07-23-19 | And We’re Flying!

Everything is coming together. The gliders, crews, and equipment are all trickling in. Today, Noah and I had our ships together and had very nice flights. Our goal today was to have a low stress equipment check out. We hadn’t flown these ships before and haven’t used their avionics. We wanted to see how they flew and work out the kinks before attempting a cross-country task.

Luke and I got out to the airport early and worked out getting M8, my LS4a together. I took a step back and let him work through the whole process, offering guidance only when he requested it. He’s a really sharp fellow and is learning quickly. He’s doubly motivated because he will be flying the Aero Club Albatross LS4 soon; learning all the ins and outs of this ship will serve him very well.

Checklist completed, we headed on over to the pilot’s briefing. Notice the word briefing as opposed to meeting. In the Worlds, they have a short presentation on the local procedures, weather and contest announcements. There are no questions allowed from the audience. If a contestant has a complaint or a request for the organization, he must let his team captain know, who then follows up with the Contest Director (CD) or Stewards accordingly. All the contestants have crews and they are expected to do all the ground handling; the organization does not run wings or anything like that. It’s a different and much more professional environment than a typical regional or even a Nationals in the US.

In any case, the briefing today was relatively low key as it was an Unofficial Training Day. They set a task, despite the sullen-looking sky outside. But the CD was optimistic and figured that the soaring conditions should improve in the afternoon. The forecast indicated very unstable air; any sun on the ground and the thermals would cook off in no time. Noah and I were indifferent; all we cared about was to get in the air for a short flight and test out our systems.

We got to the grid by noon and had the ships all ready to go. The overcast burned off and the sun peeked out; looked like a pretty decent day after all!

We relaxed for a while. The day took a little while to trigger. By 12:45pm, the towplanes roared into action. The towplanes at this contest are an eclectic bunch. A Pawnee, 182, Zlin, Virus motorglider and several other types. Hardly more than two of the same airplane!

The Zlin was my towplane today. What an interesting machine! This is the first retractable-gear towplane that I had ever towed behind. It climbed quite well up to release altitude. The procedure in the Worlds is that a pilot must stay on tow until the towplane waves them off; you can’t just release in a thermal like you can back in the States. But this particular wave off was even more special as the towplane drops the gear as it starts vigorously waggling its wings!

In any case, Noah and I were quickly connected after release in good lift. I was very quickly impressed with my LS4. The radio was outstanding. I could hear Noah very very very clearly and loudly. I cannot overstate what a blessing this is. I’ve had to deal with subpar radios and microphones in team flying for a very long time. Very often you will say, “Unreadable” or “Say Again”. When you get tired and your diction starts falling apart, it gets even worse. But these radios work! And man what a relief this is.

These LS4s climb very very well. We were able to get them as slow as 80 km/h in the thermals, though they were happy at 85 km/h in a 40 degree bank. This is ~46 knots or so. They are in great shape and fly very well. Noah and I several times stated, “Did I mention that this is a really nice glider!” We were really happy with how these ships were flying.

We weren’t ambitious with our soaring plans today. We headed into the 23 knot headwind and explored the area. The terrain is mostly flat, with short to moderate length fields. The thermals were actually quite reasonable; fairly wide lift around four knot averages or so. Some of the cores were well into 7-8 knots. The airport is situated right next to Szeged, a fairly large city. This also makes it easy to stay up in this area as all the infrastructure is good for generating thermals.

To the west, there is higher, drier and more wooded terrain. The lift was fairly decent there, although the day started to overdevelop. Our near nil motivation to get out of gliding distance evaporated at that point and we headed closer to the airport.

When we went east of the airport, we found nearly dead air. This area is low ground near the Tisa River. The river valleys here are softer lift areas and this showed. We headed back to Szeged as the day started to collapse.

While we floated around near the airport, I tested out the manual bugwipers. They are a pain in the butt! They deploy by extending a fishing line as they sweep across the wing. Then you crank a little knob for about 90 seconds as it sweeps back to the wingroot. It is fairly vigorous work and required quite a bit of attention, at least on my part. I felt that it was a lot more trouble than it was worth, at least with the dry and non-buggy air that we were flying in. It seems a reasonable bet to clean the wings before start while milling around in the start sector and perhaps before final glide if possible. But I can’t imagine doing it the 4 or 5 times that people recommend to do during the course. It seems that the amount of time needed to do it is too distracting and would burn up that much more energy (in the glider and in the pilot) than can be gained from using these devices. But we will see!

In any case, we headed back after a leisurely 2.5 hours in the sky. We made a list of little items to address to be 100 percent contest ready and are well on our way toward knocking off those items. We’re in great shape and looking forward to flying tomorrow!

Among other news, Jonathan Elie arrived with JP Stewart’s glider. We are all anxiously awaiting the arrival of our teammate and we will soon be a complete team!

Find my flight log here.

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07-22-19 | Cruising Along

Luke and I are now in Hungary, humming along the highway, trailer in tow. Nothing really exciting to report; we made it into Vienna yesterday and will be arriving in Szeged soon.

Luke is doing a fantastic job! He’s gotten the hang of driving with the trailer and is a real pro now. It is a pleasant surprise getting to sit in the right seat of a car with a trailer while on a long cross country trip. I could get used to this!

We are now a little less than 3 hours away from the airport. Most of the team is already there, including John Good, Akos (our Hungarian crew), Mike Marshall and his crew and Noah with Jake. Looking forward to the good company!

07-20-19 | Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

When a swimmer goes to a swimming meet, he brings a pair of swim trunks and goggles. When a skier goes to a skiing competition, she brings a pair of skis, poles, and a bag full of winter clothing.

When a soaring pilot goes to a soaring contest, he brings a crew, 100 lbs of gear, a car equipped with a hitch, a portable hardware store and an aircraft in a 25 foot long trailer.

This is a logistical challenge for any racing pilot. When racing on another continent, it becomes a logistical nightmare.

Luke DuPlessis is my intrepid crew for the Junior Worlds, a responsible 17 year old who can drive and is eager to do anything and everything for the team. We met at the airport on Friday and departed for Europe.

After a sleepless night on the airplane (for me), we arrived in the Netherlands.

