03-28-21 | The Masters of the Sky

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.

12-13-20 | The Early Bird Catches the Worm

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.

11-14-20 | Trouble with the Troopers

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!

See the flight here.

10-31-20 | Trick or Treat?

On this frigid Halloween, many youngsters were getting their costumes ready for a Saturday extravaganza. Houses were decorated with scary dragons, ghosts, and rotting pumpkins carved into contorted visages. In this odd American tradition, it becomes socially acceptable for children to take candy from strange people in the dark. And if you were to chart average blood sugar levels among most kids, they would look like a stock that suddenly rises, crashes, and results in wailing tantrums on the floor.

I never understood this tradition. Perhaps it never rubbed off on me because I was the one tasked with giving out the candy rather than the one dressing up and soliciting it. Or perhaps it was that time I was coerced to wear a crocodile onesie to take part in a Peter Pan themed Halloween party. No good things ever occurred to me on October 31st.

So on this Halloween, I was more than happy to be on the road to Blairstown Airport. My thoughts were not on the prospect of satisfying sugar cravings, but looking up at the sky and daydreaming about flying. Besides, I had enough to be scared about this Halloween. Skyvector indicated a complex set of restricted airspaces (TFRs) between Trenton, NJ and Reading, PA due to Trump furiously campaigning in the final days before the election. And there would be no worse Halloween trick than for me to be on the receiving end of a United States F-16 screaming across my nose, with nasty words to say to me on 121.5.

No, it would be much better if it were for me to play the tricks, leaving some poor and confused radar operator wondering as to how a glider squawking 1202 was staying airborne for hours, patrolling the outskirts of the restricted airspace. With the intention to fly as far as possible given the weather and airspace constraints, I planned to fly on the north edge of the Reading TFR and then maybe into the valley south once the Trenton TFR expired at 2:30pm local time. To cover my bases, I called WX-BRIEF to receive the most up to date information. I could sense the fellow raising his eyebrow upon hearing my plan to fly a glider to Beltzville Airport.

My day started early as Guido and Anthony Erlinger asked to receive some morning instruction in the club Grob, nicknamed Greta. Having completed my Flight Instructor rating the previous week, I was happy to oblige. Guido arrived early and got the battery and golf cart ready while I took a trip to the hangar to bring out the Duckhawk trailer.

Upon arriving on the airfield, I was surprised to see all of the grass covered in a white, crusty frost. Guido is a true Italian and evidently not well adapted to the cold. When we started taking the covers off of Greta, he yelped in pain as the frost bit into his bare hands! Unfortunately, our efforts to start early this morning were for naught. With the air so moist, a layer of frost started covering the whole glider. We promptly moved Greta into the sun for deicing while Tommy the towpilot went to the airport cafe to get himself a warm cup of coffee.

At 10am, we were just about ready to start towing and we needed a wingrunner. Anthony arrived as though right on cue and with him on the scene, the show began. With the magnetos clicked on, starter whirring, and the propeller making several jagged jumps, the engine turned over and the Cessna 182 towplane was ready to fly. With the rope hooked up, wings leveled, the slack in the rope taken out, Guido keyed the mic and in a delightful and melodic Italian accent said, “ACA tow-ah-plane, glider is-ah ready to-ah take-ah-off-ah!”

Guido did a wonderful job. We reviewed all of the peculiarities of the club Grob, especially its insatiable hunger for rudder. He flew great, did a bunch of turns, some stalls, and most importantly, had a great landing at the end. Anthony was next and had the good fortune of launching as the soaring day began. We practiced flying the ship, along with some thermalling techniques. After Anthony came back, Guido took the third and final instructional flight of the day, with a quick tow to 1500ft followed by a prompt approach and landing. For this one, I sat in the back and whistled, pretending to be a passenger and letting Guido do all the work. Predictably he did well and ended the short flight with another nice landing. Just before noon, I was released from my instructional duties and was eager to go fly the Duckhawk.

Around this time, Ron Schwartz showed up to say hello. Seeing that he was willing to stick around for extended socializing, I asked whether he would be willing to help me assemble my ship, to which he eagerly agreed. This was probably a mistake on his part as the process was a bit more tortuous than usual. It’s like the Duckhawk wanted to make a point that I don’t fly her often enough by making it that much harder to put her wings on. And then making a fool of me when something wasn’t quite right and I was forced to take one wing off to fix it. With enough consoling and finagling, the bird was assembled and my preflight checklist was complete.

