Saturday, May 21, 2011

$200 Crab Cake

"The $100 Hamburger" is an old expression pilots use to convey the idea of flying somewhere for no real reason other than to joyfully exercise the ability to fly. While there, they'll stop in at the local airport grill (a fading concept, to say the least) and buy a hamburger, then fly back home. Considering the fuel costs and fixed costs amortized over every hour of flight of one's airplane (tie down fees, maintenance, insurance, and more), the assumption is that the pilot spent around $100 just to get that hamburger. And they'd do again over and over.

It doesn't cost $100 anymore, however.

New to airplane ownership, it wasn't until today that I finally took the opportunity to fly to another airport simply because I could.

Venice Beach, on Florida's gulf coast, is place many friends I know fly to from where I live at Quest Hang Gliding Airpark (formerly an old cropduster airport, officially known as Sheets Airfield). They either do so assuredly, with powered aircraft, or with limited success in a hang glider.

Two other popular flying destinations in this part of Florida are Chalet Suzanne to the south or Cedar Key to the north west. Both, however, have fields a little too tight for my comfort (and underpowered airplane). So I chose Venice Beach for my first adventure in $100 hamburgers and used my iPad to plan a route from Leesburg, where I keep my plane (as Quest Airpark is also a little too tight for my level of experience with this plane).

I set in three airports as waypoints to give me a gentle curve to the east that avoided Tampa's airspace. First up was an airport across the street from Quest, one that would give me a nice view of Quest (the blue dot) out my left seat window on the way down. Secondly was the airport in Lakeland, home of each April's Sun n' Fun Airshow (perhaps the second largest air show in the country). This last April was the first time I visited it and I was curious what the field would look like now, empty, when last April it had been overrun with aircraft and cars.

Thirdly, and almost reluctantly, I chose Hidden River as my last waypoint. It's a private airport community that I'd only heard of because it's mentioned now and then on the The Uncontrolled Air Space Podcast (UCAP), to which I regularly listen. It comes up so often because it's the home of Jeb, one of the podcast's hosts.

Even though Hidden River would be a perfect waypoint for me, I chose it hesitantly because it seemed almost voyeuristic of me to be peering down on the home of a celebrity of sorts (to me, at least), someone I'd met and shook hands with at last April's Sun n' Fun.

Because of plans formed and commitments made long before I decided to buy an airplane last summer, I've spent eight months overseas during this first year of owning an airplane. Furthermore, in just a week I'll leave for another summer in Europe.

The plane has, then, been severely under-utilized, something I hope to make up for this fall once I'm back. Further adding to it's neglect has been my focus on getting a multi-engine rating in the ten weeks I've been home since returning from Australia. A few days ago I took my own plane up for two hours of just flying around, immersing myself in the newly acquired joy that I could fly whenever I wanted, and so I just floated around, gazing from above at this or that or anything else that interested me.

To make some practical use of the time, I maintained a specific altitude and power setting during the entire flight so that I could start gathering data on my engine's fuel consumption under various conditions. This is something it's Pilot's Operating Handbook spells out in great detail but, with a 42 year old aircraft, is unlikely to have much bearing on reality now.

This morning I drove the short drive to Leesburg, preflighted the plane and topped off the fuel, then departed south for Venice Beach and a hamburger. First waypoint up was Osborn, the airport across the street. Passing over it, I watched Quest Airpark drift by on my left, a sight I'd seen for hours on end while hang gliding. I was more interest in what was next; Lakeland.

Though my navigation waypoint was oriented to a point in the center of the airfield, I purposely drifted right so that I could view the airport in it's entirety from the window to my left. I was cruising 2000 feet above the airport's airspace ceiling so I didn't need to talk to the tower to overfly, but I still tuned it in to listen to what was happening in Lakeland's vicinity.

Having spent the major part of four very happy days last April on a small section of its grounds where the airshow displays were focused (the corner centered in the bottom of the picture with many trees), I felt a great sense of nostalgia viewing it as I was from the air, even though the memories were only a month old. There Dolores and I strolled among the warbirds. There we sat on the grass and watched the airshow, there I met the UCAP gang...