Why the Netherlands you may ask? The contest is indeed in Hungary, on the other side of the continent! A fair and reasonable point, but this goes back to the challenge of finding an aircraft. The best gliders we could find were in the Netherlands.

But this opened up other challenges. Now we had to find vehicles to rent. Rene, a much appreciated local contact along with Heinz and Karin helped find us two Volvos with trailer hitches.

Next, we needed to get our pilot certificates approved to fly gliders registered in the Netherlands. This required getting a check flight at the local airfield in Terlet. Rein, a former KLM 747 driver and local club instructor was eager to help.

So we arrive in the Netherlands at 8am. We wait for Noah, my teammate and Jake, his crew, to arrive an hour later from Philadelphia. Rene picks us up and we send our crews on the train to Arnhem as there is not enough room in a typical European car for the whole team and our gear.

It’s raining.

We pick up our cars and see a break in the weather. Rene goes over to Arnhem to get our crews from the train station. Noah and I rush over to Terlet, hoping to get our check flights done.

It starts pouring again.

As we wait for the weather to clear, we enjoyed the hospitality of the local glider folks. It’s an impressive airfield. Three parallel runways, hangar, full service machine shop, several six drum winches and much more. It’s the biggest glider club in this country, with 250 club members.

The weather clears. All the flying gears go into motion. Our crews and local club members get the towplane and K21 out to the line. Noah and I complete two quick pattern hops.

For such short flights, we had a blast! The view was wonderful, with forests, rolling hills and showers lurking in the distance. There were little clouds hugging the ground in some places like steam rising off a pan.

And it ended as quickly as it started. Glider and towplane back in the hangar, all cleaned up and put away.

Paperwork.

Off to Breda airport, a 1.5 hour drive to pick up our gliders.

Inspection, questions, more gear. A tutorial on bugwipers. Secure lead to minimize the weight difference (and handicap) between Noah and my ship. Instructions on how to use the trailers and driving in Europe.

Dinner at the local airport restaurant. Drive back two hours to Terlet glider club to drop the gliders off for the night and pick up our newly approved Dutch licenses, rushed hot off the presses at 10:30pm.

At 11pm, we collapse from exhaustion in a hostel 10 minutes away from the airport. Our departure from consciousness lasts no less than until 9am the following day. 10am in Noah’s case.

And we are now on the road to Hungary, with our gear all good to go, relaxed and satisfied that we are in good shape.

Now the goal is to get there safely and rested. And enjoy the roadtrip!


Many thanks to everyone who is supporting us! Huge thanks to Rene who picked us up from the airport and helped us work through the logistical challenges. Thanks Rein who flew with us and helped get us legal to fly in Europe.

I’m getting more and more excited with every kilometer closer to Szeged! It’s an honor to have the opportunity to represent my country at an international competition.

06-30-19 | Just Hang in There!

Rain, rain, rain and more rain has been the story in the northeast for the past several months. So much so that the Standard Class Nationals were cancelled because their field was practically flooded. My teammate, Noah Reitter had to pick up his club’s glider from the airport and reported that, “It might as well have been a seaplane base!” Since this contest was our training period for the Junior Worlds, we tried to figure out alternative training plans. Thankfully, our clubs supported us using their club ships at other sites which were soarable. And right as we set out on our soaring adventure, the weather finally turned a corner. We flew for seven out of eight days at Ridge Soaring Gliderport and Harris Hill, racking up lots of miles and hours. Noah is an exceptional soaring pilot and he really stepped up my game. We flew in some challenging soaring conditions, several times feeling like we wouldn’t make it home. But somehow we always made it around and had a blast while doing it!

As our team training wound down, I saw a very promising ridge day coming up for June 30th. The conditions at Elmira were not going to be suitable for good soaring, but it looked great at Ridge Soaring Gliderport down by State College, PA. It looked like it might be good enough to attempt at a Standard Class National record.

We asked Phil Chidekel, our resident expert meteorologist to look at the weather forecast. He saw a big day, but with challenges, namely a stalled stationary front with the prospect of showers and maybe tricky ridge conditions. Noah was about spent from a week of hard flying and took a pass on the prospect of being thrown around all day. On Saturday we parted company, 100 percent ready to go to Hungary and make a serious go at the Junior Worlds.

Heading down to Ridge Soaring Gliderport, I finally started to plan my flight. Normally I plan big days well in advance. I’d update the task, have my forms ready and everything thought through. But this time, everything was to be thrown together last minute. On the way I picked up tubing and buckets to fill up the LS-4 water bags. I figured that today I would assemble the ship, test out the water system and load it up with water. And finally put the glider into the hangar, ready to fly the next day.

Just my luck, I saw John Bird and Len Martinowski when I arrived at the airport. These two characters are my good friends, Penn State students and great gliderpilots. It looked like I’d have help assembling the glider and testing out the water system! I hadn’t loaded up the ‘4 with water before, and it was a pretty elaborate and humorous operation. It involved siphoning water from a bucket on a stool, with a second five-gallon bucket being used as a reservoir to keep track of how much water we were putting in. After about an hour and getting ourselves completely soaked, we managed to load in about 23 gallons of water, which seemed all that the LS4 would carry.

Some repacking and shuffling of gliders in the hangar and the ship was in great shape. Another 50 lbs of lead behind the seat and 10 liters of water in three Camelbaks, the ‘4 was loaded up to maximum fuselage weight. Tomorrow I would need the glider to be a lead sled and this is as much weight as it could take.

This was followed by checklists and errands. After dinner it was suggested for me to pick up a backup logger (good idea!) and Mike Robison was willing to help with a Nano 3. Back at the airport a little after 9pm and I finally sat down at my computer to think through a declaration.

My goal for some time was a Three Turnpoint Distance Record in Standard Class. Figuring an even 800 miles would do, the best task options took me down south early. However, the limiting factor was that the conditions would not be as favorable as the models initially expected. The front was going to stall someplace in Virginia and this would complicate things to the south.

A natural place to turn would be no farther than Covington, West Virginia. This is where the high mountains end and the lower Peters Mountain begins. With this in mind, I anchored the other legs from this point. This task took me to Covington first, with the remainder being run out on the Mifflin ridges. But the task didn’t look or feel right. After going to bed, my mind still kept cranking away and I turned on the light and opened up SeeYou once more. An alternative option occurred to me that allowed for a cleaner lap early and went to Covington in the second portion of the day. This made it possible for the front to push through a bit farther and made for a more intuitively “right” task.

