A Fleeting Moment of Triumph

August 12th, 2012

We must celebrate these accomplishments, fleeting though they might be!For the past three seasons, we’ve been engaged in a knock-down drag-out battle for Google rank with the Flying Cloud Farm in Petaluma and the Wikipedia entry for the well-known clipper ship. Usually, The Flying Cloud Farm has claimed the top spot. We can hardly begrudge them this, for they’re a commercial operation, with bills to pay and profits to earn, and by all accounts, they’re also a fine place to visit – I recommend them to any of you who might pass through Sonoma County. At other times, Donald MaKay’s masterpiece has taken the lead. This too, is something we must approve of, for the ship was a legend in her time – fast, beautiful, and she always got her people home. But there are moments when ranch resorts and clipper ships give way to our favorite airship crew. One of these occurred last week. I’ve attached a screen shot as record of the occasion. And I’d like to thank all you readers and supporters for making this possible. The Royal Navy Airship Service owes you a debt of gratitude!

If It Please The Court, or the UK Patent Office, as the Case May Be…

April 19th, 2012

Seems pretty clearcut to me...This business with the Office of the UK Secretary of Defense turns out to be stranger than I thought. Esquire found several links, shown below, that shed interesting light on the affair. It appears that red, white, and blue roundels have been a popular fashion accessory in England for quite some time (remember the Mods, the 1960s, and the Who?). Recognizing this, the Office has been making what can only described as an extremely belated attempt to prevent clothing stores from using this emblem. Their website suggests this is intended to protect the dignity of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, but one of their spokesman rather gave the game away when she ‘admitted the MoD was also interested in the commercial potential of owning the trademark.’

There two ironies to this situation. First, the RAF doesn’t even use that insignia. It was retired sometime before WW-II in favor of one with red, white, blue, and yellow circles, but apparently England’s classical education system no longer includes that bit about Aesop, dogs, and mangers. Second, the RAF quite clearly lost this one. In a landmark legal decision back in 2004, the UK Patent Office said, in effect, “Sorry chaps, but Pete Townsend and his lads beat you to it. You can’t claim trademark protection for that ‘target device’ when it’s used on clothing.” Then, to drive the point home, the judge ordered them to pay the majority of the court costs. The decision is worth reading. Beneath all the dry legal wording, one cannot help but suspect the magistrate was struggling not to laugh, particularly in clauses 71 and 72.

This hasn’t stopped the Office from fighting a futile rear-guard action in defense of other consumer goods. As of 2009, they were trying to prevent the Next department store chain from selling boy’s bedspreads marked with those threatening WW-I roundels. Wow! Judging from the commentary this produced, I suspect the attempt has caused far more damage to the ‘dignity of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces’ than commercial sales of some a retired military insignia ever could. (“Never have so many laughed so hard at so few,” etc.)

Why, then, did they come after our t-shirts when the UK legal system had already decided against them? It’s possible they felt the UK decision might not apply in the US, but a more likely explanation is official harassment. There might well be some hapless underclerk whose job it is to search the Internet for sellers like Zazzle, who can be counted on to a) not know about the decision in question and b) be unwilling to fight back, and jump all over them. After spending quite some time at an organization that has forgotten more about bureaucracy than the Office of the UK Secretary of Defense will ever know, and also flew much faster aircraft (Panavia Tornado: Mach 2.2. Space Shuttle: Mach 23. Neener neener neener), I’m not too terribly curious about the matter. But I cannot help but wonder how they find… ahem… ‘targets’ for their ill-fated crusade. Do they pay staff to search millions of Web sites by hand? Do they have a Roundel Watch program for anonymous informers? Or do they have some pattern recognition software — which can’t be very well-written if it confuses grey insignia with red, white, and blue ones — that searches the Web for… drum roll please… illicit circles?

The Empire Struck Back

March 28th, 2012

I thought the RAF roundel was red, white, and blue, not grey.  How do they know this wasn't the Bolivian Air Force?
On March 28, 2012… a day that will live in incredulity… the Office of the UK Secretary of State for Defense contacted Zazzle and ordered them to remove merchandise from the Flying Cloud Store because it ‘references the Royal Air Force’. Apparently they objected to the tiny WW-I roundels on the airships. This objection even extended to the design shown above. (At least I believe this was one of the images in question. I don’t want to claim absolute certainty lest I risk some accusation of libel by an organization armed with nuclear weapons!) I leave it to you to decide the extent to which this particular graphic ‘references the Royal Air Force’, but it’s difficult to escape the impression that some low-ranking servant of the Crown has too much time on his hands :)

This rather disappointing behavior by an organization for which I retain considerable admiration and respect raises several questions.

