Conquering The Hill


The night before the flight was quite exciting. John Bird and I were mostly through the hardest revisions on our thermal risk assessment project and it’s getting reviewed by several proofreaders. We’ve been working on it for the better part of a year and it’s just about ready to get published.

However, this whole business of thinking about risk-management began three years ago… in a field about 20 miles south of Harris Hill. I had landed out the fourth time in the seven days of the 15m Nationals and I was near tears. Every day, I was flying efficiently and giving it everything I had. Every day, I would find myself grovelling in the dirt, too late in the day, alone in the blue or any number of frustrations. This was despite that we were occasionally driving along at 7000ft! What’s going wrong?

When I got home, I refused to look at the flight logs. At the time, I ascribed this whole debacle to having a bad week; going on tilt. Best to put it behind me and move on.

But the memory of the days still gnawed at me. And at contests, I would still occasionally blow a day on some stupid strategic blunders. There’s got to be some sort of readjustment that needs to happen here.

The feedback I got was to learn to “shift gears better”. Well what the heck does that mean? Go faster and slower at times? Well that is described nicely by MC theory. Sometimes deviate more or accept a weaker thermal? Okay, but when and how? Well when it look soft ahead. Well what does that mean?

Every person I asked about “gear-shifting” would instruct me with some hand wavy things and then basically say something like, “Well if you’re landing out too often, then you’re pushing too much. Just back off.”

Well what does that *mean*?

A year later, I was in a field SE of the Catskills, having misread the convergence lift. Another blown Nationals. At this point, I got to thinking that there must be a better way to think about and manage sporting risk. A couple months later, I had come up with a model of how sampling and reliability of lift affects risk exposure. It was crude, but it started to get at the interaction of tactical and strategic risk. Before this, I was always thinking about how to maximize efficiency on each glide. I never thought about how a perfect solution to an individual glide may be overly risky over the long run. However, there was much more to this, but I reached the limits of my modelling ability.

A year goes by and I am at the junior camp/contest at Elmira. This time, I flew better and especially with Noah and JP’s help. The risk management ideas were helping! But more importantly, I had the chance to talk to John Bird about my ideas. He got all excited and noted how he can actually simulate gliders. This led to a long collaboration where we discussed risk management, psychology, simulations, and tied it all together in this project. It was incredibly enjoyable doing research with John; he’s the smartest and most enthusiastic fellow I know.

And we’re finally done!

Now looking at Wednesday, I saw an interesting soaring day. It looked good enough to make miles and better to the NW of Blairstown. What better way to put our research to the test than to fly up to the damned site that motivated all this work to begin with?

Launching a little after 11:30, the conditions were a bit weaker than forecast. There was more moisture than expected, so NAM was closer to being right. The cloudbase was quite low and the wind a bit stronger too. I took a bit higher tow to be able to get to the better air on the NW side of the ridge. Then, it was a slow slog, staying high and plodding along to the next thermal. I was definitely in a “risk-minimizing” mindset.

Ahead of me is the formidable Pocono Plateau. It is a vast expanse of forest with hardly any fields. It is about 2000ft MSL high and the wind always gets stronger on top of it. I have never tried to cross it early in the day; all the times I had went NW in my tasks, I had bypassed it by going to Hawk or Wurtsboro first.

But today, my goal was to get to Harris Hill. I was going to be patient and just work my way up into it. If I could get 5,500ft on the plateau, I’d be fine.

My first honest thermal only took me to 4,000ft near Stroudsburg. Tiptoe, tiptoe. Each thermal is getting higher! Each cloud has been working well, but the sampling is so thin. I can’t afford to miss more than two thermals because then I would need to fall back.

It took 45 minutes to get to Pocono Airport. I gently pushed ahead. 5,300ft! I have glide to an airstrip ahead. Looks like we’ll be able to start the crossing. One more thermal in the middle and I have Wilkes Barre made! Phew!

One across to Scranton, I climbed up to 6000ft. Things are getting better now! But there was a blue hole ahead. Nonetheless, we can afford to speed up. It doesn’t help to fly slow now.

I aimed for a cloud ten miles away. It didn’t work. Starting to get low… and it looks like the reliability of the clouds has gotten worse. Figures, welcome to the Elmira air! Time to be in a risk-minimizing frame again.

After digging out, I saw a nice line heading almost straight North. Quite a deviation, but I am not going to chance the blue.

The line got me 15 miles from Harris Hill. Looking ahead, it looked lake effected out. The wind was blowing in from Seneca Lake and the air had the blue tint of death.

My options were either to turn around now or make a dash for the hill. I figured there was a very good chance I’d end up landing there. But hey, they are towing today and there’ll be a towplane. And besides, it would be fun to say hello to Noah and Phil.

