Today was a spectacular soaring day at Chilhowee. Everyone knew it too in the morning, with the cool northwest wind already blowing and high cumulus clouds forming as we untied the gliders. It was so chilly that our morning pilot briefing was moved out of the barn and into the sun. Mark Keene called the meeting to order at 10am, sharing his excitement at the prospect of setting a long task on a good soaring day.
This time we were assigned a 320km racing task. The geometry took us several times over the Chilhowee ridge, with turnpoints extending to the northern, southern, and western quadrants respectively. The challenge was to make effective use of the ridge, transition into the thermals, make the turns, and make an efficient “final glide” back to the ridge for the subsequent foray into another quadrant.
This is bread and butter stuff for a ridge pilot. Looking at the plentiful Cu in the sky, I figured I didn’t need other gliders to mark thermals and could easily roll my own. We launched around noon with 5-6 knot thermals right off of tow. This was going to be a *fast* task and it was better to wait a while for the day to peak. Even better, as the day went on, the wind would swing from a northerly direction to more northwesterly, which was a better angle for the ridge. Instead of milling around with the gaggle, I headed to the northeast end of Starr Mountain to scope out the terrain and climbs to the northern and western quadrants respectively. After stumbling into a 10 knotter and spiralling up to 6500ft, I could see the streets heading upwind as far as the eye could see.
At this point, I felt a bit lethargic and grumpy. There was a lot of time to burn, so I just mosied around in my boredom. I practiced thermalling the LS-4 in various configurations, finding that flattening out a skosh and using considerably more top rudder slowed the glider down into the low 40 knot range in a smooth climb. Further, when manhandling the pitch in a buffet, the glider dropped the inner wing toward the turn despite the yawstring being in a 15 degree slip. Cool stuff! All just ways to entertain myself while waiting for the conditions to peak around 1:45pm.
Closer to 1:30pm, I figured it was time to get into the business of competing, so I flew the 20km back to the start line and climbed up into starting position. At that point, the gaggle dutifully departed, so it was game on! I lingered for an extra eight minutes and hit the line at 1:45pm at 7200ft for a good start. It’s go time!
Going down the first leg, I was hunting for a solid climb to take me to the first turn. The thermals seemed to cycle down somewhat and were a bit more broken up than before. I found many gliders struggling along in weaker, disorganized bubbles. I simply kept driving on and on, figuring that the solid sucker had to be out there.
While I occasionally sampled a thermal here or there, I pretty much kept running off of my initial energy from the start. Getting below 4000ft MSL, though, started to get concerning. But right as my options started to dwindle, I drove into a solid 5 knotter in the blue. That got me enough to make it into Corntassel and out for an efficient upwind run. Then another 6 knot climb made me have a fast final glide to the ridge.
During this time, I put my two Kobos with TopHat to good use. The reason I have two is because the Kobos are not all that reliable, so I have one on a mount as a spare. However, as the task consisted of multiple “final glides” back to the ridge, I would use a turnpoint at the end of the mountain as my go-to on one of my flight computers. This made it possible to fully optimize each climb to get back to the ridge square at ridge top.
In any case, I slid in going 90 knots and drove along Starr Mountain. By now I had dropped the gaggle and was picking up the folks from earlier starts. On the southern end, Rick Scheppe and I tanked up before heading toward Five Barns. The sky out there looked a bit weaker, so I was a bit more patient with 3.5 knots. However, this climb was not ideal as the gaggle started creeping back on my tail. Ryszard and several others caught me in another thermal on the way to the turnpoint, which was enough to make it back to the ridge square at ridge top once more. After another fast lap up the ridge, I picked up a solid 4 and then 6 knotter to cloudbase, having dropped the gaggle once more on the ridge run.
The upwind run to Decatur was absolutely amazing. Aside from two turns in a thermal in the middle of the valley, the entire 38 km section was done without turning in excellent streets. After the turn, I proceeded to run the streets all the way back to the ridge at high speed as well. I have never found such reliable and honest streeting as today. Normally such clouds work only at cloudbase, perhaps 1000ft above and you have to work really hard to stay connected. Instead, the lift seemed to work all the way down the band, allowing for a spectacular glide for all.
After hitting Sugarloaf, it was simply a 90-100 knot ridge run home. And arriving at 4:30pm revealed that only several gliders had made it back. I had managed to start late, overrun the gaggle, and end up in the front. And sure enough, I turned in 72.5 mph for the day win today. It was a day that rewarded pushing hard and settling for only the best lift; very much like my days hosting US Nightly Soaring ridge tasks. It’s amazing that such days actually exist in reality!
Glider pilots are a curious bunch. Yesterday, when everyone was pessimistic about the soaring conditions, it seemed like it was an all out race to get the gliders on the grid. Almost every ship was in its assigned spot by 10am! Today, on a day with evidently good soaring conditions, many gliders were hardly even assembled by 10am, let alone ready to fly.
But in any case, Mark Keene echoed the optimistic prognosis at the pilots briefing and quickly geared everyone toward the prospects of a long and enjoyable soaring day. Tony predicted lift pretty much all day, with a possibility of high cloud cover at the end of the day. In turn, the task advisors set a 3 hour AAT with small turn areas, which made the task much more of a race with its 200km minimum distance.
With an early grid time, everyone scrambled to get ready. There was mayhem as pilots hurriedly pawed the turnpoints into their flight computers in time to fly. By 11:40am, the sniffers were up reporting good lift and the launch was under way.
Once airborne, we were delighted with excellent thermals. The cumulus clouds formed nicely at about 5000ft or so, beaming the contestants up with little effort on their part. As time went and the gate opened, the clouds got thinner and thinner. Eventually, it became almost completely blue and folks started to get antsy.
I was expecting the long slog of start gate roulette. In fact, I figured that hardly anyone would go much before 2pm! So it was very much to my surprise when a little after 1pm I saw the herd stampeding through the start line, heading right for me in a weak thermal 2km up the course. This made me proverbially drop my sandwich, put my sunglasses on, push over the nose, and bolt toward the line. The race is on!
I hooked the line and raced back after the gaggle and caught them right at the top of the thermal. This put me in a good position to restart, but sure enough folks were streaming out on course. Looks like the gaggle has spoken; it’s time to go.
