Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Piano Man

The Piano Man

"Piano," is the local term for a "sledder" here in Mexico. There are various theories as to how this therm came to be. I like JK's version the best so far. He read that it's the sound of the keyboard stroked from the high notes to low, simulating a rapid decent from a lofty perch to the dirt. It stands to reason that most pilots in Central America would not think first of an analogy relating to snow.

I got the most pianos on this trip but they were extended rock-n-roll scratch-fests with the occasional teaser - dragging me back and taunting me with hope.

The launch was closed or at least that's what we had deciphered from the foreman on Sunday.  We planned other adventures to occupy our time.

Monday night we met up with our new amigos, Richard and Chantal. They took us to a Japanese restaurant. Yup, I thought the same thing… Japanese food in Mexico!

Well, the sushi was pretty darn tasty with a great melody of stir fried vegetables. Even the octopus was tender and well flavored.  Our conversations continued from the "night of dice" like they never ended. Then, Richard said he was going to launch in the morning to check on the progress. We were in. And so were our wings (just in case).

The next morning we headed to launch. JK and I were the only two with bags. Richard had a dentist appointment. The Mayor was already at the dentist. Pierre was not planning to fly. Chantal stayed home to avoid excessive testosterone.

Launch was filled with workers; more than we had seen all week.  They were spread out working on several piles. Now if Paul is the Mayor, then Richard is the Governor.  He was talking to the head supervisor. As he shook his hand, he turned, smirked our way and said, "Get your gear and go!"

JK and I ran to his Jeep. When we walked back to launch the rebar was gone and twelve Mexicans were shoveling away the big pile that we had been skirting all week.

We launched. Of course, JK got up. I  scratched my way up and got hammered down several times. I finally had enough and "played the piano" to Piscila.  I grabbed the bus back to the hotel. Darn it! I was hoping for a bit more.  Tomorrow will be our last day.

Our last flight in Mexico (for JK & me).  With a newly cleared launch, JK went first and of course got up and out.  I launched after Pierre, yielded and got off without a hitch and without a beep.  I struggled around getting next to nothing. Of course a look at my track log proved that there's room for great improvement.  It's frustrating to see someone grabbing a thermal right where you were hovering, at least on the track log overlay.

The highlight of my last flight (on this trip anyway), was that the Governor of  Colima, Richard (not the lowly Mayor), landed right next to me at the bomb-out LZ. It was a piano duet with a great partner.

As frustrated as I can be, I have learned a lot here in Mexico; a little Spanish, which I will improve upon and flying diagnostics that made my head spin (but at least, hopefully in the right direction). Although Colima is not a big XC site, it has every element required to perfect cross-country skills. It is an excellent training ground. 

I am hoping the Governor of Colima and his lovely wife Chantal will visit us soon, because, "We'll be Back!"  Oh,  Richard (just in case you're reading this), I will be buying six dice and waiting for your trip to Hawaii. We might even add the Polynesian translation of your rule book!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Thermal Research Mexican Style

Just to let you all know, we are still alive and well.  JJ Jameson (as you know), found out we had an extra bed in our room.  We had hopes that Ike would surprise us but his shoulder has kept him grounded. Well, JJ Jameson has been pretty quiet.  We have had flights too. We are guessing the language barrier may just have him sqeltched.  It took him 4 days to pronounce the name of the hotel. Taxi drivers were a bit confused when we let him request our destination. So, maybe that's how we can mellow him out. We can all chip in and send him on a foreign assignment.  I personally like that idea!

Febuary 13th.  I woke up to JK saying,"Good morning, Thom, you're one card short of a full deck."  I can't get a break, even on my birthday.  Today was going to be different.  JK had reviewed my flights and my thermal searching was erratic, to say the least.  He gave me some pointers and showed me overlays of his and Paul's track logs. I was ready to try again.

I did much better, but the air was rough and the valley winds were picking up.  We all landed at Piscila, the bomb-out LZ.
Mi amigos picked up the tabs all day and presented me with some lucky socks.  51years old and flying in Mexico!

