Freesteel Blog » Clipped Wings at Wallaby

Clipped Wings at Wallaby

Sunday, April 15th, 2012 at 4:02 pm Written by:

Just what have I got to complain about! I was doing this last week, dammit. If I am in any way ungrateful, then I am very spoilt child indeed.

There was no thermalling, no getting up to cloud-base for me. But the dawn light was beautiful. Purchasing a video camera for the last day was the best decision I made as it gave me the chance to see things from another perspective, from outside of my narrow point of view. And boy did I need that.

In a place near DisneyWorld where even the toll booth lady collecting $1.75 on the freeway asks: “How is your day?” (“Fine thank you, how is yours?” “I’m good. Thanks for asking.”), Malcolm of Wallaby Ranch is a man of extremely few words. That’s because he is one of those rare individuals who is simply a force of nature. The howling wind that piles the snow on the tops of an Alpine mountain until it avalanches does not talk to you in your own language. And this force of nature is one that spews hang-gliders into the clouds in central Florida in unlimited numbers. It’s up to you to work out how to use it.

Normally this requires some other newbie to explain the process to you because it’s not written down anywhere. In my case the HSMWorks connection lead me to this place following my earlier excursion in California.

Flight #2 with Stevie

And so it was on Thursday 5 April at 8am I got hauled up into the air in a tandem hang-glider beside Malcom, in line with all the other tourists booked for that morning. After the first somewhat terrifying attempt when Malcolm angrily aborted the tow because the plane was flying too slowly, I got a precious few seconds on the ride up to explain that I already knew how to fly from 15 years ago, so he gave me the bar and started shouting in my ear. “Turn left! Turn left! Pull-in-pull-in-pull-in! Keep the wheels of the plane on the horizon! Don’t ever let it drift off!

I was terrified and kept mixing up the controls for up and down, because when you need the tow plane to go up, you need to go down. I got tunnel vision onto the horizon with that plane, which kept changing direction in different ways. It was like steering on instruments. When I gave up flying, aerotowing had just been invented and was strictly for the big boys. It never even crossed my mind I would one day be doing it.

Once released at 2000 feet and in flight, the glider steered like a cow. I have never been in a tandem glider before. It was odd being in the air but not on your own. Quite quickly we returned to the level ground at the descent angle of a steep ski slope, and finished up rolling across the field on three wheels, apron-like harnesses dragging on the grass.

I didn’t talk to Malcolm for another four days (9th April) when we flew again. “So what’s your flying story?”

“I hang-glided in England for ten years, got 300 hours in an advanced glider, gave up 15 years ago when life became too full of other things. But then I had a lovely flight last week in California, and here I am with Anthony.”

Next flight: “This is quite different to what I was use to. I was taught to fly by Keith Cockcroft back in 1989.” “Oh, I remember him. How is he doing?” “He’s dead. He crashed in a remote mountain in the Alps at about the time I gave up hang-gliding.” “Sorry to hear about that.”

There are to be no such high altitude cliff crash accidents in Florida, because there are no mountains whatsoever. The land is flatter than East Anglia. When Malcom started this aerotowing business there were six hang-glider pilots in the whole of the state. Now it is a world famous destination, with pilots from many parts of Europe jetting in for the winter flying. There’s a story of folks who do regular business trips to Orlando choosing to stay over at the ranch a day a month, instead of in a hotel in Orlando, where they pick up gliding instead of loose women in the bar. Some of them subsequently drop out and become hang-gliding bums.

Moonlight on Miami Beach

My own business trip, in the intervening three days, was to Miami to the Knight Foundation for ScraperWiki. It was billed as a show-us-your-work-day, which turned out to be pretty effective at getting the different projects funded in the 2011 round to make friends and potentially collaborate with one another.

I was the only guy to arrive by Amtrak, which took a bit of negotiation. Everyone is unquestionably steered towards the aviation infrastructure.

At the end of the session we got some seminars about the latest thoughts on agile pivoting entrepreneurial development strategy. You know, the advice and techniques on how to start your business in the era of skin and bones when getting money is like pulling teeth from alligators. The strategy is as told by internet billionaires who established their reputations producing complete and total crap during the dot-com boom when they were literally drowning in money and it was all about burning the cash at millions of dollars per week to establish a vacuous brand in time to float their worthless assets onto the stock market where fools are easily parted from their money — as I very distinctly remember.

