Dude, Where’s the Ground???


I went up for another long flight to gather fuel burn data last night. I got a really cool surprise.

Between Rives and Mason Hall there are dozens of square miles of row crop fields. All the corn is cut and the beans are starting to be harvested. This means there are dozens of square miles of bare dirt getting warmed by the sun.

Approaching this area at a gentle climb, I intended to level out at 1200′ and just cruise there for an hour or so. I hit my altitude and reduced throttle to stop the climb, but I didn’t stop climbing. At first I thought I had an altimeter problem. I didn’t think I had entered a thermal, normally you feel a bump going in and if you don’t turn to stay in you feel a bump as you fall out the other side.

I stayed on my heading and kept steadily climbing at idle. It wasn’t fast, 50-100 feet per minute, but the lift was there over this entire area. I did a few turns to change heading and lose some altitude but even in a decent turn I kept climbing.

It was fun but not the flight I needed so I headed back to a forested area to leave the lift. By the time I got out I was at 2300′ and If I had stuck with it I might have gotten to 3000′ with no power.

The rest of the flight was great. I followed I-69 construction around Union city, buzzed the Titan missile at Discovery Park, met Kate taking pictures at a walking track, and put on a mini airshow for some kids that chased me out of Graham park. But feeling that huge area of lift taught me a lot about how to find free altitude.

As for the fuel burn. I flew 2hrs 15min, transferred 3L from my homemade Aux. tank and landed at sunset with 3L left in the tank. That’s about 45min worth if I’m careful. That fuel burn was a little above normal due to all the playing I did down low when the air stabilized. I couldn’t resist. That took me 51 miles with an average speed of 24mph.

With careful throttle use I’ve got no doubt I can break the three hour mark. Especially If I can find a little lift like I did last night.

Speed Record and Rough Day.


The weekends mission was a cross country to Graves Co. airport. About 40 miles one way.

Climbout at 7300 RPM

Winds aloft were the highest I’ve ever launched in, 25-30 mph at 1000′. But they were steady and fairly smooth in the morning. A layer of warm air(inversion layer) led me all the way to Graves Co. That kept me at about 500-1500′. It was super cool to navigate by feeling air temp.

Fuel Reserve

After turning into the wind at Graves Co. about 300′ to setup a landing I noticed a new problem. With enough throttle to move forward I was climbing. Releasing throttle enough to descend and I started flying backwards. Kinda neat but not ideal for my purposes.

50 MPH

I turned back downwind and dropped down to treetop height where the air was rougher but slower. Then turned upwind again and crawled to the airport at a slow jogging pace. It did make the landing super slow and easy.

53.3 MPH

I got to hang out with a great pack of pilots all day at Graves Co. and had a ridiculously tasty cheeseburger from “Off the Hoof” then got ready to head home that afternoon.

Welcome to Graves Co.

The wind had dropped to 10-15 mph. Not ideal but enough for me to make headway. Launched at 4pm so there were some very active thermals boiling up, and it was rowdy. It took about an hour to make the morning flight. It took 2 hrs to reach Fulton Co. airport, twelve miles shy of my destination, and every inch was a battle. By the time I landed airsickness was becoming a problem.

Down and safe

Wasn’t sure about beating the sunset getting home so I called superwife for extraction. Not making it back was a bummer but it was a great day and I learned a lot.

My Density Altitude Education.


My LZ is at 300′ Above Seal Level(ASL). My density altitude last night was 2800′. I’ll explain the real world consequences in just a bit.

First what is density altitude? The simplest way for me to say is: It’s a measurement of how dense the air “feels” compared to what altitude you are really at.

Think about climbing a mountain. As you go up the air becomes thinner, harder to breath. For aircraft this means your wing has less air to “bite”, less lift is created as a result. And just like it harder for you to breath, it’s a tiny bit harder for your engine to breath.

The equation to figure this out takes into account temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity. In hot, humid conditions your density altitude will be higher. Colder temps give us denser air and a lower density altitude.

Flying from home I’ve gotten into the habit of checking winds aloft(ryancarlton.com) and the radar but not tuning into the AWOS(Automated Weather Observation System) at the airport. Mistake.

The Setup: It’s 1700, winds 3-8, and it is hot here in TN with 99.9% humidity(possible small exaggeration). I’m flying with my bulky XC bag, luckily with most of the weight removed. I’ve got 400′ of runway in front of me. With this wind I usually need about 100′.

The Launch: Wing inflates well and within a few steps I have it “locked in”, go full throttle and commit to launch. Pretty quick I notice a lack of lift. I can tell by the sound my engine is spinning up nicely, but the glider just isn’t wanting to fly today. No cravats or other problems so I push on. Finally at about 250′ I start to lift off, barely. I have to tiptoe for another 50′-75′ while applying more than normal brake pressure before I finally break contact with the grass.