Febuary 14th, Valentines Day: my lucky red socks came out.  We arrived at launch to meet Richard (Reechard) and his wife Chantal, Quebec expats now living in Comala, the next town north.  He's a retired airline pilot, PG pilot, sailplane pilot, and a champion hang glider pilot. We understand he's a past Canadian National Champion. He knows Goto from his California days. Great guy to meet and gave us  additional pointers on flying this site.  It was another rowdy day but my turns kept me on the top of the stack.  I should have turned and followed Richard but hung too long over La Cumbre Stronger valley winds surged and some wild landings at Piscila were safely preformed.  We got a ride to the hotel from Chantal. After a fun debriefing with Richard, they invited us to their home for dinner the next day.

The Mayor and I went out to Valentine's Dinner at one of the local PG pilot's restaurant.  Pretty Mexican girls kept pouring through the front door.  I know at least one of my amigos back home would have required eye and neck surgery, had he been there.

February 15th: We met Richard, Piero and a few other local pilots at launch.   We got up.  JK lead the charge. The Mayor and Richard followed as I benched up.  Oh, here it's the "turn right"  club.   But there was a lot of sink with a mixed bag of unpredictable thermals. JK and The Mayor made it to the old airport. Richard and I settled for Policia field.

We bagged up fast and headed for our tour at The Nogueras Coffee, in Comala.  After this tour, it's going to be hard to swallow the regular brew at the club house. Again, JJ Jameson was silent, as taste of real coffee overtook any desire to read.

We headed up to Richard and Chantal's hacienda.  (It's just beyond a very interesting stretch of road that leads up the volcano called "Zona Mágica" north of Comala.) All I can say is their home is a stunning example of an environmentally-friendly, architecturally accurate Mexican country villa. Its details are intriguing; with a brass bell connected to a front door chain, it's own water collection for irrigation, an intricate water filtration system, and marvelously pleasing details and craftsmanship. There is an immense amount of concrete and the roof is one that Reaper would be in awe over. The evening was topped off with an excellent meal, conversations in three languages and a dice game that Richard invented (4-2-1). It was one of the highlights of the trip.

February 16th: Launch conditions were too strong. The thermal cycles would only back off to conditions we would begin thinking about launching. Then the cycles would ramp up to conditions that would easily lead to OTB. We had to hike down. Now with launch closed and the stand-by flights not looking good until the 20th, we may be stay flightless with non-flying options to pursue.  Perhaps, if the surveying sticks aren't as plentiful as a porcupine's quills, we may ask the workers to allow us to launch once more before we depart Colima.

The wind and rain in Hawaii are not doing much to pull us home.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Wizard of Oz

Jorge suggested we take it easy on the first day. “Just stay local and get a feel for the place. Don’t go too big too soon.” We stayed true to that recommendation. But day #2 was no longer the first, and we hoped for a worthy XC. We were getting pretty good at launching between the rock piles, sand piles and stakes at the construction site… I mean launch site.

Still, I would easily trade some of our Hawaii launches for La Cumbre, even in this state. Paul launched first with the project engineer, foreman and three local policia observing. The police looked like they might have just been on patrol and stayed to satisfy their curiosity. Some time after Paul launched, Thom got airborne, and then me. With that, the police continued down the hill and the foreman must have left too, as nothing looked different on the project the next day.

We were trying for 4,000 feet or more before setting off across the flats. Our turns in lift were meandering paths. The lift was certainly abundant above launch, but it was disorganized. Our paths were the result of following the birds of prey that were turning every which way, but favoring general areas of lift. Eventually, we managed to get near our 4,000-foot goal. Paul was off first. On the radio, he announced, “This thermal’s gone and so am I”. With a short delay, Thom followed. They were heading toward the southern end of Colima – en route to the hotel and near where Paul and I landed the day before. While they set off, I was busy milking the lift four or five hundred feet higher. When I topped out and was about to set off to follow, I saw four or five of our markers (birds) head out themselves, but in a more southerly direction away from where Thom and Paul went. I followed. There’s no sense in following single file across the flats.