But lying in bed thinking, I still couldn’t decide between the two. And then I just decided to take a look at the weather in the morning and make my decision then. Like with a snap of a finger, a calm descended over me and I slept soundly for seven hours. A much appreciated and necessary rest that really made the difference the following day.

Where’s the Wind?

Waking up, I was pleasantly surprised to be well rested. And looking at the weather, the lap first, Covington-later task was the way to go. Loggers and GPS updated, the glider was ready. While eating breakfast, I looked up at the ridge. There was no wind on the surface and squinting at the ridge top did not reveal any swaying trees. The inversion had not cleared out of the valley; this would be a slow starting day.

John Bird arrived at 8am and gave me a hand getting the ship out to the back end of the runway. With the Scout as the towplane, we should use all the runway there was! Subsequently, we went over to assemble his Libelle. He was going for a Diamond Distance and succeeded too!

Closer to 9am, the wind just started to mix down to the surface and Tom towed me up to the ridge. It was really amazing that the tows lasted only two minutes, straight up the mountain! Today the climb rate on tow was not as spectacular as it normally would be on a ridge day. The ridge lift was not very strong. I hung on 200ft higher than I normally would.

After releasing and turning to the northeast, it was clear that the ridge was hardly working. Settling down to level with ridge top, the glider was slowing and slowing down. It felt heavy and sluggish with all the weight and I resolved not to slow down less than 60 knots. It just barely stayed even with ridge top and struggled to climb toward the higher section near Milesburg Gap. Seeing how weak it was, I decided to wait a while and let the ridge firm up. A short lap on the local ridge mustered up my courage to make the crossing to the north. Once on the other side, I once again chickened out approaching Howard Dam. Another little lap while in touch with the landable fields and I tiptoed my way across the unlandable section.

After a long struggle, I finagled my way to Lockhaven. Now the challenge was to g downwind over to Nittany Mountain, the location of my start point. The ridge was so weak that it was necessary to find a thermal to make it across. I beat back and forth, trying thermals here and there. The lift was torn up and it was difficult to work with all the weight in the glider. Finally, I made a lap farther along toward the high part of the ridge. Instead, there was weaker lift and the ship dropped 150ft, now well below ridge top. Turning around, I dumped the nose, heart beating more rapidly, with my right eye looking at Lockhaven airport.

Just hang in there!

And that I did to get back to the better working part of the ridge. And it turned out that this expression would cross my mind many more times as this flight went on.

Finally, at 10am the thermals firmed up a bit and got me just high enough to cross over to the downwind ridge. At 10:15, more than hour after taking off, I finally went through the start. In this time, I had flown a meager 32 miles, none of which counted toward the task.

Off to the Races

After starting the task, I was a bit leery of driving down on the ridge, though the lift was improving. I pushed the speed up to 90 knots and let myself slowly settle down. We’ll let ‘er rip on Tussey, it’s not time to drive just yet. No trouble making the downwind jump at Nittany and we were in business on Tussey. Down on the trees and the airspeed was just over 100 knots indicated. With the late start, it was necessary to make speed on this lap down to Evitts Mountain. This will make or break the flight at the end of the day.

No real trouble making it down to the turnpoint at the tip of Evitts, though the ridge was a bit weaker than forecast. I was hoping to do 110 knots on the good sections thanks to the addition of all the ballast. But instead the ship was doing quite a bit of 95 knots, sometimes even 80 on the uphill parts. The ridge band seemed to be cut off 300ft or so above ridge top, which made the transitions a bit trickier. This made my life difficult crossing to Nittany on the following leg. I had to abandon the transition and pick up a thermal in the middle which finally got me across. Similarly, this made it tricky to get across the “death dive” to the front ridge. I like to float up several hundred feet above Nittany before going across, but the ridge gave just enough to clear over the top and go. Tricky business.

Once on the front ridge, I headed for my turnpoint near the edge of the Williamsport Class Delta. It was now an all-out drag race. Abeam of Lockhaven, I figured that I had now started a 900km out and return. It was 1pm and sunset was 8:45pm. Figuring seven hours was a reasonable bet, I had to make Covington by 4:30pm to have a little reserve at the end of the day. Every knot of airspeed counted now; every minute earlier would mean that the thermals are that much better on the run back.

Altoona and Bedford went by without too much difficulty and I was on the Knobblies before I knew it. The effect of this terrain on the air mirrors the broken-up nature of the ground; the air was all torn up and unsettled. I slowed down to 80 knots and struggled to maintain my altitude. The sharp gusts that felt like good thermals encouraged me to start making a quarter of a turn and then get dumped out the other side. Almost all of the clouds failed to generate organized lift. It is necessary to climb between the especially dicey sections between Keyser and Scherr and the tip of Scherr and Hopewell Gap. The sections in between get very low and the landability is quite poor. I made it across after 30 minutes of stressful flying.

Now firmly established on the high West Virginia ridges, I was really hoping to let ‘er rip. But the lift was not working that well. Below ridge top it just barely kept me up and level with the ridge and then the sections would work for about 95-100 knots. I expected that with the higher elevation I would find a redline ridge, but to no avail. Every minute counted and I kept the ‘4 going as fast as it would go.

Beyond Snowy Mountain and the downwind ridge was in range. I got a bit antsy to make the jump and did it a bit too early. Once established, the next transition was a bit disconcerting. It was a downwind jump similar to Honey Grove, although over a sea of trees. I took care to climb up high enough to solidly make it across above ridge top.

I was now in business on the Warm Springs Ridge. And to my distress, the glider was hardly staying level with the ridge while passing Ingalls Airport. The wind sock at the top of this really high airport was only halfway extended and the ridge ahead was descending. I must have overrun the stationary front and was now flying in the weaker, crappier air.

Approaching the knob at the end of the Warm Springs Ridge, I realized that my turnpoint was several miles beyond the tip, directly over the town of Covington. The idea behind this strategy is if the ridge working well, to float up 500-1000ft above ridge top, tiptoe in, round the point and get out. It doesn’t work so well when you’re hardly hanging along at ridge top. The turnpoint was four miles away.

