Down the Rabbit Hole


“Well surely you’ll make it to the Susquehanna today”, said Steve. I replied, “Well if there was anything *sure* about this sport, it wouldn’t be fun!” I was excited to fly, today’s steed being Rob Dunning’s gorgeous LS8. I was ready to go by 10:15am and to my surprise, so was Tommy the towpilot. I don’t think I ever had a day that began earlier than my expected launch time, so thanks a million to Tommy who towed today in ACA’s wonderful 182.

I hadn’t flown in six weeks thanks to my European adventure and felt a giddy excitement after closing the canopy. There’s a surreal transition that occurs when transporting oneself from the earth to sky, something we often take for granted. But when you don’t fly for a while, you sort of look around all these knobs, dials and levers and realize, damn I can actually do this! And then the rope goes taut and it’s business.

I figured the day would last a long time and aimed high in my task, a 500km triangle. I wasn’t choosy about the turnpoints and came up with a number of variants depending on how the ridge and thermals would work. After releasing from tow, I was a bit cautious about dropping down on the ridge. The wind was not all that strong and there was hardly any turbulence, indicating little convection. But on getting down on the trees, I was greeted with solid ridge lift, sustaining me at 90 knots. Not bad, not at all! Cleaving along the smooth ridge lift, I headed toward Millbrook, enjoying riding above the solid green sheet of leaves covering the mountain.

Heading along toward the Water Gap, I had little trouble climbing up and shot toward Hawk Mountain. Looking ahead, the sky was blue and misty. No need to rush, the day hadn’t triggered yet anyway. Push hard now, and I’d be stuck at Hawk anyway. But getting across Wind Gap, the ridge got real solid. It would be a crime to let the lift push me up higher, so I dropped the ship down on the trees. 100 knots and the green mass just whizzed by. It’s sure nice to be home!

Looking ahead, and there were wisps forming beyond Snyders. The day was just starting to cook. Floating along beyond 309, now was the time to get high. Beyond the rocks, I was ready to get to work.

The thermals were weak and torn, despite the weaker wind. I managed to finagle my way up to 3500ft and started poking upwind. To my surprise, I was hardly losing any altitude, and doing considerably better than circling. So I just kept going and going and before I knew it, I had Sharp made.

I had no intention of getting down on the ridge here. Upon finding the first solid thermal on the NE end, I got up to 3500ft and poked along, taking every thermal along the way. It was slow going, but worked out quite well. I never got stuck or had to backtrack along this tricky country, with few landing places and sporty soaring conditions. 3800ft just beyond Pottsville and a good street got me over to Bear and Mahantango.

On the Mahantango, I checked the time and realized I was going quite slow. To make some time, I dropped down on the ridge, which worked quite well in the higher parts. But just as I started getting relaxed, I got to Pillow and the ridge got soft. Just beyond the gap, I watched my airspeed bleed off at an alarming rate and said to myself, “You gotta take the next thermal!” When I saw my airspeed drop five knots in an instant, I knew the thermal was several hundred yards ahead. And it was! A weak two knotter, but thank you very much.

At this point, I floated along in the higher band, taking anything that moved. I was definitely in a risk-minimizing mindset. At the river, not liking Buffalo, I took one knot. At 2300ft, it kicked off… I think at the lower altitudes there was a mini-inversion or something. There was even a change in the quality of the air; it was considerably less misty at altitude.

Now, the day kicked off nicely. A four knot thermal at Buffalo and I dropped on the Tuscarora, which was working. 90 knots, no problem and another four knotter at Honey Grove. Figuring the day finally was on and that it would be more interesting to do the upwind run than to keep flying the ridge, I climbed up and headed across the ridges.

Up at 5000ft and I was feeling pretty good. Tactically though, I was a bit conflicted. On the one hand, I could deviate quite a bit and stay with the street, but accept a big deviation. Or, I could fly more direct and try to make more speed. I alternated between both strategies, but largely stayed in an efficiency-driven mode. If there was a time to be racing, it was now!

