Thursday, December 4, 2008

First Flights - Mt. Elden, Arizona

Dreams of Elusive Elden
In the fall of 1974 hang gliding in the Flagstaff Arizona area began to get popular. Local and Phoenix area pilots had discovered the wonders of Merriam and Sheba Craters to the east and were having a grand adventure experiencing crater soaring in its infancy. Even so each trip out to the Craters and back found pilots looking up and dreaming of soaring the high ridges and spectacular natural bowls of Mt. Elden. Towering over Flagstaff to the North everyone instinctively knew that flying Elden would be spectacular. Twice as high as Merriam Crater the steep SW and WSW faces of the mountain had to be creating some tremendous lift when the predominate SW winds blew across Northern Arizona. The problem however, was there were no clear take off sites anywhere to be found where launching a hang glider was possible.

To Fly You Must Take Off!
Local Flagstaff area pilots continued to dream of flying Mt. Elden and after several scouting trips located a couple of potential take off sites but each would have to have trees cleared to be of any use. Determined to fly the mountain a meeting with the Flagstaff U.S. Forest Service authorities occurred in early spring 1975. Attending the meeting were local pilots Bill Nightwine, Stu Arthur, myself, and Dr. Willis from NAU. He was also a Professor of Physics and head of the Physics Department at NAU and considerably older than the rest of us. More importantly though, he too was a hang gliding enthusiast. We had invited him to attend the meeting to hopefully enhance our credibility in the eyes of the Forest Service officials. We did not want them to think we were just a bunch of young, long haired, crazy hang glider pilots. Surely someone of his stature and position would make the Forest Service think we really were a great bunch of guys although perhaps still somewhat crazy hang glider pilots.

At the meeting we explained the great potential for soaring that Mt. Elden offered, our concern for the environment and how hang gliding would have minimum impact on the mountain. We told them that we felt that removing a few trees in order for us to make a safe launch would not cause any irreparable harm to the mountain and would serve to allow us all to better appreciate the mountain and its environs. We offered to do the work ourselves, assist the Forest Service with doing it, or whatever was necessary short of selling our souls for a launch. After listing to our proposals the Forest Service Officials were impressed with our enthusiasm and commitment to the sport. They understood how badly we wanted to fly and really believed that we could conduct hang gliding flights off Elden with a minimum of environmental impact to the mountain itself. Yet, they could not officially make a take off site for us or be seen as officially supporting hang gliding activity at Elden for liability reasons. They did however, make various comments leading us to believe that if somehow hang gliders were to be able to find a place to launch off Elden, and they were not involved, or could not be seen as officially supporting hang gliding activities, that we could fly Elden to our hearts content. I believe one of us actually asked what would happen if “someone” just went up there and cut out a launch area. My recollection is that they responded by saying something to the effect that obviously the Forest Service could not condone that but if no one saw who did it, that there was not much that could be done about it.

So, with that thought in our minds we left the meeting convinced that we had been given the unofficial green light to go make a launch site at Elden. We had to keep in mind though that the Forest Service did not want to see it, hear about it, or know about it. We then began to secretly plot and plan. Going back up to Elden we located a suitable site that would require a minimum of trees to be felled. We wanted to make a launch at the top of the huge natural bowl below the Microwave towers, where the present day launch site is, but at that time it would require just too many trees to be cut. The site we ended up selecting was directly below the Forest Service Lookout station on the SE end of Elden. It was about an 1/8 of a mile down below the lookout tower road, just where the mountain face suddenly dropped off steeply to the bottom. The site was on the left side of a SW facing ridge and natural bowl about 1700’ above East Flagstaff. It was secluded, not easy to spot from below, and could not been seen at all from above. It would require a small ramp to be built as there were some big boulders that we could not move but could be used to support the end of the ramp. We figured we would need, a couple chain saws, axes, shovels, picks etc. and a 4 x 8’ sheet of 1” plywood for the ramp.

Having obtained all our tools we were ready. The problem was that we did not want anyone hearing the high pitched wine of a chain saw cutting down trees. Obviously we needed some way to disguise the noise. Wind! Yes, when the wind blew strong WSW 35-40 mph with higher gusts, the sound of the wind in the Ponderosa Pines was very loud. You could barely hear you self talk when the really strong gusts came through. So all we needed now was a wind storm and in the typically windy spring months of 75 we did not have long to wait.