1) What about the millions of other products in the world that ‘reference the Royal Air Force’, such as photo albums, air show t-shirts, warbird calendars, plastic models, computer games, and the like? What about Microsoft Flight Simulator? What about the estate of Charles Shultz? Why don’t they go after those? It’s difficult to imagine a more direct commercial reference to the RAF than Snoopy and the Red Baron. Surely we can expect a bit more consistency from a nation that prides itself as one of the birthplaces of reason! Unless… dare I say it… they lack the courage to attempt targets of that magnitude and must content themselves with smaller fry such as myself.

2) Does the Office of the UK Secretary of State for Defense actually have some junior civil servant whose job it is to search vendors like Zazzle to eliminate the dire threat to the Crown posed by amateur graphics that could, by some distant stretch of the imagination, be taken to reflect unfavorably on Her Majesty’s armed forces? That would be way cool! I want a job like that!

3) Will they go after The Flying Cloud itself? Will my ISP receive an email to the effect that they must shut down the adventures of Captain Everett and his crew or they can expect an air strike as soon as the relevant ministry can work this into the budget?

I’m not particularly worried about the Zazzle items because they weren’t exactly major sellers, but this latter question is a matter of some concern. Since my own air assets are limited to a hang glider, a paraglider, and a sling, I may not be in a position to stand up to a major airborne assault, or even an over-ambitious barrister. This suggests that some preemptive publicity might be in order. If you’re concerned about the possible threat to our favorite airship crew, spread the word, let other people know about this site, and help build support for the side of truth, justice, light, airships, adventure, gallant gentlemen, and sultry island maidens!

Thanks!

To Plan or Not To Plan…

October 27th, 2011

Right, where should we go next?
…that is the question with 1930’s-style cliffhangers. Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of restrictive plot outlines, or take arms with a sea of off-the-wall ideas? I’ve often wondered how the old masters handled this. Did their producer hand them detailed assignments at the beginning of each new season (“All right, Joe will take care of next week’s gunfight at the train station, Kelly will handle the encounter with the mysterious femme fatale, and Bob will do the episode with the laughing gas, the duck, and the bottle of nitroglycerine”) or did they all wing it (“Darn it, Mark just turned Captain Lightning into a turtle! How will I have him beat the throw to score the winning run in the final game of the World Series and foil Emperor Dread’s evil plans for world domination?”)

The answer may lie somewhere between these two extremes. As the saga of Captain Everett and his companions approaches its fourth year, I’ve found that detailed plot outlines are too restrictive. They can suck some of the life out of a story, and make it difficult to include readers’ suggestions — one of the great advantages an online serial drama has over traditional media. They also make it difficult to tossing in those new characters and ideas that hit you out of the blue, like ‘Howard Philip’, Tank Jousting, or… (drum roll please)… ‘Dan Straight, PI’! But trying to cook up each new episode on its own, without any overall plan, can leave a story drifting aimlessly. This isn’t much fun. Even for the turtles.

How does one achieve the necessary compromise? I’m sure there are many different ways. But I don’t have the slightest idea what they are, so for the Flying Cloud, I begin with my rough plan for the entire story, work out a general outline for each season, flesh this out several episodes in advance… and then feel free to abandon this if someone sends me an email to ask about Captain Everett’s past, or it occurs to me that… hey… Java… isn’t that where Mata Hari came from? Does this work? I leave this for you to decide. But it’s certainly made things more interesting!

