Rain, rain, rain and more rain has been the story in the northeast for the past several months. So much so that the Standard Class Nationals were cancelled because their field was practically flooded. My teammate, Noah Reitter had to pick up his club’s glider from the airport and reported that, “It might as well have been a seaplane base!” Since this contest was our training period for the Junior Worlds, we tried to figure out alternative training plans. Thankfully, our clubs supported us using their club ships at other sites which were soarable. And right as we set out on our soaring adventure, the weather finally turned a corner. We flew for seven out of eight days at Ridge Soaring Gliderport and Harris Hill, racking up lots of miles and hours. Noah is an exceptional soaring pilot and he really stepped up my game. We flew in some challenging soaring conditions, several times feeling like we wouldn’t make it home. But somehow we always made it around and had a blast while doing it!
As our team training wound down, I saw a very promising ridge day coming up for June 30th. The conditions at Elmira were not going to be suitable for good soaring, but it looked great at Ridge Soaring Gliderport down by State College, PA. It looked like it might be good enough to attempt at a Standard Class National record.
We asked Phil Chidekel, our resident expert meteorologist to look at the weather forecast. He saw a big day, but with challenges, namely a stalled stationary front with the prospect of showers and maybe tricky ridge conditions. Noah was about spent from a week of hard flying and took a pass on the prospect of being thrown around all day. On Saturday we parted company, 100 percent ready to go to Hungary and make a serious go at the Junior Worlds.
Heading down to Ridge Soaring Gliderport, I finally started to plan my flight. Normally I plan big days well in advance. I’d update the task, have my forms ready and everything thought through. But this time, everything was to be thrown together last minute. On the way I picked up tubing and buckets to fill up the LS-4 water bags. I figured that today I would assemble the ship, test out the water system and load it up with water. And finally put the glider into the hangar, ready to fly the next day.
Just my luck, I saw John Bird and Len Martinowski when I arrived at the airport. These two characters are my good friends, Penn State students and great gliderpilots. It looked like I’d have help assembling the glider and testing out the water system! I hadn’t loaded up the ‘4 with water before, and it was a pretty elaborate and humorous operation. It involved siphoning water from a bucket on a stool, with a second five-gallon bucket being used as a reservoir to keep track of how much water we were putting in. After about an hour and getting ourselves completely soaked, we managed to load in about 23 gallons of water, which seemed all that the LS4 would carry.
Some repacking and shuffling of gliders in the hangar and the ship was in great shape. Another 50 lbs of lead behind the seat and 10 liters of water in three Camelbaks, the ‘4 was loaded up to maximum fuselage weight. Tomorrow I would need the glider to be a lead sled and this is as much weight as it could take.
This was followed by checklists and errands. After dinner it was suggested for me to pick up a backup logger (good idea!) and Mike Robison was willing to help with a Nano 3. Back at the airport a little after 9pm and I finally sat down at my computer to think through a declaration.
My goal for some time was a Three Turnpoint Distance Record in Standard Class. Figuring an even 800 miles would do, the best task options took me down south early. However, the limiting factor was that the conditions would not be as favorable as the models initially expected. The front was going to stall someplace in Virginia and this would complicate things to the south.
A natural place to turn would be no farther than Covington, West Virginia. This is where the high mountains end and the lower Peters Mountain begins. With this in mind, I anchored the other legs from this point. This task took me to Covington first, with the remainder being run out on the Mifflin ridges. But the task didn’t look or feel right. After going to bed, my mind still kept cranking away and I turned on the light and opened up SeeYou once more. An alternative option occurred to me that allowed for a cleaner lap early and went to Covington in the second portion of the day. This made it possible for the front to push through a bit farther and made for a more intuitively “right” task.
But lying in bed thinking, I still couldn’t decide between the two. And then I just decided to take a look at the weather in the morning and make my decision then. Like with a snap of a finger, a calm descended over me and I slept soundly for seven hours. A much appreciated and necessary rest that really made the difference the following day.
Where’s the Wind?
