Saturday, August 29, 2009

Afternoon in the Sun

With the chances to fly cross-country fading as quickly as summer, I was hoping to do some cloud hopping starting at our club site in West Rutland, Vermont.  Although the usual suspects from northern New England (Amy, Bo, Bob, Dan, Keith, John S, and PK) planned to fly, only Jeff C and I were free to go from the Boston area.  Since Jeff usually drives to my place when we car-pool I decided to take the long way (3.5 hours) and save him the drive.

Launch could have been a set for hang glider porn; cummies filled the sky, birds were climbing, and a soar-able breeze was blowing straight into launch.  We quickly rigged and danced off launch.  (Thanks for the wire-assist Dan.)  I quickly climbed above the ridge line and never worried about sinking out for the rest of the day.

Jeff, PK, and I talked about flying north along the valley together even though we didn't have a driver.  However that plan started falling apart right after launch when I discovered Jeff's radio was completely hosed.  Furthermore, PK had one of those days where he was always in the "wrong spot at the wrong time"!

Valley to the northwest

John and I found a nice climb to cloud base (1100m; 3800 feet) to the west but unfortunately PK was low on the ridge near launch.  John and I then flew upwind, finding climbs under every cloud.  John continued on to circle Bird's Eye (a peak to the south) while I returned to hook up with PK.  I found another climb to base on the way back while PK dove across the valley to hook up with John and ended up low once again.  Dang.  I played at cloud base to the west for awhile and then flew across the next valley to the northeast and waited on PK or Jeff at base (1250m; 4100 feet).  I almost took off but since I didn't have a retrieve and two pilots were hoping to fly with me, I flew back upwind to the ridge.

Launch ridge and bowl

Peaks to the south

The increasing haze and drying clouds confirmed that warmer, humid, and more stable air was moving in.  However the increasing wind meant the ridge and valley were still quite soar-able.  Once the urge to leave was calmed, I played around with different climbing and gliding techniques.


Valley to the east (West Rutland and Rutland)

Near the end of the flight PK and I pushed 7 km (4 miles) upwind only losing 100m (300 feet) on the trip.  After exhausting our altitude we blew back and started soaring the small bump in front of the LZ.  PK had enough for the day and asked me to give him a head start for the LZ.  I ran to the base of the ridge and benched up to Jeff's altitude.  I wanted to get some closeup photos of Jeff as we headed out to land but the air just wasn't smooth enough any more since the peaks to the south were throwing off turbulence in the stronger wind.  It also meant the approach to the LZ was probably getting exciting.

LZ is mowed strip on "top" of pyramid shaped corn field.

PK confirmed my concern when he described his approach and then Jeff's.  The LZ sits downwind of a hill and can be rowdy before you round-out near the surface.  Although the LZ is large, most of the field hasn't been mowed this year since it is too wet.  This means the best place to land is a small mowed section along a triangle-shaped corn field.  The mowed area is large enough but in my glider you have to cross a small tree line low if you want to land there.  PK managed to land on the strip OK and that was my plan as well until I got dropped twice during my approach.  I didn't want that to happen again and not have enough altitude to clear the tree line.  So I cut my approach short, came in high over the tree line, and landed in the tall grass.  I made the safe decision but wonder if there is another approach that is as safe and doesn't require walking through tall soggy grass.

Dan graciously rode up with Bob to get my truck while Jeff and I quickly packed to beat the setting sun.  Amy and Jeff had their longest flights to date; Amy with 2+ hours and Jeff with 4+.  Everyone seemed to enjoy the day.  Although I initially wanted to go XC, I still had tons of fun trying to optimize my climb and glide performance, exploring the edges of my glider's flight envelop, and just playing around in the air on a late summer's day.

Flights: 1, Duration: 4:42

Monday, August 24, 2009

Crow Island

Mark V, a hang-glider pilot that also flies trikes, invited Amy and I to a picnic and fly-in at Crow Island in Stow Massachusetts Saturday (August 15).  I barely got across the field when I spotted Arvin, a trike pilot, sailplane pilot, and ex-hang glider pilot that I trained with when we were happy running down a slope.  Arvin grabbed my arm and moments later we were flying around the airfield in his trike.  Sweet!

Arvin's trike

Arvin on final

Arvin was roped into burger-flipping duty after we landed so I turned my attention to Amy, who was getting ready for her first ultralight flight with Mark.  She had a good time, but was feeling a bit "too high" as Mark climbed through 1200 feet (365m)!

