AGAINST THE WIND (58 Loops, the Hard Way)

John Heiney 1998

How many times have you found yourself 13,000 feet above the ground and setting up your landing six minutes later? Normally the object is to stay high as long as possible. A thirteen thousand foot sled ride should take close to a hour. One might feel that losing that much altitude that fast is not really hang gliding. Of course it depends on your definition of hang gliding. Webster's New World Dictionary defines hang gliding as: "the sport of gliding through the air while hanging suspended by a harness from a large type of kite". My definition goes beyond the physics of flying, and always includes the terms "fun" and "personal challenge".

As the new hang glider pilot progresses through the unnaturally pleasurable experience of metamorphosing into a human bird, personal challenge can become as compelling a reason to fly as is fun. World class competition and world records are at the extreme end of the personal challenge spectrum, and relatively unimportant to the vast majority of hang glider pilots. What is important and perhaps essential to a pilot's enjoyment of flying is the achievement of something previously thought of by others or just by oneself as being impossible.

Most hang glider pilots know the excellent feeling of hooking a thermal and climbing thousands of feet. But remember the absolute joy you felt the first time you circled in a thermal and climbed a hundred feet. If you can remember that feeling then you have the essence of the personal challenge part of hang gliding. We do not need to set a world record or win a world meet. The great or minor challenges we meet and overcome every time we take to the air are part of what lure us into the sky. The general assumption is that we fly for fun, but I believe that personal challenge is why we choose soaring wings rather than carbon driven craft.

The Turbo-Tug

Last August I spent 5 days at Quest Air Soaring Center near Orlando Florida teaching a freestyle seminar. Russell Brown (co-owner of the flight park with Campbell Bowen) asked me if I wanted him to quickly tow me high enough to set a new loop record. Over the past several months Campbell and Russell had developed a new engine installation for the Dragonfly resulting in the "TURBO-TUG". They were eager to show me the superlative climb rate of their new baby. At the time I was focused on practice for the World Aerobatics Championship only a few days away. But I did not forget Russell's suggestion.

The Turbo-Tug is essentially a Dragonfly with a specially designed engine mount supporting a 115 horsepower Rotax turbo-charged four-stroke horizontally opposed airplane power plant. This new engine puts out twice the horsepower using one third less gas, but makes less noise and vibration. It has a 1500 hour TBO (time before overhaul) is all-around more reliable and produces an average solo tow climb rate of 1000 feet per minute. The average tandem climb rate is about 800 feet per minute. It uses less oil too since a four-stroke has a sump oil system.

Ask a tow park operator if tandem tows to altitude in half the time with greater reliability is a significant breakthrough from a business standpoint. Better climb rate means more tows per day. Two-stroke engines have a way of letting you down just when the big weekend happens. Four-stroke reliability will prove to be a major advantage to the business of towing. The more serious aero-tow parks have their orders in for Turbo-Tugs already. A conversion kit will be available soon.

Campbell Bowen, Russell Brown and Dragonfly designer Bobby Bailey have been at the nucleus of aero-tow innovation in the USA since early in the decade. Campbell convinced Bobby to build an ultra-light specifically for towing hang gliders. Once the first Dragonfly was working, they dedicated themselves to developing a complete towing system that would make possible safe hang gliding instruction by aero tow. I should mention here that Gerard Thevenot and Renauld Guy were towing hang gliders in France and around the world with trikes years earlier. However, aero-towing in the USA did not catch on as a viable option until the development of the Dragonfly / cart-launch system led by Campbell Bowen.

Quest Air Soaring Center and Hang Gliding School

Quest Air is the quintessential aero-tow park experience. The first thing you notice is the size of the place. It is huge. It is a fifty-year-old grass runway airport near the quaint village of Groveland. The niece and nephew of the airport's founder had been worried that low usage by airplanes might mean the end of their uncle's dream. They were happy to be approached by Campbell and Russell with the idea of towing hang gliders. To everyone's delight, hang gliding has revitalized the place.