Waking up, I was pleasantly surprised to be well rested. And looking at the weather, the lap first, Covington-later task was the way to go. Loggers and GPS updated, the glider was ready. While eating breakfast, I looked up at the ridge. There was no wind on the surface and squinting at the ridge top did not reveal any swaying trees. The inversion had not cleared out of the valley; this would be a slow starting day.
John Bird arrived at 8am and gave me a hand getting the ship out to the back end of the runway. With the Scout as the towplane, we should use all the runway there was! Subsequently, we went over to assemble his Libelle. He was going for a Diamond Distance and succeeded too!
Closer to 9am, the wind just started to mix down to the surface and Tom towed me up to the ridge. It was really amazing that the tows lasted only two minutes, straight up the mountain! Today the climb rate on tow was not as spectacular as it normally would be on a ridge day. The ridge lift was not very strong. I hung on 200ft higher than I normally would.
After releasing and turning to the northeast, it was clear that the ridge was hardly working. Settling down to level with ridge top, the glider was slowing and slowing down. It felt heavy and sluggish with all the weight and I resolved not to slow down less than 60 knots. It just barely stayed even with ridge top and struggled to climb toward the higher section near Milesburg Gap. Seeing how weak it was, I decided to wait a while and let the ridge firm up. A short lap on the local ridge mustered up my courage to make the crossing to the north. Once on the other side, I once again chickened out approaching Howard Dam. Another little lap while in touch with the landable fields and I tiptoed my way across the unlandable section.
After a long struggle, I finagled my way to Lockhaven. Now the challenge was to g downwind over to Nittany Mountain, the location of my start point. The ridge was so weak that it was necessary to find a thermal to make it across. I beat back and forth, trying thermals here and there. The lift was torn up and it was difficult to work with all the weight in the glider. Finally, I made a lap farther along toward the high part of the ridge. Instead, there was weaker lift and the ship dropped 150ft, now well below ridge top. Turning around, I dumped the nose, heart beating more rapidly, with my right eye looking at Lockhaven airport.
Just hang in there!
And that I did to get back to the better working part of the ridge. And it turned out that this expression would cross my mind many more times as this flight went on.
Finally, at 10am the thermals firmed up a bit and got me just high enough to cross over to the downwind ridge. At 10:15, more than hour after taking off, I finally went through the start. In this time, I had flown a meager 32 miles, none of which counted toward the task.
Off to the Races
After starting the task, I was a bit leery of driving down on the ridge, though the lift was improving. I pushed the speed up to 90 knots and let myself slowly settle down. We’ll let ‘er rip on Tussey, it’s not time to drive just yet. No trouble making the downwind jump at Nittany and we were in business on Tussey. Down on the trees and the airspeed was just over 100 knots indicated. With the late start, it was necessary to make speed on this lap down to Evitts Mountain. This will make or break the flight at the end of the day.
No real trouble making it down to the turnpoint at the tip of Evitts, though the ridge was a bit weaker than forecast. I was hoping to do 110 knots on the good sections thanks to the addition of all the ballast. But instead the ship was doing quite a bit of 95 knots, sometimes even 80 on the uphill parts. The ridge band seemed to be cut off 300ft or so above ridge top, which made the transitions a bit trickier. This made my life difficult crossing to Nittany on the following leg. I had to abandon the transition and pick up a thermal in the middle which finally got me across. Similarly, this made it tricky to get across the “death dive” to the front ridge. I like to float up several hundred feet above Nittany before going across, but the ridge gave just enough to clear over the top and go. Tricky business.
Once on the front ridge, I headed for my turnpoint near the edge of the Williamsport Class Delta. It was now an all-out drag race. Abeam of Lockhaven, I figured that I had now started a 900km out and return. It was 1pm and sunset was 8:45pm. Figuring seven hours was a reasonable bet, I had to make Covington by 4:30pm to have a little reserve at the end of the day. Every knot of airspeed counted now; every minute earlier would mean that the thermals are that much better on the run back.
