Fly Ins / Meetups:

The 2014 Blackhawk Ranch April Fly-In

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Blackhawk Ranch Fly-in: Camp site

Our campsite 🙂

Wow, what a fly-in. I don’t know where to start! Certainly the best one I’ve been at to date. 4 days and 5 nights of what I’ve found myself describing as “Little House on the Prairie meets paramotor.”

Blackhawk Ranch Fly-in: Flowers

There were wildflowers everywhere in the mornings 🙂

The Blackhawk Ranch is nestled in the foothills running up against the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in Valley Springs, California, which is about and hour and a half by car southeast of Sacramento. It’s 1,700 acres of rolling green grass, oak trees, mysterious angled slats of rocks which point upwards towards the sky at 45 degree angles, streams, and animals. Lot’s of animals. The property is actually a working cattle ranch owned by the Robinson family. But in addition to cows there’s also horses, wild turkeys, bobcats, cougars, hawks, eagles, turkey vultures, and lizards… Lots of lizards. It could even be described as a nature preserve I’m sure in some circles.

Blackhawk Ranch Fly-in: Scout Closeup

Love the prop on the Scout!

Right in the middle of that 1,700 acres is a plot of 325 acres, the majority of which is shaped by a gently sloping valley that has a dirt runway running along it’s base and is accented by luscious green grass fields on either side. It’s seeded grass though and so it very similar to lawn grass. In short, imagine a green grass PPG field that’s absolutely huge (say maybe 6-8 Home Depot’s), surround on both sides by camp sites and RV’s with all of your friends and all the camping adventures and shenanigans that go along with that. Then you’ll start to have a small glimpse of what our time was like.

Blackhawk Ranch Fly-in:  Joe's Trailer

My dream toy hauler – Just big enough but no more

But only when you add in the perspective from the air do you get a proper impression of the overall experience. And that is why we are so fortunate to be able to practice such a great sport in such a great place. I will remember this fly in and these adventures for the rest of my life.

Blackhawk Ranch Fly-in: Cone

You ready?

Each day had it’s flying excursions and the choice of destinations was many. To the best of my knowledge there are 5? lakes in the area but we only choose to pursue two. The wind this year wasn’t optimal at times, but none the less everything else about the experience made up for it. That’s what is so great about this fly-in, in that it offers so much to do. Although I desperately wanted to, I didn’t get to shot any imagery from the air this time, as mechanical issues ate into my trip.. But more about that later.

Blackhawk Ranch Fly-in: Dog

“The Patrolman”

I decided to get up to the ranch earlier this year, as I felt it went just too quickly last year. With arriving Wednesday instead of Thursday though, I still felt it went too fast! I believe next year I’ll arrive Tuesday instead :). The fly-in doesn’t officially start until Thursday, for the record. Having said that, some of the motorhomes arrive as early as the weekend before. It’s my feeling that this fly-in will quickly push it’s way to the top of the annual PPG destination list as the word gets out.

Blackhawk Ranch Fly-in: Scout Again

The Scout’s clean lines and sleek carbon looks made it a crowd favorite

I loaded up early Wednesday morning after feeling a bit under the weather. That turned out to be allergies now looking back, as I’ve had a problem lately with them but that’s another story – It’s amazing what 5000mg of Vitamin C and a nap will do when you’re in a pinch though.

Blackhawk Ranch Fly-in: Trike

The angle of attack on climb out was impressive!

By 9am I was awake again and was able to hit the road by 10:00. I’m fortunate in that the Blackhawk Ranch is only 2:45 from my house. This really works when I need a part and want to fly the same day as well. Anyhow, the time seemed to fly by and before I knew it I was in Valley Springs on the single lane roads you have to take to get into the ranch.

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A pair of Scouts 🙂

I was hoping for a group of wild turkeys to cross the road in front of me but I wasn’t so lucky this time; this did happen the last time I came to the ranch though. Anyhow, I quickly made my way across the valley you encounter when first entering the ranch towards to same oak tree we camped under last year. It’s starting to become “our” tree if you know what I mean 🙂

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The ranch colors complemented this PPC well

After setting up camp and cracking a cold one, or should I say.. The other way around, I decided that I’d wait until the morning for my first flight and enjoyed the evening next a fire by myself and some good food, some good beer, and some good relaxation. I did wander around a bit and meet a few of the other folks who were as early to the fly-in as me.

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Mike’s dog Buddy…

Thursday morning I woke with a penchant to fly. That I did and was reminded of just how beautiful the ranch is from the air. The day was spent chatting with arriving PPG’ers, throwing balls for the dogs roaming around, and paying a visit to Luis in the barn who was building brand new motors that needed to be shipped out. Mike also threw me a carbon prop to try out and I had my first flight on it Thursday evening. At the same time the 4′ white extension wire from my temp gauge decided to break somewhere along the line internally, so I had no way of knowing what the CHT was on my motor with this other prop – Note to self, bad idea to fly on new prop with no temp indication, but more on that later.

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Jack Russell’s are fun!

