Thursday, July 29, 2010

You can't always get what you want

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might just find you get what you need."  The Rolling Stones

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

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I agreed to meet David A, a pilot from Michigan who wanted to test fly the glider I had for sale, at Morningside on Tuesday.  David and his wife had been exploring New England while we waited for the weather to improve.  Although Tuesday was no "gem", the rest of the week looked worse.  I thought about posting a message on the local pilot mailing list asking if anyone wanted to join me.  I envisioned local pilots wondering if "Lanning had gone crazy" when they saw the predicted low cloud cover, rain, and generally crappy conditions.  It would have been a masterful move given how the day eventually turned out.

It was sprinkling when I arrived at Morningside around 11:00 AM.  A few low ragged cumulus clouds floated from the north under a solid deck of mid-level clouds.  Since the forecast called for scattered showers and thunderstorms after 2:00 PM, I began to wonder if even a short sled-ride for David was impossible.  I setup the glider around 12:00 when the sprinkles stopped and the clouds thinned a bit.  David timed his drive from Maine perfectly; arriving shortly after I completed rigging and as a bit of sun poked through the upper deck of clouds.  We inspected the glider, talked about its handling characteristics, and with Rhett's help got David rigged for towing.

David had perfect test flight conditions.  He launched into a glassy smooth headwind behind Rhett.  They headed north to an opening below the upper clouds where some cumulus were forming.  Rhett described the tow as a "zen experience" it was so smooth.  Well, until they saw a twin-engine plane coming directly at them around 6000 feet (1800m).  Rhett sized up the situation and decided a quick turn was in order.  That ended the "zen tow"!

While they were climbing, the upper deck broke up and a nice cumulus field formed underneath.  Sweet!  David could explore the valley and stay up as long as he wanted.

Meanwhile, I sat on the ground watching bees and drooling over the sky above.

David finally had to search for sink so he could land in the perfectly calm conditions on the ground.  I wish the weather was so accommodating on my test flights.  I guess timing is everything.

Oh, by the way, David is now driving around with a new glider on his truck.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


John, Rodger, and I talked about flying to the Canadian border as we drove to Morningside on Monday.  The 116 mile (186 km) flight seemed within our reach given the weather forecast of moderate south winds and strong lift.  Peter, who didn't want any part of a long retrieve, drove by himself and agreed to pick up Ryan on the way there.  Good forecast?  Check.  Driver?  Check.  Equipment ready?  Check.  It was going to be epic.

Yep, it was going to be an epic day, except for the thick smothering cirrus that peered over the horizon and the wind blowing from the southwest instead of the south.  It would have been OK with only one "issue".  However the combination was stifling since the territory northeast of Morningside features lots of trees with few LZs; not exactly terrain to be floating over low in weak lift.  However, we hoped for the best and decided to "give it a go".




Peter thinks we need new color schemes on our gliders.  I agree.

While us aero-jockeys played, Ryan was foot-launching and flying across the road.  Peter launched first and managed to find weak lift west of the field.  Rodger was next and found a good climb to the northeast.  John went next followed by Allen.  Since there was no one else to help launch, it was now my turn.  John, who released a bit too early, landed after a short flight and helped me launch.

The tow was surprisingly active; partly due to turbulence from a hill directly upwind and partly due to thermals.  Yeehaw!  Rhett dropped me off in a good climb directly over the bullseye at Morningside and I started screwing my way up.

Meanwhile Rodger was landing just east of Claremont, Peter was coming into land, John was taking his second flight, and Ryan was flying off the hill.  I captured some of the action.

I was over Rodger's LZ to the northeast when John announced he had a good climb south of Morningside.  Since I didn't like the terrain downwind, I decided to race back upwind to John.  I hit 3 good climbs that allowed me to come in over John.  Um, maybe the day wasn't so bad after all.

We played under dying clouds until I decided to strike out for better looking clouds on the Vermont side of the river.  I told John it was probably a "suicide run" and it was.  I got low and barely made it back to Morningside.

Cumulus development reignited when the smothering cirrus moved off around 4 PM.  Peter launched and found a good climb but struggled against the now stronger wind.  I quickly suited up but had to wait for Rhett to tow Steve up with a tandem passenger.  Once again, Rhett dropped me off in a climb, but with the winds at 18 mph (29 km/h) I had to quickly make a decision.  There were good looking clouds to the northeast over the trees, but I was only at 3300 feet (1000m) in a weak climb in the blue.  I decided to return for more altitude so I could start the trek across the forest near base.  The only thing I found was wind-induced turbulence once I got below 1500 feet (450m).

