Yesterday we made a valiant attempt to get day three in, but yet again we have come short of six pilots going 100km to make a valid day. In the morning, Sarah and Mark Keene ominously noted the possibility of extending the contest through Friday in case this day and Thursday turn out non-soarable. The weather has been particularly uncooperative these past two weeks, but nonetheless spirits are quite high. We have been having so much fun simply being here, together. Many of the younger folks are camping on the field and are having a blast spending time with real human beings again. It’s really been wonderful!
In any case, we gridded, we squatted, we bantered, we had three task ideas and we kept trying and trying. David McMaster, our sniffer in the ASW27 (1) was put to work. The folks on the ground cast bets on how long he would stick on each launch. Nonetheless, persistent mid-level cloud cover refused to go away. There was blue sky and some lone cumulus clouds just out of reach, perhaps 5-10 miles north-northwest of our location, but it remained cool over Chilhowee Airport. Jacob Fairbairn noted that the temperature was such that you got hot if you assembled gliders, but got cold sitting around on a lawn chair. We needed sun!
I felt the day developing by virtue of first taking off my leather jacket and an hour or two later, my warm fleece underneath. Now in a short sleeve shirt, 20 minutes later we had first launch begin at 2:45pm. I was at the very back of the grid and sauntered over to the LS-4.
I really don’t like being at the very back of the grid. I’d much prefer to be in the front, or in the middle! But nonetheless, I geared up to go and was happy to get airborne.
Upon release, I found myself *above* the gaggle! I watched the altimeter through exactly 2800ft and pulled the plug, gladly joining in above the herd. Not such a bad way to start the day!
And so we went round and round over the ridge in 0-0.5 knot lift. After the start being delayed somewhat and climbing to a princely altitude of 3200ft MSL, our thermal cycled down. I tried to go over the ridge, closer to the start line above 5 km away and see I could pick up another thermal, perhaps one drifting over the ridge from the cement plant. It would be very nice to be positioned to start near the line, ready to go once the gun went off.
I found good, bubbly air, but nothing that was solidly organized. Back down to release altitude, I turned back toward my first thermal, to see the gaggle climbing above 3,500ft! No worries, I’ll slide in underneath them; the day is cycling in and then I’ll climb up to them and start behind as I planned anyway. But under the group, the bubble cycled out; nothing. Searching here and there gave only 0-0.5 knots as before. I ended up sustaining as the group climbed up to about 1,400ft above me. 15 minutes later, they filtered out on course.
I kept at it, going back and forth along the ridge. The day is bound to cycle in! But it was only good enough to keep me at 2,800ft. Then high cloud cover reemerged and started cooling off the ground. Gliders started to land back at the airport. Looking ahead, most of the course was starting to go into shadow.
I’m not going to lawn dart from release altitude into a field.
So I kept trying, now watching my altimeter slowly unwind. Now flushed off into the valley, taking a turn here or there. And finally, I followed another glider into the pattern and landed at 4:20pm.
For a couple minutes I thought about relighting, and I watched the high cloud cover to see if there was any hope of the day recycling. More gliders came in to land and the high clouds were only thickening.
I figured that the day was going to shut down and we were all going to come up short anyway. Better to put the ship into the box.
For the folks that made it out in the gaggle, they did just fine for a while, finding 1-2 knot lift to 3,500ft or so in the valley. They struggled along, singing:
9 gliders going ’round in the gaggle, 9 gliders in the gaggle
Should one fall off and land in a field, now there are 8 gliders in the gaggle….
8 gliders going ’round the gaggle, 8 glider in the gaggle.
Should one fall off and land in a field, now there are 7 gliders in the gaggle…
This persisted through 2/3 of the task, when Sarah Arnold and Tony Condon landed about 74 km in at an airport. They did an absolutely fantastic job! Another honorable mention goes to David McMaster in the ’27, who managed to go most of the way around and land at McMinn, perhaps one thermal short of making it home.
With everyone down safe, the next challenge was to get the flock of gliders back to Chilhowee. I retrieved JT McMaster flying OH, who was about 40 minutes away. He was on his way to Decatur before landing in a hay field.
The field was tricky and rolling, with all sorts of obstacles. JT successfully navigated between all the challenges and made a good landing. When I arrived, he had become good friends with the farmers, having already consumed several beers with the whole clan. Randy, the elder farmer pulled the glider out with his Kubota and we had the ship apart in no time. On the way back, JT told me about all the trials and tribulations of being a regional jet captain and his dreams of working for UPS. I’m sure it’ll work out for him just fine!
Thanks again to Aero Club Albatross for supporting me at this contest!
Yesterday I broke the canopy of the glider because I did something very stupid. Today, when I inspected the glider, I found the crack at the top of the canopy. Thanks to the help of Sarah Arnold, Jacob Fairbairn, and Mitch Hudson (all IAs), we have temporarily fixed the crack, which makes the glider flyable for the time being. I am very, very sorry to my club for damaging the glider and will work to make it right. When I get back home after the end of the meet, I’ll coordinate with the club to make sure the ship remains safe and flyable for the remainder of the season and replacing the canopy at the end of the year.
What happened was that I made an egregiously stupid mistake while derigging the glider. After the day got canceled, we put the ships away due to storms coming in the afternoon. I brought the LS4 to the trailer, but came in at a little bit of an angle to get around a neighboring glider. After straightening the tail out to be square with the trailer, the ramp was slightly askew and the forward pins weren’t fully wedged in their respective sockets. I should have fixed this misalignment and made a critical mistake in assuming that it was straight enough. After taking the wings off, I started jacking up the ramp up to level it with the back of the trailer. At that point, the pins in the front of the ramp popped off the back end of the trailer, destabilizing the whole rig and the fuselage immediately blew over in the strong wind.
With the help of several folks, we righted the fuselage up, dropped the gear and realigned everything. I took a good look around and didn’t see any signs that anything got damaged on the fuselage. The canopy locked and everything remained aligned. No signs of any damage to the tail or the nose. A big sigh of relief, I put the fuselage back into the box.
This morning, the contest day was canceled due to poor prospects for soaring. I decided to take the fuselage out to take another good look at it. Much to my horror, I found a long longitudinal crack at the top of the canopy, right about over the top of the pilot’s head, running to the back of the canopy. Flying with a crack in the canopy is unsafe as the crack can quickly propagate and the canopy will break in-flight. At minimum, the crack MUST be stop drilled to stem the bleeding.