Mark and Amy

I recognized Nick's hang glider resting in the shade on the way in and barely got to wave to him before he took off for a couple hours of soaring using his Mosquito harness.

I grabbed some video with my cell phone between flying and stuffing my face with food.

I chatted with other hang-gliding buddies (Janice, Nathan, Tom) and some of the CIA (Crow Island Aviators) I met at Wallaby Ranch earlier this spring.  I watched a spot landing contest, the candy drop for the children, and of course ate a lot of food.  I had a good time and was envious watching people fly only minutes from my home.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thermal Factory

I camped overnight at Morningside Flight Park after flying at Sugarbush on Thursday (August 13).  I awoke Friday morning to a valley packed thick with wet grey fog.  I almost left for home before PK called and mentioned that Peter J was heading to Morningside and Greg H was looking for someone to join him at nearby Mount Ascutney.  I sure wasn't going to hike into Ascutney with the predicted heat and humidity but a lazy day on the tow line sure beat driving home to the pile of wood that needed splitting.

Peter's timing was perfect; the fog broke up moments before he drove in.  Peter said he preferred to fly at Ascutney but was glued to the shade at the flight park.  After a bit of hang wringing Peter and I decided to tow at Morningside while Greg and John A planned to launch at Ascutney.  We agreed on a common radio frequency and I told Greg I would fly over to hook up with him.

There were ratty clouds forming over the high terrain to the east and west, but as expected nothing over the once foggy river valley.  I planned to tow towards Ascutney and make a run for the mountain immediately after releasing.  However, much to my surprise, we ran into a weak climb to the north of the runway.  After a couple of turns I released and started my slow climb.

I watched Steve join the climb with the tandem glider and then Peter.  I called for Greg but he simply replied "low and busy".  Enough said.  After topping out around 1100m (3600 feet) I pushed on towards Ascutney but couldn't find a climb.  I finally chickened out and returned to the hot metal roofs of the factory buildings for a recharge.  That pattern would repeat itself most of the afternoon.

Rhett in the tug, Steve on tow, Peter free flying.

Greg joining the crew.

Eventually Greg got back on the radio and said he just pulled himself off the deck at 300 feet (100 m) and was on glide towards us.  He joined a climb with Peter, Tony, and me over the factories.  I would leave the climb for a forming cloud to only watch the cloud dissipate on the short trip there and then find nothing under it.  We left for clouds at the first sign of condensation to only find nothing under the white "fools gold".  I got more and more aggressive as the afternoon wore on, returning with barely any altitude over the metal rooftops.

Claremont, New Hampshire

Mount Ascutney and Connecticut River

Here is a short clip of Greg and Peter climbing in the "house" thermal.

We played around for most of the late afternoon.  I finally connected with a good climb under a cloud to the east of Morningside after an all-or-nothing glide that seemed uniquely satisfying.  I hit another climb near Claremont and then floated back land with Peter and Greg at Morningside.

Flights: 1, Duration: 2:38

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Rhett called Wednesday afternoon (August 12) and said he was going to fly his tug to the picturesque Warren-Sugarbush airport in Warren Vermont that evening and wanted to know if I would help him demonstrate aero-towing to airport officials and members of the Sugarbush Soaring Association early the next morning.  Only a handful of people can convince me to load up the glider and drive 3.5 hours in the pouring rain at 5:30AM to go flying in potentially wet, and at best, mediocre conditions.  Rhett is one of those people.

I dropped into the Mad River Valley around 9:00 AM and Rhett and Fay greeted me at the airfield in front of a nice hanger a few minutes later.  (Fay was providing ground support that day.)  We met with friendly local sailplane and tug pilots to discuss existing sailplane launch, tow, and landing procedures and then develop procedures that would allow us to blend in with minimal interruption.

The wind was blowing from the east, almost 90 degrees across the runway, over a tree line.  The local pilots said it was an unusual direction and happens about once a month.  Oh well.  We didn't think it would affect the tows much but I was concerned about a crosswind final.  I decided there was enough room to manage a last minute turn into the wind into tall grass east of the mowed strip along the runway.

