!  It was well worth the pain.

Team Ohio - Jim, Tom, Chris, Craig, John, Mark, and Terry

Team Ohio - Jim, Tom, Chris, Craig, John, Mark, and Terry

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One Response to Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Part 3

  1. Steve says:

    Good write-up Mark. TC08 was a hoot. Maybe see you again for TC09

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