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Thad's scooter tow operated by Dan.

Thad is a music composer for movies and TV ads.

Eden, Thad's youngest son, makes motocross look easy.

 

This article was originally published in USHPA's Hang Gliding and Paragliding Magazine, March 2010.

I am a 49 year-old aspiring XC pilot flying a DHV 2 wing, and prior to my trip to Minnesota, my longest flight was 35 miles. My favorite nonsexual activity is going far in a paraglider and I live in New York City. My flying buddy, Thad Spencer, who also digs XC, lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three kids, and runs his own business.

Two or three times a year, Thad and I carve out a week to meet in places like Chamonix and Valle de Bravo. After begging our families for forgiveness, paying checked baggage fees, and hours in coach class next to a H1N1 victim, we may spend a significant part of the week para-waiting, chasing the sun, or flying in conditions that we shouldn’t be flying in and wind up on the side of a mountain and have to be rescued by helicopter, but that’s another story.

The global financial crisis of 2009 was tough for many, and by the time the summer flying season hit, Thad and I had been so busy dealing with the fallout in our own lives, we had not planned a trip. Weary from work and worry, we were not willing to ask our families to allow us to roll the dice on a potentially expensive para-waiting vacation.

In July, I was at my computer when I received a call on iChat from a very excited Thad. In the video monitor, I could see that he was wide-eyed with wild helmet hair as though he’d just flown 10 miles in the Alps, which for us is a great flight. “I got to cloud base off my scooter tow!”

Thad had recently built a Honda Elite scooter tow from scratch, operating on a 1700 foot grass ultralight strip just outside of Minneapolis. Thad had heard tales of flatland flying in Minnesota, and hoped towing would be a way to get airtime between trips. Thad had tried climbing up into lift with his paramotor, but the upright position, higher hang points, and extra weight made thermaling difficult and keeping the wing open a concern.

One day, Thad pinned off tow at 250 feet AGL. As a group of local ultralight pilots watched in amazement, Thad steadily climbed another 3000 feet to base and drove around beneath the clouds for over an hour.

“Come chill out in Minnesota for a week,” Thad coaxed. “We’ll paramotor in the evening, ride motorcycles in the woods, and the scooter tow will get you to 400 feet!”

So, after a cheap quick flight from JFK, I was enjoying the genuine Midwestern hospitality of the Spencer family, the colorful culture of Minneapolis, and as many three minute scooter tow flights as I wanted. Not the Alps, but better than Manhattan.

Now enter Paul Lundquist. A free flight pilot since the early 1970’s, Paul set the Minnesota State Paragliding Distance Record at 53 miles way back in 1997. Paul heard that I was in town and encouraged us to meet us for a day towing using a payout winch he built himself to teach paramotoring and paragliding at his school, MinnesotaParamotor.com.

“Yup, Sunday’s lookin’ pretty good,” said Paul optimistically. It was only Tuesday, but somehow Paul knew that in five days it would be a good XC day.

“How can he possibly know that,” I asked Thad after we ended the call with Paul. “Go cross country? I’ll be happy to hook a thermal.”

The rest of the week was crappy wet weather, but Sunday morning, as we drove north to meet Paul, we watched classic cloud streets form at 4000 feet AGL. The winds were forecasted to be 9 mph out of the northwest. Had we been someplace where cross country was, well… believable, I would have been excited, but who ever heard of going XC in Minnesota?

     

Thad launches with Paul's tow truck. A small collapse after launch. Note q's starting to build. Yahoo!

     

Scoping out a tow road, not the day of 90 mile XC. Note haze and lack of q's. left: Paul , right: Phil

Paul's home built tow system.

 

After driving deep into the heart of farmland past endless fields of corn and beans, we arrived at “launch”, a long quiet gravel road. While we waited for Paul’s tow and retrieve driver to show up, Paul gave us some pointers on payout winch towing. A good tow road has no wires or fences or trees that could snag the line after the pilot releases, and needs to be at least a mile long, two miles is better, preferably into the wind. It turns out that you do not have to search long to find a good tow road in Minnesota.

We also learned that having a retrieve driver who likes to drive more than he likes to fly is important. Paul’s volunteer driver for the day, also a pilot, never showed up.

Around noon, Paul towed Thad to 1000 feet AGL. Thad didn’t find much lift and in a couple of minutes was setting up for landing. Since it didn’t look like the day was going to be much more than a sled ride, I wasn’t excited to fly and offered to tow Paul, but he insisted that I tow first. He said, “We’ll take turns, if you land before sunset.” Right.

