Are we going to fly, are we not going to fly? Is it going be good, is it going to suck? Folks in the morning had generally pessimistic expectations, with a dreary looking sky and clouds that enveloped the top of Starr Mountain. That said, nearly all the gliders were gridded in time for the pilot’s briefing, suggesting that perhaps the contestants had secretly greater hopes for flying that they apparently conveyed.
Tony Condon hedged his bets in the forecast, emphasizing that with the imminent frontal passage, the thermal conditions should get soarable, but tempered expectations by noting how wet the ground was due to the recent storms. Mark Keene and his task advisors set a short 2 hour AAT task that took us north and south along the ridge, plus a steering turn before heading back to the airport. The tricky bit was that the task required climbing off the ridge and extending a thermal or two into the respective sectors. This detail ended up playing a major role later in the day.
Around noon, the trees along the edge of Chilhowee airport bent over as the front rushed through. All the leaves started to dance and the pessimistic pilots were greeted with rays of sunshine through openings in the sky. The clouds started to lift just above ridge top.
This was looking like a soaring day!
By the time Mark Keene came out to the grid for the grid meeting, it was as though he was Moses and had recently conferred with God himself to grant us a contest day. His fancy sunglasses were probably necessary to avoid blinding himself from the light as he lay prostrate pleading that we get a day in so that we have enough days for an official meet.
As the task sheets got distributed, the pilots became more and more enthusiastic. There were discussions about ridge safety and what to expect on the Chilhowee Ridge. By the time we took off a little after 1:40pm, the lift was gangbusters. While most folks floated up high, I took the opportunity to take a tour of this wonderful mountain. I was clocking a little over 100 knots in the LS-4 with little difficulty and found that the lift was very solid and fairly smooth. I toured the whole 25 mile long mountain, made a jog to the steering turn, and played with the gap at Hiawasee River. Around 2:40pm, the start opened and I positioned myself at the line, near cloudbase.
Folks started streaming out, figuring that to take the good conditions while they lasted as the cumulus clouds started to overdevelop. I started a little after 3pm, chasing after Sarah Arnold in her Libelle, who in turn was chasing Mike Westbrook in his Discus. We had no trouble charging down the ridge and I pedaled hard to keep after them. However, as we approached the end of the mountain, the sky started turning a depressing dark gray. We floated up and up, trying to get as high as we could. At about 3,500ft, we ran off the end of the mountain, into a sky more aptly described as the jaws of death.
As we headed toward the first sector at Monroe, the variometer hummed a flat tone. There was no lift to be found. I watched my altimeter slowly unwind and felt my blood pressure start to correspondingly elevate. Looking over my shoulder, the ridge behind me was starting to get out of glide. Looking ahead, I saw Sarah still going for the turnpoint.
Well heck, if a Libelle can do it, I might as well give it a go!
And we glided and glided, with no luck. Finally as we hit the turn, we watched Mike heading off into the gray yonder. In order to make minimum time, it would work so much better to simply find one climb, somewhere out there. But by this point I was restless; that sky was looking scary! Just to give full confirmation to my desire to run away, I saw Sarah turn around.
No hesitation on my part, I banked hard, got off her wingtip and joined the fully fledged rout. We were settling down on a knobbly set of hills and it was not looking pretty. Finally, we hit a couple burbles. Sarah went right, I stuck with the ridge and connected with a bubble.
This tight 1-2 knotter was a godsend. I stuck with it, inching my way upwards. Tom Holloran comes in well underneath and also connects with it. We ground our way higher and higher. Looking out in the distance, I saw the ridge beckoning me to come. The sirens were whispering in my ear and the temptation to escape this terrible valley nearly overcame me.
Not so fast. There’s a sea of trees ahead of you. If you come up short, what’s the plan?
There’s fields at the base of the ridge and I can make the ridge at ridge top, so it ought to work.
Then, I took two more turns, just to reassess and reassure myself that it was possible and went for it.
I held my breath, committed to the glide, and let out a sigh of relief when I joined at ridge top and the ridge worked solidly. I sailed past the fields and connected with the now slightly weaker lift.
At this point, I was somewhat bewildered. Where is everyone? Now I was totally alone, knowing that I had committed to coming in under time and possibly giving up a lot of points. If some folks had managed to connect further into Monroe and were going to make it back, I was going to get hosed.
No matter, this is a good day to be conservative. Make it around and fight another day. Also known as running away with style… In any case, I quickly made it up to the southern end of the ridge and this time I floated up to cloudbase and tiptoed into the wind into the second sector. Time is irrelevant now, only distance matters. I took every nibble of lift, working three quarters of a knot up, simply to stay connected. At no time did I allow myself to get out of glide of the safe ridge behind me. No need to go for broke on a day like today.
After scrounging a couple extra miles and watching my glide back to the ridge start disappearing, I turned back and ran for the safety of Starr Mountain. Upon my return, I noticed that the wind had slackened down to around 8-10 knots and the ridge was considerably weaker. I floated along and stayed higher, no need to take chances down at ridge top anymore. Besides, I was way under time anyway, no rush. Coming abeam of Chilhowee, I climbed up the high portion of the mountain all the way up to 3700ft, high enough to make a final glide to Etowah and back. After slowing floating my over, I had no trouble making the turn and back to the field, 500ft over the finish.
Upon arriving back at the airport, I noticed many of the trailers were gone. It turned out that my cowardice in the earlier part of the flight was well rewarded for the heroes that went into the first sector were all shot down.
Unfortunately, only four folks (Sarah, Tom Holloran, Ryszard, and I) managed to escape the jaws of death in the first turn area and later complete the task. As a result, the scoring formula had not reached the threshold to make it an official day. However, I am very happy with my flight and my read of the day. There aren’t many times I have been as rewarded for caution in my tactical exploits.
After the trailers trickled back into the airport, folks enjoyed our own Cinco de Mayo celebration. We had queso, enchiladas, guacamole, and of course margaritas. Fun was had by all, who traded stories of landing in the beautiful fields, meeting farmers, and their exploits getting their gliders back home.
What a whirlwind of a soaring day at Chilhowee!
See my flight here.
Thanks a million to all the great folks at Aero Club Albatross that have supported me at this contest!