Altoona and Bedford went by without too much difficulty and I was on the Knobblies before I knew it. The effect of this terrain on the air mirrors the broken-up nature of the ground; the air was all torn up and unsettled. I slowed down to 80 knots and struggled to maintain my altitude. The sharp gusts that felt like good thermals encouraged me to start making a quarter of a turn and then get dumped out the other side. Almost all of the clouds failed to generate organized lift. It is necessary to climb between the especially dicey sections between Keyser and Scherr and the tip of Scherr and Hopewell Gap. The sections in between get very low and the landability is quite poor. I made it across after 30 minutes of stressful flying.
Now firmly established on the high West Virginia ridges, I was really hoping to let ‘er rip. But the lift was not working that well. Below ridge top it just barely kept me up and level with the ridge and then the sections would work for about 95-100 knots. I expected that with the higher elevation I would find a redline ridge, but to no avail. Every minute counted and I kept the ‘4 going as fast as it would go.
Beyond Snowy Mountain and the downwind ridge was in range. I got a bit antsy to make the jump and did it a bit too early. Once established, the next transition was a bit disconcerting. It was a downwind jump similar to Honey Grove, although over a sea of trees. I took care to climb up high enough to solidly make it across above ridge top.
I was now in business on the Warm Springs Ridge. And to my distress, the glider was hardly staying level with the ridge while passing Ingalls Airport. The wind sock at the top of this really high airport was only halfway extended and the ridge ahead was descending. I must have overrun the stationary front and was now flying in the weaker, crappier air.
Approaching the knob at the end of the Warm Springs Ridge, I realized that my turnpoint was several miles beyond the tip, directly over the town of Covington. The idea behind this strategy is if the ridge working well, to float up 500-1000ft above ridge top, tiptoe in, round the point and get out. It doesn’t work so well when you’re hardly hanging along at ridge top. The turnpoint was four miles away.
How Badly Do You Want It?
You can’t get so close and chicken out. Sliding out toward the turnpoint, I was slowly bleeding off altitude and holding my breath. Two miles from the point, now over the valley and the ship was sinking faster. Heart rate kicked up, pressing on. Approaching the turnpoint, I was 400ft lower than I started.
Heaving the glider around the turn, I felt a nibble off the right wing. It took two seconds to register and then I flung the ship into a turn reversal with all my strength. By golly the freakin’ town set off a thermal!
It was not great, going up on half the turn and down the other. But it was enough to gain 450 feet back. At that point I was drifting faster downwind than I was climbing up and punched back toward the ridge. At 3200ft, the weak ridge lift kicked in, well below ridge top. Boy was I thankful for that 450 feet.
Man, would it be great to get back to the high Ingalls ridge. The higher altitude, slightly better thermals and better fields at the base made it the way to go. Just hang with it. And several miles farther, another weak thermal got me 200 feet higher.
Every foot counts to a ridge pilot. 50 feet higher or lower is the difference between connecting with the ridge 150 feet below crest and falling off into a field. High enough, I slid downwind and connected with the ridge lift.
At this point, I was able to take a breather and take stock of my situation. The finish was 400km away and it was just after 4pm. Having made good time heading south, this would give me a bit more room on the return trip. But the conditions were starting to deteriorate and it’s a lot to ask of eastern thermals to keep chugging along this late. The first challenge was to get back upwind to the front ridge and the clouds ahead looked pitiful.
Abeam of Ingalls Airport again and there was a nice looking cloud street heading upwind. Looking northeast, the clouds looked worse, hardly a chance to make it over upwind further along this ridge. A solid surge. The goal was now to climb up as high as possible, float up the street and get across. This would set me up well to reconnect with the front ridge at Mountain Grove.
700ft higher and the thermal started deteriorating. Well the street looks nice, maybe I could pick up a bubble along the way. Hanging along in good air, but no bubble was to be found. This is not looking pretty. Floating along upwind, the glide angle on the mountains ahead was slightly improving. But I really wanted another climb. Halfway across and still no joy. Looking to the northeast, pressing on still looked like the best bet. I could clear Lick Mountain and fall back on it if I started coming up short of the front ridge.
I made the fateful decision to press on.
