01-20-20 | Temptations and Eagles

It’s wonderful when holidays align with ridge conditions. Ron Schwartz, Steve Beer, Claudio Abreu, Khanh Nguyen, and I, ACA’s hardiest ridge rats, came out on a frigid Monday to soar. The high for the day was around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, with a temperature aloft of around 17 degrees or so. We looked like abominable snowmen, with layers upon layers of wool, cotton, and polyester. On my account, I had on three layers of thermal shirts and pants, fleece, heavy fleece and my winter flight suit. Electric socks, with the cord snaking to a battery in my breast pocket so I could control the temperature. A ski mask covered my whole head, plus a wool hat and gloves.

Not a single square inch of my body was exposed. NASA probably has less difficulty fitting their astronauts to launch into space. But it worked; I was reasonably cozy the entire day!

I arrived early in the morning to help Steve assemble ACA, the club’s LS4. It was to be his second flight in the glider and he was eager to take it up on the ridge to get a taste of high performance soaring. I scrutinized the wind sock after taking the trailer out of the hangar; the wind slightly favored launching on 7. Steve and I bantered back and forth on the merits of either runway and Steve noted that the sock went limp. Expecting to depart from 25, we brought the trailer to the very end of the runway.

Halfway into assembling the glider, the wind sock turned around and we now felt a stiff tailwind. Tommy the tow pilot arrived and we agreed that it would be much safer to launch into the wind on the other end. Poor Steve, he’d have to haul the glider across the whole runway!

Khanh was the other unfortunate fellow for the day. We planned to do a short ridge flight in the club 2-33 (affectionately nicknamed the Mad Cow), but the ship was hopelessly frozen. There was no prospect of removing the thick layer of ice on the wings, so we had to postpone our effort for another time. Khanh was a great sport and took the unwelcome news in stride, helping us stage and launch. We really appreciated his help!

I hustled to the hangars again to bring out the Duckhawk. Since becoming airworthy, it’s been an ongoing process of fiddling and tweaking to get the ship tiptop for the upcoming spring. After assembling it and completing a thorough preflight, I helped Claudio put together his ASW24.

Rather than launching off the snow, we took advantage of the quiet airport to launch on the blacktop. We gridded on the taxiway and positioned the rope at the edge of the runway. Tommy and I worked out the sequence of operations; the glider pilots would push the glider over to the pavement, hook up and go. When the towplane would return, he would drop the rope to avoid dragging it on the asphalt. At the subsequent launch, the ground crew would hook up both the glider and towplane and promptly send them on their way.

Schwartz launched first. Tommy made an airshow quality performance when he came back to land. You could see him fighting the crosswind and the turbulence on short final. Dropping the rope was like an accuracy contest. He pulled the release as he approached the threshold.

The rope fell square between the 20ft gap in the middle lights, with the glider end of the rope perfectly positioned, right at the threshold. Damn Tommy, that was cool!

Steve was up next in the club LS4. I gave him a short takeoff briefing and then we hauled him out onto the runway. He bravely fought the crosswind and stayed in position with the towplane, eagerly departing toward the ridge.

I was up next in the Duckhawk. Launching on the pavement was fantastic. The hardtop made for a fast acceleration and the towplane climbed like a banshee thanks to the -2000ft density altitude. Tommy was on his game. The Cessna 182 at his controls was totally steady; it looked like the gusts and turbulence didn’t affect it at all. He made an absolutely perfect turn toward the ridge. I couldn’t have done it better if I simply willed the towplane around as it flew. He was just great!

Upon release, I was greeted with a call from Steve. I *love* this glider! It’s amazing! I hope that 508 isn’t listening! I replied not to worry, that 508 (one of the club’s 1-26s) didn’t have its battery on! It certainly is a magical experience taking up a high-performance ship on a ridge for the first time.

The lift band was totally solid. The cold, dense air worked especially well; the hang-glider pilots call it “fat” air. I charged down the ridge, heading southwest-bound at the speed of heat.

