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Lesson Learned

(The hard way.)

By Bill Cummings

Tossed like a leaf in a tornado I was totally freaked out and wishing I had never headed my 155’ Magic III hang glider into the giant dust devil. Today, Wednesday July 10, 1991 was the peak of the day in the peak of the strong thermal season over the tilled wheat fields of central Washington State. It was my wife Terry’s day to drive and she had Gene Stone (A friend from Pharr, TX.) at the top of the 2,000’ static tow line and he was just about to release from the line. I wanted to radio Gene to tell him not to follow me into the dust devil but the transmit switch was mounted on my helmet and I couldn’t make my self let go of the control bar. I had stupidly broken my own rule to never fly into one of these giant dust devils. The big devils that leave a circle print on the ground measuring a half mile in diameter. The smaller “dusties,” that come to a point on the ground are a size that usually won’t peg my coward meter. I pulled myself half way through the control frame so as not to stall in the turbulence. The extra speed made the turbulence feel twice as rough but still it was stalling from time to time. This speed seemed the middle ground between stalling and tumbling or being beat to death with the keel tube when going weightless. I checked to make sure my tow bridle would not be in the way if I had to reach for my parachute handle. The handle was in the clear but amazingly the thought of the parachute being ready to be thrown offered very little comfort.

“I WANT TO LAND NOW!” I mused.

I flew out of the side of the thermal and way below I could see the only good shade tree near the town of Withrow, WA where I could knock down the glider in comfort. In my haste to land I totally forgot what HG pilot Buck McMinn had taught me about landing during the heat of the day out here. “Pick out a good spot to land and hang out above it and slightly up wind. Wait for a thermal to go through your landing spot then leave it and auger down fast and land before another thermal can build and go through again.”

Just as I went vertical to go to the down tubes for landing a thermal broke loose and I had to go prone again to gain control! The glider was spun to the right and now I’m leading the way across the ground with my left wing tip! (About right here is where I remember what Buck had told me about landing during the heat of the day.) Here comes the ground! I’m still prone! It’s time to flair! I push out the basetube! I’m still moving sideways! I face plant! I blast out through the left downtube! The right downtube kinks in sideways at midpoint! The keel tube snaps in two just ahead of the control frame! The dust devil is now trying to lift me off of the ground! I hang onto what is left of the keel as close to the nose as I can reach while still hooked in! The glider starts to lift me off of the ground! I start screaming like preteen girl! The thermal drops me into another face plant! I do the fastest unhook I’ve ever done!

I was so glad to be down that I didn’t even get mad about having kinked so much aluminum. It was the longest 30 minute flight I can think of. Gene Stone flew 17 miles in good air. I got five miles. More than enough distance for me on this day. The glider was too broken up so I couldn’t move it into the shade to knock it down. I didn’t care. I was down. I was down!