And indeed we went. It was a 75 knot affair, chasing the herd and trying to stay connected in the 2-2.5 knot thermals. I found myself getting lower and lower in the lift band, working hard to stay in the stronger part of the thermals before they started to taper off into the inversion. Mike Brooks in his Genesis and I drove to the foot hills and found solid lift, chasing after some Discii ahead.
Around this time, the conditions to the east-north-east started to improve. The wisps became better formed clouds, certainly easing the pressure of finding the thermals. Some marked occasional stretches of 4-5 knots, but the bubbles were generally fairly broken up after 500-1000ft stretches of climb. But nonetheless, the lift was reliable and the gaggle drove into Ferguson and later south into Corntassel with little trouble. Things looked a bit more complicated looking southwest toward Eton. While there were a couple clouds and wisps forming over the Chilhowee ridge, off the end of the mountain did not look pretty.
In any case, the gaggle coalesced on this leg, with many gliders marking thermals along the ridge. Folks worked fairly well together, though got somewhat low and spread out going into the Eton sector. I found myself down at 3000ft with Dieter in his Discus 2, watching the power gaggle including Tom Holloran and Mike Westbrook climbing away. Worse yet, flying underneath the gaggle did not reveal a thermal. Much to my distress, this forced me to turn into the wind, low.
After struggling up to around 4,300ft, I chased after the gaggle hoping to hook a reasonable climb. As I approached the scraps of another thermal they left, I watched my altimeter unwind. Now down to 2,800ft, I absolutely categorically had to find a thermal. The terrain ahead looked marginal, so if this area did not work, I would need to deviate 90 degrees along fields. Considering I was already in a somewhat lifty line, this would near certainly put me in strong sink. As such, I fumbled around in the weak, disjointed bubbles, looking for a reasonable thermal to climb in. This would put me in 5 knots of lift on one side and 3 knots of sink on the other, for a frustrating 1.5 knot average climb. After several minutes of this agony, I hooked into a solid core. This sucker went up to 5-7 knots and I felt both the earth dropping away underneath and my anxieties washing away. Sometime shortly thereafter, Tony Condon joins me with his Standard Cirrus and we shared the climb together up to 6,500ft; the high point of the day.
Looking ahead, I couldn’t see the gaggle anymore. There’s nothing that puts out a lust for blood like knowing there is a gaggle ahead that dropped you. I looked over my right shoulder and saw the ridge well below me. It should be little sweat to head the edge of the next sector at the Cleveland Y and then hook back to the ridge and ride the thermals and maybe weak ridge to the steering turn and back home. I figured most would stick with courseline, so this was my chance to hit the gas.
Nose down to 80 knots, let’s go for it. After waving goodbye to Tony, I zipped over to the turn, banked hard and dove for the ridge. It looked best to arrive around 500ft above ridge top, so I took two short climbs to make sure I got high enough that I’d definitely stay connected. And upon arriving, I was greeted with well formed bubbles in close proximity to each other, just as planned. The ridge really didn’t work all that well, but the high part near the Microwave tower felt like on solid thermal for a good mile. In all, I ended up gaining around 1,500ft for the final glide and only needed a couple turns before Etowah to make a safe and comfortable MC4 glide back home.
Sure enough, I caught up to Mike Westbrook and passed Tom thanks to my little detour, probably making up ten minutes I otherwise would have lost. However, it turned out those guys, plus Tony Condon who totally smoked everyone, had a much better and later start. That was the right decision for the day as they hit the peak and the clouds smack on the first leg. That said, I was happy with my decision to go when I did. Too often I’ve tried to outsmart the gaggle to find myself alone in the blue and in all sorts of trouble. For the most part, things worked out for me today, which was very much helped by being with company most of the day.
In the end, most folks made it around and we finally have Day 1 in the bag. Among the exciting things that happened on the ground included Karl Striedieck showing up with a SGS 2-33 on a trailer. It turns out that a microburst destroyed the glider last year and she sent it up to K&L to get repaired. They did an absolutely superb job; the glider might as well have been new and just came out of the factory. A large crew volunteered to help put the ship together and it’s now ready to soar for many more years to come.
And lastly, folks enjoyed another great dinner at Chilhowee Airport. We had trout, rice, squash casserole, and sweet grapes for dessert. A great time was had by all, who were thoroughly beat after a solid contest day. Now we’re looking forward to another ridge day tomorrow, this time with excellent thermal conditions. Our eyes are turning toward the Sequatchie valley, with hopes to be making a nice long ridge flight. Tomorrow should be a spectacular day!
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.
With folks waking up to gray skies and puddles on the ground, it did not look like a promising soaring day. These fears were confirmed right after the short pilot briefing, with heavy rain scattering pilots and crews to their vehicles, campers, and the clubhouse. I snuck past Tony Condon and Leah and ran into my car, bolting out of the airport. Instead, I hit the road, heading to Chatanooga to explore the area.
My first turnpoint was the Railroad Museum. Because Chatanooga is at the base of a mountain range and several major gaps, it served both as a major river and major railroad intersection, with both Union and Confederates desperately trying to conquer and hold this area during the Civil War. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the museum I discovered that it was closed. However, it was still possible to walk around the rail yard, with a sign that said walking here was “at your own risk” rather than forbidden. The towering black steam engines seemed content to quietly gaze off in the distance, seemingly introspecting on the many arduous experiences of hauling freight over the mountain passes in the Smokies and Alleghanies.
Next, I drove to central Chatanooga, specifically the art district near the Hunter Museum. This seems like the more Bohemian part of town, with some cafes, restaurants, and elegant houses. The Hunter Museum was a pleasant surprise, comprising of three distinct interconnected buildings representing three different architectural styles. The wings were more modernistic, with a central mansion that housed the initial collection of American art. The paintings ranged from late 18th century portraits, to Hudson Valley school romantic landscapes, to late 19th century impressionist style, and abstract/post-modern art. Most of the painters were unknown to me, though the galleries were very well curated.
Several pieces particularly stuck out to me. One was called “The wreck of Ole 97”, made by Thomas Benton, a painter that was Jackson Pollack’s mentor. The work’s elongated perspective served to attenuate the anticipated anxiety, excitement, and terrors of the upcoming derailment of the locomotive. The description was revealing in its parallels to Pollack’s work, which is generally too abstract for me.
