On Monday, I graduated from New York University with a Master’s degree in Psychology. It has been hard work over the past couple of months getting my thesis done and my final classes completed. It has been a great ride, the capstone with a study on Emotional Intelligence and Bargaining Behavior. But between the lack of good soaring weather and my studies, I haven’t gotten to fly all that much over the past spring. So come the end of May, with my projects complete and good weather on the horizon, I was almost caught off guard; surprised by the prospect of getting to do a whole bunch of flying over the next couple of months! And when a nice day rolled in a day after my graduation, I figured what better way to celebrate than to go fly?
Gliderpilots are strange creatures. We think that it is fun to strap into a couple hundred pounds of fiberglass, close the canopy and seclude ourselves from the world. And to go in circles all day.
But no matter, this was a good day to fly. Finally, an honest-to-god cold front rolled through, bringing unstable, NW flow. The tricky bits were that the wind was to die off to the SW. Not a good day to go to the Potomac, with weak and northerly winds beyond Burnt Cabins. But what about to the North? Maybe we could do another triangle? I played with a whole bunch of options, hoping for a 600km triangle that took me into the plateau. Up near Williamsport, it was forecast that we could get Cu to 6000ft, plenty to ease into the high terrain.
There were few souls at the airport in the morning. Steve Beer was gung ho, raring to attempt a Diamond Distance in a 1-26. He helped me throw the LS4 and Duckhawk together and I returned the favor by being his official observer and running his wing. Tommy went off to get breakfast and I went to finish up putting the ships together.
Getting closer to launch time, still no gliderpilots to be seen. I decided to push the LS4 by hand to the end of the runway; bad idea. The grass was high and halfway I got completely winded. I summoned the energy to push the ship in 80 yard spurts, then stopping to catch my breath. By the time I got the ship to the end of the runway, I was glad to collapse in one of the handy lawn chairs by the runway. Ten minutes later, my heart rate finally returned to normal and I was satisfied that my cardio exercise for the day was complete. Seeing Tommy hustling back from breakfast, I was ready to go.
Wing down takeoff, no problem and a quick tow to the ridge. It was completely solid and I dropped onto the trees. No trouble moving along at a solid 95-100 knots, about as fast as I am normally willing to go in the ‘4.
The ridge band was a little odd today; more like a typical SE day than NW. It was a very thin, but solid band of lift. 400ft above the trees, you could hardly sustain. Down on the trees, you could make some serious speed. This was especially pronounced by the flat spot by Snyders. I like to float up to 2000ft in a high performance ship to make that crossing. This was a bit trickier today as the lift band was hardly getting up there.
By 11am, the thermals were on. The last bits of morning Cu had finally withered away, but there was not much too much trouble finding the thermal to make the crossing to Sharp. 3800ft, a good line and I was across to Second Mountain. Gold mine line and I was on Sharp at 1750ft. I figured that Sharp was working, but was not in a real dying rush. I picked up a thermal quickly after making the crossing, still in touch with the fields off the back. This set me up nicely to thermal across the whole section. No real trouble making it across to the Mahantango, which surprisingly worked very well. The wind was starting to die down now; less than 13 knots. But the lift band kept cranking.
On the Tuscarora, it started getting soft. When the wind is less than 15 mph at ridge top, the ridge band gets quite varied; sometimes it is cranking, sometimes it gets soft. By the time I hit Burnt Cabins, it was not working well at all.
Maybe I could make a run down to Dickeys on thermals? It was early yet; the thermals might get a lot better! The crappy thermal at Sidneys Knob minimized my motivation, especially with a wind reading ~340 degrees at 9 knots. Not fun to be at the bend at McConnellsburg with this kind of wind! I decided to instead proceed on my task and headed over to Shade Mountain. The challenge now was to make it across all the transitions to Williamsport. This turned out to be considerably trickier than I thought.
On Shade, I started settling down and down. I wasn’t too concerned as the ridge worked reasonably well on the Tuscarora; it should sustain me if I was in a real bind. But I did keep one eye at the fields and the other on the ridge. When I found thermals, I took them, just floating along in the higher band. The farther NE I go, the better the wind should get, no need to drive low and in a rush.