While I pulled out my wing, Paul towed Thad back into the air. This time, Thad pinned off early into a small thermal. Paul and I watched for a few minutes until it became clear that Thad was steadily gaining altitude and rapidly drifting down wind.

     

Phil launches. This is not the day of the 90 mile flight. Note overcast to broken cloud cover.

     

Standing ready, as Paul takes up the slack.
Paul's tow rope had seen some use, but it worked!

Towing up with Thad's scooter tow on another day.

 

As the tow truck rolled away and I prepared to give Paul the bow signal to add tension, I reviewed my choices of no jacket, water or food. This was going to be a short flight, straight back to a hot gravel road, but if I wound up cold, hungry and thirsty, that wouldn’t be so bad.

By the time I was off tow and clawing my way up at 100 feet per minute, Thad was ten miles downwind at cloud base, leisurely cruising a cloud street. I desperately wanted to catch up because I felt we both had a better chance if we worked together. Flying terrain made sense. Follow the lift up the mountain. Finding lift in the flats was a mystery to me.

My thermal quit at 2000 AGL, between the ground and the clouds. I headed downwind aimlessly in the shadow of a large cloud, slowly losing altitude. I radioed Paul with a deep sigh, “I’m done. You might as well start heading this way.”

Before Paul could answer, Thad cut in mocking, “I’m done! I’m done! Quit your whining and man up!” Thad followed up with some needling, “By the way, if you ever do get up to cloud base, it’s bit chilly up here. Maybe you should stay down there where it’s WARM. I’m done! I’m done!”

Paul radioed, “Phil, I’m following you, and I see you. You’re looking good. Just relax. You’ll find something.” Paul’s wise words were about to lead me to one of the most important lessons I would learn about XC flying.

“Paul, I’m at 1000 feet AGL. There’s nothing here,” I added as I looked around for the most convenient place to land.

Thad radioed, “How is it down there? Warm enough for you?”

I approached the edge of a shadow and sun-drenched fields beyond, and started to feel small bumps. My vario chirped once, and then went silent as I glided back into glassy air. Fired up by Thad’s mockery, encouraged by Paul, it was at that moment, unbeknownst to me, that my subconscious flipped a switch from looking for a landing to knowing that XC was possible. Take all the clichés of positive thinking, from Jedi lessons with Yoda to workouts with Richard Simmons, I had drunk the Kool-Aide.

Determined to stay away from the ground, I relegated control of the aircraft to a background lower level brain function. That freed me to focus fully on applying what I had learned about finding lift, and, more importantly, to figure out what I didn’t yet know about flatland flying.

I turned back towards the bumps and savored the zero sink like water in the Sahara, trying not to spill a drop. My vario chirped again, a weird chirp I had never heard before because it was measuring approximately 1 foot per year up. Until now, my mind had been inside itself, mentally mapping the thermal and worrying about being a loser. For the first time, I took a critical look around at my surroundings, and as I did, I suddenly had a sense that there was some relationship between the location of the lift, the clouds, the angle of the sun, and the wind direction. They were all somehow pieces of a complex three-dimensional puzzle that, if I could understand, could lead me to more lift.

     

Farms provided perfect landing zones and a grid work of roads for easy retrieval.

     

Thad lands near a road and waits for Paul who shows up minutes later. They find another tow road nearby, and Paul tows Thad back into the air to try to join up with Phil.

Thad launches with the scooter tow on a different day.

 

Slowly the bumps consolidated into an amoeba shaped thermal and I was climbing at 300 feet per minute. As I took a moment to stretch out in my pod and relax, I looked up past my wing and realized that I was climbing towards a well formed cumulus. I noted the angle of my ascent towards the cloud and concluded that next time I would look for lift on that same angle relative to other clouds. I also noticed that although the clouds were lined up in a direction that seemed to match the surface winds, northwest, I could tell from the drift of the shadows that the wind at cloud base was from the north. That meant that the ascending path of the thermal would be initially southeast and curve southward as it climbed. As I approached cloud base, this proved to be correct.

After a few minutes of circling, I abandoned the security of cloud base and headed down wind towards my best guess for my next climb. Meanwhile, Thad was landing outside a small town, 23 miles from launch. That was Thad’s longest flight ever and he was ecstatic.