500ft above Lick and the front ridge is coming in view. I would be totally committed very soon; can’t drop off to the fields behind Lick Mountain anymore on the other side. Heart rate kicked up, eyes narrowed, and I crossed the point of no return to slide over the top of the ridge.
400km Through Hell
If there was a log that measured my pulse, at this point it would have spiked off the chart. As I cleared the ridge and looked down, there was a dark green mass of forest. And more importantly, the trees were not moving; there was hardly any wind down here at 2700ft MSL. Several seconds later, I hit a little surge, hauled into it and opened the dump valves. As this happened, I forced myself to breathe, calm down and looked left at Lake Moomaw. If all goes to hell, that’s where I would go and live with the fact I would be called an admiral. The thought flashed across my mind to remember to take off the parachute straps if I have to go into the water.
Immediately after I pulled into the turn, I saw the fields at the base of Mountain Grove out of the corner of my right eye. They were solidly in glide. I heaved out of the turn, put the nose down and closed the valves. A wave of relief, dread, and anxiety swept over me. My fate is at the base of this mountain; I am totally screwed. This ridge is hardly working. But the field is an infinitely better way to end this flight than the damned lake.
Down to 60 knots. The ridge was rising faster than I could climb with it. A little surge and I turned into it. Nothing and I was lower than I started the turn. Damn! Just hang in there. Another surge, a couple S-turns good for 150ft. Just hang with it. Now abeam of the fields and several hundred feet higher. And then the ridge made a sharp rise and I was off its base, on the little spurs below.
A sharper surge. Maybe I could S-turn up the ridge? There were two gullies and it seemed that there was lift on both sides and sink in the middle. I was able to make my turns right over the gullies and spent five minutes clawing my way up 400 feet. Every foot matters to a ridge pilot.
This was just enough to slide in 150 feet below ridge top on the high ridge and the lift kicked on. Slowly I was level with the ridge. It kept rising and rising and I was struggling to stay with it. I would dolphin through every bubble. Finally, near Monterey I was level with the 3800ft ridge, cruising along at a reasonable clip.
Thinking the horrors were finally over, I sped up a bit more. The ridge band was almost glued to the trees; it hardly rose above the top of the ridge. My speed crept up to 90 knots; if there was any chance to complete the task I’ll have to nurse the ship home.
Approaching Snowy Mountain; I slowed down a bit. The ridge band only got me up to 4100ft. And then I got sucked into the spill. I kept the ship plastered to the trees. Halfway in, it still looked better to keep driving. Still sinking and sinking. Now I had to go the long way around the knob and I was falling out of the freakin’ sky. Every time I hit a sink spell, I was dodging the trees and spilling myself off the ridge. And to my dread, the ridge rose several hundred feet. As I came around the corner, I was down to 3500ft, right at the base of the high ridge, near level with the low upwind ridge. The landing options were through a gully toward the low ridge. This is not looking good at all.
And then the ridge lift just started kicking in. I opened the dump valves, all that mattered now was to claw up this damned mountain. And on the first S-turn, the lift kicked in in earnest. Closed the valves and three S-turns later, I was back in business.
At this point, it became abundantly clear to me that the goal was to survive the next 320km; literally and figuratively. The terrain and fields in West Virginia were terrifying down low. The air was torn up and the mountains were intimidating. Man what I would do to just make it to Maryland, where the fields were much nicer. Time was ticking; it was after 5pm and I accepted that this flight was near certain to end in a landout. Let’s just make it to a good field.
Abeam of Petersburg, and it was hard to stay much above ridge top. Now the Knobblies appeared before me and a wave of dread came over me. I can’t get in there low, I gotta climb! And thankfully I found a rare, solid surge. This took me up to 5,500ft before it petered out. But looking ahead I saw that the clouds lined up parallel to the ridge; looks like rotor! This kept me going a long way in good air and gave me just a bit more altitude to work with. Looking ahead, I had a flat angle to Scherr. Boy I really wanted to be higher. Just give me another thermal to work with and I’d take it.
