Time to take a break from ‘tooning to sing the praises of a small town (and brag about some great flying)…
Lakeview, Oregon, at 4,500-plus feet above sea level, holds bragging rights to being the ‘tallest town in Oregon’. I’d wager to say it’s also the friendliest, at least to us hang glider pilots. And for good reason…
Years ago, Lakeview and the surrounding small communities were faced with a crisis which has become common for most small towns throughout the Pacific Northwest: The mainstay of its citizens has in the past been lumber and farming, and we all know too well what has become of these industries. It just so happens that it is also a darn great spot for hang gliding as well, with several outstanding flying sites, such as Black Cap Mtn. just outside of Lakeview proper, Tagues Butte and Palisades at the south end of Abert Rim (an amazing 17-mile-long and 1000-foot-plus tall vertical rock face), Hadley Butte to the north, Doherty Slide to the east, and Sugar Hill, a ‘jumping off’ point for cross country flights north to Lakeview and east to the high Oregon desert (Sugar, and its lower launch, ‘Sweet’n’Low’ are actually 25-plus miles south of Lakeview and just across the Oregon-California border), and numerous other scenic flying sites.
When faced with the likelihood of becoming yet another ghost town due to its waning industries, the citizens of Lakeview banded together and opted to capitalize on its one remaining resource, tourism, mainly bolstered by the steady numbers of hang glider pilots who spend their time (and money) flying this awesome area. The Rogue Valley Hang Gliding Association, a 100-plus-strong foot-launched flying club headquartered in Medford, Oregon, began holding annual flying meets in the area. These meets, each dubbed the Umpteenth Annual Foot-launched Festival of Free Flight, draw hundreds of pilots from throughout the country (and the world) on Fourth of July weekend, and every dollar spent by participants and spectators serves to keep the town of Lakeview in the black. To this day, it is not uncommon to be greeted with appreciative honks and waves as one disassembles his/her glider after ‘landing out’ in one of the abundant flat farm fields (referred to as landing zones, or LZ’s) in the area.
This year I was meeting up with a couple of buddies in Lakeview to partake in the flying and festivities. David Frazer, a great friend and ‘man of many hats’, spent his early life in Florida, most of which was on a sailboat. He also served in the Air Force as a weather man, became a ‘carnivore expert’ working with big cats on wildlife preserves in Florida and eventually Roseburg, Oregon (where he currently resides), operated his own tofu business for awhile, and currently works as the inventory manager for the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Roseburg. He’s been active in the sport for the past 25 years. Ken ‘Wind Dummy’ Hawes who, with his wife (and faithful driver) Marti, owns a beautiful place in Eagle Point that is also the locale for his (often too-busy-for-him-to-go-flying) cabinet shop. Ken and I learned to fly at about the same time and from the same instructor, Mike ‘Viper’ Stevenson, and actually unknowingly lived a mile or two down the road from each other in Bigfork, Montana (well, I guess we were actually a few years apart as well, but it makes a good story). No doubt we would be seeing many of our other flying buddies from throughout the area and meeting many new ones along the way.
When I arrived at Lakeview on Friday afternoon, I called Ken first thing to see where he wanted to fly. He and Marti were already on top of Black Cap and reported that the conditions were light yet but appeared to be picking up. After registering for the meet and getting the latest weather forecast at the Chamber of Commerce I headed up the hill to meet him, forgoing setting up camp for later (the main LZ for Black Cap is the campground in which most other pilots and I intended to stay). It was in fact picking up, but not enough for any airtime, so after assembling and disassembling our gliders (along with a great deal of waiting for the right conditions, aptly termed ‘hang-waiting’), we headed down the hill. Meanwhile David called me to tell me he had arrived and set up camp in the LZ, so I set up my tent as well.
The following day we decided to try our luck at Hadley Butte, which is just outside the little town of Paisley, the home of the annual Mosquito Festival (the mosquitoes here are as big as buzzards!). David had some 12,000’-plus altitude flights here in the past, and Ken and I had never flown this site yet and were up for something new. Unfortunately, a large cumulus cloud kept shutting off our sunshine and even sprinkled on us a time or two. David decided to chance it anyway and launched into a light wind cycle. His reward was an extended ‘sled ride’ to the LZ. Uninspired (particularly by my short flight to the end of the launch ramp), Ken and I broke down our gliders, met David in the LZ, and the three of us went back to Lakeview.