Looking up at the sky, I was surprised to see that the cumulus clouds did not wither away as expected. Instead, the cotton balls were nicely arrayed as far as the eye could see. This was going to be a better day than anticipated!

Launching at 1pm, I released in solid, nicely organized lift. The ship reminded me that it’s been over a month and a half since my last flight, with a couple instances when the wing wanted to drop after pulling a bit too hard in the lift. Backing off a skosh and working up to a little over 4000ft, I felt great and back in business. With honest and reliable lift all around me, it was time to do some exploring.

As I turned southwest bound, I was delighted to see that the clouds were nicely aligned in streets heading right up the valley. Normally the lift is much better over the higher and drier mountains, but today I accepted the usually risky proposition of flying in the lee of the ridge. With the lift so nicely organized and closely spaced, the Duckhawk made easy work of the energy along the way.

It felt like I was flying a 1-26 again. The 1-26 demands your attention as the last five percent of performance are the difference between flying well and ending in a field. With the Duckhawk, you don’t have the same prospect of landing out, but when you work that much harder you feel how much better you are doing. And in this case, the game was staying connected with the thin lift band under the clouds.

What worked well was to drop the nose and consistently fly at 60 knots. And when I’d find a nice bit of lift, to yank hard and dynamic soar the gusts. In the less lifty sections, to cruise at around 70 knots, with 80 knots reserved for sinking air.

The best moments were when the lift was off to one side and I could bank, yank, and pull hard. It felt like I was dropping my talons, gripping the air, and then ripping it out of the sky. The variometer would wail and the altimeter would wind up and up and up. This kind of dynamic soaring probably worked best because in a turn it was possible to maintain 1.5-2 Gs for a longer time, generating that much more momentary thrust.

In what seemed like no time at all, I arrived at Beltzville Airport. My eyes gazed around for other gliders and to my joy, I saw a 2-33 just below and heading away from me. Being too good of an opportunity to pass up, I dropped the nose, sped up to a leisurely 140 knots and said hello the white and red whale of the skies. After turning back, I saw a vintage yellow Ka-4 release in a thermal and gave him a similar greeting. With that, I climbed back up to cloudbase and started my journey back to Blairstown.

The sky just seemed like it was getting better and better, with the clouds aligned in a perfect row. The challenge now was to soar the 32 miles back home without turning at all. My eyes focused on the dark spots in the clouds and I keyed up my body to feel every bit of the air. The flaps clicked and clacked away as I’d make the glider jink, zig, and zag, flowing up and down the swells and rapids in the sky. Only minutes later, I arrived back at Blairstown Airport having hardly lost any altitude at all. And upon seeing Anthony flying in the club 1-26, I used this extra energy to give him a friendly Duckhawk greeting.

Being just after 2:30pm, this was a good moment to take stock of the sky and assess where to go next. Looking to the northeast, the clouds were withering away. Instead, I was eager to follow the nicer clouds nearby on another adventure to the south. Remembering that the Trenton TFR was to expire around that time, it felt that everything was lining up perfectly to head this way. But to be absolutely sure, I decided to contact Allentown Approach on 124.45 and check. And to my horror, Trump was evidently running late and the TFR was still active! Thoroughly annoyed, I doubled back from Hackettstown to wait a little while.

Half an hour later and somewhat listless, I called up Allentown again and requested an update to the airspace situation. And the controller responded, “The TFR has now been terminated.”

I responded, “Did you say that the TFR has not been terminated or has now been terminated?”

With a satisfactory response that the TFR was now no longer a factor, I got excited again, climbed up to cloudbase, and set my sights on Vansant Airport around 30 miles away.

At this point, the thermals were starting to get farther apart, resulting in a more traditional climb and glide style of soaring. Upon entering the thermals, I practiced making better entry turns, finding success entering the lift at 60 knots and making a very steep turn. And after starting the turn, to initiate a stepwise slowdown to 55, 50, and 45 knots, using my speed to adjust my position in the thermal. The tricky bit was making a solid pull to initiate this process, but not pulling so sharply that it would cause the air flow to separate on the wing and make a lot of drag. You need to be really on top of this glider for it to fly most efficiently.

