In August, I usually head to Big Spring, TX to fly in some of the best conditions in the world. The west Texas high desert is ideal for flying big miles in smooth strong lift. The predominately southerly winds bode well for pushing us deep into the panhandle. However this isn’t about Big Spring. Last year I spoke with Greg Fergus who tows hang gliders in the Dallas area. He told me about the flying there in August and asked me to stop on my way west to fly with him. It turns out that Finney airfield was only 20 minutes from my son’s house so I took him up on it. Greg Chastain and I attempted the local challenge flight to Buffalo Mtn in Talihina, OK but were stopped by unusually wet conditions in the Red River valley. Later in the week I attempted a 100 mile triangle in much better conditions to the northwest but a persistent 10 mph SE wind stopped me 20 miles short. The two flights were enough to get me excited about the potential of the area and I vowed to return next year to give it another shot to be the first into the Kiamichi Valley.
Greg moved his operations to Caddo Mills northeast of Dallas this year and mentioned that the airport was home to a sailplane club at one time so the soaring conditions there were conducive to hang gliding as well. I studied the route from Caddo up through Antlers and on to Buffalo Mtn (133 miles) and concluded that the route was very doable with one challenging area between Antlers and Clayton, OK. This 45km leg was over the start of the Kiamichi Mountains leading to Buffalo. The mountains run to the northeast from Antlers and there are two valleys that parallel them; the Kiamichi River valley on the northwest and the Big Cedar Creek valley on the southeast. In my planning I concluded that the Big Cedar route would be best with an 8km hop over the end of the valley to Clayton, OK. I looked hard at the Kiamichi route with its’ wider open valley but concluded that it would be safer to stay to the southeast.
On my drive down to Dallas, I decided to take a route through Talihina, spend the night there and then scout the Kiamichi River valley on my way to Caddo Mills in the morning. Unfortunately my plans to stay there didn’t work out and I drove through the valley in the dark to stay in Antlers. It was a short drive to Caddo Mills and I met Greg there at 10:30. I had been checking Thursday’s weather for three days using my familiar tools (XC Skies and Skew T diagrams). It was looking like an epic day with decent southwest winds, lift in the 800fpm range and later in the day top of the lift greater than 8000’. By 11:00 the clouds were popping and already lined up in streets to the northeast. James Race was going to be there at noon and the plan was to do an abbreviated talk on flying xc and weather predictions but alas work delayed him until after I launched at 1:15.
I pinned off at 700’ (gotta stay on a little longer) and climbed out in good lift at up to 500fpm to cloudbase at 5800’. Heading downwind the clouds were lined up right on courseline, the lift was consistent in the 400-500fpm range and every cloud was reliable all the way up to Antlers (145km). I couldn’t believe my good fortune, it was hugely gratifying to fly deep under each cloud and feel the surge of lift increase 200, 300, 400, 500fpm then bank hard and climb rapidly to base. The frequency of the clouds was short (3 to 8km) and each climb to base was higher than the last. By 3:00 base was over 7000’. At Honey Grove (~20 miles south of the Red River) the conditions really improved as I didn’t dip below 5000’ for the next 57 miles (took 90 minutes). The best climb of the day was at Soper peaking at over 800fpm. This really was an epic day!
Heading into the mountains northeast of Antlers I was concerned about the route through Big Cedar. What looks so good on Google Earth from a 20 mile high view takes on a whole new perspective when you’re at 5000’. The crossing from the end of the valley over the Kiamichi’s to Clayton now looked daunting. I flew under three clouds and stopped to climb in a couple but wasn’t hitting the solid stuff like before. I figured I was now in the mountains where the lift would get stronger but it wasn’t happening. I was down to 4000’ before I recognized my error and put the brakes on to grovel on the edge of a thermal. I was hesitant to go into the mountains to the north but eventually climbed up to 6000’. From there my confidence returned and I headed north across the mountains to a nice that took me too cloudbase at 7800’. I was now over plentiful landable fields on the edge of the Kiamichi River valley. A nice cloud south of Clayton rewarded me with a smooth 300 fpm climb to base at 8552’ my high for the day. Off to the northeast, Buffalo Mtn looked like a small ridge only a 7:1 glide away. I yelled a big “wahoo!” it was now in the bag. The glide across the valley was under a nice cloud street welcoming me to the Buffalo LZ. I checked the wind direction down below and didn’t like the westerly flow. From 4500’ the wooded area on the northeast corner seemed to cut off the approach for that direction, so I got a brilliant idea that I’d just fly to Heavener where there would be a better LZ right into the wind. Hah! The only problem was that I didn’t put Heavener into my gps and had no clue where it was. I climbed out over Buffalo to 7600’ with a spectacular view of the mountains to the east northeast including Mt Magazine way in the distance! I spied a southwest facing mountain due north and thought for sure it must be Heavener so burned off my altitude passing up lift along the way only to find that this mountain wasn’t it. I spiraled down anyway next to a town and landed at the big ranch on the west end after 5:12 in the air. I met the rancher, 80 year old Don Lessel (sp?) who just so happened to own the club’s north training hill in Red Oak, OK. Total distance just over 250km (~155 miles).