Floating along in the rotor line, I bumped along in the lift, but nothing was solid enough to turn in. I kept going straight, eyeing my angle to the base of the fourth windmill. It held and I slid in well below the top of the ridge and it kicked on. Slowing down to 60 knots, I floated up to the top. Just give me a bit more to make it to Keyser. Nope, not much to give, but just enough good air to float along. Just hang in there.
And looking ahead, the better fields at the base of Keyser opened up in front of me. Whatever deity was watching me today, thank you, thank you very much. I slid lower and lower, down to 2000ft. But then the broken up ridges kicked on and I was maintaining altitude.
It was approaching 6pm. Now back in the land of large, abundant fields, I started thinking about the next transition. It would be a small upwind jump to the Halfpipe beyond Cumberland. I will need a thermal to make this work. What are the odds that it will kick in this late in the day?
And sure enough the infrastructure upwind of the little ridge worked a couple bubbles my way. Man oh man, this might even work! The first thermal petered out, but the second one was a genuine, solid three knotter. I took it up as high as it would go, abundantly pleased to be well off the ridge even just for a little while. At 4,500ft and it was plenty to make it across.
At this point, another wave of relief passed over me. Should the PA ridges work, I could cut down the retrieve a huge amount. I will not need an honest thermal until I got to the transition at Tussey to Nittany and that is pretty close to Ridge Soaring. Every mile flown is two miles less on the retrieve and I felt rightfully proud that I was now in friendly territory.
I called up John Bird and asked him if he could be ready to retrieve me. He said he was tracking me on SPOT and fairly assumed I would probably eventually land at the base of Tussey or somewhere along Nittany. He rightfully surmised that in the unlikely event that I somehow made it to my finish that I would have to land someplace, anywhere to be down before sunset. Thanking him for his thoughtfulness and initiative in being ready to retrieve me, I asked him if he completed his Diamond Distance today. He said he did and had a great flight too! The 90-second conversation lifted my spirits.
The Halfpipe was just barely working. Again, I couldn’t keep up with the rising ridge. Where Wills Mountain meets the halfpipe, I found a thermal and once again S-turned to claw my way up the mountain. At the top now, I was floating along as high as I could. Evitts Mountain was downwind, but it would sure be nice to connect with it as high as possible; the landing options at the base of it are dismal to non-existent. Boy would it be nice to find a thermal.
Several attempts and no joy. Sigh. I was high enough to go for it, so it was simply a matter of finding the friendliest spot and going for it. A little surge, a 270 and a downwind run in good air. Strong sink in the leeward spill and I slid onto Evitts Mountains square at ridge top.
I was now limping along at 75-80 knots, still pretty heavy with water. I figured that the weight would help me in the penetration and would hardly lose when it came to floating up in the straightaways. I floated up just barely enough to squeak over the Wall and onto Tussey. Just kept nursing the ship along. Just hang in there.
Passing the Zag, I slowed down to 60 knots. It was 7pm and there was only one more transition left that stood between me and completing the task. Ahead was the upwind jump at Tussey which gave me grief the first time around today and the air was becoming smooth. What are the odds that this is going to work?
This late in the day, the upper band usually turns on and it is possible to float along 1000ft above the ridge in “evening magic”. The sun comes around to the west and the trees start releasing their latent heat. It is a glorious time to be flying.
The band hadn’t kicked on yet and at one point I was flung back down on the ridge top. Patience, just float along at 60 knots. And then the ridge slowly strengthened. 20, 30 feet at a time, I slowly floated up higher and higher. I finally capped out at 2800ft. This was considerably better than before!
Nursing the glider along, I looked upwind. There was that field I scouted out before at the base of the mountain, right by the big quarry. It looked good to land in and this will be my out. Everything hangs on this one jump. Floating along, I hoped to find a thermal to get higher. I have only one chance to make this work; the conditions are not going to improve later.
As close as I could get to the jump, I found a little nibble, just enough to gain an extra 100ft. Every foot counts to a ridge pilot. 100ft was the best it would do and I floated out at best glide speed.
At this point I called up University Park Tower to request the transition across. It was fully apparent to me that there was a good chance that I would be at the base of the ridge and wondered how I should communicate my situation to the tower. It felt better to spare myself the trouble of having to explain myself while in a marginal situation as it were. If I fall off, I’ll deal with them later.
