Hang gliding over Torrey Pines
The wind is picking up at Torrey Pines. It happens each year as summer gives way to autumn, when land and sea begin a tug-of-war with the coastal air. The Pacific will lose this contest; it will be slow to give up the warmth it has absorbed the last few months, and the air will rush ashore, pulled in by cooler temperatures inland. Among those who stand to gain as a result are the men and women who gather at cliff ’s edge, 280 feet above sea level, and leap into the wind as it rises like an invisible curtain in contour with the jagged face of the coastline. From now until the warm days of early summer there will be good soaring here. When winter storm fronts begin to move in, the wind will blow 24 consecutive hours and longer, and to hang glider pilots, this means a chance to stay aloft for long hours at a time. It’s likely that someone this season will hope for a day in which the conditions match those of last December 19, when a quiet young flatlander from Illinois visited Torrey Pines.
That morning dawned bright between squalls blowing over the sea cliffs. Half a dozen cars, mostly vans and little foreign rigs, gleamed wetly in the muddy parking lot; hang gliders rolled up and tied like sail- boat masts across their roofs. Most pilots were still sleeping, despite the soarable conditions. A hundred yards west of the lot, on the carpet thrown over the dirt at the launch site, Russ Bunner prepared to push himself into the mass of life coming up the cliff. With help from a visiting Brazilian who spoke no English, Bunner steadied his glider, his bare hands already going numb in the chill, his forearms tensed against the pressure of the aluminum control bar. The Brazilian helped by pulling down on the front flying wires as Bunner leveled his glider with its nose down slightly.
Bunner nodded and the Brazilian let go. For a long moment Bunner braced himself on the ground, holding an aircraft that strained to be off and moving. The lift seemed to suck at his glider’s pointed nose plate. One step, as though he were playing basketball, going off his right foot for a left-handed layup, and he was pulled, hoisted from the ground and out into the climbing wall of air. He moved his hands down the base tube of the triangular bar and, kicking into his foot stirrup with both insteps and straightening his legs against the straps of the harness, he lay out prone and felt the lift solid and pleasant under his wings. Leaning to the right, he looked down and back toward the empty launch where the Brazilian stood watching. As he felt the glider coining about, Bunner turned north toward the long, ragged edge of the Torrey Pines golf course.
To the Brazilian, Bunner’s launch seemed no different from dozens he’d watched in the past two days. He was a hang glider distributor in Rio de Janeiro, and he was here to look at new wings. A Los Angeles manufacturer had sent a test pilot and five new gliders down for the South American to try. He had flown them all several times and was nearly exhausted from the tension of flying so many unfamiliar models. As the Brazilian distributor let go of Bunner’s front wires and moved off in a sideways crouch to avoid the side wire, he looked across his shoulder to see Bunner get into his stirrup, and he wondered why the American was taking off so early, and with no gloves. The hard-packed launch was quiet for a few seconds after Bunner’s glider sailed away, and then the force of the wind was at the Brazilian’s ears again. He looked at his watch. It was eight o’clock; people were beginning to wake up.
The shine on the deep green fairways was nearly blinding to Bunner as he floated slowly along the cliff ’s edge. Even the palms and eucalyptus stands across the golf course shone with a plate-glass glare. He found it more comfortable looking down at the waves and the dark, wet patterns they left on the beach. A hawk drifted almost motionless over the greasewood bushes directly below. Bunner slowed, trying to hover a hundred feet above the bird. Some feathers ruffled in the thick, reddish cape at the hawk’s shoulders; one plume waved back and forth like a small hand. Flying as slowly as he could, Bunner was still overtaking the hawk. He watched it slip back to be blocked from view by the parachute pack under his harness and stomach. It moved its head sharply, watching the shaking bushes on the shad- owed mudstone cliff, unaware of or unconcerned with the glider and Bunner.
Sweeping in across the rolling, white-capped ocean, the subsiding Pacific weather front in which Bunner was flying brought many pockets of rising unstable air, and as they ran into the lift band at the sunlit top edge of the cliff, they warmed and rose even faster. As he cruised through the wide wave of smooth lift, Bunner felt the pockets when he flew into them. His glider would be jarred from its course like a small boat hit- ting a cross wave, as though the kite wanted to turn away from the strongest lift. The pockets felt like thermals, and he employed thermal technique, cranking the glider back into them by pushing his body out and away from the center of his base bar. Sometimes he grunted under his breath. His legs felt like dead weight during those moments, all his strength concentrated at the wrist and fingers. The effort was short and no great strain; less than a pull-up, and its reward more than worth the work. By successfully zigzagging in the pockets, Bunner could double the altitude he’d been getting in the ridge lift. Once, a thousand feet above the cliffs, he looked out to sea, and there, a half mile out, was a flock of about 20 gulls wheeling and rising under small, dark, oncoming squall clouds. He watched that pocket pull the gulls up to the base of a cloud, and then they cut away south, flattening their wings for a long glide and giving themselves an occasional push through the turbulence.
