2017-09-05 11.32.54

Over Clouds and Stone

I feel the wind on my face turn into a deeper shade of cold as I am engulfed in the clouds.  The sky around me turns white and all the cares and fears of my world disappear. We call this silent place in the clouds the “white room” and no matter how many times you enter its presence, it never gets old.  I emerge from the featureless white and stare down the high alpine knife edge glowing in the sun.  As the green slopes of the high alpine drop away into the blue hues of rock I am reminded once again why I love to fly in the French Alps. I have been lucky enough to fly in most regions of the Alps; from Austria and Switzerland, to Italy and France, but for some reason this remote corner of France somehow always feels like coming home.

Being here with some of my best friends makes the experience so much richer. So grateful for Gary, Jane and Paul for inviting us back into their home for a week. This time around I decided to capture my experiences with video more than just images or words.  Hope you enjoy the change of pace.

Day 1-Travel Day.
We have been awake for over 30 hours as we rolled into this remote corner of the Alps. The weather looks promising, but we are all so tired.  Nevertheless, we decide to venture up to the nearby slopes of Mens and get in a quick flight.  The thermals are working and we spend the next few hours flying along the granite mountain range. The flight is a quick reminder as to why we are here and that sleep and food should always take a back seat to adventure.

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Flying the evening thermals….so tired I can barely think.

Day 2-Into the Clouds.
After a short morning hike in the mountains above the house we launch into the first thermals of the day.  The surrounding mountains are beautiful. We fly around the hillsides and across the valley for a couple hours. Once the valley winds pick up we head back over to Mens to try and fly to the top of the mountains and across a unique alpine spine.  The thermals are working, and the clouds start forming.  The next several hours turn into a magical experience in the clouds and across the alpine mountains. A perfect day for flying!

Day 3-Exploring the Sites.
With bad weather we make the most of the day hiking through canyons, over rivers, up cliff faces and even down into the caves of blackness. It has been an awesome day, despite that really, really block of stinky cheese.

Day 4-La Grave….or is it The Grave?
It is 5:30 a.m. as we all huddle around the glow of the laptop discussing the weather for the day.  It looks to be very windy and rainy today, but a small region may have some potential. It is worth the risk, so by 6:00 we are in the van driving the curvy roads as the rain continues to fall.  As we enter the deep glacial valley I see the thick dark clouds and realize the day is likely done.  By 8:30 we are on the gondola that leads up to La Meije and the clouds are starting to break.  By 9:15 the sky is dead calm, sunny, and the morning mist has mostly burned off. The deep blue of the hanging glaciers taunt and excite us to get ready to fly.  We know the valley winds are going to kick in early, so we waste no time in getting ready to fly across these iconic glaciers and into the valley below.

I punch off first, followed by Keenan, Paul, Clark, then Gary. The flight is amazing!  A calm sled run really, but often those can be the best flights of a trip.  By the time we end up on the valley floor the valley winds are just starting to pick up….perfect timing.  We grab a nice French lunch on the patio below the beautiful mountains above, then venture back to home base.

Day 5-The Challenge
The weather looks promising today so we decide to get an early start and head up to the Col above Noyer.  I have had my eyes on this range for the last 5 years, so I am excited to actually have the weather working in our favor today. There is a slight inversion in the valley, but with the first puffs of morning air we venture into the sky to see if we can get across the mountain range heading north.  It becomes a very short 20 minute flight down into the valley with no productive lift.  We all agree to head back up and try it again.  The valley winds are conflicting and the air is not feeling very organized. Paul and Gary quickly take off with similar results as the previous flight. We talk amongst ourselves about the impending valley winds, and try to come to some decision.  The air is feeling more productive, so I head into the sky alone and hook a very small, but productive thermal and am able to climb high above launch and into the mountains.  Paul offers a $20 challenge to whomever can get all the way back home.  I accept, and begin flying the ridge line back to the north.  A few peaks behind me now and the lift vanishes.  I extend my glide against the cliffs hoping for something, but nothing offers me any luck.  As I turn down the valley I slam into the valley winds. Nothing too strong, but my glide performance is diminished significantly. I realize I have to get back across the glacial river towards the highway, or it is going to be a long, cold and wet hike. I just squeak over the river and land in a nearby field next to the highway. I find a nice place in the shade to relax until the van arrives.  No $20 for me today, but the challenge was fun and resulted in a rather enjoyable mountain flight.

Conclusion
In the end, the days were filled with flying, but more important they were filled with friendships.  I so enjoying flying and adventuring with this small group of friends. We have been known as the DEAF Crew for years now, and although we do not fly with each other as often as we used to, the good times, adventures, love  and respect endures.  Already looking forward to the next adventure!

