01-20-20 | Temptations and Eagles

It’s wonderful when holidays align with ridge conditions. Ron Schwartz, Steve Beer, Claudio Abreu, Khanh Nguyen, and I, ACA’s hardiest ridge rats, came out on a frigid Monday to soar. The high for the day was around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, with a temperature aloft of around 17 degrees or so. We looked like abominable snowmen, with layers upon layers of wool, cotton, and polyester. On my account, I had on three layers of thermal shirts and pants, fleece, heavy fleece and my winter flight suit. Electric socks, with the cord snaking to a battery in my breast pocket so I could control the temperature. A ski mask covered my whole head, plus a wool hat and gloves.

Not a single square inch of my body was exposed. NASA probably has less difficulty fitting their astronauts to launch into space. But it worked; I was reasonably cozy the entire day!

I arrived early in the morning to help Steve assemble ACA, the club’s LS4. It was to be his second flight in the glider and he was eager to take it up on the ridge to get a taste of high performance soaring. I scrutinized the wind sock after taking the trailer out of the hangar; the wind slightly favored launching on 7. Steve and I bantered back and forth on the merits of either runway and Steve noted that the sock went limp. Expecting to depart from 25, we brought the trailer to the very end of the runway.

Halfway into assembling the glider, the wind sock turned around and we now felt a stiff tailwind. Tommy the tow pilot arrived and we agreed that it would be much safer to launch into the wind on the other end. Poor Steve, he’d have to haul the glider across the whole runway!

Khanh was the other unfortunate fellow for the day. We planned to do a short ridge flight in the club 2-33 (affectionately nicknamed the Mad Cow), but the ship was hopelessly frozen. There was no prospect of removing the thick layer of ice on the wings, so we had to postpone our effort for another time. Khanh was a great sport and took the unwelcome news in stride, helping us stage and launch. We really appreciated his help!

I hustled to the hangars again to bring out the Duckhawk. Since becoming airworthy, it’s been an ongoing process of fiddling and tweaking to get the ship tiptop for the upcoming spring. After assembling it and completing a thorough preflight, I helped Claudio put together his ASW24.

Rather than launching off the snow, we took advantage of the quiet airport to launch on the blacktop. We gridded on the taxiway and positioned the rope at the edge of the runway. Tommy and I worked out the sequence of operations; the glider pilots would push the glider over to the pavement, hook up and go. When the towplane would return, he would drop the rope to avoid dragging it on the asphalt. At the subsequent launch, the ground crew would hook up both the glider and towplane and promptly send them on their way.

Schwartz launched first. Tommy made an airshow quality performance when he came back to land. You could see him fighting the crosswind and the turbulence on short final. Dropping the rope was like an accuracy contest. He pulled the release as he approached the threshold.

The rope fell square between the 20ft gap in the middle lights, with the glider end of the rope perfectly positioned, right at the threshold. Damn Tommy, that was cool!

Steve was up next in the club LS4. I gave him a short takeoff briefing and then we hauled him out onto the runway. He bravely fought the crosswind and stayed in position with the towplane, eagerly departing toward the ridge.

I was up next in the Duckhawk. Launching on the pavement was fantastic. The hardtop made for a fast acceleration and the towplane climbed like a banshee thanks to the -2000ft density altitude. Tommy was on his game. The Cessna 182 at his controls was totally steady; it looked like the gusts and turbulence didn’t affect it at all. He made an absolutely perfect turn toward the ridge. I couldn’t have done it better if I simply willed the towplane around as it flew. He was just great!

Upon release, I was greeted with a call from Steve. I *love* this glider! It’s amazing! I hope that 508 isn’t listening! I replied not to worry, that 508 (one of the club’s 1-26s) didn’t have its battery on! It certainly is a magical experience taking up a high-performance ship on a ridge for the first time.

The lift band was totally solid. The cold, dense air worked especially well; the hang-glider pilots call it “fat” air. I charged down the ridge, heading southwest-bound at the speed of heat.

The run down to Hawk Mountain went quickly and I contemplated going farther. However, the thermals weren’t working well and the wind sharply slackened off from 20 knots down to 15. It looked like Hawk was as far as I’d get today. Back to doing laps, I suppose and I turned around, 100km from my starting point.

I spotted a bald eagle and swung the glider around to fly with him. This guy was moving along at a pretty decent clip, at least 40 mph! It was difficult to stay with him, even with the spoilers fully extended and the flaps down to 20 degrees. To remain in position, I resorted to S-turning, setting myself up for a “bomber run” and then passing near him.

This guy wasn’t as thrilled about my presence as the eagle I flew with a month ago. Steve later noted, he was probably confused whether I was a duck or a hawk!

Nonetheless, he indulged and played with me for a little while.

It was really fun watching the changing landscape. When you do laps, the light directs your attention on various features. With different shadows, you will see distinct rock outcroppings, fields, houses that you haven’t noticed before. The valley was beautiful, with a hard white crust on top of the snow covered fields that glistened at low sun angles. Unlike other winter days, the snow was so thin that it looked more like frosting on top of a cake. The snow didn’t completely overwhelm the region, which often makes the land look sad and monochrome.

The visibility was unbelievable, genuinely unlimited. At a couple hundred feet above ridge top, you could just make out the tops of the New York City skyscrapers poking above the hills. It was easy to spot the airliners from the Flarm. They looked like big insects that you could just reach out and pick up as they passed over the canopy.

Bobby Templin likes to say that the second lap is the least appealing. This is when you notice you’re getting a little tired, cold and some parts of your body start to hurt. The first lap is always exciting since you’re trying to make miles. The last lap is fantastic because the valley gets lit up in a gorgeous glow. The second lap can feel like a drag.

I call it the second lap blues. Coming back from Hawk Mountain, my legs couldn’t find a comfortable position and I was getting hungry. Glancing at my watch, I saw it was 2:40pm. It struck me that Runway Cafe closes at 3:30pm and that I could get a great cup of coffee and a prime rib sandwich if I hustle back home.

The prospect of rich, dark, black coffee overwhelmed my senses and I pushed the nose over.

The trees were flashing off my right wing. The ship settled in at 110 knots, 100 ft above the ridge. The air was choppy, but established a steady rhythm. There was a cadence to the gusts, like the reassurance of riding waves up and down on a sea. The lift band just felt *so solid*, as though it was reaching out and gripping the glider.

Approaching the Delaware Water Gap, the sun was coming around to the west and lit up the mountain in a gorgeous glow. And there was Schwartz, driving along in his 1-26! That old dog lined up for the foreboding upwind jump only several hundred feet above ridge top. He knows the ridge like an old school London cabby driver knows his city’s streets. He feels the air as a bird, gently swaying to and fro and following the air’s natural ripples, eddies and snaking currents. It was beautiful watching him float across, hardly losing any altitude at all.

Now on the local ridge, I got a second wind and regained the motivation to do another lap. And as far as my hunger, I ate a rock solid Cliff Bar. It was so frozen that it felt like I could break a tooth on it! Hot coffee was merely six minutes away, but the temptation was averted. Time to head southwest-bound once more.

We sometimes call this the “victory lap”. At the end of a long flight, it’s amazing to watch the ridge light up in the oranges and reds of the setting sun. The trees let go of their latent heat and the lift band becomes smooth. There is a cinematic quality as you soar effortlessly in the beautiful glow.

On the way back, I stumbled across another eagle. This one was not like the others; he was a bit bigger and golden colored. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and swung the ship around to meet him.

To stay with him, I slowed down and started S-turning. As I would come close to him, he would turn toward me and slide in behind me. We were “scissoring”, a well-known air combat maneuver. We did this for a half dozen cycles for almost ten minutes, at times less than a wingspan away!

