After a forced but thoroughly enjoyable and fruitful recuperation period I started the gradual transition back to a normal life. An appointment with my own cardiologist several weeks after the heart attack gave me the opportunity to fully explain to him the circumstances around the event. Dr. Mehta felt partly responsible for giving in to my pressure to stop taking Plavix in October 2008, but I assured him that he had fully warned me of the risk I was taking, and that the decision was one that I owned completely. He viewed the brief video of my emergency catheterization procedure about which he commented “You were one sick fellow.” Even so, Dr. Mehta said that, after a month, I could do anything I wanted to do, including flying. I should just listen to my body and quit if it said “Enough!” He also prescribed cardiac rehabilitation at the hospital near my home, which I started a few days later.
I went back to work the afternoon after the appointment. Because I work primarily from home, on a computer, the transition back to work was stress free and welcomed by me. The only time I really noticed any significant weakness as I ramped up to full activity was when I used my arms extensively as in heavy lifting. This makes sense because the most pain I felt during the attack, other than in my chest, was in my arms and hands. Evidently the part of my heart that was affected must supply blood to my upper body. Because hang gliding is such an upper body sport, I was a bit apprehensive to take to the air again, not being too sure what to expect.
The weather and my schedule did not synchronize for a possible day of flying until 6 weeks after the heart attack. The Ohio Flyers began to plan for a get together at a private grass strip we call Wesmar, just south of Columbus, Ohio. The weather turned out to be beautiful on Saturday, April 18, and about a dozen pilots arrived to be towed into the air by either a ground based winch or by an ultralight powered airplane called a Dragonfly.
This would be the first aerotow in my new glider. I took my time as I greeted everyone and set up my wing. The well-wishes from club members were very encouraging for me, and many offered to help me set up or carry my glider. I thanked them but assured them all I was not a walking time bomb, and they needn’t worry about me.Around 1:00 PM pilots started taking to the sky. Most who towed up were “sticking,” a phrase we use to indicate that they were finding lift and able to climb and remain aloft. Around 2:20 PM it was my turn to load up behind the tow plane. We use a tow cart dolly upon which we set our gliders to facilitate the launch. Foot launching is possible behind the Dragonfly, but especially in conditions where there is not much of a headwind, it would be quite a workout to run with the glider the distance necessary to gain sufficient airspeed to fly. I got my glider situated on the tow cart, hooked into my harness and helmet, made sure the tow lines were routed correctly and not tangled, and yelled “Go, go, go!” Frank, the tow pilot, throttled up and we were rolling down the runway into an 8 to 10 mph headwind. After about 75 feet I lifted off the cart, and soon both Frank and I were airborne. The empty tow cart rolled to a stop on the runway below us.
Even though the air was textured (lots of updrafts and downdrafts made for a bumpy tow) I didn’t have much trouble maintaining my position behind the Dragonfly. We climbed higher and higher as Frank flew a long gentle circle to the south. At about 2,500 feet, Frank waved me off. I hit the tow release, which is a contraption I made several years ago using a brake lever and cable from a bicycle and a snap shackle used in boating. It failed. The cable broke, but it was not a problem because glider pilots are equipped with a secondary sliding barrel release to use just in case. And if both of these releases fail, we carry a hook knife with which we can cut the tow line. I velcroed the hook knife on the pocket flap of the parachute I wear on my chest (aren’t you impressed with all of the safety provisions?). The secondary release worked just fine and I was on my own.
My variometer, which had been steadily beeping because of our powered climb, continued its happy song even after the release. Frank had waved me off in a “boomer” thermal, and I continued to climb as I circled to stay in the lift. The vario indicated that my altitude gain was averaging between 350 to 400 feet per minute. I climbed steadily through 3,000, then 4,000, then 5,000 feet. I began to lose the lift, so I widened my circle downwind. Soon I was back into the thermal, climbing up through 6,000 feet altitude above the ground. I was thrilled because this represented a new personal altitude record. It was much colder at this altitude, but I didn’t mind because I had prepared by wearing long sleeves and gloves. And everything from my chest down was enveloped in the harness which I had zipped up into a cozy cocoon.
During the climb I had drifted a good distance downwind from the runway. I lost the thermal again, but two other gliders were still climbing several hundred feet above me and about 500 yards downwind. I had a decision to make. Should I continue flying downwind hoping to find the rising air my friends were enjoying, or do I head back toward the runway and look for lift as I flew? Because I am still a bit unfamiliar with this glider, and because I wasn’t feeling overly adventurous with this being my first flight since having a heart attack, I chose the safer route and flew back toward the runway. I decided I’d rather not land in a field alone several miles away.
The headwind was fairly strong at this altitude. It seemed as though I was making very slow forward progress, but before too long I crossed back over the flying field. I had lost about half my altitude without encountering even the slightest hint of lift. As I looked to the west past the runway I could see several puffy clouds which had formed, probably at the top of some rising air. I decided to head for them and maybe hit some lift along the way.
When I got close to the clouds I felt some defined bumps, but nothing that generated any workable lift. I was at about 1,800 feet by now, so I decided to turn back toward the runway and set up for a landing. I made a gentle circle around the field, scoping out the traffic and planning for my landing approach. When I flew over the hangars at about 800 feet, my vario started beeping. I banked sharply and spent about 3 or 4 minutes circling in the light lift, maintaining altitude but not climbing. Another pilot was doing the same thing about 100 yards west of me. Soon he gave up and landed, and I followed just behind him. I made a nice landing at almost exactly the spot where I had loaded my kite onto the cart.
Several guys offered to take my wing as I unhooked, but I was feeling good and carried my glider off to the side where it was safely out of the way. My flight lasted for just under 40 minutes which was enough for me on my return to the skies. This flight gave me the confidence that I was on my way back to a reasonable level of good health. I’m grateful for the opportunity and the support from my family and friends allowing me to continue to do something that is sometimes selfish but thoroughly motivating and enjoyable.