Four deaths in the Southern California hang gliding
community this month, none due to flying accidents
. One week two pilots committed suicide
, the next we lost a guy barely over 50 to cancer, and then just yesterday word came that a pilot had just offed himself in New Mexico. What's going on here?
The hang glidng and paragliding
community is small, even here where the pilot density is greater than anywhere else in the USA. There are several hundred pilots in the San Diego
area, a few hundred in the Inland Empire
, another several hundred in greater Los Angeles
, plus an enclave in Santa Barbara
. We visit each other's flying sites, and after a while, if you don't know a given pilot, chances are very good that you know someone who knows them well. These guys were all Inland Empire pilots.
I'd been at the same LZ with the first, but we'd never spoken; some years ago he was good buddies with my best friend. They flew hang gliders and airplanes together, rock-climbed Joshua Tree
and other areas together, had some good times. Mark tells stories about Raleigh quite often. Raleigh was said to live more in a day than most people do in a month, or a year, and he was very respected in the climbing world for his abilities and all of the routes he'd pioneered. After spending an evening reading several climbing forums full of posts about him, I wish I'd had a chance to know him. Raleigh ran and dove off the top of a rock at Josh in the middle of the night. Alcohol
problems, they say.
Ron was a former hang glider aerobatics
champion who was full of energy and light the few times that I'd had contact with him. He came out to the airpark and did a bunch of loops over the LZ a few years ago when we were having a big fly-in and barbecue. Great guy - he always reminded me of the lead singer from REO Speedwagon. He'd developed a pain-pill habit in the course of many broken bones from crashing gliders and street vehicles, plus he was having relationship troubles.
Tim was an odd, quiet duck who had chosen to free himself from the normal routine of life and was basically a transient
before discovering hang gliding and taking up permanent residence
at the Andy Jackson Airpark LZ, below Marshall Peak (about 5 miles from my home). A man of little education but enough smarts to listen more than he spoke. Tim was the groundskeeper
for the site, which is run by our club. He maintained the storage tanks we have by a spring
in the hills, and the hundreds and hundreds of feet of pipe that bring the water down to grow the grass on the LZ; most LZs in the West are nothing but dirt and rocks. There's a launch about 750 feet above the Airpark and the dirt road to it is about 3 miles long. One summer Tim single-handedly cut a trail more or less straight up the hill, through dense brush 6-8 feet high in places. He did this because he couldn't afford the $5 that was the going rate for a ride to the 2000 foot launch and didn't want to take charity. He could drive his truck and glider to the 750, launch and fly for hours (usually), and then do a short hike up to retreive his truck. Many others hike that trail often these days; paraglider pilots can hike up with their wings and fly as a reward for the exercise. I spent a lot of time in trucks with Tim over the years. About once a week I'd go out with my former employers for a day of production test flights of hang gliders we'd made and paragliders we'd imported. Tim was our driver, bringing the truck down the mountain so we could go back up again, 4 to 7 times a day. He worked down at the shop a few years ago, and we carpooled most of the time. He didn't say much during the hour-plus each way, and I didn't try to draw him out, too much. He tired of the frantic shop and the boring commute after a couple of months; it took me eleven years. As we would be setting up our gliders, Tim would usually unload our harnesses and bring them to us. He always set my harness on the ground so gently you'd have thought it was fine crystal or something. To me it's a workaday
$700 garment that let me do my job - I've been through 4 or 5 of them in 20 years of flying. Once, I'd not zipped up a couple of large flaps on the undersurface of a wing I was about to fly. I noticed Tim hovering nearby with quiet concern, but he never said a word. I saw the open panels during my preflight
(couldn't have missed them) and understood. I was deeply moved. If I'd noticed another pilot in that situation, I'd have yelled some wise-ass
remark over to him. Tim had an innate
respect for others and their ways of doing things that I can only aspire to. Not that he couldn't be loud. Or crazy. Tim had to cut back on his flying about a year ago because his harness leg straps were digging into this lump on his inner thigh, and it hurt pretty bad. That turned out to be a malignant tumor
wrapped around his femoral artery
; by the time a doctor saw it there wasn't much to be done. It metastasized
and spread to his lungs and liver within about 6 months. In late December Tim finally understood that he only had a few months left, something most of us had known since last Summer. Some of our pilots are health-care professionals, and they went with him to doctor's visits and chemo
sessions, partly because we knew Tim wouldn't understand half of what he was being told. To the end he was adamant about living out his final days in his trailer at the LZ, but his tumor got to where he was losing a pint of blood out of it every two days and he spent his last weeks in the hospital, with a request that nobody come visit him, except one of the aforementioned health-care types. She really really went the extra mile. We had a memorial service
for Tim on April 1, at the LZ, and my (and his) former employers, in matching gliders, flew over in a missing man formation
. Members of Tim's family, who no one even knew about until last Summer, were there, and it was a very warm and snug-feeling gathering. I actually had tears welling up during the opening eulogy, and when the speaker closed by quoting my forum post about Tim's passing, I almost lost it. So long Tim, we hardly knew you.
Jim was a seemingly happy loner
, a guy who lived in a motorhome
doing engineering work and contract software from wherever he happened to be at the time. He preferred to be in the upper Midwest
most of the year, but came and lived at our LZ for a few months every Winter since 2000 or 2001. Jim loved to fly, both hang gliders and paragliders, and asked a lot of questions about glider design decisions that I had nothing to do with. Always had something interesting to say, and I never saw him angry about anything. He left the LZ earlier than usual this year, not sure exactly when. The police in Gallup, NM called the local hang glider dealer yesterday asking about how to contact Jim's family - couldn't say why. Rob suggested they look in his hang gliding harness. For the last couple of years Rob's wife Dianne has made a point of handing out emergency contact
cards for every pilot to fill out and carry in his or her harness, just in case. The Gallup Police found Jim's card and said thank you. Today they called and said Jim's relatives
had been contacted, and yes, it looked like suicide.
We're all just kind of asking each other "What's going on here?" Being in what most consider an extreme sport
we've all come to terms with the real possibility of accidental death, and we accept that slight risk because the rewards of unpowered soaring flight are worth it. About six people die crashing hang gliders or paragliders in the US in an average year, out of an active pilot community estimated at from 6 to 10 thousand people. I only know of one pilot ever who, most agree, intentionally broke his glider
in the air so he could crash and die. When I started flying in 1984 a few people said "You must have a death wish
." I can tell you that when I fly, I have a LIFE wish - the connection to nature, the here-now
of it is hard to find anywhere else (legally). I've known snuffing it
was an option since age 10 or 11, and when I found out my soon-to-be-ex-wife was sleeping around I gave more than passing consideration to driving us both off a cliff - not hard, since we lived in the mountains. And while I'll often tell myself "That's it. There's only one solution!" when faced with some extreme difficulty, that's actually a trigger to get me to step back and see things in proper perspective.
My pet insight
about pilots is that we're all strong individualists
in one way or another. There have been some celebrated clashes of ego
over the years. By and large we all get along, since we share a bond that only 10 in a million or so understand. But most pilots have a shell of one kind or another, some are like onions, and occasionally they make others cry (sorry). There's not much talk about feelings and vulnerability. I can only think that things must have been really really bad for those who've recently hastened their exits, to have made their terrible choices.
Tim was taken from us too early, partly by his choice of being completely out of the mainstream
, partly because our mainstream features a medical system that requires the poor to become helpless and subservient
before it will help them. Tim was neither.