The amenities of the area surrounding Quest are extensive. The center of Orlando is about 40 minutes to the east. That means of course Disney World, Epcot Center, Etc. plus every kind of restaurant and store you might desire. One and one half hours east of Quest is Cape Canaveral for the occasional space shuttle launch. About five miles east of Quest Air lies Clermont, home of supermarkets and restaurants including very nice Chinese and Thai cafes for your vegetarian meals.

Quest Air is about one mile south of Groveland, home of two highly appreciated barbecue restaurants. The newest one is called Choctaw Willy's. I found their meals tasty, plentiful and quite reasonably priced. Considering that I have walked out of many restaurants after reading the menu, I feel that most hang glider pilots will find Choctaw Willy's to be an excellent place to strap on the feed bag. For those desperate moments Groveland has McDonald's and Hardee's.

When you go to Quest Air be careful not to get too comfortable. Camping on the airport, nearby quality food and dependable tows to altitude could cause a pilot to develop selective memory loss (what job?).

The Genesis of a Plan

It had been nine years since I did the 52 loop Guinness World Record. No one had broken it primarily because of the difficulty of getting high enough in smooth air. It takes a balloon drop or an aero-tow. The climb performance of the average tug gets quite poor around 10,000 feet. Balloon pilots who are willing to go that high (especially with a glider/pilot dangling from the basket) are rare.

When Russell Brown offered to tow me up for a record run it occurred to me that I would need a place where the elevation is low. Ground clearance rather than altitude is what counts. I knew from calculation that I would need to start at least 12,000 feet above ground level. At a coastal area that would be roughly 12,000 feet. In Utah where the surface is about 5000 feet higher I would have needed to find a balloonist who was willing to take me to the limit. In Florida I had Russell and his Turbo-Tug offering to take me up. The advantage of doing it at Quest Air was obvious. Besides, I might not have thought of the idea of improving my record if Russ had not mentioned it. I have been preoccupied with glider-building the last few years and had no plans to do another loop record. Thanks Russ!

One drawback to doing it in Florida was the prospect of driving my diesel VW van 6000 miles (round trip). For those of you who do not know, the Volkswagen Vanagon Diesel holds the record for being the slowest production vehicle on the American road. Mine is so slow that I have nick-named it the "Glacier". I knew it would take me four days driving one way, some of it on the shoulder to avoid holding up traffic. The performance of this automobile in a headwind / high elevation situation is not to be believed. I keep it because of the diesel dependability and fuel economy.

A break came my way when my friend Kaori from Tokyo FAXed and said she would come to Utah and ride with me to "see America". I thought "through the windshield of a Volkswagen?", but I did not argue with her. I wanted the company and possibly a relief driver. As it turned out she did not do much driving. She put her foot to the floor and thought there was something wrong with my car. Of course she was right.

Because of my job with Altair, involving at this time the development of a new novice glider I had a limited period of time to attempt the record. We drove in heavy snow through the entire state of New Mexico. We ate Christmas dinner at a Burger King Express in a gas station near Tucumcari. I had the Whopper value meal. I was glad that I could give Kaori the experience of Christmas in America.

Setting a New Record

We arrived at Quest Air on Sunday night (12-28-97). The winds were strong on Monday. The el Nino induced stormy conditions had been in place for weeks. We had three days before we had to go to Miami Hang Gliding to demo Predators. We waited all day Tuesday hoping for a calm evening. No luck.

Wednesday, December 31, 1997 dawned with less surface wind. Jim Prahl called Flight Service. Winds aloft were reported as 49 knots at 12,000 and zero degrees Fahrenheit. We decided to tow up a few K anyway and see what it was like. I figured I would do a few maneuvers to loosen up. I had not done a loop since Rosarito, and very little flying at all.

Judging by the winds aloft report I felt there was very little hope of doing the record run. However, just for the heck of it I prepared for this flight as if it were the one. The Quest Air Force had briefed me as to controlled airspace in the vicinity. I put on all my cold weather gear to make sure I could loop comfortably. I wore long underwear, jeans, ski pants, three layers under my ski jacket, ice climbing mittens with two heat packs in each, and a balaclava under my helmet with goggles.

I asked Brad Kushner to operate my video camcorder. Jim Prahl and Buddy Hendricks volunteered to be my two observers for the chance at an official Guinness record. Buddy would watch from the ground with binoculars. Jim would observe from the tug after towing me up. We all expected this to be just a shake down run.

For about the first minute of the tow it was rather turbulent. I almost pinned off thinking it was just too rowdy to do anything. Then at about a thousand feet it smoothed out. We towed for several minutes in nice smooth air when I decided to look behind us for the airfield. I could not find it until I realized it was directly below us. I think we did not get more than a quarter mile away from the field before we started going backwards. Soon it was apparent that we were losing on the airport rapidly.

One of the first things a person notices on their first tow up at Quest is the lakes. There lots of small lakes in Florida. Whenever I am about to do maneuvers I try to imagine where I might hit if I make a mistake and have to deploy. Parachuting into a lake with lots of clothes, a harness and glider is not a pleasant thought especially for me since I do not swim. If one deployed high with excessive wind drift among many lakes, there would be a good chance of taking a dip. This concerned me.

For my first loop record, in case you missed the "Spectacular World of Guinness Records" coverage I got my altitude by hot air balloon. Bill Dobbs was the balloon pilot and Tom Sanders filmed. Ascending by balloon is the most casual way. I have done about thirty balloon drops for demonstrations. Your arms are completely rested when you arrive at altitude. The two things that made this record attempt reasonable where the short time it took to tow up by Turbo-Tug and the unique VG feature of the Predator. As you pull the VG the trim speed increases allowing you to adjust the pitch pressure while you tow. Towing up was cake. Fifty-plus loops would be something else. As you might expect, I feel the Predator is the best freestyle glider there is, but that was one of my design goals along with easy handling, climb rate and cross country performance.

As we went up and backwards we approached the biggest lake in the area. We were at the point where I thought I could still make it back to the field if I did not do any loops. I wondered what Jim thought of the situation and wished we had taken the time to set up radios. Now we were backing out over the big lake. I knew I would not be landing at Quest Air. I knew that Jim could descend into lower wind and drive back to the field if he had enough fuel. With the Turbo-Tug's lower fuel consumption I was not worried, so I decided to leave it up to Jim. As long as he stayed on tow, I would.

Still over the big lake I got the non-emergency signal from Jim to release. I stayed on tow for another minute and received another NE release signal. We were at 13,660 and had just towed backwards for seven miles. I pinned off. Jim stuck with me while I stowed my release, checked my chute pins and assessed the situation. I felt uneasy about looping over big water until it occurred to me that even under canopy the strong wind would take me away from the lake.

I was probably a little under thirteen K by now. Heading up-wind, I aimed the Predator at the ground and commenced looping. Considering the thousand foot deep turbulent surface layer we towed through after launch, I knew I had around 12,000 feet to work with. The Mystic Special on which I did my first record could do tight loops, and lost less than 200 feet per loop. I was about 9500 feet AGL for the 52 loop record. Nine years later I am flying the Predator, a slippery creature. It gathers speed much quicker and likes to do bigger "diameter" maneuvers.

I had not determined the looping sink rate of the Predator before this attempt. In order to beat the old record I had to do my loops as tightly as possible to conserve altitude. Another factor was my poor muscle condition due to too much desk / shop work and not enough flying for the past couple years. If I did not break the record on the first attempt my muscles would be too sore to try again on this trip.

I was nine years older, in poorer condition and pulling more Gs in trying to keep my loops small. At loop #25 I knew this was not going to be easy. I had a slight head cold, so the G forces were doing weird things to my ears and sinuses. I felt I was losing clarity at times, and a few times found myself shaking my head during the dive to clear out. As I noticed the ground getting close I had no idea if I had enough ground clearance to make it 53. I was in the forties now and had no options but to continue and conserve.