As the day rolled on, more and more tight friends started rolling in. Trevor Meeks and Brian Thivierge were a couple of the first. Brian was staying in luxury accommodations (his parents RV on the other side of the field) but Trevor was quick to set up his tent and cooking area under our tree. I always love camping with Trevor around as he brings a lot of extra food, offers it to you, and even offers to cook it for you, lol. Not only that but I find when I’m not camping “efficiently”, he offers an easier way that makes more sense, whatever it may be about. A little bit later Shane Denherder rolled in. He flew from Salt Lake, rented a car and brought 3? wings with him. Trevor had brought both a Scout and a Talon 175, so Shane had a motor to fly. By Thursday night things really starting kicking into gear.. Jason Cook and Lucas Handley showed up. We had a good time around the fire and were looking forward to the next day.

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Great days made for lazy afternoons…

Friday morning we flew, everybody had a good time but I noticed something definitely wrong with my motor- It went from full RPM and then dropped down 1,200rpm or so. I immediately let off the throttle, knowing what it meant. I had been in a full power climb for about 25 seconds when this happened, so it could only be one thing, an overheat. Not good… And not that 25 seconds is a long time, but with a new prop and no temp gauge, I prepped for the worst. Without a working CHT gauge, there was no way to know without a tear down though. I immediately returned to base on as little power as necessary and starting working on the motor. What I found was anything but welcome: The top of the piston was pitted badly and about to turn into a hole, and the side and rings were seized together. The cylinder had aluminum deposits, but with plenty of work would still be usable. Note to self, don’t try a new prop, any new prop, without CHT gauge.

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Shade could be found everywhere

The rest of Friday was spent in the barn doing an entire top end on the motor. Mike helped me with the cylinder and Luis helped me install a new temp gauge wire. I also appreciated the help and perspective from Jason Cook, our resident nuclear engineer. 8 hours later my unit was back in business and I could return to the camp for a little R&R. Ryan Smith and Ed Lowder showed up as well. Friday night Ryan, Jason and myself embarked on a cross country to Salt Spring resouvioir, approximately 8 miles south of the ranch.

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Trevor’s kitchen 🙂

I have to say I was a little concerned as what Mike later identified as the “delta flow” had been somewhat of a menace in the evenings. It provided inconsistent, cross winds at times but nothing of any real velocity to be concerned about until this evening, and we didn’t know what was coming yet when we took off. The forecast couldn’t have predicted this. On the way back from Salt Springs, the wind picked up and shifted direction 90 degrees from due north to almost due west- In other words it was coming right in over the ridges that line the valleys we had flown down on the way there.

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Perspective shot of the Talon 175 on Rhino Cage

In hindsight what we should have done land out and waited it out, but we pressed on. I don’t think any of us knew how bad it was going to get. Half way back we were fighting moderate turbulence with occasional severe jolts and Jason took a 1000 feet per minute climb according to his GPS at idle power – It was bad. I decided to land out and made my way into small field I knew I could get into but was not totally convinced I could do it 100% safely; but never the less I was willing to attempt getting back on the ground because things were so bad in the air. When I got down to around 100 feet or so I almost couldn’t control the glider anymore.

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The registration tent

I took some incredibly sharp bumps and felt the left riser go completely limp as I was dumped out of a rising column of air. I experienced a small collapse, regained composure and went to full power climbing some 800 feet up; it was the lesser of the two evils in being away from the ground, but now I had to deal with much stronger winds.. I had to crab almost 90 degrees in order not to get blown back and had no choice but to climb even higher to get out of the turbulence, putting me into even stronger winds. All this on essentially a brand new motor (top end).

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These folks built this unit themselves and drove it all the way from Utah

I could help but worry about it’s integrity asking so much of it on it’s first flight out of maintenance but I took comfort in watching the temp gauge like a hawk. Eventually I found myself around 1,600 feet up and in smooth air but air which was flowing across the landscape with a vengeance. Pointed directly into it I was only making 8mph, and I needed to turn back towards the ranch.

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PPC’s were in attendance also 🙂

I wondered how long it would take to get back at only 4-6mph and if it wouldn’t be completely dark at that point either. Luckily I departed with 3 gallons of fuel. I pressed on. We all did.. Ryan and Jason have faster wings and accordingly were about 1 mile in front of me. Additionally of note is that they both had reserves, I do not. Time seemed to stand still but eventually I did make it back only to be knocked onto my but upon landing by the cross winds still blowing over the ranch.

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These guys were awesome to hang out with, and cooked great food!

Although the higher velocity winds had stopped, I could tell it was still a bit cross but I was hell bent on getting back on the ground. Landing was fast and controllable, but not pretty. After falling on my but and dragging the cage, the wing shot overhead and slammed into the ground. A few onlookers could be heard exhaling and grunting “Ohhhhhh…!!!!” As I gathered my gear and my senses, I noticed another pilot get blown back on landing and turtle. Yet another slipped and fell, and landing on their knees and drawing blood. We were back on the ground, but at a price.

