First published in the May 6, 1993 Thermal Flyer by Chuck Rhodes.
Published again in October, 1998 Thermal Flyer.
Edited and resubmitted by Chuck Rhodes, 4 June 2002.
Hang Gliding Comes to Northern Arizona
As for early Flagstaff area flying I will try to fill in a few details as I remember them. I took lessons in May of 1974 from Rod Svoma at Chandelle Hang Gliding School in Phoenix and learned to fly on the Prescott Valley training hills. I advanced on my own to Shaw Butte in June 74 flying my 19' “Pappillion”, Lucky Campbell U.S. Hang Gliders standard rogollo. About that time my brother Bill forgot to hook his harness Pip Pin through both the harness loop and the control bar bracket on his 18' Pappillion. He then launched off Shaw Butte and his weight pulled the harness out of the bracket. Luckily he only broke both arms and had multiple lacerations and bruises when he fell out on take off landing on the rocks about 40 feet below after going through a small Palo Verde tree.
Being a NAU student at the time I thought I should have a source of fun income and decided to open a hang gliding school in Flagstaff. I borrowed $1200 from my grandmother, boy was she gullible, and bought 17', 18' and 20' tandem Pappillion U.S. Hang Gliders from Lucky. By August I was convinced that I must be an accomplished pilot due to soaring Shaw Butte for 5-10 minutes on several occasions. I promptly declared myself an instructor and with four gliders (a really cool thing) I headed up to Flagstaff to fly, teach, hopefully make some money, and maybe go to class at NAU.
In July 1974 the only place I knew to fly in Flagstaff was Sheep Hill on the east side of town. Some of Lucky's boys had flown there earlier. It wasn't a good training hill but it was okay for fun flying. Meanwhile I ran into a guy named Gary, last name (?) who was a Sun Kite dealer and also an NAU student. I also met Stu Arthur who had a really nice Manta Wing 18' Standard. Stu was one of the early Flagstaff pilots and the first hang glider pilot to ever fly off Mt. Elden. (See “Mt. Elden – First Flights” by Chuck Rhodes). Unfortunately he was killed in '79 or '80 flying a powered Easy Riser in Texas. About the same time I ran into Bill Nightwine and Jude Daggett. I think Bill had an 18' Chandelle and Jude had built a 17' Flexi-Flyer.
Government Prairie and Discovery of the Craters
Not recalling who told me about Government Prairie, I ended up on a hang gliding expedition there in August '74. Located about 25 miles west of Flagstaff just north of I-40, we found several 150'-400' grassy hills to fly. One was a really nice southwest by west facing ridge, about 1/4 mile long and about 150-200' high. Jude Daggett and I managed to get some 5-10 minute ridge soaring flights on it with our Standards in 20-25 mph winds. Of course we though it was a great site! You could drive to the top and there was plenty of landing area. It could also be flown in an east wind. We were stoked! Having never been there or seen it before, we thought we had found another Torrey Pines.
Calls went out to Lucky Campbell and the Phoenix flyers and by early September we had one of the first big Arizona fly-ins at Government Prairie. Almost all the Phoenix pilots and some Tucson guys showed up too. Flying continued there for about a month until Gary, the Sun Kite flyer, told me about this place east of Flagstaff that had some really high cinder craters. Of course we were eager to investigate anything of potential and went dashing out there. Here were these magnificent cinder craters just begging to be flown. Sometime later I remember Phoenix area hang glider pilot Bob Thompson telling me that he had flown out over that area in a airplane, and had seen the craters. He thought they had potential but had never gotten around to getting back up there to scout them out from the ground. Anyway, Merriam Crater was the grandest of them all but someone had told us there was no road up it. Happy just to fly Sheba Crater, we never bothered to drive around Merriam to really see if they were telling the truth.
In October '74, there was no road up Sheba Crater but Jude Daggett's Dodge 4WD managed to go straight up the northwest ridge. It was a scary, steep ride to the top. Cinders being thrown out behind the wheels, the rear end fish tailing and the whole truck bouncing its way up. We did make it and later learned to drive up the SW face ridge which was much less death defying.