Thankfully, Sarah Arnold, World Champion, airport owner, and licensed mechanic had a full service shop for her equipment in her spacious hangar. She had plexiglass drill bits to contribute to the fix. Mitch Hudson, in turn, had a cordless drill and packing tape to fix the glider right on the spot. I had the CA glue to seal the crack. And Jacob Fairbairn came over to help work on the canopy. All three licensed mechanics inspected and contributed toward fixing the canopy. The field repair will keep the glider flyable for the time being, and I can’t thank them enough for helping make the glider airworthy again. It is absolutely amazing the level of knowledge and experience available at such meets.
This should make the glider serviceable for the time being. I’ll coordinate with club members to check the work and assess whether there needs to be further work for the glider to be serviceable through the end of the season. Finally, I’ll work with the Board toward replacing the canopy at the end of the season.
All of this could have been prevented with a bit more patience and forethought when taking the glider apart and ensuring everything was properly lined up. My deepest apologies to my wonderful club, to all the club members, and especially to the folks that have put so much effort restoring the ship and making it beautiful.
Today was a spectacular soaring day at Chilhowee. Everyone knew it too in the morning, with the cool northwest wind already blowing and high cumulus clouds forming as we untied the gliders. It was so chilly that our morning pilot briefing was moved out of the barn and into the sun. Mark Keene called the meeting to order at 10am, sharing his excitement at the prospect of setting a long task on a good soaring day.
This time we were assigned a 320km racing task. The geometry took us several times over the Chilhowee ridge, with turnpoints extending to the northern, southern, and western quadrants respectively. The challenge was to make effective use of the ridge, transition into the thermals, make the turns, and make an efficient “final glide” back to the ridge for the subsequent foray into another quadrant.
This is bread and butter stuff for a ridge pilot. Looking at the plentiful Cu in the sky, I figured I didn’t need other gliders to mark thermals and could easily roll my own. We launched around noon with 5-6 knot thermals right off of tow. This was going to be a *fast* task and it was better to wait a while for the day to peak. Even better, as the day went on, the wind would swing from a northerly direction to more northwesterly, which was a better angle for the ridge. Instead of milling around with the gaggle, I headed to the northeast end of Starr Mountain to scope out the terrain and climbs to the northern and western quadrants respectively. After stumbling into a 10 knotter and spiralling up to 6500ft, I could see the streets heading upwind as far as the eye could see.
At this point, I felt a bit lethargic and grumpy. There was a lot of time to burn, so I just mosied around in my boredom. I practiced thermalling the LS-4 in various configurations, finding that flattening out a skosh and using considerably more top rudder slowed the glider down into the low 40 knot range in a smooth climb. Further, when manhandling the pitch in a buffet, the glider dropped the inner wing toward the turn despite the yawstring being in a 15 degree slip. Cool stuff! All just ways to entertain myself while waiting for the conditions to peak around 1:45pm.
Closer to 1:30pm, I figured it was time to get into the business of competing, so I flew the 20km back to the start line and climbed up into starting position. At that point, the gaggle dutifully departed, so it was game on! I lingered for an extra eight minutes and hit the line at 1:45pm at 7200ft for a good start. It’s go time!
Going down the first leg, I was hunting for a solid climb to take me to the first turn. The thermals seemed to cycle down somewhat and were a bit more broken up than before. I found many gliders struggling along in weaker, disorganized bubbles. I simply kept driving on and on, figuring that the solid sucker had to be out there.
While I occasionally sampled a thermal here or there, I pretty much kept running off of my initial energy from the start. Getting below 4000ft MSL, though, started to get concerning. But right as my options started to dwindle, I drove into a solid 5 knotter in the blue. That got me enough to make it into Corntassel and out for an efficient upwind run. Then another 6 knot climb made me have a fast final glide to the ridge.
During this time, I put my two Kobos with TopHat to good use. The reason I have two is because the Kobos are not all that reliable, so I have one on a mount as a spare. However, as the task consisted of multiple “final glides” back to the ridge, I would use a turnpoint at the end of the mountain as my go-to on one of my flight computers. This made it possible to fully optimize each climb to get back to the ridge square at ridge top.
In any case, I slid in going 90 knots and drove along Starr Mountain. By now I had dropped the gaggle and was picking up the folks from earlier starts. On the southern end, Rick Scheppe and I tanked up before heading toward Five Barns. The sky out there looked a bit weaker, so I was a bit more patient with 3.5 knots. However, this climb was not ideal as the gaggle started creeping back on my tail. Ryszard and several others caught me in another thermal on the way to the turnpoint, which was enough to make it back to the ridge square at ridge top once more. After another fast lap up the ridge, I picked up a solid 4 and then 6 knotter to cloudbase, having dropped the gaggle once more on the ridge run.
The upwind run to Decatur was absolutely amazing. Aside from two turns in a thermal in the middle of the valley, the entire 38 km section was done without turning in excellent streets. After the turn, I proceeded to run the streets all the way back to the ridge at high speed as well. I have never found such reliable and honest streeting as today. Normally such clouds work only at cloudbase, perhaps 1000ft above and you have to work really hard to stay connected. Instead, the lift seemed to work all the way down the band, allowing for a spectacular glide for all.
After hitting Sugarloaf, it was simply a 90-100 knot ridge run home. And arriving at 4:30pm revealed that only several gliders had made it back. I had managed to start late, overrun the gaggle, and end up in the front. And sure enough, I turned in 72.5 mph for the day win today. It was a day that rewarded pushing hard and settling for only the best lift; very much like my days hosting US Nightly Soaring ridge tasks. It’s amazing that such days actually exist in reality!
Glider pilots are a curious bunch. Yesterday, when everyone was pessimistic about the soaring conditions, it seemed like it was an all out race to get the gliders on the grid. Almost every ship was in its assigned spot by 10am! Today, on a day with evidently good soaring conditions, many gliders were hardly even assembled by 10am, let alone ready to fly.
But in any case, Mark Keene echoed the optimistic prognosis at the pilots briefing and quickly geared everyone toward the prospects of a long and enjoyable soaring day. Tony predicted lift pretty much all day, with a possibility of high cloud cover at the end of the day. In turn, the task advisors set a 3 hour AAT with small turn areas, which made the task much more of a race with its 200km minimum distance.
