Dancing with the Dusties: The 1995 US Nationals
By Will Gadd
PQ: The great thing about landing in isolation is that no one can hear you scream.
It was madness. Everything I had ever leaned about paragliding had taught me
that dust devils were sure death, a quick way to turn your wing into confetti
and you into a flight-for-life customer. Yet, less than 300 ft off the deck
and 1000 ft below and in front of me, a wing was flying directly into the
mother of all dust devils, an ill-tempered mother with six or seven bastard
offspring ringing her defense perimeter. Figuring that I was shooting faces of
death, I fired my camera in sequence as the Merak below me wobbled toward and
disappeared into the swirling cloud of dust and high-velocity hay. The next
time I got a solid photo of the glider, it was climbing above me like an F-16
with foldable wings. Shocked, I had no choice but to fly into the swirling
cloud of dust and do the dust devil dance to cloudbase. Welcome to flying off
the Chelan Butte!
While I learned to love dust devils at Lake Chelan and appreciate Jet Skis, I
also learned to fear the power of a rules protest almost as much as the
warping winds on the flat fields East of Lake Chelan. As POGO said, "We have
seen the enemy and he is us."
"The rules are simple. Read the @!*#^ rulebook." Mitch McAleer was taking no
bullshit at the competitor's meeting held at Campbell's resort the night
before the competition. Mixing profanity and profundity about flying the flats
east of launch into a vitriolic spew, Mitch set the tone for the competition
while family men cringed, pilots applauded and foreign pilots looked confused.
Like the air off launch for the duration of the competition, Mitch's rantings
were powerful and chaotic. Welcome to the Nationals.
Launch on day one was interesting because the wind was blowing from the
southwest, but the designated competition launch was on the northeast side of
the butte. Somehow in the negotiating process, the big broad launch on the
Butte had been bargained away, leaving us to launch into the lee of a strong
wind. No problem, just wait for a booming thermal to rip up the hillside and
away you go, flying very, very actively. The secret to surviving launch seemed
to lie in fully committing to a thermal, no matter how small or violent. The
pilots who cored hard stayed inflated, while those who waffled lost air
pressure faster than a punctured balloon. Thermal or be thermaled! I got off
early in a massive Energy gaggle, but found that my cameras were solidly
locked under both thigh straps, making it impossible to take the start photo.
I went on glide upwind of the launch to wrestle my cameras into submission by
undoing first one leg loop then the other, while the lead gaggle of pilots
thermaled into the dust devils on the flats across the Columbia River and
disappeared from sight. I eventually ended up top-landing, untangling my
cameras and relaunching about 15 minutes before the start tarp was taken away,
curious as to why there were so many pilots left on the hill. The lee-side
launch was rowdy, but fine once you cleared the immediate launch area. After
getting high enough to cross the river (not a good place to land), I flew
about 40 miles in three hours before landing going backwards in the 30+ mph
west wind. Robbie Whittall won the day by almost getting to goal, but there
were problems brewing back at the ranch.
"I thought we were done flying in a testosterone-laden state," said one pilot
the next morning at the pilots meeting. He felt that the launch conditions
were unsuitable and had chosen to protest the day by stating that several
pilots had been "team flying" on a private radio frequency. Mitch summarily
dismissed the protest by pointing out that team flying was allowed under the
USHGA rules and that the meet-specific rules which banned team flying had not
been distributed at the pilots meeting or in the pilot packages. The scores
from the first day stood, but were worth only 308 points because so few pilots
had launched in the rowdy conditions.
Day two of the competition was definitely blown out and the competitors'
interests turned to alternate adrenaline fixes. Some pilots went to the water
slides, some rented jet skis and some went climbing near the garishly fake
Bavarian town of Leavenworth. Even without the flying, Lake Chelan is truly a
beautiful area to visit; the Columbia River at the lake's end is lined for
miles with serene orchards (apparently each tree is worth about $20,000, which
means landing in an orchard would be an expensive experience) while the
snow-covered Cascades form a postcard backdrop. The areas above the Columbia
Gorge are basically flat desert with extensive wheat farming in a dust-bowl
atmosphere. I kept expecting a jalopy filled with Grapes of Wrath farmers to
appear at any minute, but trucks full of hitchhiking paragliders were the norm.
