Two years ago today, it happened. It changed my life. At the time, I was care free and enjoying my 200th hang-gliding flight. I had saved up to do something special. My plan was to pay a hot air balloon pilot to take me up to 17,000 feet over the northern Green Mountains of Vermont. I would then try to glide as far south as I could, using the air currents (thermals, ridge lift and mountain waves) of the east-coast mountains to help keep me aloft. I didnt realize how far I would travel.
I asked an old friend of mine, Eddie, if I could borrow a 2-person hang glider because it is designed larger for more lift. He agreed and said to come by sometime and he would show it to me. He said it was his Mars glider. I knew a two person model from a maker called Moyes was called the Mars so I figured he had one of those old 1984 designs.
I carefully prepared a special backpack of all the goodies I might need. I had two radios a 5 watt CB handheld and a VHF transceiver going to my boom mike. I had water, food, a bunch of survival and camping equipment. I had rigged a small 5 watt solar panel to the top of the sail and wired in my iPhone, MP3 player and GPS plus a digital altimeter (variometer) that is combined with a small calculator sized flight computer. I tried to consider everything from the worst case scenario to the most ideal comfort.
When I arrived, Eddys took me out to his hangar and showed me his “Mars” hang glider. It was huge! It was, in fact, not really a “hang” glider, Eddie told me. It was actually a tailless, foot-launched rigid wing sail plane, similar to the Swift a Stanford design that dates back to the mid 1980s. I was familiar with the Swift design and had even flown one. It is not really in the same class as hang gliders at all. The one I flew had a 41 foot wingspan with vertical winglets and an aircraft style joystick controlling fully functioning control surfaces that want by names like elevons, flaperons and spoilerons but coming from years of flying aircraft in the Navy, I just called them elevators, flaps, spoilers and rudders.
Eddys Mars version was a new prototype that used carbon fiber struts and a metallic mylar/Kevlar laminate for the wing skin but because of the rigid frame, it has fantastic performance and strength. It was originally developed by and for NASA as a possible Mars exploration vehicle but when funding for Mars missions were cut, the glider project was cancelled and this particular model was given to the engineer that did most of the design and construction of the glider. It just happened that he (Eddy) and I served in the Navy together at NRL and he retired only about 30 miles from where I live.
The glider is an extension of Swift design but it has been enhanced using computer modeling and more exotic materials. It has a 54 foot wing and a full pilot fairing shaped like a bomb slung under the center of the wing. It was designed for the thinner air of Mars so it had outstanding glide slope performance in the thicker air of earth I was told it might get as much as 60:1. As I was looking at it, I told Eddy, “This is looks like the best unpowered glider ever made”. He smiled and said, “Well, thats partly right”.
Eddy showed me the lexan fairing, seats, wing construction and how it was going to be lifted by the hot air balloon. He then showed me one feature on it that was so advanced that Eddy said it was just not worth the time and effort to train me on it. This glider actually had an autopilot. It sounds weird but at the same time it is a logical extension of putting more real aircraft control surfaces on a glider. In this case, they created a set of unique double-layer panels on the wing skin that are ribbed with shape-memory alloy wires. These wires respond to electrical signals from a tiny flight computer that uses a small polymer battery that is charged by a large lightweight flexible solar panel on the upper wing surface. When these wires are heated up by a flow of electricity, they change shape into something that has been programmed into their molecules when the wire was forged. In this case, the wires go from straight to being curved by varying amounts depending on the voltage applied. I had read about memory wire but had never seen a practical application of it until now.
The flight computer, which is actually called the ASFS for auto-stability flight system, takes readings from an internal GPS, and a set of pitot static tubes, rate gyros and tension and torsion sensors located throughout the gliders frame. When fully deployed, it also uses a small sensor module that hangs on a thin wire from the tail of the fairing and drops down several hundred feet where it measures temperature, pressure and winds. It also uses lasers that point in almost every direction that measure thermal density, humidity and air movement with as much or more accuracy as a Doppler radar. This gives the flight computer all the data it needs to keep the glider stable and to compensate for the shortened fuselage which can make rigid hang gliders more susceptible to spin and wing torque.
When activated, the ASFS (auto-stability flight system), as Eddy calls the flight computer, uses all these inputs to compute the optimum flight configuration to maintain a specified heading and attitude. It can be set to seek out and maintain a steady altitude or a steady climb or descent on a given heading. It accomplishes this by adjusting critical panels in the airfoil control surfaces by flexing these thin memory wires with computer controlled electrical pulses. After measuring the entire envelope of air around the glider, it can optimize the wing for the best possible performance. The end result is that in a head wind of more than 7 knots, it can climb steadily and when trimmed properly, it can achieve better than 90 MPH.
The system was designed because the hope was that this glider would be so efficient that it could be used to travel long distances or remain aloft for long periods of time while traversing the thinner air of the Martian surface. Although it was created to be nearly fully automatic, it was also a one-of-a-kind prototype that cost nearly $30 million to develop. I told Eddy I thought it was kind of neat to have a glider with an auto-pilot. He frowned at me and said, “Its an auto-stability flight system, not an auto-pilot”. I said, “Yeah, whatever, its still an auto-pilot”. Eddy said it was impossible to remove the ASFS so I should just not mess with it. I agreed and pretty much forgot about it but I also marveled at the thought that this glider might actually be able to fly farther than I expected.