Another wonderful work was “Metropolitan Triptych” by Yvonne Jacquette. This painting really stuck out with its black paper portraying the scene from an airplane descending into La Guardia Airport. Seeing this image revealed the dance of colors, lights, shapes, and forms of a city at night. I never thought of these things outside of the patterns that they are formed from and instead my mind drifted toward the notion that my family turning on their house lights at night are part of a canvas of color for someone in an airplane well above.
Finally, there was an absolutely remarkable photograph titled “Moonrise Hernandez New Mexico 1941” by Ansel Adams. The stark contrast in the black and white photo from 1941 revealed a hacienda, with emphasis on a stone white graveyard transposed in front of imposing mountains, a massive set of lenticular clouds, a darkened sky and a bright moon above. I found myself standing in front of this photograph for a while, inspecting all of its features and becoming very aware of my surroundings. The distant sounds of an occasional door opening, a person walking through a hallway. My leather jacket creaking as I turned, the reassuring thuds of my shoes over the hard floor. And then as I look back at the photograph, imaging the wind blowing across the desolate land, a cloud passing across that turns the cemetery from shade into bright sunlight, feeling the heat on the back of my head, mesmerized by the sheer momentous will of nature bearing down on me.
Thoroughly inspired, I left the museum for a short walk through Chatanooga. First, I went on the Walnut Street Bridge and enjoyed the beautiful view over the Tennessee River. Next, I walked back through the art district, stopping by a sculpture garden along the way. One notable sculpture was that of a person taking flight from the hill, hanging on to a set of wings. After a pleasant stroll in the pleasant afternoon sun, I drove up to Lookout Mountain to get a bird’s eye view of the city.
The city is nestled in a valley between Lookout Mountain and Missionary/Taylor Ridge. Bisecting the valley is the mighty Tennessee River, which proceeds to cut through Lookout Mountain to keep heading westbound. The river loops to and fro, with hairpin bends. The town fades away, with factory stacks, microwave towers, and powerlines revealing what an the industrial powerhouse Eastern Tennessee has become.
My final destination was the nearby Chicamauga Battlefield. Few people know of this battle, yet it was at the same level of ferocity and import as Gettysburg. The Union under General Rosecrans maneuvered to capture Chatanooga, catching the Confederate army completely by surprise. However, they succeeded in regrouping just south of the Tennessee border in Georgia and counterattacked an overly ambitious Union force. Due to miscommunication and mismanagement, the Confederates succeeded in dividing the Union force, causing their army to crumble on the second day of fighting and take flight in a desperate rout. However, thanks to a gallant stand by a smaller Union force, the remains of the Union army succeeded in retiring to Chatanooga and holding their position. What followed was a many month long siege, followed by a relieving army led by General Ulysses S. Grant. Subsequent to several battles in the mountains near Chatanooga, the Union secured Eastern Tennessee, deprived the Confederates of a critical strategic transportation hub, and created a base for future operations deep into the heartland of the south. It is thanks to the decisive battle at Chicamauga that Sherman was able to start his march to the sea and ultimately break the back of the southern war effort.
However, few people even know that this battle happened at all, and surprisingly the battlefield is not significantly listed as a Chatanooga highlight despite it being only 20 minutes away. I drove over to the visitor’s center, perused the exhibits and then drove around the battlefield. Along the way there were many monuments and plaques detailing the course of the battle. What stuck out was the dense foliage, tall pine trees, and occasional pastures and prairies. You couldn’t see more than 100 yards away and imaging the rebel charge with 10,000 soldiers pouring through an unexpected gap in the Union line one could see how even a seasoned general like Rosecrans to simply turn and flee. It was like the men became phantoms in this dark and foreboding forest.
Finally, I returned back to Chilhowee Airport in time for the dinner and safety briefing. For dinner, we had southern treats of chicken, mac and cheese, and cole slaw, all quickly and heartily devoured by the contestants. Next Mark Keene, our Contest Director rose up and took charge of the event through leading the safety briefing. Things emphasized were changes in the SSA to FAI scoring formulas, landing pattern, and staging considerations. We’re now ready to fly.
Afterwards, folks congregated for a wonderful evening of banter and fun. The McMasters and Hue taught me a game of Kubb, which we played until the sun went down. The young(er) folks all hung out in the campground, enjoying trading stories of exploits far and near.
On my way back to my truck, I saw the older folks listening to David Hart masterfully playing his guitar and singing tunes. I sat in for a while, especially enjoying his rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”. And with that, I called it in, headed back to the hotel room for much needed sleep.
Today is yet another rain day and this time the rain was especially brutal. Heavy winds, thunder, and lighting greeted us at the pilot’s briefing. Everyone scattered once more, but now we are gearing up for some real soaring. I took the opportunity to get an oil change on the truck and take a trip up to Knoxville. With the heavy rain, I am mostly secluded to a coffee shop, writing up my thoughts, watching the weather forecast, my mind drifting toward flying once more. The forecast is finally turning a corner. Tomorrow promises a frontal passage, unstable air, and decent thermals. With the wet ground, it will also be a tricky day.
I’m ready to race!
Thanks again to Aero Club Albatross for supporting me with the club LS-4 at this meet!
After a whirlwind of papers, studies, figures, posters, analyses, meetings, meetings, and meetings, I was almost surprised to see myself in the left seat of my car, hands on the steering wheel, and right eye carefully watching in the mirror the long white trailer behind me. The destination was Chilhowee Airport in Tennessee and the event was the Club Class Nationals. The glider in the long elegant box, an Aero Club Albatross LS-4, with an appropriate call sign of “ACA”.
I thought back to the last time I flew this sailplane in a contest, a whole six years ago in Hobbs, New Mexico. Since then, the glider has been completely overhauled by the club members with a beautiful paint job. In that time, I can also to be said to have been hauled by club members in others ways and mostly for the better. It also occurred to me that this is the first contest I am attending as a bonafide old fart. No more SSA contest rebates for me, despite the fact that I still identify as under 26 years old.
Normally, at this point the story would shift toward the excitement of competing at a high level event, or the beautiful country I am driving through, or some unexpected adventures with trailers and equipment. Another common trope is the routine frustration of arriving at a site greeted by overcast skies, poor soaring conditions, and the prospect of rain in the following several days. But the real story here is the surprise, anxiety, and happiness of emerging out of isolation for the first time in a year.