The home airport (and actual home) of Jeb, one of the UCAP gang, was up next. As I approached it, the CAVU day (Ceiling Absolute, Visibility Unlimited) was turning into the typical Florida summer afternoon; heavily developing clouds that often turn into thunderstorms.

By the time I got to Hidden River, I felt somewhat self conscious about wondering just where it was that Jeb might live. Some features are mentioned often enough on the podcast (a small lake, a particular kind of building) that if I really looked, I could probably figure out which house was his. Because of this, I almost felt it appropriate to avert my gaze, so to speak, and use only my GPS and iPad (running Foreflight navigation software) to confirm I had, in fact, reached the waypoint.

If anyone truly perused my own blog, they, too, could probably figure out just exactly which door to knock on if they really wanted to meet me or, perhaps, know which door to open to take books? My couch? Since my computer and iPad travel with me, probably the only thing worth taking in my home when I'm traveling is my espresso maker. If it turns out that someone really needs it, I suppose I could get another.

One of the reasons I live here, however, despite a greater longing for a cooler climate (and mountains...and running streams...and snow in the winter...and...and...) is something that most likely would prevent such an occurrence of theft. It's not just an airport, it's a community of hang glider pilots and tow pilots and people who "get it," as I've heard many pilots say about other pilots. We love waking up in the morning the sound of a 582 or a 912 (if you don't get that, you won't get it). Anyone walking up to my door, therefore, will be noticed by anyone...and everyone knows everyone...and knows who should and shouldn't be walking up to my door when I'm not here. It's like a gated community without the gate. People who've flown all their lives fly around as if they were walking to the mail box and back. People who've never flown anything smaller than an airline all their lives fly in something not much more than four tubes and a big patch of sail cloth, and send squeals of delight cascading down the atmosphere to where I'm sitting with a cup of coffee under my awning on a summer morning.

I politely averted my gaze as Jeb's airport neared. More to the point, the developing clouds had forced me to drop from my comfortable (and cool) altitude of 4500 down to 2500 just to get under them. Furthermore, I was only 12nm from Venice, an airport busy with student pilots and other aircraft that I could already hear repeatedly on the airport's frequency. I'd been monitoring it for the last ten minutes and was surprised at the volume of traffic. At Hidden River, low and that close to Venice, I was too busy looking forward, left and right for traffic to gaze at the ground.

And then, there it was. Venice Beach; soon to be home of my first $100 hamburger.

I landed and went into an airport cafe next to where I tied down my airplane. Sharky's on the Pier (visible on the coast on the left in the full sized version of the above picture) had been my intended goal but, one, it was a two mile walk around the airport's perimeter and, two, the developing clouds were worrying me. A phone call to the flight weather briefer worried me even more. He mentioned the possibility of thunderstorms back up at Leesburg. I'm glad I came down, I thought, but now I want to go...not hurriedly, but certainly not with my intended sense of leisure that would include a walk down to Sharky's and back. So I sat down in the airport cafe and, not really enthused about a hamburger, ordered a crabcake instead. My bill was $11. I left a $2 tip and went to fuel up my airplane.

Fuel for the round trip was $101.14. Add $13 for the crab cake and iced tea and you get $114.14. The hourly fixed cost on my Cessna 150J is hard to pin down this early in the game but a fair estimate might be $35. So, with 2.5 hours of flight time, the full cost of that crab cake might be closer to $200 than not.

Back home at Quest, I twittered: Had my first $100 hamburger today, but it was actually a crab cake and fuel alone was $101. Maybe, all told, $100 hamburgers are now $200.

Jack H., one of the podcasters from UCAP, responded directly to me; I'm afraid that "$100 hamburger" went the way of "shave and a haircut two bits."

I answered; Still, even at $200, it was a small thrill, coming so late in my flying career (40 years).