Although it was raining to the east, the low clouds above the field were breaking up so we decided to do some towing.  After PK arrived, we hiked our gliders across the runway and started rigging.  A curious crowd gathered around asking questions about equipment (gliders, parachutes, releases, etc.), launch and landing procedures, operating envelops, and of course soaring techniques.  As usual, once the conversation turns to soaring we are on common ground.  The local pilots offered up the location of house thermals, sink holes, and turbulent areas.

I finished rigging first and was eager to get into the air before the forecasted rain and thunderstorms arrived.  Rhett and I had a long runout before becoming airborne since the ground was soggy and we were towing uphill.  I really enjoyed that first view you get when climbing out from a new airfield.  The runway quickly dropped off into a treed valley, while a hill rose before us to the south, and mountains framed the east and western flanks.  Rhett and I flew a nice and conservative pattern.  He waved me off at an agreed altitude and position even though we were not climbing.  Rhett left to demonstrate his approach pattern while I headed across a ravine to some smoke rising from a wood fire.  (I assumed anything burning with the amount of rain we had must be hot.)  I managed a weak climb back to release height before playing under a few wispy clouds to the east and then west.

The purpose of our flights were to demonstrate our ability to blend with the sailplane activity, so I didn't spend much time soaring.  I was surprised when I looked over at the airfield and noticed it was about 500 feet higher than valley below me.  I needed to leave immediately if I wanted to fly the agreed pattern instead of squeaking back into the field low or landing out.  I watched PK launch as I approached the field.  I crossed over the mid-point of the runway as planned, did a short downwind leg over trees, dropped into the tree-lined slot off the north end of the runway, and glided along the east side of the runway to a landing near the windsock.  All very conservative and uneventful; just what was needed.

PK demonstrated we could soar in weak conditions before coming back to the field for a good landing using a modified approach that did not cross the runway.  Most of the audience wandered off after PK landed.  We assumed their questions were answered and were satisfied we could share a airfield.  While David rigged his glider, I spoke with sailplane pilots about common issues such as declining membership and access to flying sites.

David was towed up as a large cloud developed on the western ridge line.  David and a sailplane pilot soared to the south and west for quite awhile before landing.

David on approach.

David landing.

PK and I were getting ready to tow again when I noticed rain falling from the clouds to the west and that it was slowing drifting towards the field.  We both decided not to fly to avoid creating an impression that we fly in unsafe conditions.  (The rain never reached the field and the clouds dried out 30 minutes later).

After we broke down, Bill, David, and PK left while Fay, Rhett, and I drove into town for a late lunch / early dinner.  After a relaxing meal, we returned to the airfield.  Fay took off with the launch dolly in Rhett's truck, Rhett climbed into the clearing evening air, and I drove away to the west facing ridge to the east that provided a nice view of the setting sun.

I hope we are invited back to the airfield and I get a chance to explore the valley on a good soaring day with light winds.  I'm sure the views are spectacular and if our one day there was any indicator there are many new friends to make as well.

Flights: 1, Duration: 0:20

Monday, August 10, 2009

About Time

I called Jake and Jeff B whenever I needed a break from splitting firewood on Friday to see if the cold northwesterly winds had dropped enough for them to launch at Mount Ascutney.  I passed along surface reports from local airfields to help justify the intrusion.  Around 2:00 PM Jeff said it was gusting to 27 mph (43 k/h) on launch and Jake said the wind sock sounded "evil" as it was thrashed around.  They launched around 3:00 and were plastered on the hill for an hour before they got a nice climb, slide south to another climb and then drifted into Morningside for nice landings around 5:00 PM.

That evening, the forecast for the next day, Saturday, described a warm and somewhat stable southwesterly flow, broken cirrus, and a small chance of rain.  I went to bed thinking I would have to settle for a marginal day of soaring at West Rutland.  However, the forecast for Saturday was a gift from heaven to air-starved New England pilots; light west-northwest winds, scattered cumulus clouds around 1800m (6000 feet), and no rain.  The cirrus and warm air advection on southwesterly winds would hold off until mid-to-late afternoon.  No indecision or complicated decision making was required Saturday morning; we were going to Mount Ascutney and we were going XC.

Jeff C, Nick, and Rodger meet at my place, loaded our gear onto Rodger's SUV, and drove north.  Since everyone was interested in going XC and we didn't have a driver, someone would have to find their way back to the car and then pick up everyone else.  This time-honored arrangement definitely encourages long flights!

Although some regulars were away on summer vacations, the limited setup area was packed with gliders and visitors hiking the mountain.