The flight position wasnt like a hang glider but more like a real airplane. The fairing covers two narrow seats of fabric drawn tight between the frame spars. Once it is airborne, you close two small doors that look like bomb bay doors under the seat. This creates a fully enclosed cabin of Mylar and lexan. The ASFS control panel and other switches and lights are on a drop down panel above the pilot seat.
The right armrest has a tiny joy stick that controls the elevons and flaps. It has the usual joystick movements but it also rotates and goes up and down. As I moved it, I was shocked that nothing was moving then Eddy reached in and flipped a switch on the overhead panel and everything shook and started working. The damn thing was fly-by-wire!! That means that there are no rods and cables going to all the control surfaces just tiny wires that activate solenoids or motorized screw actuators to move the flaps and elevons and all the other surfaces this thing can control. Eddy told me that NASA had figured out how to make the fly-by-wire more reliable and lighter weight than cables.
Eddy had rigged the seat so I could sit in the center and place my bag of goodies on the left and right of me in the same seat. Since it was designed to carry two, I could take all my stuff and still be way under its normal max weight making its performance even better. I even found out that it was rigged to use a solar powered electric propeller that would extend out of a tube in the tail of the fairing but Eddy said it was not setup. Id be using just the glider aspects on this flight.
Since I was hopeful of being able to fly perhaps as much as a few hours after dark, I was pleased when Eddy showed me that it was rigged with a host of blinking LED lights and two small quartz-iodine beam lights for landing. All were wired to the lithium-ion battery that was being charged by the wing top solar panel. He also showed me that NASA had rigged a small generator to a small propeller to give me power after dark using the forward motion of the glider to spin the prop. He warned me that it was designed to power the ASFS and a few LEDs so I should not be thinking of heating up a coffee cup with it. As you might imagine, I was getting pretty optimistic about my flight and using all these goodies but since I had nobody tracking me no ground crew – I had to plan on being on my own, no matter what happened.
Actually, having no ground crew was part of the plan. I didnt want to be reporting to anyone or be trying to meet some schedule or destination. I specifically wanted to simply soar for as long as I wanted to and go wherever the winds took me. No commitments, no obligations, no limitations. I accepted that at some point, Id have to figure out how to get back home but I knew I could rent a car or truck and manage somehow. The idea of just going without a care as to where or when was a fantastic feeling. When I tried to express this to Eddy, he frowned and told me not to break his glider. Then he chuckled a little and said that I probably couldnt break it if I tried. I wasnt sure what he meant but was glad he was letting me use it.
The flight in the hot air balloon was a fantastic experience all by itself. We launched out of North Troy, Vermont, 2 hours before the sun came up so we watched the sunrise from about 10,000 feet up. We had caught some very light winds out of the east and were moving toward Jay Peak, about 15 miles away. Except for the occasional blast from the burners, it was totally silent. Even from 5,000 feet up we could see and hear traffic and dogs barking. When we finally got up to about 16,000, I started getting ready and as we hit 17,000 feet exactly, at 6:18AM, I pulled a cord and had a short free fall of about 20 feet before the wing caught the air and leveled off.
I was comfortable despite the 21 degree air temperature, warm in my baggie around my legs, snug behind the fairing under the huge wing above me and wearing a special helmet with a full head shield of clear plastic. I had on gloves and enough layers of clothes to be very comfortable. The wing was nearly three times the wingspan of my own hang glider but was completely silent the Mylar and Kevlar skin was pulled so tight on the frame that there was no flapping or ruffling sound. The only wind noise was coming from the two small round air vents on the left and right panels of the lexan windows. I pulled them closed and it was almost silent. I thought I was in paradise.
I was very impressed with the performance of the glider the rigid wing gave it good forward speed while the huge size and lift gave it a great glide slope. It was hard to gauge the real glide slope while over the mountains since I was remaining in nearly flat flight or even gaining slightly in altitude as I traveled south west along the ridge lines. The vertical updraft winds from the slopes were pretty weak up this high but apparently they were there enough that I was measuring only about 1 or 2 meters of drop in altitude (sink) per mile of forward travel. That was amazing performance.
About 50 miles south, as I was passing over Ricker Mt., I was still at 16,500 feet. Another 100 miles south, as I passed over Mt. Wilson, I was still above 16,000 feet. It was just before 9AM and I computed I was averaging almost 50 MPH. This was a shock because I had not really been paying attention to my gauges or tracking my progress. I was too caught up in the sights and the whole experience of it. The helmet and fairing let me have a full field of view without feeling the wind and gave me no sense of my speed.