Coming off the interstate and driving through the towns of Athens and Etowah, you can see how badly hit the local economies were due to the recent economic slumps. On the main drag, a third of the business are shuttered up, boarded up, and closed. Another quarter or so of the restaurants, diners, stores, and theaters evidently recently closed. The places still open are mostly fast food, pawn shops, thrift stores, dollar generals and the like; bare essentials for folks trying to trudge on.
Pulling into the hotel parking lot felt new; I haven’t been in a hotel room since this whole epidemic began. Walking inside and being greeted by a friendly attendant not wearing a mask seemed heretical. In fact, other than some old folks, almost nobody wears mask around here. And wearing a mask when going into public places makes it feel as odd and out of place as it actually is and puts into stark contrast just how much we have habituated to these circumstances over the past year.
Arriving at the gorgeous Chilhowee Airport and seeing a row of white trailers neatly parked along the treeline was surreal. Real gliders! Real people! I saw my good friends and feel like I haven’t seen them for a decade. Several shake my hand, another hugs me. Others stand within six feet of me. No one wears mask. And experiencing this, it feels like I arrived in a nation far away with its own peculiar customs and traditions. That driving 850 miles from Philadelphia, that the world has flipped over once again, just like it did last March.
People say they are excited for things to eventually become “normal” again, but I realized that I don’t even remember what “normal” is supposed to feel like. I reminded myself that I am fully vaccinated and that being outside with people like this is perfectly OK for me. I relieved myself of that anxiety that was drilled into me and took in the opportunity to socialize with my friends. And I cannot overstate how wonderful it is to be here, with these wonderful folks, with the prospect of getting to do some fantastic soaring in the coming days.
Among other COVID consequences includes the surprising looks on the pilots’ faces when they and their gliders were weighed for contest handicapping. It seems like most of the contestants found that their rigs were 10-15 pounds heavier than they expected. Many suspected that the scales were off, but those fears were put aside when David McMaster weighed his ASW27 and pointed out that everything checked out for him.
It sucks to be fat and old.
Thanks to Aero Club Albatross for supporting me at this event and for all the folks helping me to get the ship contest ready!
When Jen and I strapped into the Grob, we were looking forward to a short enjoyable soaring flight, like the ones we had last autumn. The most memorable of those was where we flew with a bald eagle. Jen loves eagles; the eagle has been her favorite animal since she was four. As a soaring pilot, it naturally makes it my mission to find eagles whenever I take her flying.
Yesterday we had pleasant soaring conditions at Blairstown Airport. We took off a little after 12:30pm, when the soaring conditions peaked. The lift and streeting were wonderful, folks easily got up to 6000ft before the wind shifted around to the southwest and the cirrus moved in later in the afternoon. I climbed up from 1900-3400ft MSL and than ran a street for about six miles from Blairstown Airport to a little beyond the Tocks Island Golf Course to find a solid 10 knotter. Jen noted that the glee in my voice seemed to match the ecstatic tone of the variometer.
As we headed back, Jen spotted two bald eagles below us. Naturally we needed to swoop by them for a closer inspection.
Up until this point, I had been flying very smoothly, completely attentive to making the ride as pleasant as possible.
Seeing the eagles, I got a little… target fixated.
I banked firmly and pushed the nose over. Jen hadn’t experienced partial weightlessness in a glider before and quickly became as white as the bald eagle’s head. The clean Grob accelerated rapidly, the airspeed needle ticking through 60, 70, 80, up to 85 knots. The wind noise got louder and louder and the little speck of bird in the canopy getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger! We swept in several feet above the eagle, who did a hasty split-S and dove away. I proceeded with a climbing turn, converting the airspeed back into altitude.
I anticipated that this maneuver probably scared the bejeezus out of the bird, but I didn’t expect the level of adrenaline I put through my poor girlfriend.
After a couple moments to regain her breath, she clearly conveyed to me her preference to experience eagle watching using more gentle maneuvers.
I spotted the pair of eagles again, and this time I slowed the glider down and pulled out the boards. I slowly tucked Greta into formation with one of them, as close as he would let me go. Jen caught this one on an amazing video. It felt like you could reach your arm out of the canopy and touch his feathers.
After we landed, Jen said that I must be careful with all these eagle soaring flights she has been experiencing, for it may set expectations that every flight results in an eagle encounter. I told her that is true for in the summer time we don’t see them as often as in the spring and fall.
She also said that the poor eagle I dove on will probably be forever traumatized by the vision of an enormous, bone-white pterodactyl that almost turned it into a feathery lunch. His confidence as the master of the skies will be forever questioned by the presence of such monstrous predatory creatures in his midst.
One of the most magical experiences is soaring the smooth and wonderful southeast ridge. We tend to get fewer soarable SE days and we treasure the ones that we do. Because SE days tend to be less common, our training resources are mostly geared toward the NW side. Figuring that a briefing would be useful, this overview builds on the ACA Local Ridge Training guide to provide some guidance for our beginner and intermediate pilots. First, we will discuss the weather systems that drive these days, followed by the characteristics and topography of the “local ridge”, and finally how to fly cross country to Hawk Mountain and beyond.
Please reference the “Blairstown SE Ridge” layer on the Ridge Map for detailed information.
SE days usually start late in the day, with weak initial winds that get stronger toward sunset.
Bailout altitude during ridge testing for beginners to return to Blairstown Airport:
2000ft MSL in a 1-26
1800ft MSL in high performance
Expect tricky weather: rain, low clouds, and lower visibility. This is especially so when the winds are easterly.
The SE side works with less wind strength and is more tolerant of off angles compared to the NW side. However, this can make the ridge lift less consistent. Certain sections may not work at all and others may be strong.
Due to the stable conditions, ridge landouts are more likely. Expect that you can fall off the ridge at any time.
The local ridge is from the Upper Reservoir to the Hang Glider landing zone. The section from the Delaware Water gap to the Hang glider zone is somewhat broken up and tends to be softer.
The ridge band is usually narrower horizontally and has a stronger vertical gradient than on the NW side. (Ie: You may find the ridge is hardly working at 2000ft MSL and yet you can go 100 mph at the treetops.)
For pilots going cross country, the area NE of the Upper Reservoir is mostly unlandable and dangerous.
The area between the Bangor Offset and Wind Gap has no immediate fields underneath, requiring staying at or above ridge top to stay in glide of the few landing options.