There's only about two days between now and my departure for Switzerland on June 1st when I'd have the chance to try this again, and earlier in the day so that I could make it to the beach and back before the thunderstorms threaten. If I can, I'll do it.

It's a new kind of thrill for me, being able to experience days like this. On one hand, I regret that it took so long for me to get to this point. On the other, and more significantly, I'm just so thrilled that I did get to this point.

Life is good.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ich Lebe Noch

When I was stationed in Germany in the Air Force between 1977-80, I lived in a small apartment sharing a wall with my landlords, a delightful couple with a teenage son and daughter. Many times, when I'd have been gone for an extended period some military-related trip and would reappear back at home, the mother, upon first seeing me, would always warmly say, "Ach, Du lebst noch."

Ah, you're still alive.

This came to mind because Zhenya wrote me a few days ago;
The other day I've got a letter from one of my blog readers, and he wrote:
"When I got interested in Hang gliding I started following your blog, Johnny Durand’s blog, Jamie Sheldon’s blog and Timothy Ettridge’s blog. I enjoy them all; yours in particular, but Timothy Ettridge has not posted in his blog since August 1st 2010. I enjoy his blog because he writes just like Earnest Hemingway (my favorite author) and I enjoy his stories. Has anything happened to him or is he just taking time off?"
You see, people get worried about you!
I'm very honored. So...whomever you are; ja, ich lebe noch.

Has it really been eight months? As much as I'd wanted to fill in this gap and others in the past with the tales of what I've experienced, I always first think of all the stories that I've yet to tell before I write about current ones. Contemplating the enormous size of the task of catching up, however, ends up keeping me from writing about anything at all.

So, in lieu of those full stories, I'll hurdle that obstacle with a quick summary of that eight-month gap.

August '10
Joined Dolores and others in Tolmin, Slovenia for the Kobala Hang Gliding Open...

...then spent time with Zhenya, Yulia, and others at one of Europe's biggest hang gliding centers; Greifenburg, Austria...

September '10
Hung out (and flew) with Matjaz, Nena, and sometimes even Lara in Nova Gorcia, Slovenia...

...then went with Yulia to fly in the Dolomites in Italy.

Octiber '10
Returned to the States to pick up the plane I'd bought in Oklahoma...

...and fly it home.

November '10
Drove up to Arlington, Virginia to have Thanksgiving (cooked by my daughter, Raine)...

...with (clockwise, l. to r.) Gus, Susan, Max, Mom, Raine, and Nina.

December '10
Returned to Australia to meet up with Dolores...

...and her daughter Ashanta, and later Ashanta's boyfriend Fredy for a month of flying and car camping.

January '11
Was involved in the Forbes hang gliding meet...

...and car-camped some more with Dolores before she returned to Switzerland.

February '11
Hung out with Scott and Monica a week in Newcastle (with a bit of flying) and then went down to Stanwell Park (hang gliding heaven central to me), where I was visited by my daughter Raine...

...who got in a great flight with Curt (video here).

March '11
Flew to Queenstown, New Zealand with John and Lisa to relearn my long-neglected paragliding skills...

...and had an absolute blast doing so.

April '11
Came back to the States, where Dolores joined me and we visited the week-long Sun 'n Fun airshow...

...which included a spectacular night airshow one evening.

And that's just the quick summary. So much more happened.

(Glad to know people care.)

Monday, August 9, 2010


I think it was about a year ago (just after getting back to the States last fall) that Jamie excitedly told me that Monte Cucco had been selected as the site for the 2011 World Hang Gliding Championship. Monte Cucco is a hill above the small town of Sigillo in the Umbria region of Italy, a place we both knew well and loved. As the competition would be in August of 2011, the "pre-Worlds" (the dress rehearsal of the competition to iron out problems) would be in August of 2010.

Furthermore, Jamie eagerly added, the Italian meet director had asked her to come over and be a staff member for both the pre-Worlds in 2010 and the Worlds in 2011. "Soooo...." she concluded, "why don't you and I just make of full summer of hang gliding around Europe in 2010 and 2011?!"