Later, he turned into a nice thermal. I joined him and got to my highest point of the day, less than an hour before sunset!

There’s nothing like flying with these amazing birds. When you soar with them, you forget about the glider, about the here and now. As they look square into your eyes, they communicate something that words cannot convey.

You’re flying.

Thanks a million Tommy and Khanh for towing and running the operations! You guys are the best!

See the flight log here.

New Ridge Resources

Over the winter, I have developed several new resources for ridge pilots. I have updated The Ridge Map, developed a slideshow of landmarks and fields along the Blairstown ridge (from Millbrook to Hawk Mountain), and made a CUP file landout database from Vermont down to Virginia.

I have updated a tab on the site as “Other Ridge Resources” where you could learn more about this project.

12-20-19 | Winter Wonderland | Soaring with Eagles

After six months of body-filling, sanding, sanding, sanding, gear door fixing, parts ordering, FAA registering, lubricating, cleaning, and inspecting, the Duckhawk was ready to fly. Bill Thar donated his magnificent flying machine to me. I was awestruck, even dumbfounded when he offered me the ship. I even thought he briefly went crazy and made sure to point out that he could take a week or two to rethink the whole affair. Nope, he had thought it all through; I would take care of the bird and use it to promote research in soaring and junior flying. The aircraft is the perfect vehicle to explore weather, dynamic soaring, optimizing the use of autoflaps and more. I wholeheartedly agreed to take the project on.

After many months of work, I was eager to fly the bird. So after my classes and research work at Temple went into winter break, I took the very first chance to go soaring. The forecast called for a light northwesterly breeze, just enough for the ridge to work. This was a good opportunity to do a little bit of soaring and a systems check. Thanks to Bill’s continued sponsorship, I had flown the Duckhawk maybe 250 hours or so; I wasn’t worried about flying the ship. But that said, I find that soaring for a couple hours on a low-key local flight is the best way for me to get acquainted with a glider. My landings are a lot better this way than when I go up for 10 minutes and come straight back down.

In any case, it looked like I was going to be the only person to enjoy this day. Tommy came out to tow regardless. What a sport! I actually appreciated that there were few people around as I assembled the glider, looked it over and got it ready. Cookie and Andrzej were very helpful in assembling the ship and launching me; thanks guys!

We took off at 12:30pm and took a quick tow over to the ridge. Testing the ridge revealed that it was fairly weak, so I was much keener to stay in the higher lift band. As I headed toward Millbrook, I fiddled with some of the systems, working the electric flaps and adjusting some of the settings on the ClearNav. As I rounded the bend on the Catfish Ridge, I looked up and saw three bald eagles spiraling in a thermal.

I have never been so eager to forget everything and just throw the glider into a turn.

Having picked out the highest eagle, I stuck with him in the thermal. My eyes were glued on to him and we stayed on opposing sides of the circle. I completely forgot about the glider; I was just flying. When he leveled out and headed northwest, I chased after him and took some great photos. There were several times he was closer to me than the end of my wingtip.

We soared together for about ten minutes. I stayed with him until I approached the limit of gliding back to the ridge behind me.

Afterward, I headed up to Millbrook. Upon turning around and heading southwest-bound toward the sun, I was awestruck by the sight of the whole forest glistening in the sunlight. There was an ice storm several days ago and the whole land was coated with a layer of clear ice; the whole landscape sparkled like a million diamonds. Through all my years of soaring, I had never seen anything like it. It felt like I entered a winter wonderland. Not a single soul was there to enjoy it; no hikers, no bird watchers. It was just me and this wonderful sailplane, gently floating along in the breeze. This was one of the most peaceful flying experiences I ever had.

As I soared up to the Delaware Water Gap, I looked down at the icy black river. Ice floes gently floated down, marking the snaking path of the current. The water was absolutely crystal clear; you could see all the way to the bottom of the river bed in many places.

It was a real joy to fly this wonderful machine. The conditions were weak, with an inversion at around 2500ft MSL and the wind at ridge top perhaps around 12 knots or so. I was not eager to go anywhere in particular, so I was perfectly content to mosey around. I took turns here and there and practiced thermal entries. It was really fascinating just watching the ship fly. There are so many different ways to thermal it; slow and flat, fast and steep and all sorts of nuances in between. Many different ways to center it; bank and yank or mosey around at 50 knots and nibble at the lift in a flat turn. The ship has a lot of character and feel. Most gliders have a certain way they want to be thermalled and you adapt each thermal to its “style”. The Duckhawk can be flown in many different ways and you can feel the difference when you do it right. I felt like it will take 500-1000 hours of consistent flying to really figure out how to get everything out of it in the climb.

I spent most of the time floating around at 60 knots. On one instance, I nosed over to 85 knots. The deck angle changed, but the glide angle didn’t. As I let it go, it felt like the ship was a racehorse, relieved that this incompetent fool finally cut it loose. Boy was this ship happy to fly fast!

It’s a crime to fly the Duckhawk slow, but I wasn’t keen on working hard today. You have to be sharp flying this fast, ready to fling the ship into a turn in an instant. I pulled the glider back from its canter to a trot, patted it on the side and said in due course we will let ‘er rip.

After two hours I was ready to call it a day. Everything was working and the ridge was softening up. After a nice landing, I pulled the ship off the runway. There was not a soul around, so I was now stuck with a beautiful machine with no way to get into its box. A quick call to Gus and he was willing to help disassemble the ship on his ride back from work. In the meantime, I went over to get the trailer to bring it to the glider. It’s much easier to move the car and the trailer than it is to move the glider across the whole runway! Along the way, I marveled at the beautiful ice coating all the gliders and the airport.

Thanks a million to Cookie, Andrzej, Gus, and Tommy for helping me fly today. Thanks to Bill Thar for giving me the opportunity to fly this magnificent sailplane; in the past, present and future. I hope to not disappoint.

See the flight log here.

12-07-19 | Catapulting the Cow

Normally winter is a quieter time for glider operations. Not so for Aero Club Albatross! We just wear the appropriate cold weather gear when it gets chilly. As Philip DuPlessis, our resident expert sailor says, there is no bad weather, just poor choice in clothing. And this year, we came up with a very enjoyable way to spend an early December day; learning to launch using a winch!

Beltzville Soaring Club has a winch, but few opportunities to use it. So when I contacted David Bradley to express that several ACAers were interested in learning how to ground launch, he was very eager to help! Dave suggested that we fly from Grimes Airport, a wonderful little grass strip at the base of the ridge about 70 miles from Blairstown. The airport management at Grimes is very familiar with glider flying and has hosted quite a few events and fly-ins. They don’t operate much this time of year and were eager to host us. Gerry Wild was our local airport contact and all-around great glider guy. He volunteered to help instruct, run the operations and drive the winch!

Aero Club Albatross, in turn, voted in David Bradley and Gerry Wild as honorary members and the club volunteered to handle a considerable portion of the logistics. We brought our venerable 2-33, nicknamed the Mad Cow to the event. To our knowledge, no one has ever ground-launched the Cow before. We were really excited!

The event was a massive undertaking, involving a large and motivated crew. On Friday, Pete Ayers and Tommy came out to prepare the towplane and the Cow for its long aerotow to Grimes. They cleaned off all the snow and ice on the 2-33 so it didn’t have to thaw in the morning before its journey. On Saturday morning, Philip and Luke DuPlessis volunteered to do the long cross-country tow. To deal with the frigid temperatures and drafty cockpit, they were instructed to wear clothing fit for an arctic expedition! Tommy and Sebastian towed in the club’s Cessna 182 towplane. Jonathan and Gus picked up the canopy covers and tiedown kit and followed the Cow to Grimes in their Aeronca Champ.