Around noon, I had descended to just under 15,000 feet but was able to use the dual ridgelines near Mt. Greylock, and some cooperative mountain waves and winds to climb back up. Only took two 360 degree spirals to get back up to just over 16,000 feet and then hold that down to Mt. Holy to make the crossing over the Hudson River valley just south of Albany, New York. I had been fortunate so far to have caught a lot of good thermals and updrafts from the mountains. The large high pressure center over central New York had given me very favorable low level winds out of the north east producing great lifting winds for my soaring. Now I had to cross a huge valley of about 25 miles before I could get back to some updrafts from the Blackhead Range near Palenville, NY.
As I passed between Doll and Shaker mountains, just west of Pittsfield, I turned south west toward Queechy lake which I could see reflecting the early afternoon sunlight. The crossing was mostly uneventful; I caught a few updrafts but mostly relied on the lift of the wing to sustain as much altitude as possible. I took the time to eat for the first time and drink some water. A single engine private airplane circled around me a few times and I gave hand signals to the pilot to tune in my frequency on his VHF. We spoke briefly, exchanging pleasantries and small talk. He was surprised I had come so far and was still so high. He told me that a low pressure system was developing over Maryland and moving northeast. I laughed and told him I wasnt likely to make it out of New York, let alone get as far south as Maryland.
The clear sunny skies were giving me some interesting thermals that were hard to read as I passed over the river new Catskill but within a few minutes, I was beginning to feel the updrafts coming off the sharp cliff face of North Mountain. I had descended to about 9,800 feet which worked out to be just over a 30:1 glide slope. That was about what I expected but a lot less than what Eddy had led me to believe that this glider was capable of doing. I caught the ridge lift and circled in it for 30 minutes as I climbed back up to 12,000 feet. It was about 1PM when I headed west again along the southern side of the Blackhead Range. This route took me slightly north again up toward Prattsville but I was getting really good lifting air. By the time I got to the southern tip of the Schoharie Lake, I was back up to nearly 15,000 feet.
I turned southwest again, heading toward Roxbury and following highway 30 which runs along the ridgeline of a shallow range. It did not give me the lift I wanted but it kept me level except for passing over the Pepacton Reservoir. From there, the land flattened out so I made a bee-line for Elk Hill north of Scranton where I circled for about 45 minutes to gain height and map out the rest of my flight. It was now about 4PM and I was topping out at about 14,000 feet. This was way better than I had planned so I started thinking maybe I will make it to Maryland.
I had been at this altitude several times before and now noticed it was considerably cooler up here indicating that upper level cooler air was moving up from the south. This was the weather that I had heard about earlier that was supposed to be over Maryland but because I was so high, I was encountering the changes sooner. I used my 3G connected iPhone to get into an internet weather radar and flight information web site to see the latest patterns and winds. I wasnt surprised but was very pleased that the low pressure were creating lower level winds out of the south west and were tapering off up to about 10,000 feet and then above that, the upper level high pressure winds were out of the north east. Although this mix of opposite flowing winds created a layer of turbulence, it was tolerable and I was confident my glider was strong enough to take the buffeting.
After gaining as much altitude as I could off Elk Hill, I headed south along the Scranton valley and then followed as much as I could, the ridge lines that fan out over eastern Pennsylvania. I found that I could catch a slight tail wind above 10,000 feet until I descended into the turbulence and then Id catch an updraft and gain a little. I repeated this dive-and-climb maneuver all the way down the south-easterly ridge lines.
I as I moved further south, I found the boundary layer between the lower Low and the upper High was moving up in altitude, indicating that I was moving more toward the center of the Low. This created more and stronger headwinds that gave me good lifting air but slowed my forward progress to a snails pace. By 7PM, I was still above 10,000 feet but I had only made it to just west of Hagerstown, Maryland. The low pressure center was passing from my right (west) to my left (east) and the winds were shifting rapidly from head winds to tail winds.
By 9PM, I was getting really cold but I was moving with a ground speed of almost 80 MPH, encountering a lot of turbulence and descending faster than I have on any other part of the trip. My GPS told me I was near Covington, Virginia but I was down to about 5,000 feet. I was getting some reasonably good updrafts from the ridgelines but it was not enough to take me much higher. My plan was to make it to Potts Mountain and circle it to get some altitude but the tail winds and turbulence were getting worse and I could see just ahead, some rain with flashes of lightning. I had been lucky in avoiding rain so far but now it looked like a wall I could not go around or over. The lightning was giving me brief silhouettes of the skyline, trees and storm clouds.
It suddenly dawned on me that I might be going down in these rugged hills of Appalachia at night in a storm and with no one knowing where I was or being able to help. The terrain below me was all trees and mountains with no apparent clearing or opening big enough to plan a landing. As I descended below 3,000 feet, I raised my helmet visor and took off my gloves so I could see better and not fumble with the tiny joystick. I was able to see brief flashes of isolated houses and cars in the forest below. As the tailwinds grew stronger, I was temped to turn back north and just ride the winds to a better landing but I was determined to continue south. It was a bad decision.
