Ridge Soaring Expedition

03-04-17

When I first saw Tom as I stepped out of the bunkhouse, he grudgingly mumbled, “This is a special kind of insanity!” I guess he’s right. The frigid weather and the logistical monstrosity it was to make this day happen certainly qualify. But we had a spectacular ridge day which made it completely worth it.

Saturday was to set up with a solid back-door cold front, though with NW winds too strong to fly out of Blairstown. With the Spring season here and a big day to be had, I scrambled to find another place to fly. Once we established that it was possible to fly out of Ridge Soaring, we put the whole logistical apparatus into motion. Between towpilots, crew, gliderpilots, possible gliderpilots, and ACA board members, 25 people were directly involved in the planning, co-ordination and execution of this day. Thanks a million to everyone that made it happen!

So finally we’re getting ready to go at 9:45 am. The ridge is clearly working, though a little snow squall comes through. I am strapped in, completely relaxed and bantering with Phil. Through the slit between the canopy and the cockpit, I am watching Tom struggle to make the Scout start. Ten minutes later, he switches to the Pawnee. Ten minutes later, after a lot of consoling and possibly swearing, the prop kicks over and we have a towplane.

By the time we launch, the snow squall had passed, revealing nice flat-bottomed Cu above. I release on the ridge and make a short lap to establish how well it is working. 90-100 knots would do it and I am on my way South bound.

The front ridge is quite a bit different than Blue Mountain. As a whole, it is much less consistent lift-wise. Particularly as you get into Port Matilda/Tyrone, the lift is very spongy. I’ve had several sinking spells that sucked quite a bit of the energy out of the LS4. It seems to me that the instability and the proximity of the plateau made for sink and turbulence that made the ridge quite a bit less reliable than what I am normally used to. But nonetheless, it was solid enough to never be really worried about falling off, just enough to always be alert.

Going into Altoona Gap, I was a bit more brazen than was prudent. I floated up to 2,800ft and shot straight across. I got across a bit below ridge top, though level with most of Dunning Mountain. It was not exactly smart to get so excited so early into the flight and took this into account at Bedford Gap. Dunning Mountain is a great little ridge and I was driving along at 100 knots. This was my first time on it and it gets high marks!

Right as I got to the SW tip of Dunning Mountain, I shot up into a 7 knot thermal. Four turns later and I’m at 3800ft, plenty high enough to cross. The run down to Cumberland worked great. I floated up on half-pipe as the ridge band was working quite well up high and to make it easy to cross to the Knobblies. Looking out ahead, the air was turning an ominous blue. Onward we go to the low ridges after Cumberland, heading toward Keyser.

The Knobblies were as advertised: a pain in the butt. The ridge was not working that great, mostly a 65-70 knot deal, trying to pull as much energy out of every bit of air possible. The air was incredibly volatile. Seeing that I wanted to climb, when I would hit a nice strong surge, it was extremely tempting to turn. But most of them were little gusts or torn up bubbles that were shooting up through small bowls and it was fruitless to climb in them. Then there were the 300ft sinking spells. It was a bit nerve-wracking clawing from one knob to another, always mindful that the bottom can drop out and it would be necessary to go right back through the same sinking air if I was too low to make it. I worked hard to get to Scheer, the ridge with the windmills. Much to my chagrin, the windmills weren’t turning. I am not sure if they were simply down for maintenance, but the ridge wasn’t exactly working that great there either. I managed to finally float up on it and as I got higher, the ridge got better. At the end of it, I caught an honest thermal up to 4500ft and this was enough to traverse the next section, toward Petersburg.

I got back down on the ridge near Hopewell Gap. Now I was tiptoeing my way up the mountain as the wind was not strong enough to simply heave me up it. I quickly found that the ridge was working considerably better 300-400ft above it and was working hard to get into that nice band. With the ridge eeking uphill, it was somewhat tough to do that. Nonetheless, by the time I was at Snowy Mountain, I was now quite well established, cruising along at an honest 85-90 knots. The wind was not strong, but that band was really honest. It took some internal debate to keep going beyond Snowy. The ridge was ever so-slowly getting lower and the sky was the deadest blue-looking I had ever seen. There’s different kinds of blue. When it has that crisp, deep blue to it, you expect thermals. This one was the misty, still looking blue.
But flying beyond Snowy, I was maintaining 4300ft and solidly cruising along. My objective was Mountain Grove and I figured that so long as I am able to keep this speed up and more or less maintain my altitude, I can keep going. It was only 12:30… let’s go for it.

Most of the way, the ridge was more or less the same height MSL, though beyond Monterey, it starts following the valley downhill. Now I start to meticulously maintain my altitude, taking an occasional turn here or there. This nice band worked for me heading this way, but with the slight tailwind component and uphill on the way back, I had to be very careful not to fall down onto the ridge. I floated into Mountain Grove, lost some altitude and turned back. This was as far as I could go SW and now I had to work hard to get back to the better air NE.

Luckily the ridge was honest and I established myself back in the nice band heading toward Snowy. It was a really beautiful run. There was just a bit of snow on the ground and the mountains are extremely pronounced in this landscape. It’s quite different from the ridges I normally fly.

Getting back toward Petersburg, I saw several nice looking lenticular clouds. Seeing that I had to climb up to go back across the Knobblies, this was a good opportunity to play around and see if I could get into the wave. I tried to get into it on the leading edge of the lenticular, though to no avail. I had a nice climb up to 7500ft, though the wind here was only 7 knots. The transition point into the wave was going to be considerably higher and since I had plenty of height to head across the Knobblies, I kept going.

With the wind having weakened considerably, I switched to thermal mode. This was not particularly concerning as the thermals were really strong; some averaging 6-7 knots. I found good air over the Knobblies, possibly weak wave induced. I stayed in this good air all the way up through the half-pipe, where I finally transitioned back to ridge flying.

I decided to head back via the front ridge rather than the Evitts/Tussey route since I did not have a working radio. The handheld was not transmitting and it would not be proper to head through the State college Delta. Nonetheless, the thermals were great and the transitions quite benign. It was fun to fly Dunning Mountain again.
Across at Altoona, I decided to drive up toward Williamsport. The wind was about 310-320 degrees, so the Northerly facing ridges should work reliably. Milesburg was not a problem and the ridge was solid through Lockhaven. This area has been nerve-wracking to me as the three times I ventured up here in the past, I landed out. The day was clearly conducive for this area to work and it was about time to prove to myself that these ridges work fine.

As predicted, the run to Williamsport was just fine, though heading back SW bound toward Ridge Soaring was a bit interesting. With the sun setting and lighting up the ridge in a blinding light, it made it quite difficult to see the mountain. I stayed higher and put my cap on, right against my sunglasses, which helped somewhat. Nonetheless, I found myself zigging and zagging to stay in the ridge band, occasionally drifting out of it as the ridge slowly curved to a more Southerly direction. Finally, one hour before sunset, I landed. My feet were frozen, though my body was totally fine.

All five of us (Rob Dunning, Philip Chidekel, John Bird, Claudio Abreu and myself) had a great day. John and Phil made their first ridge cross countries, claiming a handful of state records. Phil also will get a Gold Distance and Century III award out of it!

Again, thanks a million to everyone who helped make this day happen. Huge thanks to Tom and Doris for towing us on such a miserably cold day. And as always, thanks to Aero Club Albatross and the ACA board for letting me take this beautiful LS-4 and do such exciting stuff with it. I am very lucky to be part of such an awesome club!

Find the flight log here.