Steve Beer picked up Bobby and membership documents for Dave and Gerry. Rob Dunning brought lawn chairs, coffee, bagels, and donuts. Bob Graf brought two cases of water and more chairs. Cookie and Joe (Dave’s son) also came to help out and crew.

My job was to haul the winch from Dave’s shop to Grimes.

The winch was a freakin’ monster! It weighed 6-7000 pounds, with 600lbs on the tongue. Only a large vehicle like a pickup truck could move it safely (and legally). It was an ordeal getting it on the hitch and we had to position the truck perfectly. Then we found we couldn’t get it on the hitch because the tail end of the trailer would hit the ground. Through a combination of gingerly pulling it with a chain, a 12-foot pole as a lever to lift it, concrete blocks and huffing and puffing, we finagled the trailer onto the hitch. We were finally ready to hit the road!

Joe joined me for the drive as the navigator. The winch was a real monster to drive; unlike glider trailers, you *feel* this thing behind you. So did my gas mileage; I was getting 8.5 MPG thanks to the weight and the flat plate dragging through the breeze. But we arrived safely at 9:20 am, right as Phillip and Luke lined up on short final. Everything was coming together!

Gerry and Dave started the morning ground school and briefing at 10am. Gerry introduced the museum and noted that it’s a volunteer, non-profit organization. Gerry’s wife, Kristin also introduced herself as a contributor and made us feel very welcome. She was so kind as to cook hotdogs for us and provide a variety of snacks! They offered membership forms and five of us joined to support the organization.

Dave discussed the mechanics and safety of winch launching, emphasizing the decision-making at different points of the launch. When launching, first establish a 10-degree climb until reaching a safe altitude around 100-150ft or so. Then rotate into a 30-degree climb, while maintaining adequate airspeed. Flying too fast is bad; you don’t get as high and you can over stress the glider. If you have a rope break, you have to shove the nose forward and visually verify that you’ve got airspeed. Dave’s mantra was, think with the stick forward and emphasized that experienced pilots training to winch tend to think faster than their airplane can fly. After releasing, consider your options. If you are within a 5-1 glide, land straight ahead. If you’re above 250ft or so, consider tear-dropping back. Use judgment, maintain airspeed and be coordinated in the turns.

We really liked Dave’s approach to safety. He clearly conveyed, here is how winching can kill you. The winch driver can accelerate the glider too quickly and flip it over. Once you’re in the air, the glider can over-rotate, break the rope and hit the ground before getting flying speed. During the tow, you can have a rope-break, fail to achieve flying speed, and subsequently stall/spin. And for the folks on the ground, the rope is moving at 50-60 mph and can unpredictably go in different directions. Stay clear, behind the glider or on the safe side of the winch while the operation is in motion.

Then there was the fateful moment when Dave asked,

“So who’s going first?”

Everyone looked at each other, offering the opportunity to someone else. Finally, I volunteered to be the guinea pig.

Next, we hustled over to the winch. After some fiddling and adjustments, it roared into action. While Gerry and the onlookers were figuring it out, I walked on over to the Cow, patiently waiting on the side of the runway.

The Cow looked like it was nervously grazing on the beautifully manicured grass runway. She was probably thinking, “What are we doing here, so far from home? I can see it their eyes, these guys are up to no good!

I walked around the glider and it looked in ship shape. A whole entourage of glider pilots rode over in the golf cart, eager to see Dave and me off. They brought the rope and we strapped in.

The experience of winch-launching is on the edge between being excitement and terror. Steve hooked us up and was our wingrunner. Once on the tip, he waggled the wings up and down, up and down, indicating to the driver to take up slack. Once he stopped, the winch driver “hit the goose” and we rocketed up. We were airborne in less than three seconds, screaming along at the speed of heat.

It was quickly apparent that we were going too fast, approaching 80 mph on the dial. Dave kept the angle flat rather than rotating to minimize the load on the wings. After getting to only 250ft, Dave released and said, here you go! I did a quick 180 and landed back where we took off.

After landing, Dave called up Gerry to ease off the throttle and turned us around. He said that I would have the controls on the next launch.

It was amazing how quickly we were airborne! I kept too much forward pressure and Dave eased us back. At 100ft or so I rotated into a climb. We were still too fast and climbed to little more than 250ft.

I made a dumb decision after releasing the rope. Figuring we were a bit more upwind than we were, it felt that we lacked the room to maneuver to turn upwind (we had a slight NWerly crosswind). I did my 180 to the left, downwind and this did not work out well at all. I drifted in the turn much more than I expected and button hooked the final turn. I was not happy with that approach.

The third flight was better. This time we got to 450ft, enough to do an abbreviated pattern for a downwind landing. I was not eager to do a “full” pattern from this height.

The fourth flight was better yet and we got to around 550ft on this launch. I still had to work on rotating more deliberately, but I got the mechanics of the launch figured out. We were high enough to do a full pattern and had an uneventful landing.

Dave asked me if I wanted to do the next one on my own.

Sure deal and better now than later; I want to do it while the training is fresh!

Dave hopped out, buckled up the belts around the cushion and cut me loose. After hooking up, I rocketed up. Man, the Cow climbs so much better solo! Climbing up to 750ft, I saw the airspeed bleeding off and firmly pulled the release twice. I was free!

A left 90 degree turn and I stumbled into a thermal. How convenient! I started circling, happily gaining height every turn. A raptor even joined me!

I looked down and watched the action on the ground. People looking up at me from the winch. The golf cart traversing along the runway. The cars buzzing along I-78. The beautiful and familiar ridge a little over a mile away. What a gorgeous place!

When I saw the golf cart making its journey back to the launching area, I cut my flight short and headed back. I felt like a king entering the pattern at 900ft. Compared to all the unusual attitudes and altitudes, I felt high. I even got to make my base leg at 500ft and turn final around 300ft or so. What a blessing!

After landing, everyone was smiling. Dave asked me if I wanted to throw his CG hook equipped 1-26 (020) together and try to soar in the afternoon. I eagerly agreed!

Dave’s son, Joe and I went on over to assemble the ship. We got halfway, but couldn’t find the fourth main pin to finish the job. We looked everywhere but to no effect! We relayed this to Dave, who arrived 45 minutes later after being relieved of his instructor duties by Gerry.

He found the pin stuck in a deep socket in his toolkit. We were all relieved that the pin wasn’t missing and Dave laughed his butt off and singing, “Victory!”

By now, Gus had taken several instruction flights and completed a solo flight. Jonathan was on his third flight. But then, the Cow decided it had enough winching for the day. On Jonathan’s last landing, the tire went flat. This unfortunately grounded the ship for the rest of the day.

Since the 1-26 was nearly ready to go, I quickly sealed it up and got it out on the line. Best to use the winch while we still had the chance to fly!

Launching the 1-26 was really fun! It got airborne really quickly and settled into a very natural climb. The CG hook definitely makes it climb better! I firmly pulled the release at a comfortable 800ft. 020 is a simple ship, with basic instruments, but man it flies great. 1-26s are just a total blast!

The glider quietly sailed through the sky. There was little lift left this late in the day, so I quickly fell out and entered into the pattern. After landing, a whole bunch of folks eagerly took up the 1-26. Dave went up first and had a grand old time. He entertained the crowd with mild aerobatics and screaming along the runway at 100mph. 020 was surprisingly quiet at such a high speed! Dave was all smiles, waving as he passed us at the winch.