Great Moments in Naval Architecture

October 13th, 2011

The HMS K4

The HMS K4


At the dawn of the 20th Century, as the world was arming itself for the Great War, admirals dreamed of a submarine that could keep up with the fleet. It’s not clear why they had this dream, for visibility from a submarine is notoriously poor, and the crews would have had no way to communicate with the fleet while submerged, but apparently it seemed like a good idea at the time. Since the diesel plants of the day were quite inadequate for this purpose, the Royal Navy turned to steam. The result was the K-class: a 339’ submarine, twice the tonnage of a contemporary destroyer, powered by two 10,500 hp steam turbines turning a pair of big 3-bladed propellers that drove it 24 knots on the surface. Underwater, they used four electric motors powered by batteries charged by a diesel-generator pair – yes, they were hybrids, so they were allowed to use the carpool lane.

The class was every bit as successful as one might expect for a fleet of fragile, ungainly, poorly armed, expensive and difficult to maintain submersible torpedo boats no meaningful scouting ability or communications equipment. The words we’re looking for here are ‘not very’. Range was limited, the view from the bridge was non-existent in any kind of a sea, diving was an prolonged and potentially irreversible process, and when diving at speed, it was all too easy to exceed the boats’ crush depth of 150’. The consequences were predictable. On the last day of January 1918, two squadrons of K-class boats and several light cruisers spent a wild and stormy night running into each other, with considerable loss on life, in what came to be known as the Battle of May Island.

It’s a testimony to the stubbornness and ’can-do’ attitude of the Royal Navy that they built and operated 17 of the vessels between 1917 and 1931. Well, perhaps it’s just a testimony to their stubbornness. Not satisfied with achievement, they followed it up with the M-class submersible cruiser. These unusual vessels, armed with a 12-inch cannon, rank very high on the Whatever Were They Thinking scale. Long range attacks against surface ships firing a single gun from the rolling deck of a submarine without any way to observe the fall of shot must have set new standards for inaccuracy. And the concept of using a submarine for shore bombardment is eccentric, even by English standards.

Not to be outdone, the French replied with the Surcouf (N N 3), the world’s first – and so far it’s only – submersible aircraft carrier. The air wing consisted of one (1) Besson MB 411 floatplane with a top speed of 118 MPH and a combat capability of pretty much zero. It also carried a motorboat because… well… heck, why not? This remarkable vessel was launched in 1927 and vanished sometime in 1942, no one is quite certain how. Wartime records suggest the craft was sunk, but one imagines the crew woke up one morning, looked around their unwieldy behemoth, thought, “Bugger this,” and used the boat’s 11,000 mile range to nip off to some idyllic tropical island.

Faced with these intriguing exercises in technology, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened, in a world with more ambition and less common sense than ours. Naval combat would never have been the same. One imagines the Alternate Battle of Jutland (“We thought we had them when Jellicoe crossed their ‘T’, but Scheer ordered the German battle line to dive.”) or the Alternate Battle of the Coral Sea (“Scratch one flattop! No, it just surfaced again, darn it.”)

The Vauxhall D-type

July 31st, 2011

Cthulu's wild ride?

It’s been a long time, what with a new job, an apartment move, a cylinder head swap on the Miata, and a few hang gliding trips, but this seems like a good time to restart the Flying Wire. Our heroes (and heroines) are into their third season now as the saga continues.

One of the most entertaining things about putting together a story of this sort is researching the background. Back in the days of 1930s serial dramas, this might have meant visiting the library to pour over encyclopedias, old newspapers, and musty reference books. In this modern era, you can find some amazing things on the Internet. That Vauxhall for example. We know Captain Michaelson has a staff car, and given the man’s status and pretensions, it must surely be one of excellent quality. But a Rolls Royce seemed a bit too obvious. A quick search through a historical list of British manufacturers turned up Vauxhall and their remarkable D-type, along with pictures, specifications, and even a few Youtube videos.

It seemed a pity to let this information languish unused, and so Mister MacKiernan’s Wild Ride was born. Unfortunately, nowhere in this vast cornucopia of online material could I find a good picture of a Vauxhall hood ornament from the 1920s. There are any number of poor ones, but they were all too blurry to be useful. So I had to improvise…

Fun With Modern Microelectronics

October 13th, 2010

Don't worry, sir.  The Klingons run Linux.  They'll never figure out the commands to fire their phasers.We’ve all had the experience. You hit a key, click the mouse, and your computer hangs. You reboot, minutes pass, and you get, not one of the Good Blue Screens of Death (“Your computer may have been shut down improperly. Notice how this message evades the question of who might be responsible for this situation.”) but one of the Evil ones (“Obscure hex code 65A78CDEx. The next few days of your life are not going to be filled with joy.”)

