I started flying RC gliders in late 1980. A co-worker at UCSB who was heavily into the hobby talked me into building a Wanderer and bringing it out to Storke Field next to the University.
It must have taken me four weeks to build this simp-le glider...but I was determined to make it perfect. With the help of a great bunch of pilots, I leaned how to hi-start and look for thermals over Isla Vista (a small college town next to UCSB).
I really enjoyed hi-starting and flying my Wanderer for several months. While most flights didn't last longer than 3-4 minutes, I would occasionally catch a thermal and I would be able to stay up for a considerable period of time. This went on for about a year. I purchased a variety of thermal gliders like the Hobie Hawk and some exotic monster from Germany. In many ways, those were the best days of flying that I had experienced.
One weekend, a fellow pilot told me about a different kind of glider flying called "slope soaring." He invited me out several times to a place called Ellwood Shores (a series of beach-side cliffs adjacent to my home in Goleta). I would turn him down routinely because I couldn't see having any more fun than I was having hi-starting my planes and meeting the challenges of thermal flight.
Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to head out to look for this "magical" spot where you could theoretically keep your plane in the air indefinitely. I headed out to the cliffs of Ellwood and I didn't see a soul. I walked up and down the cliff line until I spotted some broken rubberbands, torn Monokote and an empty tube of epoxy...this had to be the spot. There was barely any wind that afternoon. Not knowing a lot about slope soaring, I didn't realize that there was a minimum amount of wind required to keep a slope plane in the air. I set up my plane, turned everything on and did a quick range check. I had no idea what was going to happen.
With some trepidation, I chucked my Hobie Hawk off the cliff edge. I knew enough to keep the Hawk moving up and down the ridge line and to turn away from the cliff. However, lacking a sufficient amount of wind, the plane slowly started losing altitude. With every turn, I was sinking lower and lower. I got to the point where I knew that my only alternative was to land on the beach.
Now, there was only one person on the beach that day. It was a young co-ed laying on her stomach sunning herself with her bikini top undone. I thought to myself, no problem. It's just one person. What are the chances?
The Hobie Hawk got low enough that I could track its shadow, giving be a general idea of how close I was to the sand. I knew that I needed to make one more turn to get into a position to set it on the ground.
Wait! What's that? It was the sunbather completely unaware that a glider was heading right towards her. Luckily I was able to pilot the glider directly two feet over her . After that, the ground-effect took over and the glider flew about another 30 yards before gently setting down in a sand dune.
I took what I would later learn is "the walk of shame" to retrieve my Hobie Hawk. This near miss shook me up enough that I immediately packed up my stuff and headed home. It would be another six months before I would attempt slope soaring again. My second time out, a group of experienced pilots guided me through the fundementals of sloping.
I was amazed how long I could stay up. This was nothing like hi-starting and searching for thermals. It was like magic. I immediately went home and started modifying my gliders into slope planes. I never looked back.
Where It All Began
"If I have to explain it to you..."
I think that most people are fascinated by flight. At one time or another, we have all stopped to watch a plane as it made its final approach and subsequent landing. And who hasn't paused to watch an eagle aloft a ridge line, riding on rising air?
Having said that, I think that while most are fascinated by flight, there are some of us that are experiencing something deeper. It's almost like sitting next to a camp fire at night. For whatever reason, it is hard not to find yourself gazing into the flames as they leap from crackling logs. There is an attraction there. One that is not easily explained or understood. For some of us, no matter how many times we see something in flight, it feels like we're seeing it for the first time.
I think that the person that coined the phrase the "miracle of flight" was one of these people. To the author and to many of us, flight is somewhat a "miracle." At the least, it seems like magic. For me, flight is the only phenomenon that seems like it could not have existed. That is to say, the idea of floating through the air seems so far beyond any other phenomenon that it catches the imagination every time it is seen or experienced. As a result, it also seems like it could have never existed...like it was too good to be true. But it is.
For some of us, flight draws something inexplicable from our soul. Perhaps it is a longing to be free. Free from fences and borders. And free from the trappings of our everyday lives. It is that rare opportunity to escape to a place that shouldn't exist at all, but does.
I've often heard people say, "If I have to explain it to you, then you wouldn't understand." Out of all that this statement could apply to, I can think of no other as great as the recurring cathartic feelings that arise from the phenomenon of flight.
I fly slope.