Day three was an incredible task to the Almira airport, 52 miles from launch.
About ten pilots made the epic flight including a five mile crossing over
Banks Lake. Landing out in the Mad Max desolation area or in the lake itself
might not be a death sentence, but it would certainly be sporting.
Unfortunately, controversy was spinning faster than a dust devil back on
launch--again. It turns out that due to an arcane formula, the launch window
was open nine minutes less than it had to be before high winds shut it down.
The remaining ten pilots on launch felt that they had not enough opportunity
to get off launch in the confused launch area and they protested. The formula
the protesters and organizers used stated that there were only three valid
launch slots on the butte, although I witnessed as many as six gliders
launching within seconds of each other. Mitch gave the protesters the benefit
of the doubt, which meant that the 50 pilots who flew received nothing more
than three hours of ripping flying for their efforts.
Still, it was amazing flying with a cloudbase at 12,000+ ft, a full 10,000 ft
above the ground. The formula was simple: fly the sky when high, fly into
brown fields with dust devils if low. I know it sounds warped, but flying into
a monster dust devil even at altitudes as low as 100 ft often guaranteed a
rowdy but fast climb back to cloudbase. I have simply never had as much fun
flying as I did over the Chelan flats. No rotors, no venturi valley winds, no
class C airspace, just cranking along at cloudbase or pulling the low-altitude
save of a lifetime over a brown field in the middle of nowhere. The sour taste
of a 1000 point day canceled because a few pilots were too slow to get off
launch was bitter, but the flying almost made up for it. While the day was
canceled, Zach Hoisington, Josh Cohn, Robbie Whittall, Richard Gallon, Dave
Bridges and several others flew the 52 miles to goal and deserve the credit
for flying fast and well even if their performances didn't count for anything
but the Karmic scoreboard. Had that day been official, the scores from the
Nationals would have been radically different.
Day four was day two officially, with the same task as the scuttled day three.
Again, conditions were absolutely booming off launch, but at least we were
launching on the windward side of the hill. The wind was blowing five to
twenty mph on launch, and cycling mean and hard. Mountain pilots had an
experience edge in the strong air, while coastal or softer-site pilots were
often trashed by the strong air rolling up "dust devil alley." Several pilots
flew into very strong cores/dust devils, only to fly out the other side and
cascade frontals into asymmetrics into other more advanced maneuvers. One
pilot lost control of his glider and crashed into the hillside directly below
me, while another tossed his reserve and yet another smacked into the hillside
in front of launch, all within about ten minutes. I took several strong
deflations, but felt OK about it after watching Dave Hankins repeatedly get
thrashed on his Laser only to sort it out just above the ground. The two
pilots who crashed received a broken ankle and a broken arm between them--not
too bad considering the crashes.
Interestingly, one pilot who crashed was scratching/ridge soaring the hillside
in the very strong thermal conditions with his glider trimmed much faster than
neutral, while the other reportedly had only one hand on the brakes at the
time he took his first collapse. All three pilots who threw their reserves in
the competition or fly-in walked away from it, which is an excellent argument
for throwing your reserve high enough that it will function. There was some
serious griping on launch about the conditions, but most pilots simply had the
rides of their lives and headed out over the Columbia River and onto the now
familiar flats. After 30 miles the course headed south, but warping headwinds
stopped all but Robbie Whittall and Richard Gallon, who managed to cross Banks
Lake and end up close to goal. The rest of the field landed out on the barren
flats with anywhere from a short walk to a dehydration death march from hell
awaiting them. The day was still valid due to the large numbers of pilots who
made half distance.