The Climb out: Roughly 1500′ beyond my runway there are trees and power lines. Most days I would clear them by 100′ or more easily. But I was not climbing at all. I was “stuck” 20′ up still holding brake pressure at full power. Finally about 500′ after takeoff I started to get some lift but no way was I going to clear the obstacles. I released my left brake pressure and let the glider go into the gentlest bank that would allow me to turn away from the trees, and got away with it.

A friend called a few minutes later from the airport to ask about the flying conditions. That’s when it dawned on me what the likely culprit was and I asked him to check. In the future I will for sure keep a closer eye on the Density Altitude before attempting a launch.

Darkhorse450 Update


Ready to Launch

The flight’s one month out and a few changes have been made.

As of now I’ll be the solo pilot with Kate and Mrs. Gretchen Catherwood running ground support. This isn’t a bad thing, it allows more flexibility in planning.

I-69 Construction

I’ve adjusted the route to be a touch more aggressive in the beginning which should allow more flexibility over the rougher terrain at the end. New route here.
The first leg is the longest at 66.5 miles. With an average speed (No wind) of 30mph that is a serious stretch with 2 1/2 hours of fuel on board. With any tailwind I should make it without cutting into my reserve.

Obion River

I’m not just “hoping for the best”. Each leg has at least one alternate along the route, most are halfway through the flight. If there is any doubt about making the next planned stop, there is no doubt about what to do, and I will divert.

As of now each days goals are:
Oct 4th Friday- Overnight at Tullahoma (THA)
Oct 5th Saturday- Overnight at Jamestown (2A1)
Oct 6th Sunday- Overnight at New Tazewell (3A2)
Oct 7th Monday- Land Johnson Co (0A4) before lunch. Load up and crawl home.

Home Landing Zone

If your are familiar with the route or want to fly a leg or hang out at a stop, get in touch. We would love to hear from you.

And to the donors who have already stepped up to back us before we even take off, thank you again. Knowing people believe in the Darkhorse Lodge as much as we do will keep us moving forward no matter what.

Icom A-16 Bluetooth Review


I’ve been looking for a good com setup for a year now and I think I’ve found it.

I got the Icom A-16 last week, and have spent the last week testing it out. Here are the highlights.

Construction– Appears to be very solidly built. The buttons and screen are easy to read and manipulate. The “Lock” button is located on top beside the power/volume knob. This makes it easy to access during flight without having to look for it.

Programming– The unit came with the basic instruction manual. This is enough to use the radio, however if you want to get the most utility you will need to download the Full Manual in PDF. Link here. It is not intuitive at all but the manual is easy to follow.

Bluetooth function– I use a BT-S2 motorcycle headset to pair with this radio. This also allows me to pair my Galaxy S8 at the same time for music and phone calls. Pairing is simple and quick, after reading the manual. There is a slight time lag between hitting the PTT on the handset and the headset picking up your voice to transmit. Music cuts out automatically when transmitting or receiving.

Communication– Using this setup, transmissions are very clear and crisp. I’ve had no problems talking to other pilots 5 miles out. And I’ve picked up transmissions from 20+ miles out.

Battery Life– This came with a 2400Mh battery and charging station. Icom claims 5 hrs Tx time, much longer standby time. My longest flight has been 2hrs so I’m not getting close to the end of this battery.

Overall impression– I’m very happy with this purchase. It paid for itself the first time out while making an approach at our usually low traffic local airport. There were multiple aircraft moving on the apron, doing pattern work and touch and gos as I came in. I was able to talk with everyone from several miles out and work in safely for a landing near our fuel farm without inconveniencing anyone.

Mock Search


To better understand searching with a paramotor I decided to do a training run on a nearby field. Here is the data I collected.

900 Acre search area

Search Area: Approx. 900 Acres Corn and Soybeans. Obion River along West edge.

Obstructions: Power lines running East/West 1/4 mile inside North edge of field.

Weather: Clear with winds 5-15 from the South

Time: Takeoff Approx. 18:30 Landing 19:30 local time

Search pattern: Spiral from outside to inside

Search results: Incomplete, area not cleared

I approached the area to be searched from the North West corner. First scanning for obstructions. Power lines found inside North edge of area.

I decided to start at the perimeter and spiral inward as there are ditches/creeks/river surrounding the field.

Wind was a large factor. I started the first pass at a higher altitude (100′) to get a feel for the mechanical rotor in the area. Moving North to South I averaged 15MPH. South to North I averaged 30-35 MPH.

I was able to conduct most of my search just below treetop height. I did find several deer to use as visual references. They were easy to pick out from above, even when they laid down in the beans. Finding recent deer trails through the beans was not easy but it was possible.

From 50′ I was able to see through the corn to the ground in most, not all, areas. I could do this in an area approx. 15-20 corn rows wide at that altitude.