2017-04-22 11.41.46

Skywalk Chili 4 Review

Spring on the Wasatch is quickly starting to change into summer, so I thought now might be a good time to pause, catch my breath and put together some quick thoughts regarding the new Chili 4 from Skywalk.

Before I dive in too deep here, it is important to understand a little about my flying style to help put this review into context. I am an advanced rated pilot and log about 150 hours per year in rougher mountain terrain. As such, I fly mostly hike-n-fly adventures or moderate XC flights. I do very little, if any ridge soaring. I enjoy the adventure of flying and to me searching for that beautiful high altitude view is much more rewarding than logging XC miles. I am a pretty conservative pilot compared to most, and therefore I often avoid the mid-day rodeo, and lean towards the late afternoon thermal flights in the high mountains. Over the last four years I have been flying the Skywalk Chili 3 and have roughly 500 hours on that wing design (and love it, love it, love it). Now that we have that out of the way, here are my initial thoughts on Skywalk’s new Chili 4.

2017-04-22 11.34.20
Wing top. you can see the additional reinforcing below the top fabric at every third cell, and every cell along the leading edge.

Chili 4:

So far this spring I have logged about 25 hours and about 250 km of XC flying through mountain terrain on this wing. I did spend about an hour or so ridge soaring in more laminar air. I know there are several technical articles and other reviews out there by dedicated test pilots, so instead of getting lost in the same mumbo jumbo, I thought I would instead share my practical thoughts on actually using this wing in the everyday paces of my flying.

Hiking:

The wing in it’s folded state is a bit more bulky than the Chili 3 design, likely due to the large amounts of cell reinforcements throughout the wing. It psychologically feels heavier to me, but the scale in my house shows pretty much the same practical weight; it just takes up a bit more room in my pack.

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Note the extra lines at each riser. All lines from the first cascade upward are unsheathed.

Pre-Flight Setup:

There are three more lines to deal with at the riser location than the Chili 3 (one extra A, B and D), but no big deal really. The brake lines have a single cascade from 1 to 3, which makes clearing my brake lines much more tedious. The lines are only sheathed in the lowest portion, then unsheathed through all the upper cascades. The upper cascades and brake lines are very, very thin. Dental floss looks thick in comparison to these lines. That may sound great, but since I am mostly launching from rocky terrain often covered in brush, these lines catch on absolutely everything. It makes the set up rather cumbersome and annoying trying to keep every little line clear.

Launching:

I found that the wing comes up really slow at first, much slower than the Chili 3 until about the 50-60 degree mark, then surges quickly. Much quicker than the Chili 3, but similar to the older Tequila 3…only a bit more dynamic. I think the slow inflation and surge is mostly a result of the shark nose technology. So you need to be on your toes to ‘catch’ the wing when launching in any air with energy, otherwise it will overfly you in a hurry. I feel that is totally expected for a wing in this performance category.

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One of many spring time flights this year around my local mountains.

Flying (thermals):

Holy Smokes! I can say with some confidence that this wing is a thermal hunting machine! It is clearly designed for one purpose, and that is turning in thermals. As such, I have found it is not a very playful wing to fly (like the newest Tequila 4), but is more of a precision flying instrument. It flies much flatter than the Chili 3, but is extremely responsive, requires very little brake input and slices through the air like nothing I have ever felt before.

The shark nose technology on this wing generates a very high pressure throughout the wing and is immediately noticeable. Feeling that much pressure in the wing I was a bit nervous at first. After all, high pressure means high energy and high energy usually means that it ‘explodes’ violently when it collapses. So, I pushed it a little bit inducing some 30%-40% asymmetric collapses. To my surprise, the collapse was not violent at all, and recovered very quickly and easily with minimal course changes. Really? I tried it a few more times just to be sure, and found with a little controlled weight shift I obtained the same results.

When entering a thermal the wing does not pitch up nearly as much as the Chili 3, but instead seems to slice right into it. Flying into some of the more violent spring thermals I was amazed at how stable the wing is, so much so that my confidence in rougher air has increased significantly. I am finding myself much more willing to go into “the bear cage” with this wing. The wing tends to snake a bit side to side over your head while on glide, as if it is searching for lift, but it induces absolutely no drift or swinging under the wing. It was a strange feeling at first, but now that I understand the “language” of the wing, that feature is awesome! It makes it very easy to determine if you should circle clockwise or counter-clockwise.

One thing I feel I need to make crystal clear. This wing MUST be actively piloted. This is NOT a low end EN-B wing and requires a high demand of active flying. I actually feel it requires more attention to fly it correctly than the Chili 3. However, if you do actively fly it, the wing is amazingly stable, solid, precise, and very comfortable to fly. If you do not know how to listen to the language of the wing, and react properly, I think you could get yourself into a little trouble.

