05-15-17 1200km Duckhawk Ridge Flight

First off, hats off to Ron Schwartz, my mentor, and hero for completing his 1000km Diploma flight in a 1-26D on this day! I can comfortably say that this is the most extraordinary flight I had ever seen. He launched ten minutes after sunrise and landed ten minutes before sunset, spending 14 hours in the cockpit. Every single second of those 14 hours was geared toward completing his mission. He had absolutely no room for error or getting stuck. He drove the 1-26 at ungodly fast speeds, clocking 90-100mph on some of the sections. The flight was simply a marvel of execution, every step along the way.

My flight was a leisurely stroll compared to what he did. I drove out to Ridge Soaring the night before, figuring I’d make a mission down South. I have an ongoing project of exploring that front ridge and eventually connecting to it from Blairstown. William Thar let me borrow his Duckhawk and I sought to take full advantage of this ridge beast.

There is simply no airplane that is better at ridge flying than this glider. It has unbeatable performance, coupled with high wing loading and auto-flaps. The control in the cockpit is outstanding due to the full span flaperons. The glider is absolutely rock-solid stable in gusty conditions. It is built like a tank and can take a beating in a landout. The maneuvering speed is 160 knots, with a redline of 200 knots. And is actually comfortable going up to 150-160 knots, even in rough air. I was giddy at the thought of letting this machine rip along the ridge.

The day started at 8:30am, with weak winds and a wavy looking sky. I launched, fully loaded with water, ready to get going. Instead, I was greeted with a marginal ridge. My first run down to Eagle Field didn’t give me comfort in the ridge lift. I was barely hanging on at 70-80 knots, not particularly good for a lead-laden airplane. I turned around and thermalled up. The day was not going according to plan.

I started heading SW bound, though I was struggling. I figured that the day simply hasn’t switched on yet and that the convection would simply need to develop to let the upper winds come down on the ridge. I kept plodding along, taking every thermal along the way. Unfortunately, as I got to Tyrone, I couldn’t catch a thermal. I looked ahead and saw that it got unlandable for a substantial section. The ridge looked terrible there; it got lower and further off angle from the wind. I looked down and saw that it should be working, but I just wasn’t comfortable to continue. I turned around and flew toward a nearby field and got “down” on the ridge and then turned and headed SW again. The ridge was solid and I drove past Tyrone.

Getting down to Altoona Gap, I tried to float up the ridge as high as I could. I got in there around 2800ft and felt it wasn’t worth chancing the transition across. I did it a bit lower than was ideal in the LS4 and in the Duckhawk with a full load of water, I couldn’t afford to drive in on a weak ridge, somewhat below ridge top. I turned around and got another couple hundred feet and went across.

Dunning mountain worked reasonably well, though again I couldn’t find a good climb at the end. I cheated into the transition, hoping to find a thermal in the middle. No joy. Once again I turn around! This was starting to get frustrating… I just hate backtracking like this. I found good air on the tip of the ridge and found success simply beating back and forth on a quarter mile section of ridge. This got me up to 3200ft, just enough to give it another go across. I started cheating out, found good air and made it a long way before I had to commit. By the time I did, I felt I had it totally made.

I made it across a hair below ridge top, just a bit too low to connect with Wills Mountain, the high ridge. I decided to fly the low ridge this time. The ridge was not working all that great. The wind still has not picked up. I got to the point where the low ridge and Wills Mountain converge into the half-pipe and continued. I started sinking down and turned around yet again. Heading back, I was troubled enough that I decided to dump one minute of water. I figured that heading back into a not-so-great ridge a bit lower than I was there was enough cause for concern that I should set myself up for a possible landout. However, this was not an issue as I found a thermal. I poked around for wave, no joy and kept going SW.

At this point it was clear to me that the SW end of the ridge system was just not setting up as originally expected. Evidently the high pressure system has moved through quicker than expected. Furthermore, with convection setting in so slowly, the winds were simply not mixing. Once I got to “Quarry”, just across the Maryland Border, I abandoned the effort.

