Saturday, September 24, 2005

Pete, Pete, and Pete

I needed to get out of the house today, so when I saw that Pete J was heading to Greylock I quickly called to see if he wanted to share the 2 hour drive. The hours on the road pass quickly when sharing the drive with Pete, so I was happy to hear he wanted to share the ride. I called Dan to let him know we were headed west but he decided to skip the day since it might not be soarable. Kathleen called and was looking for signs from fellow pilots on the best place to go for the day. Although the winds on Cape Cod were probably too strong for paragliders in the morning; the lighter winds in the afternoon might work just fine. I was a concerned that the winds might be too north for reasonable soaring. Inland, the winds were predicted to be light and lift weak, so just about any mountain or tow site should work. I talked with Rodger who was driving to the cape with Phil for a noon-time flight to take advantage of low tide.

On the ride out I got a call from PK (another Pete). He was going to Morningside, but eventually decided to join us at Greylock. We also got a call from Rodger who reported the winds were blowing in nicely at the cape and they were getting ready to fly. Given the stable forecast for the inland sites, I wondered if Pete and I were heading the wrong direction. However, with winter approaching, we were both happy to sneak in another mountain flight before the snowfall leaves the cape and frozen lakes as the only viable options.

Shortly after arriving at the driving range (the old RC field) we loaded on another Pete’s truck and headed up. A couple paraglider pilots entertained the crowd of spectators by launching into the late morning thermals wafting up the bare rock below launch. It was a gorgeous fall day with crystal blue skies, low humidity, and reasonably warm temperatures. It seemed everyone, including the spectators, was enjoying the day.

Although the paraglider pilots already in the air kept getting low they kept popping back above launch every so often. I didn’t need to see more, so once I finished rigging and signing-in I headed down towards launch. There was very little wind and a lot of traffic in front, so it took a few minutes before I could dash off. I quickly found myself sinking below the rock slide area that generates most the morning thermals we need to get going. I finally found a tiny little bubble and stated carving very tight turns close to the trees. I could not keep in the sweet spot since that would put my wings in the branches so I had to settle for a good climb on only the backside of the circle. I finally jacked my way above launch and the rest of the pilots in the air. Whew!

A few minutes later everyone was climbing and many of the pilots waiting on launch dove into the air. Thermals were lifting off the mountain and ridge tops and disappearing around 4800 feet. I wanted to avoid the dodge ball everyone was playing over Mount Greylock, so I headed east to the smaller ridge in front. I flew over to North Adams before heading back to Greylock to hook up with Pete and PK. I headed back towards the valley again and found a strong 650 fpm climb that punched through to 5200 feet. I think that strong climb was the result of a compression convergence as the wind in the valley switched from NE to SE. The three of us played in weak lift near the north end of the ridge while almost everyone else sank out. I zipped back to the mountain in time to see Brooks launch as I climbed to the south of launch. After playing around south Greylock I returned north to notice that Pete and PK were getting ready to land. I also noticed Brooks on a long glide down the ridge towards the LZ. It looked like all three of them would arrive at the same time. This should be fun to watch! Sure enough, the air was soon raining gliders and Pete took “one for the team” by bailing out and landing in the field north of the golf range.

I wasn’t ready to walk on the ground yet so I flew back to the mountain and met up with John in his VR. I could see more pilots launching as I dove over the monument on the top. John and I took a lazy pass over the valley before returning to the ridge for a recharge. After another “lets see what’s happening” pass over launch, I headed to the opposite side of the valley that was now glowing in the afternoon sun. I spent some time soaring the thermals on the lee side of the valley before spiraling down to land.

I watched John land to the north. I was in the same pattern that John used when Pete got on the radio and said that the wind was light but coming from the south. I thanked him, quickly did a 180, ducked behind the nets used to catch golf balls, flew through a narrow pass above a swampy area between the tree line and the poles holding up the nets, and glided into the grassy area that used to be the RC runway. After that sweet and cool approach I embarrassed myself when I let my nose gently touch the ground after flying into a thermal as I was preparing to flare. I hate it when that happens!

After the glider was in the bag and we were driving away I found out Kathleen had started her drive north to Burke, but turned around and came to Greylock only to launch a few minutes before the point when almost everyone sank out. Bummer. While we were driving home Rodger told us how the wind was not as “straight-in” when they launched and they had to settle for short soaring flights tethered to the higher dunes near launch. It was definitely a good day of flying and a good day to be “out and about” for Pete and me. Good company, 3 hours of good airtime in nice conditions, and we even got home at a reasonable time. Just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Just Go!