The ridge looked so far away and so high up off the nose, but the angle was just holding on. A little bit of sink, a little bit of good air. The angle took me just a little bit below the crest, right around the corner. The field looked really nice and I had my approach figured out. Just hang in there.
As I wrapped the ship around the corner, I pulled the dump valve. No need for the water anymore and I will give everything it takes to stay with this ridge. Evidently the water gods were pleased as I was greeted with weak ridge lift. It was solid and I closed the valve.
A wave of elation passed over! Damned if I made it across! I’ll make it to the finish line! What are the odds!
And then I sternly said enough of that, don’t celebrate until you have actually completed the task. There’s still room to mess up you know.
But that was almost in jest. I was cruising along at 85 knots, sun setting off my shoulder, chasing my shadow off my right wing. The lift was smooth, the whole Nittany valley lit up in the glorious evening sun. It was surreal.
As I approached the finish, I started thinking about how to make my landing. My first thought was to turn around and fly back along Nittany and land just outside of the University Park Class D. This would cut down the retrieve quite a bit. But then I considered if I could make it to the front ridge that I could land at Lockhaven Airport. That’s a very nice place to go! And besides, if I had enough time, I could head back along the ridge, maybe get to Milesburg and cut down the retrieve some more. Who knows, maybe I could even make it home? I laughed at the prospect.
Approaching the end of the mountain, I slowed down and floated up. After crossing the finish line, my satisfaction was delayed since I was focused on making the next upwind jump. Just floating up enough to clear the bowl, I once again went for the infamous “death dive” to the front ridge.
This time after clearing the corner I immediately headed southwest. The ship connected with the ridge at 1700ft in honest ridge lift. I was in perfect position for a landing at Lockhaven, but slowly floated up the ridge. Looking at the time, there were 30 miles to go and 40 minutes until sunset. Man, that is actually enough time to make it home! Might as well give it a shot, why not?
Humming along at 80 knots at 1700ft, it was peaceful. The sun was coming down behind the cirrus off to the west and the valley started to darken. The air was smooth. It felt like I was sitting on the wing and just watching myself fly, simply amazed to be here at all.
Approaching Milesburg, I slowed down and floated up to 1800ft. This was all that the ridge was going to give me now as the wind was slowly dying down. But this was enough to get across and the airport came in sight. Dropping down the gear on downwind and going 70 knots, there was enough drag on the glider that I could no longer sustain at ridge top. The day was giving its dying breath as I turned on base leg and landed in perfectly smooth air, 20 minutes before sunset.
This was the most difficult ridge flight I had ever done; certainly more challenging than any flight I had previously declared. The conditions were just barely good enough to make it work. The last 500km was the most grueling soaring I had ever done for such a long distance. Every transition, gap, and elevation change had me working for every last scrap of energy. There were at least three times that the odds were stacked against me that I would fall off the ridge. Somehow I managed to hang in there and it was a near miracle that I made it home. It’s deeply satisfying to have had the opportunity to play the game, where for a while it hung in the balance on every move. It felt like the ridge and I did battle and walked away with a healthy respect for each other, looking forward to the time we will challenge each other.
This flight should be good for a 3 Turnpoint Distance Standard Class National Record and a 1250km Diploma.
Find my flight log here.
Many thanks are in order. Thank you Tom and Doris for letting me stay at your wonderful bunkhouse and for the early tow. Thanks Phil Chidekel for the weather forecast. Thanks John Bird for crewing for me and huge congrats on your Diamond Distance! Thanks Mike Robison for letting me use your logger; I ended up using your log!
Thanks a million to Aero Club Albatross for letting me use your wonderful LS-4. It has been a spectacular week of flying and I am deeply honored to have had the opportunity to use this sailplane to its potential.
I hope that the soaring community as a whole will appreciate that affordable gliders, especially in clubs can do wonderful things. And that clubs supporting their members in their sporting goals is the best way to grow this sport. Aero Club Albatross is the beacon that lights the way.