You'd think Jamie was my girlfriend, seeing how much influence she seemingly has over my plans each year. It's just that we travel well together and she comes up with some really great ideas all the time (like our adventure in Peru in November of 2008). It's hard to say no.

This, then, is how I ended up buying a used car in Europe last May to provide me with both cost-effective transportation and a home of sorts for this and next summer (half the time I'm sleeping in the back). I now own a high-mileage car on three continents.

These trips are centered around this and next year's competitions in Italy but, hey, while I'm here, I'm going to enjoy the whole continent. Everything of these last three months, then, has basically been just a prelude to being here in Italy

I think it was sometime last January in Australia that I was standing with Jonny (from Australia) and Corinna (from Germany) when it occurred to me I hadn't really given myself a job for the pre-worlds in Italy. Both of them would be there and so I offered to drive for them, something I often do for both.

Jonny had found a B&B to house the entire Australian contingency (six) and there was room for me as well, so I chose to forgo roughing it in my car. It was well I did. This farmhouse was unbelievably beautiful and our husband-and-wife hosts became great friends. The farmhouse had just finished a ten year period of renovation (we seemed to be their first guests ever) after it had been damaged and condemned in an earthquake just over a decade ago. It was spectacular, full of ancient oak beams and stone walls (photo at the top and below).

On the two days when conditions weren't conducive to competition and no tasks had been called, Jonny switched our roles and drove me up the hill to fly while he drove my car back down to meet me at the landing field.

The beauty of Monte Cucco is that it is one of easiest and safest hills from which to launch. It has huge, smooth, and gently sloping grass fields, so big that if you could run 200 meters before actually being required to take off (a rare luxury). You could even change your mind altogether after ten seconds of running and abort the launch and end up with nothing worse than grass stains on your pants. In some extreme cases (Mt. Buffalo, Australia or San Cassiano, Italy; two places I have seen but did not fly), the consequence of not committing to a launch the moment it's started can be death.

On the Sunday after the competition ended and before I'd left for my next destination, the conditions were perfect for top-landing. I went up and had a blast! You could launch, fly around, then land exactly where you'd just taken off, and either move off the launch to the side to set the glider down for a rest or merely take a few steps forward and lift off again. Zhenya was there and, having already top landed, took a photograph of one of my numerous relaunches.

Jonny is known for his dedication to producing daily videos during competitions (such as this one from the first day of the pre-worlds Italy). On one of the non-competing days when Jonny took me up the hill to fly, he attached his camera to my glider and, later down at a cafe, trimmed the footage on his laptop down to a three minute video in the time it took me to sip a coffee as I sat next to him.

What I love about this film (below) is that it shows two of my favorite aspects of hang gliding. First, when you launch, you just run a bit, then the glider lifts off your shoulders, then it plucks you off the earth as the ground falls away and, there you are. You're flying. The simple and natural aspect of this appeals to some side of me. Then, after drifting around in the sky for as long as you wish (or, if the lift is weak, for as long as you can), you simply come down and take your feet out of the harness and step back onto the ground.

In truth, it can be more complicated than that. Of all serious accidents, I'd estimate that 70% occur on take off and 25% occur on landing while only 5% or even less occur in flight.

Then again, most often it really can be that uncomplicated. We fly simply because we choose to and, most importantly, we can.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Silver Linings

Following the Europeans in Àger, the plan had been to jump up to Basel Switzerland on my way to Sigillo, Italy (site of the next adventure) for a unique 25/50/75 birthday party for Ashanta, Dolores, and Dolores' mother. A puzzling oil leak developing with my car, however (purchased for this and next summer's extensive plans in Europe) dimmed my confidence in its ability to make the high speed all-night drive this would require to arrive on time.

So instead, once it was fixed, I opted take the time to slowly limp to Laragne, France ("B" below), gauging the car's health at every gas stop.