How Badly Do You Want It?

You can’t get so close and chicken out. Sliding out toward the turnpoint, I was slowly bleeding off altitude and holding my breath. Two miles from the point, now over the valley and the ship was sinking faster. Heart rate kicked up, pressing on. Approaching the turnpoint, I was 400ft lower than I started.

Heaving the glider around the turn, I felt a nibble off the right wing. It took two seconds to register and then I flung the ship into a turn reversal with all my strength. By golly the freakin’ town set off a thermal!

It was not great, going up on half the turn and down the other. But it was enough to gain 450 feet back. At that point I was drifting faster downwind than I was climbing up and punched back toward the ridge. At 3200ft, the weak ridge lift kicked in, well below ridge top. Boy was I thankful for that 450 feet.

Man, would it be great to get back to the high Ingalls ridge. The higher altitude, slightly better thermals and better fields at the base made it the way to go. Just hang with it. And several miles farther, another weak thermal got me 200 feet higher.

Every foot counts to a ridge pilot. 50 feet higher or lower is the difference between connecting with the ridge 150 feet below crest and falling off into a field. High enough, I slid downwind and connected with the ridge lift.

At this point, I was able to take a breather and take stock of my situation. The finish was 400km away and it was just after 4pm. Having made good time heading south, this would give me a bit more room on the return trip. But the conditions were starting to deteriorate and it’s a lot to ask of eastern thermals to keep chugging along this late. The first challenge was to get back upwind to the front ridge and the clouds ahead looked pitiful.

Abeam of Ingalls Airport again and there was a nice looking cloud street heading upwind. Looking northeast, the clouds looked worse, hardly a chance to make it over upwind further along this ridge. A solid surge. The goal was now to climb up as high as possible, float up the street and get across. This would set me up well to reconnect with the front ridge at Mountain Grove.

700ft higher and the thermal started deteriorating. Well the street looks nice, maybe I could pick up a bubble along the way. Hanging along in good air, but no bubble was to be found. This is not looking pretty. Floating along upwind, the glide angle on the mountains ahead was slightly improving. But I really wanted another climb. Halfway across and still no joy. Looking to the northeast, pressing on still looked like the best bet. I could clear Lick Mountain and fall back on it if I started coming up short of the front ridge.

I made the fateful decision to press on.

500ft above Lick and the front ridge is coming in view. I would be totally committed very soon; can’t drop off to the fields behind Lick Mountain anymore on the other side. Heart rate kicked up, eyes narrowed, and I crossed the point of no return to slide over the top of the ridge.

400km Through Hell

If there was a log that measured my pulse, at this point it would have spiked off the chart. As I cleared the ridge and looked down, there was a dark green mass of forest. And more importantly, the trees were not moving; there was hardly any wind down here at 2700ft MSL. Several seconds later, I hit a little surge, hauled into it and opened the dump valves. As this happened, I forced myself to breathe, calm down and looked left at Lake Moomaw. If all goes to hell, that’s where I would go and live with the fact I would be called an admiral. The thought flashed across my mind to remember to take off the parachute straps if I have to go into the water.

Immediately after I pulled into the turn, I saw the fields at the base of Mountain Grove out of the corner of my right eye. They were solidly in glide. I heaved out of the turn, put the nose down and closed the valves. A wave of relief, dread, and anxiety swept over me. My fate is at the base of this mountain; I am totally screwed. This ridge is hardly working. But the field is an infinitely better way to end this flight than the damned lake.

Down to 60 knots. The ridge was rising faster than I could climb with it. A little surge and I turned into it. Nothing and I was lower than I started the turn. Damn! Just hang in there. Another surge, a couple S-turns good for 150ft. Just hang with it. Now abeam of the fields and several hundred feet higher. And then the ridge made a sharp rise and I was off its base, on the little spurs below.

A sharper surge. Maybe I could S-turn up the ridge? There were two gullies and it seemed that there was lift on both sides and sink in the middle. I was able to make my turns right over the gullies and spent five minutes clawing my way up 400 feet. Every foot matters to a ridge pilot.

This was just enough to slide in 150 feet below ridge top on the high ridge and the lift kicked on. Slowly I was level with the ridge. It kept rising and rising and I was struggling to stay with it. I would dolphin through every bubble. Finally, near Monterey I was level with the 3800ft ridge, cruising along at a reasonable clip.

Thinking the horrors were finally over, I sped up a bit more. The ridge band was almost glued to the trees; it hardly rose above the top of the ridge. My speed crept up to 90 knots; if there was any chance to complete the task I’ll have to nurse the ship home.

Approaching Snowy Mountain; I slowed down a bit. The ridge band only got me up to 4100ft. And then I got sucked into the spill. I kept the ship plastered to the trees. Halfway in, it still looked better to keep driving. Still sinking and sinking. Now I had to go the long way around the knob and I was falling out of the freakin’ sky. Every time I hit a sink spell, I was dodging the trees and spilling myself off the ridge. And to my dread, the ridge rose several hundred feet. As I came around the corner, I was down to 3500ft, right at the base of the high ridge, near level with the low upwind ridge. The landing options were through a gully toward the low ridge. This is not looking good at all.

And then the ridge lift just started kicking in. I opened the dump valves, all that mattered now was to claw up this damned mountain. And on the first S-turn, the lift kicked in in earnest. Closed the valves and three S-turns later, I was back in business.

At this point, it became abundantly clear to me that the goal was to survive the next 320km; literally and figuratively. The terrain and fields in West Virginia were terrifying down low. The air was torn up and the mountains were intimidating. Man what I would do to just make it to Maryland, where the fields were much nicer. Time was ticking; it was after 5pm and I accepted that this flight was near certain to end in a landout. Let’s just make it to a good field.

Abeam of Petersburg, and it was hard to stay much above ridge top. Now the Knobblies appeared before me and a wave of dread came over me. I can’t get in there low, I gotta climb! And thankfully I found a rare, solid surge. This took me up to 5,500ft before it petered out. But looking ahead I saw that the clouds lined up parallel to the ridge; looks like rotor! This kept me going a long way in good air and gave me just a bit more altitude to work with. Looking ahead, I had a flat angle to Scherr. Boy I really wanted to be higher. Just give me another thermal to work with and I’d take it.