We were all a bit disappointed since our initial expectations for the day were so high.  Still, we enjoyed the break, safe challenging flights, and the company of friends.

Flights: 2, Duration: 1:05

Friday, July 09, 2010

Cool at Base

Most people in New England were satisfied hiding indoors earlier this week when temperatures were 100F (38C) or more and the humidity level not much lower.  However, Randy and I are not like most people and decided to stay cool at cloud base instead.  We do have limits though; we quickly passed on Greg's request to hike, with gliders, to the launch at Mount Ascutney.  No thanks.  Rigging gliders in the airfield sauna at Morningside would be hot enough.

The weather forecast was interesting not only for the unusual heat, humidity, and haze, but also for the prediction of a convergence line with light winds forming far inland; maybe even over Morningside.  Just in case conditions turned on, we picked up Ryan who volunteered to drive.

We quickly rigged once we arrived at Morningside so Rhett could drag us into the sky before heading into town to tackle a long "to do" list.  I decided to launch first so Rhett could drop Randy off above me once I established a climb.  Rhett and I plowed into a climb north of the field.  After a turn or two together I released at 1700 feet (518m) and began turning in a reasonable climb.  However, I only snagged a couple turns before I lost it.  I started searching for something better while wishing I stayed on tow a bit longer.  I finally found another climb just as Randy and Rhett were taking off.  By the time Randy released above me I was climbing at 300 fpm (1.5m/s).

Clouds away from river valley.  (Morningside field left of center.)

We climbed well together but I was already worried about our future course line.  There were cumulus clouds about 5 miles (8 km) east of the river valley where we were.  That sounds nice but the clouds were over oceans of trees with little or no safe landing areas below them.  Furthermore, Randy had limited XC experience and a glider that didn't allow him to stray very far from LZs.  We tried to fly as close to the clouds as possible and would glide back to the river valley if we got low.

The large fields at and around Peachblow Farm provided a temporary LZ sanctuary as we slowly moved south.  Unfortunately, we allowed ourselves to get separated and before long Randy was heading into the valley near Charlestown NH.  I just assumed he was done for the day so I stayed in my weak climb as he amazingly stayed airborne in the hazy blue soup to the west.

PeachBlow Farm, Charlestown NH

I kept moving further east and starting getting stronger (500 fpm, 2.5 m/s) and more reliable climbs to cloud base at 6200 feet (1900m).  I floated around in the cool air watching Randy put up a valiant fight with gravity before taking a final glide to a field north of Fall Mountain.

Although I was getting good climbs, I was also getting further and further from the river valley.  I considered flying to Keene NH, but decided the extra retrieve time wasn't worth the hassle.  Instead I chose to dive into the blue towards the river valley south of Walpole NH.

I have never flown in such smooth air in the middle of a sunny day before.  There was no wind, no thermals, no turbulence, not even the tiniest of bumps as I passed over the town of Walpole.  There were no thermal or wind ripples on the river as far as I could see in either direction.  It was like flying at sunrise on a calm morning!

Once I gave up hunting for a climb, I started looking for LZs.  I flew over several recently cleared hayfields on my way to Putney.  I soon discovered there was a lot more corn than usual to the south so I turned around and flew back to the hayfields.  All three fields were OK, but one had a line of shade trees on one side.  Um.  Break down in the full sun or in the shade?  Easy decision.

Since the air was so benign, I decided to have fun.  I did a couple wing overs before making the wires whistle as I banked into the corner of the field, dove and skimmed a couple feet off the deck less than a wingspan away from the trees as alternating light and dark from the sun and shade flickered on my visor.  I stood the glider up on its keel for a no-step landing and walked 4 or 5 steps into the shade before setting the glider down on the mowed grass.  Sweet!

Randy and Ryan showed up shortly after I finished packing.  We made a few stops on the way home.  ;-)  We stopped at a farm stand near where I landed for fresh produce, at Peachblow Farm for strawberries, at Morningside to thank Rhett, at Ramunto's to get dinner, at Ryan's house, and at Lake Sunapee to get ice cream.

Although it was a short flight, it was fun way to stay cool on a sweltering summer afternoon.

Flights: 1, Duration: 1:55, Distance 18.9 miles

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Playing Hooky

Last Friday was a good day to "play hooky".  It was the only day last week that looked good for flying.  We even had too many pilots for our eastern Massachusetts carpool; Jeff and Peter ended up driving alone to Mount Ascutney while John, Randy, and I rode north in Rodger's car.