I was now looking up to the ridge lines and mountain peaks above my altitude as I skimmed the trees tops along the valley walls. The winds were jerking me up and down as my wing lights were now lighting up the trees below me. To make matters worse, it started to rain. I was now only a few feet above the trees and was desperately looking for any opening to land without wrecking the hang glider. I had been following State Road 18, hoping to find a wide place in the road when I was surprised to see a large farmers field ahead when a large flash of lightning lit up the whole area around me. I aimed for the field and was coming in fast and wet over the trees at one end and about to descend onto the field and try to do a pylon turn to land into the wind.
I had turned into the wind with less than 100 feet altitude and was getting ready to flair for the landing thats when it happened. The blinding light and loud sound of the lightning numbed me all over. I felt the heat from the flash as if someone had suddenly put me naked under a dozen heat lamps. Even before the flash and loud explosion began to subside, my vision closed down like I was looking through a tunnel and then all went black and I was out. I didnt have time to think about landing or falling or anything. I just winked out.
The cold on my face was my first sensation. Then I felt my cold hands. I could see only black. I opened my eyes and blinked but I still could not tell if I had my eyes open or closed. All was black. Then I turned my head a little and could see the wingtip lights on my glider. There were LEDs that were pointing away from me but I could see that they were lit. As I was trying to gather my senses and remember what had happened, I was again aware of the cold on my face and hands. Just as I remembered the lightning, I jerked my head around to see what had been destroyed by the strike. I figured the wing material would be shredded and all the electronics would be fried. I whipped around in my seat as I surveyed the whole glider in the dim light of the wingtip LEDs. I groped for a switch that would turn on some other lights that would let me examine the frame and my instrument panel. When I flipped on the overhead flood and landing lights, I was surprised that everything looked normal.
My hands and face were now getting so cold from the cold foggy-wet wind that I was totally distracted from everything else to try to get my face and hands warmer. As I was fumbling with the visor and pulling my hands into the sleeves of my jacket, I realized I should be able to just sit up on the ground and get out my gloves and face mask from my duffle bag. I bent my knees and pushed them thru the bomb bay doors under me and reached for the ground and it wasnt there. I moved and swung around in my seat harness to extend my legs but instead of touching the ground, the whole glider lurched down and to the right and I felt a rush of wind in my face and my legs were getting really cold. It suddenly dawned on me that I was still flying!
I quickly pulled my legs up and closed the hatch doors and straightened out and tried to stabilize the glider but it was already leveling out so my movements of the joystick induced even more violent dips and rocking followed by more leveling out. I tried to grab the joystick like it was my only lifeline to survival but as my panic subsided; I realized I was in straight and level flight. I glanced at the instrument panel thinking it had been fried by the lightning. It said I was at 12,557 feet and climbing and on a heading of 119 degrees (slightly south of due east). There was no way I could be that high. I searched for other instruments to crosscheck the altitude and heading. The variometer, the GPS and the backup barometric altimeter all agreed. I really was that high. I thought I must be insane. This cant be right.
As I panicked over being whether I was crazy or dead, I saw a persistent flashing LED on my overhead dash panel. It was labeled ASFS. I suddenly realized the damn auto-pilot had flown me up this high. It must have kicked on when the lightning flashed and taken advantage of the strong head winds at the landing site to gain altitude. I had no idea what it was set to or where it was heading. I didnt even know how to turn it off or change its settings. The flashing LED was just above a small hole which was probably an input jack to connect a user interface of some kind; something that Eddy did not give me.
Before I did anything, I needed to figure out where I was. I searched around for what instruments were still working and reliable. The panel lights were out so it was hard to see the screens of the GPS and the variometer since they were simply separate devices velcrowed to the dash panel. The simple backup systems consisted of a magnetic compass, a backup barometric altimeter and a simply gyro-based artificial horizon combined with a turn-and-bank indicator also called an AHTB.
My watch showed 3:14 AM. I had been unconscious for nearly six hours! The GPS put me an incredible 290 miles east of Norfolk, VA. out over the Atlantic! I was nearly half way to Bermuda! I crosschecked and there was no indication that this was wrong. I was flying just above a cloud layer skimming into it every few minutes. That was the wet fog wind I was feeling on my face and hands. There was a higher cloud layer above me that hid the stars. Based on the last weather map I downloaded into my iPhone, I was in the southern most portion of the low pressure system that was hitting Virginia and Maryland. This area of the cyclonic would have winds that generally blew east to west giving me headwinds while I was flying east.
Just as I was trying to figure this out, the glider pitched forward into a slight descent back into the lower cloud layer. I pulled on the joystick but only succeeded in creating a lot of turbulence and rocking action. The auto-pilot was obviously taking control and had decided to descend for some reason.
The cold wet fog of the cloud was making we hurt with the pain of the cold. I figured the auto-pilot had gotten me this far, I might as well let it steer a little while longer while I got out my gloves and face mask. After 5 minutes of tussle with my bag in the dark, I was all snug in my heavy gloves and full face mask. I noticed that we were moving at 97 miles per hour air speed but about 66 miles per hour ground speed a 31 mph head wind. The auto-pilot continued to descending until the glider was vibrating all over and we had hit 123 mph and then it slowly pitched up into a gentle ascent and we climbed back up to just over 13,000 feet. Then we leveled out for a few minutes before starting another slow and shallow descent.