Several minutes of fiddling with the BIOS screen sufficed to determine that the system was well and truly dead dooby dead dead dead. A disk crash seemed the most likely cause. The years have taught me to be obsessive about backups, so I’d only lost an hour or two of work, but it was still annoying. Relieved that matters hadn’t been worse, I headed off to Fry’s, picked up a new drive, and returned home to swap it in.

The system wouldn’t recognize the new disk. Indeed, experiments with another old drive I found sitting in a closet showed that the computer couldn’t recognize any hard disks at all. This was ambiguous news. On the one hand, it suggested that something on the motherboard had died. This was Bad. On the other hand, it meant that my old disk, my old OS, and all my work might still be intact. This was Good.

Back to Fry’s I went to pick up an SATA docking station. A bit of fiddling with USB cables and my old laptop sufficed to demonstrate that the old drive was quite readable. The word, “Whew!” leaps to mind. And it did. Still, this left me with something of a logic puzzle. I had three computers: a dead PC, a dying laptop, and the new laptop without any software that I’d bought to replace it. I also had three disks: my old one, my new one, and a spare I’d found sitting in my box of software. The canoe can only carry one computer and one disk at a time. If the computers on one bank of the river outnumber the disks, they’ll eat them. How can you get all the computers and all the disks across the river without… oops… wait… sorry… that’s an entirely different logic puzzle :)

It was clearly time for a new PC. This was not too terrible a tragedy, for I’d already budgeted money to replace the antique that had just died. Off I went to Fry’s again. Home I came with a box of microelectronics. I opened the chassis, swapped in my old drive, pushed the on button… and discovered that new 64-bit system wouldn’t run my old copy of Windows XP.

Aargh! Well, heck, what could be more fun than switching to a new OS and spending days reinstalling all my old software? What besides root canal work, brussels sprouts, or waiting in line at the DMV?

By now, three weeks later, things are almost back to normal. And all of my old software seems to run under the Dark Lord of Redmond’s latest whimsy except for some obsolete utilities, a symbolic math package I rarely use… and the venerable copy of Corel Photopaint 8 I use to generate graphics for the Flying Cloud. I suppose it would be too much to expect a 13-year application to run on a modern OS, but this has left me with a bit of a poser. The options seem to be: 1) pick up a copy of Corel Photopaint 9, which is alleged to run under 64-bit Windows 7, and hope for the best, 2) move to Corel’s bloated and unusable modern substitute, or 3) get some for-real art software.

We’re open for suggestions here. All you for-real artists out there: what are you using?

A Little T&L

July 21st, 2010

It has been said that half of aviation is learning how to land. There is some truth to this statement. So every now and then, I head back to the training hill for a little bit of T&L – Takeoffs and Landings. It’s exhausting, tedious, and a potential source of embarrassment, but it makes me a better person. So I claim :)

This weekend’s return to the training hill was prompted by our first day at Black Cap, when I backed off launch because I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, and our last day, when I most definitely failed to pull off a landing. I figured I’d get some exercise, spruce up my technique, and go home feeling smug and self-righteous. At least that was the plan.

I arrived at Ed Levin Park to discover that conditions were wretched, with high temperatures, dead air, and small thermal cycles blowing fitful little zephyrs from every direction. This was perfect! This was exactly what I wanted! If my goal was to suffer, I had picked the right day. Full of masochism, I set up my wing and harness, preflighted it, and dragged the whole lot – 100 lbs or so – up the 50’ hill for my first flight. There wasn’t a breath of wind, but I knew how to handle a no-wind takeoff on a hot day.

Or so I thought.

Picking myself up after the impact, I checked out my wing to make sure it was OK, then dragged it up the hill for a second flight. Perhaps I’d picked the wrong moment to launch, when the wind had started to blow downhill. Yes, that must be it! Surely there couldn’t be anything wrong with my technique. The second flight was near-perfect, with a smooth launch, good speed and directional control, and a two-step landing after a slightly-too-late flare.

Yes, I thought, I’ve got this figured out! One more flight to make sure I’ve got this all sorted out, then I could head home for a beer. Feeling smug, I slogged back up the hill for what I was certain would be a triumphant conclusion to the T&L session.