The sections near Lehigh Gap and Bake Oven Knob tend to get softer.
For pilots flying southwest of Swatara Gap, contact Muir at 126.2 to cross the Class D airspace.
(Note: It is the pilot’s responsibility to study off-field landing options on The Ridge Map/Google Earth. This means reading the comments, measuring the distance of the field, assessing slope, and distance from the ridge. This briefing will guide your attention as to which fields to look at, but it is out of scope to describe the whole plan for approach and landing.)
Soarable SE days are a sharp contrast to NW days as they tend to have more stable, continental, or maritime air. Synoptically, the most common setup is a receding high-pressure system. A day or two beforehand, we usually experience a NW day as the high builds in west to east. Later, we are in the middle of the system, resulting in no wind. Finally, as the system recedes into the Atlantic, the wind picks up again, in a southeasterly direction.
Because the wind starts later in the day, the soarable “window” is often much shorter than on the NW side. Reviewing OLC traces, exceptionally few SE days result in flight durations exceeding 5.5 hours, with pilots often landing close to sunset.
The result is that a pilot launching early (often 11am-2pm) should expect a low inversion, weak winds and possibly a non-working ridge.
The more “easterly” the wind direction, the wetter the air as the air travels a shorter distance from the Atlantic. The more “southerly” it is, the drier the air.
As a result of the moisture, we generally expect few thermals, stable atmosphere, lowered visibility, and rain in the latter half of the day.
While this is a prototypical synoptic description, we will occasionally get special weather systems that alter these assumptions. However, most of the “issues” described as they relate to cloud cover, rain, and stability tend to cut across most SE days.
Soaring in Stable Conditions
Glider pilots overwhelming fly in “fair” weather, usually postfrontal systems with good thermals. SE days can strongly contrast with such weather and require an alternate mindset.
Aside from the fewer, weaker, and lower thermals, stable weather can bring rain, low visibility, fog, and lulls in the wind patterns. The adage that “you can be on the ground in two minutes at any time on a ridge” is particularly apt for the SE side.
Note that when you see any change in the airmass ahead of you, such as more cloud cover, rain, or lower visibility, this is likely to negatively affect the wind velocity. Always be prepared to land in such circumstances.
Note that most gliders lose considerable performance flying in rain.
If the temperature is cold enough, you may encounter freezing rain and experience icing conditions.
If the overcast layer is low, it can descend down to the ridge top and later even obscure the mountain. On especially moist days, expect the cloud layer to descend in the latter half of the soarable day.
As a rule, the more “easterly” the wind, the more likely you are to experience complications with wetter air.
Thanks to smoother air and a well-defined SE slope, the SE ridge needs less wind to “work” and is more tolerant of poorer wind angles than the NW side. Acceptable margins are determined by the pilot and their mentor.
Wind Speed at Ridge Top:
8-10 knots (weak local ridge)
10-13 knots (moderate ridge: Float at 2000ft MSL @ best glide speed)
13 knots+ (strong ridge: Float at 2400ft)
Optimal ~150 degrees
Range: 110-190 degrees
If the pilot intends to soar the ridge at the more marginal wind speeds and/or wind angles, the ridge may work better than in similar conditions on the NW side. However, the margin between “working” and “not-working” is very thin. If the wind drops a knot or two when the conditions are marginal, the ridge lift can abruptly shut off. Pilots should be cautious and prepared to land at a moment’s notice.
The SE ridge is much more prominent, and steeper compared to the NW ridge. The steeper angle increases the vertical component of the ridge lift, making the lift stronger, or require less wind for a comparable lift strength. However, a steeper angle also makes the lift band narrower in width. With weaker winds, the lift band is approximately two or three wingspans wide, with a very narrow sweet spot. Extra care must be taken to maintain position laterally, with most beginners struggling to do so and “hunting” back and forth in the lift.
Flying the Local SE Ridge
The local SE ridge is defined by the Upper Reservoir and the Hang glider launch site.
After tow, pilots must maintain strict gliding distance to the airport as they test the ridge. Often, this means staying within a mile of the Upper Reservoir. Once satisfied the ridge is working, the pilot may fly southwest toward the Delaware Water Gap, finding an excellently shaped mountain. The base of the ridge is heavily forested. However, the glider can maintain an adequate glideslope to the base of the valley by Rt.94, so long as the pilot stays at or above the ridge crest.
Crossing the Delaware Water Gap is usually easy, with lift often encountered in the middle. The landing options on the SW side of the Gap are Slateford Farm and the Pumphouse Fields. Both fields are marginal and require study to consider as landing options. Note that the section between the Delaware Water Gap and the hang glider field is somewhat broken up and lower than the preceding section. If the wind is marginal, you are more likely to fall off in this section. As a result, most Blairstown pilots will usually float through this section on anything other than the strongest days.
The next field is near the hang glider launch. Their landing zone is a short (~1000ft), but wide field surrounded by trees. Exercise caution in higher performing gliders as this field requires a steep approach.
Note that small weather shifts can have a large impact on the SE ridge. As a result, take care to study these landing options beforehand and always have a plan. Make sure to always maintain minimum energy (~150ft above the trees at best glide speed) if the ridge softens up. In the event the ridge is not sufficiently supporting the glider, make a decisive decision to land at a landing option. Failure to do so will expose the pilot to considerable risk.
The SE ridge has a distinctly different thermal composition than the NW side as it remains in sun most of the day. As a result, powerlines, rock faces, and escarpments directly build and feed in thermals. With some experience, pilots will routinely be able to anticipate thermals in known hotspots along the ridge.
Thermal activity is often weak, and the top of the lift is usually fairly low (2400ft-4000ft MSL). Further, the thermal activity tends to be restricted mostly to the ridge.
On more southerly days, the thermals can become more turbulent and energetic. With weak winds, this can disrupt the wind flow and make the ridge band not workable. However, when the SE ridge side bakes on sunnier, southerly days, you can find closely spaced, anabatic-reinforced thermals resulting in good air 500-1500ft above the ridge.
Returning from the SE ridge is usually not stressful compared to coming back from the NW ridge as there is little to no sink. In fact, many pilots will encounter good air over the slightly sloped terrain between the airport and the ridge. As a result, leaving at 2000ft MSL in a 1-26 and 1800ft MSL in a higher performing glider at the Upper Reservoir is adequate for a safe arrival. This approach path lines you up with the Dairy Queen field, which is an excellent alternative option.
Always be prepared to make an abbreviated pattern, normally a left-hand base-to-final on 7. Use caution entering the landing pattern as the SE wind puts the glider upwind of the airport, requiring to crab accordingly. If you are low, you may encounter sink and gusty conditions due to being in the lee of the airport hill. Finally, expect a moderate tailwind on base leg and take care to avoid button-hooking the turn.
Soaring the SE Ridge Cross Country
The SE ridge in many ways is considerably more benign than the NW side, with fewer large transitions and more landable terrain. However, it has several traps that the pilot must take care to avoid. Further, the weather is much more finicky, which increases the likelihood of falling off the ridge.
We generally advise against flying further NE of the Upper Reservoir as the landability becomes quite poor.
To fly cross country on the SE ridge, the pilot must be cross country ridge approved.
Heading SW of the hang glider zone, the pilot will encounter the Bangor Offset. This presents a formidable transition to a SGS 1-26 and requires respect even in a high-performance ship. The most notable challenges are:
The initial ridge section SW of the offset favors an easterly wind. Use caution on more southerly days as it requires going farther to encounter the lift.
The landability at the base of the ridge is quite poor from the Offset to Wind Gap. This requires maintaining in marginal gliding distance several landing options, noted in the figure above. The pilot must study and preselect these options before starting the transition.
Wing Gap to Hawk Mountain
After Wind Gap, the landability is moderate and the ridge is well defined. Note that Allentown Class C airspace requires to fly under 2800ft between Wind Gap and Lehigh Gap. Caution must be exercised after the Ski Area through just beyond Lehigh Gap as this section tends to get softer. Similar caution should be exercised near Bake Oven Knob, which tends to be weaker. The ridge approaching Hawk Mountain works well, despite being behind the Pinnacle. Other than very southerly days, it is possible to fly all the way to the “wall” with solid ridge lift.
Slatington, Flying M, and Cuatros Vientos are excellent airports and serve as reliable landing options.
The Pinnacle Transition
The transition beyond the Pinnacle can be quite challenging despite being only 3.5 miles in distance. Generally, more southerly days will have better thermals which makes this transition more possible. Lift lines usually set up snaking around the Pinnacle and behind a gully. Both methods are acceptable, however, crossing around the Pinnacle is safer than crossing over the top of the mountain.
In either event, be prepared for strong lee sink after committing to the transition. Mark your alternate landing option before the corner, or behind the mountain respectively. Do not commit to cross unless you are absolutely sure that you have enough energy to do so. Once you come around the corner, be prepared for the ridge not to work and land at another option further ahead.
Returning NE-bound is usually less difficult. However, occasionally the thermal activity can fall apart, causing the pilot to get stuck on the Pinnacle. This can tempt a low, downwind return back to Hawk Mountain. In this case, be prepared to land at the base of the ridge if you are coming up short.
Beyond the Pinnacle
Once the transition is complete SW bound, soaring beyond the Pinnacle is usually fairly benign. The ridge has a more rounded shape but works very well even down at ridge top. The landability is quite good in all but a couple small sections.
Approaching Swatara Gap, call Muir Tower on 126.2 to cross their airspace. Sometimes they will not let you pass if the shooting range at the base is “hot”. Muir airspace extends to Fort Indiantown Gap.
The ridge beyond Fort Indiantown Gap becomes somewhat lower and less defined, but typically still works well. Be careful at Heckert’s Gap if flying low and fast, as the ridge dips down and the lift softens up.
Approaching the Susquehanna River, the landability becomes poor. There are several landing options, although immediately by the river it is densely populated. Exercise caution crossing the river to maintain gliding distance to ridge top on the other side.
The ridge is excellent between the Susquehanna river and Doubling Gap.
Doubling Gap, while a large transition, tends to have good air through the whole area. With moderate winds, high performance gliders can sufficiently float up going in both directions that this gap does not serve as a major obstacle.
Beyond Doubling Gap, the ridge becomes prominent and excellently shaped. The ridge starts to strongly favor an easterly wind, so exercise caution on southerly days. The typical turnpoint in this region is the Turnpike Tunnel (500km out and return). Beyond the tunnel is an ammunition dump with a prohibited zone above it, which precludes the ability to continue on the windward side.
[Advanced Pilots Only!]
On the perfect day, it is possible to drop back to the Tuscarora Mountain and continue to Burnt Cabins and Dickey’s Mountain. Then, to return to Blue Mountain at Fort Loudon. Finally, approach the prohibited zone from the SW side. It is easy to get around the prohibited zone going NE bound as you would be going from a high to a low ridge and can easily skirt the perimeter of the airspace.
Soaring Northeast of the Upper Reservoir
We will periodically go to Catfish Tower, which has an occasionally landable Christmas tree farm at its base. Note that when heading SW bound again it is possible to get stuck on this ridge, unable to make the crossing back around the Upper Reservoir offset. In this case, the pilot has the option to go downwind and land in the cornfield near the former Model Airplane Field.
If heading NE of Catfish Tower and crossing the Millbrook Powerline, the ridge remains well defined all the way to the Cliffhouse. While there is no house there anymore, this knob marks the end of the commonly flown SE ridge. This area is completely unlandable.
[Advanced Pilots Only!]
Some pilots have flown farther, to Culver Lake and even High Point; however, this is highly technical soaring. The ridge requires a more easterly wind and is moderately-poorly defined in most of these sections. Further, easterly days tend to have few thermals and rain/cloud issues, which further complicate flying this section.
Sunday seemed an unspectacular day to go soaring. Strong westerly winds, low boundary layer, maybe even overcast clouds. No ridge, no thermals. Evidently no one was excited to come out until it became labelled a “training day”, with instruction flights offered to complete Bronze Badges and check-flights.
Allen, Guido, and Tommy arrived at 10am, ready to get the gliders ready and go fly. Instead, the airport was draped with a heavy fog. The soup was so thick that from the Cow you couldn’t see 508, several glider tiedowns away! Nonetheless, Guido had the Cow perfectly prepared, ready to be brought out to the line to go fly.
The fog refused to lift for awhile, so I gave Allen and Guido some things to work on. Guido completed his Bronze Badge written test while Allen worked on his long awaited Pilatus B-4 check-out.