Near Mt.Union, I made the transition upwind. I had the choice to fly Stone or Jacks Mountains. I generally prefer Stone Mountain as it is a much better springboard for the next upwind jump across Seven Mountains to Nittany. However, with the weak, northerly wind, I thought twice of flying Stone. The fields at the base of it are not all that great. Moreover, some serious cirrus rolled in over Mifflin. And to add insult to injury, it was totally blue; no Cu to mark the thermals. It wasn’t going to be a cakewalk getting upwind. Maybe I could find some stragglers from the regional contest to mark a couple thermals? In any case, I decided to head along Jacks Mountain today.
With the high cloud cover moved in, the ridge and thermals softened up. It was a struggle climbing off the ridge. I hate dealing with the blue, especially alone. Finally having to resort to reading the ground, I figured, hoped that the quarry upwind might trigger something. And it did! Nice when it works out that way.
It was only good enough for 4,500ft. Looking at Seven Mountains, I wasn’t terribly pleased. The glide angle just looked too flat for comfort, despite the encouragement from the glide computer. But not able to get any higher, I edged forward. I managed to keep the meh angle, until halfway into Seven Mountains. Then I got into good air and I had it totally made. One major hurdle down!
At this point, I hoped to connect with a reasonable thermal and make it to Nittany in one go. No joy on that one and at 3000ft I started heading along First Mountain. This is the same place where I got into trouble last week. It was weird looking down at the places I scratched out of.
The stratocirrus got thicker and the thermals got ever worse. I settled down and down, going the whole length of the mountain without finding a climb. On the northeastern end, I finally had to turn around. Shortly thereafter, I settled right down onto the trees, maybe even a hair below ridge top at 55 knots. That certainly got my attention! The ridge was so weak that any bits of thermal sink were enough to wash it out. The little bubble ahead had a couple turkey vultures and a couple S-turns finally got me out of this predicament.
One of the things that astounds me is just how tenuous soaring flight can be. One wrong move and I would have been on the ground. One bad turn, another 20-30 feet below ridge top and the flight would’ve been over. It’s amazing how efficient these machines are at extracting the little bits of energy out of the air.
Now I was backtracking in relation to my task. But looking ahead, the skies parted and sunshine finally reached the ground. Appreciating this divine intervention, I headed on over and finally found some solid lift. As I was climbing, I dialed my task back to a 500km triangle. I figured that with this high cloud cover I ought to head back sooner than I originally anticipated. Normally 4pm would be a reasonable time to turn an upwind turn, but a little after 3 would have to do today. The climb got me high enough to reach Nittany Mountain; much better shape!
Once established on Nittany, things looked a lot better. In fact, there were small cumulus ahead, quite high up. I thought about getting my nerve back to go for the upwind turnpoint. When I hit a little thermal by the Talladega jump and looked at the high cloud cover behind me, this squashed this enthusiasm. The sun was swinging around and setting to the west and yet more and more moisture was marching in from the west. The net effect was that I was racing the shade! Enough, time to get to Williamsport and call it quits.
I had no trouble climbing up to 5,800ft. This was as high the bubble went and I gingerly pointed downwind. I’ll admit, it was a bit scary. Flying in the blue is really intimidating to me; who knows where and when you’ll find the next thermal. But I was high enough to make downwind ridges, which eased my worries. And feeling active air along the way was all the better, especially with another solid climb to 6,900ft. It turned out that the thermals were quite active and I had no troubles going downwind to Blue Mountain.
The ridge was still working solid, so it felt like a crime to just call it quits when I got back home. Why not do another lap for good measure?
As I neared the Delaware Water Gap, I saw Bill Thar screaming along in his Duckhawk. I asked him he wanted to join me on the lap and he most happily agreed to come. Apparently it gave him endless satisfaction to float up behind, pass me and then float up again behind me again. Usually pilots only get the satisfaction to pass a glider once, you know?
I floated off the end of Hawk Mountain and came back square at ridge top. It was a bit softer than I would’ve liked and was having a hard time floating up for the journey back across Snyders. Slowly but surely I made it back up to 2000ft; afterwards Bill and I floated like “gentleman” back home.
What a fun day!
Thanks a million Tommy for towing and Aero Club Albatross for giving me the chance to fly this sweet bird today.
Find the flight log here.