Right.

After I’d picked myself up, dusted myself off, and finished grumbling, I dragged my wing over to the breakdown area. Something was wrong, and I wasn’t going to sort it out by banging my head against the wall. Fortunately a friend had set up a camera to film some of his students, I walked over and asked him to back it up so I could looked over my third flight – such as it was.

It was most definitely not a thing of beauty. I’d pitched my wing up to get it off my shoulders early in my takeoff, then failed to run fast enough to really get flying. This is one of those elementary mistakes that one believes one has outgrown… and one of the reasons we head back to the training hill is to see if these beliefs are correct.

I considered heading home at this point. It was hot, I was tired, and I was screwing up – all good reasons to take a break. But I was also stubborn, so I dragged myself back up the hill to give it another go. I should know how to launch a hang glider, darn it! I’d been doing it for 26 years! A few minutes to get my breath back, a few more minutes to visualize the technique I should be using, and a long wait for the breeze to stop blowing downhill. Then it was blowing up – it was now or never…

…and I aced it. Problem solved. Time for that beer!

Tales From The High Desert

July 7th, 2010

Hang gliders on launch at Black Cap, overlooking Lakeview.  That's my Jeep in the background.

Hang gliders on launch at Black Cap, overlooking Lakeview. That's my Jeep in the background.

The Warner Range runs north-south through the center of Oregon, marking the beginning of the desert. To the west, the land is green. To the east, grassland gives way to bare earth, dry lakebeds, and the bones of dead mountains. Lakeview lies on the west side of the Warner’s, where life is still possible. It’s a remarkable town: a piece of Nineteenth Century America that has survived into the Twenty-First. It is also home to the Lakeview Festival of Free-Flight: a hang glider and paraglider fly-in that has been held every 4th of July since 1990. I’ve attended most of them, and they’re one of the high points of the year.

This year’s Festival did not start well. We arrived Friday to learn that a pilot was missing, caught by the gust front that blasted through the valley that afternoon. Search and Rescue was out, but it was growing dark, and there was cause for concern. They found him the next day, alive but badly injured. The word from the hospital sounded optimistic, but he could have some tough months ahead, so send him your best wishes.

With such a beginning to the weekend, we weren’t feeling very aggressive on Saturday. The consequences were predictable: we got a late start, chose the wrong site, spent the day waiting for good launch conditions, and never got to fly. Meanwhile the pilots who flew Hadley’s Butte, 30 miles to the north, had an epic day. One tries to be philosophical about such things, but philosophy only goes so far. Darn it.

Sunday dawned cloudless and unpromising. With a high pressure system building over the Western US, none of the local flying sites looked good. After looking at the forecast, shaking our heads, and cursing our luck, but we decided to give Hadley’s a try ourselves. If nothing else, it would be a change of scenery.

I’ve never been particularly fond of Hadley’s Butte. The view from launch is lifeless and barren, like the surface of Mars. Launch itself can be demanding, and the lift, on days it is present, can be hard to find. In eight trips to the place, I’d only flown it five times and gotten up twice. Those last two flights might have been awesome, but odds of 2 in 8 did not seem good. On this particular day conditions looked quite dead. I spent some time wondering whether to fly at all, then decided to fly my paraglider. If all I could hope for was a five minute sled ride, I wasn’t going to spend the hours it took to set up and break down a hang glider.

The gods watch… and take note… of decisions like these.

It took forever to sort out my lines, connect up my radio gear, and get my canopy ready. When it was my turn to launch, I mismanaged the brakes when I started my run, and my takeoff was not a thing of grace. Annoyed with myself, I bore right and began following the spine that lead down to the LZ. At least I was flying. And a five minute sled ride was better than no flight at all.

Moments later, my variometer started to beep.

I didn’t believe it, or course. At best, this was just a bubble thermal that would be gone in an instant. But there seemed nothing to lose, so I banked into the lift. A dozen or so turns and I was a 500’ feet above launch! Years of trying to stay up on crummy days – three of them at Hadley’s – have taught me a certain amount of cynicism, and there seemed no way this anomaly could last. Anticipating a flush cycle, I headed toward the LZ, only to encounter another thermal. And another. And another…

After 30 minute’s work, a bit of turbulence, and the occasional tip collapse, I was 1000’ up. To the north, the LZ had become irrelevant – it was clear that I would not be landing any time soon. Beyond it, the desert had acquired that strange beauty deserts have when seen from the air. Behind me, the butte rose in a series of steps toward high ground to the west. To the south, an obvious line of lift stretched across the plateau that lead to the town of Paisley.