Landward and east, across the sheen of the fairways and the dark-dappled foothills and little coastal peaks with puffy white cumulus riding them, Bunner saw the big mountains. A long snowy pyramid far to the north, Mt. San Jacinto, sparkled. So did Mt. Laguna, 60 miles east, and Tecate Peak, southeast and across the Mexican border. A little bird, a swift, racing along the alternating wing beats like a swimmer doing the crawl, zinged by going south a few yards from his head. He continued drifting that way, back toward the big cliffs everyone called the North Face. Miles out to sea the morning sun lit the cliffs of San Clemente Island. Back off his right ankle, the sun glinted off the water to shine on the green hills of Catalina, where cumulus gave the island a flowing white crest. Bunner slowed for a good bump, staying in its center by making short passes both ways, keeping crabbed outward and parallel to the cliff below. Some swifts flew in the bump with him. Their acrobatic movements were almost too fast to see, but the path of the whole flock defined the limits of his invisible bubble. The little birds came very close; they were black and white as penguins, and they made a chittering noise.
That night Russ Bunner wrote in his log,“ ... The air was so unstable that I started getting thermaling bumps by 9 a.m. By ten the thermals were getting me a thousand feet above launch. It was about then that the first squall line approached. The wind lulled and I ended up scratching at the Fisheries Face for 15 minutes. Just as fast as it decreased it increased again, to 25 m.p.h. I missed most of the rough stuff by going south near the Scripps pier. The squalls were so small I could avoid the worst of them by going to another part of the ridge. Sometimes it was raining at take-off but sunny at the Fisheries, causing a rainbow in between.
“After the first squall passed through, the sun was really starting to work on the cliffs down south. Getting high, I would fly to the pier and work the mild thermals over the parking lot for 15 or 20 minutes. The instability of the air convinced me to start drifting back with the thermals. Working to a grand over [thousand-foot altitude], I headed southeast to La Jolla Shores. Before I knew it I was over Interstate 5, drifting south and closing in on Mt. Soledad. While this was happening, the wind picked up to 30 miles an hour. Not seeing any more decent landing areas, I turned around into the 30-mile wind. I sank straight down with the bar sucked in. Luckily, I made it to a bluff with some houses on top. I worked there for 15 minutes, waiting for the sun to come out and give me a thermal to get back to the ridge. It did, and I made t back with 20 feet to spare. After that hair-raising experience, I decided to stay within a block of the ridge at all times”...
Bunner had ventured into a dangerous place called “the Hole,” that part of La Jolla Shores just south and east of the Scripps Institution. For hang-glider pilots, it is a hole filled at the bottom with trees and homes that bristle with TV antennas and electric wires — no place to land without terrible risk.
Dave Ledford, an expert competition pilot from the mountains of North Carolina, and Tom Kreyche, a six-year pilot and equipment innovator, were concerned for Bunner in the Hole. Hurrying away from the cliffs, they drove down to La Jolla Shores to help. They drove back relieved that Bunner had gotten himself out of this jam but angry that he’d flown there. Several other Torrey regulars had complained that Bunner, who liked to fly alone, didn’t pay enough attention to other pilots nearby, that he was always looking at the ground. If it was true, it was also true this was his first season at the cliffs, and Zion, Illinois, could never have offered him scores of hours of soaring time. With time and smooth air and altitude, a pilot can concentrate on the subtleties of his technique; after several weeks of daily flying, Bunner likely was twice the pilot he’d been when he arrived, and by now he knew intimately the flight characteristics of his new Cirrus V glider.
Bunner’s glider was not oversized, but it had plenty of sail area for his 150 pounds. Because it floated him above most of the other pilots who began to fly later that morning, and because he was inclined to frequent the more distant or unpopular faces of the cliffs, he enjoyed both height and solitude as the squall lines trailing the dying front passed through once or twice an hour.“ Around one o’clock,” he wrote,“Scirocco Bob passed close by and told me I should go for the record. Up to that moment I never even thought about it. I told Bob I’d try it. Right after that I buzzed some wuffos [spectators] at the Fisheries with some whip stall and 360s. What a mistake that was! I instantly got nauseous and thought about landing. Knowing the record was within my grasp, I forced myself on....”