As I crossed the Delaware River, I had Vansant Airport in view, but unfortunately no friends in the sky to fly with. The air was also devoid of any movement and the altimeter unwound enough to cause a bit of concern. Looking ahead, I could see Philadelphia’s skyscrapers beckoning in the distance and sunnier skies above. Several miles beyond Vansant, I dug out from a little above 2000ft above the ground and figured it was high time to make the journey back home.

Being a little after 4pm on a late autumn day, I resolved to be patient and get nice and high before heading back. To my mild frustration, the thermals were poorly organized and kept me struggling along a little while until a solid three knotter got me comfortably up to cloudbase.

The glide computer indicated I only needed another 2000ft to gain to get home, a little over 30 miles away. It was hard for me to believe that the glider could actually make that work. My mental calculations suggested that this was around 7-8 miles per thousand feet and it just felt that this was too good to be true. So after I tanked up with a little extra altitude in the final thermal, the glider surprised me yet again when it sailed on home, perfectly making the glide.

The best part of the day is when the sun starts to set over your shoulder and the valley lights up in a brilliant glow. Looking over toward Bethlehem and Allentown, the landscape looked like a canvas brushed on with warm oranges, reds, and yellows, occasional glittering blue lakes, punctuated by the gentle steam of distant powerplants, and a misty mountain snaking as far as the eye can see. Autumn is a joyous time to fly in the northeast.

With the additional altitude at my disposal, I flew over to my ridge to see if the wind had picked up enough for the ridge lift to work. Upon dropping down to 1700ft MSL, I found that the wind was at 195 degrees and 12 knots. Surprisingly the lift was fairly solid! This enthused me enough to make two shorts laps up and down the local ridge, getting a close up view of the leaves on the trees and the hikers at Mt. Minsi. As much as I enjoyed flying the ridge again, I was also nearly continuously shivering having under-dressed for the cold, having anticipated lower, warmer, and blue conditions. With the temperatures at ridge top not being high enough to warm me up, I called it in after a delightful three and a half hours in the air.

After landing and spending a good thirty minutes thawing my feet and warming up my body, I was ready to take the aircraft apart. Since there were no club members around, I wandered over to the flight school to see if I could find a hapless victim to help me disassemble. First, I set my sights on the younger Kevin who was tying down his 1-26, but then my gaze later to the young kid nearby. He introduced himself as Andreas, turned out to be thirteen years old, and about 18 lessons into his flight training. Bingo!

I brought him over to the Duckhawk and invited him to sit in the cockpit. Comfortably seated, he started asking all sorts of questions about all the instruments, knobs, and dials. Do you really need all this stuff to fly? I chuckled and replied absolutely not! He asked me about the glider’s performance and handling characteristics, how the gear, and flaps work and why everything is the way it is. Twenty minutes later, it became apparent that I was the hapless victim in this bargain! Only when his dad wandered over to let his son know it was time to go home, he hopped out and eagerly gave me a hand taking the wings off.

On the way back to the parking lot, I briefly opened up the club LS-4 trailer and told him that if he kept working hard that someday he would be flying that beautiful ship. And you could see the gears turning in his head as I closed the trailer lid and he raced on home.

Turns out that this Halloween was a treat after all!

________________

Thanks a million Schwartz and Tommy for helping me fly today, you guys are the best!

See my flight here.

08-22-20 | A Tale of Two Airmasses

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was soarable in Pennsylvania, it was miserable in New Jersey, there were cloudstreets, there were 40 mile blue holes, an airmass with strong and high thermals, and another that produced a thunderstorm that nearly wiped out the airport; in short, a memorable day!

I arrived at the airport with no expectations. It was August; hot and humid with a southwesterly wind pumping in air expended from the swelled up swamps of South Carolina.  My sweat accumulated after assembling the glider, completely soaking my clothes, and refused to evaporate. The few clouds triggering over the ridge were hardly much above ridge top. Having not flown the DuckHawk in a little over a month, I was content to simply get airborne and do a couple takeoffs and landings. And if I managed a short soaring flight, heck that would be an accomplishment.

Glancing at the forecast, the Poconos looked promising. Perhaps it would be good enough to poke around in that wonderful high ground? I set a short task up to Lake Wallenpaupack to do a little bit of sightseeing.

