Sunday, November 29, 2009

Timmy's in the Oz Report

I just bought a new glider. The full story is in the Oz Report (details below).

Somewhat embarrassingly, I now own three hang gliders. They each have different roles, however. One is like a top-of-the-line road bike from a few years back, built for the best speed and performance at the time but, in today's technology, only well above average in performance. Another is like a very good mountain bike; capable enough but sacrificing speed and a bit of performance for strength and durability.

This new one like a beach cruiser; as simple as a glider gets because sometimes simplicity is an advantage.

Davis Straub's Oz Report is probably the most widely read hang gliding e-zine on the internet. It began perhaps ten years ago when Davis, an American hang glider pilot, was traveling and competing in Australia. He started putting posts on the internet to keep his friend back home informed and, once back home, began posting on news-worthy events in the States as well. Eventually anyone in the world with anything to say about free flight (or a few other of Davis' special interests, such as going barefoot and internet technology) need only send Davis an e-mail. More likely than not it would appear verbatim on the Oz report.

I've long been submitting pictures for Davis, as I'm usually free to photograph what most pilots are too busy being involved in to record.

An odd experience (pleasing, I suppose, if not surprising) I've had lately that first occurred last summer at the World Hang Gliding Championship in France last summer is that someone I've just met in a hang gliding related activity and chatted with briefly will ask me, "Wait a minute. What's your full name, Tim?"
"Timothy Ettridge"
"Oh, yes. So you're Tim Ettridge. I've heard of you."
"Really?" I've always asked. "How?"
"I don't know," is the usual answer I'll get. "I just have. Something to do with hang gliding, I suppose."

My only plausible explanation is a subliminal recollection of the byline of photos I've submitted to Davis over the years, as well as my reoccurring appearance in Jamie's blog, which many hang glider pilots read as well.

Recently I opened the Oz report index of back issues to discover this:

Issue #236 (Nov.26): Happy Oxytocin * Atlantique Delta Race - the video * Tracking down a rumor * Tim Ettridge becalmed at Gulgong * Gordo, video

This was new. I'm actually the subject in the Oz report?

The story is this. A low-slung three wheeled land sailer was always sitting by the clubhouse at the Gulgong competition where the pilot briefings where held in the mornings, as well as escape the searing sun while waiting to launch.

On most days there wasn't enough wind to get it moving. In that picture you'll see my hand on the wheel. I'm trying to get it rolling by pushing on the wheel so that, once it starts moving, it's momentum might be enough for the wind to keep it moving. Usually this wasn't possible. I was, in fact, becalmed most of the time.

There were three days during the seven days of competition, however, where the tasks were canceled because of too much wind. And on those days, I could hope in the land sailer and zoom around all over the field. It became kind of an indication, then, of the likelihood of a task. If I could get that thing rolling on it's own, it meant that it was probably going to be too windy to launch or fly. Me being becalmed was a good thing.

A recent experience while flying here taught me a few valuable lessons I thought worthwhile to share. The same episode led to my purchase of a glider.

The full story is here, in the Oz Report.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Kid in a Candy Store

I'm based now in Bathurst, Australia at the home of my friend Chris, with whom I spent last Christmas in Haiti. Her home, a two hour drive west of Sydney, is happily situated in the very center of everything I want to do in my remaining two months in Australia. The next two competitions are either a three hour drive west or a two hour drive southwest. Additionally, some of the best hang gliding sites in the world are a few hours drive southeast on the coast.

Months ago, Chris generously invited me to use her home as a base in between each of my forays out into a different area of New South Wales. Only days after I arrived here, however, she was unexpectedly given an three month assignment in Chad, Africa by the U.N.

My role now is not so much a guest but a caretaker in a very quiet house.

After taking Chris to the airport, I took the chance to spend a few days with friends in Sydney, as well as visiting the Moyes Hang Glider Factory.

Other than Francis Rogallo, who invented the aerodynamic shape that evolved into the first hang gliders, probably no other name is more well known in hang gliding than Bill Moyes. In the '60s, Bill was instrumental in the development of a foot-launched and free flying glider originally based on water skiing kites towed behind boats. He opened up his own factory in the early '70s. Not only are his gliders still considered to be among the world's best, his son Steve eventually became a world champion in hang gliding championships.

In the 80's he teamed with American designer Bobby Bailey to develop what's now known as the Moyes-Bailey Dragonfly, the first ultralight powerful enough to tow a hang glider and yet able to fly slow enough to make being towed something even low time pilots could learn. Last spring Zhenya had the chance to be instructed in how to fly one by Bobby Bailey himself (here).

The Dragonfly transformed the sport of hang gliding, taking away the need for a hill to foot launch off of and allowed hang glider pilots to fly wherever the lift was best. This opened up the possibility of world record distance flights (currently over 700 km) in places like the south of Texas and permanent hang glider flight parks in the flatlands of Florida, such as the one where I now live (though I'm rarely actually there).

Walking among the endless rows of tools, machinery, and clearly recognizable hang glider and Dragonfly parts, I felt like a kid in a candy store.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Is it hot enough for you yet?

Flying over Gulgong, Australia a few days ago with Scott Barret in a trike (a two seat powered hang glider), it felt so easy to imagine I was cruising a few hundred meters above the Serengeti plain in Africa. Even though we're still in the last weeks of spring down here in the southern hemisphere, I could see that the vegetation had lost most of the green it had when I first arrived in Australia's east coast two weeks ago.