I’d been here before, back in 1996. And I knew the route to the south, for I’d flown it two days in a row. That might have been in a hang glider, with much better performance than the wing I was on now, but there seemed no reason not give it a try. With a certain amount of glee – the same kind of glee a child might feel when setting out on a bike ride on Saturday morning – I turned south and headed cross-country.

Cross-country — XC — is thought by some to be the ultimate form of soaring flight. Leaving behind the security of the regular LZ, you set off into the unknown, hoping to find thermals along the way. If you succeed, spectacular flights are possible – the World Open Distance Record is well over 400 miles. If you fail, you have to pick a field, scout it for obstacles, set up your approach, and pull of a landing… on your very first try. Even after you’re down, the adventure isn’t over. Lose radio contact, land too far from a road, and you get to practice your wilderness survival skills. This can be serious business.

This particular day was slow going. It was the first time I’d gone cross country on a paraglider, so I flew conservatively, making sure I always had a safe route out of the hills. This might not have been a formula for covering distance, but it was most certainly a formula for fun. With no serious concerns about landing or retrieves, I was free to practice my thermalling technique, admire the scenery, and gloat at all the luckless pilots who were sinking out behind me. It was also a learning experience. Every move upwind toward safety re-impressed me with the fact that paragliders are slow!

At last I came to the crux of the route – a pair of ridges, cut by a deep river canyon, that I’d have to cross if I wanted to get past Paisley. It would have been easy with my hang glider, but with no real clue what it might be like with a paraglider, I was not about to risk going down in some truly nasty terrain. Tug on the left brake, turn west, and I was headed toward the flatlands and safety.

One makes these decisions with a certain amount of smugness. And with a groundspeed of less than 10 MPH, I had plenty of time to feel smug as I made my way out of the hills. I arrived over the road with 500’ of altitude and a keen appreciation of just how slow paragliders are in any kind of a headwind. This lack of speed makes them quite easy to land. Indeed, landing was fun!

There remained the wilderness survival part of the flight. I faced some serious challenges. I’d lost radio contact with my friends. I was at least 100’ from a well-traveled paved road. I only had a substantial supply of water. And the nearest town was almost two miles away! If no one stopped to give me a ride, it might be a 30 minute walk to the nearest place I could find cold drinks and ice cream! Times like these can try men’s souls… though I must admit they don’t try them very hard :)

That was not the end of the story, of course. We stayed one more day, headed to one more sight, and I got one more flight, which was as dreadful as it was short. But it’s the good flights that count, and it’s the good one I’ll remember.

That ice cream was good too…

Solstice Skies

June 21st, 2010

A pilot in front of the Timberline launch at Hull

A pilot climbing out in front of Timberline launch at Hull

We left the South Bay that afternoon, following the well-worn path to Hull – through the City, across the Golden Gate, up the long road to Ukiah. Until we reached Santa Rosa, the traffic was heavy, but after that, every mile took us farther away from the hustle and turmoil of the mundane world. A pause in Ukiah for fuel and provisions, then we were winding our way east into Coastal Range, along the ever-dwindling succession of roads that lead to Lake Pilsbury. By the time we reached the campsite, night had fallen – time for fiddling with tents, shuffling gear, and some hopeful speculation about what the morrow might bring.

The next morning was gorgeous, but the sky was strange. To the north, Hull was the same as ever, looming above the valley like the lord of some forgotten kingdom, but to the west, an unexpected wall of clouds peered above Sanhedrin – invaders, perhaps, or bearers of some disturbing message. Their meaning was subject of some speculation as we drove around the valley, decided on a landing site, and loaded our gear for the trip up the hill. Whatever this sky meant, it did not seem like an ordinary day.

