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Naked and afraid at 300 feet

HanggliderB

I am forced to accept that most of my readers clamour for some sort of salacious experience. Sadly, anyone searching here for such things is going to be heavily disappointed. But my last exposure (stop panting, you at the back) of some of the motivating factors behind my latest creation – Frank Eric Russell, variously Captain, Colonel, Commander and briefly an Admiral – seemed to be quite popular.

The plain fact is that I have drawn on some of my own experiences for Frank’s adventures. In the 1970s, I had been drawn by a combination of stupidity, impecunity, and a rash desire for airtime to dip a toe into the world of hang gliding. I had tried flying sailplanes, but that was too time consuming  and expensive. And could be quite dangerous, too. As a teenager I had done some flying at a lovely cliff top airfield called Perranporth, next to Newquay in Cornwall. Here, the preferred method of launching a glider was to tow it into the air on a long cable behind an old ex US Army truck. When the wind was directly onshore, the cliffs provided loads of lift and the gliders could soar the cliffs for ages. But the method of launch was to rev up the truck, engage gear and drive as fast as possible towards the cliff edge until either your nerve or the tarmac ran out. That was as exciting as the flying, and considerably more dangerous.   But great fun!

Frank is rightly suspicious of all forms of the media, fearing that anything he said would be misrepresented or even simply invented, at a reporter’s whim. In my experience he was entirely correct. The British newspapers initially raved about the hang gliding community, calling us ‘intrepid birdmen’ and other such complimentary epithets. Until the fatal accidents began to happen, as intrepid pilots took their machines far beyond their design envelopes, or intended usage. Then a different story took hold, and it seemed that half of the UK Parliament was demanding that we stopped using these new machines.

launch

I was interviewed by one such reporter, a svelte young lady from the BBC. Complete with a camera crew and dressed appropriately for standing on a city street corner to do vox pop interviews, she was talking to assorted scruffy pilots on a cold, windy, Yorkshire hillside composed of boggy peat ground with occasional rocks floating sullenly on the surface. As the wind on the hilltop was about 22 mph, the camera crew were getting some good footage of the flying and in a good mood. The young lady, who hadn’t realised that hang gliding took place in the genuine Great Outdoors interviewed me for local television. I was unable to take her seriously as she questioned me earnestly while slowly leaning backwards as the points of her high heeled shoes sank inexorably into the peat bog. The camera team were having hysterics in the background. I don’t think the piece was ever shown. Probably just as well. At least one of us was laughing so hard at her that he messed up his launch and managed to crash taking off. The camera crew had missed the shot because they were trying to recover first the reporter and then her designer shoes from the peat bog. I recall that her report on us was unfavourable.

Crashing was an occupational hazard. We all did it sometimes. The most embarrassing was a ground loop. The poor pilot suffering one of these invariably found his glide inverted on the ground, with him(or her) held uncomfortably about four feet off the ground and quite unable to get free without help. You may have read some of the less complimentary things said to poor Frank about his flying escapades? Trust me, these pale into insignificance against the gleeful insults that headed towards the unfortunate trapped pilot after a ground loop.

Mind you, I did once suffer an even more embarrassing incident. No, not the naked hang gliding. Even worse than that. The favoured training site at the time was a hill above Rochdale with a curious history. During both World Wars, it had seen some use as a target for artillery training. Presumably on the lines of ‘Let’s see if you can hit that hill, lad, before we let you loose trying to hit a German. They’re a bit smaller than the hill!” As a result the lower slopes of the hill were pitted with shell holes. A curiosity for hill walkers, a death trap to hikers in the snow, and an annoyance to the golfers on the nearby golf course if they mis hit a drive.

I suspect some of you can already guess where this is going? And yes, I once managed a perfect landing in a shell hole. The keel tube and leading edges of my glider settled perfectly across the top of the shell hole, leaving me dangling from the seat over an eight foot drop. To my mates on the top of the hill, it looked as if I had landed and laid the glider flat on the floor ( a normal safety measure). Only after twenty minutes, when someone landed close enough to hear my hoarse pleas for assistance was my plight revealed…

I did mention that I wrecked my chances of an international team place, and my daughter badgered me until I told her the truth. So I suppose that I’d better come clean here too. Frank would have sympathized with me here as a combination of stupidity and bad luck left me in difficulties: an experience I’ve replicated for him. Was it cathartic? Not for Frank.