Gerry and Adam then took their turns in the 1-26, getting as high as 1100ft off the tow!

As our friends were flying, we surveyed the Cow situation. We really wanted to get the wheel fixed, both so Steve B. had a wheel to fly on the following day back to Blairstown and so that the ship was airworthy when it returned. The mechanic at the shop found an old 600X6 tire, which fit the Cow’s wheel. A whole crew of us got to work. Bob Templin, Bob Graf, and Bob Cook all played key roles in this project, helping to get the glider jacked up and the wheel off. Walter, a local Grimes member helped coordinate different parts and materials and helped us a whole bunch. The rest of us Beltzville and ACA members lent our brains and brawn while these guys labored away.

The job took us several hours. The wheel hadn’t been taken apart in many years and the Cow resisted getting its appendages operated on. The axle had to be banged out. The backseat, torsion bar, and wheelbrake had to be taken apart to get to the wheel off.

Taking the wheel itself apart was a nightmare. The axle was deformed and the hub wouldn’t separate. Mike the airport volunteer mechanic spent a good hour and a half, sanding off the burrs on the edge of the axle and hammering the unit apart. As the sun went down at 4:30pm, we managed to get the new tube in, the wheel together and reassembled back on the glider.

Steve B, Bob Graf and I tied down the 2-33 in the darkness, all ready to fly the following day while Dave and Joe hooked up the winch to my truck. We all had dinner at the local Midway Diner, only four minutes from the airport.

After trading stories and having a great time, we parted ways. I went back with Dave and Joe to drop off the winch at Beltzville airport. I hit the road back to Brooklyn at 8:30pm, thoroughly satisfied after an awesome day of flying.

___________________

The next day, Steve and Tommy safely aerotowed the Cow back to Blairstown. The ship is now happily back in its tiedown, ready to fly.

The winching day was a real blast! Everyone had a great time and contributed to make this event a blast. We learned a lot about winching thanks to Dave and Gerry’s wonderful instruction. Thanks a million to Aero Club Albatross, Dave Bradley and the Beltzville folks and Grimes airport for making this happen for us. We are all eager to do it again, get more people endorsed and promote winch flying!

A Reply to Clemens Ciepek- The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love

Clemens Ciepek wrote a thought provoking piece that computed the relative risk of dying in soaring in relation to other activities. He pointed out that statistically, glider flying is twice as dangerous as motorcycling. And the risk of dying while soaring in the next 1000 hours is approximately two percent, ouch.

Observing the responses and reactions, many people pushed back at the statistics. Sure, a lot of this reaction can be explained through cognitive dissonance. Yet the statistics speak for themselves; soaring is a high risk activity.

However, we should examine the risk concept a bit further. We have considerable control over the risk we accept. This is not a cop-out, but rather a factual statement. The reason we crash is due to human factors and poor decision-making, not things outside of our control.

However, we must also accept that overcoming our human foibles is difficult. It’s kind of like trying to beat the stock market; sure it might be possible, but everyone else is trying to do the same thing. The same psychological processes that prevent smart people from doing better than the market are the same ones that get us killed.

All that given, it’s still worth examining where the risk is hiding in soaring.

Almost all gliding accidents occur during takeoff or landing. The remainder includes mid-airs, health-related episodes, structural failures, etc. Most of us can exclude the remainder from the risk equation. Therefore, almost all of the risk is in the first and last five minutes of the flight; below 1000ft AGL. Otherwise, unless we hit a bird or an airplane, the risk level above 1000ft is nearly nil.

This suggests that our overall risk level should be low if we are totally professional when we do our takeoffs and landings. We can do this by meticulously performing checklists and strictly maintaining our margins in decision-making, airspeed and coordination.

The opposite is also true. If we rush through the pre-flight, forget to do our pre-takeoff checklist and an issue arises on tow, our risk level would be very high. When we thermal below 1000ft AGL, neglect choosing a suitable landing option for too long and fail to commit to a safe approach, our risk level would be extremely high. At a minimum, should we indulge in entering this high risk territory, we should acknowledge it and minimize the risk through our choices. But it’s best to avoid it.

For competitive pilots, there is the additional risk of a midair with another glider. It’s undoubtedly true that the likelihood of a midair in competitions is considerably greater than in casual flying. That said, incidents and accidents in competitions are overwhelmingly due to poor landout judgment. This is entirely in the domain of pilot decision-making.

Then there’s ridge/mountain flying. Here the risk level is probably an order of magnitude greater than in thermal soaring. This is due to the challenges of taking off and landing in strong winds, maneuvering in close proximity to the terrain in gusty conditions, and the poor landing options in the vicinity of mountains. There are many ways to mitigate these risks, but this requires a tremendous amount of experience and effort. We have to study the weather, terrain and learn the fields and their approaches. We have to train to handle challenging conditions. And even if we do everything right, we still cannot contain all the risk. To use Clemens’ analysis, ridge flying is probably as dangerous as climbing the Tetons. And interestingly, in the past I have used mountain climbing as an analogy for the risk level associated with ridge soaring.

That said, there are mountain climbers out there who successfully scale mountains their whole lives. They often do this by being cognizant of the risks and consistently mitigating them. They do this through good preparation, training and maintaining their margins.

My point is not to detract from the statistics. It is to give us tools to think about so that we can control our risk level. And since there’s a lot we can do, we can greatly minimize the risk of dying doing what we love.

Experience Can Kill You

There are three ways to crash. The first involves factors well outside our control, such as a rope break at 150 ft with nowhere to land straight ahead. We tend to disproportionately worry about these kinds of events and yet they account for a very small proportion of accidents or fatalities. The second involves deficiencies in basic airmanship. This includes situations like confusing the gear handle for the spoiler handle and fruitlessly cycling the handle up and down while screaming down the whole length of the runway. Lack of experience or recency tend to be the significant factors. However, complacency or an unfamiliarity with a new aircraft systems could still bite experienced pilots.

The third kind of accident involves critical errors in judgment or decision-making. This is where many of us get into serious trouble. Accidents related to “when to stop soaring and start landing” fall into this category. Also relevant is when to abandon a task or determine that the conditions are too challenging.

Matt Wright’s and Dale Kramer’s accidents come to mind. Both cases were similar in that other experienced pilots flew in the same conditions and chose to abandon their respective flights. Both pilots were driven, pursued difficult weather and then drove themselves in situations that were unrecoverable.

Why is it so hard to avoid this trap?

The underlying issue is that glider flying is unforgiving of overstepping safety margins. And yet the margins are not clearly demarcated. The glider flies until it doesn’t and departs into a spin. We can clear a tree line over the last field before the airport, or over the top of a ridge, until we can’t. The outcomes are either we are unscathed or end up plastering ourselves into the ground.

Sure, we sometimes scare ourselves. We may realize that we “cut it too close” on a flight. But tragically, even this experience will not always help us.

Worse yet, as we expand our margins, we can slowly erode our way into the territory where we are at serious risk. Ideally we scare ourselves before we go too far, but not everyone is so lucky.

And more importantly, as our margins become thinner, the more we enter into the gray area where we might lose control of the situation. There are limits to our control; even the best pilot can only keep his airspeed within certain bounds, suppose +- 1 knot. If his aircraft is exactly at the edge of stall, he would have a 50 percent chance of failing. And extending this logic to other situations, just how low can we reliably clear a treeline? Or how low can we thermal near a field? And if we get away with it once, twice, ten times, twenty times, does it mean we can do it 100 times or 1000 times?

The problem is that we only need to fail once for it to be game over.