Sometimes I don’t even try to explain why I need to fly; even to myself. I almost didn’t go flying this morning since the logical place to fly was West Rutland, which meant at least 6 hours of driving. On top of that I wasn’t sure it would be soarable. If it was soarable there was no hope of going XC. I know how I have hated myself in the past for spending an entire day, a tank of gasoline, and time away from family for an 8 minute sled ride. Although I talked myself into staying at home, I kept looking at the sky, the trees, and even the bugs for signs of lifting air. Who am I kidding? It was time to forget the reasons “not” to fly and just go.

I quickly bolted on my rack, tossed the glider on top, stuffed everything into the harness, grabbed some water, and hit the road. I remembered John G was looking for a ride from the Rutland airport to launch, so I gave him a quick call and told him I would be passing by around 12:30. I was leaving Keene when John called and told me he had already rented an SUV and was leaving for launch. He said there was no wind at the airport and that the ride up from the islands was glass smooth. I knew the air was going to be smooth, but I had hoped from some wind. I called Gary for a weather report in the LZ and he said there was a light wind blowing in at top. Ok, maybe not all is lost.

Everyone besides me and another PG pilot were already at launch when I arrived in the LZ. I told him to throw his wing into the truck and hop in. We met another pilot in a mini-van waiting at the base of the mountain. I assured him taking the mini-van up the mountain would be a mistake. I offered him a ride up in my vehicle and the three of us were soon bouncing our way to the top.

The cloud of dust that followed me up the mountain swirled around the truck as I pulled into the parking area. Seeing Bianca launch and rise above the tree line was just what I needed. I grabbed my harness and waded through the crowd of HG and PG pilots. I quickly greeted everyone, especially many of the PG pilots like Bo and Kathleen that I have not seen for most of this season. I chatted with Mark A, Lyle, and John S while I stuffed battens. Once rigged, I took a quick stroll to launch. The PG pilots were launching one after another and staying up. I took a couple pictures and then suited up.

I wiggled through some hang gliders still sitting around the setup area and then launched after John in his VR. I quickly climbed above the top of the ridge and joined everyone else. I love navigating through the constantly moving 3 dimensional landscape that presents itself above a soarable ridge on a weekend. I remember flying here when I was a fledgling pilot and how those crowded days were challenging and invigorating. However, today it was more like cruising down a familiar curvy road enjoying the sensual curves, dives, and arcs.

Although I was having fun, I could tell that some pilots were not comfortable with the close quarters so I did my part to thin things out by spending a good part of the afternoon flying across the gap and playing on the shallow hill to the west. John and I kept looking for little hot spots and would fly as far away as possible before returning. On one of my trips back to launch, I noticed that PK launched. We spent some time flying upwind along lifting lines that allowed us to explore the valley. We were not getting high enough to go anywhere but we did have enough altitude to return to the ridge each time and work back up.

Pilots slowly started landing below. Soon there were only 3 or 4 of us left on the mountain. The air was becoming smooth, the sun was starting to settle, and I got that strange little feeling I get this time of year when you feel like you have stayed past closing time. Although the leaves were still green, I knew winter was just around the corner. After taking a long look over the larger valley to the west, I buried the bar to my waist and let my Litespeed do what it does best; fly fast! I zinged around the valley and then the ridge at 70-75 mph. Ah, that felt good.

Once I regained some altitude I noticed that my truck was still on the top of the mountain, pilots were leaving the LZ, and the sun was sinking towards the horizon. I quickly headed to the LZ so I could at least hike up in twilight. I was checking out the windsock in the LZ when I noticed it was blowing from the east. East? Yuck. There isn’t a good way to approach the hill top LZ from the east. A PG pilot below me was soaring the tree line and I also thought it was a good idea to wait and see what develops. Sure enough the wind died off and then blew gently from the west. The PG pilot landed and I came in a minute or two behind him.

Gary was gracious enough to offer me and a couple other pilots a late ride to the top. Thanks Gary. We stopped for dinner in Rutland before we all started our long drives home. Once on the road, I was thinking that the 3.5 hours of flying was a worth the 6 hours of driving and the late arrival back home. Maybe I should continue to ignore those common sense reasons to not fly.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Morning Thermal

Although I didn’t fly today, I did stop to watch some early morning thermals rising from a freshly plowed field just north of Morningside Flight Park. It was interesting to see how the surrounding air was slowly pulled into the main column of rising and twisting air. I captured a few minutes of the dance on video.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Gift

I really didn’t expect to fly today. I awoke at Morningside to a heavy fog that filled the entire valley. The heavy fog meant any thermal production would be delayed several hours. September in New England means we only get a few hours of sunlight each day so losing the morning sun hurts. Then as soon as the fog cleared the wind blew hard from the northeast and shut down all flying at Morningside. Since the National Weather Service forecast called for a slow shift in direction to the northwest, I held on to a slim hope of flying later in the day. By noon I had succumbed to reality. Amy and I were heading down Morningside Lane to go mountain biking when Jeff B called. He was at launch with Andy, Chip, Jake, John A, and Pete J. He said it was coming in straight in at 15 mph and he wondered when I was coming up. Now, for the few that don’t know how things work at Ascutney, this phone call smelled like the standard “set up”. It was probably blowing in much stronger at launch and the crew already there probably needed help to launch and I was it. I knew it was a setup, but told Jeff I would be there in an hour or so.

