Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Team Challenge - Day 6 and 7

A strong gusty wind on Friday, day 6, kept everyone on the ground attending seminars, including one I lead.  We enjoyed a catered barbecue dinner and "mostly" enjoyed karaoke afterwards.  ;-)

The day was cancelled early on Saturday but a few people flew mid-afternoon during an unexpected lull.  We watched three pilots launch as we returned from lunch at the Cookie Jar Cafe.  We arrived in time to watch Cliff move to launch and get trashed around on the ramp by over-the-top wind gusts.  Ollie closed launch shortly afterwards.

Just before sunset, as the party was about to begin, our driver Pete wanted to know what I thought of the conditions.  The increasing cloud cover and setting sun allowed a wind gradient to develop, making it safe to play along the ridge.

After a quick consult with Ollie, we (Eric, Randy, and me) launched Pete and then Cliff. Sharon was kind to fetch the late flyers and bring them back for the dinner and party.


I ate, listened and danced to a band, and talked around the bonfire before saying goodbye and hopping into the car around 11:30 PM for the long drive back to Massachusetts with Randy.

I was disappointed we only had one task, but, as always, I learned a lot, caught up with many old friends, made a few new ones, and left eager to try the things I learned.  If you are new to XC flying or want to step up your game, there's no way you can lose by going to the Team Challenge.

Team Challenge - Day 5

We finally had good weather on Thursday as the tightly-wound low pressure over the central plains finally dissipated.  The winds slowly increased to brisk, but useable, speeds by early afternoon.  Cloud streets intersected the ridge about 20 degrees to the right of perpendicular.

"Look, birds climbing!"
The tasks where

  • "C" pilots, south along the ridge to Dr. Dale's airfield
  • "B" pilots, south along the ridge to a water tower on the ridge near Dr. Dale's and back north to the Henson's LZ
  • "A" pilots, south along the ridge to the water tower, back north to Buck's Knob north of Henson's and back south to Dr. Dale's

Mike and John

The New England team launched as a group and soon were above the ridge to the south.  We were the first team soaring the ridge, but the hillside was soon decorated with dozens of bobbing gliders.  It took a bit of effort to transition from ridge soaring to thermal climbing; we had to avoid drifting too far behind the ridge while climbing.

As expected we had minor "first day jitters" and radio issues, but soon settled into the day.  Ross moved south on course while John and I climbed north of launch. Stacy and Nick boated in ridge lift south of launch looking for a thermal.  John took his altitude and moved on, while I circled down to fly with Stacy.

We positioned ourselves where the cloud streets intersected the ridge to improve of our odds of finding a thermal so we could climb and easily cross the gaps to the south.  I wasn't much help; I couldn't get Nick, Stacy, and myself in the right spot at the right time.  Since we couldn't get high, I recommended we move to the edge of the first gap where I noticed gliders climbing.  Nick locked into a climb but Stacy was still trapped on the ridge.  After some floundering, I had to cross the gap to avoid landing and left Stacy to fend for herself.  She was sliding into the valley when she found a climb and slowly worked her way back up.  Great going Stacy!  I found a strong climb on a short section of ridge between two large gaps and decided to grab the water tower turn point with Nick as Stacy climbed with several gliders.

Ross had reached the water tower long before us, but landed at Dr. Dale's shortly afterwards.  Nick and I easily got the turn point and briefly searched for a climb that would allow us to comfortably cross back over the gaps.  Not wanting to linger, I left to help Stacy assuming Nick was following.  By the time I reached Stacy, she was heading into the valley to land with several other pilots.  Although it would have been great if Stacy reached her goal field, she did an outstanding job on her first XC flight and out landing.  Congratulations!

John landed on the way south, so that only left Nick and me in the air.  Nick wasn't there when I turned around and I discovered he was still at the water tower a few miles behind.  I debated whether go back.  Since Nick was flying well and he would have an easy glide into goal if he made it across the gaps, I decided to complete my task before the day shut down.

I quickly reached Henson's where I used three thermals to position myself at cloud base far into the valley.  I had a crossing downwind glide to the northern turn point at Bucks Knob.  Bucks Knob is a point surrounded by trees upwind of the a diminished ridge line.  I was happy to snag the turn point near cloud base, unlike the gaggle of pilots drifting across the tree-covered plateau downwind of the turn point.  I had goal on glide after another climb south of the Henson's but wasn't sure I wanted to land there when Stacy told me they didn't have a ride yet.  (With the team's blessing, Megan, one of our team's two drivers, joined another team after one of their pilots left.  Megan had her first XC and out-landing near Stacy.  Congratulations Megan!)

