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 the field was practically flooded. My teammate, Noah Reitter had to pick up his club glider from the airport and reported that, “It might as well have been a seaplane base!” Since this contest was our training time toward the Junior Worlds, we tried to figure out some alternative training plans. Thankfully, our clubs supported us using their club ships at other sites which were soarable (and not flooded). 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 really challenging soaring conditions, several times feeling like there was no way we would get back 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 was looking really good at Ridge Soaring Gliderport down by State College PA. It looked like it may be good enough to make an attempt at a Standard Class National record.
We asked Phil Chidekel, our resident expert meteorologist to take a 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 a challenging ridge 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 on really big days, I’ll track them several days in advance. I’ll update the task, have my forms ready and everything thought through. But this time everything was going 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 looks like I’ll have help assembling the glider and testing out the water system and indeed they were extremely helpful! I hadn’t loaded up the ‘4 with water before, and it was a pretty elaborate and humorous operation involving 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 myself 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 14 liters of water in three Camelbaks, the ‘4 was loaded up to maximum fuselage weight. Tomorrow I 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 I was advised to pick up a backup logger (good idea!) and Mike Robison was the fellow who 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 has been a Three Turnpoint Distance Record in Standard Class. Figuring an even 800 miles would do, I had flight planned that would work from Blairstown. Now that I was flying from Ridge Soaring, I went back to the drawing board. Initially, I looked at options that 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 WV 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 got SeeYou open once more. Then an alternative occurred to me that allowed for a cleaner lap early and then 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. And with that, 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 to go. While eating breakfast, I looked up at the trees on the ridge. There was no wind on the surface and squinting at the ridge top did not reveal any swaying trees. The inversion has not cleared out of the valley; this will 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, it was best to 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 9, the wind just started to mix down to the surface and Tom towed me up to the ridge. It is really amazing that the tows last only two minutes here, straight up the mountain! Today the climbrate was not as spectacular as it normally is on a ridge day. The 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, I felt the glider slowing down 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 the ridge 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. 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 that unlandable section.
After a long struggle, I managed to finagle my way to Lockhaven. Now the challenge was to get downwind to Nittany Mountain, the location of my start point. The ridge was so weak that it was necessary to get 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 weak lift and I dropped 150ft, well below ridge top. Turning around, I dumped the nose, heart beating more rapidly, with a right eye looking at Lockhaven airport.
Just hang in there!
And that I did for just enough 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 fall back to the downwind ridge. At 10:15, more than hour after taking off I went through the start. In this time, I had gone 32 miles, none of which counted toward the task.
Off to the Races
As I started the task, I was a bit leery of driving down on the ridge, though it was just starting to improve. I pushed the speed up to 90 knots and let myself 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 over 100 knots indicated. With the late start and 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, although the ridge was a bit weaker than expected. 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. On the way back north on the lap, this made my lift difficult crossing to Nittany. 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, it was an all-out drag race south. As I was abeam of Lockhaven, I figured that I had now started a 900km out and return. It was 1pm and sunset was 8:45pm. Figuring 7 hours was a reasonable bet with a little reserve to make it home, I needed to make the turnpoint by 4:30pm. Every knot counts now; every minute I get to the turnpoint earlier will mean that the thermals are that much better for the run back.
Altoona and Bedford went by without too much difficulty and before I knew it, I was on the Knobblies. The effects of this terrain on the air mirror the broken-up nature of the ground; the air is all torn up and unsettled. I slowed down to 80 knots and struggled to maintain my altitude. The sharp gusts that felt like a good thermal encourage you to start making a quarter of a turn and then get dumped out the other side. Almost all of the clouds failed to generate an honest thermal. There are two sections that I consider necessary to climb through; between Keyser and Scherr and the end of Scherr and Hopewell Gap. The sections in between get very low and the landability is quite poor. After 30 minutes of stressful flying, I managed to make it across.
Now that I am firmly established on the high West Virginia ridges, I was really hoping to let ‘er rip. But the ridge lift was not working that well. Below ridge top it just barely got me up and level with the ridge and then the sections would work for about 95-100 knots. I expected that with the greater elevation change that 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 I was in range of the downwind ridge. I got a bit antsy to make the jump and did it a bit too early. Soaring along the ridge, I saw a Honey-Grove-like jump downwind, over a sea of trees. I took care to climb up high enough to solidly make it across above ridge top and I was now in business on the Warm Springs Ridge.
