03-02-12 Gold Distance/ Century III Badge

After my first ridge cross country in January, I set my sights on the Gold Distance. The Three Turnpoint/ 4 leg Gold Distance was a relatively simple task requiring just flying our ridge back and forth. I planned the task to be flown on a day with Northwesterly winds, in similar conditions as my first ridge cross country in January. It worried me a bit since it took me almost five hours to fly just short of 200km, but nonetheless I planned for the flight in anticipation of longer spring days, and better thermals. However, as February ended, I noticed in the forecasts that Friday, March 2nd was predicted to have good Southeast winds, and no rain. Bingo! I completely adapted my Gold Distance to work with the SE ridge. I made my startpoint a good bit more Northeast; at the former location of the “Cliffhouse”, where the good portion of the SE ridge ends.

I would later regret this location for the startpoint/finishpoint, but that will be discussed later on. My first turnpoint was nearly at Hawk Mountain, more than 100km away. My second turnpoint was at the “Bangor Offset”, a large knob that can be tough to get around on a silky smooth SE day with no thermals. My third and last turnpoint was again toward Hawk Mountain and split the difference in distance to make the task a total of 300km. Thus, the task was really get to the startpoint and fly past the menacing Big Offset to the Southwest, and then run the ridge like hell for a while and then come back to the startpoint.

The night before the task, I noticed that the TAFs were saying that the cloudbase will be around 3000ft. Our ridge is about 1600ft high, and few if any thermals were needed to complete a SE ridge flight. I overlooked some of Erik Mann’s warnings that the clouds might drop lower than forecast and slept soundly. In the morning, the forecast was similar and I figured it is “day to be on the property” and see what is going on with the clouds. I drove out of Brooklyn around 8AM and going over the Verrazano Bridge the weather looked bleak. I always look out towards Manhattan and Jersey City, which are about 7 miles away and I could barely make out the skyscrapers because the clouds were under the tops of the buildings and the mist made them barely visible at all. “Well, the clouds are going rise!,” I said. I kept driving.

When I made it to the airport, the clouds were below the tops of the ridges. Damn! Nonetheless, I prepared Sweet Red, the club 1-26E and waited. Progressively, the clouds rose above the ridge and by 12AM, operations finally began. The tow was very quick because of the tailwind blowing me toward the ridge. Just as the towplane started to enter the cloud deck at 2100ft, I pulled the release. The release was sticky and a bit tough to pull and I murmured I really gotta lubricate it before I fly next time. The clouds were only 500ft above the ridge which was a bit frightening, so I decided to fly the local ridge for a while and wait the clouds to rise. To the Northeast, there is one semi-landable field and getting to the startpoint requires a couple downwind jumps around knobs in the ridge. The downwind jumps make going Northeast easy, but coming back could be tough since getting around the knobs in a 1-26 is tricky.

The ridge is only 400ft high above the valley and fairly steep which made the ridge work well, but if you start falling below the crest, it could get very hard to climb back up since there is only a small margin of error. After a couple runs on the local ridge, I puckered up and went downwind at the first major knob. The winds were a tiny bit Easterly which meant there wasn’t the usual sinking air behind the offsets. I stayed slow; 40mph and at 2000ft. I wanted to ride the ridge high in this inhospitable terrain. I made it to the Cliffhouse fine and turned around to the Southwest on course. I made my way back to the Upper Reservoir knob and pushed out diagonally. If I started to fall  below the crest, I would divert to the valley and go straight for the airport, or the big field just short of it. Surprisingly, I lost very little altitude (200ft) in the transition and made it to the ridge with some height to spare. The one and only time I flew the SE ridge, the wind was very Southerly and as a result, there was a lot of sink in the transition, and I barely made it from 2400ft.

After this point, I was still nervous about the biggest transition that was yet to come: the Bangor Offset. I made my way across the local ridge, over the Delaware Water Gap which was very easy to cross on this side of the ridge and past the microwave tower. The ridge over here gets a bit broken up and there are no landable fields under the offset. I got up as high as I could go, (2050ft) and I pushed out into the valley, starting the transition. I kept track of my glide angle, and it was looking surprisingly good. I again hit good air and none of the sink associated with the transition. I lost only like 200 or 300ft and now I put the nose down to speed up. I passed Wind Gap and Lehigh Gap very quickly and I made it to my first turnpoint in a jiffy. The ridge was working well, even in the shadowed section behind the Pinnacle, so I went all the way to the end to Hawk mountain to maximize my OLC points.

I then turned around and headed back to the Big Offset for my second turnpoint, strategically placed so that I don’t have to cross the transition needlessly. In one section of ridge I fell down directly to ridge top after crossing near a bowl near Snyders, but otherwise the ridge was working great. There were five other gliders up with me doing ridge-running, and the clouds at this point were around 2500ft. Things were looking great! On a couple occasions, I saw birds circling over the ridge. I spotted Redtails and Eagles in a couple places, but I was surprised to see Black Vultures working a thermal over the ridge. I had never seen them in the air, but then again I had never spent almost 5 hours under 1500ft AGL. When I made my second turnpoint, I turned to do another quick run on the ridge to my third turnpoint, which was about 2/3 of the way to Hawk. When I made it, the ridge was booming, and I was going at 65 mph about 200ft above crest, so I figured I should go all the way to the end of the ridge to get even more OLC points.