With an early grid time, everyone scrambled to get ready. There was mayhem as pilots hurriedly pawed the turnpoints into their flight computers in time to fly. By 11:40am, the sniffers were up reporting good lift and the launch was under way.
Once airborne, we were delighted with excellent thermals. The cumulus clouds formed nicely at about 5000ft or so, beaming the contestants up with little effort on their part. As time went and the gate opened, the clouds got thinner and thinner. Eventually, it became almost completely blue and folks started to get antsy.
I was expecting the long slog of start gate roulette. In fact, I figured that hardly anyone would go much before 2pm! So it was very much to my surprise when a little after 1pm I saw the herd stampeding through the start line, heading right for me in a weak thermal 2km up the course. This made me proverbially drop my sandwich, put my sunglasses on, push over the nose, and bolt toward the line. The race is on!
I hooked the line and raced back after the gaggle and caught them right at the top of the thermal. This put me in a good position to restart, but sure enough folks were streaming out on course. Looks like the gaggle has spoken; it’s time to go.
And indeed we went. It was a 75 knot affair, chasing the herd and trying to stay connected in the 2-2.5 knot thermals. I found myself getting lower and lower in the lift band, working hard to stay in the stronger part of the thermals before they started to taper off into the inversion. Mike Brooks in his Genesis and I drove to the foot hills and found solid lift, chasing after some Discii ahead.
Around this time, the conditions to the east-north-east started to improve. The wisps became better formed clouds, certainly easing the pressure of finding the thermals. Some marked occasional stretches of 4-5 knots, but the bubbles were generally fairly broken up after 500-1000ft stretches of climb. But nonetheless, the lift was reliable and the gaggle drove into Ferguson and later south into Corntassel with little trouble. Things looked a bit more complicated looking southwest toward Eton. While there were a couple clouds and wisps forming over the Chilhowee ridge, off the end of the mountain did not look pretty.
In any case, the gaggle coalesced on this leg, with many gliders marking thermals along the ridge. Folks worked fairly well together, though got somewhat low and spread out going into the Eton sector. I found myself down at 3000ft with Dieter in his Discus 2, watching the power gaggle including Tom Holloran and Mike Westbrook climbing away. Worse yet, flying underneath the gaggle did not reveal a thermal. Much to my distress, this forced me to turn into the wind, low.
After struggling up to around 4,300ft, I chased after the gaggle hoping to hook a reasonable climb. As I approached the scraps of another thermal they left, I watched my altimeter unwind. Now down to 2,800ft, I absolutely categorically had to find a thermal. The terrain ahead looked marginal, so if this area did not work, I would need to deviate 90 degrees along fields. Considering I was already in a somewhat lifty line, this would near certainly put me in strong sink. As such, I fumbled around in the weak, disjointed bubbles, looking for a reasonable thermal to climb in. This would put me in 5 knots of lift on one side and 3 knots of sink on the other, for a frustrating 1.5 knot average climb. After several minutes of this agony, I hooked into a solid core. This sucker went up to 5-7 knots and I felt both the earth dropping away underneath and my anxieties washing away. Sometime shortly thereafter, Tony Condon joins me with his Standard Cirrus and we shared the climb together up to 6,500ft; the high point of the day.
Looking ahead, I couldn’t see the gaggle anymore. There’s nothing that puts out a lust for blood like knowing there is a gaggle ahead that dropped you. I looked over my right shoulder and saw the ridge well below me. It should be little sweat to head the edge of the next sector at the Cleveland Y and then hook back to the ridge and ride the thermals and maybe weak ridge to the steering turn and back home. I figured most would stick with courseline, so this was my chance to hit the gas.
Nose down to 80 knots, let’s go for it. After waving goodbye to Tony, I zipped over to the turn, banked hard and dove for the ridge. It looked best to arrive around 500ft above ridge top, so I took two short climbs to make sure I got high enough that I’d definitely stay connected. And upon arriving, I was greeted with well formed bubbles in close proximity to each other, just as planned. The ridge really didn’t work all that well, but the high part near the Microwave tower felt like on solid thermal for a good mile. In all, I ended up gaining around 1,500ft for the final glide and only needed a couple turns before Etowah to make a safe and comfortable MC4 glide back home.
Sure enough, I caught up to Mike Westbrook and passed Tom thanks to my little detour, probably making up ten minutes I otherwise would have lost. However, it turned out those guys, plus Tony Condon who totally smoked everyone, had a much better and later start. That was the right decision for the day as they hit the peak and the clouds smack on the first leg. That said, I was happy with my decision to go when I did. Too often I’ve tried to outsmart the gaggle to find myself alone in the blue and in all sorts of trouble. For the most part, things worked out for me today, which was very much helped by being with company most of the day.
In the end, most folks made it around and we finally have Day 1 in the bag. Among the exciting things that happened on the ground included Karl Striedieck showing up with a SGS 2-33 on a trailer. It turns out that a microburst destroyed the glider last year and she sent it up to K&L to get repaired. They did an absolutely superb job; the glider might as well have been new and just came out of the factory. A large crew volunteered to help put the ship together and it’s now ready to soar for many more years to come.
And lastly, folks enjoyed another great dinner at Chilhowee Airport. We had trout, rice, squash casserole, and sweet grapes for dessert. A great time was had by all, who were thoroughly beat after a solid contest day. Now we’re looking forward to another ridge day tomorrow, this time with excellent thermal conditions. Our eyes are turning toward the Sequatchie valley, with hopes to be making a nice long ridge flight. Tomorrow should be a spectacular day!
Are we going to fly, are we not going to fly? Is it going be good, is it going to suck? Folks in the morning had generally pessimistic expectations, with a dreary looking sky and clouds that enveloped the top of Starr Mountain. That said, nearly all the gliders were gridded in time for the pilot’s briefing, suggesting that perhaps the contestants had secretly greater hopes for flying that they apparently conveyed.
Tony Condon hedged his bets in the forecast, emphasizing that with the imminent frontal passage, the thermal conditions should get soarable, but tempered expectations by noting how wet the ground was due to the recent storms. Mark Keene and his task advisors set a short 2 hour AAT task that took us north and south along the ridge, plus a steering turn before heading back to the airport. The tricky bit was that the task required climbing off the ridge and extending a thermal or two into the respective sectors. This detail ended up playing a major role later in the day.
