#1: June 21: Thoughts on the life and death of a friend, Michael "Hollywood" Champlin.

Pic105_hollywood_headshot.jpg (9956 bytes)Michael "Hollywood" Champlin recently died while flying in Hobbs, NM (for an accident report, see MC was a rare pilot and person, totally focused on setting hang gliding World Records.   For the last four years he’s traveled the US in search of record conditions, consistently flying more miles in a single season than most pilots fly in a lifetime. MC was relatively new to the HG game, as he started flying just six years ago, but he had already flown far more 200+ mile flights than any other pilot in the US and probably the world. I first came to know him via email a couple of years ago; I mailed him a list of questions about the flying in Hobbs, and he gave me detailed, friendly information about what to expect. His energy was part of the reason I eventually flew far in Hobbs, and remains part of the forces that keep me flying.

This year I talked a lot with MC and his partner, Tiki Mashi, while we were chasing records together in Hobbs. One day I interviewed him for a video about distance flying that I’m working on, and he absolutely blew me away with his concise, clear explanations of how he thought distance flying worked. I can still hear his comments in my head as I fly XC: "Birds. Dust. 360-degree mental snapshots every circle. If you’re not making at least two or three decisions a minute while flying then you’re not thinking enough. Open your eyes and LOOK." I think MC had become more bird-like and in touch with his environment than any other pilot I have spoken with, but he was also swimming deeply in whatever he found in day-to-day life. When it was time to rescue some owls in an abandoned hangar at Hobbs, MC was right in there scooping them up while I ferried them back into their nest. One day a coyote strolled across the far side of the runway, and MC spent the next half hour attempting to entice it with dying rabbit calls. In a word, MC was fully "engaged" with his surroundings, no matter what was happening. I deeply admired his engagement, to me that is as close to grace as one can get. I don’t believe in an afterlife (but would like to be proved wrong), so how one lives each day is more important than racking brownie points for God (although MC probably had quite a few of those as well!). MC truly lived, and that is a great accomplishment and source of inspiration.

Whenever a friend dies, I have this overwhelming need to try and understand "why,", and this desire is inevitably met with frustration. Increasingly, I don’t believe there is an answer, (those who turn to religion for an explanation probably differ), just an opportunity to reflect on how the dead lived and what that means to those left living. I celebrate MC’s life as I knew it, and wish peace to Tiki and others who will miss him in ways I can only dimly empathize with. I can’t help but smile with a tear as I think of MC telling me about birds and clouds, and recognize him as the elder he was. The world isn’t a smaller place because he died, but a larger place because he lived.

PS—MC died while learning to fly stick-controlled gliders, not standard weight-shift hang gliders. For a more in-depth report on his accident, go to and check out Davis Straub’s Oz Report.