_______________________

The psychology of these kinds of situations is insightful. I found the paper, Decisions from Experience and the Effect of Rare Events in Risky Choice (Hertwig et al. 2004) to be especially relevant to this discussion.

To summarize their findings, they point out that decisions from “description” or “experience” are processed very differently. A doctor who has many years of providing vaccinations is likely to have never observed a patient have an adverse effect. A patient reads online that 1/9000 people experience complications. Both doctor and patient are processing the risks of adverse effects, but they are doing it in different ways.

Both kinds of judgment have been studied experimentally. An example of a decision made from description is playing a simple lottery:

Suppose you can take $2 for sure.

OR

You can flip a coin. If you land on heads, you will win $5. Land on tails, you win $0.

Which do you choose?

In this case, the description of the lottery provides clear probabilities and the payoffs.

In contrast, decision-making from experience would have you learn the probabilities and payoffs over time. For instance, I could give you three urns that each contains a total of 100 balls; red or white. The urns have 30, 50, and 70 red balls respectively.

You are given time to sample from each urn. You can take out a ball, mentally note its color and then put it back into the urn. You are allowed to repeat this process as many times as you like.

Finally, you are told to select an urn and pull out a single ball. If it’s red, you will win $5. If it’s white, you will win nothing.

If you spent a sufficient time sampling from the urns earlier, you will readily pick the third urn.

_______________________

Where decision-making from experience fails.

Now consider an urn that has 99 red balls and 1 white ball, but the white ball is radioactive. You might sample from that urn 20, 30, or even 50 times and never find that white ball. And maybe those red balls give you a pretty big payout each time. It would be awfully tempting to keep pulling the red balls from that urn.

That is until you stumble into the white ball and you die.

The fickle nature of safety risk in gliding is such that failure is rare, yet catastrophic. Much like sampling from an urn with a radioactive white ball.

And studies show that in such examples, people systematically under-weigh the risks of failure (Hertwig et al. 2004). When people rarely experience bad things, it’s especially easy for them to think it can’t happen to them.

But what about those times we got scared after a “close call”? Or when our friends crash? Usually this gives us pause and gets us thinking about our margins and choices.

The trouble is that when people base their decisions on experience, they over-represent recent events in their memory.

Rare events have less impact than they deserve not only because decision makers have not encountered them, or have encountered them less frequently than expected, but also because they have not encountered them recently” (Hertwig et al. 2004).

Unless you were recently scared, or someone recently had something bad happen to them, your experience is not necessarily going to help you avoid making a bad decision.

This is especially evident in glider clubs. Someone crashes, maybe even gets hurt and there’s that cathartic moment when everyone becomes safety conscious. Some time passes and everything return to “business as usual”. Then two years later, there’s another accident, and the process repeats itself.

We can’t help ourselves.

_______________________

What can we do about it?

One of my club members has a mantra, what can possibly go wrong? It’s usually easy to figure out well in advance that we might get ourselves into serious trouble. Suppose we’re watching our final glide bleed away and become marginal. Well if this continues, we may come up short, or we might just squeak it in. What are our options? What is our plan? How low are we comfortable pressing on?

There’s even more risk soaring in mountains or on ridges. On the Blairstown ridge, there have been countless incidents and accidents. Often time when I pass an accident site, I think about the poor fellow and what happened to him. This keeps reminding me of what could possibly go wrong.

When flying near places where I had scared myself, I visualize what happened. Passing through Snyders, I shudder when I remember how I fell off the ridge to the field below. Or how I crossed over Rt.81 uncomfortably low making the transition over to Bear Mountain. These incidents are seared into my memory and I routinely remind myself about them before entering comparable situations (maybe I should take that thermal an extra 500ft, thank you very much!).

This certainly makes the case that experience is helpful. But the point is that we have to actively summon past experiences for them to be useful.

Short safety talks in competitions or in clubs can also be helpful. Done well, they can remind people of what can go wrong and get them thinking about it in their routine flying.

Training

Training for judgment can be difficult. We try to provide simple tools for success. For example, when we start cross country soaring we are usually given rote heuristics for when to land in a field (3k- choose area, 2k- narrow down, 1k- commit to land). There’s a lot to be said that having strict decision rules is good for keeping us within acceptable margins.

However, this does not work in situations that vary considerably. For instance, ridge soaring does not lend itself well to making decisions by rote. Attempting a transition at a certain altitude can work well with one wind direction, but not if the wind shifts 30 degrees. Experience lets you predict the conditions and make the necessary adjustments. This is what makes it fun, but with room for judgment there is even more room for error.

And if things start going to hell in a hand basket, where and when to leave for a field can be tricky. There are places where you have to be high enough to clear the ridge to make it to fields downwind. Other times, there are fields on the upwind side, but you might have to glide out a considerable distance. Where and when you can make these fields will change depending on the wind speed, direction, expected sink and more. There’s a lot of judgment that goes into maintaining these margins.

It is impossible to prepare for or train for all of these situations beforehand. The only way to deal with these circumstances is to build experience incrementally. Even better is to be guided by experienced coaches or mentors who can alert you as to what can go wrong.

Another way to explore the limits is to fly in the simulator. Condor lets you fail without the consequences. You can see what happens when you fly too slowly near a ridge, turn downwind into the mountain, wait too late to commit to landing and all sort of other common and fatal accidents. This is useful toward learning the boundaries and the limits of what you can get away with.

_______________________

Decision-making research shows that glider pilots will nearly certainly under-weigh the likelihood of crashing. And unless we continually remind ourselves of what can possibly go wrong, we are susceptible to making really bad decisions. Experience is worth nothing unless we use it. We must learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. We must train incrementally and stringently maintain our margins.

And above all, remember that we are our own worst enemies.

10-13-19 | Pigs on the Wing | A Golden Sled Ride

We came, we saw and we all fell out.

The towplane arrived at 11am and the wave campers were eager to fly. I took the first tow and boy was it fun to fly a 1-26 again! It just flies so wonderfully, feels so right. The moment we broke ground, the controls responded perfectly and I settled in for the long tow. The vario hummed along a happy tone and the valley gently fell below.

By now the clouds started to thin, but still covered about 6/8 of the area. It looked like there was an opening near Mt.Washington, but we felt better about towing above the overcast than below. We did a big arcing circle above Gorham to 4,500ft and then headed along the lee side of the Presidential Range.

We quickly climbed up to 6000ft and yet we still had a long ways to go. The wave did not look spectacular ahead; the wind was just not all that strong today. It did look like there may have been a bit of a foehn gap, but I was not at all inclined to get there low. Besides, I am the one who insists that when towing to wave, that you should release in wave. But we kept climbing up and up and figuring that the L-19 is no Egret, I finally released at 7,500ft, above the clouds and well short of the auto-road.

The view was absolutely breathtaking with Mt.Washington commanding the land. Even though I was slightly above the peak, my eyes felt like they leveled with this imposing hunk of granite. The mountains were skirted by a gentle thin sheet of white clouds. The air was mostly smooth, albeit with bits of lift and sink along the way. I pushed the nose down to 60 mph and hunted around for wave.

Once I made it over to the clear air, there was no joy finding any lift. Looking over toward Wildcat mountain, the clouds looked like they were working. They were stationary and the tops were curling over. This profile was suggestive of rotor, along with little wisps that continually puffed a little ahead of the cloud. This looks promising.

But man, the clouds were far away. This would put me on the edge of a reasonable glide to Gorham. But it does look promising. Looking below my right wing, I saw the field at the base of the auto-road. Having walked it before and flying a glider that can land in half of a postage stamp, I was confident in my alternative option. It looked good enough ahead to give it a go.

Slowly bleeding away altitude, I got to the nice looking clouds at Wildcat.