Around noon, the trees along the edge of Chilhowee airport bent over as the front rushed through. All the leaves started to dance and the pessimistic pilots were greeted with rays of sunshine through openings in the sky. The clouds started to lift just above ridge top.
This was looking like a soaring day!
By the time Mark Keene came out to the grid for the grid meeting, it was as though he was Moses and had recently conferred with God himself to grant us a contest day. His fancy sunglasses were probably necessary to avoid blinding himself from the light as he lay prostrate pleading that we get a day in so that we have enough days for an official meet.
As the task sheets got distributed, the pilots became more and more enthusiastic. There were discussions about ridge safety and what to expect on the Chilhowee Ridge. By the time we took off a little after 1:40pm, the lift was gangbusters. While most folks floated up high, I took the opportunity to take a tour of this wonderful mountain. I was clocking a little over 100 knots in the LS-4 with little difficulty and found that the lift was very solid and fairly smooth. I toured the whole 25 mile long mountain, made a jog to the steering turn, and played with the gap at Hiawasee River. Around 2:40pm, the start opened and I positioned myself at the line, near cloudbase.
Folks started streaming out, figuring that to take the good conditions while they lasted as the cumulus clouds started to overdevelop. I started a little after 3pm, chasing after Sarah Arnold in her Libelle, who in turn was chasing Mike Westbrook in his Discus. We had no trouble charging down the ridge and I pedaled hard to keep after them. However, as we approached the end of the mountain, the sky started turning a depressing dark gray. We floated up and up, trying to get as high as we could. At about 3,500ft, we ran off the end of the mountain, into a sky more aptly described as the jaws of death.
As we headed toward the first sector at Monroe, the variometer hummed a flat tone. There was no lift to be found. I watched my altimeter slowly unwind and felt my blood pressure start to correspondingly elevate. Looking over my shoulder, the ridge behind me was starting to get out of glide. Looking ahead, I saw Sarah still going for the turnpoint.
Well heck, if a Libelle can do it, I might as well give it a go!
And we glided and glided, with no luck. Finally as we hit the turn, we watched Mike heading off into the gray yonder. In order to make minimum time, it would work so much better to simply find one climb, somewhere out there. But by this point I was restless; that sky was looking scary! Just to give full confirmation to my desire to run away, I saw Sarah turn around.
No hesitation on my part, I banked hard, got off her wingtip and joined the fully fledged rout. We were settling down on a knobbly set of hills and it was not looking pretty. Finally, we hit a couple burbles. Sarah went right, I stuck with the ridge and connected with a bubble.
This tight 1-2 knotter was a godsend. I stuck with it, inching my way upwards. Tom Holloran comes in well underneath and also connects with it. We ground our way higher and higher. Looking out in the distance, I saw the ridge beckoning me to come. The sirens were whispering in my ear and the temptation to escape this terrible valley nearly overcame me.
Not so fast. There’s a sea of trees ahead of you. If you come up short, what’s the plan?
There’s fields at the base of the ridge and I can make the ridge at ridge top, so it ought to work.
Then, I took two more turns, just to reassess and reassure myself that it was possible and went for it.
I held my breath, committed to the glide, and let out a sigh of relief when I joined at ridge top and the ridge worked solidly. I sailed past the fields and connected with the now slightly weaker lift.
At this point, I was somewhat bewildered. Where is everyone? Now I was totally alone, knowing that I had committed to coming in under time and possibly giving up a lot of points. If some folks had managed to connect further into Monroe and were going to make it back, I was going to get hosed.
No matter, this is a good day to be conservative. Make it around and fight another day. Also known as running away with style… In any case, I quickly made it up to the southern end of the ridge and this time I floated up to cloudbase and tiptoed into the wind into the second sector. Time is irrelevant now, only distance matters. I took every nibble of lift, working three quarters of a knot up, simply to stay connected. At no time did I allow myself to get out of glide of the safe ridge behind me. No need to go for broke on a day like today.
After scrounging a couple extra miles and watching my glide back to the ridge start disappearing, I turned back and ran for the safety of Starr Mountain. Upon my return, I noticed that the wind had slackened down to around 8-10 knots and the ridge was considerably weaker. I floated along and stayed higher, no need to take chances down at ridge top anymore. Besides, I was way under time anyway, no rush. Coming abeam of Chilhowee, I climbed up the high portion of the mountain all the way up to 3700ft, high enough to make a final glide to Etowah and back. After slowing floating my over, I had no trouble making the turn and back to the field, 500ft over the finish.
Upon arriving back at the airport, I noticed many of the trailers were gone. It turned out that my cowardice in the earlier part of the flight was well rewarded for the heroes that went into the first sector were all shot down.
Unfortunately, only four folks (Sarah, Tom Holloran, Ryszard, and I) managed to escape the jaws of death in the first turn area and later complete the task. As a result, the scoring formula had not reached the threshold to make it an official day. However, I am very happy with my flight and my read of the day. There aren’t many times I have been as rewarded for caution in my tactical exploits.
After the trailers trickled back into the airport, folks enjoyed our own Cinco de Mayo celebration. We had queso, enchiladas, guacamole, and of course margaritas. Fun was had by all, who traded stories of landing in the beautiful fields, meeting farmers, and their exploits getting their gliders back home.
With folks waking up to gray skies and puddles on the ground, it did not look like a promising soaring day. These fears were confirmed right after the short pilot briefing, with heavy rain scattering pilots and crews to their vehicles, campers, and the clubhouse. I snuck past Tony Condon and Leah and ran into my car, bolting out of the airport. Instead, I hit the road, heading to Chatanooga to explore the area.
My first turnpoint was the Railroad Museum. Because Chatanooga is at the base of a mountain range and several major gaps, it served both as a major river and major railroad intersection, with both Union and Confederates desperately trying to conquer and hold this area during the Civil War. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the museum I discovered that it was closed. However, it was still possible to walk around the rail yard, with a sign that said walking here was “at your own risk” rather than forbidden. The towering black steam engines seemed content to quietly gaze off in the distance, seemingly introspecting on the many arduous experiences of hauling freight over the mountain passes in the Smokies and Alleghanies.