Passing by Ingalls Airport, I was hardly staying level with the ridge. The wind sock at the top of this really high airport was halfway extended and ahead of me the ridge was descending. I must have overrun the stationary front and now I was on the other side in the weaker, crappier air. As the ridge descended, I was cruising along at 90 knots. As I approached the knob at the end of the Warm Springs Ridge, I realized that I placed my turnpoint several miles beyond the tip, directly over the town of Covington. The idea behind this strategy is that the ridge is working well, you float up 500-1000ft, float in and get 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. I slid out toward the turnpoint, holding my breath. I was slowly bleeding off altitude. Two miles from the point and I am completely off the mountain and the ship is sinking faster. Heartrate kicks up, pressing on. As I approached the turnpoint, I was 400ft lower than I started.
As I heaved the glider around the turn, there was a nibble off the right wing. It took two seconds to register and then I flung the ship into a turn reversal. By golly there was a thermal off the freakin’ town!
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 it seemed I was drifting faster than I was climbing and punched back toward the ridge. At 3200ft, I connected with the weak ridge lift, well below ridge top. Boy was I thankful for that 450 feet.
Man, I would really like to get back to the high Ingalls ridge. The higher altitude, slightly better thermals and better fields at the base of it 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. I made good time heading south, so this will give me a bit more room on the return trip. But the conditions were starting to deteriorate. It’s late 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 above. Looking NE, the clouds looked worse, hardly a chance to make it over upwind. A solid surge. The idea now is to climb up as high as possible, float up the street and get across high. This will 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. I kept floating along, the glide angle on the mountains ahead slightly improving. But I really wanted another climb. Halfway across and still no joy. Looking to the northeast, pressing on still looked like my best shot. 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 will be totally committed very soon; can’t drop off to the fields behind Lick Mountain anymore on the other side. Heart rate kicked up 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 heartrate, 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 and 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’ll go and live with the fact I’ll be called an admiral. The thought crossed my mind to remember to take off the parachute straps if I have to go into the water.
And a moment later as I pulled into the turn, out of the corner of my right eye I saw the fields at the base of Mountain Grove. They were solidly in glide. I heaved out of the turn, put the nose down 100ft lower 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 darn lake.
Down to 60 knots. The ridge is rising faster than I could climb with it. A little surge and I turn into it. Nothing and I am 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 makes a sharp rise and I’m 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. Every little bubble I would dolphin through it. Finally, beyond Monterey I was thankfully a bit better established at 3800ft.
Thinking the horrors were finally over, I sped up a bit. 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 and make speed along the trees.
Now approaching Snowy Mountain. I slowed down a bit and only got to 4100ft; this is as high as the ridge band will go. And then I got sucked into the spill. I kept plastered on the trees. Halfway in, it looked better to keep going. Still sinking and sinking. Now I’m having to go the long way around the knob and I’m falling out of the freakin’ sky. Every time I hit a sink spell, I am dodging the trees and spilling myself off the ridge. And in turn, the ridge rose several hundred feet. As I came around the corner, I am now down to 3500ft, right at the base of the high ridge, near level with the low ridge upwind. 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 that the objective 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 freakin’ Cumberland, where the fields finally started getting nice again. The time is 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, again I could hardly 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 that I was back in safe landing country, I started thinking about the next transition. It would be a small upwind jump to the Halfpipe beyond Cumberland. To make this work, I will need a thermal. 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 3 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 there 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 as it were. 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 on standby to retrieve me. He said he was tracking me and fairly assumed I’ll be down someplace, at the base of Tussey or somewhere on Nittany. He rightfully surmised that in the unlikely event that I somehow made it to my finish that I will probably land out someplace 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 that day. He said he did and had a great flight too! This 90 second conversation lifted my spirits and onward I went.
The Halfpipe was just barely working. Again, I couldn’t climb 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 am high enough to go for it, so just find the friendliest spot and go. A little surge, a 270 and a downwind run in good air. Strong sink over the spill and then I slid in square at ridge top.
At this point I was 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.
Beyond 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. The upwind jump at Tussey which gave me grief the first time around today was ahead 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 I felt the ridge slowly turn on stronger. 20, 30 feet at a time, I slowly floated up higher and higher. Slowly, I evened out at 2800ft. This is considerably better than what I’ve had to work with before!
Nursing the glider along, I looked upwind. There was that field 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.
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, it’s the difference between coming in 150 feet and 250 feet below ridge top and connecting and falling off. But this was all I could get 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 field and wondered how I should communicate this to the tower. I decided to not do it and 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 planned 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.
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 have 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 thought.
Approaching the end of the mountain, I slowed down and floated up. After hitting 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, I had 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. I felt 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.
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 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’s 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.
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.