Doug, Jake, Jeff B, Jeff C, PK, and Randy waited for us and then Jake gave everyone a ride to the top in his truck.  Thanks Jake!


Although John pointed out the obvious cumulus in front of the mountain, the rest of the sky didn't inspire confidence.  Oh, the buzzards and butterflies flapping their wings didn't help either.

Pat showed up and no one objected when Jake asked if anyone minded Pat rigging and launching first.  Jeff, Randy, and I helped Pat rig and then Jake give Pat a full site introduction and talked him through his first launch off "the rock".  Pat's good launch even got applause from the spectators!  Although Pat didn't soar very long, he flew through enough lift to get us going.

Ryan and Steve helped me and many other pilots launch; thanks guys!  The first three pilots (Jeff B, Greg, and Jon) immediately rocketed skyward, but the next three (me, PK, and Peter) had to hang on for the next ride out.

PK and I grabbed the "next bus out of town" and left the mountain about 2000 feet (600m) lower than the first group, but I was anxious to catch them.  I had a good climb over the river and then detoured to the south to spiral-up under a cloud shading Claremont NH.  A sailplane joined the climb.  (I found out later it was Mark Herman, a Connecticut pilot).

Jeff B got separated from the first group when he got low near Newport NH.  PK and I caught up with Greg and Jon as we approached Lake Sunapee.

I slowed down once I caught the early group and got nice and high before crossing the lake.  I didn't want to race since I did plenty of that at the East Coast Championship.  I waited for the other pilots to lead out, but alas they wouldn't budge!

I took off for a line of clouds to the north, but instead of going to the closest I angled to the northeast hoping to skip a climb.  That didn't work out very well and I was soon relatively low and working back upwind to get a climb so I could float over all the trees that surround Mount Kearsarge.

Greg and PK were a climb ahead of me by the time I reached Mount Kearsarge but I quickly raced to the north to join their climb.  They took off to the northeast before I could climb to them, but it was just as well.  I wanted to head southeast so I could have an easier time finding landing areas on the other side of the Merrimack River.  John came in below me a couple thousand feet as I headed out.

I listened to Greg and PK get low around the river at Tilton NH and then start shopping for LZs.  I crossed the river high and was about half way to the raceway at Laconia when I noticed hundreds of sparkling lights reflecting off the parking lots.  Um.  I asked if anyone knew if something was happening at the track.  Jeff B came back laughing, "... nothing but NASCAR race week!"  Dang.

I was stretched out over a lot of trees and wanted to use the raceway parking as a possible LZ if I didn't find a climb.  I couldn't see any other acceptable fields so I made a hard turn back to the northwest where the sky was blue.  Since Greg and PK had just landed to the east of there, I didn't like my chances of getting a climb.  I was down to 3500 feet (1000m) when I arrived over potential LZs.  I played with several weak climbs but soon resigned to land.

I was disappointed but cheered up with I spotted a pond in the middle of a mown field.  Nothing like skimming through the water on final to sooth the sting of landing before you are ready.  I was planning my approach when I noticed some deer in the field.  That's odd.  Then I noticed a lot more deer.  That's really odd.  Um.  Must be some sort of game preserve or something.  Sigh.  No landing there which meant no pond skimming either.  Bummer.

I flew a bit to the southwest to a nice looking farm up in the hills a bit.  I noticed someone raking hay and considered landing there, but opted for an already cleaned field.  The field sloped down hill into the light wind and was surrounded by tall trees, but I was ready for the challenge!  I came in very low over the tree line and floated a long way across and down the field before landing on the tractor tracks that I used as my "spot".  It felt good pulling off a no-step landing in a challenging LZ.

I walked the glider over to a shade tree along a drive way and was soon greeted by Sterling, the man I saw raking hay.  He was very welcoming and we started chatting.

Sterling told me I landed at Corliss Farm, in Northfield NH.  He also told me the "deer" I saw were elk being raised for meat.  Even more reason to be glad I didn't land there!

I wish I had taken pictures from the air before landing so I had something to share.  After getting tips on good mountain biking trails in the area, I started packing while Sterling went off "rock picking".

It was about dusk when John, Randy, and Rodger showed up to take me home.  (Thanks guys).  Randy had an express ride down the backside of the mountain in light rotor.  John landed near Lake Sunapee, and Rodger landed outside Claremont.  Jeff C got a good flight on his new glider.  Jon landed near the river in Franklin NH and Jeff B landed in Warner NH.

It was indeed a good day to play hooky.

Flights: 1, Duration: 2:45, Distance: 48 miles