Unfortunately, it also didn’t seem like I’d be able to fly. I had just recovered from a cold, and by the time we’d reached launch, it was clear I was in no shape for a struggle. If conditions had been mild, I might have given it a go, but they were an thing but mild. With gusts blowing up the hill, clouds boiling with turbulence, and every sign that the air might be stalked by invisible dragons, I decided, reluctantly, to stay on the ground.

One makes these decisions with a mixture of smugness at one’s wisdom and regret for lost opportunities. That evening, as I listened to my friends describe their flights, I felt quite a bit of the latter, for it was clear I’d missed an interesting day. Still, the wine was good, the mountains were beautiful, and the odor of sage was a welcome change from the dust of the city. Also, my lungs seemed to be healing, so I had some hope of flying tomorrow.

The second morning was even more unsettling than the first. Clouds were sweeping in from the north – the wrong side of the mountain – promising conditions that might range from nasty to unfliable. By the time we reached launch, a particularly ominous one had formed directly above the peak: an ugly roll of mist, tattered by the wind, that it was impossible to watch without feelings of concern. I still wasn’t 100%, but I’d come here to fly, darn it, so I unloaded my gear. On the ground, I was a victim, passively accepting my fate. In the air, I might still get hammered, but at least I’d have a chance to fight.

Conversation was more subdued than normal as we set up our wings, and several people elected not to fly. When the first pilot launched, we watched him like penguins watching the first bird into the water, looking for signs of that shark. The air did not look like a terrific amount of fun, but we’d seen and faced, so we followed him, one after another, until it was my turn. My flight plan was simple: I’d get a good strong launch, sniff around in front of the hill, and if I wasn’t entirely happy with what I felt, turn left and flee for the LZ with my tail between my legs.

Conditions were not was bad as I’d expected: a few jolts of adrenaline, perhaps, but no real Sacred Excrement moments. My vario beeped, so I tried a few circles and found that I was going up. But I wasn’t going up very fast. There was a lot of sink mixed in with the lift, which was hardly surprising with the wind at altitude spilling over the top of the mountain to funnel down the canyon. Worse, that wind was drifting me east, over Rattlesnake Canyon. As its name suggests, this is a place of evil legend, to which I had no desire to contribute.

It was time for the part of my plan that involved tails and legs, so I turned left slammed through a few bumps, and scurried down the spine that lead to the airfield. I’d have measured myself against the day and found myself wanting, but hey, at least I’d measured myself. My cowardice might have caused me to miss some excitement, but I don’t fly to have excitement, I fly for the mental challenge, the physical sensation, the glorious view, and to have fun. I reached the strip with 1200’ of altitude to spare, and wouldn’t you know it: my vario was beeping!

With a safe landing zone just a short glide away, there seemed no reason not to work this lift, hang out, and get a bit more airtime. Besides, I was curious where this thermal might lead. A few minutes later, I was 1000’ higher, curiosity unsatisfied. The lift seemed to be building and the sink diminishing. Would this trend continue? With wind blowing from the north on top of the mountain but from the south on the lake, there was every chance that a ‘convergence band’ might form, with air going up over a broad area.

Soon, other people noticed. “Paul, is that a convergence?” called Robert over the radio.

“Yes!” I replied. “It’s great! I’m climbing through 5700’! Get over here!”

An hour later, three of us were above the level of the mountains, flying broad easy laps up and down the east side of the valley. It wasn’t a very good convergence, as such things go, with a top at 6500’, and some spiteful bits of turbulence to remind us to pay attention. But ambiguous though it might be, this was an unexpected gift on what had seemed an unpromising day, and I was determined to enjoy it. I stayed up until I grew tired – this didn’t take very long, given my recent cold – then headed down.

Landing can be food for thought, particularly when a convergence is nearby. There’s always that nagging concern that the bottom of the thing might push though the landing zone, bringing with it all manner of nastiness. So thinking, I planned an approach that left me with several options if the wind started switching or dust devils started cooking off when I arrived. Would this plan have worked? I’ll never know, for the wind stayed smooth, straight, and forgiving from 500’ all the way down to the ground. Landing, was a pleasure, and the air was sweet with the scent of sage.

We forget the details of these flights. Indeed, on mediocre days such this, there may not be many details to begin with. But we remember our feelings of expectation at the beginning of the flight, the hopes, the curiosity, the delight after each minor success. And years later, when everything else is forgotten, we still remember the sage.