Taking off a little after noon, there were still low, scrawny clouds over the ridge. The first climb off tow was a struggle; 10 minutes in a half knot thermal to claw my way up to cloudbase at 3200ft. A short thermal street lined up into the wind, along the ridge. The DuckHawk was much more content flying straight than circling in these weak bubbles.

The line promptly ended at the hang glider launch, hardly ten miles away from the airport. A slow climb took me up to 3800ft and I looked over at the high ground to the northwest. The clouds were slightly higher over East Stroudsburg and the lift was fairly reliable. And heck, with a 50-1 glider, the odds are good that I’ll find something.

Sure enough, there were a couple bubbles along the way to keep inching upwards. Off my right, there was a rain shower; the sucker looked like an enormous billowing cauliflower, with a dark ominous bottom, slowly moving toward the airport. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Looking dead ahead toward the Poconos plateau though, the sky totally transformed. The clouds formed little cottonball puffs at 6500ft and you could see miles and miles away. Once over the edge of the plateau, I found solid lift and climbed right alongside the clouds!

My flight computer read out that the wind was 300 degree or so; quite different than the 220-250 degree wind in the valley. I discovered that this was a new airmass, bordered by a trough parked right at the very edge of the Poconos. Coupled with the heating of the high ground earlier in the day, it created a steep boundary where the clouds rose thousands of feet. This was going to be cool to explore!

Along the edge of the line, the lift was not all that continuous, although it worked nicely where the clouds hung down like a curtain. And there it was really fun climbing up on the edge of the wispies!

Abeam of Beltzville, the line made a hard left and seemed to lose definition. I suppose it would be fun to poke deeper into PA. Who knows, maybe I could even make it to the Susquehanna River?

Picking up the pace, I found reliable 2-3 knot thermals under honest clouds. Going toward Hazleton, the cloud base dropped off, but no worries; my nose was aimed squared at the Berwick Nuclear Powerplant.

My name for the thermal that comes off the plant is Ol’ Faithful. The steam plumes are often visible from Blairstown, beckoning the wayward glider pilot like a siren to come over and harness its energy. Positioned in the middle of a valley, right by a river, it’s often the only lift within a considerable distance. The resulting thermal is nearly always marked by a cumulus cloud hanging a little lower than the rest; laden with the moisture coming from the stacks, the thermal is always in a hurry to condense into a cloud. And sure enough, there was a solid 3-4 knotter that picked up to a turbulent 5-6 knots near the top. The thermal was so gusty that at one point it nearly spun me out! After a fun rodeo ride, I was back in business at cloudbase.

Heading across Scranton, the Alleghany plateau invited me with beautiful clouds ahead. While I had flown up before, I’ve never directly flown across these imposing mountains. The wind is often times a bit too strong and the thermals are disorganized for many miles. Going into unlandable terrain, higher terrain, and a headwind is a dubious proposition. Most of the time the edge of this plateau acts like a brick wall.

This time, I cleaved into the higher ground without any difficulty, climbing right up to 7000ft. Out yonder, it looked even better!

But as I drove along, I ended down at 4500ft and felt low. There was an airport in comfortable gliding distance ahead, but that piece of property was situated at a daunting 2000ft MSL. Best to tread carefully.

After slowly climbing up and another tricky glide, I finally connected with a solid 2.5 knotter. A little stumbling around here and recentering there wound the averager up to eight knots. Woohoo!

I kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing. At 6000ft, the cloud above me didn’t feel any closer. Neither at 7000ft! Man, what’s going on here? At 8000ft, the thermal was still going and going, just like the energizer bunny.

That sucker topped out at 9,500ft! No wonder the sink was strong before; there were monster thermals around!

My watch inched toward 3:20pm. A pang of doubt crossed my mind; I better start thinking about heading home.

Around that time, the airport was experiencing an epic deluge. The shower I skirted earlier in the day turned into a massive, slow moving thunderstorm. The radar map showed all sorts of pretty colors and orange/red polygons. And then as you gaze at the legend, your eyes widen as you see a tornado warning in effect.

As the billowing cloud crept toward the airport, all the gliders airborne bolted toward the field. The pilots quickly landed, tied down and ran for cover. Those unlucky enough to be still outside when the rain swept in were caught in a torrential downpour. The wind was so strong that the rain came in sideways. This is the kind of the day when rusty stakes, frayed ropes, and creative knots are put to the test.