After sniffing around, I found another thermal, and another, and before long I reported that I was over the town were Thad had landed. Thad radioed, “I’m done! I’m done! You better not break the state record di©khead or I’m going to kick you’re a@@.”

Payback was sweet, and the absurdity of me possibly breaking the 53 mile record made me chuckle. I had no distance goal on my radar. I just wanted to continue to fly well for as long as possible. Besides, I had no easy way to figure how far I had flown because I had not set a waypoint at launch.

Paul and Thad found another suitable tow road a few miles from the town and prepared to winch Thad up again. Meanwhile, I took great pleasure in radioing names of all the towns I was passing.

Thad towed up and flew another 20 miles, but never caught me. I flew on, circling in light lift, drifting over an endless patchwork of farms and little towns. Each time I made it to cloud base, I was reluctant to push on. However, after soaking up the success and pondering my next move, I got the itch and headed to cross increasingly wider patches of blue sky.

     

     

Phil landed next to an intersection and got a ride from a minister at the community center across the highway.

McGarry's Pub

 

I was constantly evaluating where to go, and made many good choices, in part because the decisions were low stress. The 1 mile grid work of roads promised an easy retrieve almost anywhere, and unlimited landing options gave me the confidence to pursue a couple of low saves, as low as 300 hundred feet.

After many miles and five hours of airtime, it was late in the day and my concentration was beginning to suffer. I had long since been cold, hungry and thirsty. I had reached the outskirts of Minneapolis, and ahead lay a massive section of controlled airspace and landing options were fading. Circling at cloud base, I looked downwind and saw no clouds. I headed out anyway, happy to settle for a few more miles.

At about 300 feet I found thermal but landing options had became scary compared to the huge open fields I had left behind. Fear kicked in and that switch flipped from Jedi Knight mode back to where’s-a-good-place-to-land mode. Soon I was safely on the ground, 90 miles from where I had launched. The state record was mine, thanks to the man who broke it a dozen years before. Paul picked the perfect day, and when his driver didn’t show, sacrificed himself to tow me, chase me, and give me the Yoda speech, all so that I could break his record. Paul, you are the man.

After I packed up, I stood on the side of the county highway and tried to hitch towards the twin cities. I wasn't there 2 minutes when a highway patrol car drove by. Without even stopping, the officer yelled over the loud speaker, "Keep moving!" I guess I looked like a homeless guy with all my worldly possessions on my back. It would have been fun if he had stopped.

I crossed the highway and found a community center where a minister was about to host a BBQ for a large group of people. When I asked to borrow a phone book to call a taxi (before I had my iphone), he asked if he could be of help. I explained that I had just landed across the street and was hoping to make my way to the nearest restaurant where I could wait for my friends. The minister offered to drive me down the road to McGarry's Pub.

When I walked into McGarry's and ordered my first glorious Guinness, there were just a few rough looking locals. They gave me and my glider bag an uneasy stare. Just for fun, I decided to push the tension a bit further and asked, "What town is this?"

Several hours and many beers later, the bar was packed, and Sunday night drinkers were crowded around me as I sat in my harness in the middle of the floor, recanting tales of low saves and cloud base victories.

     

Thad paramotoring just outside of Minneapolis.

     

Phil reeling in the drogue on Steve's tow rig.

Steve Sirrine from SDI Paragliding

Steve's tow rig.

 

Later that summer, Thad and I went towing with other Minnesota pilots including Steve Sirrine from SDI Paragliding. We racked up several 20 to 50 mile flights, but we believe the potential in Minnesota is beyond 120 miles.

I wrote this article to share my excitement and encourage others about flatland flying in the Midwest and across the globe. Payout winches have become affordable, transportable, and easy to operate. Unlike mountain flying where terrain dictates the launch sites and often the routes, in the flats, launch is where ever you find a tow road, but the lift could be anywhere, and that’s where XC Skies comes in handy. XCSkies.com’s weather service has proved to be extremely reliable in predicting areas of lift, a key component to the validation of flatland flying.

Mix in one tow winch, a driver, XC Skies, and some flying buddies, and you have a recipe for major fun. Just one other ingredient is necessary and I leave you with that: knowing it’s possible.

 

About the author:

Philip Russman’s media company, Lite Touch Films, produces DVDs for the powered paragliding community including the popular title, Risk and Reward. For more on Phil Russman...

     
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