The shift from robust to respectful…

My first SIV was on my blue&white ProDesign Jazz. She was a cute little wing, and a lovely first glider. Hans and Ria from Wildsky were offering the safety course at the Midmar Dam and the time was right to test the boundaries of my wing, and perhaps more importantly my flying stomach. Everything was hunky dory – the manoeuvres went well, food was good, and I slept warmly and deeply. 

Apart from feeling like a super hero who had conquered some enemy I had not yet become aware of, a definite highlight of that weekend was my friend Charles, not nearly-drowning in knee-deep water. Charles had completed his manoeuvres and was heading back to shore quite low, and landed short i.e. in the water. This is generally not a desirable state of play, unless you have thrown your reserve and are left no choice. Hans in his red Baywatch speedo, and me just along for the ride, speedily boated across to Charles to rescue him. My poor friend was desperately splashing around yelling for us to hurry, and I was deeply concerned and ready to jump in and save the day, until, following Hans’ “Dude, why don’t you just stand up?”, Charles sheepishly stood up in water that was just above knee-height. Naturally I just had to laugh, until I cried.

The next course I attended was at Koppies Dam, under the tuition of Walter Neser. I was flying a yellow&white&orange Aerodyne Shaolin, and again, in terms of the hi-jinx in the air, the course was pretty uneventful and my glider behaved beautifully. A definite highlight of this weekend was doing an extreme acro tandem with Walter that literally, in between screams, took my breath away.

I like to describe the period that followed as my robust flying period. I felt bullet proof, and just wanted to get into the air as often as possible. I loved flying distance. I loved flying with my friends. I loved flying with raptors. I loved the fun, the joy, the laughter and the making of so many incredible memories. I loved the fact that one could embark on these amazing air-adventures, fuelled purely by nature and whatever it served up on the day.

Following a great Barberton season I upgraded to a sports glider, the Gradient Aspen 2, which to this day still remains my favourite glider ever. Okay, perhaps it’s on par with my AirDesign Pure… um, okay perhaps my current UP Summit XC3 takes the cake… Anyway, point is I’ve never been a particularly brand loyal pilot, but feeling as robust as I did at the time, upon my return from Valle de Bravo, I decided to upgrade again. It’s the only occasion I stayed on brand, with my wing of choice being the “Pinky” aka a Gradient Avax XC2, which quite a number of my friends were flying at the time. 

Obviously I had some sort of an SIV addiction thing going on, and so I signed up for a third course, eagerly arriving at Koppies with a glider that I had never flown before. I can hear the groans right now, as well as the face-palms…WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? In hindsight it was a pretty silly thing to do… and as a wise man Fourie G. once said… it’s best to accumulate about thirty hours on a wing before you start falling-out the sky on it, on purpose.

We did some theory and were briefed on the manoeuvres we were to execute during our first flights and while the eager first responders took to the skies, I sat visualising and doing a bit of sun-chair SIV. When it came to my turn I clipped in, forward launched, was towed up, released and did the milder manoeuvres, while getting to know the feel of the wing. That morning I also flew two tandem flights, and I remember how Walter and I had to both work really hard to get the glider to point of stall, and that a B-line stall was near impossible.

Then, my second flight on the Pinky was up and I was literally towed into the stratosphere. It can get quite thermic around the dam, but instead of heading out on an epic XC, I stayed put, and put the Pinky through its paces. Point of Stall. Point of Spin. Point of Stall. Point of Spin. Spin. Stall. Spin. Spin. Stall. Spin. ‘Okay Chrissi, lets do one more spin, you have a lot of height’ came Walter’s dulcet tones over the radio. Nooo, I can’t take it anymore…No No No… but, in a bid to get it over quickly, I initiated entry into the spin, somewhat more aggressively than would have been advisable. And so ‘it’ began. A cascade of events that I could perhaps have managed on a glider I was familiar with… but one that I lost total control of on the Pinky. (Mami, if you are still reading, please stop and step away from the screen…

Within what felt like seconds I found myself with a gazillion twists and locked in a spiral. Gravity had one massive hiking boot on my right hip, the other one firmly planted on my neck and under my chin, threatening to snap me in two. I was desperately reaching for my reserve handle with my right hand but somehow it had gone AWOL. I then heard Walter’s calm voice saying ‘Go for your reserve Chrissi. Throw your reserve. Reserve Chrissi. Reserve. Reserve. Reserve.’ No shit Sherlock!? 

Perhaps the scariest part of an already extremely scary event was the fact that for just a second I did in fact give up, thinking I would not be able to throw my reserve. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw the water rush… The brown, murky water I had not intended to dip into that weekend. The abhorrent thought of getting wet must have resulted in me clenching my core muscle and somehow the glider went into a reversal. While upside down, clasping at straws, I folded myself over the side of the harness, found the reserve handle, and threw. The reserve flew to the right, the glider came up and stabilised above me, and I hit the water…hard. 

My rescuers Joe and Wallis hauled me out of the water, still reeling from the multiple insults of the past forty (?) seconds, and into the boat. “Wat doen jy Chrissi?” they chided. My words failed me. They ferried me as close as possible to the others and I waddled to shore whiplashed and on legs that had gone into spasm. I remember being greeted by Russell Achterberg (whose wife and parents had just arrived to the spectacle), with a hug and a kiss on the forehead. Other than that I don’t remember much. I was totally spent, with no idea what to do with what I had just experienced.

My body was one big ache, and as this was before my discovery of The Transact Patch, I raided the existing supplies of anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants of all those present. After I was fed and watered I lay awake in my tent, my mind furiously processing and trying to make decisions on my flying future, until eventually exhaustion set in and I was locked into a deep, deep sleep.

The next morning I woke up to a sunny day and perfect winching weather. I thought it would be a good idea to have company for my first flight, so Walter and I took off, with me as pilot in command. In the air I gave the toggles to him, asking him to do a bit of acro, so that I could replace the recent bitter taste of  g-force with a sweeter one. Ever happy to oblige Walter took us through the paces… rhythmic spiral, spirals, wing overs, a SAT… Finally I managed to squeak Nuf thanks from the rear… I was given back the toggles, we landed on big ears, I unclipped and dashed to the bushes where I promptly threw up… classy Chrissi, real classy…

And then I flew an uneventful solo flight on the Pinky. One of many more flights that followed in the years to come.

I’m not going to bore you with a detailed analysis of what exactly went wrong, how it could have been prevented or what you and I could learn from my mishaps – there are more than enough experts out there who will do this anyway, regardless ;-). 

Often it just comes down to common sense, and I’d like to leave you with just two little pearls of my wisdom.

Firstly, if your gut screams I don’t wanna do it!! Then don’t.

Secondly, this experience introduced a new companion to my flying. Her name is anxiety, and although most days I can manage her just fine, there is the odd occasion that her nagging voice grounds me. Although the incredible love of things flying-related still remains, that day I entered the next stage of my flying – one that I have christened, for now, my responsible and respectful flying period.

The “Pinky”




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    I didn’t get all of the flying terms (being a feet firmly on the ground kind of guy) but I love the story and the wisdom. Responsible and respectful is good – especially if one is hanging in the sky from a piece of fabric, “fuelled purely by nature”!

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