Floating along in the rotor line, I bumped along in the lift, but nothing was solid enough to turn in. I kept going straight, eyeing my angle to the base of the fourth windmill. It held and I slid in well below the top of the ridge and it kicked on. Slowing down to 60 knots, I floated up to the top. Just give me a bit more to make it to Keyser. Nope, not much to give, but just enough good air to float along. Just hang in there.

And looking ahead, the better fields at the base of Keyser opened up in front of me. Whatever deity was watching me today, thank you, thank you very much. I slid lower and lower, down to 2000ft. But then the broken up ridges kicked on and I was maintaining altitude.

It was approaching 6pm. Now back in the land of large, abundant fields, I started thinking about the next transition. It would be a small upwind jump to the Halfpipe beyond Cumberland. I will need a thermal to make this work. What are the odds that it will kick in this late in the day?

And sure enough the infrastructure upwind of the little ridge worked a couple bubbles my way. Man oh man, this might even work! The first thermal petered out, but the second one was a genuine, solid three knotter. I took it up as high as it would go, abundantly pleased to be well off the ridge even just for a little while. At 4,500ft and it was plenty to make it across.

At this point, another wave of relief passed over me. Should the PA ridges work, I could cut down the retrieve a huge amount. I will not need an honest thermal until I got to the transition at Tussey to Nittany and that is pretty close to Ridge Soaring. Every mile flown is two miles less on the retrieve and I felt rightfully proud that I was now in friendly territory.

I called up John Bird and asked him if he could be ready to retrieve me. He said he was tracking me on SPOT and fairly assumed I would probably eventually land at the base of Tussey or somewhere along Nittany. He rightfully surmised that in the unlikely event that I somehow made it to my finish that I would have to land someplace, anywhere to be down before sunset. Thanking him for his thoughtfulness and initiative in being ready to retrieve me, I asked him if he completed his Diamond Distance today. He said he did and had a great flight too! The 90-second conversation lifted my spirits.

The Halfpipe was just barely working. Again, I couldn’t keep up with the rising ridge. Where Wills Mountain meets the halfpipe, I found a thermal and once again S-turned to claw my way up the mountain. At the top now, I was floating along as high as I could. Evitts Mountain was downwind, but it would sure be nice to connect with it as high as possible; the landing options at the base of it are dismal to non-existent. Boy would it be nice to find a thermal.

Several attempts and no joy. Sigh. I was high enough to go for it, so it was simply a matter of finding the friendliest spot and going for it. A little surge, a 270 and a downwind run in good air. Strong sink in the leeward spill and I slid onto Evitts Mountains square at ridge top.

I was now limping along at 75-80 knots, still pretty heavy with water. I figured that the weight would help me in the penetration and would hardly lose when it came to floating up in the straightaways. I floated up just barely enough to squeak over the Wall and onto Tussey. Just kept nursing the ship along. Just hang in there.

Passing the Zag, I slowed down to 60 knots. It was 7pm and there was only one more transition left that stood between me and completing the task. Ahead was the upwind jump at Tussey which gave me grief the first time around today and the air was becoming smooth. What are the odds that this is going to work?

This late in the day, the upper band usually turns on and it is possible to float along 1000ft above the ridge in “evening magic”. The sun comes around to the west and the trees start releasing their latent heat. It is a glorious time to be flying.

The band hadn’t kicked on yet and at one point I was flung back down on the ridge top. Patience, just float along at 60 knots. And then the ridge slowly strengthened. 20, 30 feet at a time, I slowly floated up higher and higher. I finally capped out at 2800ft. This was considerably better than before!

Nursing the glider along, I looked upwind. There was that field I scouted out before at the base of the mountain, right by the big quarry. It looked good to land in and this will be my out. Everything hangs on this one jump. Floating along, I hoped to find a thermal to get higher. I have only one chance to make this work; the conditions are not going to improve later.

As close as I could get to the jump, I found a little nibble, just enough to gain an extra 100ft. Every foot counts to a ridge pilot. 100ft was the best it would do and I floated out at best glide speed.

At this point I called up University Park Tower to request the transition across. It was fully apparent to me that there was a good chance that I would be at the base of the ridge and wondered how I should communicate my situation to the tower. It felt better to spare myself the trouble of having to explain myself while in a marginal situation as it were. If I fall off, I’ll deal with them later.

The ridge looked so far away and so high up off the nose, but the angle was just holding on. A little bit of sink, a little bit of good air. The angle took me just a little bit below the crest, right around the corner. The field looked really nice and I had my approach figured out. Just hang in there.

As I wrapped the ship around the corner, I pulled the dump valve. No need for the water anymore and I will give everything it takes to stay with this ridge. Evidently the water gods were pleased as I was greeted with weak ridge lift. It was solid and I closed the valve.

Victory

A wave of elation passed over! Damned if I made it across! I’ll make it to the finish line! What are the odds!

And then I sternly said enough of that, don’t celebrate until you have actually completed the task. There’s still room to mess up you know.

But that was almost in jest. I was cruising along at 85 knots, sun setting off my shoulder, chasing my shadow off my right wing. The lift was smooth, the whole Nittany valley lit up in the glorious evening sun. It was surreal.

As I approached the finish, I started thinking about how to make my landing. My first thought was to turn around and fly back along Nittany and land just outside of the University Park Class D. This would cut down the retrieve quite a bit. But then I considered if I could make it to the front ridge that I could land at Lockhaven Airport. That’s a very nice place to go! And besides, if I had enough time, I could head back along the ridge, maybe get to Milesburg and cut down the retrieve some more. Who knows, maybe I could even make it home? I laughed at the prospect.

Approaching the end of the mountain, I slowed down and floated up. After crossing the finish line, my satisfaction was delayed since I was focused on making the next upwind jump. Just floating up enough to clear the bowl, I once again went for the infamous “death dive” to the front ridge.

This time after clearing the corner I immediately headed southwest. The ship connected with the ridge at 1700ft in honest ridge lift. I was in perfect position for a landing at Lockhaven, but slowly floated up the ridge. Looking at the time, there were 30 miles to go and 40 minutes until sunset. Man, that is actually enough time to make it home! Might as well give it a shot, why not?

