Once in a blue moon, and when the tides, stars, and a continental low-pressure system all align just right, something magical happens on the Kittatinny Ridge. The magic begins with a breath of warm, moist air seeping in from the ocean at just the right angle and strength. Upon colliding with the ridge, this laminar air deflects upward into a narrow band of lift, no more than a wingspan and a half wide, creating lift so smooth that it is almost wave-like. These days are so rarely soarable because the weather patterns that create these conditions usually coincide with heavy rains that cloud over the whole ridge.
The weather setup for this late October day was no exception, with the preceding day sparking flood warnings throughout the neighboring states due to the torrential downpour. This resulted in the kind of cold, damp air that permeates your house and sinks right into your bones, making you shiver from the inside out. Nothing felt better than to crawl under the bed covers. It seemed improbable, maybe even impossible that tomorrow could even be a flying day as the rain pelted the roof and the gusts of wind howled against the windows.
The forecasts for the following day had shifted wildly, with the wind direction fluctuating from 090 to 180, at all sorts of varying velocities, and predictions for clouds and rain at different times over the day. I could hardly believe it when I saw the model soundings suggested that the skies would part in the afternoon elevating the clouds well above ridge top and the wind swing around to a southeasterly direction. Nonetheless, I cautiously sounded the klaxon for my fellow club members, hedging my bets that I’d take another look at the forecast in the morning before committing to the day.
The following morning, I couldn’t contain my excitement when the forecast had improved. It was so electrifying because this was going to be the perfect day to bring Jen, now my fiancée, to experience her first time soaring the ridge. This kind of smooth day is ideal, plus there’s no need to do all that nasty circling that serves to continuously churn the contents of one’s stomach as we thermal. Doubly so, the fall foliage had just peaked in our area, so the whole ridge was going to be a beautiful palette of yellows, oranges, and reds. Triply so, this was around the peak of the bald eagle migration, and we know how much Jen loves bald eagles!
I promised her that this was the day. We would go up on the ridge, fly maybe 60 miles or so, do some bird watching, and enjoy the fall foliage. I’ve been waiting for these conditions for over a year, and it was just so perfect. Jen said I looked and sounded like a five-year-old on Christmas! All the while the outside sky looked dreary and grey, not the kind of conditions that inspire racing out to the airport.
We had a nice and slow morning as the soaring conditions would only improve in the early part of the afternoon. As we drove through Pennsylvania, we admired the beautiful countryside, rolling fields, and rustic barns. We stopped by the scenic waterfall along Slateford Creek near Portland, PA. Thanks to the recent heavy rains, the creek overflowed with torrential, muddy water gushing over the ledge. Jen said it was quite a different sight compared to last time, when the small steady stream was so peaceful and clear.
We trekked back to our car and proceeded to the airport, arriving just a little after noon to be greeted by the convocation of glider pilots huddled together protecting themselves from the damp easterly wind coming down along the runway. Guido, our energetic and excitable Italian, eagerly awaited my arrival. He was going to take the first flight of the day with me, hoping for a chance to experience some ridge conditions. He had the club Grob Twin Astir, affectionately known as Greta, preflighted and ready to fly.
Closer to 1pm, the sun started searing holes in the grey blanket of clouds above. We basked in the warmth and watched expectantly as the outline of the ridge appeared in the distance. In mere minutes, the clouds lifted above ridge top and we signaled Tommy the tow pilot that it was time to give it a go. Guido and I launched, experiencing the strong wind blowing us toward the ridge. At 1500ft above the airport, we popped off tow, right over the mountain. We nestled right into the ridge lift, which pushed the glider higher and higher, such that we were maintaining 60 knots at 2100ft MSL. The clouds were at all sorts of different levels, with some wisps even forming below ridge top on the downwind side of the ridge. But on the upwind side, the clouds were rapidly rising, the sun was shining, and the day was looking beautiful. I called Philip back at the airport to let the folks know that the surf was up and it was time to fly!
After a couple beats back and forth the local ridge in the high band of the local ridge, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. By the Upper Reservoir, I asked if I could take the controls. Guido let out a long-excited gasp as I made a very steep turn, peeled over and dropped onto the trees cruising at 100 mph. The lift was rock solid, so I gave it back to him with instructions to slow down and float up a bit higher. I was going to give him a taste of ridge cross country soaring was like, so we kept going southwest bound.
The big challenge was locating the narrow ridge band. The sweet spot in the lift band was very elusive with such a steep mountain face that is constantly changing shape, bending around and rising and falling in elevation. I find that going a fair distance in a straight line is both fun for the student, but also instructive in really learning how to find that best part of the lift. So Guido and I cruised past the Bangor Offset, and had to bear with my coaxing and admonitions geared at making minuscule corrections in pitch, roll, and yaw, constantly adjusting for the slight gusts on one side or the other of the glider that hinted at the best lift. Guido did a wonderful job and we were at Lehigh Gap in what felt like a heartbeat. Looking over our wing, I pointed out that Slatington Airport is a Silver Distance away from Blairstown. Guido was shocked and amazed at how fast we made so many miles!
As we turned, I glanced at my watch and saw it was 1:35pm. I texted Jen that we’re 30 miles out and we will land at 2pm. By all accounts it should work exactly as so, but what an amazing thought that one could be in a glider and expect to time an arrival like so. Sure enough, Guido and I flew on back, made our landing pattern for Runway 7, landing long on the clear runway in perfect position to launch for the next flight. Jen came on out and sure enough, it was exactly 2pm. I grinned as I announced that Aero Club Albatross Airlines was ready for the next customer.
We launched straight to the ridge and sure enough it was still working perfectly. We hung a left on the Appalachian super-highway and had no trouble floating along at 70 knots 400-500ft above the ridge. The air was smooth and the glider felt like it was on rails. Jen marveled at the glorious array of colors all around us, as far as the eye can see. The sun shined through patches of clouds in the distance in a radiant and delightful glow. Even the trees beneath looked like they were celebrating, gently dancing to and fro to a steady beat as the breeze kneaded through the forest below, the amber colored leaves shimmered in the sunlight.
Jen remarked that the ridge looked like God’s carpet, with the gentle rolling colors mimicking a plush carpet beneath us.
The radio was turned down, along with the usually noisy variometer. No need to listen to the crazed manic-depressive beeps and boops that are symphonious only to the ears of the equally crazed soaring pilot. The glider quietly hummed in the breeze.
We kept floating along peacefully, until Jen giddily exclaimed that she saw bald eagles ahead! Sure enough, there was a group of three of them thermalling together. Seeing that Jen was so excited to go play with them, I made a hard reversal and joined these glorious birds. I circled with them and we made a couple passes less than a wingspan below. Jen couldn’t contain her wonder and joy, grinning from ear to ear. I saw that they were heading north bound, and figuring I’d give her a break from all the unexpected circling and maneuvering, I levelled off and kept heading along the ridge. When she expressed disappointment that she wanted to soar with our companions some more, I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll see them again soon on our return trip!”
After turning back at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Tunnel, sure enough we spotted the bald eagles again! This time they were a little below us, so we made a couple of closer passes. Once we had one just off our wingtip. It felt like my arm was extended, my hand reaching out and inviting our feathered friend to join us in a dance.
Sometime around this time, Jen remarked that I delivered on everything I promised that day. Beautiful foliage, ridge soaring, and even bald eagles too!
I replied that would be true, only once I safely brought her back to the airport. So, we headed back home along the ridge. As we returned to the local ridge, Jen reported that she still felt wonderful and fresh, so I figured I’d end this flight with some excitement. Upon crossing the Delaware Water Gap, I pushed the nose over and dropped the glider down on the trees. The airspeed just over 100 mph, the glider was now in the rough and tumble of the gusty air right above the ridge. You had to take care not to focus on the crisp individual branches whizzing by as your head would snap around to keep them in view. The glider was jostled a couple times by thermals rolling over the ridge. Jen asked if this was what a violent ridge felt like. Nope, trust me this is light! A violent ridge feels like you’re inside a laundry machine, set on high spin!
Now abeam of the airport, I pulled up to gain a little extra height for our return trip. Jen was really surprised that we had been flying over an hour and fifteen minutes, her longest flight to date. After we landed, she remarked that it felt like the flight went by in a flash!
With the ridge still working, I felt up for one more flight. Operations were winding down and Tommy had put away the towplane. With no one around the flight line, I was wondering who I could take for a ride. At this time, I saw Tommy’s truck heading toward us and he felt like a great victim. When I offered to fly with him, he eagerly accepted, saying it was his first time flying the ridge in a glider, and his first flight in the Grob. We quickly strapped him in and Aaron gave us a quick tow in the Pawnee to the ridge.
Sure enough, the ridge was still working! Nonetheless, the conditions were softening up, now becoming difficult to float above 1900ft. As we crossed the Water Gap, I saw the trees more in the slow dance phase of the afternoon, and we settled down to 1800ft. The ridge was still consistent and smooth, though we turned at the hang glider launch as it was prudent to stay closer to home.
I gave the controls to Tommy, who was delighted to feel what riding the ridge was like. He was smooth and solid on the controls and had no trouble staying in the lift. We flew up to Catfish Tower, and then looped back to the local ridge. The wind kept weakening and weakening, with the leaves hardly moving at all. I took the controls again and we kept floating along the weak ridge, with every beat getting a little lower. We were finally level at ridge top, with Tommy exclaiming amazement at how little wind it took to sustain the glider in the air. After a little over an hour, with the wind giving its dying breath, we headed back to the airport, landing just shy of 5pm.
We were the last ones down. After Jonathan and Bobby stopped by to announce that they were heading on a retrieve for Chip, who had fallen off the ridge near the Bangor Offset, the airport became completely deserted. We cleaned the glider and tucked it away for the evening, watching the mostly overcast sky with crepuscular rays in the distance shining through holes in the clouds like a shower of gold. Right as we had everything tidied up, Ron and Betty Schwartz stopped by to invite Jen and me for dinner. After we all enjoyed the beautiful sunset, we had a delightful dinner together in the town. Unlike Ron, Betty had plenty of answers when I asked her, “What lessons have you learned after 58 years of marriage?” We spent a whole evening trading stories, watching Ron shrug helplessly as Betty gleefully shared stories when they were dating back in Iowa (including one scandalous story about how Ron dared to wear jeans – Levi’s, no less! – when they were in college).
The only other person I know that radiates joy and happiness like Ron is Jen. I don’t know how people earn that ineffable quality, and there is nothing more delightful than surrounding yourself with such wonderful people. I felt the tingling warmth in my heart the whole way home, warming both my bones and soul.