By Dan Shorb
Originally published in USHPA Pilot, March/April 2019
The tractor rolled down the front of the ramp towards the cliff. For a split second I was filled with horror, but Ben quickly maneuvered the tractor away from danger towards a mound of topsoil, placed more where it needed to be, and turned back for a resupply. He lives on the mountain, while running the adjacent Sandia Ski Area and the Sandia Peak Tram. No danger here: Ben knows this launch site well.
We were reconstructing the Peak launch, which is perched atop the enormous cliffs of the Sandia Mountains that cascade in blades and buttresses 5000 feet down into Albuquerque. The mountain itself is an isolated island of granite standing alone in the desert. Its crests are at nearly 11,000 feet, surrounded by an ocean of uninterrupted sky and rising up to the area where Ben drives the tractor.
Windswept firs, ravens, and high-altitude air create an enticing ambiance on the peak. Indeed, even with the vast sea of surrounding flatlands stretching out to the horizon, our new ramp looks more like something out of Europe than the Southwest (well, at least in our minds). By the end of that day, the jagged crown of the old launch was erased, replaced with a smooth, sloping ramp.
Our Albuquerque club is small, maybe 35 folks. So when 10 or so pilots came out to our last workday for the Peak improvement, it was a big deal. Others had put in several hours earlier in September, and we were putting on the finishing touches. Despite heinous, wintery gusts coming over the back, off the eastern plains, thoughts of flying consumed each one of us that day. It wouldn’t be long until the air was right, inviting us to fly the new ramp. It was happening! Our years of planning were taking shape in the form of a new premiere launch site in the Southwest.
That same October of 2018, American XContest results came out. Our previous Sandia Soaring Association (SSA) President, Patrick Harvey-Collard, managed to take first in the US contest, all from flights off the (old) Peak launch. In the process, he set New Mexican records off this launch and others. In fact, another Sandia local, and Patrick’s frequent partner in crime, Max Montgomery, took eighth. Pilots with skills can go big off this Peak.
These guys are humble. You’ve not heard of them because they don’t spray. Even we locals don’t know they’re flying most of the time. They’ll likely freak out when they see their names here. They are part of a newly energized crew of SSA locals taking advantage of what our mountain offers us here in Albuquerque: big XC with quick high-altitude tram (European-like) access.
Going big isn’t new here. It’s a tradition. Sandia Soaring Association and the Peak launch have been around for decades. Old timers tell stories of the heyday of hang gliding, with wings stacked 20 deep and launching into some big flights. 2006 and 2007 saw national articles written about the mountain, featuring the Sandia Soar’n (fly-in).
Even with all this history, 2018 stacks up as unique.
Patrick, along with Benny Abruzzo, Sr. and Ben Abruzzo, Jr. (Gavin McClurg’s XAlps USA1 teammate), took the construction permit Patrick had already secured for a new mountain-top restaurant with the Abruzzo’s company, Sandia Peak Tram, and tacked on a Forest Service application for our Peak launch to be improved. This move was the crux of what needed to be done to bring our launch improvement to fruition.
As our newly elected president, I picked up the torch of the improvement project. Having recently read a Pilot magazine article about the Buffalo Mountain improvement back East, I saw that the Foundation for Free Flight (FFF) had helped. Well, I’ll be, an organization that helps you build your launch? I wondered.
A long-time SSA member and former president, Bill Lemon, had been involved with the FFF and confirmed our project was one with which they would help. And I knew we could use all the help we could get!
I reached out and got an immediate response from the Foundation’s Executive Director, Jayne DePanfilis. She is not only a (former) pilot but also has helped facilitate many of the Foundation’s projects like this one. She immediately started the process for us. I put my application on their agenda and, within a month, the grant was approved. We soon had a check from the Foundation, c/o Kimmerling and Wisdom, in our hands. Ecstatic, we could now pay for our needed soil, excavator and loader, as well as a weather station.
This is when the generous pilots of our little club stepped up to match the Foundation’s grant, giving us the capital to start. By the time you read this, the weather station will be up, and we will be preparing for the 2019 XC season to begin.
We all manage to fit flying into our lives in whatever small way we can, but this project is a fine example of how individual pilots and organizations make our local and national communities so great. The locals, as well as the Cibola National Forest, combined with the Abruzzo’s generous help and the Foundation’s grant, created a new opportunity for us all. From our mountain island, we can now sail deep into the skies of the Land of Enchantment.
I encourage you to come visit. Perhaps it’s your turn to try to steal Patrick’s record from him. Unless, of course, Max or some other local beats you to it.