I am sure it is completely well informed, and perfectly reasonable that our subsequent generation is required to treat that boomtime generation as the business geniuses they are not and with the respect they don’t deserve because they now control the money and who gets funded on their terms for following their brilliant strategies which didn’t apply to them at the time. It’s about as satisfying as members of the ruling class with their private schooling and inherited wealth having the temerity to lecture about and dictate the economic opportunities and education systems for the vast majority of those who were not born to such privilege.

Here’s one part of the advice.

Rule 1: Build a minimum viable product and test it on the market.
Rule 2: Keep trimming and deleting features.
Me: If we did that wouldn’t it result in an unviable product?
Answer: We’ve assumed you haven’t done Rule 1 very well.
Me: But what if you have? Then following Rule 2 forces you to create an unviable product, doesn’t it?

I am much more willing to follow the advice from hang glider instructors to the letter — except these guys were saying nothing.

Every time gliders were launching, I walked out there to watch (and sometimes got in the way). The solo gliders don’t have three landing wheels. Instead they are propped up in a cart that separates and trundles off on the ground when the glider takes to the air. God knows what would happen if the glider bounced down and got its wires tangled in the contraption before rising again with one corner hooked, off-balance, still under tow and being dragged, tumbling like a deck chair behind a Bedford van at 70mph.

Yes I do have an active imagination for what could possibly go wrong. What’s wrong with this attitude? If I can trust someone to say it will work, why do I actually have to believe it will to work? I just control my thoughts and get on and do it. The physical world does not care about my opinion or feelings or imaginations. All that matters is whether my set of instincts and learned reflexes are going to successfully steer my body through the following encounter with reality or not. This is not something I can possibly know myself, is it? Someone who has seen both ends of the equation has to assure me that it is so. It’s like paddling a kayak towards a top of scary steep set of rapids that you cannot see because it falls down ahead of you out of sight. You are relying on the leader who has told you to aim for that particular spot on the crest that will shoot you safely through without colliding head-on into a boulder on the way down.

I could tell there was an extremely well-developed set of protocols at work here, from tow cord length, attachment points, release strategies, power to weight ratios, pull out speed, trolley wheel size, and grass rolling resistance. Change just one of these parameters and it could completely fall apart. Faith will not save you if the plane cuts out and reels you into its spinning propeller. There’s a weak link that’s supposed to snap under such a force — like a fuse.

Rule Number One is keep the wheels of the plane on the horizon at all times. You must actively steer the glider. It’s lucky that its wheel undercarriage is the right length for that to work, isn’t it? And this pilot flying the tow plane, is he able to steer from his end of the string to keep you centred and help recover your position when you start to get locked out on a turn? I had no idea at all. Nor would anyone say so. Was he flying in all different directions to test me out, or was this normal behaviour and I would have to deal with it?

Stevie (2 morning flights Sunday 8th and 2 evening flights on Monday 9th) was a more forthcoming tandem instructor, in terms of usefully explaining the mechanics, and demonstrating by steering us around the available window of angles behind the tug. Flying low is bad news because you get buffeted about in the turbulent wash from the propeller. I think it is very important that you are gaining altitude all the time at a minimum rate of steepness in order to leave this wake of mucked up air beneath you. Towing in level flight probably does not work. It might also explain why the glider takes off from the ground before the tug, who has to rise quickly afterwards in order to gain the wheels on the horizon attitude. At the top of the tow the pilot waves and you pull on a bicycle brake lever to release the string. Then the tow plane does this spiral dive out of the way while you drop down and punch through his prop wash and into the clean smooth air ahead.

Outside of these calm wind periods, one hour after dawn and one hour before sunset, the joint was jumping. There can be three tugs operating at once, and each one has a turn-around of as little as five minutes. The clouds would rapidly be seeded with gliders. There were all sorts of pilots. Many of the top guys are grey-haired old crumblies a bit like your grand-dad, but look a lot more with it when togged up in their full flying gear, fiddling with their equipment in the flight line and showing absolutely no hesitation to get off when it’s their turn. Then there’s also the jet-black haired youth prima donnas with their ferrari-class topless gliders, matching go-faster helmets and harness colours, whom you can spot doing the loop-the-loops beneath the clouds if you keep a sharp eye out. I bet none of these bright superstars have experienced boring low altitude soaring in damp southwesterly winds on Crook Peak before skirting over the power cables to land in a muddy cow field, week after week after week, when I was a student in Bristol, like I have done. Nor would they ever want to waste time with such an experience.