I figured out that the auto-pilot was using the probe on the long wire hung under the glider to figure the optimum glide path for using the winds to the best advantage. We would descend into stronger headwinds to build speed and then slingshot up to gain altitude where the winds were lower. This could be repeated over and over to maintain a relatively high altitude while not having to fly inside the clouds or in strong head winds. This auto-pilot was smart.
It was time to try to turn around and get out of the danger of flying out over open water. If I went down out here, Id simple die without a raft or food or water. The problem is that gliders dont fly very well going down wind in high wind speeds. A tail wind might give you a higher ground speed but it also gives you zip for lift so you cant maintain any altitude. That is certainly not what I want to do when I am 300 miles from the nearest land. I had to think very carefully about what to do.
The low pressure zone I was in had to be moving east or north east fairly fast and I was sure that I was already in the far outer fringe of its southern edge – meaning it was just a matter of time before I flew out of it and into a zone with light and variable or even tail winds. If I tried to stay with the weather front, Id have to fly north east but that takes me into an area of the ocean where there are no islands for hundreds of miles. If I continued on I might be able to make Bermuda but that would be another 400 miles and perhaps 6 or 7 hours of flight under ideal conditions. I almost certainly would fly out of those ideal conditions within the next hour or two. There was no option at all to turn south or west. Turning north will keep me in the air but there is nothing in that direction to land on. Staying on an easterly heading might get me to Bermuda but is not very likely.
The option to look for a ship or contact a plane struck me as the best possible option. If I could get thru on my VHF transceiver or iPhone or CB, I could simply land near them and get picked up. It was coming up on 4AM so I was not sure who might be listening now but I started getting out the equipment to make the attempt.
I figured while I was this high, the VHF might be the best bet because it gives me line-of-sight (LOS) connection to any other VHF in the area which would be a range of about 25 to 35 miles radius. Then I got to thinking that 25 miles is not much in this big ocean. The VHF was in my vest pocket and was also already hooked up to my boom mike and head phones so all I had to do was turn it on. I began broadcasting on various frequencies, asking for anyone to respond. After talking for 3 or 4 minutes, I would listen for 5 or 10 minutes and then repeat. I did this for more than an hour and then I heard a short beep beep and the LED on the box in my vest went out. I had killed the battery. I plugged it into the solar panel but I knew it would take hours to recharge and only after the sun came up.
By this time, the sun was beginning to lighten up the clouds in front of me and I was noticing that the auto-pilot was dipping further and further down in altitude and coming up less and less. I was now just over 11,000 feet at the peak of the dive and climb cycle. This was not good. The sun was also becoming more clear and distinct on the horizon meaning that the cloud cover was getting thinner. When the clouds are gone, the head wind would probably go also.
Now I was beginning to panic. I spent several minutes thinking about my position and then trying to figure out exactly where I was. At a few minutes before 6AM, I figured I was about 127 miles west-north-west of Bermuda, moving at about 41 mph ground speed on a heading that would take me just north of the island. At this speed, I needed to keep this up for about 3 more hours.
I dont know why or how but the auto-pilot seemed to be making corrections to take me directly to Bermuda. My guess is that it had a built-in GPS with maps that were used for its testing phase. It was designed for flying autonomously on Mars so it probably had a logic circuit that seeks out the best landing sites. That was all just a guess but it seemed to be working that way for now. I figured Id let it continue while I tried the CB and iPhone.
The face mask and big gloves I was wearing made the effort ten times more difficult. I had to pull the duffle out and unzip it and dig around and find the radios and then operate them with these big clumsy gloves on. I just remembered that cruise liners set up cell phone systems on their ships so that passengers can call on their own cell phones. These LOS systems could reach out 50 or 75 miles from my altitude. With luck I might even be able to pick up Bermuda. This made me excited as I pulled at the bag to see where the iPhone was. I was bending over the bag pulling against my harness straps while pulling on the bag, trying to see out of the helmet face mask I had on that was riding up against my chest and blocking my vision. I spotted the iPhone out of corner of one eye and reached for it. I should have slowed down a little.
My glove straps caught on the zipper of the bag. I jerked my hand to get it free and watched as the iPhone flew in a slow arc up over my legs and down onto the landing hatch doors under me. I jerked forward as fast as I could to grab it before it slipped between the doors and fell. As I jerked forward and reached between my legs for the phone, the seatbelt harness tightened and jerked just as hard to snap me back into my seat. It also shook the glider enough that the landing doors opened just a little and the phone gently bounced out of the opening and quickly disappeared below and behind me. It was gone.
I stared at the patch of clouds where it had fallen as if to see if it would come back. What stupidity. I was angry. It was those damn gloves that made me lose it. I shook and waved my hands wildly trying to shake the gloves off. At nearly the same time, they both flew off into the air, down between my legs and out the landing doors. And that damn visor on my helmet that kept me from seeing clearly. I ripped it off and flung it away. I was furious and felt somewhat relieved that I had punished the culprits that had caused me to lose my only chance at a radio contact.
My relief did not last long. Reality set in as I suddenly became aware of the intense cold on my hands and face. The temperature was 19 degrees F on the gauge and the wind chill from the open landing doors probably brought it down to well below zero. I carefully dug out my wrap-around sun glasses and the CB radio. I zipped up the duffle bag and tied off the CB to my vest and plugged in the boom mike and turned it on. I then pulled my leg baggie up and pulled my coat up over my neck and lower part of the helmet so only the edges around my eyes and the sun glasses were exposed to the wind. I stuffed my hands into my coat pockets and started transmitting on the CB.
The idea of the CB made sense when I was thinking of flying over highways where truckers still use these radios. It made a lot less sense when I am out over the Atlantic Ocean and a hundred miles from the nearest land. I transmitted, listened, changed channels and then repeated for an hour with not even a hint of response. I gave up.
I had been so busy with being angry about dropping the iPhone and trying so hard to make the CB work that I had not noticed that over the past hour, I had lost almost half my altitude. I was now down to 5,200 feet and descending more. The head winds and clouds had gone and the warmer lower altitude air and the bright sun felt good on my face but now I could clearly see the ocean below me. There were whitecaps on huge waves leaving long tails of foam on the surface. I was still a mile above the waves but they looked big with deep valleys between the white crests so deep that the morning sun was casting deep shadows that darkened the wave troughs even more making them seem even deeper.
I looked ahead, hoping to see land but it was still just over 80 miles away. The ASFS auto-pilot appeared to be still working because I could see panels in the control surfaces changing position as the memory wires were flexing. The sunlight was giving a boost to the batteries and it seemed that more and more of the panels were being manipulated as it got brighter. I guessed that the system had a built-in power saver for night flight. I watched the GPS and the altimeter closely for a few minutes and figured out I was descending at about 40 feet per minute. That worked out to be 2,400 feet per hour. Being off in my descent by a few feet per minute could make the difference of landing miles sooner or having plenty of time. At my current speed and with no changes, I figured I would land about 10 miles short of Bermuda close but too far to swim in the cold open ocean. I also remembered that Bermuda is known for having a high concentration of Great White sharks.
I used the GPS to plug in Bermuda as a waypoint and it calculated and then pointed about 5 degrees to my left meaning that I was not heading directly at Bermuda but it was hard to determine if this was the auto-pilots correction for a cross wind or the GPS pointing to another part of the island or simply a mistake and I would miss the island all together. I had to think of what to do but this was never a situation that I expected or trained for when I left on this adventure.
Do I try to take this off auto-pilot and steer it myself or let it navigate and trust it will take me where I need to go. Not having any way to communicate or control the ASFS is making me very nervous since I dont know if it will take me to Bermuda or not. I searched for how it was wired so I could disable it if I needed to. To see the back of the control console, not thinking, I pulled myself forward on in the seat and the whole glider took a dive followed by the ASFS trying to correct by using the flaps and stabilator and elevons and trying to improve lift and reduce the pitch forward and down. I let go of the joystick and let the glider re-stabilize but I had lost nearly a hundred feet of altitude that would mean Id hit the water sooner and have to swim several hundred yards more. Id have to be more careful if I want to live to see tomorrow.
I did find the cable that connected the control console to the lithium battery pack and solar panels above my head. Just above my left shoulder was a connector that would disconnect the power. I was sure that would kill the auto-pilot but I was still not sure if that was the right thing to do. What could I do that would give me greater range? I had to believe the ASFS was giving me the optimum flight profile because if it wasnt, I was not sure I could do any better. I imagined all those old movies of airplanes that got shot in the war over Germany oh damn! Of course, they dumped weight. I could do that but what could I throw out that would make a difference. A few pounds would have no effect so throwing out my MP3 player or even the CB would do nothing. I started to grab for the duffle bag but remembered the last time I moved fast so I carefully moved it from my side to in between my legs.
The shift in weight distribution as I brought the bag forward changed my flight profile the angle of attack increased I pitched up just a little but the ASFS compensated and I kept stable with the same shallow descent. I rummaged thru the bad and took out my food bag. I figured I could toss most of that the water, sandwiches candy bars and other stuff then I figured why not get rid of it by eating it. I would get it out of the bag and also feed my hungry stomach. I began eating the sandwich in big bites and guzzling the water. I could feel the water bottle getting lighter and tossed the sandwich bags as I finished them. I imagined how much weight I was saving and how much less Id have to swim .oh what an idiot! I wasnt dumping any weight; I just moved it from the bag to my stomach. I dropped the rest of the food and cussed at myself for several minutes for being so stupid.