Heading back toward Wills Mountain, I now had to decide what to do. I knew that the wind was going to get quite strong on the NE end of the system, so I figured let’s head there. Looking at the time, I calculated that a 750km triangle would be doable if I kept up a good clip. Something that shouldn’t be much of an issue in the Duckhawk.

Subsequently, the rest of the flight was a relatively simple execution for me. The first two hours struggling along Bald Eagle, Dunning Mountain and Wills Mountain were the real learning experiences.

Anyway, I headed out along Wills Mountain and transitioned down to Evitts, across the Wall and finally onto Tussey. Tussey was not working all the solidly, so I opted against dumping onto Raystown Mountain, the gorgeous, but unlandable ridge downwind of Tussey. Instead, I flew beyond Spruce Creek and transitioned on the edge of Seven Mountains. There were finally clouds there and the lift was good enough to start making the big downwind jumps.

Jumping across downwind, I had a funny moment when I hit a bit of sink. As the glider started to come down faster, I felt my head automatically pivot toward the fields off my right wing. I had plenty of altitude, but it was almost a reflex!

Anyway, I had no issue getting onto Jacks and Shade. A couple frustrating attempts to climb off Shade and I got the altitude to make the Mahantango.

On the Mahantango, I saw a speck circling in the distance. What do you know, it was Ron making the jump across to the Tuscarora. The rascal convinced a tow pilot to get him in the air at dawn! I got him on the radio and he said he made the first two turnpoints on his 1000km flight! He was making good time… he might just do it today.

This got me really energized. I was so happy that he got to enjoy the day with me. I pushed the nose over and sped along 130 knots across the Mahantango. No issues transitioning onto Bear. Off of Bear, I couldn’t find a solid climb. Heck with it, the wind is blowing and the ridge is solid. A 270 off of Bear and I dumped onto Sharp.

(Note: For anyone interested in flying down to Blue Mountain from Ridge Soaring or Mifflin, this falls into the category of do as I say, not as I do. While I find Sharp Mountain to be a solid ridge in good conditions, the landing options are quite dismal and this ridge is highly technical. I transitioned onto it in a place where there is no place to fall off into a landing option. This violates one of my ridge commandments: “Thou shalt not do a major ridge transition without a landing option where you join the ridge.” I have some reasons for making these exceptions for Sharp Mountain… I consider if Bear Mountain to be working well, that this correlates to Sharp working well. Transitioning as such, it is like going from Tussey to the Raystown Dam ridge and I consider it a sure bet. However, for the vast majority of people, the faster speeds of flying Sharp low do not justify the risks compared to simply thermalling through there. Sharp Mountain is off limits to anyone other than Blairstown pilots and only for the select few that have any business flying it.)

Sharp was working quite solidly and I drove right on. The wind was starting to pick up to the low 20s. The sky looked gorgeous on Blue Mountain. It was odd for me to be coming here this time of day. I normally am quite far away from here in these sort of conditions.

Approaching Blue, I started singing, “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin. I just love this ridge.

I start droving along at 110-120 knots. Finally, on the far side of the Ski Area, the wind started to *really* pick. Now I’m entering the territory of the low pressure system. The wind is in the upper 20s on ridge top and the gusts were rather pointed. I loved that I was in a glider with near to 11 lbs psf wing loading… the beast just rolled right through it all. I slowed down to 100 knots, floated up to 2000ft and pounded along with a smile.

After crossing into New Jersey, I turned around SW bound. Two and a half hours later, I would end up in Virginia.

All of the transitions worked out just fine. The Tuscarora worked wonderfully. During this time, I was really wondering about Schwartz. I was bound to see him at some point. I looked at my watch and was getting worried. It was getting beyond 3:30 pm and I am getting farther and farther from home. Where is he?

