You Gotta Believe!

11-17-17

Published in the April 2018 Issue of Soaring Magazine.

Chapter One: Anticipation

Friday, November 17th promised excellent wave conditions. In fact, I predicted that it was possible to earn the first Diamond Climb out of New Jersey. The forecast looked perfect; good wave around Blairstown and a monster coming off the Catskills. The upper air profile looked fantastic, with good stability above 3500ft and perfect wind direction and gradient. I was really excited to fly.

Five of us planned to tow out of Blairstown and a handful more out of Wurtsboro. We all went to sleep with an elaborate plan to soar the valley wave 70 miles and finally connect with the Catskill primary.

I raised the alarm to everyone I could that this is the big one.

Chapter Two: Disappointment

Well it didn’t work out that way. The wind was howling when I woke up. I felt a pit in my stomach; the low inversion didn’t set up during the night. I looked up and saw a solid overcast. Any wave that would form would not be directly triggered by the ridge or plateau. This did not bode well for an early wave climb.

Nevertheless, Schwartz, Bill Thar and I launched into a crummy looking sky. We flailed around in weak rotor and hoped that the foehn gap would finally open up. It didn’t. After 40 minutes of struggling, all three of us fell out. Damn!

We regrouped, took tows to the ridge and figured we should try finding a high climb further SW along the ridge. The sky was drying out and maybe we could contact a wave downwind of the Pocono Plateau. I tested the lift, made a low notch down to 1100ft near Millbrook and headed southwest bound. The sky looked promising near Fitch’s Quarry, with a stationary line and wavy-looking clouds.

After working my way up, I connected with a short-lived wave and climbed to 6000ft. From there, I headed upwind toward some parallel wave bars. I zigged and zagged above the street, finding wave-over-cumulus. But by the time I was near the Pocono plateau, the wave dissipated. Feeling dejected, I dropped back downwind to Blue Mountain. My forecast totally fell apart!

Now I got to thinking. It was clear that the ridge was working well, but I wasn’t inclined to make miles. The objective was altitude! And taking stock of the conditions, the inversion was still well below the tops of the Catskills. The big one just HAD to be there!

The question was, how to get to Wurtsboro? With no wave, all I would have to work with were the low thermals and crummy ridge beyond Millbrook. Luckily the ridge lift was working quite well and Schwartz reported no troubles at Sunrise Mountain in his 1-26. Heck with it, if I couldn’t get to Wurtsboro in wave, then I’d just have to do it using thermals instead! And getting back, well no sweat, I’d just make the final glide from the high wave. Failure along the whole stretch would result in a sure landout and a heck of a retrieve. The trailer was still in the shop! I’m lucky to have friends to count on that would come and get me, but this one was certainly pushing it.

But the big one just HAD to be there.

Chapter Three: The Transition

I motored through Millbrook and easily made the transition to the Walpack ridge. Near Walpack, I thermalled up, and tried to figure out the best way to continue. There were two ways to attack the tricky area ahead; transition up toward the valley and work the thermals toward Dingman’s Ferry or head along the ridge to Sunrise Mountain.

Past experience demonstrated that both ways are problematic. I’ve done the Dingman’s Ferry route a couple times and have found rotor-lines that made it work. Trouble is that this path requires flying over the flat valley in weak, windy conditions. The alternative is to head along the ridge to Sunrise Mountain. The good news is this area has orographic lift to work with. The bad news is that the ridge is not all that great, the landability is terrible and Sunrise Mountain tends to be somewhat convectively suppressed. This route would get me closer to Wurtsboro, but then it would be a struggle to get to and ultimately beyond High Point.

I chose the Sunrise Mountain route as the clouds did not look solid enough to go through the valley. It was relatively low stress getting to Sunrise; I thermalled across the worst areas and had fields on the downwind side of the mountain to bail into if I got uncomfortable. But all was fine because the ridge was working well and I was floating along reasonably high. As expected, it was tough finding the necessary climb to make High Point and had to double back to do so. Nonetheless, I eventually clawed my way up to 3500ft and headed toward High Point.

High Point Monument is the highest peak in New Jersey and has a small, workable ridge underneath. I drove on in, hitting strong sink along the way and terrible air over the monument itself. I remembered thinking that, “This is the closest I’ve ever been to the obelisk!” I had no intention of parking on that ridge with all that sink and pointed toward the fields near Port Jervis/Huguenot. Even though I was descending rather quickly, I wasn’t too worried because I was heading toward a rather promising set of clouds. I connected with the line at 2200ft and slowly worked my way back up.

No troubles here, though I still needed to gain another 2000ft to complete the transition. I drove along to the next set of clouds, by the Horse Farm. Again, I got dumped out of the sky and once again I connected with a climb. Now the issue was that I couldn’t get above 3000ft. I glanced at Otisville and figured that I had the glide made. As I pushed out, I once again hit strong sink. What to do?

