Flying Idaho Style: Hog Roasts and the INEL
by Will Gadd
Written in '96?

"Last time I launched here, I went to 18,000 feet. Definitely the rowdiest air
I've ever flown in." "Whatever you do, stay out of the Idaho Nuclear Explosion
Laboratory site, they have Blackhawk helicopters that will shoot you out of
the sky." All I'd ever heard about flying King Mountain, located near Moore in
central Idaho, was how incredibly radical the flying was. If the thermals were
so radical and powerful, how come I had just sunk out? Maybe there was a
reason all the hang glider pilots on launch hadn't bailed off into the strong
cycles after all...This wasn't Front-Range Colorado, where if the wind isn't
blowing like hell over the back of Lookout you'd better launch immediately,
because it probably will.

Fortunately, I was flying a paraglider and was back on launch in a matter of
minutes, thanks to a kindly hang glider pilot. Again I launched with Chris
Santacroce, only to watch him sky out right in front of me while I went up and
down in 500-foot increments right in front of launch. I hate flying like that,
where I can't get up and away from the gravitational pull of earth to save my
life, even when other pilots are. After battling the wind for half an hour and
getting nowhere, I was having no fun and completely aggravated, so I
top-landed in the wind now blowing across launch. Everywhere in the valley
cumulus clouds were popping, Chris had just gone to 12,000 from the 7,000-foot
launch, but it just wasn't happening for me. I sat on launch for about 30
minutes until the cycles straightened out, then re-launched and once again
plummeted toward the LZ. This was starting to get more than mildly aggravating.

Less than 500 feet above the ground, I finally hooked a weak but consistent
thermal, which took me from the blazing heat on the ground to the icy
cloudbase at about 12,000. I cored through a couple of hang gliders, then
caught two more at base. The winds aloft were from the NW at about 10-15, so I
went over the back of King in the company of an hang glider on a white TRX. We
floated along wingtip to wingtip for a minute before he waved, pulled the bar
in and shot off into a blue area to the east. I decided to stay under the
cloud in the zero sink, and just boated along with it while the hang glider
blazed out in front, getting lower and lower. Eventually I made it across the
first valley east of King, arriving at about 12,000. It was around three
o'clock, so I figured the distance XC odds weren't especially good, but it
felt rewarding to have numb hands and lots of altitude. Looking east, I could
see several small towns with good development, so I punched the speed bar and
went out hard with the wind, passing over the first paved road in about 10
miles and the downed TRX.

Suddenly, Jim Grossman came on the radio and said, "Ah, you're flying into the
INEL, that might not be a good idea." He'd launched after me, but caught a
strong thermal and had a fast glide under a cloud. The towns were actually
factories of some kind, and now that I noticed, none of the roads between them
had any traffic. What exactly would the wash from a Blackhawk helicopter do my
fragile wing? It couldn't be good. Disappointed but not really fired up about
landing in a military area, I turned and started gliding back upwind into the
shade from a cloud, sinking steadily. This sucked. Right beside the downed TRX
hang glider was a nice brown field with a small patch of sun, so I aimed for
it with the theory that if the field didn't work at least I might be able to
scam a ride with the hang glider and maybe drink his chase crew's beer. At
about 300 feet AGL (5300 feet?), the field turned on and I caught another weak
but workable thermal that wasn't drifting much with the wind, and started
circling slowly up. The low-altitude wind was fairly strong south, so I got
over the road with non-military traffic and just kept climbing, thinking that
sooner or later the thermal had to get better than 50-200 feet up. After
almost an hour (by far the longest climb of my life!), I was back at 13,000
with a severely cramped right arm from turning. Grossman had done a death
glide to the very, very edge (Where that edge is may be a bit of a personal
interpretation) of the INEL area, and the wind at altitude was now south-
south west. I didn't have a map, but it looked like the options to the north
ended pretty quickly as far as roads went, so I headed south, fighting the
wind but finding strong lift under the classic cumulus clouds. I knew that
there was a road that went east just south of me, and that the airspace above
it wasn't in the INEL, so I cut the corner and got over the road. Even though
it was five in the evening, the thermals were the best I had found all day,
consistently over 1,000 up. It was frustrating to thermal up and drift out
toward the INEL, only to have to do an up-wind beat to get back to clear
airspace, but I gradually worked my way west, starting to enjoy the challenge
of staying out of the INEL and still making distance. I definitely could not
have made much progress against the wind if I didn't have my new Edel Sector,
which cut upwind well with the speedbar pegged. I kept worrying about pulling
the front end of the glider down so far, but the Sector stayed amazingly
stable. In fact, I didn't take one collapse the whole flight despite
consistently flying with the speed on.

As I passed to the North of Big Southern Butte, I saw a road heading off
northwest that looked perfect and would have been downwind flying, but I
wasn't sure if went to the INEL and didn't want to risk finding out, so I kept
thermaling and doing upwind glides above whatever road I was above. I always
vow that I'll never launch without a map again, but I always seem to end up
places where I have no idea what's around me.

Finally, after 7:00 p.m., the lift stopped and I did my final upwind glide to
get back to the road. I touched down a long way from where I had launched, but
with no real idea of the distance I'd covered. On the ground, I stripped
nearly naked in the hot breeze, took a very welcome pee and was otherwise
acting like I was all alone about 100 yards off the road when I heard, "Er, do
you need a lift?" I about exploded with surprise, but was amazed that someone
would stop for me in the middle of nowhere. Idahoans are awesome. Rob told me
I was about 10 miles from Blackfoot, and said he thought it was about 40 or 50
miles back to King. Despite grinding across the wind and the late hour, I'd
still managed to get a fair distance. Rob's family made room for me in the
car, and then invited me to a hog roast for some friends in Atomic City, named
after all the Nuke stuff in the area. Thinking that my friends would probably
be looking for me along the road, I regretfully declined, and Rob let me out
at the turnoff to Atomic, where I stood for an hour without one car going by,
except for the stream of cars turning into Atomic. Finally, I gave up and
hitched into Atomic with a guy named Rainey, who was, sure enough, going to
the Hog Roast and insisted that I come for dinner and beer.

Now the flight was fun, but it was the hog roast and general partying of the
locals that made the day. I kept calling on the radio and working the cell
phone, but no one was responding. The locals all thought it was pretty funny
that there I was with $600 worth of communication toys and no one to talk to,
but one invited me into her house to use the phone, where I left messages for
most of the flying community in Idaho, again with no response. I ended up
hanging at the Hog roast until about 11:00 that night, dancing to the Mexican
band, drinking free beer and just generally having about the best time I've
ever had on a retrieve. Unfortunately, my cell phone finally rang and Grossman
and Santacroce showed up, to the amusement of the locals, who proceeded to
pour beer down them too.

We finally made it back to Moore at about 1:00 in the morning, after the most
complete flying experience I've had. Idaho may have something about spuds on
its license plates, but it's the people who are the best. Thanks to everyone
in Atomic City for a really good time, Nate Scales and Othar Lawrence for
being motivated to drive to King, the hang glider pilot for lift to launch and
all the other people who made the day the best flying day I've had since Venezuela.

I still don't have any real idea how far the flight was, and I don't really
care. I'll take a hog roast in Atomic City over getting destroyed by a
Blackhawk any day.