Published in Soaring Magazine | July 2016
If you look at the OLC archive for ’09 under my name, you may find something interesting. Six years ago I tried to claim my best soaring flight to date, a 3.5 hour local flight, the first time I had stayed up for a notable amount of time. On my desktop, I had Ron Schwartz’s epic ridge flight from ’09, which I had looked at a million times over. Well I accidentally claimed that flight log when I tried to upload my flight and I didn’t realize it until much later. Certainly OLC didn’t give me any points, but nonetheless I apologized to Schwartz for the mishap. He thought it was a riot!
That particular flight by Mr. Schwartz was a 1000km attempt in a 1-26 and he came very close to completing the task. I viewed it with amazement and believed that this flight was well beyond what I would ever achieve in soaring. As much as I enjoyed flying the 1-26, I expected to get a Silver Badge in it and then I’d hit a brick wall and move up to higher performance. But I kept flying the fun little bird and chipped away at the badges. Meanwhile, Ron kept making epic flights and I kept learning from the flight logs and picking his brain.
After having completed the Diamond Distance, I finally came to the point when I tried to figure out the best way to do the 1000km flight in a 1-26. This was quite a challenge as the unique flying characteristics of the 1-26 mean that existing routes and assumptions would not work. The biggest challenge launching from my home base at Blairstown is that we are presented with a big challenge only 60 miles from the start. At this point at Hawk Mountain, we begin a succession of four upwind jumps, between four to seven miles, all of which are quite difficult when the conditions are weak and the wind invariably strong. Having looked at Ron’s flights, I realized that this was the crucial bottleneck that needed to be resolved in order to make a 1000km flight possible. We simply could not afford to get stuck there for two hours in the morning and be able to make up the difference later in the day.
As a result, I started thinking about tasks that overcome this issue. The first possible solution was to make a lap on Blue Mountain and then put the third turnpoint well south of the Potomac. While this is an improvement, it is still a very challenging task. Flying Blue Mountain early in the morning is no cakewalk and having to go 50 miles SW of the Potomac River is tricky too. Few of the glass guys have ever flown as far to the southern turnpoint in question and completed an out and return. While I am convinced that this task is doable, I tried to look for other alternatives, names from Julian and Mifflin, PA. While Knauff’s place is a wonderful site for most records, I had to rule it out. The gaps at Altoona and Bedford are simply tricky to traverse early in the day. Furthermore, the “back route” through Tussey still required jumping over the “wall”, which is relatively easy in high performance, but not something to take for granted in a 1-26. Lastly, I was not excited at the prospect of driving along the Knobblies with 20-1, so back to square one. Having ruled out any practical tasks from Ridge Soaring, my mind drifted toward the possibilities out of Mifflin.
In January 2015, it occurred to me that the length of the ridge from Blairstown to the end of the Tuscarora Mountain is 300km and Mifflin is around 100km from the end of it. With three runs back and forth, that amounts to 900km and the short run from Mifflin rounds it out to 1000km. This was a fantastic solution because this task completely resolved the bottleneck at Blairstown. Early in the day, all the significant transitions were to be downwind. This meant that it would be possible to get an early start and conceivably never get stuck as jumping downwind requires much less from the thermal conditions. Secondly, the ridge system was much more continuous and favorable for a 1-26, with few gaps or tricky spots that the glider couldn’t easily overcome. Furthermore, the whole range of the task was confined to a smaller ridge system, which meant the weather did not need to be as special to make the day work. I was sure that this was the most doable 1000km task on the Appalachian ridge system, particularly for a 1-26. Now, all I needed was to have a long day, reasonable thermals and a patient crew to drive me out to Mifflin the night before and bring the trailer to Blairstown, where I was to complete my flight.
Fast forward to this year and I finally decide to make an honest go out of this task. It was now a matter of waiting for the weather. Unfortunately, up until May our spring season was quite disappointing. I had expected to do this flight in late April, which is traditionally when we have our best soaring days. Instead we had rain, rain and more rain and rather unextraordinary ridge days. Luckily, a day set up on May 8th with the basic parameters necessary for this kind of flight. I sorted out the logistics, recruited Steve Beer as a crew and we headed out on Saturday to get the glider ready for the following day.
As far as the weather forecast, the big question was when the frontal passage would occur. The flight required launching around 7am and it was unclear if the weather would allow for that. Secondly, the front was to go through later at Blairstown, so if the front stalled, I may not have been able to hit my first turnpoint as promptly. However, as far as the other parameters it was evident that the day was going to be quite unstable and the wind looked promising for most of the day. At the end of the day the wind was to go fairly westerly, but that was not too concerning at the time. (If the wind goes too far off to the west, then the angle could be too far off for the ridge to work well.)
Steve Beer and I got the glider set up and we stayed the night at the Mifflin Soaring Association clubhouse. At the time, GBSC was also having a soaring encampment, so it was quite busy. Luckily, Rick Roelke was there and he agreed to be my official observer. He thought there was a way to make the flight valid for a World Record with Bob Cook acting as a remote senior official observer. Then we went to sleep up in the loft, along with a number of other folks excited to make a go out of the nice ridge the following day.