One day when the winds were blasting out of the north/northwest about 25-30mph I tried to launch my 18' Pappillion standard about 2/3's of the way up Sheba. I quickly proceeded to go straight up and backwards while desperately trying to penetrate out. Flying seated, my body couldn't have been more out over the control bar while pulling in for all I was worth. My legs, head, shoulders, etc. all out as far as humanly possible trying to get forward penetration. There were no speed bars in those days. Managing to slow my backwards progress to a speed of 2-3 mph in reverse, I was able to get the glider low enough to touch the ground with my feet just as I reached the top. Unfortunately I also got the nose up, just a hair too much. The wind got it, the keel stuck in the ground. The glider and I did a 180 flip in about 1/2 second. I was slammed upside down breaking keel, king post and bruising my body! Luckily nothing serious happened to me. I repaired the glider and had learned a serious lesson about the pitfalls of high wind crater launching in standard Rogallo's. As far as I know, that was the first hang glider crash ever at the Craters. Some accomplishment, huh?
The Road Up to First Flights
Around late September or early October of '74, Jude Daggett, Bill Nightwine, myself and possibly Stu Arthur were out flying Sheba. A truck came over with some guys who had been out four wheeling. They asked us why we were not flying off Merriam Crater. We replied that we would love to but no one wanted to carry their gliders up 1000' of soft cinders since there was no road to the top. They said, “No road? There is a 4WD road on the NE side and we have just been up there!”
We couldn't believe our ears. Could these guys be for real? They volunteered to show us the way and you never saw four hang glider pilots get their gliders down and packed as quickly as we did that afternoon. Once we got around the east side of Merriam and saw the road up we felt like idiots. We had dreamed of flying there for a month but had never taken the time to drive around the whole base of the crater and see if there really was a way up.
Once on top, we stood in awe! Here was Nirvana, hang glider heaven. A thousand foot hill flyable in any direction with absolutely unlimited landing areas. We felt like the luckiest pilots on earth to be standing on top of such a fantastic flying site.
At first we just walked around the entire rim of the crater ranting and raving about its flying potential and scarcely believing our eyes. The wind was fluky and light. Somehow Jude Daggett got the honor of being the first to ever fly a hang glider off Merriam Crater.
Daggett's 17' Flexi-Flyer flapped its way down to a landing on the northeast side at the base of the road. The wind continued to be shifty and light and I ended up flying off the southwest side. I can remember that flight like it was yesterday. The sun getting low over Flagstaff, a light southwest breeze blowing in and on incredibly steep soft 1000' high cinder slope.
My trusty 19'red and white Standard just floated me off and I glided down through smooth cool Crater air landing at the south side LZ area. I was way stoked! I don't recall if Bill or Stu flew that day or if Stu was even there. He certainly was the next day. I think I called every hang glider pilot in Arizona telling them the news.
Fly-In Fun at Merriam
By the end of October we had the first Merriam Crater Fly-In. Lucky Campbell and all the Phoenix gang showed up. Mark Clarkson was there and wowed the crowd by doing an incredible three continuous 360 degree turns flying his 16' Standard Rogollo. Several months later he made the first real cross country flight off Merriam by flying that same little 16' Standard ten miles east to Grand Falls after thermalling out several thousand feet over the Crater. This was the longest 16' Standard glider flight that I had heard of involving thermal flying and an incredible feat for anyone flying a standard rogollo.
Everybody had a great time flying Merriam. A lot of pilots got their first 1000' high flights. We discovered the forgiving nature of soft sand and cinders when big Ron Svoma, 6'4", 230 pounds, flying a 20' Standard had a hard landing, and buried the nose two feet deep into the black Merriam sand. Other than getting a mouth full of sand and a bent control bar, he and the glider were okay. After that weekend the "hay-day" of Merriam Crater had began.
