On this frigid Halloween, many youngsters were getting their costumes ready for a Saturday extravaganza. Houses were decorated with scary dragons, ghosts, and rotting pumpkins carved into contorted visages. In this odd American tradition, it becomes socially acceptable for children to take candy from strange people in the dark. And if you were to chart average blood sugar levels among most kids, they would look like a stock that suddenly rises, crashes, and results in wailing tantrums on the floor.
I never understood this tradition. Perhaps it never rubbed off on me because I was the one tasked with giving out the candy rather than the one dressing up and soliciting it. Or perhaps it was that time I was coerced to wear a crocodile onesie to take part in a Peter Pan themed Halloween party. No good things ever occurred to me on October 31st.
So on this Halloween, I was more than happy to be on the road to Blairstown Airport. My thoughts were not on the prospect of satisfying sugar cravings, but looking up at the sky and daydreaming about flying. Besides, I had enough to be scared about this Halloween. Skyvector indicated a complex set of restricted airspaces (TFRs) between Trenton, NJ and Reading, PA due to Trump furiously campaigning in the final days before the election. And there would be no worse Halloween trick than for me to be on the receiving end of a United States F-16 screaming across my nose, with nasty words to say to me on 121.5.
No, it would be much better if it were for me to play the tricks, leaving some poor and confused radar operator wondering as to how a glider squawking 1202 was staying airborne for hours, patrolling the outskirts of the restricted airspace. With the intention to fly as far as possible given the weather and airspace constraints, I planned to fly on the north edge of the Reading TFR and then maybe into the valley south once the Trenton TFR expired at 2:30pm local time. To cover my bases, I called WX-BRIEF to receive the most up to date information. I could sense the fellow raising his eyebrow upon hearing my plan to fly a glider to Beltzville Airport.
My day started early as Guido and Anthony Erlinger asked to receive some morning instruction in the club Grob, nicknamed Greta. Having completed my Flight Instructor rating the previous week, I was happy to oblige. Guido arrived early and got the battery and golf cart ready while I took a trip to the hangar to bring out the Duckhawk trailer.
Upon arriving on the airfield, I was surprised to see all of the grass covered in a white, crusty frost. Guido is a true Italian and evidently not well adapted to the cold. When we started taking the covers off of Greta, he yelped in pain as the frost bit into his bare hands! Unfortunately, our efforts to start early this morning were for naught. With the air so moist, a layer of frost started covering the whole glider. We promptly moved Greta into the sun for deicing while Tommy the towpilot went to the airport cafe to get himself a warm cup of coffee.
At 10am, we were just about ready to start towing and we needed a wingrunner. Anthony arrived as though right on cue and with him on the scene, the show began. With the magnetos clicked on, starter whirring, and the propeller making several jagged jumps, the engine turned over and the Cessna 182 towplane was ready to fly. With the rope hooked up, wings leveled, the slack in the rope taken out, Guido keyed the mic and in a delightful and melodic Italian accent said, “ACA tow-ah-plane, glider is-ah ready to-ah take-ah-off-ah!”
Guido did a wonderful job. We reviewed all of the peculiarities of the club Grob, especially its insatiable hunger for rudder. He flew great, did a bunch of turns, some stalls, and most importantly, had a great landing at the end. Anthony was next and had the good fortune of launching as the soaring day began. We practiced flying the ship, along with some thermalling techniques. After Anthony came back, Guido took the third and final instructional flight of the day, with a quick tow to 1500ft followed by a prompt approach and landing. For this one, I sat in the back and whistled, pretending to be a passenger and letting Guido do all the work. Predictably he did well and ended the short flight with another nice landing. Just before noon, I was released from my instructional duties and was eager to go fly the Duckhawk.