Absolutely… nothing. Nada. Zip. A sweeping turn and not a shred of lift.

I turned around. Now I was below the peaks of the mountains and the Gorham valley was well off my nose.

A shred of doubt entered my mind whether the ship could make the glide back to the airport from here. It looked okay, but I wasn’t going to just drive back on a hope and a prayer. But at the same time I wasn’t eager about landing at the base of the mountain and having to undo the wonderful taping job that Steve slaved away on the previous day.

I kept a close eye on Pine Mountain and the valley ahead, watching how my glide angle was changing. And I whipped out my trusty Garmin to get a solid read on the distance ahead to check my work.

Seven miles to go and I was at 3200ft above the airport. A quartering tailwind. I could go a ways and still remain in solid glide of the field at the base of the auto-road; might as well see how the air will be ahead.

No major sink and the glide angle kept improving. Pine Mountain slowly fell in relation to the canopy and now had a solid glide back home. Along the way I zagged over to the Carters, to see if maybe the wind was strong enough to ridge soar and stay up for longer. Nope, just gentle sink over the mountains.

At this point, I knew that my flight was probably going to end soon. With the airport totally made, I relaxed, opened my eyes and took in the scenery around me. This masterpiece of creation that was below me, above me, and all around me, for all but a few moments, made me feel fully part of this tenuous fabric of space and time. I was one with the air and the land.

The glider silently sailed, down and down. Crossing several hundred feet over the trees below, I was now right by the airport, searching around for maybe a little thermal or rotor. Sure enough there was a little movement of air, good for several turns but no more. 508 gleefully indulged in this play, but alas our time was cut short. I entered downwind and committed to land.

It is so freakin’ fun to land a 1-26! I kept my pattern tight, high, and fast, a good practice for this kind of site. On final, I fully opened the brakes and put the ship into a slip, keeping myself well high of the parked glider at the beginning of the runway, but able to dump the aircraft out of the sky.

Full spoiler, full slip, kick it out in ground effect, hold it off, hold it off, kiss the ground with the main wheel and the tail, right rudder to taxi off to the side, the thud of the skid coming down and gently rocking the ship over small bumps, the slight biting odor of burnt rubber, opening the canopy, and finally the smile that comes from the satisfaction of having flown the most fun glider that exists.

It was a little after noon. I handed the ship over to Steve, who diligently went ahead prepping the glider for his own shakedown flight. I in turn started to pack up my things to go home. My trip was quite short and mostly to help the club get the 1-26 up and set up for the several members who will be working on their badges over the week. After packing up all my cold weather gear, I hit the road at 1:30pm for the long ride back to Philadelphia to be back in time for a Statistics exam the following morning.

Along the way, I saw the mountains, forests, valleys and towns gently fade into a flat, sprawling mass of humanity. Crossing over the George Washington Bridge, seeing the glass, steel, concrete, and brick skyscrapers glittering in the distance, cars honking in bumper-to-bumper traffic leaving the Giants game from MetLife Stadium, it was hard to square away what was actually real. The world from which I came from or the world that I was going to.

10-12-19 | Mt. Washington Wave Camp | Putting Lipstick on a Pig

It’s that time of the year again! What time??? Wave Camp!

For ten days in mid-October, Gorham Airport becomes one of the most spectacular soaring sites in the world. Gorham is a little town right at the base of the Presidential Range. This set of majestic mountains is located in New Hampshire, not all that far from the border of Canada.

The Presidential Range is a serious set of mountains. Sure, the west coast guys may snicker. But these are not like our normal eastern foothills; the highest one, Mt. Washington towers up to 6,500ft. That still might not sound all that high, but consider that the valleys are down at 850ft above sea level. Given that the mountain sticks what looks like straight up out of the winding valleys, it makes for an impressive sight.

Where there are impressive mountains, there are even more impressive waves. And being that Mt. Washington is the second largest mountain in the east, the waves are often as advertised. I’ve been up to 24,500ft in a 1-26 here, good for a Diamond Climb. Of my seven flights at this site, every single one had wave lift. Last year, a fellow climbed up to 33,000ft for a state altitude record. The soaring conditions here are simply spectacular.

Aside from the high peak, Mt. Washington also has the unique characteristic of being shaped like a venturi. This has the effect of radically funneling in the normally brisk winds at the peak. Scientists have recorded winds of over 200 mph at the weather station on top of the mountain and it’s not hyperbole when the local meteorologists claim that this location occasions the “worst weather on Earth”.

Naturally, all that wind has to go somewhere on the lee of the mountain. And on the east side, the mountain is shaped like a bowl. As a result, the wind spills over and gets focused into a narrower area, creating a monster wave. It works very well with wind directions ranging from southwest to north, thanks to the bowl aligning perpendicularly to many different wind angles. And the wave often times is considerably stronger than one would otherwise expect given a weak wind.

This is perhaps the most important feature of this wave site for it allows the wave to work almost all the time. The air not moving vertically out here is the exception to the rule. And this is also a very important consideration for folks looking for Gold/Diamond climbs in a 1-26; we can’t take these ships up to altitudes with very strong winds aloft! If you have to go much faster than 50-60 mph indicated, the sink-rate becomes excessive and you stop climbing. Here, the wave will work with weaker winds, allowing for much higher climbs for lower performing gliders.

All of these characteristics make Mt. Washington a mecca for wave soaring. And it only lasts for a short time, so folks from the area make the pilgrimage for this special occasion.

The neighboring clubs (GBSC, Franconia and Post Mills) all contribute to hosting the wave camp and invite others to come and join the fun. When it gets really busy, there can be 40-50 gliders all on the airport! It’s a narrow little grass strip, but it handles the carnival of glass very nicely.

I’ve been up here three times before and would come up every year if I could. Columbus Day is no longer considered a holiday in many academic calendars and this has made it a lot harder for me to come; it’s a long drive from New York/Philadelphia for a short weekend.

Aero Club Albatross is participating in this year’s camp, with four pilots flying the club’s 1-26E. Several of the club members are mining for Diamonds and I figured it would be fun to contribute. Steve and I came out to Blairstown on Friday and got 508 on the trailer without much difficulties and headed on our way. It was an eight hour drive through some of the most wonderful country.

I started my day in Philadelphia, ended up driving up to Blue Mountain, through the Delaware Water Gap. Then with the trailer up along the ridge, to the Catskills and across the Hudson not too far from Albany. And then across to Massachusetts via the Berkshires. And then a nice long ride up I-91 into Vermont and then a cut across to New Hampshire.

The drive was absolutely spectacular. The trees, mountains, rivers and towns are in the most glorious period of autumn. The foliage is at peak with all sorts of bright yellows, oranges and reds interspersed with the coniferous dark greens, go as far as your eyes can see. The carpet of color rolls along the land, up over the hills and down into the deep valleys. It feels like a living impressionist painting. The lighting changed as the clouds thickened or thinned. I’ve never appreciated how beautiful the trees are when the lighting is muted; it actually seemed to bring out some of the contrasts even more. For hours and hours, I was totally immersed in the beauty around me.

Since the weather was not promising for flying on Saturday, Steve and I did not bother putting 508 together in the darkness and instead went out to dinner. Not so many folks arrived yet, but the core group of diehard glider pilots was there. Among the most seasoned regulars is Rick Roelke. He’s a large fellow and his persona is certainly larger than life. Catching up with him and hearing all his stories about hang-gliders, racing virtual sailboats, going to art school, and flying magnificent waves made for a wonderful evening.