The trial took place in South Wales, on a beautiful, haunted mountain called Y Skirrid. At the bottom is an inn, reputed to be the most haunted pub in Britain. My shade nearly joined the others in their haunting, that day. The launch site was on the North West slope, above a deep, forested valley with a tree covered ridge beyond, and a small wood falling gently away to the landing ground. My Standard Skyhook 3A was rigged, and I was waiting my turn to go. There was a strict launch window of two minutes: fail to go in that time, and you were eliminated. The pilot before me had flown off the hill into a nice thermal, and lifted happily in warm rising air over the hazard and down to the landing ground.

Standing at the edge of the hill, I tossed some grass into the air and watched glumly as it sank rapidly out of sight. For those who don’t know, a thermal is a column of warm, rising air: surrounded entirely by a collar of colder, sinking air. “Now, or never”, intoned the launch marshall, his pen poised to strike my name from the list. I picked up the Skyhook, and with more fear than enthusiasm, trotted over the edge into the still, sinking air. The Skyhook plummeted like a stone, and when I had sorted her out with some flying speed, we were looking up at the trees on the ridge line. Like any other glider, a hang glider is always descending through the air and only soars when the air itself is rising faster than the glider is falling, if you follow me. The sinking air had carried us down into the valley, with nowhere to land except on top of some distressingly high trees.

Luckily, the launch spot had been close to one end of the valley. Trying not to think about the sharp treetops reaching for my tender regions, I turned right and flew carefully to the valley end. My sigh of relief was short lived. The woods ran down towards the lovely green fields with the designated and entirely obstruction free landing area. But the Skyhook was sinking fast. We were too low to get beyond the tree line to safety, and a crash – possibly a fatal crash – seemed imminent. The variometer bleeped.

A variometer is a cunning little device. A variety of altimeter, it works on the same principle. But instead of recording how high (or in this case, how low) you are, it tells the eager pilot if his glider is going down – or climbing. On the descent from Y Skirrid, it had howled in my ears like a demented banshee prophesying death and destruction: now it gently beeped, whispering that we were climbing. The beep could mean salvation, rather than an out of season impersonation of a christmas tree ornament.

I leaned to my left and the Skyhook responded. Flying as slowly as I dared and keeping just above the stalling speed, we crept back along the tree infested ridge line, slowly rising as we went. The treetops stopped groping at me with malicious intent and retreated to being dangerous. A glance towards the landing field showed me several of my fellow pilots running around and waving their arms frantically as they recognized my plight. I’m sure that it helped them, but it didn’t do much for my confidence.

The variometer beeped softly for a last time, and then fell silent. I guessed that I had screwed every foot of lift out of the ridge that I was going to get. If another thermal turned up, then the sinking air that surrounded the thermal would get to me before the life saving lift. It was time to go. I turned away from the ridge of trees and accelerated to the speed that gave the best gliding distance. Yes, I made it. The branches reached for me a last time as the Skyhook crossed the treeline, but fell away, disappointed. I touched down safely a minute later and pretended nothing unusual had happened. International competition flying was not for me. The Team Selectors concurred without bothering to ask my opinion which I felt was a little rude, to be honest.

Flying in North Wales was much more fun. Especially in the summer, when the favoured landing ground was the beach. A beach full of sunbathing girls on their holidays, who were fascinated to see an intrepid birdman swoop down from a distant hill to, well, fall over ungracefully with sixty pounds weight of hang glider on top of him. That’s what you get for being distracted. Frank would understand that all too well.