Around this time, Ron Schwartz showed up to say hello. Seeing that he was willing to stick around for extended socializing, I asked whether he would be willing to help me assemble my ship, to which he eagerly agreed. This was probably a mistake on his part as the process was a bit more tortuous than usual. It’s like the Duckhawk wanted to make a point that I don’t fly her often enough by making it that much harder to put her wings on. And then making a fool of me when something wasn’t quite right and I was forced to take one wing off to fix it. With enough consoling and finagling, the bird was assembled and my preflight checklist was complete.
Looking up at the sky, I was surprised to see that the cumulus clouds did not wither away as expected. Instead, the cotton balls were nicely arrayed as far as the eye could see. This was going to be a better day than anticipated!
Launching at 1pm, I released in solid, nicely organized lift. The ship reminded me that it’s been over a month and a half since my last flight, with a couple instances when the wing wanted to drop after pulling a bit too hard in the lift. Backing off a skosh and working up to a little over 4000ft, I felt great and back in business. With honest and reliable lift all around me, it was time to do some exploring.
As I turned southwest bound, I was delighted to see that the clouds were nicely aligned in streets heading right up the valley. Normally the lift is much better over the higher and drier mountains, but today I accepted the usually risky proposition of flying in the lee of the ridge. With the lift so nicely organized and closely spaced, the Duckhawk made easy work of the energy along the way.
It felt like I was flying a 1-26 again. The 1-26 demands your attention as the last five percent of performance are the difference between flying well and ending in a field. With the Duckhawk, you don’t have the same prospect of landing out, but when you work that much harder you feel how much better you are doing. And in this case, the game was staying connected with the thin lift band under the clouds.
What worked well was to drop the nose and consistently fly at 60 knots. And when I’d find a nice bit of lift, to yank hard and dynamic soar the gusts. In the less lifty sections, to cruise at around 70 knots, with 80 knots reserved for sinking air.
The best moments were when the lift was off to one side and I could bank, yank, and pull hard. It felt like I was dropping my talons, gripping the air, and then ripping it out of the sky. The variometer would wail and the altimeter would wind up and up and up. This kind of dynamic soaring probably worked best because in a turn it was possible to maintain 1.5-2 Gs for a longer time, generating that much more momentary thrust.
In what seemed like no time at all, I arrived at Beltzville Airport. My eyes gazed around for other gliders and to my joy, I saw a 2-33 just below and heading away from me. Being too good of an opportunity to pass up, I dropped the nose, sped up to a leisurely 140 knots and said hello the white and red whale of the skies. After turning back, I saw a vintage yellow Ka-4 release in a thermal and gave him a similar greeting. With that, I climbed back up to cloudbase and started my journey back to Blairstown.
The sky just seemed like it was getting better and better, with the clouds aligned in a perfect row. The challenge now was to soar the 32 miles back home without turning at all. My eyes focused on the dark spots in the clouds and I keyed up my body to feel every bit of the air. The flaps clicked and clacked away as I’d make the glider jink, zig, and zag, flowing up and down the swells and rapids in the sky. Only minutes later, I arrived back at Blairstown Airport having hardly lost any altitude at all. And upon seeing Anthony flying in the club 1-26, I used this extra energy to give him a friendly Duckhawk greeting.
Being just after 2:30pm, this was a good moment to take stock of the sky and assess where to go next. Looking to the northeast, the clouds were withering away. Instead, I was eager to follow the nicer clouds nearby on another adventure to the south. Remembering that the Trenton TFR was to expire around that time, it felt that everything was lining up perfectly to head this way. But to be absolutely sure, I decided to contact Allentown Approach on 124.45 and check. And to my horror, Trump was evidently running late and the TFR was still active! Thoroughly annoyed, I doubled back from Hackettstown to wait a little while.
Half an hour later and somewhat listless, I called up Allentown again and requested an update to the airspace situation. And the controller responded, “The TFR has now been terminated.”
I responded, “Did you say that the TFR has not been terminated or has now been terminated?”
With a satisfactory response that the TFR was now no longer a factor, I got excited again, climbed up to cloudbase, and set my sights on Vansant Airport around 30 miles away.