Official day three was a 31.3 mile course across the Columbia river and out
onto the flats before running north after a turnpoint at mile 15. Cloudbase
was lower and the crossing difficult; no one landed in the Columbia, but fully
half the field sunk out before getting established on the flats. Of those that
made it onto the flats, all but 14 sunk out battling upwind to get the
turnpoint. There's nothing more aggravating than flying along with your glider
fully trimmed out and your speedbar pegged while making about one mile an hour
toward a turnpoint a mile away. In the end it was patience and careful thermal
selection that allowed 12 pilots to snag the turnpoint and fire downwind to
goal. I lost patience and hit the dirt almost exactly on the turnpoint, only
to witness another pilot fly over my head at about 100 ft and blast back to
cloudbase in a swirl of hay and dust. I was tempted to inflate and run into
the dust devil, but was too dehydrated from yelling in frustration to get up
enough speed. The great thing about landing in isolation is that no one can
hear you scream.
Official day four was an interesting task. Instead of bombing out over the
flats straight east, the task committee called for a 43 mile run up the
Columbia River Gorge. In familiar ratty launch conditions, virtually all the
field got off launch cleanly and into the air. The tactics of which side of
the river to fly were the deciding factor in how well pilots did, both in
flying toward goal and getting retrieved. I made three low saves (making the
saves was good flying, putting myself that low was stupid) with other pilots
before making a long river crossing on a cloudstreet that popped in front of
me like popcorn for five miles. I was confident of getting up in a large brown
field on the other side of the river with another glider, but suddenly found
myself flushed dramatically down the side of the gorge like an out-of-control
skier. At times only a foot above the ground, I skimmed through sagebrush and
around spooked cows before landing in a high-speed downwind explosion of
sagebrush and dust after about a half mile of very low-angle gliding. From
success to failure in 60 seconds!
Meanwhile, the rest of the field was cranking up the other side of the river,
only to get shut down by overdevelopment after about 25 miles. Ron McKenzie
played with a monster cunim and used fallout from it to power into goal, but
his effort was worth only 885 points because so many pilots sunk out early.
The validity scoring system remains a mystery to me (how can a day be only 30
percent valid?) and seems to cater to the lowest common denominator in a
competition rather than rewarding bold flying. The system worked to my
advantage most days, but I'd still like to see changes along the lines of what
a group of competitors decided in a meeting at Chelan, including shortening
minimum distance to three miles from five. Wait and see if the group's
recommendations are accepted by USHGA.
When it was all said and done, Dave Bridges on his Edel Energy was the new US
champion, followed by Bob England on an Apco Xtra and Todd Bibler on another
Energy rounding out the podium with third. Richard Gallon on a UP prototype
locked into first in the open, while Rob Whittall took a strong second, only
six (SIX!) points back on his Energy and Dave Bridges third overall. Those
that flew consistently did well, while those who flew schizophrenically didn't.
Competing brings out the best and worst in a pilot. Every competition I've
gone to in my minimal 250 hours of flying has been an extremely valuable
learning experience, one well worth the price of entry. If you sink out
free-flying you can just laugh and relaunch, but a competition forces you to
think about what you're doing every second you're in the air, from the moment
you launch and get your butt kicked to the moment your feet hit the dirt and
the day is over. Despite the protests and whining at Lake Chelan, the best
pilots kept their gliders inflated and flew well every day on their way to
winning. Where else but a competition do you get to learn from people like
that day after day? I'd pay again to watch skill like that.
While there's still some Monday-morning quarterbacking going on about the
conditions and organization, I think that the organizers, local volunteers,
flying clubs and sponsors honestly did the best job they could throughout the
competition for the 100-plus competition and fly-in pilots. For their efforts
they deserve our thanks and support. The flying is incredible at Chelan, and
I'd especially like to thank Joe Gluzinski and Bill Gordon for having the
faith to pull off the 1995 Nationals in a place where many said it couldn't be done.