A Launch is Born
Awaking one day soon after, to winds already blowing strong in the early morning, we knew that by afternoon it would be howling up there. Throwing chain saws, gas cans, axes, etc. in the back of the trucks we hurriedly drove up the rough bumpy dirt road to Elden. We stopped down below the Forest Service Lookout station and back somewhat from where we normally parked . We did not want anyone to see chain saws being unloaded and carried down into the woods below. The wind was just blasting through the trees, whistling and howling as it blew while even the biggest trees were bending in the force of the blast. The wind was probably averaging 40 mph and easily gusting over 50. Perfect covert launch building weather. Dan Tierney, Stu Arthur, myself and possibly Bill Nightwine, ( my memory has faded somewhat now 27 years later), made our way to the selected launch site. You had to walk about 10 minutes down through the thick forest, around rocks, fallen logs, etc. as there was not any trail to the site at that time. Once there we set about in earnest with our work. We wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible, especially the removal of the bigger trees. There were 6-8 trees of 6-12” diameter that had to go. Luckily the site did not have any really big trees as we did not want to have to play the role of serious lumberjacks. Firing up the chain saws we felled the necessary trees in short order and then cut them into smaller sections to be dragged way off into the woods out of sight. While that was going on, the others worked with axes, shovels, picks and hand saws clearing bushes, small saplings and rocks in the ramp area and below. I remember that someone had to go back up to the trucks for something and said that they could hear nothing up there over the terrific sound of the wind. That was good news.

After working the rest of the day we had our first launch at Elden almost ready. We put the plywood up over a boulder and filled in around it and underneath for support as best we could. The runway leading to the ramp was cleared of larger rocks and low areas filled in so that the transition to the ramp would be smooth. Leaving an axe, shovel, and hand buck saw, we carried the rest of the equipment back up to the trucks and went down the mountain now realizing that soon each of us would finally fly elusive Mt. Elden.

Last Tree, First Flight
Several days later conditions looked good. The wind was a light SSW with no forecast of strong winds. We wanted to launch in light conditions at first just to get the feel of the launch and flying the area. Stu Arthur, Dan Tierney, myself, and possibly a Phoenix flyer who had recently moved to Flagstaff by the name of John Lundgren went back up with our gliders. By now a primitive trail had begun to form due to our numerous trips walking down and back up from launch. We each shoulder carried our gliders and harness down through the woods. We all knew that if we did not fly, the gliders were going to stay at the launch until we did as there was no way we were going to carry them back up again.

Arriving at the launch it was blowing straight in out of the SW at about 10-12 mph. Perfect conditions! It was early afternoon and somehow Stu Arthur got elected to have the honor of being the first to fly Elden. He assembled his gold sail colored Electra Flyer Pathfinder clone that he had built himself in my Flagstaff Adventure Sports Hang Gliding shop. Once set up we realized that the width of the launch site was still a little more narrow than we felt comfortable with due to a small pine just to the right of launch.

Also an additional tree down below and to the right of the take off ramp needed to go. Luckily these were not very big and could be removed with the hand buck saw. Stu continued to ready his glider and harness as we worked to fell the two trees. First down was the one below launch. Stu was now in his harness and hooked in waiting for us.We set to work sawing back and forth on the tree to the right of Stu’s glider as he did his final harness checks.

As the last tree fell, Stu picked up his glider. The wind continued to blow straight in perfectly. He ran about 5 steps onto and off the ramp and launched into history as the first hang glider pilot to ever fly Mt. Elden. It was late spring 1975. He flew out perfectly, gaining a little lift as he went, turned west a ways and then headed out towards east flagstaff. At about 2000’ over town we watched him slowly fly around and circle down to a landing in a big field near the freeway. In those days there were a number of large open areas in east Flagstaff to land that had not been developed.

Now we raced to finish setting up our gliders. I was the second off, followed by the others. Even though we did not soar that day, just the knowledge that we were flying off Elden, and were coming out over town at 2000’ over and almost twice as high as Merriam Crater, was awesome! It was a dream come true! At the landing area we were all jumping up and down, talking excitedly a mile a minute, and just in a state of complete euphoria. “Hey, we have just been the first hang glider pilots to have ever flown off Elden! Far Out! Incredible site, Awesome flying! We knew then that nothing was standing in our way, except high winds, of far greater soaring flights to come off this magnificent site.

