08-22-20 | A Tale of Two Airmasses

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was soarable in Pennsylvania, it was miserable in New Jersey, there were cloudstreets, there were 40 mile blue holes, an airmass with strong and high thermals, and another that produced a thunderstorm that nearly wiped out the airport; in short, a memorable day!

I arrived at the airport with no expectations. It was August; hot and humid with a southwesterly wind pumping in air expended from the swelled up swamps of South Carolina.  My sweat accumulated after assembling the glider, completely soaking my clothes, and refused to evaporate. The few clouds triggering over the ridge were hardly much above ridge top. Having not flown the DuckHawk in a little over a month, I was content to simply get airborne and do a couple takeoffs and landings. And if I managed a short soaring flight, heck that would be an accomplishment.

Glancing at the forecast, the Poconos looked promising. Perhaps it would be good enough to poke around in that wonderful high ground? I set a short task up to Lake Wallenpaupack to do a little bit of sightseeing.

Taking off a little after noon, there were still low, scrawny clouds over the ridge. The first climb off tow was a struggle; 10 minutes in a half knot thermal to claw my way up to cloudbase at 3200ft. A short thermal street lined up into the wind, along the ridge. The DuckHawk was much more content flying straight than circling in these weak bubbles.

The line promptly ended at the hang glider launch, hardly ten miles away from the airport. A slow climb took me up to 3800ft and I looked over at the high ground to the northwest. The clouds were slightly higher over East Stroudsburg and the lift was fairly reliable. And heck, with a 50-1 glider, the odds are good that I’ll find something.

Sure enough, there were a couple bubbles along the way to keep inching upwards. Off my right, there was a rain shower; the sucker looked like an enormous billowing cauliflower, with a dark ominous bottom, slowly moving toward the airport. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Looking dead ahead toward the Poconos plateau though, the sky totally transformed. The clouds formed little cottonball puffs at 6500ft and you could see miles and miles away. Once over the edge of the plateau, I found solid lift and climbed right alongside the clouds!

My flight computer read out that the wind was 300 degree or so; quite different than the 220-250 degree wind in the valley. I discovered that this was a new airmass, bordered by a trough parked right at the very edge of the Poconos. Coupled with the heating of the high ground earlier in the day, it created a steep boundary where the clouds rose thousands of feet. This was going to be cool to explore!

Along the edge of the line, the lift was not all that continuous, although it worked nicely where the clouds hung down like a curtain. And there it was really fun climbing up on the edge of the wispies!

Abeam of Beltzville, the line made a hard left and seemed to lose definition. I suppose it would be fun to poke deeper into PA. Who knows, maybe I could even make it to the Susquehanna River?

Picking up the pace, I found reliable 2-3 knot thermals under honest clouds. Going toward Hazleton, the cloud base dropped off, but no worries; my nose was aimed squared at the Berwick Nuclear Powerplant.

My name for the thermal that comes off the plant is Ol’ Faithful. The steam plumes are often visible from Blairstown, beckoning the wayward glider pilot like a siren to come over and harness its energy. Positioned in the middle of a valley, right by a river, it’s often the only lift within a considerable distance. The resulting thermal is nearly always marked by a cumulus cloud hanging a little lower than the rest; laden with the moisture coming from the stacks, the thermal is always in a hurry to condense into a cloud. And sure enough, there was a solid 3-4 knotter that picked up to a turbulent 5-6 knots near the top. The thermal was so gusty that at one point it nearly spun me out! After a fun rodeo ride, I was back in business at cloudbase.

Heading across Scranton, the Alleghany plateau invited me with beautiful clouds ahead. While I had flown up before, I’ve never directly flown across these imposing mountains. The wind is often times a bit too strong and the thermals are disorganized for many miles. Going into unlandable terrain, higher terrain, and a headwind is a dubious proposition. Most of the time the edge of this plateau acts like a brick wall.

This time, I cleaved into the higher ground without any difficulty, climbing right up to 7000ft. Out yonder, it looked even better!

But as I drove along, I ended down at 4500ft and felt low. There was an airport in comfortable gliding distance ahead, but that piece of property was situated at a daunting 2000ft MSL. Best to tread carefully.

After slowly climbing up and another tricky glide, I finally connected with a solid 2.5 knotter. A little stumbling around here and recentering there wound the averager up to eight knots. Woohoo!

I kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing. At 6000ft, the cloud above me didn’t feel any closer. Neither at 7000ft! Man, what’s going on here? At 8000ft, the thermal was still going and going, just like the energizer bunny.

That sucker topped out at 9,500ft! No wonder the sink was strong before; there were monster thermals around!

My watch inched toward 3:20pm. A pang of doubt crossed my mind; I better start thinking about heading home.

Around that time, the airport was experiencing an epic deluge. The shower I skirted earlier in the day turned into a massive, slow moving thunderstorm. The radar map showed all sorts of pretty colors and orange/red polygons. And then as you gaze at the legend, your eyes widen as you see a tornado warning in effect.

As the billowing cloud crept toward the airport, all the gliders airborne bolted toward the field. The pilots quickly landed, tied down and ran for cover. Those unlucky enough to be still outside when the rain swept in were caught in a torrential downpour. The wind was so strong that the rain came in sideways. This is the kind of the day when rusty stakes, frayed ropes, and creative knots are put to the test.