PK squeezing in.

Jeff B posing.

Rigging in the trees.


Excitement turned to dread shortly after noon as a thick deck of cirrus crept in and the few nearby wispy cumulus clouds started drifting from the southwest instead of northwest.  The occasional puffs of wind on launch became more and more cross and we began worrying about launch conditions.  At this point, Randy, who had to be at a party later in the afternoon, volunteered to go first.  Although he got a bump here and there, he essentially sledded to the LZ.

We faced a tough decision.  Wait and hope the increasingly filtered sunshine would trigger more thermals or launch now before the wind became too cross or over-the-back forcing us to hike our gear out without flying.  John A decided to go while he could.  He launched and disappeared around the corner to the southwest bowl.  We watched the sky behind us hoping to see him climb out, but finally gave up our vigil.

Around 2:00 PM Jeff, Jake, and I decided it was time to launch even if the thermals weren't ready.  Jake and I had to gently nudge Jeff into void.  We found a small broken thermal on the western spine, and after a few tense moments, started climbing up the backside of launch.  I also noticed that John, who launched earlier, was still in the air and climbing to our south.  Whew, it looked like the day was starting to turn on.  Jeff and I topped out around 1500m (5000 feet), but returned to the mountain to hook up with more pilots before heading out.  I regretted that decision about the time I sank below launch height.  However, that was short lived as I found a climb on the north side of the mountain and then hooked up with Jake and PK in a strong climb over the bowl.  Although the cirrus was thickening I noticed cumulus now forming in every direction.  I guess the temperature had finally reached the trigger point and/or the high pressure system was beginning to slide away from our area.  Either way, it was good news!

Jake had to work that evening so he peeled off for Morningside as Jeff and I headed towards Claremont NH to the east.  My flying gaggle for the day was completed when PK joined us in a climb east of town.  We had an easy run until we couldn't find with a good climb at Newport.  Jeff didn't connect with the weak climb PK and I were circling in and was forced to move on low.  I pushed on towards Lake Sunapee and found a moderate climb and noticed the tents for the Annual Craftsmen's Fair at Mount Sunapee.  I flew back a mile or so when PK announced a stronger climb.  It probably wasn't worth backtracking for, but it allowed all three of us to hook up again.

I watched all the boats playing on the lake as we glided over towards Mount Kearsarge.  I wanted to glide right onto the side of the mountain but Jeff and PK wanted to stay over good LZs so we made a turn to the north where Jeff marked a good climb right when we needed one.  Once again I headed directly to Kearsarge over PK's complaints about the lack of LZs.  I assured him we wouldn't need any LZs.  We climb right over the top of the mountain and left before base since the cloud was doming on the underside.

I lead a long glide to the east towards a good looking cloud.

This cloud was dead when we arrived.

I snapped a few shots of Jeff as he pulled up beside me.

The next intended refueling stop quickly fell apart as we approached.  I was hoping for a least a weak climb but the old cloud offered nothing more than a few bumps.  Oops.  Now where?  There were no clouds to the east within reach and the ground to the east was a river valley which was probably wet.  I decided on an all-or-nothing gamble on a cloud to the north while Jeff and PK continued to the east.  I was eventually rewarded with a moderate climb while Jeff and PK struggled low over the valley.  Eventually Jeff came back and landed in a nice level field near the river.  I could have continued a bit further north to more clouds but decided to run into the blue to join PK in a climb.  However, PK left his "climb" shortly before I arrived and was heading the opposite direction.  Dang.  I was now too far from the clouds so I continued on to the higher ground to the northeast of Northfield NH hoping to find something in the blue.  Speaking of blue, there isn't much northeast of Northfield except trees and the blue waters of Lake Winnipesaukee and a dozen smaller lakes. The lack of any substantial climb, the proximity to a major highway (I-93), and the absence of decent LZs was enough to turn me around as well.

I didn't have a lot of good LZ options, but choose a reasonable small hayfield that was being baled.  I made a fast, fun technical cross-wind approach that left me standing on the driveway between two buildings.  Sweet.

Although I might have flown further, I definitely didn't win the best LZ award.  Jeff and PK were served shepherd's pie while they waited.  Rodger, who landed in Newport, walked to a nearby pub and waited with beer in hand.  Jake and Nick landed at Morningside, complete with cold soda and lots of friends.  I probably tied with Dennis' field east of Claremont.  I did better than Jeff C, who landed in the tall grass in the bailout LZ and Mike who landed behind the mountain in a field with an upset owner that doesn't want pilots landing there anymore.

