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Pilots say Scatchet Head is perfect, precarious

High atop a Scatchet Head cliff at the extreme end of South Whidbey, Jimmy Culler said he has a simple way to know when it’s OK to step off what local hang gliders say is one of the most treacherous launch spots in the Northwest.

“As soon as you see whitecaps, it’s windy enough,” Culler said, motioning to the water about 310 or so feet below.

A group of a half dozen or so hang-gliding enthusiasts from the Arlington area gathered on a Scatchet Head bluff Sunday to take advantage of nearly 20-knot winds.

The wind swirled around the top of the cliff, creating something of a feather-in-a-blender effect. It gave the hang gliders plenty of time to talk technique, plan where to land on the beach when the tide went out, and steel themselves for the big step off the cliff.

Culler said he had been launching from the Scatchet Head cliffs for more than 20 years.

“It’s a very dangerous site; we try to keep people out of here. It’s an extremely dangerous launch,” Culler said.

On a scale of 5, the launch is rated a 4 in difficulty.

Darren Fox said there are six or seven areas on Whidbey that are good for hang gliding.

“This one is close to us, and we take care of it,” he said. “It’s something we cherish.”

Up in the air, it’s common to see eagles passing by or new Boeing jets heading back to Paine Field in the air below, he said.

“We don’t fly with the eagles, the eagles fly with us. I’ve been up there with 25 baldies,” Fox said.

Fox has been flying on the island for about 25 years.

“I can’t get enough of it,” he said.

On a good day, he can soar from Scatchet Head to Possession Point, about a mile away.

“You can see the entire Hood Canal at 1,500 feet. And the restaurant in the Space Needle from 1,000,” he said.

Hang glider enthusiasts say the sport is safe when precautions are taken. They conduct intensive checks of their craft before launching, talk extensively about wind conditions and what to expect along specific parts of the cliff, and help each other keep their balance on the edge of a cliff with a glider that costs roughly $5,000, weighs 75 pounds and has a wingspan of about 32 feet.

Each hang glider also wears a parachute strapped to himself.

“We’re not dumb,” Fox said.

“They’re built strong,” he says of his glider. “But anything can happen.”

There is a bit of anxiousness about launching from Scatchet Head, he admitted.

“Fear keeps you alive. Without fear, you do something stupid. But it’s minimal, you get used to it,” Fox said.

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