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Hanging Out in Paradise - Roger Tubbs Hang Gliding Adventures

By Denny Pistoll

2007 Denny Pistoll, as first published in Hang Gliding & Paragliding magazine

Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest, once described challenge as the core and mainspring of all human activity. It was perhaps that very spirit of challenge that inspired us as we contemplated a trip to where legendary flights are more the norm than the exception. We were going to central Florida.

Our small group, sometimes locally referred to as Official Trailer Trash, met alternatively in training and on the LZ at Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Over time, through mutual interests and shared passion, we all became good friends. After almost three years of flying at Lookout, the idea emerged to seek out another venue and expand our horizons. Wallaby Ranch in central Florida surfaced as the logical choice for our first road trip.

Roger Tubbs being towedWallaby, located about 30 miles southwest of Orlando, is owned and operated by Malcolm Jones, a one-time world-class competitor and now a settled family man with two children. An easier-going person would be hard to find. Beneath the affable, laid-back exterior, however, is an individual who is laser-focused on safety; Malcolm wants people to not only enjoy the sport of hang gliding but to do so the proper way. Concern for safety is evident everywhere and foot-stomped in every aspect of Malcolm's operation. Frequent "chalk talks" on subjects such as approach and landing techniques, towing considerations, weather and traffic patterns are held informally by different instructors and tug pilots in an effort to share their perspectives and lend a broader understanding of the whole picture. These mini tutorials are done in ad hoc fashion as pilots gather with an instructor to discuss different issues and topics.

The "Ranch" is huge. It is a 500-acre spread with launch and landing possibilities in every direction. Living conditions consist of both small and large comfortably appointed cabins, RV parking and, of course, unlimited camping options. Although the Ranch is tucked away well off the road, hotels and other city amenities can be found only a few miles away.

The Ranch also has a swimming pool with a shady tiki hut beneath which are two iced kegs available 24/7. YIKES! A sign by the pool cautions (or urges?) users that swim suits are optional. There is also a screened-in dining hall providing well-prepared buffet breakfasts and lunches for $5 a meal. All of this, including the tows, is handled on the honor system before you leave, you simply tally what you did and settle up with the office.

Roger Tubbs waiting to launchOur group consists of a rather eclectic assemblage of characters. We have Colin, a British ex-pat living in Nashville who drives 18 wheelers; Roger, a lawyer out of Mississippi; Zach, a computer whiz from Houston; Bjorn, an airline pilot based in Atlanta; and myself, a retired dude from Pennsylvania. Our age range goes from 26 to 65. Most of us have trailers stationed in Lookout's LZ, hence, the (much undeserved) OTT moniker.

Flying in a cohort has been significantly beneficial to all of us as we've progressed in the sport. Though no opportunity to jab, embarrass or otherwise humiliate is ever, EVER missed, we are also very supportive of one another. Every launch and landing is closely observed and discussed afterwards. This constant stream of feedback has been invaluable as there are many things we all do unconsciously that an astute observer will catch as quickly as a leopard spots a limp.

Flying a new location is laced with challenges. Old comfortable cues no longer apply, and site-specific protocols and approach patterns exist to accommodate differing operations. None of this is necessarily difficult per se but, as we've all learned in aviation, any differences however slight beget challenges which, in a heartbeat, can evolve to anything but slight.

Spring appears to be an ideal time to be in Florida. The stronger winds are abating and the moisture-rich thermals tower in the early afternoon. However, not everything is quite so simple nor, when weather is involved, ever completely predictable or accommodating. In central Florida sea breezes, both from the Atlantic and the Gulf, tend to seesaw with one another, sometimes creating convergence zones that slinky across the state. These phenomena can bring tremendous lift as well as tremendous sink coupled, of course, with tremendous turbulence.

While in the queue one afternoon waiting to launch we saw a most unfortunate accident. An intermediate pilot, who was flying a new glider for the first time, began inducing oscillations shortly after lift-off from the dolly. A chorus of yells to straighten up went unheard as the glider swerved ever more steeply then sharply to the right. He was headed for a lockout: when the glider being towed and tug plane are on a diverging course. This is a dangerous situation with only one solution terminate the tow. With alacrity the tug pilot released the tow rope, thereby allowing the glider to go into free flight. The glider pilot, already in a nose-high right bank, continued in his right turn and was now careening downwind and heading for a small building by a stand of trees. The pilot zoomed above the building but without enough energy to clear the treetops he flew between two tall pines, pretzeling the wings. The glider and pilot fell to ground, disappearing beneath the low-lying foliage with a heartbreaking crunch. It wasn't pretty and we all held our breath. Fortunately, the word came back almost immediately that the pilot was totally unhurt. Evidently, the wing had completely absorbed the impact.

The author with his glider at WallabyThereafter others launched, but after witnessing that event our group passed on any further flying for that day and assembled by the pool to commiserate and dissect what we had seen. Even though we all witnessed the accident it is hard to be absolutely conclusive as to the exact chain of events. Suffice to say that aerotowing requires on-the-ball flying from power-up to release. In this case, fortunately, the only injury the pilot sustained was to his pride.
To our collective benefit, Mike Barber, unofficial (only because he didn't break the record by enough percentage points) cross-country world-record holder, had open time in his schedule and offered a thermaling and cross-country seminar. We quickly signed on.

Mike, with hollow bones and a sixth sense as to where the lift is residing, was a joy to see fly. What to our eye is completely invisible is to him as conspicuous as a tarantula on top of an angel-food cake! Mike's seminar was an attempt to enlighten us as to the fundamental elements of thermaling, and enlighten it did! It was both interesting and relevant. Though going cross-country is still not quite in the cross-hairs of our job description, the seminar gave fascinating insight to this as-yet-unexplored dimension. Mike Barber is an articulate spokesman for our sport, a top professional and the nicest of people. It was an unvarnished privilege to spend two afternoons in the company of a legend.

The flying at Wallaby Ranch was nothing short of outstanding. When you want to fly, all you have to do is wheel your glider to the upwind end of the LZ. Within minutes of turning your dolly into the wind the signal you're ready a member of the staff, followed shortly thereafter by a tug plane, will be out to tow you up. How cool is that! When a number of gliders, including "discovery" tandems, are ready to go the Wallaby operation moves with the military precision of an aircraft-carrier deck no lost motion and absolutely no cutting corners.

Roger Tubbs on the railsOur week flew by and before we realized it, it was time to leave. I think we'd all agree that a sure sign of a successful trip is when it's time to go, you're far from ready.

So how did our trip measure up to expectations? We did indeed make some personal bests on this trip, with flights to over 7000' and durations of two hours, but in the process we discovered that a trip of this nature is much more than simply the accumulation of logbook metrics. For us, the trip to Wallaby was an epiphany of sorts. It was a grad course in flying awareness with the challenges associated with a new venue and differing weather patterns. Along the way we picked up valued pointers from instructors and advanced pilots and made new friends in the process.

Road-tripping to Wallaby Ranch was a total win-win experience for all of us. Now armored with new skills and knowledge, we look forward to a return. Next time, however, we'll be re-visiting old friends and will look forward to enjoying the warmth of rich camaraderie that defines Wallaby... and for a while spending time just hanging out in paradise.

For more information about Wallaby Ranch and the World Team Academy course with Mike Barber, visit www.wallaby.com.

{Denny, 65, is retired and has been flying hang gliders for three years. He holds a Hang 3 and aerotow rating and lives with his wife, Nydia, in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.}

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