Humming along at 80 knots at 1700ft, it was peaceful. The sun was coming down behind the cirrus off to the west and the valley started to darken. The air was smooth. It felt like I was sitting on the wing and just watching myself fly, simply amazed to be here at all.

Approaching Milesburg, I slowed down and floated up to 1800ft. This was all that the ridge was going to give me now as the wind was slowly dying down. But this was enough to get across and the airport came in sight. Dropping down the gear on downwind and going 70 knots, there was enough drag on the glider that I could no longer sustain at ridge top. The day was giving its dying breath as I turned on base leg and landed in perfectly smooth air, 20 minutes before sunset.

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This was the most difficult ridge flight I had ever done; certainly more challenging than any flight I had previously declared. The conditions were just barely good enough to make it work. The last 500km was the most grueling soaring I had ever done for such a long distance. Every transition, gap, and elevation change had me working for every last scrap of energy. There were at least three times that the odds were stacked against me that I would fall off the ridge. Somehow I managed to hang in there and it was a near miracle that I made it home. It’s deeply satisfying to have had the opportunity to play the game, where for a while it hung in the balance on every move. It felt like the ridge and I did battle and walked away with a healthy respect for each other, looking forward to the time we will challenge each other.

This flight should be good for a 3 Turnpoint Distance Standard Class National Record and a 1250km Diploma.

Find my flight log here.

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Many thanks are in order. Thank you Tom and Doris for letting me stay at your wonderful bunkhouse and for the early tow. Thanks Phil Chidekel for the weather forecast. Thanks John Bird for crewing for me and huge congrats on your Diamond Distance! Thanks Mike Robison for letting me use your logger; I ended up using your log!

Thanks a million to Aero Club Albatross for letting me use your wonderful LS-4. It has been a spectacular week of flying and I am deeply honored to have had the opportunity to use this sailplane to its potential.

I hope that the soaring community as a whole will appreciate that affordable gliders, especially in clubs can do wonderful things. And that clubs supporting their members in their sporting goals is the best way to grow this sport. Aero Club Albatross is the beacon that lights the way.

06-27-19 | A Fine Summer Soaring Day


The past two days have alternated between being spectacular and frustrating, usually in close succession. On the one hand, we are really lucky to have some really nice soaring conditions in the summer time. It’s hard to complain when you are getting to 6500ft and 7800ft respectively. On the other hand, we’ve had to deal with storms, large sinkholes, and areas of rinky-dinky lift that made things more challenging. Nonetheless, 210 miles on thermals; that’s a fine day’s work.

Today Sean Murphy set our task. Wellsville – Loon Lake – Canton Lake – Harris Hill; Turn Area Task with a 3.5 hour minimum time. He flew the Duo Discus with Tom Hogrefe and also had a great time. The task was well set for the day.

It took a while for Noah and I to get connected with the lift. After release, we struggled to find a thermal. It took 20 minutes to get above release altitude, though the one that got us there was a real solid 4.5 knotter. This got us up to start altitude and we got going a little after 1:20 pm.

The conditions got cooking and we cruised along to the first turnpoint. Things slowed down on the second leg due to cirrus and mid-level moisture. We developed some altitude separation getting into Loon Lake and Noah did a good job of rounding the turnpoint a bit deeper and coming back with me at the same altitude.

The next leg got trickier. The working thermals got pretty far apart and we started to get some disconcertingly low points. At one of these points, I released Noah and he went ahead and marked the next thermal. This worked out well; we ended up minimizing the altitude seperation between us almost completely on this one.

Getting across toward Armenia Mountain, things got really tricky. We were down to almost 3000ft and few of the clouds were working. The one thermal that did work got us just high enough to poke into the high ground to the south. Noah picked up a weak thermal in the middle, but I wasn’t high enough to connect with him. I kept going, hoping to find a thermal toward Buttonwood Mountain. No joy.

At this point I was paying a lot of attention to the fields below me. None looked enticing. And then I realized that the windmills on top of the ridge were turning. Not very fast, but turning nonetheless. This perplexed me, because the winds were from all directions, but north today. I gauged whether the windmills were angled off from the ridge; nope… straight perpendicular. Well heck, if they are turning, then the ridge ought to be working. Maybe good enough for a save?

I got to the ridge, felt a woosh of more solid air and hung a right along the ridge. By golly, this might actually work! I floated along, slowly settling down. And several miles later, I hooked a bubble! The windmills were a bit disconcerting; I couldn’t make a full turn until way well above ridge top because I didn’t want to drift into them. And as I started climbing, the wind read only about 8 knots from 340 degrees. 500ft above, the wind went to zero. I have no idea where the wind came from or where it went, but all I can say is thank you very much. This got me up and away and heading back home.

Noah smartly turned in his weak thermal and headed back while he had the chance. However he was struggling along back to the north in survival mode. He dutifully reported this to me and I made every use of the decent thermals over the high ground. This got me to a MC 3.3 500ft over final glide, which I cautiously flew back home. 65-70 knots, slowing down in the good lift and speeding up to 75 knots in the sink. I held my breath a good ways. Even 4 miles out I was thinking I might need to do a rolling finish if I hit a bout of strong sink. But it actually worked out very nicely, for a very efficient final glide.

Team flying worked well today. When we were close together, we sampled the air well. We got separated twice, the first time reconnecting nicely. The second time, Noah relayed useful information which increased my speed. All in all, a great training day!

Noah’s flight log can be found here.

My flight log can be found here.

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Thanks Aero Club Albatross and Harris Hill Soaring Corporation for letting us use their club gliders toward training for the upcoming Junior Worlds!

06-26-19 | Thunderbolts and Lightning… Very, Very Frightening!

Yesterday developed quickly and just kept running away since there was no inversion capping the development of the clouds. It took a while to get going and when it did it went boom. We made a three hour task and struggled for a while until it got going nicely. Then we had a big rain storm heading our way at Towanda. We ended up falling out of the band and struggled over Armenia Mountain. A short nice leg later and we were heading back home. There was a nice shelf that developed somewhat downwind of course and this seemed (to me at least) a good way to get home. That was until a lightning bolt came right out of the cloud, perhaps three miles away right off my nose. That got our attention; it scared the daylights out of me.

