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First Flight at Agave Hill

by Robin Hastings

February 24, 2009

In 2007 and 2008 our two best paraglider pilots, Doak Hoover and Hadley Robinson, developed new launches in Franklin Mountain State Park. This is one of the biggest city parks in the world, located on the north edge of El Paso, and Doak and Had worked for years to obtain permission to fly it. They have succeeded beyond our dreams – the park staff actually enjoy having us there, and in flight after flight we’ve proven to be responsible aviators. They’ve launched off several points, including North Franklin Peak, the highest peak in the park at 7000 ft MSL. Historic flights! But their favorite site, for accessibility as well as consistency, is a lower knoll they’ve named Agave Hill. On June 6, 2008 I joined the pioneering effort by being the first pilot to fly it with a hang glider.

Agave Hill is easy to get to. Enter the park, take care of the required waiver (Hadley can tell you all about it) and then drive up to a nearby parking lot. From there, it’s a 20-minute hike, uphill about 200 feet on a decent 4WD road. (Until we get permission to drive up it, bring a friend to help with your hang glider!) The hill allows launches from west/northwest to west/southwest. Too much southwest in the wind can bring some turbulence from a parallel ridge, so due west is probably the optimum wind direction for this place. The launch is at about 6000 ft MSL and about 600 feet above the landing zone(s). Where I chose to land was a large, open area of brush due west of the site, about a 6-to-1 glide, just beyond a picnic area with shade structures. The launch itself is a rounded slope of about 30 degrees. The setup area, thanks to brush clearing cheered on by the park, will accommodate at least 10 hang gliders at once.

Once we got my Airwave K5 up to the site, with all my gear, I looked it over and started clearing brush. Hadley made a late-morning launch while I was working on this, and hit some great lift near the LZ – I found this very encouraging. He and Doak were accustomed to weaving their way amid agaves and prickly pear cactus as they trotted off with their wings 20 feet overhead – but I could see no way to do that with my hang glider. It took a couple of hours, but we finally had a clear shot at putting me into the air in anything from southwest to northwest, depending on cooperating winds. I set up the K5, and then waited. The winds this day were light, and gradually shifting; they’d started west/northwest, and were now veering more and more to the southwest. I harnessed up and drank almost the last of my water - clearing brush is thirsty work! I finally got a light breeze, picked it up and started my launch. OOPS! Bad timing! I got 2 feet into the air and realized the glider was veering to the left. I managed to abort the launch without a problem – nothing bent, not even a whack. So we brought the glider up to the launch again, where I inspected it and then waited for something more straight in. About an hour later I finally got what I wanted – a breeze of 10-12 mph (according to Had’s shouted measurements), a thumbs-up from Doak, and what looked like actual consistency to me. I yelled “Clear!” one more time, and started my run down the slope. No problems! I lifted off and sped down the hill. A spectating hiker, JP, had obliged us by clearing a tall yucca that was otherwise on my flight path, and I cruised. I didn’t soar, however. The air was bumpy, and the hill’s configuration is such that I was never more than 100 feet above the ridge that ran out below me. I headed out to the main park road, out ahead about a half mile, where Hadley had hit lift hours before, but now it wasn’t there. Ah, well. I made a gentle turn to dump extra altitude, over the picnic grounds, and set up for a straight west approach. Landing went well, all in all, and I skidded it in – the only down part being the prickly pear I ran my butt over at the last instant. Down safe! I looked back up the hill to where I’d come from, glad to have made it and glad to have tried it – even with the cactus spines. Lessons learned: This site is potentially quite good if you get a due west wind a little stronger than what I had. (It’s great for paragliding!) The plan would be to launch, work the lift enough to gain 100 feet or so, then shoot over a 100-yard gap on the left to The Triangle, a major slope up Franklin Peak. You could easily work the ridge lift and thermals there, and bench up until you are actually soaring North Franklin Peak. Once up there, at 7000 ft MSL, you could stay up for hours, and start off XC to the north. The landing zone I chose is the obvious one, but it might not be the best one – there’s another, closer to Transmountain Highway, that might serve better. Doak and Had frequently land their PG’s in an arroyo. The main advantages of Agave Hill are its access (paved road all the way to the parking lot) and its benign, smooth slope launch. It’s a hike up from there, however. Just from the pioneering aspect, I’m glad I flew the site; when the winds look right, I’ll fly it again and see where it takes me.