I thought I could find a ride more easily if I landed at Henson's Gap.  Instead of gliding directly into goal like Ollie did, I searched for a climb along the ridge that would allow me to get high enough to tag the goal at Dr. Dale's in the valley and fly back to the ridge.  I searched the ridge with Jeff but had to leave so I could land at goal.  I was about 1/3 of the way there when I looked back and saw Jeff climbing.  I was risking points for the team, but turned around and flew in under him.  We bounced around in a partially formed thermal and slowly climbed.  Part way through the climb, Jeff strayed too far upwind and lost several hundred feet in under a minute.  I continued climbing and drifting away as Jeff headed out to land.  Bummer.  The climb was weak and getting weaker.  The day was dying.  I easily had goal, but probably not enough to get back to the ridge high enough to fly back to Henson's Gap.  I announced I was going to land at Dr. Dale's.

Although I didn't climb, the glide over the plateau and into the valley was kind.  I reached goal at ridge height.  Um.  If I had the same glide back to the ridge, I might be able to stay up.  If I didn't, I would be landing out and would sacrifice points by not landing in a designated goal field.  I couldn't resist.  I turned around and flew back arriving just below the top.  The ridge offered up gentle lift that allowed me to very slowly climb over the top and float back to the launch at Henson's and then into the designated LZ at Henson's Gap.

Launch at Henson's Gap

Floating around launch

Although I enjoyed the flying, I was disappointed in my performance as a team leader.  I've done this before with better results.  I was lucky to break down next to Mike Barber.  He offered advice and shared his struggles with teaching XC flying skills.  I think I learned a lot and that is what the Team Challenge is all about.

Flights: 1, Duration: 4:02, Distance: 44.8 miles

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Team Challenge - Day 4

Thanks to a large low-pressure system that just will not die or leave, a promising day turned into a series hourly pilots' meetings and delayed launch window openings.

The rest of our team, the Inglorious Flying Bastards posed for a quick picture.

We decorated our gliders with blue "racing strips" so we could easily find team members in a crowded sky.

The day was finally cancelled due to a strong cross wind.  I kept hoping the late day sun would heat up the west facing side of the valley and allow us to launch and soar.  My teammates knew how to torture me by making me choose between ice cream in the valley or waiting for a chance to fly.  I choose to wait for a chance to fly.

Conditions did slowly improve and I decided to "give it a go".  With help from Bubba, Miller, and John I launched and worked my way onto the top of the ridge.  (Thanks guys!)  Once I got established above the ridge it was easy to stay airborne in the light late-afternoon lift.  I sped along the ridge for several miles, chased migrating birds, and generally had a good time blowing off steam.

The late afternoon sun and hazy air gave the valley fields below an enchanted look.

More gliders started appearing in the sky.  Shane flew south beyond my position at the gap to the water tower that was part of our originally planned task.  Randy flew his new glider he picked up at the airport this morning.  I zipped around my new friends for a moment before buzzing launch and heading to the LZ before the sun set.  I had a nice landing and was greeted by Megan offering me a beer.  Thanks!  We quickly packed in the fading daylight and I hoped in with Bill and Byron Estes for a quick ride back to the top.  We had dinner while watching landings from yesterday afternoon before breaking up for the evening.

Flights: 1, Duration: 1:16

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Team Challenge - Day 3

The weather gods toyed with us today.  The valley was filled with fog early this morning, but that is normal on many good days.

An unusual low-pressure system that was wrapping on itself played havoc with our local weather.

The forecast changed during the task committee meeting, again a few hours later, and yet again after noon.  Unpredicted high clouds crept in from the south and rain was nearby.  The task committee prepared two tasks but postponed launch when the clouds in the valley hadn't dissipated by 1 pm.  We kept ourselves busy for another hour.

"Someone" customized Stacy's glider.  (Stacy is our "new" C-rated pilot.)

The task committee eventually cancelled the day as it was obviously un-soarable.  We sledded to the LZ below while our launches and landings were recorded for review after dinner.

Many of us need serious soaring, and soon!

Flights: 1, Duration: 0:07

Monday, September 26, 2011

2011 Team Challenge - Day 1 and 2

Randy and I arrived at Henson's Gap near Dunlap Tennessee late Friday evening for the Team Challenge.

The New England crew setup for a warm-up flight Saturday afternoon.  Scattered clouds formed over the plateau while the valley remained blue.  Pilots sledding to the LZ convinced us to wait but three rigid wings launched in sequence, flew over to the southwest face, and slowly climbed out.  That was enough encouragement for me, so I followed Randy off launch after waiting for a slight tail wind to subside.

Randy worked a bubble he encountered on his way to the southwest face for a couple turns but headed to LZ.  I flew directly to the southwest cliff but encountered strong sink on the way there.  I didn't arrive as high as I hoped, but still tried to find a way up.  After a few passes with minor lift, I flew to join the growing crowd in the LZ.

A few pilots managed to climb up and enjoyed an afternoon at cloud base while the rest of us caught up with old friends in the LZ.