Closer to 11, Guido comes back smiling with his test complete and I ran out things to say to Allen with respect to the Pilatus. However, looking up we saw patches of blue. And with Allen sitting in the Pilatus and Guido standing nearby, I asked the guys what they thought about the soaring weather. While they scoffed at the thermals conditions and the wind angle for ridge soaring, I noted what about wave? With the low boundary layer and smooth, stable winds, there’s got to be wave around somewhere today.
Only moments later, we felt the sun starting to bake our shoulders and saw the Pawnee and 182 trotting over to the runway to take quick flights. Allen brought the Pilatus over to the runway, strapped in and ready to go fly while the wind was still manageable in the morning. Shortly after 11, he did a beautiful takeoff and tow, his first in this ship. Guido and I strapped in to give it a go in the Cow.
By now, the wind was rip roaring down the runway. Once over the treeline, Guido was working hard to keep the 2-33 under control. Perhaps a more apt name for the glider would have been Raging Bull rather than Mad Cow! I sat in the back, enjoying the show, noting that the air was considerably more turbulent that would be expected with stable, SW winds.
This is probably rotor!
We released at 2,900ft MSL in lift over the powerlines, halfway to the power grid by the Lower Reservoir. I promptly took control, turned into the wind and raised the nose as high as I could. We hovered at 40mph, climbing at 3-4 knots in the rotor. At about 3,500ft, we transitioned into smooth air.
We found wave!
Guido was ecstatic. I gave him the controls and coached him through the adjustments to make to stay in the lift. With no GPS, it was tricky to remain perfectly positioned in the lift. Instead, we used a known error method, slowly walking forward in the wave until it weakened, and then transitioning back. Similar deal with lateral position; slowly moving right until it weakened and then adjusting back left. We did this for almost an hour, climbing up to 4,500ft on a day that seemed the antithesis of “soarable”.
Meanwhile, Allen took a second tow in the Pilatus and also found the wave. He climbed up to 5,600ft, spending 1.2 hours in the wave until the conditions cycled out and the wave petered out.
While there were wave clouds later in the day and some rotor around, folks couldn’t connect with any more wave. My guess is that the short-lived wave Allen, Guido, and I found was created by our ridge. Despite the terrible wind angle, the air still dropped behind the mountain and bounced accordingly. With the fog in the morning, fully stable airmass, and strong wind conditions, we found as close to classic mountain wave conditions as could exist on the East Coast.
Later in the day, ACA members completed a total of 14 tows; a very successful December day indeed! I did five instructional flights, with Guido, Joe Fenske, Allen, and Oleg. There was a gorgeous sunset, highlighting some wave clouds hovering off in the distance.
Sometimes adventures in soaring take an unexpected turn. Considering that the last time I landed out from Blairstown was around two years ago, the concept of visiting a farm felt like a vague possibility; something that happens to other glider pilots, but not me. And driving out to the airport with Jen, my thoughts were more centered around flying with her and two other pilots in the club two-seaters on this gentle, autumn soaring day rather than heavy duty soaring exploits. A good day for many folks to come out, do some training, stay current and maybe soar on a couple afternoon thermals.
My morning started early, first flying with Anthony in the club Grob. We took a tow to the ridge, discussed situational awareness, ridge testing, and the arrival path back to the airport. Even this early in the morning there were some workable thermals near the airport and we extended our flight accordingly. Anthony did a great job, followed by another very nice landing! Afterward, Guido had the 2-33 all ready to go for my next flight and I took up a prospective member in the 2-33. And after this quick flight, Jen was up next for her introduction to the 2-33, having previously had three luxurious flights in the Grob Twin Astir.
She had considerably more trepidation getting into this old tin can wrapped in fabric nicknamed the Mad Cow. Or maybe it was that a couple weeks ago I was the one who pointed out a rusted rib on the horizontal stabilizer and grounded the glider. In any case, when the rope hooked on and we went on our way to the turbulent tow, she was content to simply hang on and watch. After we released, the wind noise died down and the glider settled into the gentle breeze. Jen took a couple deep breaths and took the controls, getting a feel for the attitude and turning characteristics of the Cow. As we headed over the town, she found a strong thermal and I prompted her to turn, turn, turn! Jen wrapped the glider into a nice, stable turn, climbing up and up at a steady 2-4 knots. Topping out at 4,500ft, she headed to another cloud and found another nice climb, and with the same great piloting climbed 600ft higher. Figuring that would do after 40 minutes of great soaring, we headed back to the airport and landed.
Seeing that the soaring conditions were solid, I decided to take the Duckhawk on an afternoon romp. However, by the time I released over the ridge, it was clear that the conditions were softening up. Nonetheless, I connected with a reasonable blue thermal by the campground and climbed up to 4000ft. Looking ahead, there were clouds in Pennsylvania and I headed over to find turbulent, but reasonably organized lift. These clouds were nicely lined up in a street over to the Pocono plateau, my perennial playground. Finding consistent lift between 4-5000ft, I was doing better going straight and dolphining than trying to circle in this narrow, tricky lift.
Going 40 miles upwind worked great and it was not even that much after 2pm! I always enjoy trips into the wind as they are great practice and make it easy to get back. All you need to do is find a weak thermal, work your way up as you drift downwind and you’re quickly back in glide of your starting location. However, to use a Fernando Silva expression, I got a little “frisky” and was tempted to keep going a little farther before turning around. There was a nice street heading off the Berwick nuclear powerplant, my favorite thermal, and I was tempted to cut across and pick it up.
It turned out I chose to go a thermal too far.
Making the transition over, I found the expected strong sink. However, once under the clouds, I did not find the expected lift! And at this stage, I was surprised to find myself seriously contemplating that this might not work after all. I had an airport in glide downwind of me, but this would near certainly result in a landout. Looking ahead, I could escape into the valley toward a beautiful hay field. Moreover, there were clouds nicely lined up along the way, suggesting that this might work to get me out of trouble.
I’ve dug myself out of worse.
And so I headed over toward the hay field, trying one wisp, and another, and another. Nada. The wind lined up straight up the valley. Down to 1000ft abeam of the field and I felt a little bit of lift. Working this thermal only served to slow down my descent. I stared intently at the field, trying to judge its slope; better not screw that up with such a slippery glider!
Down to 600ft and the thermal picked up. But by this time, I was positioned downwind of the field, and I was drifting faster in the 12 knot wind than I was climbing. Time to knock it off.