Meanwhile, I was oblivious to the mayhem back home. My thoughts drifted toward the ease and relaxation of being in the cool, dry air at 9500ft. My cloud was part of a cloudstreet extending ahead of me and it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. I nosed over and flew up to the Buttonwood Ridge, 20 miles northwest of Williamsport, a good 108 miles from home. Figuring this would do for the day, I turned for home. It was 3:40pm.

Picking up the pace to 90 knots, it now was time to put the pedal to the metal. Better to run back home while the conditions were still working well! Sure enough, the lift remained totally solid over the plateau. Consistent 3-5 knot thermals to 9,000ft, good air in between and a tailwind for good measure too. This was glider pilot heaven!

Abeam of Scranton, 70 miles from home, the clouds ahead lost some of their definition. Off my left, the cloudbase dropped off precipitously.  I tanked up as high as I could; better to be thermalling up here, than down there! This climb took me to within 1000ft of a MC 3 final glide. This would comfortably get me across the whole Pocono plateau and might even do for squeaking it home in a pinch.

Over the next 45 miles, the air flattened out. The day was softening up; boy was I glad to have tanked up! I slowed up and floated in the good air, but there were no solid thermals for a long way.

Looking ahead, I could see Mount Pocono Airport beckoning in the distance, with many clouds still formed along a parallel line to the plateau. Sure enough, the trough line was still working! Beyond these clouds, the air was a hazy blue, devoid of all clouds. It looked like the streets at the edge of the Poconos were pushed into this invisible barrier, with the resultant cloud spewing in all directions; upwards, downwards, and sideways. The tendrils hanging down indicated solid lift was working ahead. I relaxed, knowing that I had it made.

Sure enough, approaching the line there was a good thermal and I easily climbed up for final glide with plenty of height to spare. But these peculiar clouds alongside me were just too tempting to simply bypass. Instead, I turned toward Lake Wallenpaupack and played with the line.

It was so much fun! When the glider sank a bit lower, I’d park my wing in the tendrils and thermalled right up the edge of the cloud. In between the streets, there was some mildly good air serving to extend the glides. This worked very nicely for a lap up and down the line, which was slowly inching its way northwestward. With my watch showing a little past 6pm, it was time to call it a day. After rounding the last cloud, the flight computer showing a MC-3 glide, I turned toward Blairstown Airport, heading into the blue, dead void.

Slowing down to best-glide speed, the air was dead smooth. I let go of the stick, turned the variometer down, and just watched the mass of trees under me, gliding toward the ridge off of my nose, the glider contentedly humming along. The upper reservoir was way off in the distance, slowly inching downwards in my canopy.

I looked down at the twists and turns of the terrain below, the setting sun off my right shoulder, and the clouds dissipating behind me. It was just so peaceful, so much so that it felt odd that the flight should ever end. It seemed like the sailplane will silently sail on forever.

Coming over the airport, the wind sock was dead limp. There was some mist forming off the runway and I lined up to land on 7. Since the original objective of the flight was to perfect my landings in this glider, it felt appropriate to oblige. I lined up over the trees, pushed over and landed short of the mid-field taxiway; a challenge completed!

Getting out of the glider, I was surprised to find the grass to be wet and squishy. Everything was soaked and the airport was totally deserted.

When young Kevin emerged out of the shack, it seemed like he was the sole survivor of an apocalypse. He greeted me with the harrowing tales of the afternoon and later helped me disassemble the glider. Later, a couple stragglers banded together to spend the rest of the evening trading tall tales of exploits in days and years past.

All in the adventure that we call a day at the airport!

__________

What a wonderful day! A day that started with no expectations, yet ended in a 270 mile flight! Blairstown offers such dynamic and wonderful soaring; no matter how long you fly here, there will always be new challenges. Thanks Tommy for towing and Bill Thar for crewing in the morning!

Find my flight log here.

5 Replies to “08-22-20 | A Tale of Two Airmasses”

  1. Hi Daniel. Regarding the tendrils: How can you tell the difference between a tendril that is associated with lift and one that isn’t? I’ve seen tendrils before but they haven’t usually worked. What does a “good” one look like and what does a “bad” one look like? Or are virtually all tendrils good?

    BTW, I’m preparing for my first RL x-c here in Georgia. I’ll soon have my Bronze Badge. No more Condor racing for now.

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    1. Hey Ben,

      With tendrils, it comes down to observation. At least in my experience, there’s two kinds; an area of moisture that is simply “hanging” below a cloud which may be disorganized and have little fingers like tendrils. Those don’t provide lift. The moisture seems suspended in space; it hardly moves and slowly dissipates.

      But if you look in front of you and you see tendrils forming, especially if the site is doing this routinely, that’s very good. With wave or convergence, there is an upward action in the airmass that remains stationary with respect to the ground.

      Another way to think about this is that the convergence is kind of like a big speed bump in the sky. When air with a little bit of moisture gets pushed up by the speed bump, it cools off and condenses. Hence the tendril.

      The tendril will then keep drifting downwind, and generally another tendril will form in the same place as the speed bump. When you see that, that is a reliable sign that there is a thermal at the spot where the tendril had originally formed.

      So the key is to watch what is happening. If you see a cloud is forming, the act of it forming is releasing energy and causing lift. If you see a certain spot is repeatedly creating a puff, then go there.

      All the best,
      Daniel

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      1. Thanks, Daniel. I now understand what the “bad” tendrils look like? I’ve seen too many of those :-)… but do you happen to have a picture of a “good” tendril you could post here? Still having trouble visualizing it. Does it look like a mini-funnel cloud or some such?

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