Laragne is a place I'd thought I'd said goodbye to last July, after the 2009 World Championships (part of last summers string of adventures so full that I've never gotten around to writing about them). After what felt like so much time spent there over the last two summers, it seemed I'd never have a reason to return. The coincidence of it being very close to the geographical midpoint of long journey gave me a reason. At midnight, I drove into the hang gliding campground (a landing field is half of the facility) and fell asleep in the back of my station wagon. I felt very much like I'd come home.

In the morning, the proprietor greeted me like an old friend.

I was actually particularly exhausted. Driving for the Dutch team, in addition to being as much fun as I'd known it would be, had also been surprisingly hard work. Most days I'd spent six-eight hours in my car climbing up and down mountain roads full of switchbacks, extracting my half of the Dutch team out of very hard to reach places. Sometimes I wouldn't get back to headquarters until 10:30 p.m.

For that first day, I was content to do nothing but sit and read, raising my head to stare at the mountains now and then.

High winds were pummeling the region, keeping the local pilots down. The result was a show for us cloud connoisseurs that would rival the double rainbow internet meme (if you don't get it, you won't get it). Lenticulars were building in layers above us during the day and, most spectacularly, during the moonlight night. While I could capture the daylight show, I could not capture the night's.

Lenticulars (if you don't know about them, read more about them here) are stationary, forming on their leading edge as fast as they dissipate on their trailing edge...and yet they are dynamic, too. They change shapes and forms subtly so that a glance back at a clould you saw ten minutes before will be, as they say in Thailand, "same same but different."

Many times that first night (when the winds were the strongest and the moonlight the brightest), I would see people outside with their heads craned skyward, stopped in their tracks and mesmerized by the moonlight phenomena.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Àger, Spain

The European Hang Gliding Championships were in Spain this year and, after spending a week here last year, I planned to return. I really had no reason to be there beyond the desire to return to a place where I knew many of my friends would be and that I'd felt I really hadn't had enough of a chance to explore the last time around.

Also, the two owners of the Port d' Àger, a newly renovated hotel I'd randomly found on the internet last year became such good friends that I wanted to come back simply to stay with them once more. Jordi and David, two brothers from Barcelona, had taken a huge chance on their belief in the beauty of their region and, ignoring the world economic downturn, had gone heavily into debt to buy and renovate an old farmhouse into a beautiful hotel and restaurant. Their bank tells them that they are among the small percentage of clients who makes their payments on time. I admire that kind of courage and success and, in addition to all the other reasons, I wanted to return to Àger if for no other reason than to make my small contribution to their solvency.

Last May, just after arriving in Germany, it only then occurred to me I had no real job at the competition in Àger. I was sipping coffee with Dutch friend Daphne when this thought came to me, so I turned to her and asked if the Dutch team needed a driver.

This was how I came to be one of the two drivers for the Dutch team.

Like any hang gliding meet, it's always a great time for me to be around great friends; Slovenes, Russians, Dutch, Germans, Austrians, Aussies and Colombians (even at the European championships), and more.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Davos, Switzerland

Working my way down south from Finland to Spain, I stopped in Basel to stay with the Swiss to help with a construction project. I worked just long enough to realize how unaccustomed my body and bones had become to real work (the sledgehammer-swinging, dust-snorting, bricks-falling-on-feet kind) when they called a break to go fly at Davos (photos above and below).

One just has to marvel at not only the rarity of a mother-daughter hang gliding team but of the unending beauty of Switzerland.

A few more days of dusty sledgehammer-swinging and I was off to to Spain.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Changes in Latitude, No Change in Attitude

I've always had a particular interest in northern cultures, especially in northern Europe. I've had extensive experiences in Iceland, Denmark, and Norway, a few experiences in northern Russia and, over the years, have had a few scattered days in Sweden. Until ten days ago, however, I had never set foot in Finland.

In the manner that the seemingly random aspect of my life typically unfolds, I stumbled across Finnish friend Virpi a few weeks ago while passing through Switzerland. Neither Jamie nor I had any real plans or commitments between the World Championships in Germany that ended on the 23rd of May, and the European Championships in Spain that begin on the 11th of July, so we had pondered the idea of spending the last half of June together in Norway. I've always enjoyed Norway (the little bit of competency in the Danish language I still have can pass for Norwegian, too). Most importantly, Jamie has yet to visit there.