We kept limping along, keeping a close eye on the cloud above and the rain off to the side. The lift was not particularly strong here; just enough to sustain while going straight. There was no easily defined alternative and we only needed to hang on for a little while longer before we had a safe final glide and could call it quits. When we did, we were very happy to slide on home and call it a day.

From a team flying perspective, it was a very challenging day. I had a hard time keeping up on the glides and the climbs. The lift band was “diverging”. This means that the lift gets stronger with altitude. When this happens and you’re the lower guy, it is no fun. I think the Discus CS (with Noah flying in it) slightly outperforms the LS4 and this made it hard to keep up. I had to pedal really hard all day. At the end of the day, I was zonked out. I was pretty much a zombie for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Then Noah and Phil were bantering about the possibility of flying the Super Cub. Phil looked over at me and asked if I wanted to fly. That lifted me out of my stupor and got me excited again. We had a very nice sunset flight, enjoying the beauty of this gorgeous valley. Elmira is a really wonderful place to go in the summer.

Noah’s flight log can be found here.

My flight log can be found here.

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Thanks Aero Club Albatross and Harris Hill Soaring Corporation for supporting our team training toward the Junior Worlds.

06-25-19 | Flying a Duo

The conditions looked a bit more promising for soaring day, but doubtful for cross country. Figuring that we might go up for a couple hours and mill around locally, we decided to fly in the Harris Hill Duo Discus rather than assembling our two ships separately. This was a good opportunity to learn more about how we fly and think with less of the stresses that come with flying on our own.

It was a lot of fun! And the conditions developed better than we expected. A beautiful cloud street marched west of the airport, into the wind. We climbed up to a little over 5000ft and slid our way upwind. The Duo penetrated so beautifully and we had no trouble staying connected. We hardly got out of gliding distance of the airport heading 48 miles into the wind!

We traded flying a couple times and discussed the basics. How to run the lines and the nuances of our thermalling technique. Noah routinely out-thermals me by a tiny bit and we talked quite a bit about recentering strategies and how much slip we like to use in the lift. On the runs, I said whether it felt better a bit farther left or right. I’m not sure how helpful I was because he would ask, “Why?”. My response tended to be, “felt better…”, which was not terribly instructive. Interestingly, we pretty much always agreed on the clouds we wanted to go to.

When it came to reading the sky, he was picking up on different things and focused very much on the details and composition of the clouds. I tended to scan and pick the better looking clouds and just rely on the feel of the air when we got closer (deploying my thermal beacon as I like to say.) But in any case, we always converged on the same clouds/lines to go to, just in slightly different ways.

Since the day was quite relaxed and we didn’t have a task, we flew pretty much in a risk-minimization mindset. This is also compounded by the fact that in Harris Hill it rarely pays to get into a racing mode. But I suspect that’s where our biggest differences really are; in our optimization algorithms for competition flying. And we seem to integrate our respective algorithms very well when we fly together.

After getting near Wellsville, we headed a bit farther north, toward the Chemung Valley. We got to fly over Noah’s house and then headed back. I wasn’t flying much at this point because my legs were hurting a decent bit trying to move the rudder on the Duo. Maybe my thighs were a bit sore from assembling the LS4 the day before and the pressure just went to the wrong spot. The Duo rudder was surprisingly heavy! But in any case, we had our 2.5 hours of fun and made a nice final glide back home.

Otherwise, it was a blast hanging around the Harris Hill summer ops and juniors. It’s the young folks who run the operations around here, doing the instructions, tows and rides. They know how to have a good time and it’s great being here!

See our flight log here.

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Thanks Aero Club Albatross and Harris Hill Soaring Corporation for supporting us in our team training toward the Junior Worlds.

06-24-19 | Rest Day

We woke up to overcast today, with little prospect for soaring. Today I got to get more acquainted with Jacob Barnes, Noah’s crew. He mentioned that he was a little intimidated with assembling the LS4 and here we saw a great opportunity. With the free day, we took the trailer to the towplane hangar. I had Jacob do the whole assembly and disassembly, with me guiding him along the way. He learned how all the control hook-ups work, how to assemble the tail and all the little nuances and quirks of the LS4. We took the wheel off and cleaned up the brakes. We discussed all the little ways retrieves and assemblies can go wrong. Four hours went by a heck of a lot quicker than either of us expected and we were both pretty tired after it. But Jacob is pretty much completely up to speed on the LS4 and is a lot more confident crewing at Hungary. He’s a sharp fellow, learning fast and I’m thrilled that he’s part of our team.

Subsequently, the Harris Hill juniors, Noah, Jacob, and I engaged in further team-building activities. All worked out well except when I managed to cut my hand with my Swiss Army knife. After gushing out blood for a little while, I went on over to the flight center to the first aid kit to get my wound dressed. Immediately afterwards and evidently when I relaxed a little bit, I felt light-headed, sat down and completely blacked out for a couple seconds. During the process I was more-or-less conscious and was really intrigued by the experience of shock. I was surprised that a small cut threw me in for a tailspin like that and appreciated how my body and mind dealt with the whole situation as it unfolded. Thanks Joanie for helping take care of me!

In any case, I feel better now and am about ready to sleep off this little episode. Off to flying tomorrow!

06-23-19 | How’s A Little Blue For Ya?

Sorry for a missing daily report yesterday; we had a great day but got in late after a long drive. I was a bit too tired to get my thoughts together.

Noah and I were tired from our two long soaring days. It looked like the third day of the nice stretch of weather was going to give a shorter, but still quite reasonable soaring window. We decided to take this one easy, especially since we were going to make the drive up to Harris Hill in the evening.

It took a while for the day to trigger and when it finally did in the early afternoon, it was blue. We took off a little after 1pm and had no trouble staying up, but couldn’t climb much above 4300ft. At that point, we set a short two hour Turn Area task that took us up and down the valley. This would keep us in close proximity to the airport and felt like a reasonable task for the day.

Closer to 2pm, the conditions started improving and we headed out on task. Team flying in the blue works very very well. We spread out and sampled the air. When one pilot was in consistently better air, the other would adjust for his line. We were able to find thermals more frequently and center them more efficiently. We practiced leaving efficiently, with the leading pilot “overextending” on the exit, thereby letting the trailing pilot catch up. This took away the need for the trailing pilot having to accelerate substantially to catch up to the leading pilot and losing a bit of altitude.

