First Salton Sea Fly-In

Salton Sea

I’m told the Salton Sea is the largest inland body of water in California. It’s certainly one of the most toxic. They say it will eat the gel coat off a boat hull in a week and I believe it. Not good for boating or fishing, no seaside sunbathers or palatial summer homes. There is only one thing the Salton Sea is good for and that’s …Flying.

Smooth laminar off shore breezes make it one of the premiere PPG sites in America and every February, pilots from all over the world come together to attend the Paratoys Fly-In. With four flights under my belt I figured I was ready and joined up with Brian, Doug and John Sieb to convoy down for the “Big Fly-in”. I was excited to meet all the guys I’d been listening to on the Internet podcasts and looking forward to the easy takeoffs we would have in the thick air two hundred feet below sea level. The plan was to drive to Albuquerque, fly that evening, campout and fly again in the morning. Then go southwest to the meteor crater in Arizona and fly it the second night. The next day we would push on to the Salton Sea hoping to get there in time for an evening flight.

Somewhere by Pueblo we hooked up with Ranger Bo. Ranger Bo is a hoot. Six-foot plus with a perpetual grin. He wears a ‘ZZ Top’ styled beard has unruly long hair and wild man eyes. Bo radiates good will, he is the kind of guy that the first minute you meet, you just know, here is guy who will give you the shirt off his back and be a friend for life. Bo had hung up his spurs after twenty years as an army paratrooper and later as a member of the elite group called rangers. He moved to Colorado with his German bride and was planning to live the rest of his life spending his pension and enjoying himself. I liked the guy immediately.
Bo flew the Airfer which was a beautiful paramotor with lots of chrome and anodized blue aluminum and he kept it clean and polished just as you expect an ex-ranger to do. He was the first pilot I’d met with a logoed wing, his said,’ RANGER BO’, in big block letters across the bottom. Gotta love it!

The Albuquerque site was on the top of a small ridge overlooking the high desert plain with a midsize Butte about 3 miles west. When we got there Brian and Bo immediately suited up and went for a flight. The terrain was very rocky with lots of scrub, but I’d seen how Brian was able to run around or jump most of the obstructions and I figured that if I was careful so could I. Wrong…After three attempts in the light air, I had only succeeded in twisting my knee and tangling my lines. Either I stumbled and dropped to one knee or failed to get a good inflation. Try as I might, I could not get enough forward speed for take-off. I knew that if I really torqued the knee, I would be grounded for the rest of the trip, so I decided to quit and save myself for an easier launch site. My knee seemed ok but it was starting to swell and I knew I would be limping in the morning. I put on the knee brace and hoped for the best.

Doug also tried to launch but crashed his trike when he caught a line in a bush just as he started to lift off. Luckily he wasn’t hurt but; he did break a prop, cut one of the glider’s lines and shattered his airbox. He was able to splice the broken line with some scrap Bo had and get the wing flyable. The propeller wasn’t a problem because we all carried an extra prop but the airbox was totaled and his only hope was to find a replacement at the fly-in. While Doug and I were struggling on the ground Brian, John and Bo were exploring the territory and generally doing what every 12 year old boy dreams about. I’ll never forget Brian’s landing. He wanted to get in close but misjudged his approach and was about to crash into the trucks. Only by pulling some early brake and extreme athleticism at touch down was he able to pull off a two-point landing that flew him over one truck and dropped him between the two other vehicles. Of course he laughed off the whole thing but we both knew he had dodged a bullet. That night we sat in Brian’s pop up camper ate, drank and told hanger stories until it was time for bed.

High altitude and clear skies made for a very cold sunrise. Since I wasn’t going to try another launch at this site, I decided to sleep in. When I finally crawled out of the sleeping bag and went outside I was treated to a great view of a really spectacular flight. John Sieb was making an aerial assault on the Butte. Because we had camped up high on the ridge, the terrain between us and the butte was several hundred feet down and John was flying close to the ground. You could see him weaving through the sparse trees on the plain below. Sometimes he would swing around a clump of trees other times he would pop over them. I watched with envy as he approached the Butte and climbed until he was able to circle the top. What a sport, able to navigate in three dimensions, without going swimming! He had been in the air for a couple of hours when he returned and you could tell from his demeanor, that it had been a special flight. Sometimes when a pilot lands he is so excited that he can barely contain himself, often hooping and hollering is the norm. This time was a little different because John quietly gathered up his wing and packed his motor in the truck. When I asked him about it later, he looked off in the distance and just smiled. I guess you just had to be there.

The drive from Albuquerque to Meteor City Arizona took us most of the day. Meteor City itself is nothing special, a trailer park and gas station with genuine imitation Indian handicrafts made in China. The crater is not part of the State or Federal Park system so we were not allowed to approach unless we wanted to join a tour and follow their guides around. We had arrived in plenty of time for a flight so John and Brian took off and explored the area. Doug’s motor was out of commission and my knee had stiffened up so we had to content ourselves with watching and wishing. The crater is a couple of miles south of the highway, from a distance it looks like a ridge, once again nothing special. I do want to come back here and try again because the pictures John brought back were pretty cool and there is a ruin on the way out that I would like to investigate. John misjudged his fuel landing short and out of gas. I was impressed though because he recognized the problem early and while he was still out by the crater climbed to a high enough altitude that he was able to glide most of the way back toward the LZ.

It was blowing pretty hard the next morning so we didn’t waste anytime getting on the road. Several hours later we were on the final leg, approaching the Salton Sea when for no obvious reason, Doug’s truck broke down. We called for a tow and left Doug at the truck to wait, while the rest of us jumped into Brian’s rig and drove the last couple of miles to the Fly-in.
I saw the gliders off in the distance, there were dozens of them in the air, all going nowhere slowly. As soon as we had checked in, John and Brian carried their machines down to the beach and took off. I was limping pretty badly and opted to rest my knee until the next morning. That night Brian introduced me around and I wandered up to the “clubhouse” where I met Tim Russman, the photographer/videographer emeritus for Powered Paragliding. Tim is responsible for ninety percent of the PPG movies available. I had seen just about everything he had done so we had plenty to talk about. I also met Bob Peters, (a.k.a. Bubba), who had come out with his wife and a large group from the Pikes Peak PPG Club. I declined to join their sing-a-along but stayed around to enjoy the music. It was early to bed and early to rise because I was determined that the next day I would be flying!