Friday, June 29, 2007

The Hazards and Solutions of Fort Ebey

Part one of a series

Story by John Kraske

Photographs by Karen Wallman.
When the weather fronts push in from the Pacific, load the western face of the Cascade Mountains with soggy, wet-wool looking clouds, and the rain gods give’m a tenacious ringing out, I find that my hopes are on the rise. These are the conditions that can be perfect for flying at Fort Ebey State Park on the western exposure of Whidbey Island. Yeah, I know you hardcore mountain pilots with the raging bull sized gonads probably wouldn’t be caught dead flying in the passive, laminar ridge lift at a kiddy fly site like Fort Ebey. But let me tell you that I’d rather be flying ridge lift than playing computer games or channel surfing the television. A flying wing gathers no mold. And, after a long wet off-season in the northwest, any kind of flying is a welcome relief. Whidbey Island isn’t that far of a drive. And I wouldn’t necessarily discount a flyable Fort Ebey as hazard free; there are challenges and hazards at The Fort as well. There are a few club members you could probably ask.
HAZARD: Probably the greatest hazard is that you drive all the way out there, including a twenty minute ferry ride and there is no wind, too little wind, too much wind, or wind from the wrong direction. If you’re riding with a chronically suffering cynic and it’s spring time, pull over to the side of the highway and kick’m out into one of the nettle patches that grow thick along the roadsides. Man, am I ever tired of hearing, “Whidbey sucks! I’ve been out there twenty times and never flown there once.” Whiners!
SOLUTION: There are several solutions. Bring along your mountain bike, your kayak, your family, your friends, a picnic lunch. ‘The Fort’ is one of those experiences that make me think of the term Halcyon Days of Summer. Regardless if it’s flyable or not, it’s a beautiful place.
Enjoying the parawaiting: Gordon, Mike, Darla, Andrei, Irina, John, Kevin, Bonnie and Bryce.
HAZARD: The second greatest hazard is when there is too much velocity in the wind, but it’s from the right direction, and you’re there with your paragliding pal with the big huevos and you want big ones too. You just might try to fly anyway and end up sorry that you succumbed to that adolescent-minded peer pressure. I know, I’ve done it. Nothing like a fourteen year old brain in a fifty year old body. Bad combination!
SOLUTION: Testosterone repression therapy requires the use of a leather mallet and a vise. Or maybe surgery would be better? Drugs?
HAZARD: When the westerlies blow into the cliffs at Partridge Point (that’s the name of this pristine piece of geography that Fort Ebey State Park is on) and parts, creating a headwind from the northwest until you cross the point where the U.S. Coast Guard navigational light sits. From there north you have a tail wind. Partridge Point has nothing to do with that Yule Tide bird in a Pear Tree. The third hazard is when the wind picks up. If this happens and you find yourself being blown back it is best to get low and out front, and go for a beach or side hill landing. I’ve witnessed pilots going into the trees because they were too high when the winds picked up. The wind gradient can be amazing here, despite how laminar and smooth it feels. Keep in mind that when the wind doubles in speed it quadruples in force. Basically, what that means is if you are flying in an 8 mph wind and it increases to 16 mph, the force will be four times greater than it was at 8 mph. Do the math; that’s 32 mph. If you’re flying in a 32 mph wind and going higher, you’re going to go backwards. There’s trees, bushes and rotor back there.
Still parawaiting
Still parawaiting.
SOLUTION: Remember you can always fly cross wind and penetrate when you can’t penetrate directly into the wind. Remember your speed system. Big ears can be great for speeding up your descent but on some wings they also can create drag, making your wing’s penetration even less. I’ve found that if I’m out in front and over the water I can pull ears to descend, then get on my speed bar and attempt to land close to the edge. There have been times when I’ve been out front of launch, pointed into the increasing wind at about twenty or thirty feet above the launch, put on full speed bar and pulled in ears letting the wind blow me in reverse until I’m sitting on the ground where I disable my wing.
During strong conditions, as you approach the landing zone from the west you hit a lift band that wants to take you up. If you approach this band slowly you will experience more lift. When the wind is strong I usually jam my speed bar to the max, bank hard into a downwind turn and penetrate this band of lift as fast as possible, banking around to face into the wind once I’m over my landing zone. If you come in too high you will experience the stronger wind that can push you back into the trees behind your proposed landing zone. This penetrating technique has worked well for me; it’s as if the ridge lift creates a protective wall once you are low and behind it. The stronger wind tends to push hard above this protective wall of lift. Some refer to the wind passing over the lift band as venturi or shear. Whatever you call it, it can be strong.
During one of my first flights at Fort Ebey the wind had picked up and I had to run south and around the corner of the upper bench. I landed on the side of the hill facing southwest on a sandy slide area. The next time I attempted this, the wind changed to even more cross from the north and I experienced horizontal rotor close in to the southwest facing cliff face. That’s what happens when the wind hits the cliff face at a cross angle of 45 degrees or less. I’d recommend watching out for rotor once you round the corner of the southern bench. It can be a real problem when there is more north than west in the wind.
A word of warning: Do not attempt more than one new maneuver at a time. Become familiar with your speed system and doing “big ears” before you attempt combining the two. And, certainly never fly when you are anxious. Anxiety is an accident looking for a place to happen.