Crater Flying 75-76
In the next couple years Merriam and Sheba showed all their moods from hot, no wind days, to 80 mph plywood sheet flying wind storms. We flew in snow, rain, wind squalls, hot summer bumpy air and even experienced full moon soaring. The late great 16 year old pilot Tommy Goodman, Dave Shaw, Mark Warfel and John Lundgren made the first crater hopping flights from Merriam to Sheba. Larry Newman, of later first transatlantic balloon crossing fame, and his Electra Flyer hang gliding manufacturing company clan from Albuquerque, began showing up in the Spring of '75 on a regular basis thereafter to test fly the Electra Flyer Pathfinder and later their Cirrus, and Olympus glider designs. On one trip in '76 Larry came out with a prototype Olympus glider with aluminum fared ribs and double surface. Really on the cutting edge stuff at that time as regular gliders were still almost exclusively using flexible sail battens and were mostly single surface. It flew okay but didn't turn easily. If only he would have discovered the movable cross bar he would have easily beaten Roy Haggard and his UP Comet phenomenon by a couple of years. We all joked at dinner one night after spending the day test flying the prototype that he should call it the "Hoh-Toe-Dog", a name that had absolutely nothing to do with flying. We imagined people calling up Electra Flyer to ask "Hey, how's that new Hoe-toe-dog flying?" It went on to be the very successful Electra Flyer Olympus series of gliders.
Students by the dozens were experiencing their first flight and crater rash. My Adventure Sports Hang Glider School, based in Flagstaff, was doing well for awhile although later partnership problems, led to its unfortunate demise. Meanwhile Gary Waugh and several others from Phoenix began teaching there and Merriam's reputation as a great Hang 1 to Hang IV flying spot spread. Pilots heading east and west began stopping to fly. If we saw a glider on a car in Flagstaff from out of town, we would chase them down and try to convince them to stay and fly for a few days.
The camaraderie was great then and we were all so thrilled to be flying that we barely gave a second thought to hang gliding politics and the early manufacture competition wars of the day . Sure, there were some arguments and turf tiffs between dealers, but all-in-all it was really friendly rivalry. Sure we competed to see who could get the highest, stay up the longest, go the farthest, and claim bragging rights after the day's flying while sharing cold beers. It was flying stories, and the kinship of good flying buddies that made those times so fun. In that respect, they really were "good old days". This is not because the gliders performed that well, or were really that safe and well designed by today’s standards, but was primarily due to the close knit camaraderie among we fellow hang glider pilots. We were indeed a lucky few among billions that had discovered a gift of flying free with the birds. We were hang glider pilots; nothing else mattered!
A Trip Back and Recollections of Earlier Days
Many years have passed since the early Merriam Crater days but my memories remain clear. I went out there in July of '91 with my family after I had returned from Saudi Arabia and Desert Storm. I didn't have a glider, only a Chrysler Lebaron with some wind surfers on the roof. I just wanted to see Merriam and Sheba again. Talk about nostalgia overcoming you! I almost had a tear in my eye. The memories of many friends and flights I had there; faces of people and pilots I hadn't thought of in years; the pain of seeing Jude Daggett fall 100' off the South side of Merriam after take off due to failing to hook in and braking his back; knowing that my flying friend Joe Shaw was killed in his Fledge B model just over there on top of Merriam; seeing the smiles of many students who just tasted flight and their stories; and of the time I made my first cross country to Grand Falls on my UP Dragonfly in '75.
Walking up from the old NE side parking area to the top of Merriam I let the wind bring back the smells of the Arizona high desert. I could easily remember picking up Standards, Seagull III's, Pathfinders, Cirrus', Dragonflys, Icuras V's and my Mitchell Wing and flying off. Soon after a young pilot and his girlfriend came roaring up in his 4WD. He didn't know me but figured I was the "wuffo" with the car and the windsurfing gear parked down at the bottom. He proceeded to tell me all about flying Merriam where the good and the bad air was, how to avoid the slipstream on the side perpendicular to the wind direction, etc. I remember smiling and thinking to myself, if this guy only knew I had flown here before he had probably even heard of hang gliding.
Yes, Merriam was a great place and those were great days to be involved in hang gliding. Certainly none of us would trade our gliders and flying safety today for what we had then, but I bet a lot of us would like to see and experience the camaraderie we once had there, again.
So for those who may read this and were not around in the early times, think of this: the next time you fly over Merriam from Elden on your way cross country, look down, reflect for a moment about those who flew there years ago and the Arizona hang gliding history that was made at Merriam and Sheba when cross country flights off Elden were only fantasy.