As advertised, the air was completely washed out. As I approached the hill, I was in a perfect position for a high speed pass. I’ve dreamt about doing this flight from Blairstown for so many years. It was so tempting! After an internal struggle, I yielded to the temptation. The opportunity is too ripe.

At the perfect altitude to enter, I looked for traffic… none taking off or landing. Dropped the nose to 130 knots and screamed 100ft over the runway. You guys weren’t expecting an Aero Club Albatross glider here, were you!

Noah gets on the radio and says, Alpha Charlie Alpha, state intentions? I replied that I’ll try to find a thermal over the ridge, but it’s probably lake effected out. Noah says, we’ve got a tow if you want one! 5 minutes later, I took him up on that offer.

It was really fun seeing the guys out there. I hadn’t seen Noah probably since Lithuania and Phil since I flew in Mifflin. But unfortunately, I couldn’t stick around for long. It was already 3pm and I had to get back home while there was still daylight. I had a plane to catch the following day.

Noah towed me up to the clouds west of Harris Hill. This was a different line than I took up here and it was on the west side of the dead air. The lift was solid, but the trouble was that there was no easy way to get back to my original line. Rather than taking the gamble, I decided to postpone my transition until later, when I got farther south and away from the finger lakes.

I ended up flying dead south, sometimes even west of south to stay with the lift. This took me almost to Williamsport, a heck of a deviation. At this point, I saw my chance to cut the corner and headed toward Bloomsburg.

But now I had cirrus to worry about. The sun was setting to the west and the cirrus was building in. It was a race to get home.

Northwest of Bloomsburg, the cirrus finally caught up to me. The lift started crapping out; the reliability and spacing all got worse. I found myself at 3000ft over the ridge, taking anything. A black vulture helped me out, but only to 4000ft. I eyed the nuke plant over Bloomsburg. I have to be cautious and get to it high enough to make it work.

Tiptoeing a bit farther, I still could not connect with anything solid. But high enough to dump into the valley, I made a beeline for the plant.

On the way, I hit a 2 knot thermal over some infrastructure. Don’t be greedy now, take the lift.

1000ft higher, it peters out. Let’s head for the plume.

Nothing over the plume. I tense up a bit… there’s clouds ahead. And then a half mile downwind, there she blows! Ol’ faithful gave me something solid to work with. Not all that strong, only 3 knots or so. But this was what I needed. Making the mental note that the nuclear thermal was not all that solid, it was clear that I will need to ride the high band home. This day is starting to collapse.

6,000ft and that’s all she’ll give me. Off to the nice clouds over Hazleton.

One solid, wide and smooth 3 knot thermal. What a beauty she was! What beautiful country, with all these rolling hills, carpet of green forest and misty skies.

I really needed one more climb. A tried a couple more clouds over the plateau, but no joy. I cut the distance needed to go a lot, but how will I connect the final leg? My eyes drifted toward the ridge.

No way you’re going to drop down on the mountain not having tested it and with such a weak wind. If you plan to fly the ridge, you’re going to need to go Lehigh Gap and test it there, with glide to Slatington.

But what if I hit a thermal by going straight? And what if the ridge doesn’t work? All I need is one solid hit.

But what if you sink down between the Ski Area and Wind Gap? And the field with one tree likely has corn in it. You can’t dump on that section.

Okay, but what if I commit to staying high over that ridge and dumping off the back if I get into trouble? The odds of finding a thermal on the sunny, westerly slope with a NW wind are good. This will keep the risk manageable.

So I I floated along slowly, heading for the ridge.

Bang! A solid hit NW of the ski area, over the quarry. 2.5 knots solid. 500 ft higher and I had Cherry Valley made. But this one just kept going. I remembered thinking that this thermal is trying to make it to the majors!

A little over 5000ft and I was much more comfortable. I expected good air on the way back and it was clear there was still a little life left in the day. One more thermal downwind of Fitch’s Quarry and I had a fat glide. The day was mellowing out, approaching 6pm.

Instead of making a beeline to the airport, I headed over to the ridge. Near the reservoir, I dipped down and found it to be soft, but working. What a beautiful mountain! The trees were lightly dancing in the evening breeze. It was smooth, with the evening magic air finally having kicked in. There was hardly a ripple of wind over the Delaware River. I slowed down to 60 and could float along at 1,800ft. Up to Millbrook and I turned around, seeing the whole valley lit up in the evening glow. I could see the inversion just settling in into the valleys. This day was slowly fading away and it was time to come home.


Thanks Aero Club Albatross for giving me the chance to fly the LS4, our beautifully restored high-performance sailplane. Thanks to Ole and Tommy for organizing the operations and towing us this morning!

OLC Tracks: Outbound trip to Harris Hill. Return to Blairstown.