Next, I drove to central Chatanooga, specifically the art district near the Hunter Museum. This seems like the more Bohemian part of town, with some cafes, restaurants, and elegant houses. The Hunter Museum was a pleasant surprise, comprising of three distinct interconnected buildings representing three different architectural styles. The wings were more modernistic, with a central mansion that housed the initial collection of American art. The paintings ranged from late 18th century portraits, to Hudson Valley school romantic landscapes, to late 19th century impressionist style, and abstract/post-modern art. Most of the painters were unknown to me, though the galleries were very well curated.
Several pieces particularly stuck out to me. One was called “The wreck of Ole 97”, made by Thomas Benton, a painter that was Jackson Pollack’s mentor. The work’s elongated perspective served to attenuate the anticipated anxiety, excitement, and terrors of the upcoming derailment of the locomotive. The description was revealing in its parallels to Pollack’s work, which is generally too abstract for me.
Another wonderful work was “Metropolitan Triptych” by Yvonne Jacquette. This painting really stuck out with its black paper portraying the scene from an airplane descending into La Guardia Airport. Seeing this image revealed the dance of colors, lights, shapes, and forms of a city at night. I never thought of these things outside of the patterns that they are formed from and instead my mind drifted toward the notion that my family turning on their house lights at night are part of a canvas of color for someone in an airplane well above.
Finally, there was an absolutely remarkable photograph titled “Moonrise Hernandez New Mexico 1941” by Ansel Adams. The stark contrast in the black and white photo from 1941 revealed a hacienda, with emphasis on a stone white graveyard transposed in front of imposing mountains, a massive set of lenticular clouds, a darkened sky and a bright moon above. I found myself standing in front of this photograph for a while, inspecting all of its features and becoming very aware of my surroundings. The distant sounds of an occasional door opening, a person walking through a hallway. My leather jacket creaking as I turned, the reassuring thuds of my shoes over the hard floor. And then as I look back at the photograph, imaging the wind blowing across the desolate land, a cloud passing across that turns the cemetery from shade into bright sunlight, feeling the heat on the back of my head, mesmerized by the sheer momentous will of nature bearing down on me.
Thoroughly inspired, I left the museum for a short walk through Chatanooga. First, I went on the Walnut Street Bridge and enjoyed the beautiful view over the Tennessee River. Next, I walked back through the art district, stopping by a sculpture garden along the way. One notable sculpture was that of a person taking flight from the hill, hanging on to a set of wings. After a pleasant stroll in the pleasant afternoon sun, I drove up to Lookout Mountain to get a bird’s eye view of the city.
The city is nestled in a valley between Lookout Mountain and Missionary/Taylor Ridge. Bisecting the valley is the mighty Tennessee River, which proceeds to cut through Lookout Mountain to keep heading westbound. The river loops to and fro, with hairpin bends. The town fades away, with factory stacks, microwave towers, and powerlines revealing what an the industrial powerhouse Eastern Tennessee has become.
My final destination was the nearby Chicamauga Battlefield. Few people know of this battle, yet it was at the same level of ferocity and import as Gettysburg. The Union under General Rosecrans maneuvered to capture Chatanooga, catching the Confederate army completely by surprise. However, they succeeded in regrouping just south of the Tennessee border in Georgia and counterattacked an overly ambitious Union force. Due to miscommunication and mismanagement, the Confederates succeeded in dividing the Union force, causing their army to crumble on the second day of fighting and take flight in a desperate rout. However, thanks to a gallant stand by a smaller Union force, the remains of the Union army succeeded in retiring to Chatanooga and holding their position. What followed was a many month long siege, followed by a relieving army led by General Ulysses S. Grant. Subsequent to several battles in the mountains near Chatanooga, the Union secured Eastern Tennessee, deprived the Confederates of a critical strategic transportation hub, and created a base for future operations deep into the heartland of the south. It is thanks to the decisive battle at Chicamauga that Sherman was able to start his march to the sea and ultimately break the back of the southern war effort.
However, few people even know that this battle happened at all, and surprisingly the battlefield is not significantly listed as a Chatanooga highlight despite it being only 20 minutes away. I drove over to the visitor’s center, perused the exhibits and then drove around the battlefield. Along the way there were many monuments and plaques detailing the course of the battle. What stuck out was the dense foliage, tall pine trees, and occasional pastures and prairies. You couldn’t see more than 100 yards away and imaging the rebel charge with 10,000 soldiers pouring through an unexpected gap in the Union line one could see how even a seasoned general like Rosecrans to simply turn and flee. It was like the men became phantoms in this dark and foreboding forest.
Finally, I returned back to Chilhowee Airport in time for the dinner and safety briefing. For dinner, we had southern treats of chicken, mac and cheese, and cole slaw, all quickly and heartily devoured by the contestants. Next Mark Keene, our Contest Director rose up and took charge of the event through leading the safety briefing. Things emphasized were changes in the SSA to FAI scoring formulas, landing pattern, and staging considerations. We’re now ready to fly.
Afterwards, folks congregated for a wonderful evening of banter and fun. The McMasters and Hue taught me a game of Kubb, which we played until the sun went down. The young(er) folks all hung out in the campground, enjoying trading stories of exploits far and near.
On my way back to my truck, I saw the older folks listening to David Hart masterfully playing his guitar and singing tunes. I sat in for a while, especially enjoying his rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”. And with that, I called it in, headed back to the hotel room for much needed sleep.
Today is yet another rain day and this time the rain was especially brutal. Heavy winds, thunder, and lighting greeted us at the pilot’s briefing. Everyone scattered once more, but now we are gearing up for some real soaring. I took the opportunity to get an oil change on the truck and take a trip up to Knoxville. With the heavy rain, I am mostly secluded to a coffee shop, writing up my thoughts, watching the weather forecast, my mind drifting toward flying once more. The forecast is finally turning a corner. Tomorrow promises a frontal passage, unstable air, and decent thermals. With the wet ground, it will also be a tricky day.
I’m ready to race!
Thanks again to Aero Club Albatross for supporting me with the club LS-4 at this meet!
After a whirlwind of papers, studies, figures, posters, analyses, meetings, meetings, and meetings, I was almost surprised to see myself in the left seat of my car, hands on the steering wheel, and right eye carefully watching in the mirror the long white trailer behind me. The destination was Chilhowee Airport in Tennessee and the event was the Club Class Nationals. The glider in the long elegant box, an Aero Club Albatross LS-4, with an appropriate call sign of “ACA”.
