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Wednesday May 10, 2006

Wheels up!

This has to rate as the most exciting day I've had in years. When we awoke at 7 there was a gentle breeze from the north, directly across the deck. Not what we wanted, but it was so gentle that if that was the only issue take-off wouldn't be a problem. The real problem was the ceiling, which was well under 1,000 feet.

At about 8 o'clock a Midway team came and moved the E2-Hawkeye radar surveillance plane (the largest plane on display) to the other side of the deck, to increase the runway available from 350 feet to over 500 feet. Now the success of the take-off was assured, once the weather cooperated.

We uncovered Voyager, did a thorough preflight, ran up the engine, and satisfied everything was in order, moved her into take-off position.

About 9:30 the ceiling had lifted to over 1,000 feet. A crowd, including media, had gathered on the flight deck to witness the first take-off ever of an powered parachute from an aircraft carrier. Michael and a veteran who used to fly F-4 Phantoms off the Midway laid out the chute while I changed into a warm flight suit. I inspected the layout, made a few adjustments, and with butterflies in my stomach, settled into Voyager.

As Voyager warmed up again, I envisioned the take-off, and kept repeating to myself, "This is just like any other take-off, this is just like any other take-off..."

When the engine was warmed up, I gave Michael a signal, and then awaited the signal from Michael that I'd been cleared into Bravo airspace by San Diego International (SAN). (I couldn't communicate directly with the tower because radios are line-of-site, and the Midway superstructure was between me and the tower. So Michael acted as my surrogate to obtain clearance.) The wait for the signal seemed to take forever. I wanted to get going!

Finally Michael raised both arms, signaling I'd been cleared for take-off. I released the brake, pushed the throttle forward and kited the chute. I rolled for about 100 feet, checked the chute, which had inflated and centered perfectly, and then fire walled the throttle. It was absolutely sublime. Voyager lifted off the deck exactly 300 feet from the start of the roll, and I still had 200 feet before I reached the end of the deck. I kept the climb-out centered down the catapult deck, and really don't know how high I was when I passed over the railing, but it was quite high. (Video of the take-off is available below.)

All the butterflies disappeared the moment I pushed the throttle forward and started to roll. Everything else was blocked out except for the relief that the trip was finally starting, and all the people who'd doubted that I was really going kick it off by flying off the Midway were now being answered by it actually happening.

I'm told the crowd on the deck broke out into cheers and applause. Wish I'd been there to see it, but then again, I was exactly where I wanted to be. The peace of mind which blossomed after take-off soon disappeared. I turned south over San Diego bay, and climbed to 1,000 feet. The problem was the ceiling had actually descended (which is opposite the way it normally happens), and I found myself flying just below the clouds. Even after dropping to a lower altitude, the mist in the air was still thick. I realized how fortunate I was to be in Bravo airspace with a Mode C transponder, being tracked, followed and advised by ATC. Nice to know separations were being monitored.

I flew south to about a half mile north of the Mexican border, and headed due east. As I'd flown south the ceiling had lifted a bit, and my next concern was whether or not the ceiling was high enough for me to climb over the mountains that were ahead of me on the way to Desert Air. I knew there were mountains almost 3,000 feet high, and this ceiling could cut the first day of flying quite short.

When I reached Brown airport (SDM) the clouds broke, and I saw for the first time the mountains I was going to be flying over the for next few weeks. Quite different from the coastal area I'd just covered. I spiraled upward to gain altitude, and at 3,000 feet I headed east, following the flight plan I'd created on the AvMap GPS. The goal was to real Desert Air (63CA) today, which would be a total of about 100 miles. Since Voyager can stay in the air for 5 hours with plenty of reserve, it seemed like a realistic goal.

Now the weather Gods stepped in. After climbing to altitude I noticed the ground speed had dropped to 20 mph. Still, with the amount of fuel aboard, the flight plan could still be achieved. I soon noticed that even with all the research done during flight planning, including the use of topo sectionals and even Google Earth, it was obvious I couldn't simply fly in a straight line unless I wanted to climb to over 4,500 feet. But the higher I climbed the slower the ground speed. So I stayed between 3,000 and 4,000 feet, and started winding my way around the higher peaks.

As I watched my ground track, it was obvious that flying 100 planned miles was really going to result in flying a considerable distance further than 100 miles. Compounding this problem, the headwind was steadily increasing. This was turning into a fuel management problem, and I knew that I'd have to land well before Desert Air. The "light went on" concerning this situation about 2 hours into the flight, and I decided to continue flying until I was in the air for 3 and a half hours, and then find a place to land. Something else I'd noticed that even in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, there were a fair number of reasonable places to land.

At 3 hours the headwind had increased to the point where it simply wasn't worth flying, so I decided to cross one last ridge that was only a mile away, and then land in some big fields that were beckoning me. And that's when all heck broke loose.

The winds suddenly picked up considerably, and the turbulence was, for a lack of a better way of putting it, 15 on a pucker factor scale of 1 to 10. I started to hit updrafts that pushed me up to over a mile (msl), and then just as suddenly downdrafts kicked in that were 1,000 fpm down. Let me tell you, there are few things as scary as seeing the top of a rocky mountain rushing up at you, while you're "flying" 20 miles per hour sideways! Up and down, back and forth, it was not fun.

I'd been pushed up to a high altitude again, and thought I'd try one more time to get over that ridge. But the closer I flew, the worse the air. I decided to turn around and land in one of a few fields that I had flown over a mile or two back. So I zipped (at over 50 mph ground speed) back to the fields I'd seen, and descended to a few hundred feel AGL to pick one. I scanned for power lines, fences, how high the vegetation is (very hard to judge from the air), and boulders. Even during the decent the flying was extremely turbulent. I was being tossed all around, and it was very difficult to maintain a steady altitude.

I chose a field that seemed promising, and descended as "smoothly" as possible, given the circumstances. Just as I was about to land, a gust hit me and I was popped up to 100 feet, and was hovering, helicopter style, right over a fence separating the field I'd chosen and another next to it. Not wanting to chance going around and trying for the first choice, I decided to land as expeditiously as possible. I waited until I'd made a little forward progress, then pulled the throttle back to idle and descended, almost vertically. Seeing that the field wasn't mowed, I cut the engine a few feet above the ground, and "plopped" down rather unceremoniously. So far so good. Then, before the chute had deflated (I was hauling in steering line fast!) a very strong gust hit the chute from the right, and Voyager started sliding over the grass to the left. Then the left rear when dug in, and Voyager did a slow (and graceful if I do say so myself) roll onto its side.

The chute was now deflated, and I switched off all systems. Releasing myself from the harness, I got out and grabbed the frame, then righted Voyager. A quick assessment revealed the left rear axle had been bent, and the left steering tube was also bent. Other than that, no damage at all. So the first day of flying had ended at N 32 38.51 W 116 29.48, Campos, California.

As luck would have it we met a man by the name of Steve Porter, who has a full machine shop. By nightfall he'd made a new axle, and we left the re bending of the steering tube until tomorrow.

So... the day definitely didn't end quite as gloriously as it started, but I certainly learned a lot. Sure I'd rather not had to make a precautionary landing, but it I know it was the right decision. Lessons which will be put to good use as the trip progresses.

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Page last modified on June 04, 2006, at 04:21 PM