The run down to Hawk Mountain went quickly and I contemplated going farther. However, the thermals weren’t working well and the wind sharply slackened off from 20 knots down to 15. It looked like Hawk was as far as I’d get today. Back to doing laps, I suppose and I turned around, 100km from my starting point.

I spotted a bald eagle and swung the glider around to fly with him. This guy was moving along at a pretty decent clip, at least 40 mph! It was difficult to stay with him, even with the spoilers fully extended and the flaps down to 20 degrees. To remain in position, I resorted to S-turning, setting myself up for a “bomber run” and then passing near him.

This guy wasn’t as thrilled about my presence as the eagle I flew with a month ago. Steve later noted, he was probably confused whether I was a duck or a hawk!

Nonetheless, he indulged and played with me for a little while.

It was really fun watching the changing landscape. When you do laps, the light directs your attention on various features. With different shadows, you will see distinct rock outcroppings, fields, houses that you haven’t noticed before. The valley was beautiful, with a hard white crust on top of the snow covered fields that glistened at low sun angles. Unlike other winter days, the snow was so thin that it looked more like frosting on top of a cake. The snow didn’t completely overwhelm the region, which often makes the land look sad and monochrome.

The visibility was unbelievable, genuinely unlimited. At a couple hundred feet above ridge top, you could just make out the tops of the New York City skyscrapers poking above the hills. It was easy to spot the airliners from the Flarm. They looked like big insects that you could just reach out and pick up as they passed over the canopy.

Bobby Templin likes to say that the second lap is the least appealing. This is when you notice you’re getting a little tired, cold and some parts of your body start to hurt. The first lap is always exciting since you’re trying to make miles. The last lap is fantastic because the valley gets lit up in a gorgeous glow. The second lap can feel like a drag.

I call it the second lap blues. Coming back from Hawk Mountain, my legs couldn’t find a comfortable position and I was getting hungry. Glancing at my watch, I saw it was 2:40pm. It struck me that Runway Cafe closes at 3:30pm and that I could get a great cup of coffee and a prime rib sandwich if I hustle back home.

The prospect of rich, dark, black coffee overwhelmed my senses and I pushed the nose over.

The trees were flashing off my right wing. The ship settled in at 110 knots, 100 ft above the ridge. The air was choppy, but established a steady rhythm. There was a cadence to the gusts, like the reassurance of riding waves up and down on a sea. The lift band just felt *so solid*, as though it was reaching out and gripping the glider.

Approaching the Delaware Water Gap, the sun was coming around to the west and lit up the mountain in a gorgeous glow. And there was Schwartz, driving along in his 1-26! That old dog lined up for the foreboding upwind jump only several hundred feet above ridge top. He knows the ridge like an old school London cabby driver knows his city’s streets. He feels the air as a bird, gently swaying to and fro and following the air’s natural ripples, eddies and snaking currents. It was beautiful watching him float across, hardly losing any altitude at all.

Now on the local ridge, I got a second wind and regained the motivation to do another lap. And as far as my hunger, I ate a rock solid Cliff Bar. It was so frozen that it felt like I could break a tooth on it! Hot coffee was merely six minutes away, but the temptation was averted. Time to head southwest-bound once more.

We sometimes call this the “victory lap”. At the end of a long flight, it’s amazing to watch the ridge light up in the oranges and reds of the setting sun. The trees let go of their latent heat and the lift band becomes smooth. There is a cinematic quality as you soar effortlessly in the beautiful glow.

On the way back, I stumbled across another eagle. This one was not like the others; he was a bit bigger and golden colored. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and swung the ship around to meet him.

To stay with him, I slowed down and started S-turning. As I would come close to him, he would turn toward me and slide in behind me. We were “scissoring”, a well-known air combat maneuver. We did this for a half dozen cycles for almost ten minutes, at times less than a wingspan away!

Later, he turned into a nice thermal. I joined him and got to my highest point of the day, less than an hour before sunset!

There’s nothing like flying with these amazing birds. When you soar with them, you forget about the glider, about the here and now. As they look square into your eyes, they communicate something that words cannot convey.

You’re flying.

Thanks a million Tommy and Khanh for towing and running the operations! You guys are the best!

See the flight log here.

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