I thought back to the last time I flew this sailplane in a contest, a whole six years ago in Hobbs, New Mexico. Since then, the glider has been completely overhauled by the club members with a beautiful paint job. In that time, I can also to be said to have been hauled by club members in others ways and mostly for the better. It also occurred to me that this is the first contest I am attending as a bonafide old fart. No more SSA contest rebates for me, despite the fact that I still identify as under 26 years old.
Normally, at this point the story would shift toward the excitement of competing at a high level event, or the beautiful country I am driving through, or some unexpected adventures with trailers and equipment. Another common trope is the routine frustration of arriving at a site greeted by overcast skies, poor soaring conditions, and the prospect of rain in the following several days. But the real story here is the surprise, anxiety, and happiness of emerging out of isolation for the first time in a year.
Coming off the interstate and driving through the towns of Athens and Etowah, you can see how badly hit the local economies were due to the recent economic slumps. On the main drag, a third of the business are shuttered up, boarded up, and closed. Another quarter or so of the restaurants, diners, stores, and theaters evidently recently closed. The places still open are mostly fast food, pawn shops, thrift stores, dollar generals and the like; bare essentials for folks trying to trudge on.
Pulling into the hotel parking lot felt new; I haven’t been in a hotel room since this whole epidemic began. Walking inside and being greeted by a friendly attendant not wearing a mask seemed heretical. In fact, other than some old folks, almost nobody wears mask around here. And wearing a mask when going into public places makes it feel as odd and out of place as it actually is and puts into stark contrast just how much we have habituated to these circumstances over the past year.
Arriving at the gorgeous Chilhowee Airport and seeing a row of white trailers neatly parked along the treeline was surreal. Real gliders! Real people! I saw my good friends and feel like I haven’t seen them for a decade. Several shake my hand, another hugs me. Others stand within six feet of me. No one wears mask. And experiencing this, it feels like I arrived in a nation far away with its own peculiar customs and traditions. That driving 850 miles from Philadelphia, that the world has flipped over once again, just like it did last March.
People say they are excited for things to eventually become “normal” again, but I realized that I don’t even remember what “normal” is supposed to feel like. I reminded myself that I am fully vaccinated and that being outside with people like this is perfectly OK for me. I relieved myself of that anxiety that was drilled into me and took in the opportunity to socialize with my friends. And I cannot overstate how wonderful it is to be here, with these wonderful folks, with the prospect of getting to do some fantastic soaring in the coming days.
Among other COVID consequences includes the surprising looks on the pilots’ faces when they and their gliders were weighed for contest handicapping. It seems like most of the contestants found that their rigs were 10-15 pounds heavier than they expected. Many suspected that the scales were off, but those fears were put aside when David McMaster weighed his ASW27 and pointed out that everything checked out for him.
It sucks to be fat and old.
Thanks to Aero Club Albatross for supporting me at this event and for all the folks helping me to get the ship contest ready!
When Jen and I strapped into the Grob, we were looking forward to a short enjoyable soaring flight, like the ones we had last autumn. The most memorable of those was where we flew with a bald eagle. Jen loves eagles; the eagle has been her favorite animal since she was four. As a soaring pilot, it naturally makes it my mission to find eagles whenever I take her flying.
Yesterday we had pleasant soaring conditions at Blairstown Airport. We took off a little after 12:30pm, when the soaring conditions peaked. The lift and streeting were wonderful, folks easily got up to 6000ft before the wind shifted around to the southwest and the cirrus moved in later in the afternoon. I climbed up from 1900-3400ft MSL and than ran a street for about six miles from Blairstown Airport to a little beyond the Tocks Island Golf Course to find a solid 10 knotter. Jen noted that the glee in my voice seemed to match the ecstatic tone of the variometer.
As we headed back, Jen spotted two bald eagles below us. Naturally we needed to swoop by them for a closer inspection.
Up until this point, I had been flying very smoothly, completely attentive to making the ride as pleasant as possible.
Seeing the eagles, I got a little… target fixated.
I banked firmly and pushed the nose over. Jen hadn’t experienced partial weightlessness in a glider before and quickly became as white as the bald eagle’s head. The clean Grob accelerated rapidly, the airspeed needle ticking through 60, 70, 80, up to 85 knots. The wind noise got louder and louder and the little speck of bird in the canopy getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger! We swept in several feet above the eagle, who did a hasty split-S and dove away. I proceeded with a climbing turn, converting the airspeed back into altitude.
I anticipated that this maneuver probably scared the bejeezus out of the bird, but I didn’t expect the level of adrenaline I put through my poor girlfriend.
After a couple moments to regain her breath, she clearly conveyed to me her preference to experience eagle watching using more gentle maneuvers.
I spotted the pair of eagles again, and this time I slowed the glider down and pulled out the boards. I slowly tucked Greta into formation with one of them, as close as he would let me go. Jen caught this one on an amazing video. It felt like you could reach your arm out of the canopy and touch his feathers.
After we landed, Jen said that I must be careful with all these eagle soaring flights she has been experiencing, for it may set expectations that every flight results in an eagle encounter. I told her that is true for in the summer time we don’t see them as often as in the spring and fall.
She also said that the poor eagle I dove on will probably be forever traumatized by the vision of an enormous, bone-white pterodactyl that almost turned it into a feathery lunch. His confidence as the master of the skies will be forever questioned by the presence of such monstrous predatory creatures in his midst.
Sunday seemed an unspectacular day to go soaring. Strong westerly winds, low boundary layer, maybe even overcast clouds. No ridge, no thermals. Evidently no one was excited to come out until it became labelled a “training day”, with instruction flights offered to complete Bronze Badges and check-flights.
Allen, Guido, and Tommy arrived at 10am, ready to get the gliders ready and go fly. Instead, the airport was draped with a heavy fog. The soup was so thick that from the Cow you couldn’t see 508, several glider tiedowns away! Nonetheless, Guido had the Cow perfectly prepared, ready to be brought out to the line to go fly.
The fog refused to lift for awhile, so I gave Allen and Guido some things to work on. Guido completed his Bronze Badge written test while Allen worked on his long awaited Pilatus B-4 check-out.