Tuesday the 10th was a hard day to get through. I got out of my comfortable bivi bag at the crack of dawn after not one wink of sleep (no idea why the lack of sleep, but it’s mounting up), drink coffee, go down to the morning flight line where the tandem tourists have gathered. Bad news: there’s a family with a load of kids. Only Malcolm is allowed to fly the children. And I need to fly with Malcolm for him to sign me off as ready to fly solo. Flight after kid, after happy child, after flight, on and on. How big is this damn family? And why the hell is no one ever frightened in the slightest? What’s wrong with these people? Does no one except me realize how crazy this is? I’ve never believed I could fly. I just get used to it over a time period.

The kids are done. Now it’s my turn. If I can get a flight with Malcolm and not fuck it up, I’ll get a solo flight. We go up and the air is really rocky because it’s now 10am. “Let go of the bar!” he yells into my earhold. He releases the tow, takes over, and steers us down from a low altitude to the narrow field behind the hanger. And we pack up. He’s decided there’s not enough time.

It’s a honking day. Everybody goes flying. The instructors, the ranch-hands, the other tug pilots (which requires some unexpected people to be drafted in their place). Even the chef goes flying. Consequently, Malcolm has to order a round of Dominoes Pizzas for the 3 o’clock meal. I tuck into them practically alone because everybody is in the sky. I am sulking so much my ears are burning. You know that feeling you get the moment you realize you’ve just lost your wallet? Ball that momentary feeling up into your gut and leave it to fester undiminished for five hours. That’s what it was like for me. I went for a barefoot run around the perimeter of the field in the blazing sunshine. I have never ever gone for a run even once in my life, except to catch a train.

I’m leaving in two days, on Thursday. The odds are even as to whether I will get a flight to cloudbase. Nothing is said or promised. Having talked to the other pilots, the number of solo flights in still air before you are allowed out in the middle of the day appears to be six. I decide to guess that this is a hard and fast rule that cannot be short-circuited no matter how perfectly I can show I can fly.

In the evening I finally got my turn.

We prepared a solo glider on its cart, with a harness all for me. I even attached my vario to the upright (or down-tube, as Americans call it) and had my original black full-face hang-gliding helmet with me for old time’s sake (which had been shipped out while I was in DC). It smelled faintly of mildew. Old and cherished gear being brought back into service.

But first I had to make that test flight with Malcolm in the tandem glider to be sure I was ready. This was a fraught situation. If I dropped a wing on take-off or otherwise disappointed him during the flight or landing, we could park that solo glider right back into the hanger, and I could go to bed crying.

I right better not have any negative thoughts, I said to myself. Unlike a normal situation where faith and blind confidence does not help me in any way — and may even provide a deadly degree of complacency — here it was important as I was being tested by a man’s judgement rather than the forces of nature. I decided to be real confident with the likelihood that I would luck out (knowing that the controls would be seized in the event of failure), rather than adhere to my usual muddled mode of concerned fear and doubt that has kept me alert and alive for so many years.

We flew and landed without incident. I was granted permission to put on my own set of wings and hang near the ground while attached to an airplane. I was so pleased. I had absolutely no doubt that I was ready for this.

Boy oh boy, it was lovely. I had heard (after careful interrogation) that it was going to be a lot easier. Compared to this, the tandem glider is like swinging a sand-bag. Everything was natural, clean and crisp. I belonged in the sky, and could have happily stayed there. Except I couldn’t because the air was calm and the thermals had stopped for the day.

I eagerly got a second flight as the sun was getting low. When I took off and followed the tow plane around it rolled along the horizon like a blood red tomato. A magic cold wind was converging from both sides of the Florida peninsula, right in the centre line where the flight park was located. The tug gained altitude awfully fast. The pilot waved for me to release. It felt nice to be up here. Instead of disappearing down to the ground and leaving me alone, the little yellow airplane came close and wheeled and darting around me. What’s all this about? I gave it the thumbs up. It circled and came closer. The pilot pulled the scarf from his face and hollered: “Land now! Go down! Go down!”

I pulled the bar in and flew as fast as I could. A training glider, like the one I was on, has a steep descent rate at speed, because it is not very aerodynamic. This is a feature, not a bug, because it makes it easier to land on target because you can adjust the glide angle. It also flies slower. I made tight circles above the ranch and pretty soon got back to the ground and landed on my feet. Above me was a big wedge-like grey cloud looming in the dusk, which I was told had the power to suck me in and take me away for the remainder of the evening.