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Trevor Meeks working on one of his motors

Shane Denherder, by far one of the most experienced pilots I’ve ever met, decided to land out. In total 4 more people did the same. Of relief and welcome was a great meal cooked by Brian’s dad Ted Thivierge. Over war stories about the day we had the best ribs I’ve ever tasted and enjoyed the company of some great folks including Hank (of Hanks fly-in), Nirvana Aaron who flys 747’s for United, and of course Trevor Meeks and Brian Thivierge.. Needless to say that evening’s fire was marked by more war stories and excessive drinking, along with looking forward to the next morning’s flight.

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The cross country where we experienced the sudden gust front

I did manage to get a few hours sleep and was back at it first thing at sunrise… After a hearty breakfast of course. This time I decided to go off west in search of some abandoned mines in the vicinity of table topped hills. I never made it.

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Mid afternoon winds made for perfect kiting conditions

As luck would have it, and coming from flying the same motor reliably all year, I started having more engine problems. For some reason unbeknownst to me at the time, the motor started surging… And surging hard. I immediately turned around and signaled to Jason and Ryan that something was wrong, again… They chaperoned me on either side.

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My accommodations for 5 days and 4 nights 🙂

At first I couldn’t make more then 8,000rpm without the surging. Enough to keep me in cruise but not enough to climb by any measure, really. Then it started getting worse. I was 200 feet over steep hillsides covered in dense trees. I did my best to manage the engine while staying over landable terrain (keep in mind we can almost bring powered paragliders to complete stops on landing).

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The Nirvana Instinct is one sexy unit

Eventually the engine wasn’t able to make more then 4,000rpm without surging and I finally figured out what it was: The clutch. At only 10-15 feet off tree top level and unable to maintain altitude, the ranch came back into site about the same time the steep slopes fell away into the valley.. I could glide in now, and I did. It was a frustrated march back up to camp.

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Friends gathered around for some hanger talk

After a little consult with a few people in the know I decided to just check the clutch before anything else. Turns out that’s what it was, except Mike didn’t have any extras to my dismay. Just as I was about to resign any flying for the rest of the trip, he pulled out a brand new engine from storage and said …”here, pull one off this. Luis is gone and I gotta go to my kid’s game.” 

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Wide angle lenses are cool!

Mike’s seen me work on motors plenty of times but’s it’s still amazing that he would let one of his brand new motors get robbed of a clutch and that he would let a customer do this none the less, but that’s excellent customer service for you when you’re in a pinch and it’s the weekend. Cheers to Mike for allowing me to do it, I was overjoyed to be able to fly again and did my absolute best to remove the new clutch as carefully as I could from the new motor, so as not to leave any trace that I had been there.

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3D image of the cross country flight where my clutch failed

That afternoon Jeff Goin arrived and by evening we were all flying. It was a suitable conclusion of evening flying for this trip. The wind never picked up and we had a great time, although I waited an extra while just to make sure things didn’t get spicy again on this day. Each time I witnessed Shane fly I was in awe of his abilities, and it seemed as though he would have rather been upside down the whole time! It was incredible.

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About to take off 🙂

I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to fly around and through the oak trees at real low level on the field after sunset, but time wise it didn’t work out this trip. The Saturday night main course was served and we had several dozen people under the big tent for dinner. It tasted great and everybody had a good time. By 8 o’clock we had 15 or 20 people around our campfire and Jeff Goin joined us for some lively discussion on all things paramotoring. It was a great time and a great fire.

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Our camp under this big majestic old oak

Sunday morning arrived with the reality that the fly in was ending and I was already looking forward to next year. Shane, myself and Jason Cook all headed out to the point on the lake where it was blowing a steady 15mph up the slope which was once covered by water in otherwise wetter years. The terrain and the wind direction was easily suggestive of favorable lift and we all flew effortlessly along the edge.

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This shower made all the difference in the world 🙂

Shane and Jason both top landed several times but I headed back early in search of more lift on the higher ridge southeast of the ranch. All I found was rowdy mixing air, so I returned for landing with the intent of beginning the cleanup process early.

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Mark Zinkel’s castle

A little later on though I was witness to some incredible talent, when Jeff Goin test flew Mark Zinkel’s free flight Little Cloud wing. First off nobody was flying anymore at that point, it was almost 11 and the wind was probably 12 gusting to 15 down the valley. So here goes Jeff, as though it was nothing, flying a new wing for him (and a free flight wing at that), with a motor. His confidence amazed me. After climbing to around 800 feet and doing some airborne testing maneuvers, he came back down to 300 feet, killed the motor and glided effortlessly to right where he departed, to a small crowd of awaiting onlookers. I was impressed.

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I was amazed at how fast this delta trike was

It was a fantastic trip. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting new friends and reconnecting with some old ones. Special thanks goes to Ed Lowder (who wasn’t flying as he hadn’t had his motor training yet) for spending a large majority of his time collecting imagery and video of the event… Something I wanted to do but wasn’t able to with the time spent on my mechanical misfortunes. I am already counting down the months, weeks, and days even to the 2015 Blackhawk Ranch fly-in. Many many many thanks go to Mike Robinson and Blackhawk Paramotor for now what is easily the best paramotor fly-in I think we have in the sport.

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New friends gathered around for a group picture…