And for a bit it worked quite well. I had five 3.5-5 knot thermals and was making good time. Looking ahead, I was again contemplating whether to cut NW to the front ridge or go direct.  Just downwind of Nittany and a bit to the NE, I saw a bunch of clouds lined up with an intermediate ridge and valley and cut the corner. But as I got there, the clouds started to lose their definition. Uh oh! I headed along the eight-mile section of ridge, getting lower and lower. This is not looking good! Finally, I got as far NE as I could go; farther there was nowhere to land. Oh come on, no way! I had to double back and was dumbstruck that I was going to fall out of the sky. I dropped down on the ridge and it didn’t work. I had a beautiful, cut hay field picked out and dumped it into the valley.

Keep the speed down for now. Wait for it… wait for it.  Drop the nose a bit and lay in the brakes! Do I need a slip over the powerline? Nah field is long enough. Heart’s racing. Let’s go for the second swale. Easing off the spoilers let’s make this a full stall landing. Stick all the way back, I landed with no extra energy and aligned with the rut. Stopped in the middle of the field, a perfectly executed landing.

Landouts are a surreal experience in their own right. The transition from the sky to the earth is especially sudden, probably because of the intense concentration associated with making a safe landing. But all of a sudden, nothing is moving and you open your eyes in a whole new world.

After getting out of the ship, I watched a young Amish boy coming along in his scooter at the speed of heat. And there was a line of people heading along behind him. This is going to be interesting!

Steve, the farmer and the father of the kids was the first to greet me. After the typical initial explanations and expression that everything was fine, I got to showing him and the kids the airplane. In total, ten folks showed up and they were absolutely awestruck by this occurrence. It’s not every day that a man falls out of the sky and shows up on their farm!

All of the kids got to sit in the glider and hear about how this wonderful contraption flies. They were especially impressed with how everything is mechanical and hardly anything electric. Steve grinned from ear to ear and kept saying, “I seeeeeeee!” to all my answers to his endless inquiries. Finally, I took advantage of all the little hands to move the glider over in the field, 50 yards across to where it would be closer to the edge and easier to disassemble. All ten of us gently pushed the ship through the hay field, no problem.

Steve’s brother was working the field in a four-horse wagon, with an eight horsepower motor which turned over the cut hay in the field to help its drying. He also had a complete ball with the whole experience, saying how lucky they were I landed in his field!

After getting the glider prepped for disassembly, I decided to try to find a place to wait for the retrieve. There was a diner about 4.5 miles away. I dialed in my new turnpoint and started walking over the fields, fences and even a stream on this cross-country through the farm fields of Pennsylvania. The funniest moment was when I stepped into such soft mud that when I lifted my leg, my foot came out and shoe remained stuck in the soft ground! Anyway, I finally made it over to a road and walked alongside it, being passed by Amish men in their horse-drawn buggies.

An hour and a half later, I was in the Twilight Diner and ordered enough turkey, corn, mashed potatoes and stuffing to feed three hungry men. Completely exhausted, I hunkered down, waiting for Steve Beer to come and pick me up.

Unfortunately, I sent the wrong coordinates to Steve. On reading my GPS, I saw 40 instead of 41, so he was on his way to Carlisle, PA instead of my location. I did mention a couple times that I was just by Rt.80, a bit NE of Lockhaven and pretty much off the Jersey Shore exit. But two hours later, Steve called me from Pine Grove and we reconciled the geographical error. And two hours after then, he made it to the diner with still some daylight left.

We made it to the field and the Amish family and then some showed up. There must have been 15 Amish folks there, to witness the miracle of the glider coming apart and being put into its trailer. Steve Beer met Steve the farmer and got along with him really well. I was busy getting the glider into the trailer before the sun went down. When we were done, I finally appreciated the beautiful landscape, with the moon rising to the SE, with Mars and Venus beautifully lit up in the clear and serene summer sky. This little enclave in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania is truly its own little universe.

Before leaving, the Amish folks said to never hesitate to come by again. And that they’ll every once in a while look up from the fields to keep an eye for me soaring up in the sky.

I was in bed at 1am. And the following morning, standing on the subway platform in a crowd of people, looking over at the New York skyline, on my way to yet another world.


Thanks a million to Rob Dunning, who let me fly his wonderful LS8, Tommy who towed this morning, the kind Amish folks and Steve Beer for retrieving me. And to Aero Club Albatross, simply for being awesome.

Flight Log

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