Well I did the wrong thing. I pushed on, toward some wisps and found nothing. My pulse was picking up. I couldn’t keep going because there was nowhere to land ahead of me; I had to turn around and retreat through the same minefield! The moment I turned around, I felt a knot in my stomach. Everything was totally wrong. I had a distinct feeling that I wouldn’t be able to pull a trick out of my sleeve for this one; this was a near sure landout in the making. I tried some weak stuff over the edge of the plateau and quickly got flushed into the middle of the valley. My heart’s racing. I looked down and picked out my landing site; a nice plowed field that lined up into the wind. Coincidentally, it had a nice steep little ridge set up on base leg. Looking down, I saw smoke blowing over it. Maybe as a last resort I could park over there? Then the smoke went straight up; no way!

Altimeter was unwinding. 1800ft, 1700ft, 1600ft… The wind was howling and lift was nowhere to be found. Daniel, you’re not going to pull this one off.

As a last resort, I flew directly over the little ridge. I figured that if there was any place a bubble was going to trigger, it would have to be there. The Cu were too far away, there was no hope. I was going to go along this little ridge for maybe another half mile, turn around and then land in my field. The muscles in my left arm were already contemplating the motion of putting the gear down.

Chapter Four: Hitting the Jackpot

Bang! The solid surge was on the downwind wing and I wrapped into that sucker with a tenacity born of the most abject desperation. Three knots! The lift was honest all the way around the turn!

All of the cells in my body kicked into full gear and were working in perfect harmony toward leaving the surly bonds of Earth. I spiraled up and 700ft higher, I felt on top of the world. Boy, oh boy, oh boy was I lucky!

Snap out of it, Daniel! I reminded myself that I was still deep in the doghouse and concentrated. Right then, several bald eagles joined my thermal. This was feeling a lot better. Finally, at 3500ft, I was high enough to make the jump to the Otisville ridge with a marginal glide to Wurtsboro Airport. With the wind blowing, I figured that any worst case scenario would still have good air along the Wurtsboro ridge, making the glide reasonable.

Let’s go for it.

The sailplane cleaved through the bad air and I arrived at Otisville at 2500ft. As I settled down on the ridge, my glide angle for Wurtsboro was improving. The air was good!

It felt like 200 pounds lifted off my shoulders. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

Near Wurtsboro, I finally dropped down on the trees. Coming around the bend near the Fire Tower, I found the ridge to be quite suppressed. This was a bit surprising to me as the wind was quite westerly down low; this shouldn’t happen with the wind angle perpendicular to this ridge.

But then it all made sense; the waves were intersecting with the ridges and I was finding wave suppression. And all of the previous thermal transitions were done in wave sink and the lift was reinforced by rotor. My whole near-landout was actually quite predictable since I drove right into the sink band!

I told myself to remember this important lesson for future flights. And it was rather clear to me that the only way I was going get home was by getting a high climb; thermalling home was simply not going to work. It made it all the more motivating to find that elusive wave.

I came around the bend and found better air. With the ridge lift improving, I slowed down and began floating. The secondary wave must be somewhere near Ellenville. While the sky was almost completely dry, there were still a couple rotor wisps showing the expected ENE/WSW axis of the wave. I found good air at 3100ft along the rotor line, though nothing solid enough to climb in. After retreating back to the Ellenville airport, I hooked a thermal. THIS is the spot! The thermal must have been sucked into the best part of the rotor. It’s time to set up shop along this line.

The two knot thermal took me up to 4100ft, right up and over the ridge. Then I yo-yoed up the line, going upwind until it got stronger, thermalling and drifting until it weakened and then correcting upwind. This worked up to 5500ft and then I pushed forward. Beep, beep, beep and smooth air! Four knots! Jackpot!!

I gingerly worked the first 2000ft, making sure that I didn’t fall out of the wave. At 7000ft, I let myself relax a bit. The lift was wonderful and the wind finally picked up enough that I was remaining stationary at 50 knots indicated. This was working! Right around that time, Schwartz got on the radio and asked if I will need a retrieve. I replied that I really appreciated the offer and to stand by. By golly, this insane plan might actually work and I may make it home just yet!

The wave petered out at 10,500ft. This was lower than I wanted to be. As I was climbing, I speculated that “You need a gold climb in the secondary if you want a diamond climb in the primary.” But looking at my watch, it was evident that I couldn’t stay here forever working milliknot level lift.

Looking ahead, I gulped. The Catskills looked foreboding and the wind was ferocious. And gee, I DID have enough to make it home to Blairstown from here! But man, it’s got to be there. And you can’t go through all of these tribulations without finally going all in. So with Piolis as my out, Schwartz as my spontaneous crew and my decision point at 5000ft, I dove upwind.

There’s a reason it’s called the “death dive”.

I pushed the flap handle fully negative and the airspeed crept up to 100 knots indicated. My ground speed was only 50-60 knots, even with the massive true airspeed bonus. I kept steady and pointed at Slide Mountain. It’s got to be there!