Closer to 11, Guido comes back smiling with his test complete and I ran out things to say to Allen with respect to the Pilatus. However, looking up we saw patches of blue. And with Allen sitting in the Pilatus and Guido standing nearby, I asked the guys what they thought about the soaring weather. While they scoffed at the thermals conditions and the wind angle for ridge soaring, I noted what about wave? With the low boundary layer and smooth, stable winds, there’s got to be wave around somewhere today.
Only moments later, we felt the sun starting to bake our shoulders and saw the Pawnee and 182 trotting over to the runway to take quick flights. Allen brought the Pilatus over to the runway, strapped in and ready to go fly while the wind was still manageable in the morning. Shortly after 11, he did a beautiful takeoff and tow, his first in this ship. Guido and I strapped in to give it a go in the Cow.
By now, the wind was rip roaring down the runway. Once over the treeline, Guido was working hard to keep the 2-33 under control. Perhaps a more apt name for the glider would have been Raging Bull rather than Mad Cow! I sat in the back, enjoying the show, noting that the air was considerably more turbulent that would be expected with stable, SW winds.
This is probably rotor!
We released at 2,900ft MSL in lift over the powerlines, halfway to the power grid by the Lower Reservoir. I promptly took control, turned into the wind and raised the nose as high as I could. We hovered at 40mph, climbing at 3-4 knots in the rotor. At about 3,500ft, we transitioned into smooth air.
We found wave!
Guido was ecstatic. I gave him the controls and coached him through the adjustments to make to stay in the lift. With no GPS, it was tricky to remain perfectly positioned in the lift. Instead, we used a known error method, slowly walking forward in the wave until it weakened, and then transitioning back. Similar deal with lateral position; slowly moving right until it weakened and then adjusting back left. We did this for almost an hour, climbing up to 4,500ft on a day that seemed the antithesis of “soarable”.
Meanwhile, Allen took a second tow in the Pilatus and also found the wave. He climbed up to 5,600ft, spending 1.2 hours in the wave until the conditions cycled out and the wave petered out.
While there were wave clouds later in the day and some rotor around, folks couldn’t connect with any more wave. My guess is that the short-lived wave Allen, Guido, and I found was created by our ridge. Despite the terrible wind angle, the air still dropped behind the mountain and bounced accordingly. With the fog in the morning, fully stable airmass, and strong wind conditions, we found as close to classic mountain wave conditions as could exist on the East Coast.
Later in the day, ACA members completed a total of 14 tows; a very successful December day indeed! I did five instructional flights, with Guido, Joe Fenske, Allen, and Oleg. There was a gorgeous sunset, highlighting some wave clouds hovering off in the distance.
Sometimes adventures in soaring take an unexpected turn. Considering that the last time I landed out from Blairstown was around two years ago, the concept of visiting a farm felt like a vague possibility; something that happens to other glider pilots, but not me. And driving out to the airport with Jen, my thoughts were more centered around flying with her and two other pilots in the club two-seaters on this gentle, autumn soaring day rather than heavy duty soaring exploits. A good day for many folks to come out, do some training, stay current and maybe soar on a couple afternoon thermals.
My morning started early, first flying with Anthony in the club Grob. We took a tow to the ridge, discussed situational awareness, ridge testing, and the arrival path back to the airport. Even this early in the morning there were some workable thermals near the airport and we extended our flight accordingly. Anthony did a great job, followed by another very nice landing! Afterward, Guido had the 2-33 all ready to go for my next flight and I took up a prospective member in the 2-33. And after this quick flight, Jen was up next for her introduction to the 2-33, having previously had three luxurious flights in the Grob Twin Astir.
She had considerably more trepidation getting into this old tin can wrapped in fabric nicknamed the Mad Cow. Or maybe it was that a couple weeks ago I was the one who pointed out a rusted rib on the horizontal stabilizer and grounded the glider. In any case, when the rope hooked on and we went on our way to the turbulent tow, she was content to simply hang on and watch. After we released, the wind noise died down and the glider settled into the gentle breeze. Jen took a couple deep breaths and took the controls, getting a feel for the attitude and turning characteristics of the Cow. As we headed over the town, she found a strong thermal and I prompted her to turn, turn, turn! Jen wrapped the glider into a nice, stable turn, climbing up and up at a steady 2-4 knots. Topping out at 4,500ft, she headed to another cloud and found another nice climb, and with the same great piloting climbed 600ft higher. Figuring that would do after 40 minutes of great soaring, we headed back to the airport and landed.
Seeing that the soaring conditions were solid, I decided to take the Duckhawk on an afternoon romp. However, by the time I released over the ridge, it was clear that the conditions were softening up. Nonetheless, I connected with a reasonable blue thermal by the campground and climbed up to 4000ft. Looking ahead, there were clouds in Pennsylvania and I headed over to find turbulent, but reasonably organized lift. These clouds were nicely lined up in a street over to the Pocono plateau, my perennial playground. Finding consistent lift between 4-5000ft, I was doing better going straight and dolphining than trying to circle in this narrow, tricky lift.
Going 40 miles upwind worked great and it was not even that much after 2pm! I always enjoy trips into the wind as they are great practice and make it easy to get back. All you need to do is find a weak thermal, work your way up as you drift downwind and you’re quickly back in glide of your starting location. However, to use a Fernando Silva expression, I got a little “frisky” and was tempted to keep going a little farther before turning around. There was a nice street heading off the Berwick nuclear powerplant, my favorite thermal, and I was tempted to cut across and pick it up.
It turned out I chose to go a thermal too far.
Making the transition over, I found the expected strong sink. However, once under the clouds, I did not find the expected lift! And at this stage, I was surprised to find myself seriously contemplating that this might not work after all. I had an airport in glide downwind of me, but this would near certainly result in a landout. Looking ahead, I could escape into the valley toward a beautiful hay field. Moreover, there were clouds nicely lined up along the way, suggesting that this might work to get me out of trouble.
I’ve dug myself out of worse.
And so I headed over toward the hay field, trying one wisp, and another, and another. Nada. The wind lined up straight up the valley. Down to 1000ft abeam of the field and I felt a little bit of lift. Working this thermal only served to slow down my descent. I stared intently at the field, trying to judge its slope; better not screw that up with such a slippery glider!
Down to 600ft and the thermal picked up. But by this time, I was positioned downwind of the field, and I was drifting faster in the 12 knot wind than I was climbing. Time to knock it off.