I was surprised when I got to launch and saw it really was blowing straight-in at 15. If I wanted any help launching, I had to setup and get out of there ASAP. I started throwing battens into the glider as Chip, Pete, and Judy helped launch the rest of the crew. I was cramming stuff in my harness when Pete launched. Chip was still not ready, so I hustled to launch and with Chip and Judy’s help I was quickly in the air.

Although I expected Pete to still be around, I was surprised to see that only John had left the mountain. I found a strong climb right in front of launch and was soon at the low cloud base with Andy, Jake, and Jeff. I was also surprised at the strength of the climb. I am happy to find 300-400 fpm this time of year, yet that initial climb was 700 fpm. Meanwhile, Pete was struggling over the ski area not noticing our climb and Chip was still on launch struggling with his harness and backpack. (Gary would later show up and help Judy launch Chip).

Once at base I wasted no time in leaving. I decided to leave the thermal by swinging around the west side before heading south. Oh boy, was that a mistake! I put my tail between my legs and plummeted away as fast as I could. I soon found myself downwind and below the mountain. Even worse, Andy and Jeff followed me and were treated to the same gift. Jake, seeing what happened to us, wisely stayed further east. I started getting seriously worked over by the rotor and noticed Jeff was also. I quickly radioed to Amy that I might not even make it across the river. I found some buoyant air that finally turned into a weak but turbulent climb that allowed me to drift away and then above the mountain. It took Andy and Jeff more time to get out of that trap, but eventually, we all continued on.

The flying after that was enjoyable with 600 fpm climbs to cloud base over the west side of the river. It was hard to believe it was September. Ahead of us a large cloud complex was developing on the east side of the river while the west side was turning blue. When Jeff and Jake turned back upwind to join a climb with Andy, I continued on to the east side of the river. I didn’t expect great climbs under the dark clouds, but did hope to find buoyant air that would allow me to glide past the now large blue hole on the west side. I glided. I glided some more. I glided even more. No climbs, not even weak climbs. Oops. I tried some good looking spots, but nothing was working. I looked back upwind and noticed a line of clouds forming. I drew a line from those clouds to my area and decided my last-ditch attempt would be to dive to the east and get in that line and hope that something lifts off.

There was obvious wind on the ground so I wanted a big field to land in. I was due east of Fall Mountain by this time and knew I needed a climb or I would be forced to land or fly into the rotor behind that mountain. About that time I saw John breaking down in a field below and in front of me. I decided to hit the little hillside to the east and if I didn’t find anything, I would land with John. I found a snotty thermal with a good climb rate for about ½ of a turn and was quickly drifting away from the last good landing field. I had to reevaluate my situation after each turn. Finally I started climbing with some certainty and decided to let go John’s field.

Once climbing again, I looked around for signs of the rest of the gang. I couldn’t spot anyone. Surely, they are still in the air, but where? I also noticed that the wind had shifted more to the northwest and I was drifting out over the trees towards Keene. I didn’t want to drag my knuckles through the trees on a windy day with a low cloud base, so I used most of my altitude on a glide back to the edge of the river valley. I stumbled into a reasonable climb south of the Route 5 & Route 12 intersection and started checking out my options. The sky to the north was quickly drying out. There were no clouds on the high ground to the east of the river, but good looking clouds on the west side. I knew I would not be able to make the west side with a single glide. Um, what to do?

Something caught my eye and I watched someone land south of Bellows Falls. In an uncharacteristic move, I decided I had enough flying for the day and decided to land with that pilot. I flew upwind about 5 miles to land with that glider and on the way there I noticed Andy and Jeff climbing near cloud base further upwind. I also noted that the trees below were dancing all over the place in the wind. Oh joy. Although I expected turbulence, I had a smooth landing in a stiff breeze that made it easy to carry my glider over to where Jake was already breaking down. Within 10 minutes the wind dropped to almost nothing, the sky dried out, and it seemed like most thermal activity stopped. I later learned that Jeff and Andy flew another 25 miles south, with Jeff landing in Massachusetts.

Jake and I had a good time reliving the flight as we broke down. Amy and Judy showed up with the vehicles even before we finished packing. When we got back to Morningside, some pilots thought I was joking when I said I just got back from a nice early fall XC flight. The wind was still blowing from the north-northeast and no one even considered flying the entire day. I guess I owe Jeff a thank-you for the phone call!