Once I crossed the Potomac, I settled onto Sleepy Creek Mountain, approaching my turnpoint at Shockeys Knob. Halfway on the ridge, I finally see Schwartz circling in his trusty 1-26! Gee, he is a *long* way from home this late. I asked him if he made his turnpoint and he replied that he did! I told him I would be back in a jiffy and that I may mark a thermal for him.

I hooked the turnpoint and drove back. He was circling a bit further along the ridge. At this point I was convinced that he was a vulture; whenever you look at him he is circling, whenever you turn away, he is driving along at 100 mph, snickering along the way.

I thermalled up and drove underneath him to take a couple pictures and wished him the best of luck. I went for the transition across the Potomac at 4100ft, a bit lower than where he was. The transition did not work out as well as I expected… I used up all of the extra altitude and then some. I found sink, sink and sink. I had the transition totally made, though I drove through all that mess at 110 knots in a speed demon. And I made it across a bit below ridge top! I thought poor Schwartz. I radioed back to him to be careful, that the air was terrible across the Potomac.

I started heading toward Lockhaven, my final real turnpoint. On Shade Mountain, I really wondered about Schwartz, if he made it across. But then it occurred to me, if there is anyone who would pull off some voodoo magic in a 1-26, it would be him. And what do you know…

Anyway, I no longer had any contact with him. Once I was on Stone, I *finally* found a nice climb. I hooked into a 6.5 knot thermal up through 5400ft at 5pm. It took all freakin’ day for the day to really turn on! And it pretty much started to go kaput shortly thereafter.

I made it onto Nittany and headed along toward the Talladega transition. I figured if I found another nice climb, I’d extend my triangle a bit further to the NW. Instead, convectively the air was more or less flat. I ended up rounding the Talladega jump ’round the bowl. That was fun and worked surprisingly well!

A short jog upwind to secure the 750 and finally I was drag racing along Bald Eagle. The ridge was really honest now, in the wonderful evening air. I love flying the ridge this time of day.

I decided to fly down to Altoona Gap one more time, to practice the section by Tyrone some more. The ridge was totally solid and I had no problems there this time. Flying near Kettle Dam, I noticed that they were letting water out of the dam. All of the dams along the way were draining water. That probably explained why convectively the day took forever to kick off; the ground was awfully wet.

At this point, I called it a day as I had a long ride to get home. I landed at 6:40pm after a rather satisfying 10 hours of flying.

At 8pm, the glider was finally torn down and Phil and I headed to get dinner. On the way, I called up Jonathan, who I figured would be at Blairstown to ask about Ron’s whereabouts. He proudly expressed that he *just* landed! Being the only one who *knew* he made all of the turnpoints, I had the joy of expressing my congratulations to Schwartz while he was still in the cockpit! Ah, the wonders of technology! What a wonderful day of flying!

I hope that some of the more enterprising Ridge Soaring guys take advantage of this triangle. It is a very doable flight on many days that it is not possible to get beyond Cumberland MD. Instead of simply doing laps up and down to Lockhaven, consider joining the Blairstown guys on this fun run. Trailer over to Blairstown Airport sometime and practice a flight or two on Blue Mountain. Then put it all together by flying from Ridge Soaring… Just thermal through Sharp Mountain as it is a rather technical area to fly in. Ultimately, doing all of the above leads to a 750km triangle becomes a possibility on a lot of the “less interesting” days from Ridge Soaring.

Anyway, I would like to thank William Thar for letting me fly this absolutely incredible machine. Greg Cole for designing and building such a perfect airplane for this kind of flying. And Tom and Doris for their hospitality and flying on such a wonderful day.

Lastly, I would like to point out the amazing achievement done by my buddy, Phillip Chidekel. He did a 600 km flight, over 6.5 hours spent in the air to complete his Diamond Goal and Distance! He has worked hard over the past season, practicing and flying every chance he could get. It all culminated in his wonderful flight. Well done Phil!

Schwartz’s flight.

Phil’s flight.

My flight.