The conditions were a little suppressed by Tyrone and Noah was a little bit concerned. He had thoughts to turn back to Ridge Soaring at that point. I said that if this was a contest day, we would have no hesitation to keep going; it was the middle of the day, there was a ridge ahead with infrastructure below. I said, “There’s gotta be a thermal ahead.”

“Yeah, but things can go south quick here,” Noah replied.

“I think it’s going to work fine.”

We edged down to around 3500ft or so and I reminded myself we were just a hair lower than 3000ft AGL, still plenty high. And then we finally connected with reasonable lift. Moreover, there were clouds forming ahead and a wonderful line forming off to the side. We worked our way up to 6500ft and the air looked glorious.

Then Noah said, “Sorry that I was being a bit of a chicken today.” We both perked up when we had nice Cu to look forward to!

We worked our way over to the line and finally connected at 5000ft MSL. At this point we were in great shape. To add excitement, a Nimbus 3 joined our thermal up high. Now we have someone to fly with!

He left the thermal and headed to the NE, the same direction we were headed. We made good work of this opportunity, kicking into gear and flying the energy line as best as we could. We were keeping up with the fellow! The thermals along the line were somewhat broken up, but the lift was still more or less working. We’d hook into a thermal every once in a while, keeping a close eye on the Flying Whale. When the line was about to run out, we found a nice one and the unfortunate fellow had to return back to our thermal, 500 ft below.

Gotta admit, it felt good being in an LS4, above a Nimbus 3!

The thermal gave us enough height to make the turnpoint and most of the way home. This worked out well because the air was not great toward Ridge Soaring. We found one more thermal and we figured this was good enough to call it a day, hit the turnpoint and head back.

After we landed, we had the ships apart and all our stuff ready to go in a little over an hour. At 5pm, we hit the road for Harris Hill. Along the way we picked up dinner and we arrived at the gliderport at 8pm.

When we arrived, Noah looked at the setting sun and the perfectly still windsock.

Want to go fly the Super Cub?

“Heck yeah!” I replied.

Within 10 minutes, we were on the runway ready to go. Noah is a heck of a pilot. Sitting in the back, I was amazed watching how comfortable he was with this airplane. “I hadn’t flown it in several months!” Well it didn’t show one bit. Every one of his movements was effortless and efficient. And several moments later, we were off the ground and in the beautiful, still air.

Harris Hill in the summer time is absolutely gorgeous. The whole Chemung valley lights up in a brilliant glow. With the door open on the Cub, you really feel like you’re flying. It’s great to be back here.

Find my flight log here.

And Noah’s here.

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Thanks a million to Aero Club Albatross and Harris Hill Soaring Corporation for letting us use their club ships toward training for the Junior Worlds.

06-22-19 | Slogging Upwind

Now that we had the easy ridge running out of our system, Noah and I were looking for some challenges. Today, we flew to the east of Ridge Soaring to get to the better air. Our first leg took us downwind and over to the Blairstown ridges and worked out great. We were down on the ridges from Bear Mountain all the way to Fairview Lake, in tight formation.

After rounding Fairview at 1:45 or so, we started heading upwind toward the Pocono Plateau. If the streets were to work well, we thought we may have a shot at making a nice run up to Harris Hill. But the upwind leg was considerably more difficult than either of us expected. We couldn’t climb above 4500ft MSL and the wind picked up to 23 knots. This made progress painfully slow. The lift was completely torn up. I remembered remarking to Noah that we’re as likely to find an honest thermal around here as an honest lawyer. But we kept struggling along, keeping East Stroudsburg and the ridge in glide behind us.

It took us over an hour to go from the Upper Reservoir over Pocono airport. Ahead of us there was a beautiful looking street. “Looks like we’re home free!” But unfortunately not. In between each cloud was six down sink. Most of the clouds did not work. The ones that did had lift that was highly unorganized. We just kept throwing ourselves into the wind.

Across the Wyoming Valley near Scranton, we dipped down to 3800ft. After slowly climbing and working a couple bubbles into the wind, we realized we only went five miles in around 20 minutes. It was just brutal.

At this point, it became clear that we had to think about heading back home. Home being 110 miles to the west of course. The initial strategy was to try to get around and behind the Alleghany plateau and then drop down to Williamsport. We made it to the upwind edge, but then the clouds started fizzling out. We couldn’t get much above 5,500ft most of the time and the wind was still quite strong. Our only option was to stay on the back edge of the plateau, where there were a bunch of short cloud streets going crosswind. We hopped along, getting down to 4000ft or so and up to 5500ft in weak lift. A couple times we nearly bagged it and dumped downwind to the Scranton ridge. This would have been a nearly assured landout for both of us.

But we kept plodding along, pretty much exhausted. Our radio communications became less coherent. My thermalling was not quite up to my normal standard. But we kept at it, knowing that time was running out.

36 miles to go to Williamsport. The ridge should be working out there. 2000ft low and settling down. A couple more little thermals and it’ll do.

Down to 3800ft and a 2 knot thermal finally made it work. We climbed up and now we had a clean glide to Williamsport. Noah had second thoughts about flying the ridge since the wind was quite northerly and it was progged to weaken farther south. I replied that we hardly had a choice since the day was likely to die before we would get home. And that if we fly the ridge now we might still be able to get a final climb at Lockhaven.

No trouble settling down on the ridge; the trees were dancing and we cruised along at 90 knots. We backed off approaching Lockhaven as we approached the bend in the mountain. At this point we floated up into the high band of the ridge, ~3000ft MSL. Subsequently it was a glorious ride home. Smooth air, tailwind, mostly at 55-60 knots in the “evening magic”. We couldn’t believe it that we were going to make it home today.

We glided on back home and landed to the northeast. Both of us stopped exactly at the mid-field taxiway leading to the hangars and both of our ships are put away for the night. We worked harder today than on most worlds-level tasks. We managed to stay together well and helped each other along, especially in finding and coring these really challenging thermals today. In the past two days, we had flown 14 hours in synchrony. It’s really freakin’ awesome!

Find Noah’s flight log here.

Find my flight log here.

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Thanks a million to Aero Club Albatross and Harris Hill Soaring Corporation for supporting us by giving us their club ships to train in for the Junior Worlds!