At this point, the thermals were starting to get farther apart, resulting in a more traditional climb and glide style of soaring. Upon entering the thermals, I practiced making better entry turns, finding success entering the lift at 60 knots and making a very steep turn. And after starting the turn, to initiate a stepwise slowdown to 55, 50, and 45 knots, using my speed to adjust my position in the thermal. The tricky bit was making a solid pull to initiate this process, but not pulling so sharply that it would cause the air flow to separate on the wing and make a lot of drag. You need to be really on top of this glider for it to fly most efficiently.
As I crossed the Delaware River, I had Vansant Airport in view, but unfortunately no friends in the sky to fly with. The air was also devoid of any movement and the altimeter unwound enough to cause a bit of concern. Looking ahead, I could see Philadelphia’s skyscrapers beckoning in the distance and sunnier skies above. Several miles beyond Vansant, I dug out from a little above 2000ft above the ground and figured it was high time to make the journey back home.
Being a little after 4pm on a late autumn day, I resolved to be patient and get nice and high before heading back. To my mild frustration, the thermals were poorly organized and kept me struggling along a little while until a solid three knotter got me comfortably up to cloudbase.
The glide computer indicated I only needed another 2000ft to gain to get home, a little over 30 miles away. It was hard for me to believe that the glider could actually make that work. My mental calculations suggested that this was around 7-8 miles per thousand feet and it just felt that this was too good to be true. So after I tanked up with a little extra altitude in the final thermal, the glider surprised me yet again when it sailed on home, perfectly making the glide.
The best part of the day is when the sun starts to set over your shoulder and the valley lights up in a brilliant glow. Looking over toward Bethlehem and Allentown, the landscape looked like a canvas brushed on with warm oranges, reds, and yellows, occasional glittering blue lakes, punctuated by the gentle steam of distant powerplants, and a misty mountain snaking as far as the eye can see. Autumn is a joyous time to fly in the northeast.
With the additional altitude at my disposal, I flew over to my ridge to see if the wind had picked up enough for the ridge lift to work. Upon dropping down to 1700ft MSL, I found that the wind was at 195 degrees and 12 knots. Surprisingly the lift was fairly solid! This enthused me enough to make two shorts laps up and down the local ridge, getting a close up view of the leaves on the trees and the hikers at Mt. Minsi. As much as I enjoyed flying the ridge again, I was also nearly continuously shivering having under-dressed for the cold, having anticipated lower, warmer, and blue conditions. With the temperatures at ridge top not being high enough to warm me up, I called it in after a delightful three and a half hours in the air.
After landing and spending a good thirty minutes thawing my feet and warming up my body, I was ready to take the aircraft apart. Since there were no club members around, I wandered over to the flight school to see if I could find a hapless victim to help me disassemble. First, I set my sights on the younger Kevin who was tying down his 1-26, but then my gaze later to the young kid nearby. He introduced himself as Andreas, turned out to be thirteen years old, and about 18 lessons into his flight training. Bingo!
I brought him over to the Duckhawk and invited him to sit in the cockpit. Comfortably seated, he started asking all sorts of questions about all the instruments, knobs, and dials. Do you really need all this stuff to fly? I chuckled and replied absolutely not! He asked me about the glider’s performance and handling characteristics, how the gear, and flaps work and why everything is the way it is. Twenty minutes later, it became apparent that I was the hapless victim in this bargain! Only when his dad wandered over to let his son know it was time to go home, he hopped out and eagerly gave me a hand taking the wings off.
On the way back to the parking lot, I briefly opened up the club LS-4 trailer and told him that if he kept working hard that someday he would be flying that beautiful ship. And you could see the gears turning in his head as I closed the trailer lid and he raced on home.
Turns out that this Halloween was a treat after all!
Thanks a million Schwartz and Tommy for helping me fly today, you guys are the best!
See my flight here.