As advertised, on Saturday we were stuck on the ground due to the low overcast and the lack of a towplane. You can’t blame the towpilots as it is not easy business scud-running through the valleys, snaking your way between the mountains. Steve and I contented ourselves by cleaning up 508 and enjoying the really beautiful landscape around us.

Steve is confused in his attire with an amalgamation of summer, autumn and winter gear.

We put in a lot of work into 508. Aside from assembling it and tying it down, we redid all the external seals, cleaned the canopy, lubricated most of the control surfaces, cleaned and waxed the whole ship, and more. The ship looks nicer, but man it was brutal to try to clean it up. To use a club member’s expression, the ship looked like a “science experiment” with all the different colors of mold growing on it. Hard scrubbing succeeded in getting it cleaned up, but it hardly looks that much better. I don’t think I’ve taken off as much dirt and grime off of a glider and yet have so little effect in the end.

At one point Steve asked me if I wanted to try a more powerful product than Meguire’s cleaner wax.

I responded, “paint stripper?”

508 is a tired ship, that’s for sure. And it does look nicer from 20 yards now, so we can feel a little better about flying it.

One of the more interesting mods we did for cold weather flying was sealing in the tow-hook. Normally the tow-hook has a big gaping hole in it, which in turn directs a lot of cold air on your feet. That is inconvenient or unpleasant on a late spring day, but it is brutal up at 20,000ft. To solve this, we took off the nose cone and put in a neoprene seal over the tow-hook flange. Secondly, we put in a little bit of foam in the slit in the neoprene, to fully seal it without interfering with the mechanism. And finally we used a slit rug to put an additional layer between the pilot’s feet and the pedals. This coupled with Steve’s first-class tape sealing job should make the glider considerably more habitable at high altitudes.

One of the nuisances reported in the ship was a consistent squeak in the rudder. Having lubricated the controls, the squeak still persisted. Interestingly the noise seemed to be coming in the aft part of the fuselage. When I opened up the inspection port and reached in, I found a wasp’s nest lodged on the rudder cable! My hand shot out of the glider lickety-split, but luckily there were no angry wasps chasing me! The big glob of mud must have weighed a pound or so and it dragged the cable down enough that it was binding along the metal inside the fuselage. Wasp nest removed, the squeaking went away.

508 is now ready to fly and we’re looking forward to giving it a go tomorrow!

View from the motel room.

10-06-19 | Exploring New Ridges

As the year wanes, the summer eases into the mild and pleasant autumn. This is my favorite season, with the landscape transforming into a joyous palette of reds, oranges and yellows. It’s like the whole land celebrates another harvest, another trip around the sun, another successful cycle of life. There is the foreboding of the coming winter, as the days get shorter and shorter and progressively cooler and cooler. But perhaps this is why the land celebrates. Maybe it is to keep you in the here and now, enjoying the wonderful scenery, the beautiful life as you see it without thinking too much of the future. I love autumn.

Aside from a couple short flights in the backseat of the 2-33 and the Grob, I haven’t flown much since I returned from Hungary. Certainly not cross country or any interesting flights worth mentioning. So when the first solid cold front of the season was forecast to roll in, I felt the urge to fly again. Even better was that I was largely ahead on my week’s work. It looked like fate would have me fly on this nice ridge day.

Steve was the spark plug for the day, getting the tows organized and taking the first tow. By the time I drove up from Philadelphia, picked up Bobby, and arrived at the airport (a 2.5 hour commute nowadays), I saw Steve pulling 508 out to the runway. This is probably the first time in my recent memory that someone else was launching earlier than me on a ridge day, good for him!

But in any case, this motivated me to get the LS4 together and I worked diligently and efficiently. It is amazing how easily and quickly the whole process goes when you’re well practiced and eager to go. I had the ship together and prepped to fly within 25 minutes and that included helping get Bobby’s wings on as well! The wind already picked up, it was time to get on the ridge and go.

By the time the ship was on the flight line, Tommy was just arriving back from towing 508. Socks changed, in the cockpit and we were ready to fly. Cookie and Jonathan launched me and we were on our way.

It was a rough tow! I measure how challenging the tow is by how close I am to opening the airbrakes. Normally I am relaxed and don’t think about it. When it’s gusty, I have my hand ready to open the brakes in anticipation of big gusts and the resulting slack line, which was the case on this tow. Huge thanks to Tommy who was pummeled for half a dozen tows. He was a real sport doing all those takeoffs and landings in those conditions!

A quick tow to the ridge and the lift was working solidly. The wind direction was almost right on, perhaps a touch north of perpendicular. I drove onto the ridge and was easily established in the ridge band. A quick run up to Fairview Lake and then I was heading southbound.

Boy it was wonderful to be back on the ridge. After not flying it for a while, it all just comes back to you in a gleeful surge of memory. It’s a moment of joy, similar to when you come home after being away. You forget how familiar everything is.

Local ridge early in the morning. What a beautiful ridge!

The previous week I had hiked the local ridge with my father. We trekked from the Delaware River almost the whole way to Catfish Pond. The round trip took us a little over 9 hours and I was absolutely exhausted at the end of the day. It really put this ridge flying business into perspective when I flew the whole length of the hike in about five minutes! Soaring is absolutely amazing!

The ridge was pretty rough. Every once in a while the gusts would fling my feet off the pedals. I kept up a good clip for now, 90-100 knots, happy to play the conditions for now, but not any faster. The trees danced below.

By the time I got to Hawk mountain, the sky was bordering on overdeveloping. My first thought was that it wouldn’t be possible to make it upwind and to come back a bit later. The cloudbase was around 3500ft MSL and it didn’t look like it was working all that well. I tried to find a thermal and even went off the tip of Hawk to do so without much luck. But when I turned back, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try to get to cloudbase and give it a try anyway. And at that point the thermals cycled in nicely and climbing up to cloudbase wasn’t too difficult. And given, why not attempt an upwind crossing? It was a bit trickier since there was not a clearly solid line and I wasn’t that high. But a thermal in the middle of the jump got me comfortably high enough to get across to Sharp. Very nice!

Nice cloudstreet!
Second and Sharp Mountains on the transition upwind.

With the solid northerly wind, Sharp was working gangbusters. Normally I’d be more inclined to thermal through this section if I was flying recreationally, but today it was just totally solid. Sparing myself the trouble of thermalling along, I just floated along in the ridge lift without breaking a sweat.

With the northerly wind, the line to Bear set up closer to Tremont. Again no troubles climbing up and an easy crossing to Bear Mountain. Bear had a line of lift that smelled a lot like wave. I fiddled around in the rotor a little bit, but the line was not staying stationary enough to be worth the effort, or at least so it seemed. Gus Johnson, the rascal, got up to 10,000ft in his 1-26! Evidently the wave was working well!

Bear Mountain. Maybe a hint of wave?

But in any case, I kept enjoying soaring the ridge and worked my way down the Mahantango. It seemed best to stop at the Susquehanna River with the overdeveloped sky ahead on Buffalo Mountain and the northerly wind. The OD can slacken up the wind and suppress the thermals; best to head back.

Susquehanna River. Buffalo Mountain is ODed, not looking good over there!
Mahantango, heading NE-bound.

It was only around noon and it felt disappointing that this was the most the day could offer. It didn’t excite me to go back to Blue Mountain and do laps and laps; I’ve done that plenty before. So as I was climbing to transition back to Bear, I looked upwind. There are two ridges there, Little Mountain (aka: Northumberland Ridge) and Nescopeck Mountains (Bloomsburg Ridge), both that I hadn’t flown before. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to fly with them; the northerly wind that should make them work very nicely!