Sunday was the day of the Trophy Dash, a timed 26-mile race from Sugar Hill to Lakeview. It was a strong south wind day, so we thought we’d give it a try. After making the drive (complete with honks and waves from locals) we set up among the 30-plus other hang gliders and worked our way into line. I was the first of us three to get to launch, and by the time I got there it appeared that the thermals were all but gone and the only thing left to soar was ‘mechanical lift’ from the wind blowing up the ridge. I launched anyway and fought my way through the rough air down the ridge and out to the rock point that, I was told, might still be ‘working’. I circled out front several times with little hope of ascending until my vario (an instrument which audibly indicates if you’re rising or sinking) began to shrill. I banked my glider and mentally mapped out the core of the thermal, keeping the lower wing pointed directly toward the center. Several other gliders were working the same lift, including a large, odd-looking wing (with a like-sized pilot) called a Predator, but I was rocketing upward past them and they began to look like non-resident mosquitoes. Several 360-degree turns later I was at 11,500’ ASL (above sea level, roughly 4,300’ over launch) and over halfway across Fandango Valley, a 5-mile-wide pass that is the first crux for the Sugar-to-Lakeview run. The Predator meanwhile had located my core and got to within 50’ directly below me. Topping out the lift, I pointed my glider downwind and hauled in the VG (or ‘variable geometry’, a pulley and rope system which, when activated, tightens and flattens the wing and increases its efficiency while decreasing maneuverability). I was still at 10,000’ ASL when I reached ‘Hildreth’s Heater’, a hit-and-miss thermal source on the far end of the pass. The Heater was missing at present, so I pressed onward. I worked a few bumps along the hilltops, but didn’t seem to be gaining much. At one point I watched a glider overtake me at a lower altitude, find some lift, and work it up 1,000 or so feet, so I headed his direction to do the same. No luck. Apparently he’d caught the tail-end of that one. Oh well, I’d made it across the pass and could now make New Pine Creek (a small town on the Oregon-California border) on glide. Anything from that point northward was icing on the cake.
The wind was still strong out of the south, so as long as I stayed over the hilltops I would maintain altitude (or at least minimize my descent). It’s amazing what difference a 15 mph tailwind can make on one’s ground speed and glide ratio. At one point I glanced at my GPS to find that my ground speed was 55 mph, and I suspect that I’d been going faster still at some point.
I found myself choosing fields that I could easily glide to with sufficient altitude to set up an approach and drop my wind flag (a portable spear with one end weighted and pointed and the other with a bright orange flag that, when dropped, indicates wind direction for landing. Also commonly referred to as ‘death from above’). Gliders that had ‘sunk out’ along the way already occupied many of the fields, providing me with a little boost of confidence. Today I would outfly a few competitors! I would choose a field, fly past it with plenty of altitude, and look downwind for my next potential bailout, all the while knowing that each field I passed by meant I was another quarter-mile closer to Lakeview, everyone’s ultimate goal.
Eventually, I had lost enough altitude that it was time to take the idea of landing more seriously, so I headed away from the hills and toward the fields on the opposite side of the highway. I wanted to land as close to the road as possible to shorten the carry distance to the pick-up vehicle (whoever that ended up being. Since my radio push-to-talk system was receiving but wasn’t transmitting, I couldn’t contact Marti while I was still in the air), and the field I’d chosen was directly adjacent to the highway. After making a standard aircraft base leg pass, I decided at the last minute to go for the field immediately downwind, since the first one I’d chosen had a powerline at the downwind end and I’d have to come in low over the lines in unknown conditions to avoid overshooting the field. I made another short downwind-base-final combination in the newly-chosen LZ and landed just short (50 yards or so) of the powerlines I’d sought to avoid. My glider was still in a slight turn as I flared, so my right wingtip made light contact with the ground – not a pretty landing, but both glider and pilot were unscathed.