Vertical Soaring Air Everywhere
We returned again a couple days later when stronger but flyable SW winds had blown in. It had been too strong and gusty earlier in the day and through mid afternoon but by 4:30-5:00 pm the wind had steadied out some and was blowing right into launch at about 20 mph. I was somehow chosen to be the wind dummy but I don’t recall who was there with me except Stu. I do recall my launch because he was holding my nose wires. I recall my heart pounding, that dry mouth sensation, and the incredible excitement and anticipation that I was experiencing knowing that in seconds I was going to be launching into strong Elden soaring conditions. I got adjusted, leveled my wings, got the nose angle right and yelled “Clear”. I remember vividly Stu releasing the nose wires and ducking off to my left as I lunged forward. I seem to recall taking about two steps and then suddenly I was flying and going straight up in vertical lift like a bat out of hell. Pulling in to keep up some forward motion I just continued to climb and climb. I had never experience continuous strong lift like that before and could not believe my eyes as I watched myself climbing at a fast but steady rate higher and higher. The air was quite smooth, a few bumps but nothing scary. Looking behind me I watched myself rapidly climb past the level of our parked vehicles on the road, then the look out tower and I kept on going and going.

Finally about 800 over the summit of Elden my ascent slowed and I topped out in beautifully smooth air. I was flying just in front of the ridge, hovering at will but still able to get good penetration out if I pulled in. There was vertical air everywhere! The view was just incredible. All of Flagstaff lay 3000 feet below me. Behind me where the majestic San Francisco peaks looking like they were just a short glide away and almost at my level. I could clearly see way out to Merriam Crater and beyond to the Painted Desert. I was just in awe and wonder. It was even more beautiful to be up there over Elden than I had imagined it to be. The others soon launched and we all soared about the general area not being ready yet to go too far in one direction or the other. I do remember flying out towards the SW to the ridge leading to the main soaring bowl beneath the Microwave towers. At 700-800’ over the top I crossed the ridge and passed through a little turbulence as I continued to fly west over the bowl. As soon as I cleared the bumpy area over the ridge I hit even stronger lift coming up from the bowl and zoomed up to 1000-1200’ over the top. I knew then that this was only the beginning of many, many fantastic Elden flights yet to come let alone thermal cross country flying possibilities.

We soared around for almost two hours watching the sun getting low to the west. The lift just got smoother and smoother with no detectable drop in strength. Finally not wanting to land after the sun had set, and wanting to get down to talk about it I headed out. First I flew straight south out over Buffalo Park and central Flagstaff. Even after penetrating out against the southwest wind almost to Route 66 , I was still about 500’ over the top. I turned down wind and just raced towards east Flagstaff but still arrived over 2000’ above ground level.. Doing multiple 360’s big lazy turns, and figure 8’s I worked my way down out in front of the landing area. We all discovered that we could fly directly above the I-40 Freeway and by pulling in for more speed be going as fast or faster than the cars that were traveling 60-65 mph. It was not hard to tell that we had a significant tailwind pushing us along. Finally with about 400 ‘ altitude left and up wind of landing I made a 180, zoomed down the free way over the cars to about 150’ and turned quickly onto final just over the landing area adjacent to the freeway. I could see very surprised looks on the faces of westbound drivers seeing a hang glider flying directly at them only a couple hundred feet or so above the oncoming traffic. The head wind slowed my ground speed down to about 10 mph and I just slowly flew down to a perfect landing in about 8-10 mph of west wind.

Celebration, New Launch and Years Gone By
That night we celebrated the first true soaring flights off Elden. We called everyone we could think of to tell them the news of the great new flying site discovery. Above all else we knew then that Elden was going to offer endless soaring and cross country flying opportunities for years to come, and it did.

Sometime back in the 1979-80 time frame the big Mt. Elden forest fire occurred. Having began my Navy Career in 1977 I was no longer living in Arizona. However, other Flagstaff pilots, taking advantage of the number of trees that were burnt and felled as a result of the fire, were able to finally build a new launch at the prime site over at the top of the main soaring bowl below the Microwave towers. After that the original launch fell into disuse and obscurity. Most pilots who have flown Elden since then have not even known it existed or of its significance in the history of opening up this great flying site to all. I recall that Rik Fritz and I walked down to the original launch sometime back around 1995 when I was visiting Flagstaff from California. He had looked for it before and did not know exactly where it was and even I had a little trouble finding the site at first too, but we did. Amazingly the original plywood launch ramp was still there, mostly rotted away. Small trees and bushes had begun to reclaim the launch, but the memories of the place filled my head with nostalgia. Now even that was some 7 years ago.

Since 1975, Mt. Elden has seen hundreds of pilots launch and soar her slopes, ride her thermals out into the desert, and experience the beauty of Northern Arizona from high above her summit. Record flights have been made and many stories have been told of great soaring days that started off the formally elusive Mt. Elden. Today I dream again, reflecting on my carefree days in the air over Elden so many years ago. I think of those I had known and shared such wonderful flying memories with and long to return. To hear the wind in the trees and smell the scent of the ponderosa pines being carried up with the lifting air. Most importantly to feel alive and young again once more in the blue skies over Elden.

By Chuck Rhodes - 03 June 2002

No comments: