For the Love of Flight (from Exult)
By Joe Quirk
Listen to Joe read this story at the Big Ugly Review #7 release party:
Radcliff, Holishaque, Laura and I carried our gliders to the top of the beach cliffs. We saw somebody had already launched and was high up over the sea, so we knew it was doable. The sea wind was coming in strong. It struck the cliff and raged straight up. Launching off the top of that cliff would be like stepping onto an elevator. After a spin in the skies, it would be easy to land where we launched from. We smiled at each other. Piece of cake.
While we prepared our gliders, we watched the guy, frolicking in the skies, carve a wide circle and go far out over the sea. I was the first to notice Laura's infamous "Laura radar"; had gone off. She had stopped prepping her glider, her nose pointed to the wind like a hawk. I watched her jaw muscles work.
"Is he losing altitude?" I asked her.
She didn't answer. Radcliff and Holishaque stopped setting up and stared.
Every hang glider pilot knows that when you're high over the surf, you can become delusional. The cliff wind creates such an ecstasy of lift, you forget there's ocean down there. But head too far out to sea, you'll start sinking fast. Some guys don't notice it until they loop around and see they're already halfway down the cliff side. Now you've got to haul ass and do an emergency landing in the sand without falling into the ocean. Most hang glider pilots would rather crash into rock than crash into water. You're tied to your glider, cocooned in your heavy pod, your sodden kite suffocating you as you're buffeted by waves. The kite sinks about twenty seconds after it hits water.
We screamed out at the guy's shrinking mosquito of a kite as it sank below our launching height. But we were shouting against a furious wind, so it was like shouting at a sports event on TV. By the time we got our radios hooked up and turned on, it was too late. When he turned around and realized his predicament, we thought he was fucked, and Holishaque pulled out our club's long list of emergency numbers, got on his cell phone, and called the Coast Guard.
But the guy, for all his dimwittery, pulled off some Class A flying getting back in all that severe sink. He was way out to sea, his kite sinking like lead, but he didn't panic. The wind was at his back, and he got his kite pitched at a perfect angle of attack and shot like an eagle back towards the beach. We clutched our skulls as we watched him sink and sink over all that green sea, but we could see his kite growing in size a lot quicker than we expected, and some of us started to shout that he just might make it. He had minutely calculated his angle for what we call "best glide"— not fastest, not least sink, but furthest flight, which means a deep, calm meditation on the wind speed at your back and a grip on your control bar at the edge of too fast, which under the circumstances required nerves of steel. It was high tide, so there was a long stretch of surf where it was probably neck deep, and if he crash-landed in the water and quickly cut himself free with his flight knife, he just might be able to walk out minus his glider. We realized all he might be in for is a lost glider and some serious heckling.
But the sonofabitch totally nailed that best-glide flight. He guided the control bar with the tenderness of a lover. He took it a good three hundred yards past where we thought the max expert flight was possible, and landed in knee-deep water, maybe a hundred feet from shore. We all cheered and jumped up and down and generally hugged and danced. We didn't even know the guy's name. But we all confirmed that was the most bitchin' best-glide we had yet seen, plus the most balls-of-steel compensation for a seriously dangerous fuck-up. After our brief celebration we noticed a small wavelet wash over his kite, and he was dragged back a bit in the undertow.
We were all immediately back at the lip of the cliff, shouting,"Cut your line! Cut your line!" But the guy thought his emergency was over. We gawked for a moment in disbelief, then we all shouted in chorus: "He's trying to save his kite!" With his pod karabiner still hooked into his back, he was dragging his beloved kite towards the sand, like a heifer pulling a plow. Every pilot is supposed to know this is humanly impossible. Ten men couldn't drag a wet glider out of the ocean, especially not with waves rushing in and sucking out. We screamed and made hang-strap-cutting motions at our backs, but he just waved, deaf in the surf and thinking we were cheering him. Holishaque screamed into his handset, but the guy's radio had hit salt water.
His legs strained in the sucking sand. Foam clung to his pants like plasma. Rocked back and forth in the waves, he had no reference point from which to measure his progress, but we could see he made one step towards the shore for every ten feet he was dragged back. The ocean was reeling him in like a land fish, but the guy wouldn't give up his precious kite. We threw ourselves into a frenzy when the inevitable cycles of water brought in a long slow hump-backed whale of a wave. The guy saw it coming, but he must have thought he was going to ride it in. The wave lifted his glider and smashed him with it, then dragged his face fifty feet backwards through the sand. He surfaced from the froth a long time later, and now we saw the glint of his knife slashing at the small of his back. But the waves wouldn't let him alone now. They fly-swatted him back and forth as if in hatred, and the kite flapped like a drowning pterodactyl and never stopped yanking him long enough for him to cut his umbilical. He was trapped and suffocating beneath a tangled mass. The Coast Guard came roaring around the rocks, but their boats couldn't get to the guy in shallow water. We shouted down for people on the beach to run out and cut him loose, but none of them understood what was going on. We had to stand there and watch for eons before the bobbing helmet underneath the smothering canvas stopped coming up for air, and the kite just dragged back and forth over the waves like lifeless trash. The USHGA incident report guys, ever vigilant on the Coast Guard's radio channel, were there in twenty minutes, like Paparazzi.
When it was over, Holishaque and Radcliff carried their gliders back down to the car, but Laura and I launched.