I then reached in and grabbed my camping bag. I had thought I might have to land and camp somewhere in the mountains for a night or two before I got picked up. I had a Mylar sleeping bag and a large plastic tarp, a tiny pellet cook stove with a metal cup and a Leatherman multi-tool. I figured all of it weighed less than 3 pounds. I grabbed the multi-tool first. It was one of those really expensive well made tools that has a gazillion blades and tools pliers, hammer, knife, file, axe, saw all kinds of stuff. It was a gift from my sister and probably cost $150 or more. It could do so many things; I figured I might need it so I tossed it back into the duffle bag. The pellet stove was just a simple metal “X” that held a fuel pellet and the metal cup. I tossed it even though it only weighed a few ounces. I kept the package of fuel pellets and the cup I figured it might be useful if I ditch in the ocean. The plastic tarp was a bright yellow and would make a great flag to wave for help and the Mylar sleeping bag was rolled into the size of a tennis ball and looked like polished silver a great reflector of sun light for a rescue flag. I tossed all of them back into the bag.
I grabbed the CD and immediately tossed it out the hatch. I felt good because it had been of no use to me and I imagined the whole glider rose several feet as I watched it fall toward the waves below. Oh Damn! The waves below looked so much bigger now. I snapped my head to the altimeter. I was down to 3,870 feet and the GPS still pointed just left of straight ahead and said it was 61 miles to go. Some quick mental calculations showed I was still about the same glide slope I had been on and still destined to hit the water about 10 miles short. Of course I was rounding off and doing all this in my head so I wasnt really sure how accurate it was. Those waves looked a lot bigger now and I had a chill thinking of swimming in those cold white capped waves.
I needed to get serious about this weight toss. I figured maybe even a little bit of weight loss might help so I stuffed the remaining items from the duffle bag into my pockets and coat vest and unclipped the bag and let it fly away. As I searched the tiny plastic cabin I was in to something else to tear off and throw away, it dawned on me that this glider was designed with no excess of anything. Everything was a functioning essential element for flight on .on .Mars! What do I not need to fly on earth? Or better, what do I not need for the next 50 minutes to fly over the water toward Bermuda? My heavy winter boots I needed them at 15,000 feet but I wont see that again. I carefully bent and pulled my knees and slipped off the boots and let them fall thru the bomb bay doors. My Helmet I was inside a lexan plastic cockpit and crossing below 3,000 feet to land in water out goes the helmet. My heavy insulated leather coat better keep that. I threw out the rest of the candy, food and thermos of coffee and the expensive thermos water bottle. I scanned again and just could not see anything that wasnt part of what makes me fly. I kept hoping that I would suddenly zoom up into the sky but I those waves just kept getting bigger and bigger.
I began checking the descent and GPS again. It was 8:13AM and I was now 39 miles from the north western tip of Somerset Island, off the western tip of Daniels Island. The GPS was pointing to the closest point of land but the glider was still pointing to Ireland Island North, which was about two miles further than Daniels Island. When I checked the wind, as best I could, and watched the waves below me carefully, I concluded that the ASFS was correcting for a slight cross wind out of the north and it might be heading for Daniels Island. I laid in a waypoint in my GPS to create a direct track from my current position to Daniels Island so I could check the path I was taking.
I also called up some stored maps on the GPS and noticed that the waters on the northwest side of Bermuda was where all the reefs were for diving that that area was fairly shallow from 30 to 90 feet deep. Not deep enough to wade ashore but perhaps it would be shallow enough to reduce the large ocean waves and the presence of deep water white sharks.
I calculated that I had picked up a little speed and flattened my glide slope somewhat to 47 MPH and descending at about 39 feet per minute. That put me a lot closer but still would need some swimming. I had not touched the joystick for hours for fear of messing with the autopilot system but I decided to try to see if I could get any altitude perhaps with a zoom and climb maneuver. I grabbed the joystick and the glider immediately started resisting my movements. It shuddered as it tried to respond to two sets of control inputs at once mine and the ASFS. It wasnt working so I stopped. The only choice was to jerk out the wires and fly fully manual or let continue. I decided to let it fly for awhile longer.
There wasnt much to do except sit there and watch the water get closer. The sky had cleared and the sun was blinding plus I was getting the mirror reflection off the water making it hard to see in the direction of where land might be. As I came within 20 miles, I began to see the shallower water and a bump on the horizon that was probably Bermuda. I was down to 1,500 feet and I could see that the AFSF was working much harder now. It was making flight surface correction every few seconds and making the Mylar skin of the wing vibrate and flex as it tried to maintain level flight in the rough air close to the water.
I thought about the long wire sensor extending down from the glider. It would act as an anchor and drag me down fast so I got out my multi-tool and prepared to cut it when it was near the water. I also began thinking of what I might do after I hit the water. If a boat is nearby, I need only stay afloat until they arrive but if not; I have to get in to dry land somehow. Swimming is an option but what could I use for a float. That duffle bag would make an ideal float by simply holding down the zippered end .yeah, that duffle bag that I threw out a few miles back. Oh! I just remembered the Mylar sleeping bag was just a huge bag that I could fill with air and float on easily. I felt for it in my jacket pocket and felt secure that it was there.
