GO FLY A KITE

From far away they looked like insects against flat light at the horizon, so indistinct at first I wasn’t sure they were really there. A clutch of very large birds, I thought… or maybe some crazy humans? In either case probably marking lift, all I needed to know.

Watching on the way, those specks seemed to hover almost stationary, not circling or moving in any apparent direction. Soon, silhouettes appeared of three paragliders, their vivid colors grayed by cloud shadow. Then inside a mile the pilots themselves emerged, evoking a momentary image of birds and bugs.

We see paragliders all around California and three at one time is not uncommon. Thing was, they were parked so near each other I could see them gesturing and calling — while seated in their harnesses more or less back to back, pointed away from each other…

Say again?

Three aircraft flying different directions and none going anywhere; how could that be? Tiptoeing right under them I felt only indifferent bumps, nothing that could keep me up. I had to go find a real thermal before coming back to investigate.

Circling nearby allowed time to watch them, and though not much happened, I learned a ton. They seemed to be working separate in-drafts that fed a single convergence. One after the other tried to meander away following a scent, but each had to retreat, ending up back again in the same place.

I returned minutes later with energy to spend, circled them once at eye level and waved, but found no useful lift. Second round, I wrapped in nice and snug, and we all gestured enthusiastically. Still nothing worth my time though, so I shrugged stupidly and flew away. Just think, for these fliers that trick appears routine while I in my big heavy contraption had no idea!

 

And like almost everything else, ignorance comes in many sizes.

 

Another time, I overtook a paraglider running downwind toward our airport. I was going there myself with about the same altitude but more than triple the performance, so I pulled over on the way by to carve a quick one, offer a salute, and hopefully some encouragement.

As I angled across its twelve o’clock the bogey went hard over the same direction, to flaunt superior maneuverability I supposed. That obliged me to show what I could do too, naturally. The pilot was slung out 45 degrees, so my greater speed required even more bank to stay close, and going steeper demanded yet more speed… This left me teasing stall at 60+ knots and 60+ bank, lapping the kite in an orbit (I noted with pride) not much wider than its own.

But enough will eventually be enough, even for guys like me. Weary of exceeding 2Gs, I leveled out to glide on, curious why anyone would jinx their chance for the comforts of an airport so late in the day with even one wasted circle. Moments after landing I watched the bogey descend beyond treetops a mile short, conveniently near my road home. I tied down extra quick and hurried off to meet this character, get some questions answered, and maybe gain a new friend.

He’d already stowed his kit when I rolled up, and was about to start hitchhiking. Though eager to talk at first, on learning I was the guy he’d just dueled with he threw down the big satchel and looked like he wanted to fight!

Uh oh.

Turns out I’d snared him with my wake the way whales bubble-net schools of fish. His antics were a desperate effort to keep me from collapsing his wing, and the harder I cranked the more danger he was in. Boy did I feel like a bum!

Accepting my sorrowful apology with more grace than I deserved, he made me promise to NEVER paint anyone who’s lighter than myself with a wake. I’d done to him what a number of grinning jet jockeys have done to me over the years, only worse, and I should know as well as anyone that nothing’s more helpless than a sitting duck.

Makes me wonder if those other three in that convergence were gesticulating more than ‘howdy’ when I encircled them…