The record Bunner wanted belonged to Leif Backe, a carpenter from Dana Point who had held it for nearly two years. Backe, oddly enough another Illinois native, had stayed up at Torrey Pines for seven and a half hours on another stormy day in March 1977. The weather that day was a good deal worse, and Backe had been prompted to stay up through midafternoon by the ferocity of the north- west crosswind. The rotor created by the wind twisted and broke Mike Mitchell’s glider as he attempted to land from the north, and Mitchell was critically hurt by his fall. A previous record holder at Torrey, Mitchell required nearly a year’s time before he walked again in a normal fashion. Seeing the wreck from the air convinced Backe he should ride out the worst of the blow aloft.
Veteran pilots at Torrey Pines know the place is peculiar, almost bitchy, in the way it gives out and takes back prime flying — winds with smoothness and power and predictability. Each season of the year brings another kind of flying. Subtle changes in the wind direction, temperature, and humidity make great differences in the amount of life found by the hang-glider pilot. The speed of the wind can determine whether the lift is behind the cliff tops or far out in front, over the breakers and the sea itself. During a winter storm like the one Backe found himself in, a pilot might have to ride out a 40-mile-an-hour squall a thousand feet above and a thousand feet out from the cliff, waiting for subsidence before he dares to land.
When the air finally calmed that March day, Backe was in a position to wrestle the endurance record from Herb Fenner, who’d held it since the previous September. As dusk gathered and Backe at last put down on his shaking legs, a raven landed also. The bird walked on the arms of the pilots who were gathered to congratulate him, and it ate the bread and cookies they offered, as though it were tame.
Bunner’s nausea left after a half hour or so. “I decided to make a trip north,” he wrote, “to try and shake the headache I picked up. Passing over the launch, I noticed the wind was coming straight in at about twenty. I hurried through the lift on the North Face because of the ten gliders stationed there. I crossed the gap to the golf course with a couple of hundred feet. By the time I reached the other side I was only even with the ridge. I scraped around for five minutes and headed south again. When I returned to the North Face, there was strong lift. It didn’t make any sense; he North Face and the golf course take the same direction, but only one was good.” On this day Bunner was observing a unique local phenomenon: though the two cliffs face the same direction, lack of sunlight on the more gently sloped golf course face creates much less lift there. In the afternoon this situation reverses as the angle of the sun changes, and near sunset, the North Face, taller and steeper, once again provides the strongest and smoothest lift.
The difficulty of finding lift is compounded for the hang-glider pilot by the presence of other gliders and numerous radio-controlled miniature airplanes called RCs. The RCs share the airspace near the launch with the hang gliders, often unwillingly. Hang gliders are not supposed to pass through that airspace,“the window,” as it’s called, from north to south. Pilots are required by an odious and dimwitted rule to land and take off again if they want to cross to the south. But Bunner couldn’t land, not if he wanted the record. “Not wanting to piss off the RC people,” he recalled, “I flew below the ridge going south and way out in front. The day was filled with good lift, squall lines, and rainbows. Somebody counted nine rainbows. They were all different in one way or another. I spent the last couple of hours working the ridge between the Fisheries and the pier. Even though the ridge there is only 20 to 100 feet high, I still found great lift. It was then that I started to really use my harness. I alternated in three positions. One was prone, another was sitting up using my knee hangers, and the last was sitting up using my stirrup. All three used different muscles, so I could change the pressure points. Around four o’clock the wind lulled and I headed north. One by one, I saw everyone land, either on top or down on the beach. By now my headache was gone and I was feeling like I could handle ten hours. Using the last small thermals, I maintained at the Fisheries for 20 more minutes, but it steadily got worse and I was low, so I flew to Black’s Road on the beach. I landed with no problems. The other pilots were tearing down their gliders. They told me it was 4:25. I’d bro- ken the record by more than 45 minutes; I was stoked....”
At age 23, a newcomer to the area with only an intermediate pilot’s rating, Russ Bunner joined an elite group — holders of endurance records at the nation’s most popular flying site. It is a record held initially by one of the first pilots to soar a hang glider and the inventor of the Icarus II biplane hang glider, Taras Kiceniuk. The record was taken from Taras by the legendary Bob Wills, later a national champion, and held in succession by pilots generally conceded to be among the best anywhere. Someone else will break it, of course, probably this soaring season. It seems entirely possible to stay up 24 hours; anything over 17 would break the world record, set in Hawaii. At Torrey Pines, you can stay up just about as long as you want...as long as the wind blows.