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Ridge soaring at POM. (photo courtesy of Jonathan)

Flying (ridge soaring):

Like I mentioned earlier, this wing was built for a single purpose, and that is to circle in thermals. I did fly it at my local ridge soaring site (POM North Side). I do not fly that site very often, but felt I wanted to experience the wing in more laminar air. It was okay, but nothing that made me say “wow.” I took this wing to the ridge soaring site after I had about 15 hours of thermal flying, so when I landed I knew without any doubt that this wing was solely for climbing in thermals. I can only describe it like this. Driving a Nissan GT-R around town is just fine, and feels okay, but you will never see it’s full potential until you put it on the open road. This glider is a little bit like this car analogy. It’s just fine boating around in ridge soaring conditions, but you will never discover the magical potential of this wing unless you get it out the wind, and into the thermals.

Landing:

Like all higher aspect ratio wings, I definitely notice the increase airspeed when landing. I am almost always landing in low to no wind situations, so the jet flaps (unique to Skywalk) intermixed with a swing through approach make the landing pretty easy.

Conclusions:

I cannot say enough positive things about how well this wing flies in thermals. It is so freakin’ good! I have had a very hard time trying to explain it to friends, and have had an even harder time trying to put words to it here (obviously). The super thin cascades and unsheathed lines are a bit of a headache in the mountains, but in the end worth every challenge once in the air. For those who know me, know I was pretty reluctant to click into a Chili 4 as I absolutely loved the Chili 3 design. Honestly, since my first mountain flight with the Chili 4 I have not even had the desire to pull out the Chili 3. In conclusion, I would say that if you are a high-hour pilot, fly all the time, and are more versed in thermal flying, this wing will not disappoint. I have found that you do have to actively pilot the wing to take advantage of it’s stability and amazing potential. It speaks a beautifully clear language…and once you know how to listen and react, it is one sweet, sweet wing. Hope this review has been helpful, and I hope to see you high above the mountains soon.

Technical Data:
Wing: Skywalk Chili 4
Size: XS (extra small)
My Flying Weight: 88kg (this includes the weight of the wing, required for all Skywalk weight ranges)
Certified Weight: 70kg – 95kg
Classification: EN-B
Aspect Ratio: 5.65 (flat) 4.21 (projected)
Harness Used: Sup Air Delight II
I am a Skywalk Team pilot and do receive some benefits from Skywalk…However, this review has been honest and based on my own flying experience with the wing. If you are in the US and interested in a demo reach out to Jonathan at Utah Paragliding. If you are in other parts of the world, contact Skywalk directly for the nearest dealer.

Clouds

Hearing of the Wind

Last Saturday as I was flying above the north facing walls of Mount Olympus, a mass of violent spinning air slammed into my wing like a freight train. It was in that moment of heightened awareness I was reminded of a tip I learned many years ago. A tip that today allowed me to ‘catch’ my wing before it even tried to collapse.

Flying towards the walls of Mount Olympus on the Wasatch Mountain Range
Flying towards the walls of Mount Olympus on the Wasatch Mountain Range

Through the years I have learned that paragliding is a pursuit ruled by the human senses. Although air is initially invisible to the untrained eye, we learn to make decisions based on elements we can actually see and feel. As we advance in our flying careers we begin to see and feel the invisible air in a whole new way. We learn to watch the birds, the clouds, and the leaves sparkling in the breeze. We learn to feel the air in new ways, like the difference between base wind, thermals, edges, cores, and which direction the air is spinning. A combination of all these senses teach us how the air moves across terrain, and in turn helps us become better and safer pilots.

Several years ago when I was just learning to “see” the air around me and fumbling my way in and out of mountain thermals, a fellow pilot gave me a quick tip. He told me to make sure I always had a helmet where I could ‘hear’ the air with no obstructions. I thought that was an odd comment, but has proven to be pure gold in the advancement of my flying. Ever since that day I began to really notice how the air not only felt, but how certain air actually sounded. While flying high above the sparkling leaves and out of sight of many visual triggers, this tip allows me to actually hear an approaching thermal, or hear a mass of turbulent air coming my way long before I feel it.

That leads me back to Saturday. I could hear the turbulent air approaching like a freight train, and knew by the way it sounded that it could mean only one thing. I tightened up the controls and was able to catch the wing surge before I actually felt it. If I would have waited until I felt the surge, it would have been be too late, and I would now be telling you a story about collapse recovery. Time after after time listening to the air has proven to be a valuable tool in my free-flight toolbox.

When it comes to paragliding, we should always remember to use all our senses, including listening, to better make decisions and thus more clearly “see” the air around us. By listening to the air while flying you can glean large amounts of information to help you make safer and more reliable decisions. If you are struggling with, or just learning how to thermal fly, try using a helmet where you can hear the swirling air around you….then of course, listen!

Happy flying, and I hope to see you high above the mountains soon.