Gear lever extended, button depressed, and the electric gear whirring down. Flaps switched into manual, extended to 20 degrees. Airbrakes all the way open; time to get on glide slope. Don’t mess this up, the Duckhawk will easily overshoot the field if you turn too soon. Extending the glide on base leg, followed by a steep turn, yawstring perfectly straight. Now set up with half spoiler on short final. Airspeed right on 50 knots, aimed square at the high treeline short of the field. Tuck it in as close as you can, as close as you can, full airbrakes! Nose over the trees and a hard flare over the field. In ground effect now, time to dump the flaps! Holding if off, holding it off, touch down! Hard on the wheelbrake, stopping as fast as I can without nosing over.
After the glider stopped, the variometer whirred a flat tone. I shut it off, and everything was silent. This is always the most magical moment, for after some of the most exciting flying you can do in a sailplane, you find yourself in a new place and time abruptly stops. I got out of the glider and took stock of my new surroundings. Looking ahead there was a deserted farmhouse and the cut hay gently bent over in the mild breeze.
I was very pleased with my field and my landing. For the past several months I’ve prepared myself for the possibility of landing in a field requiring clearing an obstacle. The Duckhawk is very unforgiving of extra energy on approach thanks to its only adequate airbrakes, which is a big issue when clearing a treeline. I consulted Bill Thar on the technique, practiced it in the simulator, and finally did such a landing at Blairstown airport. I calculated that I should be able to land the glider in a 1300ft long field, figuring I could get it stopped in 1000ft without resorting to ground looping or nosing over. I used up 950ft of the field, with about 300ft of that being ground roll. It was good to see that my preparation worked out flawlessly.
I called back to Blairstown for a retrieve crew. Since Jen had not driven my truck before, let alone with a trailer, I requested that someone else join her on the adventure. Bill Thar managed to convince Steve Beer to go, although Jonathan cajoled Jen to do the driving. She overcame her second bout of trepidation and hit the road behind the wheel of the truck!
In the meantime, I prepped the glider for disassembly and went for a hike to try to find the landowners. I must have been a sight to behold, dressed in my winter coveralls, wires hanging out all over the place, with my 10 liter Camelbak swinging over my shoulder. As I walked up the lane, I noticed that each dense tree had a “No Trespassing” sign stapled to it. And then I found a chain link fence with locks blocking the road.
Upon closer inspection, I found that the chain was mounted to the tree with open nails. With little effort I managed to take it down, eliminating this possible obstacle for my ground crew. I promptly put it back up, in case anyone went up the road before me. However, I got the message; I was going to endeavor to find the landowners before heading back up this road.
Another half mile later and I reach an intersection to find some houses and civilization. Seeing a gal on a tractor working her lawn, I waved my hand to flag her down. Despite my garb making me look something between an astronaut and a bum, I succeeded in encouraging her to approach me. I explained my predicament as a downed glider pilot and asked for her assistance to find the landowners of the field. Her husband quickly showed up and also took great interest to this unusual situation. They invited me into their house for a cup of coffee, taking great pleasure in sharing stories of this sleepy town, inquiring about my soaring exploits, and my work as a PhD student studying neuroscience. The time waiting for my crew passed by quickly.
Her husband made some calls, but had no luck finding the landowner. When Steve and Jen arrived, I invited my new friends to come and see the glider come apart. We went up the driveway, took down the chain link fence and promptly arrived at the Duckhawk. This retrieve was going so well, there was even enough sun on this short November day to take the glider apart with some daylight to spare!
At this point, I was a little surprised to note that my friends did not come to the glider. As it turned out, the caretaker of the land was taking his dog out for a walk and saw the wayward vehicles turning into his field. He intercepted his neighbors, who apparently were doing their darnedest to express the good and friendly character of us glider pilots and our friends. Nonetheless, with the glider packed up, sun setting to the west, and us heading toward the exit of the field, we were met with the irate caretaker and sensed there was going to be some trouble after all.
Further, as I walked out to meet him and his wife, I saw a state trooper driving up the driveway. Goodness gracious, here we go.
The field’s caretaker seemed most perturbed by the fact that his chain link fence proved not to be a barrier at all. I expressed my deep condolences for all the fuss, my yeomen’s effort at trying to find him or the landowners and how the field, glider, and my personal body were perfectly fine. A little while later he seemed to calm down, happier that “everyone and everything is safe”, leaving me to deal with the state trooper, firefighters, and ambulance who all showed up at the scene of the “plane crash”.
I refer to such occurrences as the circus showing up. Everyone comes to gawk at the glider, happy to have experienced the most exciting thing to happen at this town in the last decade. The state trooper had to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, insisting that he had to get a hold of the FAA. I told him go for it, my pleasure! And we sat around for ages, waiting for him to be satisfied.
An hour and a half later, I finally had enough and started calling up my friends, instructors, and DPE to see if anyone can get a hold of a person at the Allentown FSDO so the state trooper would finally let us be free. Right as Randy Rickert was dialing up his FAA contacts, the trooper informed me that I would receive a call from the FAA soon and let us be on our way. Steve, Jen, and I bolted out of the field.
After eating dinner at a local diner, we headed back to Blairstown, arriving a little after 8pm. Steve was in great spirits, thanking me for the opportunity to get to go on a retrieve! We dropped off the trailer, took a moment to look up at the beautiful stars. And then Jen and I headed back to Philadelphia.
There were many surprises on my Saturday adventure. But perhaps the most surprising thing was that Jen did not express an immediate urge to dump me after subjecting her to a) Getting up early in the morning, b) Flying an aircraft that seems destined to fall apart, c) On the drop of a hat, driving a scary vehicle with a 25 ft long trailer, and d) Arriving back home at an ungodly hour.
Instead, she said how exciting it was to a) Spend a day at a beautiful place, b) Get to fly a freakin’ glider, c) Challenge herself to do new things, and d) Have the excitement of going on an adventure, seeing a glider retrieve and having the amusement of watching me deftly deal with law enforcement. And how she’d love to do it again next time!
She’s a keeper!
Thanks a million Steve Beer, Jen, Jonathan, and Bill Thar for helping me out on this retrieve. Thanks Rick, Randy, and Erik for assisting me with the authorities. Thanks Tommy and Andrzej for towing! You guys are the best!
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!