Gear lever extended, button depressed, and the electric gear whirring down. Flaps switched into manual, extended to 20 degrees. Airbrakes all the way open; time to get on glide slope. Don’t mess this up, the Duckhawk will easily overshoot the field if you turn too soon. Extending the glide on base leg, followed by a steep turn, yawstring perfectly straight. Now set up with half spoiler on short final. Airspeed right on 50 knots, aimed square at the high treeline short of the field. Tuck it in as close as you can, as close as you can, full airbrakes! Nose over the trees and a hard flare over the field. In ground effect now, time to dump the flaps! Holding if off, holding it off, touch down! Hard on the wheelbrake, stopping as fast as I can without nosing over.
After the glider stopped, the variometer whirred a flat tone. I shut it off, and everything was silent. This is always the most magical moment, for after some of the most exciting flying you can do in a sailplane, you find yourself in a new place and time abruptly stops. I got out of the glider and took stock of my new surroundings. Looking ahead there was a deserted farmhouse and the cut hay gently bent over in the mild breeze.
I was very pleased with my field and my landing. For the past several months I’ve prepared myself for the possibility of landing in a field requiring clearing an obstacle. The Duckhawk is very unforgiving of extra energy on approach thanks to its only adequate airbrakes, which is a big issue when clearing a treeline. I consulted Bill Thar on the technique, practiced it in the simulator, and finally did such a landing at Blairstown airport. I calculated that I should be able to land the glider in a 1300ft long field, figuring I could get it stopped in 1000ft without resorting to ground looping or nosing over. I used up 950ft of the field, with about 300ft of that being ground roll. It was good to see that my preparation worked out flawlessly.
I called back to Blairstown for a retrieve crew. Since Jen had not driven my truck before, let alone with a trailer, I requested that someone else join her on the adventure. Bill Thar managed to convince Steve Beer to go, although Jonathan cajoled Jen to do the driving. She overcame her second bout of trepidation and hit the road behind the wheel of the truck!
In the meantime, I prepped the glider for disassembly and went for a hike to try to find the landowners. I must have been a sight to behold, dressed in my winter coveralls, wires hanging out all over the place, with my 10 liter Camelbak swinging over my shoulder. As I walked up the lane, I noticed that each dense tree had a “No Trespassing” sign stapled to it. And then I found a chain link fence with locks blocking the road.
Upon closer inspection, I found that the chain was mounted to the tree with open nails. With little effort I managed to take it down, eliminating this possible obstacle for my ground crew. I promptly put it back up, in case anyone went up the road before me. However, I got the message; I was going to endeavor to find the landowners before heading back up this road.
Another half mile later and I reach an intersection to find some houses and civilization. Seeing a gal on a tractor working her lawn, I waved my hand to flag her down. Despite my garb making me look something between an astronaut and a bum, I succeeded in encouraging her to approach me. I explained my predicament as a downed glider pilot and asked for her assistance to find the landowners of the field. Her husband quickly showed up and also took great interest to this unusual situation. They invited me into their house for a cup of coffee, taking great pleasure in sharing stories of this sleepy town, inquiring about my soaring exploits, and my work as a PhD student studying neuroscience. The time waiting for my crew passed by quickly.
Her husband made some calls, but had no luck finding the landowner. When Steve and Jen arrived, I invited my new friends to come and see the glider come apart. We went up the driveway, took down the chain link fence and promptly arrived at the Duckhawk. This retrieve was going so well, there was even enough sun on this short November day to take the glider apart with some daylight to spare!
At this point, I was a little surprised to note that my friends did not come to the glider. As it turned out, the caretaker of the land was taking his dog out for a walk and saw the wayward vehicles turning into his field. He intercepted his neighbors, who apparently were doing their darnedest to express the good and friendly character of us glider pilots and our friends. Nonetheless, with the glider packed up, sun setting to the west, and us heading toward the exit of the field, we were met with the irate caretaker and sensed there was going to be some trouble after all.
Further, as I walked out to meet him and his wife, I saw a state trooper driving up the driveway. Goodness gracious, here we go.
The field’s caretaker seemed most perturbed by the fact that his chain link fence proved not to be a barrier at all. I expressed my deep condolences for all the fuss, my yeomen’s effort at trying to find him or the landowners and how the field, glider, and my personal body were perfectly fine. A little while later he seemed to calm down, happier that “everyone and everything is safe”, leaving me to deal with the state trooper, firefighters, and ambulance who all showed up at the scene of the “plane crash”.
I refer to such occurrences as the circus showing up. Everyone comes to gawk at the glider, happy to have experienced the most exciting thing to happen at this town in the last decade. The state trooper had to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, insisting that he had to get a hold of the FAA. I told him go for it, my pleasure! And we sat around for ages, waiting for him to be satisfied.
An hour and a half later, I finally had enough and started calling up my friends, instructors, and DPE to see if anyone can get a hold of a person at the Allentown FSDO so the state trooper would finally let us be free. Right as Randy Rickert was dialing up his FAA contacts, the trooper informed me that I would receive a call from the FAA soon and let us be on our way. Steve, Jen, and I bolted out of the field.
After eating dinner at a local diner, we headed back to Blairstown, arriving a little after 8pm. Steve was in great spirits, thanking me for the opportunity to get to go on a retrieve! We dropped off the trailer, took a moment to look up at the beautiful stars. And then Jen and I headed back to Philadelphia.
There were many surprises on my Saturday adventure. But perhaps the most surprising thing was that Jen did not express an immediate urge to dump me after subjecting her to a) Getting up early in the morning, b) Flying an aircraft that seems destined to fall apart, c) On the drop of a hat, driving a scary vehicle with a 25 ft long trailer, and d) Arriving back home at an ungodly hour.
Instead, she said how exciting it was to a) Spend a day at a beautiful place, b) Get to fly a freakin’ glider, c) Challenge herself to do new things, and d) Have the excitement of going on an adventure, seeing a glider retrieve and having the amusement of watching me deftly deal with law enforcement. And how she’d love to do it again next time!
She’s a keeper!
Thanks a million Steve Beer, Jen, Jonathan, and Bill Thar for helping me out on this retrieve. Thanks Rick, Randy, and Erik for assisting me with the authorities. Thanks Tommy and Andrzej for towing! You guys are the best!