As I carried my wing to the highway I heard an angelic voice ask if I was all right. “Um, yeah”, I responded. Rather than a celestial guardian, the voice came from the driver for the pilot that had passed me up a mile or so back. I could see his glider over the distant hills still quite high and headed for Lakeview. “Looks like someone’s going to make it today”, I thought to myself. His driver informed me that I was lucky I didn’t land in the field immediately upwind (the first one I’d chosen), since it was part of the ‘Snake Ranch’, one of the few no-no bailouts on the Lakeview run. Maybe she was an angel after all, and had a hand in saving me from serpents and powerlines? She told me she had to get going to catch up with the other pilot, but offered to contact someone if I wanted. “No thanks”, I told her. My radio was working fine with the push-to-talk unplugged and I’d already made contact with David.
My first order of business after reaching the highway and unhooking from my glider was to enter my position as a waypoint in my GPS and see how far I’d flown. I knew it had to be a decent distance, since the north end of Goose Lake was a short walk from my current position, and Sugar Hill looked hazy in the distance. It turned out to be 16.5 miles – not a record by any means, but a personal best for distance and altitude. I knew other much more experienced pilots who’d not gotten this far, so I was pleased all the way around. Another ten miles and I would have made Lakeview and finished the race, but I could always try again another day (I later learned that the winning flight was just under an hour – less time than it took for me to reach my landing area).
Making radio contact with David, I’d learned that he couldn’t get to 10,000’ ASL, the minimum suggested altitude to leave the hill and cross the pass, and that he was heading for the Sugar LZ. He passed my position along to Marti (she was out of my radio range) and she headed the car my direction. As I waited, several people stopped to chat and offer rides, and one even offered me a beer. It was hot and I was thirsty, so I gratefully accepted. More honks and waves by other passers-by.
After packing my wing on the car and heading back to pick up David and Ken, we were surprised to discover that Ken was still in the air after 2-plus hours. Ken’s maximum airtime to this point was restricted to about 90 minutes due to his limited bladder capacity. Somehow he’d managed to overcome this handicap and had bested his personal record as well. He did have to scramble to get out of his harness and ‘dump ballast’, using his glider to screen his activities from view of the passing motorists. They just honked and waved.
Monday was the day of the spot-landing competition in Lakeview, so we opted to stay ‘local’ and give it a try. First we met with Mike Stevenson, our instructor (He’d driven from Ashland to judge the event) to see if he was taking bribes, but he wasn’t. Then we drove up to Black Cap and set up our wings. David launched first, flew out front, and found some lift and began working it upward. I launched next, hoping to find the same lift, but it wasn’t there anymore. In fact, I couldn’t find any lift. Bad timing on my part, so I headed for the LZ with hopes of hitting the spot. I’d underestimated the wind strength in the LZ and landed 100 yards short. Ken launched right after me, found as little lift as I had, and landed long by an equal distance. Meanwhile, David worked his thermal up to 12,500’ ASL and was tempted to fly to Abert Rim, an easy glide from his altitude. He opted instead to try for the spot, which turned out to be a good choice, since he nailed it and won a great trophy and $100.00 cash. Yesterday belonged to Ken and I, but today was David’s day.
On Tuesday, July 4th, we decided to make the hour drive to Doherty Slide, a steep cliff in the high desert to the east. I’d flown there the previous year and was completely blown away by the beauty of this site from the air. I’m not a desert person, having lived my life in the mountains for the most part, but this site is magical, particularly near sunset. The colors are indescribable and the view is stupendous, particularly from 10,000’. We decided to make a day of it and take the scenic route up through the small burg of Plush and the Hart Mountain Wildlife Refuge, a beautiful place in itself, where we munched down peanut butter and honey sandwiches for lunch. After a brief pause at the Plush General Store for ice cream sandwiches, we headed out to the slide. The wind was cross from the south with some serious lulls, making it unsoarable, so after contemplating the high desert beauty for awhile we drove back toward Lakeview.
When we got back to town, we headed back up to Black Cap to see if we couldn’t get a glass-off flight. A glass-off happens when the valley floor, having been heated all day, releases its entire mass of warm air triggered by the downward flow of cooler, mountain air (catabatic flow) in the evening. It makes exceptional soaring since the lift is not localized and a pilot can float just about anywhere in the smooth lifty air. We arrived just in time to catch the last half hour of glass-off. David elected not to fly, so he helped Ken and I get set up. I launched first and floated across the hillside at launch altitude for a half hour or so. Ken launched after me and sunk straight to the LZ. Not a terribly exciting day for flying, but any airtime is better than none. We returned to the campground just in time for the final minutes of the annual pig roast and later enjoyed the local fireworks display.