Now for the retrieve. The area north into southeastern OK doesn’t have very good cell service. I was able to talk with Greg via radio all the way to Antlers. Greg had a glider set up in the hangar for James to fly. I saw his truck down below as I climbed out in the first thermal. He got up off of tow and I talked to him on occasion but his radio kept cutting out frequently clipping his communications. I was able to discern that he was doing quite well however heard that he had no waypoints so was flying by intuition. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but he ended up thinking he needed to cross a blue hole to get back on course line and it ended up putting him on the ground near the Red River. Greg ended up driving back south to pick him up so it was going to be a long retrieve. On my drive down that morning, I had no cell service during halfway to Caddo Mills and had zero bars in the field I landed in. Thankfully, Don loaned me his phone (US Cellular vs my AT&T) and I made a quick call to Sue and my daughter Vanessa to let them know I was down safe and that it would be a long retrieve. I left a message with Greg to give my location and began tearing my glider down. I knew that Kelly Merkle and Bruno Schnedl were flying at Heavener that day but had neither of their numbers. Luckily, Greg did and was able to get them to pick me up in their motorhome. Wow! That was cool as they were almost to Antlers when they got the call. Tom from Buffalo also called and said he’d come and pick me up too. Kelly and Bruno picked me up just as finished packing up. Kelly and Bruno were good sports and listened to my recapitulation of the flight all the way back to Caddo Mills so thanks guys for putting up with it. As it turns out, Kelly was high over Buffalo in his paraglider as I was climbing out over launch. Sure wish I had spotted him.
It was truly a magnificent day. There is a resounding peace that overwhelms my normal senses when I fly. Today I got to spend 5+ hours reveling in the billowing cumulus filled skies above juxtaposed with the panorama of the ever changing countryside rolling below. I am a lucky man.
Greg Fergus has a nice operation at Caddo Mills. He has a big hangar to store the Dragonfly with room for many gliders. The towing is conveniently done on the paved taxi-way right next to the hangars. The area around Caddo Mills is flat wide open country with innumerable places to land and the conditions in this area compare well to those I fly in west Texas. I look forward to coming back to explore the possibilities in the area even more. I can't thank Greg enough for giving me the opportunity to fly in north Texas. I am especially grateful for the tow into a nice fat thermal and then him volunteering to chasing James and I to the north. Can't wait to fly with others there the next time.
It was the hype that my friends made about skydiving that got me into hang gliding. I think it was the summer of 2013 and I have a couple of buddies that wanted to do something for their birthdays. There was a skydiving establishment on the beach in Port Aransas, Tx. We spent countless days on the ground watching the jumpers under canopies cruising in to land on the beach.
Sure enough the day came and all my buddies decided on a day that they were going to jump. I was continually harassed about not wanting to join them. I told them that I'd rather learn how to fly than fall. Anyways, they went on to jump and had an awesome time with an awesome gopro video to prove it...now in last month of 2015, they have not made any other jumps. For them I guess sky diving was a one time thing. I remember the night that we watched their gopro videos of their jumps and it made me want to fly even more.