Meanwhile, I was oblivious to the mayhem back home. My thoughts drifted toward the ease and relaxation of being in the cool, dry air at 9500ft. My cloud was part of a cloudstreet extending ahead of me and it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. I nosed over and flew up to the Buttonwood Ridge, 20 miles northwest of Williamsport, a good 108 miles from home. Figuring this would do for the day, I turned for home. It was 3:40pm.

Picking up the pace to 90 knots, it now was time to put the pedal to the metal. Better to run back home while the conditions were still working well! Sure enough, the lift remained totally solid over the plateau. Consistent 3-5 knot thermals to 9,000ft, good air in between and a tailwind for good measure too. This was glider pilot heaven!

Abeam of Scranton, 70 miles from home, the clouds ahead lost some of their definition. Off my left, the cloudbase dropped off precipitously.  I tanked up as high as I could; better to be thermalling up here, than down there! This climb took me to within 1000ft of a MC 3 final glide. This would comfortably get me across the whole Pocono plateau and might even do for squeaking it home in a pinch.

Over the next 45 miles, the air flattened out. The day was softening up; boy was I glad to have tanked up! I slowed up and floated in the good air, but there were no solid thermals for a long way.

Looking ahead, I could see Mount Pocono Airport beckoning in the distance, with many clouds still formed along a parallel line to the plateau. Sure enough, the trough line was still working! Beyond these clouds, the air was a hazy blue, devoid of all clouds. It looked like the streets at the edge of the Poconos were pushed into this invisible barrier, with the resultant cloud spewing in all directions; upwards, downwards, and sideways. The tendrils hanging down indicated solid lift was working ahead. I relaxed, knowing that I had it made.

Sure enough, approaching the line there was a good thermal and I easily climbed up for final glide with plenty of height to spare. But these peculiar clouds alongside me were just too tempting to simply bypass. Instead, I turned toward Lake Wallenpaupack and played with the line.

It was so much fun! When the glider sank a bit lower, I’d park my wing in the tendrils and thermalled right up the edge of the cloud. In between the streets, there was some mildly good air serving to extend the glides. This worked very nicely for a lap up and down the line, which was slowly inching its way northwestward. With my watch showing a little past 6pm, it was time to call it a day. After rounding the last cloud, the flight computer showing a MC-3 glide, I turned toward Blairstown Airport, heading into the blue, dead void.

Slowing down to best-glide speed, the air was dead smooth. I let go of the stick, turned the variometer down, and just watched the mass of trees under me, gliding toward the ridge off of my nose, the glider contentedly humming along. The upper reservoir was way off in the distance, slowly inching downwards in my canopy.

I looked down at the twists and turns of the terrain below, the setting sun off my right shoulder, and the clouds dissipating behind me. It was just so peaceful, so much so that it felt odd that the flight should ever end. It seemed like the sailplane will silently sail on forever.

Coming over the airport, the wind sock was dead limp. There was some mist forming off the runway and I lined up to land on 7. Since the original objective of the flight was to perfect my landings in this glider, it felt appropriate to oblige. I lined up over the trees, pushed over and landed short of the mid-field taxiway; a challenge completed!

Getting out of the glider, I was surprised to find the grass to be wet and squishy. Everything was soaked and the airport was totally deserted.

When young Kevin emerged out of the shack, it seemed like he was the sole survivor of an apocalypse. He greeted me with the harrowing tales of the afternoon and later helped me disassemble the glider. Later, a couple stragglers banded together to spend the rest of the evening trading tall tales of exploits in days and years past.

All in the adventure that we call a day at the airport!

__________

What a wonderful day! A day that started with no expectations, yet ended in a 270 mile flight! Blairstown offers such dynamic and wonderful soaring; no matter how long you fly here, there will always be new challenges. Thanks Tommy for towing and Bill Thar for crewing in the morning!

Find my flight log here.

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.

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!

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.

06-30-19 | Just Hang in There!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the Wind?

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

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

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

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

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

Just hang in there!

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

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

Off to the Races

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Badly Do You Want It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I made the fateful decision to press on.

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

400km Through Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find my flight log here.

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

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

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