When I mentioned our vague plans to Virpi, she suggested we instead join her and her boyfriend Kari at the Finnish National Hanggliding Championships in Jämijärvi (it's not near as complicated to pronounce as it looks).

When I mentioned the idea of Finland instead of Norway to Jamie, she decided that, rather than any kind of northern experience at all, she needed heat and sun more than anything else. So she opted to jump on a cheap flight to Malta while I e-mailed my commitment to the Finnish meet organizer to be part of his ground crew.

As a result of the opportunities provided me by being stationed in Germany in the Air Force right out of college in 1977, by 1980 there were only two countries I hadn't visited in western Europe (i.e., west of the now happily defunct Iron Curtain); Finland and Portugal. The intervening years had yet to change that status.

Arriving with Virpi and Kari by ferry into a Helsinki port a few days before the competition began, they headed one direction for some family commitments while I headed another to explore a bit on my own (armed with a list of suggestions from them). We met up in Jämijärvi a day later.

During the next week I spent the first part of each day either studying Finnish history online or taking short trips to nearby sites of interest to me. In the afternoons I would retrieve pilots who'd hadn't made it back to the airport.

The evenings were spent first the sauna, and then often enough afterwards gathered around a fire in a circular hut with the center of it's roof open over the fire, roasting sausages long into the next day (though I rarely made it past midnight).

These two photos were taken at 11:00 p.m. at the post competition sausage roast at an open fire that would accommodate the crowd (the circular huts were too small).

It never really got much darker than this every night I was in Finland.

Kari won the competition, becoming the Finnish Champion for the second time. The "SM"on the cake stands for Suomen Mestari; Finnish Champion

In Finland, towing by ultralights is not yet legal (and may never be) so Finns have made do with car towing. Though I had all my hang gliding equipment with me and I was given many opportunities to give it a try, a few emotional scars apparently just couldn't be overcome. The friend who taught me to car tow 15 years ago was killed only weeks later while attempting to teach someone else. Aero-towing merely makes me attentive. Foot launching makes me nervous, something I've been working to overcome this last year with more and more experience (as I've written). Car towing, however, has always just simply scared the heebie jeebies out of me.

Apparently it still does. A time or two I thought I was emotionally ready but in the end I chose to pass on every opportunity I had to fly in Finland, hoping I'd feel more up to the next day. That day never came.

No matter. The real reason I was there was to finally get the chance to explore Finland, and to do so in the company of good friends.

Two years ago, six weeks in Russia resulted in my consumption of more vodka in that month and a half than I had sampled in the previous 34 years of being of drinking age. Similarly, this trip to Finland has resulted in my experiencing more saunas than I probably have had in all my life before.

Sauna is, as most probably already know, a Finnish word to begin with. I did not experience one single Finnish dwelling that did not have an extensive and complete sauna facility (sauna, changing room, and rinsing room, and more).

Though there were no frozen lakes to dip into through a hole in the ice as I had experienced in Russia five years ago (and no lake at all in Jämijärvi), I still was happy to drop into the merely chilly lake (17 degrees Celsius) at Virpi's family's summer cottage house. We spent a few days there before heading back to Europe on the 29th.

Finland seemed so related to places I've been in recent years, but that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Looking on a map, it all makes sense.

While the earth changes dramatically traveling south to north (as I experienced by changing 1800 straight line kilometers of latitude from Borso del Grappa in Italy to Jämijärvi), the make of the land can be quite consistent east to west. Yulia's childhood home in Velikiy Dvor, of which Finland reminded me, was almost directly east from Jämijärvi, less than 800 kilometers way. Oslo, which seemed to carry much of the same feel as Helsinki, was almost directly west, again only 800 kilometers away.

In all my travels around the world, I am again and again struck by how much both the Earth itself and we as a people are far more alike than different.