Then there was Snowden. A whole group of us started off up the Rangers’ Track, but sixty pounds of hang glider is a heavy weight to carry up a serious mountain so we didn’t manage to climb to the top of the highest point in Wales. A convenient ridge most of the way up was agreed as ‘being high enough’. Flying back down was fraught with interest as landing anywhere but back where we came from would mean a long, tedious, strenuous hike back to the cars…

hang glider hikimng

I do feel that I know many of my readers personally. That’s the reason I understand that you have plowed through all this waiting for the anecdote about the naked hang gliding. Yes, it happened. But there’s no photographic evidence, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Most of my fellows who joined in for the bet are either a) dead, b) entirely forgetful, or c) in denial. Except for my friend ‘X’ who; like the rest us, had strapped some clothes to the keel tube of his glider for decency after landing. But unlike the rest of us, he strapped his clothes close to the end of the tube… the wrong side of a securing bolt… and halfway down the hill discovered that his hopes of modesty were fluttering away in the breeze of his passage. Took him half an hour to find them, scattered across the hillside, and we decided that a sheep had probably made off with his underwear. ‘X’ will probably carry that memory, but I doubt that he will admit to it!

There’s no phot0 here. Sorry.

So there you go. Frank Eric Russell is about to fly off into the sunset in his final (for now) adventure, carrying with him several of my memories. And others that I haven’t used on him yet. I hope he keeps them safe – I might need them for him…

 

 

Headbutting a rock, and other hobbies

Headbutting Rocks is a strange hobby

Both my publicist (doesn’t that make me sound upmarket?) and several former publishers have encouraged me to write blog posts in which I ‘interview’ the main character, and perhaps a few other characters, from a forthcoming book. With Galactic Fugitive launched, and Star Spy -the final planned book in this first Space Opera collection – now in editing, I have been reminded by them again that this would be a brilliant idea.

 

There is a problem. A big problem. You see, and I haven’t admitted this before: there is something about the main character, the hapless Frank Eric Russell. Now the name may be vaguely familiar to some of you. I make no apology for thoroughly enjoying the 1950s and 1960s sci fi scene. One of the writers then was Eric Frank Russell, and I would commend all his works to you. If you like your sci fi dotted with wit, humour and bad puns, then I would particularly suggest that you seek out his book Next of Kin. You will love it. I did. In fact I still do, as my 40 year old paperback edition still graces my bookshelves.

Sorry, I digress. I do it a lot, it drives my partner mad. Anyway, there is something about Frank that causes me a problem for such an interview. Frank is me. Or rather, he is the 20 year old me who was mad about hang gliding. In the early 1970s, this was a risk sport. Not just because the Insurance Companies thought so, but because it genuinely was dangerous and I have a lot of missing friends from that time who never grew old enough to reminisce about the old times. My online friends know that I’m really rather reticent. Quite private in many ways. You will not find out very much about me from my bios on line, and I rather like it that way. But I’m going to break the habit, and actually reveal a corner or two. Just bear in mind that it is to shed a bit of light on Frank, rather than on me, okay?
Hang gliding was something that I fell into, just as Frank rather fell into being a scout pilot. He had not planned his career that way, and I hadn’t planned mine like that either. But I did discover when I was 18 that the severe, indeed almost deadly, dose of measles I had at 6 years old had in fact damaged my eyesight so badly that the job I dreamed of having – flying passenger jets – was not to be mine as my eyesight, on test, was deemed to be too close to the minimum limits for a commercial pilot and was expected to fall below those limits by the time I was 28. That meant that the cost of training me as a commercial pilot, in those days borne by the airlines not the prospective pilot ( and that second option would not have ben available to me either with only one retired parent left alive), was not a commercial prospect. But as it happened, a close friend had come across hang gliding in an American magazine, had discovered that it actually happened over here too and was keen to have a go. He involved me as I a) had a car, and b) actually had flying experience because I did some gliding in the summer holidays and was allowed to be solo on sailplanes. I was dragged, half protesting, into an activity I knew little about and viewed with the greatest suspicion. If you’ve read Space Scout of The Free Union,  you might just recognize a little of Frank’s circumstances in there, and how he came to be part of the Reconnaissance Unit.