This route was upwind and I was confident I could fall back to the others and join them, even with a weak thermal. And I was curious about where the locals were going. It worked well in the end. My path was roughly in line with a pimple on the landscape ahead. And just beyond that was a field where a farmer was plowing dirt that turned as black as coal. It was exactly what I remember seeing in paragliding textbooks on the subject of “thermal triggers”. I pressed, knowing I would have less than a thousand feet over these two features and had fields picked out to land in had they not panned out. As I approached, I began to climb. After “four potatoes”, I began to turn, but my turns were well short of where I expected the lift to begin, so I floated out each successive turn toward the triggers. The climb intensified, and then more. It was a wide swath of lift and I wasn’t quite sure how wide it was, but I was happy with what I had, so I just kept my turns even. As I rose, I saw what was perhaps the same birds I followed earlier a few hundred yards off to my south. I flew across to where they were. The thermal backed off, but still continued as I approached. As I reached the birds, the vertical velocity went back to what I had before. The six of us turned up another 1000 feet, this time in organized circular paths. Then, as though my new friends decided I didn’t belong, they left me. I searched the sky to find other birds. I thought there were some more to my north. Something was up there. As I approached, I saw it wasn’t birds at all, but palm fronds and leaves and plastic bags. Some of it was really quite sizable. It was a swirling, turning, and rising mass of debris. It came at me like asteroids in a Star Wars movie. And it was everywhere. I stopped turning and just flew where I wanted to go. Why not? The lift was everywhere! And I could SEE it! I imagined seeing Toto and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz go by. It was a crazy experience!

Topping out over 5000 feet, I was on my way to somewhere. I set my course for the closed Colima airfield where Thom and Paul were. I never saw them. It’s a short walk back to the hotel from there. At one point, based on what I heard on the radio, I thought they were landing. I thought I was on my own. I had Comala in my GPS, a smaller town outside of the NW corner of Colima. I had its soccer field set as a goal, so I went that way. I didn’t expect to get there, but it was somewhere worth trying for. It was one of the best XC flights Paul had had on his previous trips - so he said. Three decent thermals presented themselves along the way. I could see a bullring under the last of these columns of lift. Our taxi driver to launch that morning mentioned that a bullfighter from Spain was making an appearance here in Colima. It looked like this could have been the place. The thermals connected nicely and Comala was in the bag. The soccer field in my GPS perhaps wasn’t the best choice for an LZ. It was tight, thermic and had trees, light poles and a fence surrounding it. I had to s-turn my way in, but managed it. The grass was beautifully manicured and climbing the fence wasn’t too difficult.

As I packed my wing with a curious, silent young boy staring at me through the fence, Paul radioed to see if I was still flying. He was approaching the same field and planned to land here too. Hurray! I wasn’t alone after all. I recommended somewhere else, and he chose a larger, less refined farmer’s field to the east. After packing, we set off separately for Comala Centro. It was a town he knew and there was a good place there for bebidas y comida gratis (drinks with free food).

Later at the debriefing, I found out about the drama behind me. Thom and Motorhead did NOT land at the airfield by the hotel. They climbed out of there and followed behind me, though they didn't know where I was. Thom was above Paul at the airfield, but that didn't last long. Thom was turning down and setting up to land while Paul hooked a thermal and topped out above 4000 feet. Eventually, Thom realized this and worked his way back up to join. Paul headed to the bullring to the west and Thom was in tow. At the bullring, Paul was getting low and said, "I'm setting up to land". Thom was coming in a little lower and did just that. Shortly after Thom landed, Paul, with his landing gear down on final approach, got some beeps and made a turn. Over forty turns later, he secured Thom's loneliness and went on glide at over 4000 feet. Not long after that, he called me on the radio and we caught up by the soccer field.