With close cropped grass and many eucalyptus trees randomly scattered across most paddocks below me as we flew around the dry landscape, I half expected to find zebras and antelope below.

I'm here in Australia to be involved in a string of hang gliding competitions that span their summer, mostly in a supporting role for various friends (Russian, Swiss, and Australian) but perhaps I might even fly and compete in one myself. One thing is for certain, however. I will take the opportunity to fly here, even if it means I've got to buy a third hang glider (I've got two back in the States) to do it. Hopefully I can find a simpler solution.

This last week once more I've been the ground crew for Jonny, as well as Hungary's Attila and two of Jonny's friends here in Australia that I hadn't met before.

Strong winds ended up forcing the cancellation the task on three of the seven days allotted for the competition. I took those opportunities to explore the neighboring countryside or, as below, make use of a land boat that could only be coaxed to roll over the grass when the wind was too strong for flying.

As with any hang gliding competition, the event is as much about spending time with friends (both old and new) as it is about darting about in the air at cloud base for hours on end, sometimes covering more than 200 kilometers in the process.

One thing I couldn't understand, however, was how hot everyone kept claiming it to be when all one needed to feel comfortable was shade and a breeze, both of which were available most of the time. "Is it hot enough for ya?" I'd hear from both friends and strangers on the street. You think this is hot, I kept thinking to myself (and occasionally voicing), then come to Florida anytime from June to September.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Favorite Places on Earth, Part II

I've written of this feeling before, here. Once more I find myself in a place that makes my shoulders settle pleasingly in relief with that feeling of being at home, even though not at home.

Fremantle, Australia and in particular this one coffee shop, The Merchant on South Terrace Street, represents a small slice of a grand adventure of my life; not only my involvement in several different kinds world class ocean racing events, but the kind of traveling I've somehow found myself unwittingly but happily flung into these last five years or so.

The first time I passed by The Merchant once in town, it was full and overflowing with people onto the sidewalk tables. It was a Sunday, one of the first warm and sunny ones of this boreal spring. I waited a day to enter it to relive memories. Late Monday morning, it was as empty and as welcoming as I'd always remembered it.

I am home (for a week).

Monday, November 2, 2009

The World's Best At Anything

Years ago a friend visited me in Groveland, Florida one spring during the height of an international hang gliding competition. Perhaps ten of us left the airfield one night to eat dinner at a restaurant. From the comfort of our seats I took her around the table, explaining who was who.

"That's Manfred, from Austria, who's been World Champion a few times and who is pretty much unchallenged as the best hang glider pilot in the world. That's Oleg, from the Ukraine. If he's in a competition and Manfred doesn't win it, Oleg will. That's Christian, from Italy, current World Champion in the Class V hang glider subcategory. That's Alex, also from Italy, who was World Champion before Christian. That's Kari, three times Women's World Champion, that's Corinna, who has been World Champion twice in the past..."

My friend interrupted me and, with a clear tone of feigned indifference, ask, "And I should be impressed because....?" She looked at me, seemingly satisfied with her wit, and waited for my answer.

She had a point, yes, but I thought I did, too. "How often," I responded, "do you ever get to meet the world's best at anything?" She had no reply but just nodded her head in contemplation.

It's often been a source of amazement to me at how I've somehow found myself rubbing shoulders with the international elite of the hang gliding world. My explanation has always been that I know Jamie and Jamie knows everybody. Still, it seems a privilege to have found myself in the company of the people I have these last five years.

Somehow this same luck has followed me over into the sailing world, where I've found myself sharing beers, working shoulder to shoulder, and having heart-to-heart talks with the elite of the ocean sailboat racing world.

I met Dilip Donde, from Mumbai, India, in September of 2006 while working on Sir Robin Knox-Johnston's shore crew for his solo round the world yacht race. The two are polar opposites. When Robin strides into a room, his confidence and even arrogance takes over. A web article aptly describes Dilip thus:

Sometimes the most quiet and unassuming people do the most amazing things. Commander Dilip Donde is one such person. He’s quiet and sparse, his language and manner without any unnecessary flourishes and frills. Perhaps if you saw him in a crowd, your gaze would stop at him for a moment, and then pass on.

And yet he is now posed to become the first of his nationality to sail solo around the world. Already he has surpassed the sailing achievements of any one individual from India.

I am no Robin, that much I know for sure. But I'd really like to think that I am very much of the same mettle as someone as kind and gentle as Dilip. And so to see him following his dream and actually making it happen inspires me far more than the exploits of more typical headline makers.

It reminds me of the time I had the chance to meet and chat with John Denver many years ago. He was one of the most well known pop musicians of the 70's and yet in person he was no different than anyone I knew...except that he'd sold millions of records.

Who we choose to become does, at times, truly seem to be within the scope of whatever our will has the confidence to manifest, nothing more. This thought inspires me greatly.

A week ago Dilip noticed my comment on Facebook that I would be coming to Australia and wrote me, inquiring when and where. It turned out that we had, by a good stroke of luck, we had just a few hours of overlap between my arrival in Fremantle and his departure from it for a 5000 kilometer sail to New Zealand. I warned him that, having just recovered from a mysterious illness in Thailand, I might not be the best person to have contact with just before departing solo onto the ocean for a month. He countered, however, with, "Don't worry about infecting me with tropical viruses! I have developed a natural immunity since the last 42 yrs!"

We had the time for a tour of his boat and a bit of catching up before a small crowd showed up to bid him farewell.

I was happy to be in Fremantle, happier still to be there to send off a good man on the next leg of his accomplishment.

You can follow Dilip's progress at