Results US Nationals
1. Dave Bridges Edel Energy
2. Bob England Apco Xtra
3. Todd Bibler Edel Energy
4. Josh Cohn Pro Design High
5. Bill Gordon Pro Design Contest
6. Othar Lawrence Edel Energy
7. Will Gadd Edel Energy
8. Mark Ferguson Nova Sphinx
9. Scott Amy Airwave
10. Zach Hoisington Pro Design Contest
11. Steve Rich Edel Energy
12. Steve Amy Pro Design Contest
13. Steve Prairie Nova Sphinx
14. Nate Scales Edel Energy
15. Jan Ala Nova Xenon
16. Craig CunninghamAiles de K Cristal
17. Fred Lawley Minoa Swing
18. Paul Ferguson Nova Sphinx
19. Jay Carroll UP Kendo
20. Lee Kaiser Nova Xenon
Top Five Open
Richard Gallon UP proto
Rob Whittall Edel Energy
Dave Bridges Edel Energy
Ron McKenzie Edel Energy
Bob England Apco Xtra
Useful competition and cross-country tricks from top pilots at Lake Chelan:
Dave Bridges' top tricks
1. Get glasses-I was blind before this year.
2. Every time I've had a piece of hay or dandelion go zooming by me, I found a
3. Talk to hang glider pilots about local conditions. How would they fly the
day's task? They're the locals, the dudes who fly the site day in day out all
season, not you.
4. Get to the competition early, fly the sites.
5. Have fun, because there's no glory in paragliding and definitely no money.
1. When you are high, fly the sky, when you are low, fly the terrain.
2. Don't win on any given day, just don't hit the dirt until near goal.
Pretend the ground is lethal.
3. Fly a glider you're comfortable on. The new higher-performance
intermediates are almost as good as the top-of-the-line race rigs, but offer
huge advantages in strong conditions. Ken Hudonjorgenson flew an entry-level
trainer straight through a monster gaggle of Lycra-clad competition pilots at
the Chelan Nationals, and Garth flew his Merak past half the field of
4. Don't launch until other pilots are going up consistently. That may mean at
the very start of the launch window or the very end, but if good pilots are
sinking out then the odds suck.
5. Get high and stay high. The highest glider wins, not the fastest.
6. Try to be two steps away from hitting the dirt. Plan on getting up
somewhere, but have a plan B and maybe C if your first plan doesn't work. If
you're a red-hot pilot from hell then you've made your bargain and will get up
where you think you will. The rest of us won't. Of course, waffling around in
sink pretty much means dirt on your Salomon boots.
7. Fly into turnpoints with the wind, not against it. If the wind picks up
dramatically and you fly into a turnpoint downwind from it, you're going to
have to work twice as hard as the pilots who glided into the turnpoint with
the wind, maybe even harder if the wind is faster than your glider.
8. Leave your pants/tights loose with zippers and straps undone so you can pee
easier on long glides.
9. When you get below your comfort zone on the flats don't race down wind in
hopes of finding lift. Pick a likely looking spot (big brown field) and wait
pointing into the wind for something to come through (big spinning dusty).
10. When the wing looks like laundry, reach, pull, and deploy. It's better to
ride down under reserve than smack in while spinning.
11. Competitions aren't about getting to goal, but staying off the ground. If
you're on the ground the day is over, but if you're in the air then you have a
Classic mistakes to avoid:
1. Don't sink out to stay in front. The guy in front isn't winning, he's
looking for thermals for you. Let the people in front of you do the
prospecting, then steal their thermals.
2. A GPS is a good thing, but not a godly thing. Richard "Dick" Gallon had his
GPS coordinates set for southern Nigeria on day four of the competition; he
reportedly led Rob Whittall on a long detour to the ground before realizing
3. Big ears don't help you race toward a thermal or goal. They do make you
sink faster, but do nothing for your glide.
4. Don't photograph the wrong turnpoint. You've got to be able to navigate and
take photos within the FAI sectors or you don't get any points (zero.)
5. Long glides take a long time. On a no-wind glide it may seem like you're
getting nowhere slowly, but stomping on the speedbar to get somewhere fast
means you'll get there lower, and lower means smaller thermals farther apart,
which means ground contact.