The day started at 5:20am with decent rest. All the batteries were charged, everything was ready to go. I had my oatmeal breakfast, got the glider ready and Rick sealed the logger into the glider. Just before 7am, Brian Glick towed me into the air, the wind already blowing a good clip from the NW. There was quite a bit of moisture and towing up to 3800ft (3000ft AGL) actually took us a little bit above the clouds. I worked some weak wave to my start point at Shade Mountain and then shot off SW bound toward my turnpoint. The question now was whether the ridge would work. Early in the day, it was entirely plausible that the air does not mix enough for the wind to be solid at ridge top. Luckily it was working and I was moving along at 70-80 mph toward my first turnpoint at Dickeys Mountain. The nice thing was that the ride was quite smooth. Typically pushing the 1-26 up to 80mph gets quite rough with its light wing loading. I counted my lucky stars and figured I ought to take advantage of the speed as long as I can as later on, it would probably get much rougher.
The downwind transition at Gobblers Knob (end of Shade Mountain) was not a problem and good air got me across without any trouble. The Tuscarora was gangbusters. I was driving along in smooth ridge, 500ft above going 80 mph. Going into the turnpoint, I slowed down a bit as that section gets very rough. There’s a small upwind ridge that forms a Vee at the end of the Tuscarora and the downwash makes it a rodeo if you get in there low. I turned on schedule and headed toward Blairstown.
Now the big question was if the thermals would be good enough to let me do the downwind jumps from the end of the Tuscarora. By the time I got to the end of the Tuscarora, some little puffs were marking weak lift. I connected with a thermal, did several turns and jumped downwind, following the street. The Mahantango was honest, though I am always a bit wary of how low it is and how it angles poorly into the wind. It’s one of the mysteries of ridge flying, but this little 500ft ridge, with a wind direction 30 degrees off of parallel generally works just fine. However, I like to avoid tempting the mysteries of this mountain and once I get abeam of Bear Mountain, I try to climb off of the Mahantango and jump downwind to the higher ridge. It took three tries to get a thermal high enough to make the jump, but with very little loss in terms of efficiency.
Once at the end of Bear Mountain, I struggled to find a reasonable climb. The thermal wasn’t great, but it got me to about 2300ft, a little downwind of the ridge, which was just enough to make Sharp. I went for it but was not entirely thrilled with the decision once I left. I got to Sharp right at ridge top, but where I got to it there are no places to land. The ridge kicked up just fine and I scooted along until the end of it, got a nice climb to Hawk and coasted along Blue Mountain. Now I was back on *my* ridge and making really good time. I hit the turnpoint at Fairview Lake substantially ahead of schedule, at 11am. I had expected to hit the turnpoint at 11:45am!
Heading SW bound again, the thermals cooked up nicely, but the ridge was still reasonably smooth. The thermals were energetic, but otherwise the ridge was relatively benign. This was great news as the rocking and rolling on most ridge days is really fatiguing to me. Getting back to Hawk Mountain, now it was time to do the upwind jumps. Luckily I had built up quite a bit of time in reserve, so I knew I could afford to get stuck for a while and still complete the flight. I had completed the first 500km in just under 5 hours and still had eight more hours of daylight. All of the jumps went like clockwork. First I would climb up in a nice thermal and then scoot along a street into the wind. As a result, each time I made it across with plenty of altitude to spare, which was quite nice as the transitions did not require as much mental effort. Thanks to Schwartz for marking the thermal that got me across to Tuscarora!
Once on the Tuscarora, now it was just a matter of zipping over to the last turnpoint and not messing up the run home. I hit the turnpoint just before 3pm, 50 minutes ahead of schedule and had plenty of time to get back. Once I got to the end of the Tuscarora, my wind readings showed that the wind was going pretty westerly. Once on the Mahantango, I saw my ground speed was a good 20 mph over my indicated airspeed. As much as I appreciated the tailwind component, I knew that soon the ridge was going to bend to the east and favor a much more northerly wind. I figured it was time to get off the ridge and thermal instead. I climbed off and stayed high until I dropped down for a little bit to 2000ft near Sharp. Once I hit a thermal, I saw that the wind was around 285 degrees and decided to thermal. The clouds were quite high and by Hawk Mountain I made it up to 8700ft. Then it was just a matter of taking a couple climbs here or there and coasting home. Having a 20-25 mph tailwind is certainly nice! I hit the finish at 3000ft and landed with still two hours of daylight to spare.
The big challenge of the flight was not so much the execution, but the physical endurance. I had flown all of the ridges in the task and the transitions were not particularly novel. A lot of the focus went into trying to stay relaxed and avoiding exerting mental effort as much as possible. Luckily the ridge was relatively smooth, so I was able to stay relatively fresh for most of the flight.
This flight was only possible due to the effort and support of a lot of people. Some people I would really like to thank are:
Steve Beer for crewing. He was quite enthusiastic and did a great job!
Rick Roelke and Bob Cook for official observing the flight.
Brian Glick for towing me early in the morning
Phil Chidekel for the weather forecasts
MSA for providing such a wonderful clubhouse to crash the night
Aero Club Albatross for letting me use their wonderful 1-26E!
Thank you so much guys!
Lastly, what I hope the soaring community takes away from this experience is that this flight was indeed done in an Aero Club Albatross glider. I am incredibly fortunate to be in a flying club that has given me incredible latitude and enthusiasm in the use of their equipment. I hope that other clubs give their members the same opportunities, particularly their youth members. This is how we will grow the sport.
(Note: As of December 2016, The flight has been approved by the FAI for a World Record in the 13.5-meter class in the three turnpoint distance category. Thanks again Bob and Rick for making it possible!)
Find the flight log here.