Doing It With Style
by Paul Gazis

Why do you fly cross country?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? I'm sure you must have. And if you're like most XC pilots, you could probably give many answers -- the freedom, the challenge, the beauty, the sense of accomplishment. Still, is this really the whole story? If you're like most XC pilots, you probably have two goals that are less abstract, more concrete, easier to quantify, and more important than all the rest. These can be summed up in one simple phrase:

Get high and go far!

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

I'll even go one step further. If you're like most XC pilots -- and I know, because I'm one of them -- I'll bet that if you examine the depths of your soul you'll find that you really have only one goal. This goal can be summed up in two simple words:

Go far!

There's nothing wrong with this. Distance is a fine and glorious goal to pursue, and I've pursued it myself. Like the rest of you, I fantasize about taking a summer off to try and break Tudor's record. Like the rest of you, I'm impressed by pilots who can make the commitment, accept the exposure, head out low over unlandable terrain, and pull it off. If nothing else, this can make for some incredible stories. Still, before you go out to collect stories of your own, you should ask yourself this question:

What kind of stories do I want to collect?

Cross country is wonderful, if you do it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to do it for the wrong reasons. It's easy, all too easy, to fall victim to what I call the 'disease of numbers'; to forget the flight itself and focus only on numbers in a logbook, competition results, or the forms and barograph trace you're hoping to submit to the FAI. This is fine, if numbers are REALLY what you want, but I suspect that most pilots want something else. I suspect that most pilots measure themselves by the distance they fly because it's the only measure that our culture recognizes. Our media, our clubs, and our peers pay attention to distances, times, competition results, and records because these things are easy to measure. Then, in the absence of any alternative, we secretly dream about distances, times, competition results, records.

I want to propose an alternative to the 'disease of numbers'. This alternative can be summed up in one word:


What, you may ask, is 'style'? It's hard to put into words, but I can give some examples.

Style is NOT

  • A shaky launch.
  • Flailing around in the air.

  • Heading out low across unlandable terrain without any real idea what you'll do if you sink out.

  • Committing yourself to fields in which you couldn't possibly land.

  • Doing things you know are unwise.

  • Accepting exposure, not because you WANT to, but because you think it's EXPECTED of you.

  • Pounding in an easy landing in a beautiful green field next to an isolated rural college filled with attractive members of the appropriate gender and/or species.
  • Style IS

  • Using your brain.

  • Good solid skills.

  • Flying well enough to stay high so you can cross unlandable terrain with some margin of altitude.

  • Knowing where you'll go if you sink out.

  • Making good decisions and pulling them off.

  • Recognizing exposure BEFORE you accept it, and only accepting that exposure if you, AND YOU ALONE, are prepared to make that commitment.

  • Finishing your flight with a perfect landing in a beautiful green field next to an isolated rural college filled with attractive members of the appropriate gender and/or species who are so impressed by your prowess that they ask you for my phone number.
  • One of the best XC pilots I know said, "The real question in XC is how much you're willing to inconvenience yourself." It's true. The pilots who fly the farthest are often the ones who accept the most exposure, and you can often tack quite a few miles onto a flight by taking a few chances. Chances that don't pay off can lead to 'inconvenience'.

    This 'inconvenience' can take many forms: a long hike out, broken aluminum, an argument with a landowner, a night in the desert, or a ride in a helicopter followed by a day or two in intensive care. All of these things make for good stories, but I ask you again, are these the kind of stories you want to collect?

    There's a special kind of glory in flying near the edge of ones abilities, taking chances that later seem foolish, flailing around at the narrow edge of fear, and then saving oneself through determination, will, and the power of one's own living brain. You've done it, I've done it, and we're all going to do it again because we know that nothing can compare with that feeling. What we tend to forget is that there's a different kind of glory -- more subtle, perhaps, but also more satisfying -- in staying within the limits of our abilities but flying extremely well. We might not always fly quite as far that way (though sometimes we fly even farther!) but we get there in style.

    If you don't believe me, let me ask one question:

    What are the flights you remember; the ones you enjoyed the most?

    Are they the long ones? Of course they are! But I bet you also remember some of the shorter flights; flights where you didn't win the day; flights that don't even seem remarkable, until you look back and remember how everything went so well. I'll even bet that if you sat down and honestly tried to decide which kind of flight was the best you'd find it was pretty much a tie.

    Glory is fun, but so is style.

    Food for thought, isn't it?

    Paul Gazis is a California hang glider pilot. This article appeared on the Internet hang gliding mailing list ( Reprinted with permission of the author.

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