I was now less than 1,000 feet and the ASFS was working so hard that the fly-by-wire actuators were making a constant clacking and humming sound as they fought the increasing turbulence from the ocean waves and surface winds. The glider wing tips were weaving and dipping left and right and yawing up and down. I braced myself on the frame tubes around me and held on. The sun was bright and shining right in my face but I could see areas of shallower water and the reefs that might be from 10 to 90 feet down since the water was so clear it was hard to estimate depth.
I was watching the small bulb that was the senor at the end of the long wire extending down from the glider. It was approaching the water and I reached down with the cutters getting ready to cut the wire when it touched. I wanted to wait as long as possible because I did not know what the ASFS would do once it lost that sensor input. I grabbed the joystick and leaned under the seat to cut the wire. It was hard to see around the seat and thru the Bombay doors and past the frame rails. I could only see it with one eye at a time so it was hard to estimate how high it was above the water. During one violent dip in the rough air, I saw the sensor hit the water and make a small wake of white water. The reaction by the glider and the ASFS was immediate and dramatic.
I had not even cut the wire yet but the glider jerked several times and I could hear several new actuators moving new areas of the wing. I spun around in my seat trying to see what was going on but it was hard to see the upper parts of the wing that seemed to be making the noise. As I moved, the glider was shifting and changing its angle of attack the pitch up of the front of the wing versus the back of the wing. I was also shocked that it was actually descending at a much more rapid rate. I was still at least 10 miles from dry land that is a long way to swim. I was now thinking that every second I was in the air, was a few yards I would not have to swim.
I noticed some new LEDs had lit up on the control panel one was flashing red and one was flashing yellow. I had no idea what that meant but I was sure it was not good. The glider was now in a sharp descent that was increasing my speed and moving me very fast toward the water. I cut the long wire sensor extending down from the glider but it had no effect except the yellow flashing LED on the dash stopped flashing and was now on steady. The descent continued.
I figured I was headed for a major crash into the water and I regretted tossing my helmet and gloves. I figured I was about 50 feet from the water when the glider suddenly pulled up from the dive and slipped into a fast cruise just above the waves. I was doing 57 MPH and some of the water was hitting my windshield, almost like rain. I was now passing over exposed reefs and very shallow sand bars and decided that it would not be so bad to ditch out here as I could probably make it to land.
As I looked up, I could now clearly see the island, buildings, telephone poles and cars. I was about two miles out but I was flying almost level with the buildings. The glider was going up and down like a roller coaster now and I noticed it was in sync with the waves. The ASFS was using something called “ground effect” to keep me up. Air was riding up and down over the waves and as the glider came down, the air between the glider and the waves gets slightly compressed and pushes back up against the glider giving it a boost in lift. I had only about a minute to go to make land and I was now for the first time convinced I would make it. My only concern now was that I was still moving about 40 MPH and that would make for a mighty hard landing on land or water.
I grabbed the joy stick and tried to move it but I could feel the ASFS fighting to control the glider. I figured even if I muck it up, I still have made it to land. I pulled back hard on the joystick and the glider shot up to about 200 foot elevation and then nearly stalled and dove back to the water leveling out just 10 feet above the wave crests. I was now passing over the surf of the beach which was not very high because of the long shallow reef that extended out from the north east side of the island. The glider passed over Daniels Island and was coming in to a narrow beach with a long row of small identical cabins. The glider banked southwest to parallel the beach and then softly and lightly settled onto the beach. We landed so soft that the glider rolled about 20 feet on the single rear wheel that hung down behind my seat.
It was 9:05AM and the beach was smooth and deserted. I had approached so low that I was not picked up by any radar and I must have hit a part of a beach resort that was closed. I grabbed the frame bars and pushed my feet down thru the Bombay doors onto the sand. Boy did that feel good. I lifted the glider up and forward and stepped back out from under the glider and let it back down to the ground. I was standing on the beach and it felt wonderful. The glider had saved my life what a story I have to tell Eddy if he doesnt have me arrested for messing up his $30 million glider.
I have landed almost exactly 1,000 miles from where I started but the path I took to get here was closer to $1,650 miles. I sat down on the beach next to the glider and just enjoyed the feeling of being alive. As I sat there, all I could hear was the small beach waves and a few birds down the beach. Then I heard a weak voice say, “Hey Gabe! Are you still alive?” I looked around but there was no one in sight. “Hey Gabe, Talk to me”. The sound was coming from the glider. I jumped up and stuck my head into the Bombay doors and faced the dashboard just as it said, “Hey Gabe, How you feeling?” The sound was coming from the dash panel so I just faced it as said, “Who is this”. “Gabe, its me Eddy, we have been tracking you since you left. Someone will be there in about 30 minutes to pick you and the glider up and bring you back to Vermont”. I was shocked. “Eddy, how what ..why .DAMN .you son of a bitch ..why didnt you tell me”. Eddy replied, “Gabe, NASA picked you for this test two years ago. You fit the profile for a typical trained astronaut and we needed this glider tested in the real world.” “We have a 727 that is waiting for you at the airport at the north end of the island. Well fly you back and when you get back, youll get a new Swift S-1 motorized glider and a payment of $20,000.” “Is that OK with you, Gabe?” All I could say was “yes”.