After turning around at Hawk Mountain the second time, the conditions started to deteriorate. It was around 4:15 and the sun was already setting, so there was even less sunlight in the overcast sky. Slowly, the cloudbase started to fall, which I did not notice at first. Once I made it back to the Bangor Offset, the visibility started to noticeably diminish. Once I crossed the Delaware Water Gap, the clouds were probably no more than 200ft above the ridge, and I started to get worried I could not make my finish point. As I was running directly on the ridge, I jumped across the Upper Reservoir offset to go towards my finish point at the Cliffhouse. At this point visibility was worsening more and more, and the clouds progressively lowered until they were almost directly on the ridge. My adrenaline was pumping as I knew I was just so close to my finish point; Gold Distance was in my reach.

Once I passed Fairview Lake, the visibility got very bad. It was probably less than one mile. I finally hit the damn turnpoint and did a steep 3G turn at 70 mph to get as quickly out of there as possible. Once I turned around, I was scared sh**less. The clouds were almost directly on top of the ridge and I was going at 70-80 mph right at crest. I was almost sure I was going to have to put down the glider into the campground at the bast of the ridge, but that landing option was terrible since there were many ground obstacles. I kept going on top of the ridge SW-bound, hoping that I can at least get around the next small knob and land in the next crappy field which did not have as many obstacles. At this point I am worried that the whole system was shutting down and that the whole area was going to IMC in a matter of minutes. The SE ridge is notorious for its ability to quickly shutdown very quickly. The moist air from the ocean gets cooled as its forced to rise by the ridge and I was well aware that if the temperature dropped by even a couple degrees, the whole ridge system could condense nearly instantly and completely sock me in.

All I could think about was I am a bleeping moron and why did I fly into this mess!? I looked out into the valley and pictured myself crashing uncontrollably into the trees. However, as I kept going the visibility improved slightly and after I could now see the Upper Reservoir offset. I could also see the clouds directly meeting the ridge-top over there, and I made the judgment that I could not make the jump. I was now over the ridge above the Lower Reservoir and knew of stories of guys making it from the NW ridge from ridgetop from that position. I figured that if you can make it back through the lee sink on a NW ridge, that you can push through the headwind on the SE ridge and make it back to the airport at an equal altitude.

I could not see the airport at this point since I was a little over three miles and a half away and at 1700ft MSL, which is 1300ft above the airport. I aimed over a little peninsula and through a gully that guides pilots to the airport. As I crossed route 94 I saw I had the airport made. I aimed directly at the threshold of the powered runway on my base leg. As I got closer, it became clear that I was too low to make a base-final turn and before I got to the property, I did a 45 degree turn over a flat office building to avoid going over a small grove of trees short of the airport property. When I looked at my flight track, I was about 160ft AGL at this point. I floated over the paved runway and the taxiway and landed diagonally across the turf. After I stopped, I attempted to get out and was physically unable to. The last 15 minute sequence was just starting to sink in. This was the first time I had seriously scared myself in a glider and man it was a humbling experience. I learned many things from this flight and isolated many “Never-Agains”.

1) Never ever ever fly Northeast in worsening conditions. There are few fields there and few options when it comes to doing a safe landout.

2) I should have kept going to the Upper Reservoir coming back. I would have made the transition, and even if I didn’t get much altitude from going there, I would have been on a straight-in final into a giant field. This would have been safer than going back the route I did.

3) As much as you think you are a safe pilot, you are inherently complacent until you have your first big scare. I thought I was on top of everything I was doing because I never had any problems. In my mind, I was sure I was doing everything safe and right before and as a result I became complacent with my own flying. This flight was extremely humbling since I cut it way closer than I would have ever wanted to.

4) Your judgment will be most tested not in the middle of a task in a clear-cut situation, but when all you have to do is go a little further, cut the final glide a little too closer, etc. It is when you have the finish in sight in a contest that your judgment will be most at risk or when the finish point is only a couple miles away. If I was falling out from 3000ft AGL on a thermal cross country flight, it was clear to me that I needed to have a field lined up and go to it. However, in this situation, the ridge was working well and all I needed to do was go a little further. It is in this sort of situation that better judgment must prevail and one should abort than press on.

5) I was a lot less ready to land-out than I thought. I haven’t landed in a field yet and when it was hitting the fan, I was too hesitant to commit to the two fields below me when I was on the ridge.

6) We are a lot less prepared to deal with poor weather than we think. We spend nearly all our days flying on clear days with instability and we take for granted things like visibility being good while flying. Weather can change very quickly and it requires good judgment deal with it accordingly.

There are plenty more lessons learned that I did not list that were learned and I am still learning. I am never going to put myself into such a compromising situation ever again. In the end, I am happy the flight ended well and I learned many things from this flight that have improved me as a pilot and I hope that others will take note from my errors in judgment and act more safely in a comparable situation.

Find the flight track here.