 

The first hang glider I acquired (actually I had a part share) was an elderly glider actually reconfigured from a machine previously used for being towed behind a speedboat, and quite unsuitable for free flight. Dark green, to blend in with the grass, and with solid steel tubing rather than aviation quality aluminium, it was appropriately called a Grasshopper. It never rose far from the ground except on one memorable occasion. The first time my friends and I took it out to a flying site, the wind was quite strong. The two or three other hang glider pilots on the site had their machines flat on the floor, tied down, and were sheltering from the blast in a hollow. We took a democratic vote and then strapped the smallest of us into the glider, dragged him to the edge of the steep hill and let go. The Grasshopper shot vertically upwards to a height of about 20 feet, a feat it never managed to repeat. The hapless pilot hung there, quite motionless in the air, and called down: “How do you control it?” As we didn’t know, we were unable to tell him. We did however shout loads of well meaning, if contradictory and confusing, advice and eventually the Grasshopper returned to earth.

One by one we upgraded to more effective gliders. Mine was a Skyhook 3A. On that I became one of the handful of pilots in the UK to keep a hang glider aloft for over an hour, a feat I chiefly recall as being monotonous , bladder stretching and cold, at a place above Bolton called Winter Hill. Frank would fully understand the monotony of flying slowly from one end of a four hundred foot long slope to the other – and back again. Lots and lots of times. Truthfully, on those early gliders it was quite a feat of skill and endurance, but I thought little of it at the time. It certainly did not fill me with confidence in my own ability, or any recognition that I might have done something remarkable. Does the parallel with Frank’s view of his skillset seem familiar now? On that Skyhook 3A I flew from the upper reaches of Mount Snowden in North Wales, was first introduced to my favourite place in the world, Rhossili Bay in West Wales, and even tried a few competitions. I did manage by accident to be a finalist in the 1976 National Hang Gliding Championships, and still have (how sad am I then?) the badge I was awarded as a finalist for accidentally achieving a precision landing. I had actually flown down the course rather faster than I had intended, and had needed to land carefully to avoid crashing into a previous competitor who was a bit slow vacating the landing zone. As a result I had a trial for the International squad, which I blew from a lack of confidence.

everardskyhookiiia1975augustbritchamps

Photocredit: Everard  Cunion launches a Skyhook 111A at Mere, 1975

At a later competition, I was hit by a rogue gust of wind just after launch on the second task. I was told later that a pilot from my club who was watching, and who was standing more or less where I would have crashed if I had lost control, remarked: ‘Nothing to worry about. See how fast he reacted? Will’s more than capable of handling that. But watch: he’ll then duck out of completing the task when he could go on to do well.’ He was right, that was just what happened. No self confidence, see? Just like Frank. That’s why I can relate to him.

It has been said in reviews that Frank is too cowardly to be realistic or entertaining as a hero placed into unlikely situations. I didn’t feel a hero as I grimly held onto one corner of the control frame of the glider, preventing the aircraft from spinning to the right and crashing into the (rapidly scattering) crowd behind me. Nor did I feel especially skillful, just a bit of a failure. Again. But you will agree that it does represent a bit of an unlikely situation.

Some memories are fun, and do feed into Frank’s adventures. On one visit to Rhossili, the wind was just right in direction and speed. It was possible on my Flexiform Spirit, the glider I look back on with the most affection, to launch from the main hill on Rhossili Down and after gaining a little height soar past the outdoor cliff top dining/drinking area of The Worm’s Head pub (accepting the admiring stares of the girls as a pilot’s rightful dues) and then continue across the churning, sphincter clenching, watery chasm beyond to soar along to the end of The Wyrm’s Head itself before returning to the safer cliffs near the pub: and one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (according to Trip Advisor) as a landing ground. I did it once. Just like Frank I lacked the bottle for a second performance, although inevitably several of my friends did the trip a number of times and lived to tell the tale.

Flexi-Spirt- Rhossili

Crashes: yes there were a few. A badly broken arm, reset without any pain relief at Blackburn Royal (“That’s self inflicted damage and you don’t deserve any anesthetic,” said the surgeon) and per the headline on the blog, narrowly avoiding headbutting a rock at 40 mph during a crash on an attempted landing at Parlick Fell in the Trough of Bowland. Not on my beloved Spirit, but on a Flexiform Vector, a radical and ultimately unsuccessful design. I had a prototype cheap, as a test pilot. The coach for the national team, who sadly subsequently died on his glider, tried my Vector and told me that day: ‘On that glider you are either going to get very good, or very dead’. I flew it a lot for the next two years, and survived without any other injury. Perhaps I did get very good. Like Frank did, flying his Speedbird. I don’t know. I did avoid getting dead, though.