I could see into culverts and under small bridges around the field but not well enough to call them cleared.

Searching the Ditch to the North, River to the West and creek to the South was done easily. Tree cover is limited in those areas.

There is a creek on the Eastern edge of the field I could not see into due to heavy tree cover.

The railroad tracks indicated on the topo map are actually a gravel road that offers access through the field.

I needed one more pass to cover the area, I chose to abort the search due to degrading weather conditions (Gusts becoming heavier and from less predictable directions).

End report

As a searcher I need practice keeping my paths separated. I wasted time recovering the same ground in a few spots. I also experimented with spotting small objects and then turning back for a closer look. I found it very difficult to pick back up on an object (soda can size) after losing sight of it.

I also think a down and back pattern moving from West to East might have been a better approach to this area. If the subject was trying to avoid the searcher they would be likely stopped at the river on the Eastern edge which could then be easily covered.

Brake Line Mistake

Otto Lilienthal, Pilot, Inventer, Daredevil, Hero

There is a lot of travel in my brakes before the wing starts turning. I liked that feel early on, but I’ve decided I would like my glider just a little quicker to respond. Having a bit more flare authority on landing would be nice also. Right now I can bury my hands below my waist and it doesn’t feel like I’m getting everything the glider can offer in that area.

The wing manual recommends no more than 1 inch of adjustment at a time, so that’s what I went with. I marked the lines 1 inch above the knot, then adjusted accordingly until my mark was in the correct place. Repeating the process with the other side being careful to maintain the same adjustment.

At the end something had to be done with the remaining line. I didn’t want to cut it as the extra lenght may be useful later. I couldn’t leave it loose because it’s a hazard that could get pulled into the prop, with my hand.

I decided to tape up the excess in a nice neat package. Here I made the mistake. The excess line got rolled and taped, to my line being used. Above the brake toggle. This meant my 1 inch adjustment ended up being about 3 1/2 inches. Feel free to hate, it was dumb.

The wing launched easy, way too easy for the light wind I had. And the climb rate was great. I realized the mistake when I jumped into the seat, got comfortable and went to stow the brakes. The tape was holding them so low they didn’t want to go up onto the magnets.

I was now pulling brake on both sides and could not fully release it.

This is the kind of thing that leads to stalls and spins. The glider was also climbing like a rocket.

After finding the problem I considered trying to pull the tape off in flight. That came with a huge line of problems, lack of control during the tape removal, loose line hitting the prop if sucssesfull, fighting a turn while correcting the second line if I managed to fix the first. There were more, it’s amazing how many problems your brain can work in a second or two.

I decided to land and sort it out. This was also not problem free. My high climb rate was due to being on power with brake inputs. If I drop to idle I’ll start my descent but also lose airspeed due to the brake inputs and risk a stall.

I decided to power down enough to zero my climb rate, hold that power and use gentle S turns on the way home to slowly give up altitude. Worked like a charm.

My first attempt I came in lower than expected so I aborted the landing. Corrected for the second attempt and brought it down.

I’ve since corrected the problem and I’m planning another test flight tonight. I think a lot about the lessons I’ve learned and how I’ve learned them along the way. It reminds me that guys like Otto Lilienthal were no doubt geniuses, but they had at least as much courage as brains to test the things they built.

My Failure of Words


I’m so envious of poets. The ability to create an image using words is something I’ve never developed. You would think with pictures and video it would be easy to bring back the beauty you find in the air to share with your friends. Even those things fall short of reality.

I launched just as the sky started to lighten Saturday morning. The wind was calm and a heavy dew meant my wing became soaked as I laid it out. Carrying my big bag with extra oil, water, tools, and battery pack, I was struggling on takeoff.

My right wingtip dipped on inflation which turned me right and into the trees lining the field. I really did not want to reset and when you abort a launch on wet grass your wing picks up more water and the next attempt is even harder. I pulled hard on the right side A’s and drove my left brake down to counter the turn as I ran under the wing. Then as it corrected I pulled hard on the right brake to prevent over correcting. I missed the trees by at least eighteen inches and ended up running up hill out of the low area near the tree line, but I made it.

As I climbed out(very slowly) I made a 90 degree left turn and I was given a sight that was shocking in comparison to the struggle of that launch.

The sun was still too low to see from the ground and there was a light mist you couldn’t really notice unless you could see for a few miles into the distance. Climbing out and turning into the sun the effect was unreal.

The sun was so low in the mist you could stare at and soak in the entire picture without being blinded. Looking away to the horizon the mist slowly obscured more of the landscape until you just saw the tops of trees floating on clouds. The air was cool, that perfect place just before it’s too cold to really enjoy. This is why I’m jealous of poets. I wish I could share that memory with you as it is in my mind.