It was a bit of a challenge getting from the Mahantango to Little Mountain. The cloudbase hardly lifted any higher, getting only up to 3800ft. With the stiff headwind, it was tough to buck the wind while maintaining glide back to the ridge behind me. Slowly but surely I made it around the tip.

The tip of Little Mountain, looking at the Susquehanna River. You can see the end of Shade Mountain in the distance.

What a beautiful Little Mountain (hehe)! The tip had a very cool perspective on the valley, with the Tuscarora and Shade Mountain off in the distance. Selinsgrove Airport was just the northwest, along with the broad Susquehanna River beside. With the ridge working solidly, I headed northeast bound, floating along at 85 knots or so. I enjoyed the view several hundred feet above ridge top.

Little Mountain NE-bound.

Trevorton was off my right, with the wooded landscape and strip mines from days past. To the northwest was a beautiful valley, with fields full of corn and cut hay. I saw a nice paved runway at Northumberland Airport and a beautiful little grass strip at the northeast end of the ridge. This would be a very nice place to fly gliders!

Time to make another jump to Nescopeck Mountain. This one took me freakin’ forever. Every time I climbed up, I drifted back quite a bit. It was two steps forward, one step backwards for a good half an hour. Finally one cloud higher than the rest took me to 4200ft and this was enough to comfortably make it across.

Heading upwind to Nescopeck Mountain.
Nescopeck Mountain NE-bound.

Nescopeck Mountain worked great! The Berwick Nuke plant beckoned in the distance, belching a huge column of steam. That plant offers a very consistent thermal when you need it; my nickname for it is “Ol’ Faithful”! I’ve hoped to fly this ridge on future triangles. It seems like a very nice way to get home from Lockhaven; climb up to 6000ft, do a glide to Nescopeck Mountain, pick up a downwind bubble from the nuclear plant and then glide across the Poconos to Cherry Valley. This would save quite a bit of time on the way home.

The ridge worked very nicely all the way up to where Rt.80 crosses through a gap. At this point the ridge loses a bit of definition and the fields become sparser. I floated along at 2300ft a little beyond the gap where Rt.81 crosses. Beyond this point the ridge fades away and becomes hardly usable. Time to head back.

Rt.81 Gap.

Since the cloudbase was still low, it wouldn’t work out well to cross back over the Pocono Plateau. As such, I flew the same way back as I got here, along the same ridges. This was a very nice fast run, with easy downwind jumps back to Little Mountain and Mahantango.

Berwick Nuke Plant (Ol’ Faithful!).
Nescopeck Mountain SW-bound.
Crossing back to Little Mountain.
Treverton, tucked away between the ridges.

With the sky cleared up, I flew the length of the Mahantango and took the chance to cross the river. The wind slackened a bit on the other side, but the ridge hung on a bit. It got soft enough that I was eager to take a thermal up when I found one at the tip of Buffalo Mountain. This let me plod back to the Susquehanna River and sneak back across to the better working ridge on the other side.

Second lap on the Mahantango.

Right as I crossed the river, I saw two bald eagles playing with each other. They left a thermal, flying wingtip to wingtip, occasionally getting in each others way! There were many birds migrating along the ridge system, though the five eagles that I saw were the highlights of the day. These majestic raptors actually take interest in your presence and are the most fun to fly with!

After this point, I worked my way back home. The sky ODed over Sharp, so it was a bit trickier to make the downwind jump back to Hawk. But finally a solid thermal took me to 2800ft and then it was easy sailing getting home.

Bear Mountain on the way home.
Pottsville; the Yuengling brewery is below in the large brick building.
Near Fitch’s Quarry during the golden hour!

It was freakin’ cold. My camelbak leaked and the sun was on my back. I was shivering the whole way home. Once back on the local ridge, I finished the leg to the Fairview and was eager to get back on the ground. The ridge was softening up anyway and I was pretty satisfied with the flight. Time to go to Blairstown.

Catfish Pond an hour before sunset.

When I landed, I learned that Bob Janney landed the club Pilatus in a field and a big crew went out to get him. Steve and Taz helped me put away the LS-4 and we hung around until the rest of the ACAers came home. Taz and I ate dinner and got pizzas for the ravenous club members, who arrived from the retrieve 10pm. We had a jolly time in the warm ACA shop, content at the completion of the first nice ridge day of the season.

____________________

Thanks Aero Club Albatross for giving me the opportunity to fly the gorgeous LS-4. Thanks Tommy for the tow!

See the flight log here.

Thermal Soaring and Foraging Behavior

Animal, Cute, Eat, Eating, Forest, Fur, Furry, Mammal
Sourced from here.

Think of your favorite little furry animal. It burns energy all the time in order to stay alive. In order to get more energy, it must travel to places where it can find something to eat. It will spend time at those places, foraging for food and eating. Either when it is satiated, or when the cost of trying to get more food out of a given source becomes too high, it will move on to another food source.

It will have to scurry a certain distance to get to that food source. If this distance is high, then animal is in trouble for it will have little energy left by the time it gets there. If the distance is low, then the creature can be rightfully said to be “fat, dumb, and happy.”

What I just described is broadly an example of “foraging behavior”, something studied by ecologists. These are scientists out there who track animals and watch how they manage the problem of finding food and staying alive.

It probably does not take too much imagination to see how foraging behavior relates back to soaring. A pilot forages for energy by finding thermals, but instead of metabolizing energy biologically, he simply glides it out to the next thermal source. He forages for sites that are worth his time; thermals that are too far away, too weak or the like are not worth the trouble (usually!).

Even some equations in foraging theory have direct similarity to soaring, such as the prescient Marginal Value Theorem (pMVT). This dictates that given perfect information the time to leave a foraging source is when an alternative future source will provide more energy than in the immediate present state. This sounds a lot like MC theory! Leave the current thermal when your climb rate gets below the average expected climb rate for your next thermal. And interestingly enough, this model does a pretty good job of describing the point at which animals leave to a future foraging site.

So looking at foraging behavior, it provides another good analogy as to how glider pilots manage the optimization of climbing and leaving a thermal. Exploit lift until it gets weaker than a future thermal. Explore for an alternative once you cross a given threshold. Simple enough.

However, things get interesting when you start fiddling with the distance between foraging sites. For instance, suppose that there is no possibility of finding any more food beyond this point. It’s winter and your furry animal is at the last food source available. The conclusion is to tank up as much as possible and hope that this will last the creature through the dry spell. This is a similar deal when you have a distance day on a thermal flight and you’re in the last, weak bubble of the day. Take as much as you get and accept that this the best you will do.

But what happens when you’re not really sure whether there will be food at the next foraging sites or not? You go from place to place and you find one empty and another one too. You might even run out of energy and starve!

Suppose you recognize that there is a reasonable possibility that all possible foraging sites may run out while you’re still at a food source. How would this change your behavior?

My guess is that you would take everything you can get out of current foraging sites, accepting greater costs to do so. Your furry animal will eat every scrap off food here, even if its more work to do so. If you look ahead and see a sky that’s decaying and you suspect that this thermal may be your last, then you will be motivated to stay in it, even if its weak. And you will probably do the same thing in the next and subsequent thermal, should you find them and you still judge the conditions to be tricky.

The point is that when the distance that you traverse from a thermal to another thermal is uncertain and may even exceed the total energy you have available, the decision-making is much less straightforward than when you assume you will find a thermal and your goal is to simply optimize the current glide. For people who have followed my writing, this goes back to “Gear Shifting” and my work with John Bird on Bounded Rationality and Risk Strategy in Thermal Soaring. But I figured that this foraging example may be another way to look at risk management in thermal soaring using perhaps intuitive examples and fiddling with their variables.