Lost: I’ve flown other aircraft too. Perhaps another time I’ll talk about that. But I recall flying solo in a Piper Cherokee to the north of Cheltenham when haze obscured the ground entirely, and in moments I had even less idea of where I was than I had enjoyed a minute or so earlier. Roads, rivers, villages, towns: all vanished below this silvery sheen. It was very pretty but potentially deadly. And worse, to the east lay a whole series of military bases whose airspace was forbidden to private pilots who didn’t ask permission first. Straying into one of those would cause me a world of trouble. When Frank was lost, I knew how he felt – or maybe it was the other way round? Like Frank, I relied on my basic training to get me out of danger, and it did. A lesson that created a part of one story and hopefully helped me make it feel real for the readers.

Piper Cherokee

Frank never seems to learn much about himself. I would love to be able to say that hang gliding taught me a great deal about myself. It didn’t. I lacked the introspection because, like Frank, I was too busy having fun. I have a video clip – originally on Super 8, then transferred to video and now on DVD – of this impossibly young long haired idiot with a big grin strapping into his red, yellow and white Flexiform Spirit and lifting off the edge of a hillside into the air before turning to fly along the hill and climbing away into the distance. “I’ve never seen anyone get so high on this hill! That was amazing!” another pilot said to me after my return to terra firma. But all I could think about was the firm terror I had experienced when an extremely strong thermal had refused to let me land on my first, frantic, attempt and had nearly thrown me backwards into the power lines that run across Baildon Moor; before pushing me several hundred feet up into the sky, tossing me around like a leaf and then releasing me to glide down with some semblance of dignity. I can’t recall what I said in reply. I’m sure Frank would have found a pithy retort. I envy him that. How come I can’t do it and he can?

Occasionally, Frank’s natural caution slips a bit and he does something foolhardy. I can relate to that. It’s an error of judgement. Rather like the one I made that led to me being the fourth person (as far as I know. Claim not tested by independent fact checkers.) in the UK to fly a hang glider at night. In my defence, there was a full moon, if that makes things a little more understandable. And snow. A lot of snow. And enough wind to mean that even though I was launching from a site called Nont Sarahs, close to the pub of that name, I would be able to land back on the top of the hill close to the car park rather than at the bottom of the hill, which was littered with dangerous boulders and rabbit holes. And had a partly frozen lake as a drowning hazard. Unlike Frank when he was being uncharactistically adventurous, I was accompanied by a small group of friends. Not that they helped, as they all insisted that I should be the first to try the conditions for suitability.

One of the clichés that swirl around authors is the saying ‘write what you know’. If I ever need to write about a character experiencing bowel loosening terror, I only have to reflect on my own feelings when, at 150 feet above some of the most jagged and inhospitable rocks Yorkshire has to offer, a cloud covered the moon. The ground became invisible. I had no way of knowing if I was tracking along the face of the hill, and thereby safely maintaining height, or drifting off to the right of the hill with a half frozen lake beckoning me to a watery grave, or to the left where the rock teeth offered an unpleasant prospect, or moving forward out of the band of rising air, in order to sink down amongst the leg shattering boulders. After three lifetimes, or possibly as long as 30 seconds, the cloud drifted away and the glorious moonlight appeared again. I was able to set up a landing approach without further delay. To my amazement, two of my friends tried the experience as well. In the welcoming warmth of the pub afterwards, we agreed that while memorable, we probably would avoid the experience in future.

So there you have it. An interview with Frank Eric Russell, revealing some of the formative experiences that made him who I am; sorry, I mean who he is, of course. Anyone know where I can find a second hand Speedbird?
Frank Eric Russell’s adventures are chronicled in: Space Scout of The Free Union; Infinity is for Losers; Rogue Pilot; Interstellar Mercenary and Galactic Fugitive.

All are presently available for Kindle and paperback via Amazon, with further outlets planned for next year.

I OWE IT ALL TO TOLKIEN *

SFF history being made…

John Jarrold's Blog - SF, Fantasy and Life.

*Note spelling

I owe it all to Tolkien (and PLEASE spell this name
correctly. It’s not difficult. Nor is it
‘Tolkein’).