The variometer needle pegged down. The glider was screaming along and I felt some of the air rippling along my wing from the poorly sealed spoiler caps. It felt like the altimeter was unwinding as fast as my heart was racing. I started contemplating just how low I was willing to press on and what fun it would be to land at the narrow little strip that was my only reasonable out.

Then the variometer unstuck. Slowly it started rising. Come on baby, come on!! Finally, down at 6000ft it went beep.

Chapter Five: La Onda Grande

Halle-freakin’-luyah!  

The variometer wound up to four knots. We’re home free! I started rocketing up, the mountains dropping away underneath. This insanity might even work out! And I even had a low notch!

The bliss wore off quick. While the lift was solid all the way up through 10,000ft, it then slowly tapered off. First down to two knots and then down to one knot. Getting through 13,500ft, I started to get worried. This wave might just fall apart out before I get to the Class A. Just stay with it.

Time went by slowly. The lift was painfully weak and I had to find some way to occupy my mind. I took out my phone calculator and calculated that with a 1200ft low notch and the 16,400ft gain necessary for the Diamond, I would need to climb to 17,600ft. I ate a candy bar, took a leak, and enjoyed the view; all just trying to pass the time.

The scenery was breathtaking. The sky was dry as a bone, the azure sky clear as far as the eye can see. Most of the leaves were already gone and the mountains looked sad, perhaps due to the prospect of the long winter ahead. Out on the horizon, they gently faded into a tranquil blue mist.

But then around 15,000ft, the lift got very weak. One knot was a treat and 50 fpm was more typical. At 16,300ft, the variometer went silent.

Oh come on, I’m so freakin’ close!

Time to focus. Begrudgingly, I left the spot that got me up here. The altimeter needle refused to budge. For ten minutes, nothing happened. I looked at my watch and figured I had another hour left to work with. By golly, I will get everything out of this wave!

Then I found a 40 fpm spot. I was utterly elated! It was reassuring to watch the altimeter needle slowly winding upwards. Just another 1500ft man!

And then I got stuck at 17,000ft. I gingerly searched around. Every foot matters. Keep the glider straight, don’t fly in a slip! Don’t drift backwards in the wave! And then the variometer needle crept up to 25 fpm. Okay man, stay there. Whenever I made a correction, I barely touched the controls and imagined the glider easing toward the intended direction. Every foot matters.

Then I got stuck at 17,500. It was slow torture. I figured that this is the gliderpilot’s equivalent of purgatory. My feet were starting to get cold, the electric sock batteries having died over an hour ago. You’re almost there, just hang in there.

On the next correction, the needle jumped up to 70 fpm. Whoa! The altimeter started winding up again. Here we go! 17,550, 17,600, 17,650. Almost there! 17,700, 17,750. I looked over at the GPS altitude and it was approaching 17,600. The readout passes through. Give it another 100ft for good luck. The altimeter needle hits 17,900ft. Time to bug out.

Then I felt the euphoria. “Man, oh man, oh man!” I was flabbergasted that this actually worked! And I was even going to get home too!! I grinned from ear to ear, beaming with the satisfaction of having realized the 50-year-old dream into a reality. Bob Fitch and Doc Solt would be proud!

I pointed the glider toward Blairstown Airport, dialed in a MC 6 to 1500ft over for a 70-mile final glide. The ASI reading 100 knots, I screamed along with the 140 knot ground speed. I laughed at the glide computer, which always insists that you need 15,000ft from some far off distance to make it home. Well hey, I actually have it this time!

Looking around, it was hard to see anything clearly. The whole cockpit was lit up by the sun off my nose, though all the lakes glittered in the bright orange glow. I could see the Hudson river way below my left wing and the whole Manhattan isle. It felt surreal.

It quickly became apparent to me that my feet were hurting. I finally realized that my electric sock batteries died. Perhaps it took so long because my mind shut off any awareness of pain while I was tensed working the climb. But with the glider barreling along at 100 knots and with the frigid air leaking on my feet, I was inclined to get on the ground as soon as I could.

At 4200ft, I was rudely alerted to my return to the mortal land within the boundary layer. I tightened up my straps, headed over to the saddle by the Lower Reservoir and drove on home.

Soon thereafter, the wheel met the grass and gently rolled along. As the airflow weakened, the left wing acquiesced to its fate and touched the earth. After the sailplane stopped, the variometer hummed a flat tone. But then the master switch was clicked off and the sound ended cold.

Epilogue:

As always, thanks a million to everyone who helps make my flights happen. Huge thanks to Aaron for towing us so early in the morning and to Aero Club Albatross for letting me fly the wonderful LS-3. And huge thanks to Schwartz and the folks who felt certain this flight would end in a retrieve and were still willing to come and get me despite the logistical difficulties.

We finally have a Diamond Climb from New Jersey. Sometimes, you just gotta believe!

Find the flight log here.