According to the weather forecasts, Tuesday was going to be "the day". Pilots investigated any excuse they could use to blow off work, family, or other commitments. (We're a creative bunch when properly motivated.) Rodger and I felt lucky to be going flying when we met at Leominster MA to share the drive to Mount Ascutney.
I tried to ignore the advancing cirrus and the total lack of thermal activity as we ended our 2 hour drive. I whispered to myself "it'll turn on soon" as Chip and PK loaded onto Rodger's vehicle at the base for the ride up. I envisioned cummies filling the sky at the end of our hike to launch. What greeted us, aside from Dennis, Jeff, and Ryan, was wind. Potentially "blown out" wind. (20 mph/ 32 kph gusting to 27 mph/ 43 kph) What else could go wrong with the forecast? Rain? Hail? ;-)
We rigged while carefully listening for lulls. There were some, but they were depressingly brief; maybe 10 seconds at times. John A showed up as a crowd of hikers waiting for a show started to form.
Chip walking up to launch
Chip was the first to step onto launch. We all helped him steady his glider in the blasts racing up the cliff face. We waited. We waited more. We would step to the edge only to be forced back. Finally Chip had enough and decided to back completely off the rock.
Jeff and I checked out the sky behind the mountain. There were a few cumulus clouds forming. They also were not racing overhead either. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't as windy as the gusts on launch lead us to believe. After more hang-wringing Jeff decided to launch. Just as Chip did, he waited but found a brief pause to his liking and dove off.
We could tell it was windy but Jeff wasn't plastered against the mountain. That was enough to get things moving. John was next with a pure elevator launch. Dennis mounted the rock with his ATOS rigid wing. It was disturbing to see how much a "rigid" wing can flex. I almost decided to break down but, after looking up at Jeff and John, decided to fly. Thanks to Chip, PK, and Ryan, I had a good launch after a short wait.
The air was relatively smooth as I initially climbed in ridge lift. I gained altitude by sneaking a few turns in thermals before pushing back upwind. We finally flew out to a strong thermal that was going up as fast as it was drifting downwind. However, it was rough. I was going weightless and my side wires were snapping much too often. I wasn't having fun so I sought out a friendly part of the thermal, but alas there wasn't one. If this is what the day had in store, I was ready to land. I stayed in the thrashing machine until I had enough altitude glide to Morningside 9 miles (14.5 km) away.
Sigh. The "big day" was being reduced to dash back to the inviting LZ at Morningside. I stumbled into a smooth climb over the intersection of route 5 and route 131 downwind of the mountain and relaxed while climbing to 7200 feet (2200m). I also noticed the wind above 5500 was more northerly which drifted me over to Morningside in no time. I began to think the "rough air" at Ascutney was an anomaly and not the norm. After a couple climbs and glides upwind, I decided to head south along the river valley with its large strong-wind-friendly fields. Meanwhile Jeff landed at Morningside and Rodger was flying upwind to the northwest.
Since my radio decided to quit working, I flew over to PK, pointed down the river, and took off. He got the hint and followed. We had an easy series of climbs as we flew over Charlestown NH and Fall Mountain. I crossed over the river to Bellows Falls VT looking for a climb in a blue hole. We watched John A land in front of us which wasn't a good sign! I finally found a small thermal on the Vermont side of the river. PK came over and climbed through me as I unsuccessfully tried to get my radio working.
Eventually I ventured into the high ground east of the river and started a climb that took me back to base. PK didn't connect and we were soon separated. PK searched around the valley as I flew to Westmoreland NH and contemplated landing at the Keene airport. However, since PK needed a ride back to the mountain, landing in Keene would add significant drive time to our evening. Instead I flew back upwind to find PK.
PK was flying north along the river when I first spotted him. I matched his course, but 3000 feet (914m) higher. I thought he was flying to a field upwind when he made an abrupt 180-degree turn and flew south towards Putney VT. Um, maybe he couldn't reach the field. Ok, I'll turn around also. He flew to less-than-desireable fields on the NH side of the river and then start turning. Oh, he's not landing yet. Duh.
I didn't want to land there so I turned around again and continued on my original course to the north. With all the cruising without climbing I was low enough that I was picking out LZs when I smelled a "river bottom" thermal. I centered up and started a long mellow climb back to base. I watched PK land to the south as I flew over Walpole NH and then to the north side of Fall Mountain. I might have made Morningside, but didn't want to push my luck gliding low over un-landable terrain. Instead, I returned to Fall Mountain.
Bellows Falls, canal, power plant, and trains
Dam at Bellows Falls
I spent 20-25 minutes soaring the western sunlit face with a dozen birds. It was something I thought about every time I drove back home when training at Morningside long ago. I would drive by late in the day and watch buzzards and hawks play in the warm sunny updrafts. Now, years later, here I was doing it. I've had plenty of chances before, but was always rushing by on my quest for greater distance. I floated above the ridge scanning the complex and intricate scene below. The dam, the falls, the canal, the power plant, the buildings, bridges, and railways below kept the eyes busy for a long time.
Southern end of Fall Mountain; LZ is the yellowish field near the bend in the river
When the lift slowly faded, I flew to a baseball game south of Bellows Falls. I could hear the people talking on the ground as I silently glided over. I floated along the river soaking up the musky aroma and watching water ripple over rocks in the shallows. I flew deliciously close to a sunlit tree line before swooping into a freshly mown hayfield in totally still air.
I saw that access to the field was through a railway underpass but was surprised to find it filled with muddy water. Oh joy!
A few minutes later, Robert Smith, a writer for "The Message For The Week", a local paper published in Chester VT, stopped by. We had a good conversation talking about many things including some of his aviation experiences. He took notes and pictures so residents in the area might be looking up a bit more in the next few weeks!
Rodger, who eventually landed at Morningside, spared me the wade through the water. Thanks Rodger! Ryan fetched PK, so Rodger and I could continue on towards home. Thanks Ryan.
The day definitely wasn't the kind of "big miles" day I wanted. However, it was definitely an adventure. It started with a challenging launch and unpleasant thermals, was packed with team flying in the middle, and ended with mellow flying doing something I wanted to do for years. Maybe its true that you can't always get what want but you might just get what you need.
Flights: 1, Duration: 3:52, Distance: 44.4 miles