I’d been reading SF and Fantasy regularly since I was 14, in 1967. I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS in 1971 (I’d never read THE HOBBIT as a child). It changed my life.  Because I am an obsessive.  So I grabbed every book I could find by and about JRR Tolkien.  Including the Coles Notes, which mentioned a Tolkien Society in the USA.  I wrote to Tolkien’s publishers, Allen & Unwin, to ask if there was a Tolkien Society in the UK.  There was. I joined.

From there I went to parties with other members of the society and found out about the monthly London SF Meeting – then at the Globe pub in Hatton Garden on the first Thursday of the month.  I first attended in November…

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New Release – Cursed Legacy By Jade Kerrion

Ch'kara SilverWolf

Today I have a New Release, Cursed Legacy, book three in the Lord of Ocean series by my friend Jade Kerrion.  This is a totally awesome series and I highly recommend it.

Cursed Legacy

Description1

Family is all he has left…
What–or who–will he pay to save the Earth?

Transformed by dark energy, the mer-king Zamir is a chimera–a seamless tapestry of skills…a mangled mess of memories.

Yet through all the catastrophes he has witnessed–many of his own making–he has learned one thing.

Family matters; especially the last of his bloodline, his grandson, Kai.

A straightforward quest to rebuild his shattered empire and set his grandson upon the throne is thwarted by the soul shards in his chimeric personality.

Zamir has enemies, far more than he imagined. And their hate is brutally raw.

One of them, Marduk, possesses the power of a god, and in his attempt to right a perceived…

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Coming Soon – Where The Wind Blows By Simone Beaudelaire

Ch'kara SilverWolf

I have a soon to be released novel for you.  Where The Wind Blows, a contemporary romance by my friend Simone Beaudelaire, it is up for pre-order now.

When the Wind Blows SIMONE

Description1

The irresistible harmony between musicians creates a passionate symphony, but past discords and present clashes sour the melody. Can their love finally ring true?

When workaholic choir director Brooke Daniels catches the eye of handsome African-American opera singer Kenneth Hill, the harmony between them hits just the right note.

As their desires crescendo, dissonances complicate their harmonious duet. Brooke’s troubled history threatens her ability to commit, while Kenneth’s loved ones question the wisdom of their interracial relationship.

Torn between their growing love and internal and external pressures, Brooke and Kenneth must delve deep into their hearts to discover what they truly desire. Will they finally succumb to discord, or will they allow their love to soar?

Note: This interracial contemporary romance…

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New Release – Killer Geezer By T. Jackson King

Ch'kara SilverWolf

Today I have a New Release Killer Geezer, book one in Transcendent series by my friend T. Jackson King.  I look forward to reading this new adventure.

Jack Hansen is a 70 year old geezer living alone in Santa Fe whose mind is suddenly hit by a white flash. Moments later he is able to set fire to one mugger, melt down a second, knife a third and knock out a fourth. All before 6 a.m.! Jack likes the psychic powers that are suddenly making him powerful and almost invulnerable. But are these powers natural or supernatural? And why did they come to him? Follow his adventures and his discovery the world is not as it seems to be!

AMAZON US       AMAZON UK

WEBSITE       FACEBOOK       TWITTER

AMAZON AUTHOR

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New Release – Confessions of The Underworld Boater By Jade Kerrion

Ch'kara SilverWolf

This New Release is going to be a monthly serial.  It’s an awesome read and I can’t wait for each episode.  It’s called Confessions of The Underworld Boater, Season 1, episode 1, by my friend Jade Kerrion.

Confessions

Description1Losing my job wasn’t the problem…
Being recalled was.

No one believes in the Greek gods anymore, which leaves me with nothing to do at the banks of the river Styx.

Boredom isn’t an excuse for bad judgment, but I should have known better than to hang out in Fort Lauderdale.

The nightclub owned by my elder brother Thanatos—Death—is the hottest destination on the beach, until mortals inexplicably sicken and die—

—and show up at the Styx.

The displaced mortals are the first pawns in the long-overdue war between the gods of Olympus and the offspring of the Titans—the children of Nyx, my siblings and me.

My name is…

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