I wish I could tell you about following a flock of small birds I had never seen before. There were two dozen. Some so jet black the seemed to be holes in the sky. Some so blazing white they seemed to glow from the inside. All diving and turning, playing with each other in the air. Never touching.

Then there is the two Blue Herons. I’ve always thought these were awkward creatures. Great at fishing of course but limited in their capabilities in the air just due to their size. I’m such a fool.

Skimming the treetops I looked down and caught sight of an enormous wing traveling through the trees. Thick trees. So dense it was hard to see into. This bird was sailing through the branches with the kind of slow, calm confidence olympic athletes can’t match. Never changing his pace, never needing to dart away from an unseen branch. He would time his flight and his wingbeats so that he would pass obstacles on the down stroke, stretching out his enormous wings to grab more air after clearing them.

Later I decided it would be fun to follow a creek lined with trees twisting through a field. After a short distance another Heron popped out below me. He had flown just fast enough to get ahead and the held his position just in front of me as I glided above the trees. He stayed over the water and flew between them. Eventually he popped out of the creek where it made a hard left and I followed him across the cornfield where he shot through a gap between two trees barely wider than his body. He had timed his wings perfectly, never changing his pace. It was probably my imagination but I swear he looked back at me as he cleared the gap and mad a 90 degree bank to the right before gliding away. As if to say “It was fun, lets do it again sometime”.

Then there was the vulture. Seeing one circling up in a thermal is nothing unusual, impressive every time but not unusual. This bird would climb like normal as he rounded the column of air, then dive gaining speed. As he rounded the back of the thermal he would flare so hard he almost did a back flip. Then he would stall, recover and get back into his climb. I watched him repeat this a few times as I glided by. I used to wonder if birds knew how lucky they were to have wings, now I know at least some of them do.

Flying From Home


The goal for the weekend was to knock out the first flights from the backyard. Nailed it.

Friday was the first official takeoff. It took 3 attempts but I made it. Winds were a little inconsistent and the way they swirl around the trees can be a little deceptive I found out.

I kept the flight short and concentrated on feeling out the landing approach. For a south wind, which I had, you have to shoot an approach down an alleyway of trees.

The wind rolling over the trees makes for some tricky mechanical rotor. I figured out if you come in level with the tree tops and go to idle just before the landing area you can fight the rotor and count on smooth air for landing. It was a little scary working that out though. Five approaches before I felt comfortable enough to drop in.

Saturday evening kicked my butt. Light, switchy winds, a spark plug starting to give up, and the heat led to me walking away. No flight that day.

Sunday was great. High winds prevented the A.M. flight I wanted but the P.M. flight went perfect. Nailed the first launch and went south to Mason Hall.

The air was a bit bumpy and a headwind kept my speed down to around 13MPH. It took a little over an hour to cover the 12 miles to my goal. I took a few detours on the way.

I spent a good amount of time learning to look down into cornfields and tree lines. I’ve offered my services for Search and Rescue to the local authorities and I’ll need to train if I’m going to be effective. This also meant getting down into rougher air to get close enough to see detail on the ground.

But I stuck the landing on the second attempt. Light as a butterfly exactly where I wanted it. I’m calling it a good weekend and “The Grove” airpark is officially open for business. Or at least anyone crazy enough to shoot the approach.

The trip home I averaged 45MPH. It went a lot faster and wind speed was steadily increasing. This made for a rougher approach to the LZ. Patrick(our 4 year old) said it was “way too bouncy” and I need to work on that because it “wasn’t funny”. I tended to agree.

Homemade Airport


I’ve been grooming a spot in the field to use as a runway for almost a year now. I think it’s ready.

It started out covered in small trees and briars so I had to be patient making sure all the little stumps were cleared out. A few hours with a chainsaw and many trips with a bush hog and it’s coming along nicely.

It has trees on two sides so it’s far from perfect. But the two main “runways” are about 400′ long with very long approaches and no power lines to deal with. I’ve been waiting for my comfort level to improve along with the grass in the field and I’m ok saying we are both ready.

It won’t be available for all conditions especially at first. The trees on the sides will create some mechanical rotor if it’s windy. And the gap behind the house acts as venturi funneling the wind in certain conditions. I’ve done several low passes to feel it out in different conditions.

I plan to launch from there the next time weather allows it. Worse case: I get up and don’t feel I can safely get back in, I will slide down to the airport four miles away and call my beautiful and patient wife for a ride home.

I’m really looking forward to the kiting opportunities it will offer. I haven’t done as much as I should due to the time needed to get out to a good location. Having this available should let me throw my wing up just about everyday. That will be my new gym time.

To do the Darkhorse 450 I need to be completely comfortable landing in areas like this and smaller. I plan to a lot of training in this little spot. (And how cool will it be to walk outside and run into the sky?)