Shortly after Paul & I sat down and ordered our cervezas at our sidewalk cafe, the free appetizers began to flow. Then, as though he planned the arrival at that moment, Thom climbed out of a taxi a few feet away from our table. It was a "James Bond" moment. Before we could finish the libations, Paul put on his pack and told us to meet him two blocks away at a specialized coffee roaster. He knew what he was doing. Thom and I followed later, and met his friend Conchita, who is a well-known coffee co-op roaster. She gave us a tour of her roasting operation and prepared us some extra-fine espresso. Then, after we bought bags of beans to bring home, she invited us along to a Toyota appointment just a few hundred yards away from our hotel. We graciously accepted and were home at last. It wasn't the greatest distance, but it was the sweetest of XCs.

Colima flights on Leonardo

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Two Mules for Brother Sidehill

We weren't sure how many monkeys abroad it would take to constitute its own  blog.  After consultation with our Presidente, we had to open our own blog.  Sorry, for the delay, so here's the first of many I hope.

JK and I decided to do a lateral trip to a more weather friendly site, Colima, Mexico.  We arrived but our wings got delayed.

After three days in Colima, we found that people make up the area, not the government.  Granted, there are big F-350s fortified more than Reaper's on Red Bull, but the feeling is safe and secure.

All the locals tell us what we already knew. Don't go to Michoacán, the state just east of Colima. It's out of hand there. Just google it and read about the news there. Colima seems to be quiet and peaceful, but you still need to be careful. We are low key and have found nothing but good will and friendly locals. In fact, I dropped about $100 worth of Mexican pesos at a pizza shop. The next customer found it (a young man with his girl friend) and returned it immediately. I bought their meals to say, "mucho gracias."

We happen to be here during a big festival.  Saturday there were dancers and a Mariachi Band going through the Streets.  Sunday a parade of dancing horses with  beautiful Latino Lady Riders that caught the eye of many Mexicanos and at least 3 gringos.

Monday, we now had wings and it was going to be our big day.  We are here with Paul 'Motorhead' Kunzl  who will (for this story's sake) be dubbed, "The Mayor of Colima".  He knows everyone, almost to a point where we gotta drag him away. But we don't.

We took a taxi to launch for 20 pesos (about $3 bucks each).

Money goes a long way down here and after our site intro from the Mayor, JK decided to go first and was destine to go along way.  I just thought, being as good as I am, I would also go far.

JK launched first. Oh, the launch at La Cumbre is under  construction and is still better than the knob at Nanakuli. From the pics it will be a first-class site when completed.  He got off and up and I followed.

Pierre, one of the Mayors friends from Quebec, went next, then Paul followed.

JK was up circling with the locals (big vultures).  I was chasing him up and back and lost the battle.  I pushed back out front and never regained elevation. I was destined for Piscilla; a paddock, and very thermic  LZ.  After several up-and-downs, I was on the ground with 2 mules. They looked up, slightly interested, but just kept chewing.

I radioed up to JK to keep going; "I'll see ya back at the hotel."  So he and the Mayor turned right to see how far they could go.

I was on foot, in the middle of nowhere, but it felt good.  I made it to the kinda main road where my second ride took me right to my hotel. Score!

JK and the Mayor made it to a soccer field near the hotel.  By the time they walked there I was on my first Victoria (beer) in Colima Centro.

They caught a  cab and beckoned me to a saloon just off the main drag.  I found it, still wearing my radio harness and buff. I swung the saloon doors open like I owned the place. With 20 pairs of Mexican eyes staring at me I said, "2 gringos!" They all pointed to the back set of saloon doors. I thought I was dead.
Feeling pretty cocky and not wanting to stop the heir that I started, I threw the back doors open. They kinda slammed, getting the attention of all the back room Mexicanos.  I scanned! No JK or Mayor.  Just as I was ready to turn and run, someone grabbed me and pointed to an even further in the back room.  There they were; the Mayor and JK.  Apparently the Mayor ranked so high here he was sitting with the owner and his son.

After way too many cervesas, home-cooked tacos, ceviche and soup (for 9 bucks) the debriefing got a little blurred.  But we did get invited to a dinner with the 'Family'.

We will let you know how that works out and hopefully another good fly day tomorrow.

So far, this an epic trip - all mules considered.
Pictures coming soon.