Around loop #50 I noticed a high-tension line directly below me. During each dive for the last six loops I was aimed right at the power line because of my rearward drift caused by the head wind. I was thinking about how tired I was getting. Theoretically the chance of making a mistake grew greater with each loop.

I had little confidence in the accuracy of my count, but when I went over the top on #54 I was sure I had succeeded. I was just entering the turbulent layer, but I held on through two more rowdy ones just to be sure. As I pulled out of the last one around 500 feet I was still headed right for the power line. It was time to select an LZ. The surface wind was about fifteen and gusty. My arms felt like bungies. In the turb air it was a struggle to make it over a power line and into a vacant lot near some houses. I was burned out and sore. I unhooked, turned the glider and took a nap while the Quest Air Force hunted me down. I had landed about nine miles from the air field. Just what I wanted --- a cross country loop record.

Jim had circled me while I looped so he could count. Buddy had stuck with me by binoculars through the observationally difficult situation. Both thought they had missed one or two loops, but had definitely counted fifty-six. Buddy thought I might have done one or two after I disappeared below his view. Jim thought he might have missed one or two at the beginning while he was scanning for traffic. The official number for the Guinness people that we all agreed on was fifty-six.

I figured I had achieved about 225 feet per loop altitude loss, and a 2000 feet per minute descent rate. Jim said he was in a 60 mph dive around me as we descended. I had called the NAA before the attempt hoping to get an FAI record. They informed me that they had decided not to sanction loop records any more to avoid encouraging people to do dangerous things. So apparently there will be no NAA or FAI loop records hence forth. Oh well.

Loop Record History

To the best of my knowledge the original idea for a loop record came from Rudy Kashazi, a European who did twenty-seven consecutive flips in a standard while standing on the control bar. He had his feet fastened to the basetube. Since his sail inverted each time I do not know if you would call them loops, but he gets credit for it in my book. It was in the BP era (before parachutes) and it seems it was even before helmets. It was certainly before gliders were ready to be looped, so he must have had a serious need.

In recent hang gliding history Mitch McAleer was the first person I heard of who set a loop record. He did 24 which was the record I wanted to beat when I got the Guinness people interested. Tom Sanders and I worked with Guinness to break Mitch's record and make a segment for their TV show. I did 33 loops at El Mirage dry lake by balloon drop. Mitch found out about it right away, and soon after, while soaring at Elsinore he got to 11,000 MSL and did 40. He was leaving for Telluride and left a joyful message on my answer machine that he had already beaten my new record.

The tone of his message made me determined to overshadow his new record if I could. I had arranged to go back to El Mirage with the balloon crew to do another drop to get some nose-mounted footage for the TV segment. After getting the footage the balloon crew very generously re-inflated and took me back to 12,500 MSL even though it was getting late in the morning. Thermals and balloons do not mix. It was on this flight (with Jim Laguardia observing) that I did the 52-loop record that had stood for nine years.

Fly Safely

Looping a utility class glider (which is what all flex wing hang gliders are) is not recommended for several reasons including: The safety factor in airframe strength is too low. Tailless wings react badly to stopping upside down. Dual instruction is not possible. However, mild freestyle can be a reasonable endeavor. If you need information on how to get started safely, read my article "The Ups and Downs of Freestyle Hang Gliding" in the July 1994 issue of HANG GLIDING Magazine.


A special thanks to Brad Kushner and Buddy Hendricks for their help and support, to Jim Prahl for not chickening out on the backwards tow, to Russell Brown and Campbell Bowen for the use of the Turbo-Tug and the facilities and to the entire Quest Air crew for the friendly atmosphere. And last but not least, thanks to my traveling companion and moral support Kaori Hirano of Tokyo whose visits always brighten my days.

First published in April 1998 HANG GLIDING Magazine