Although the ranch feels isolated and out in the countryside, there are strip malls on the highway just two miles away. I went out with one of the pilots who comes from New Jersey and bought myself one of those GoPro video cameras everyone now has. It cost less than a day of flying at my rate (equipment rental is per flight — whether the flight is 6 minutes in the evening or 6 hours in the thermals during the day). Then we had dinner at a Perkins restaurant and took the leftovers home. (As well as losing sleep, I also lost my appetite, and only managed to finish the omlette and nasty pancakes two days later.)

Then came Wednesday, which was my last full day at the ranch.

The day was completely ruined by a TV crew coming along to film the golfing presenter (with a good hair style) taking tandem flights. I’m sure he enjoyed it quite a lot. I’m also sure they had so many cameras strapped on during the first flight they didn’t need to do another take, or another take after that (which included the ground camera man flying in parallel in a second glider). Just another free glass of champaign Monsieur, the model says. I think I blinked when you took that last camera shot. Then lots more television chit-chat, photos of people’s bare feet, and general complete and utter time-wasting while the clocked ticked on. Then, after breakfast, the big boys got tonnes more flying up to the clouds again. Now that I knew it was much easier to fly solo, I was sure I could have done it. But I also knew I wasn’t going to be let at it because of the six flight limit. My sulk was not so intense as the day before because I had confidence now. This delay was mere bad luck and not my fault.

What was that strange sound I heard sometime late in the afternoon? Oh, it was Malcolm muttering an apology as he went past on the way to dinner. “Don’t forget to eat,” he added.

No flying in the evening, as the wind kept blowing all the way till the sunset. I settled up the accounts, which the plastic fortunately swallowed, and prepared to get out of here. I didn’t think my heart could survive many more hours of this emotional rollercoaster. I intended to camp overnight in Kissimmee by the train line, just to get away.

Then someone pointed out that I could squeeze in a flight or two in the morning. I was certainly owed it, for my persistence. And I could use the video camera.

Everyone makes fun of you for wanting to be video hero, going around filming yourself like that. It’s what prima donnas do. Maybe so, but I’m telling you this sealed it. You just don’t notice the half of what’s happening around you. When you are flying you don’t even see your wings. The feeling is so out-of-body you can’t really remember what you were doing. What was the ride up behind the tug plane like? How did it feel at the moment when you pressed the lever and released the string? How smooth is your turning technique? How low were you when you came in to land?

Had Malcolm indicated I could fly the clouds in the afternoon, I’d have without hesitation missed my train to Virginia and gotten into all sorts of very deep trouble from Becka. Fortunately he didn’t. Having only done four still air flights, not six, I suspected it was not on the cards.

And so my time ended not on a high note, but on a melodic one. There were no hugs and tears, and I don’t buy the T-shirt. There is definitely some unfinished business here. There are disappointments. Not everything is perfect. But sometimes your mind doesn’t let you see that life is being so damn good to you until you give yourself a chance to look back on it later.

Now I have to plan out my future and see whether hang-gliding and aerotowing can be part of it. When are those dudes at Airways Airsports going to respond to my email?


  • 1. Anthony replies at 17th April 2012, 8:40 pm :

    Great story. Unfortunately my plans to solo at Lookout Mountain didn’t pan out for the week after our trip to Wallaby – weather. Oh well, I can’t wait to get out to Lookout and get certified on the new Alpha2!

  • 2. Steven Pearson replies at 26th April 2012, 3:13 am :

    Very entertaining account of a Ranch experience. Sorry I wasn’t there to celebrate your AT solo. I hope we have a chance to share a thermal on your next visit. The Wills Wing demos are always around the 1st week of April.

  • 3. Freesteel&hellip replies at 18th May 2012, 6:22 pm :

    […] I snuck off for a couple of days down at airways airsports, which is the UK importer for Wills Wing, and where they allegedly do Aerotowing, like that Wallaby place in Florida. […]

  • 4. Freesteel&hellip replies at 2nd August 2013, 9:35 am :

    […] gliders (about 1 in 4 of the gliders on launch). I haven’t seen so many hang gliders since Wallaby Ranch. Except this was real and in the mountains, not above some swampy ex-urban pancake that is […]

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