Wednesday morning David headed back to Roseburg and Ken & I decided to take another crack at Sugar. When we arrived, Steve Seibel from Corvallis was on launch and waiting for a decent cycle to launch into. Ken & I started setting up as Steve flew the hill, not getting terribly high and coming close to sinking out several times. The wind was from the south-southwest – not ideal for crossing Fandango Pass but still soarable at Sugar. Ken and I launched and experienced the same yoyo flying that Steve was having, but after a few close calls we figured out where the lift was strongest and hung on. The highest we could get was 8,500 ASL, but the longer we hung on, the smoother and liftier the air became until we experienced a full-fledged glass-off. At one point as I completed a 360 turn, I was surprised to find myself at close-quarters with an immature bald eagle with its talons flared in my direction. Shortly after flashing its warning it joined a companion in front of the rock face below, and the five of us (3 gliders and 2 birds) shared the same airspace for awhile.
About 3 hours into my flight I made a frustrating discovery. I had apparently over-lubricated the zipper on my harness, and the teeth had separated below the zipper-upper part (I know there’s a technical term for that part), leaving my legs to dangle out of my harness if I didn’t keep pushing on the harness boot. This can be extremely tiring if done for extended periods, so I knew I’d have to abbreviate my flight if I wanted to have any legs left to land on. The position of the zipper separation would also make it difficult to suspend my legs fully for landing purposes. Fortunately, the designers of hang gliding harnesses discovered long ago that if the zipper is attached with Velcro to the harness, there is a backup system in place should such incidents occur, so I didn’t waste too much time worrying about it. At this point I decided to leave the hill and the best lift and see about landing, so I pointed my glider southward and started flying toward Alturas, California. As I left the hill, my vario beeped continuously, indicating that I was still ascending. If this kept up, I was in for another long flight (with legs dangling) and, since I’d been unsuccessful the night before in my attempt to repair my faulty push-to-talk switch, I had no way of informing my companions of my intent. I’d just have to wait till I landed to radio them. I continued flying south for seven miles before I’d lost enough altitude to set up a landing. A 4’ deep irrigation ditch bisected the field I’d chosen to land in, but I thought I had enough altitude to make the other side. Apparently I’d miscalculated and I flared at the far side of the ditch. Once again, not a pretty landing, but an otherwise successful one.
I unhooked and walked my wing toward the highway where I planned to radio the others about my location. My radio battery, however, had run out of juice and, with the weak cell phone reception in the area, I had no way of making contact. Fortunately, a white van pulled up and the woman driver offered me a ride back to the LZ, so I disassembled my wing, hid it in the bushes, and climbed into the passenger’s seat. The driver, a somewhat eccentric local with her three overly-friendly dogs, warned me that I’d think she was crazy, but the birds (which she often talked to) told her that something unusual would happen to her today, so she figured this must be it and she’d better stop. It’s interesting the people you meet in this sport.
When I got to the LZ, Marti was still there waiting for Steve and Ken to land. I grabbed the truck and headed south to retrieve my wing, returning in time to catch Ken’s perfect landing after a 4-1/2 hour flight – another personal best for him. Of course, once again he had to perform his ballast-dumping ritual before breaking down his glider. After watching another glider fly from the lower launch of Sugar Hill (called ‘Sweet’n’Low) and head north across Fandango Pass, Steve decided to follow. He made it across the pass, but came in low to land in a field on the other side six miles from launch. His total airtime was 5 hours. All three of us slept well that night, exhausted from a long day of flying.
I left the following morning and Ken & Marti stuck around until Saturday to do non-flying tourist stuff in Lakeview. While in the area we topped our personal bests for flying, enjoyed beautiful scenery, met up with a few old friends, made a few new friends, and basqued in the hospitality of the Lakeview locals. All in all it was a great trip, and I hope we do it again soon.
So if you should happen to find yourself in the high desert of south central Oregon and a strange-looking chevron-shaped multicolored object made from Dacron and aluminum should catch your eye, remember to honk and wave. It’s what the locals do…