Jeff C hitched a ride back to the base of the mountain and retrieved Rodger's car.  He then picked up Nick and Rodger before the crew picked me up at sunset.  We joined Randy and Rebecca for dinner in Concord NH before heading home.  Finally my first decent day of XC weather in New England this year.  About time.

Flights: 1, Duration: 2:50, Distance: 75.6 km (47 miles)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A one-glide-wonder

In spite of the downpours the night before, I was surprised by the lack of postings on our local mailing list Saturday morning.  Although some pilots were going to Morningside (Mike, Jeff C, and Randy), I ruled that out when the forecast predicted fog in the river valley until noon.  Peter J was also hoping to tow at Morningside, but after his recent experiences he decided to push on to West Rutland if there was fog at Keene or in the river when he drove through.
Amy and I were driving north, primarily to watch the fireworks that evening in Bellows Falls and Rockingham Vermont.  We stopped at the Vermont Country Store while the sun warmed up the sauna.  Al, John S, and Peter were waiting in the soggy parking area when we arrived.  I showed Amy the flooded LZ and then splashed our way up the stream that was also our road to launch.  I was perplexed by the standing water on top of the mountain and even more so by the wet grass.  It was already noon and the grass had not even dried.  Sigh.  At least it was blowing in nicely and would probably be ridge soar-able.

I was about rigged when I mentioned my surprise that us four were the only pilots here on a soar-able Saturday afternoon.  About that time Randy sent a text message asking if it was soar-able since it definitely wasn't at Morningside.  After a brief exchange, he decided to drive over.  Then the pilots started pouring in.  Barry, Bianca, Bob, Dennis, Greg, Jeff, Kathleen, Keith, Ryan, and others.  Now, it seemed like a weekend!

Getting ready to launch.  Photo by Amy.

Photo by Amy.

Photo by Amy.

Al launched first and I followed.  It was soar-able, but not a give-me yet.  Peter launched after I did and got  surprisingly low, so I shifted into conservative mode as more and more pilots jumped into the air.  The area in front of launch was working nicely, but I parked near the west end of the bowl to keep the crowding minimal.  Bianca, Greg, and Jeff climbed above the rest of the pack about the same time I climbed out to the west.  I joined them as Bianca flew upwind and marked a nice climb that topped out a bit higher.  We continued flying upwind and topping out higher in sweet smooth climbs hoping Dennis might join us and to give us a chance to start our journey with more altitude.

I played around with a hawk that was comfortable sitting a few meters off my left wing.  We climbed in the broken lift to my highest point in the flight at 1345m (4400 feet).  I was ready to leave when I noticed it was after 3:00 PM and I needed to be on the ground by 5:00.  Greg, Jeff, and I left along a small ridge behind the main ridge we were just soaring.  We glided under a series of small wisps that didn't produce more than a few bumps.  I turned back once when I heard Greg's vario beeping over the radio, but the only thing I got was lower!  I got a wake-up call when I checked for LZs; most of the usual fields were flooded.  Not wet, full-on lakes.  Yuck.  I wanted to keep pushing north over higher ground but as Jeff turned towards the "valley of a thousand lakes" the lemming in me took over and I followed.  We spotted a nice field on the top of a hill that looked dry.  We continued our long glide until I watched Greg and Jeff land as I circled in an anemic thermal overhead.  It was obvious that a thermal coming off the flooded valley was never going to turn on so I left the climb and dove in to join them.  A short time later Dennis joined us.

Greg and Jeff

Amy showed up quickly since we only managed 12 km (7.5 m) on our "one-glide-wonder".  Greg and Jeff were happy they got to fly.  Its tough to be upbeat about this season!

Amy and I stopped by Morningside on the way to the fireworks.  We said "happy birthday" to Steve and got to see the happy afterglow from a successful marriage proposal that involved a tandem flight.  (Update: It wasn't Steve doing the proposing; that was done by a student!)

Peter met us for the fireworks display.  Randy and his family were late to the fireworks since he flew for over 3 hours along with many other pilots.  I heard Kathleen was stranded up high all afternoon.  ;-)

Flights: 1, Duration: 1:17, Distance: 12 km (7.5 miles)