Hang gliding fit the bill perfectly for me, an affordable way to fly. I remember searching the internet for a place where I could HG in Texas...then a memory from when I was a younger kid...our family was in Austin visiting my grandparents. I think we were on 71 in Lakeway near the airport and I remember looking up from the car and seeing a Hang Glider flying in breeze, seemingly floating. So my first place to look for Hang Gliding was Austin and I found Jeff Hunt and FlyTexas. I was determined to show my buddies that I could fly instead of fall and I got a lesson lined up with Jeff. Thats where it all started for me.
Here I am now with 21 hours of flying and my very own Hang Glider. I am still trying to get my buddies who sky dived to come out and get a taste of HG, even offering to pay for their flight...but still no initiative on their part. I guess you have to want to fly.
Anyways, enough about me. I have to write about Niki and Efrain, Hazem, Makbule, Mick, Jeff, Ingo, Mark, Rich D, Rich 2, Sir Rich and everyone that got to fly in some really awesome condition a couple of Saturdays ago... Yeah yall know which day I'm talking about. That Saturday everyone and their mother came out to go fly and it was thermalling and there was about 10 HG's in one thermal. Bald eagle sightings. I just needed to write about that day and how super special that was for such nice conditions to line up on a Saturday like that. Just perfect. I learned so much about thermalling that day when I was basically wing tip to wing tip with Mick and Ingo. I wasn't watching the vario but instead looking around at all the other pilots and I wanted to keep Mick on my wing tip as we circled up. Feeling every input that the glider was giving me as I scanned around me, I could feel myself gaining experience. There must have been at least a dozen circles like that...I was smiling ear to ear the whole time. Bart, you were right, it just keeps getting better and better.
That Saturday led me into a what I call flying fever. I was running a bad fever to the point I was calling Cowboy Up on their day off seeing if I could get another tow. This fever got worse and I had to call in to work last Wednesday and take a sick day. Since the only cure for flying fever is more flying I was at the airport by 9 o'clock "sick as a dog". There was Niki, in her abductor van that seems to have a never ending supply of cold beer and snacks, with her bad ass Icaro glider glistening in the mid morning dew. We waited for the day to warm up and at 12:45 I was coming back from JR's with lunch I could see the Tiki-Niki combo going up. There was a West wind at 5-8mph and there were a few cumulus forming up low and getting blown downwind. It wan't another Sat. but damn for December it was downright gorgeous. Anyways, I set my self up in the cart so that I was ready to go by the time Tiki got down from the tow. If your not in the cart ready to go, you don't get no tow...So ...Tiki takes me right up to this banging thermal and I released at 2300, I was frothing to get into that thermal. But as I released I got maybe 1/2 a turn in that thermal and it was GONE. Then a Bald Eagle glides right in front of me, maybe 20 yards in front of me. I was STOKED, but the eagle was just effortlessly gliding upwind and I was sinking... I thought, well ill just look around and find Niki and sure enough there she was downwind and higher than me. Son of a .....no matter where I went I couldn't find any lift, but she could. I was on the deck to get another tow...Niki was still up there doing these little turns with finesse and sticking. Did I mention the low save Niki had?
The rumors are true Niki had a fantastic low save that Saturday. I know because I was there with here at 300' and we were both working that scrappy little thermal. I was literally trying to follow Niki everywhere she went to get into her thermal because you know she can see the thermals. Anyways, I am really trying to work this thermal but I glance again at the vario and im thinking like....I really don't want to land in the other field again...so I shout out to Niki who is close by in the thermal "C'ya!" she gave me a little wave and said "OK". As I was walking my glider back after landing I was thinking to myself, OK keep my eyes open Niki is going to be landing here any minute. But ill be damned she was at 250' and in this search pattern looking for lift over the hangars and fields. Then she started to get some gains...by no means was she taking off like a rocket, but she was getting slow gains. "No way!", Henry and I said out loud as we headed out to go get BBQ sandwiches. There she was now at 1000'...we drove to the store both of us with our necks crooked trying to see out the window on her climb out. We get lunch and come back to the airport... there she is back at 2 thou something...Un-Be-Liev-ABLE!
I am so happy to see our flying community taking advantage of the good flying conditions, and the overall vibe at the airport is so positive!!! People like to be surrounded by good people. I think that is what also keeps us coming back for more, we have a place where we are surrounded by friendly, positive, funny, caring people.