The first day official day on Sunday was blown out and the second day on Monday was rained out.  We attended seminars and waited for better weather to arrive.

Flights: 1, Duration: 0:07

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I planned to skip flying last Sunday.  It was too cold (24F / -4C) and breezy on Mount Washington, not enough wind and maybe showers on the coast at Plymouth, and likely blown out at Mount Equinox and Mount Greylock.  Lee and Randy also tossed in the towel, JJ didn't have wheels, and John Z decided to skip Washington after a conversation with me.  Peter J admitted the forecast was questionable, but was headed to Mount Greylock because "he has never been blown-out there" and his daughter and friend wanted to "get outside".  I stared at the forecasted 20+ mph (32 k/h) winds and resigned myself to domestic chores.

Luckily Amy told me to "just go".  I could socialize with pilots that drove in from afar for the weekend.  I also think she didn't want to be around someone looking at the sky and weather reports all day.  What the heck.  I called JJ and offered him a chance to take his glider for a drive.  Apparently he didn't have any other options and readily accepted.

JJ and I surveyed the flood damage as we drove along Route 2 west of the Connecticut River.  Flat green river-bottom hayfields that I flew over a couple weeks ago were converted into cheap imitations of desert sand dunes.  Mature trees ripped from the ground and piled up along the shores provided evidence of hurricane Irene's rain-making power.  Although I wasn't happy that I had to stop at construction sites I was surprised we could get through some sections.

John S was the first to launch as we drove up the mountain.  The park ranger collecting money said it was zoo with at least 50 pilots getting ready to launch.  Um.  Good news: it is flyable.  Bad news: we are late and at the back of the line.  Sigh.  We hastily said hello, signed in at the lodge, and started rigging.

Pilots continued to launch as we setup, forming an ever growing swarm of colors that snaked back and forth in front of launch.  The seething mass would occasionally whirl upwards only to collapse back on itself into a dense mass below.

Time-lapse of the launch area

Meanwhile, the members of a team (John, Nick, Stacy, and Ross) I'm on for the upcoming Team Challenge were there and wanted to practice flying together.  Internally I was thinking its "every man for himself" in that gaggle!

Spectator's view

I lined up behind Doug B and in front of Linda and waited.  Gary assumed the role of launch coordinator and kept the paraglider and hang glider launches staggered.  Of course, the spectators loved the show as 58 pilots ran off the mountain into the glittering colorful cloud in front.

Lining up

Although it wasn't blown out, the wind was the strongest I ever launched into at Mount Greylock.  With Amy R's help on my wing I ran off in a good cycle and was soon part of the mass bouncing up and down in the choppy air.

Most of us were trying to avoid each other, although at times it seemed some pilots were trying to make the evening news by causing a spectacular mid-air collision.  Needless to say, I quickly started looking for the escape hatch.  It was easy to keep your feet off the ground, but quite hard to reach escape velocity.  After a couple failed blast-offs, I finally broke through to cloud base and finally relaxed.


The wind and the best thermals kept dragging us over the trees to the south and southwest.

Luckily, a nice line of clouds formed and it was relatively easy to push back upwind to landing areas.  Likewise the line of clouds extended downwind and sang a siren's song of blissful XC that no one listened to.  Too bad.

Our team had radio issues but I did manage to fly with Stacy as she climbed out over the bail-out LZ to cloud base.  We flew back upwind to the valley and north to the LZ at The Range, a mini-golf business along Route 8.  I watched Stacy prepare to land as the wind shifted from northeast to southeast and back.  I didn't want any of that, so I twirled up when I ran into a strong thermal coming off the LZ.

I cruised around until I thought it was sane on the deck.  I quickly circled down, passing JJ on the way in.  I planned to land heading east and not try to land perfectly into the ever changing wind.  However, when the flags consistently showed north northeast, I decided to land into the wind, i.e., heading northeast.  Bad choice.  The wind switched from north northeast, through west, to south as I flew through base and final.  I couldn't get my wings level enough for a proper flare and "pounded" in on a wet area of flood-deposited mud.  Luckily only my ego was hurt.  (I should have stuck with my original plan and should have flown faster during my pattern to compensate for the fickle winds).

Aside from re-learning lessons about landing, it was also obvious that I need to work on my weather predicting skills as well.  The winds were 15 mph, not the 20 mph the computer models predicted and I took as certain fact.  Peter was right.  John also gently reminded me of my prediction flaws via a series of text messages I first saw when I turned my phone on after landing.  He apparently spent the day watching perfect flying conditions unfold on Mount Washington after listening to me tell him it would probably be "marginal".  Sigh.

I quickly lost track of my imperfections among the beer, food, and friends at the Freight Yard Pub later that evening.  We relived the afternoon through stories of brilliant and precise maneuvers used to avoid certain catastrophic collisions, accompanied with hands deftly dancing through the air mimicking paths taken through the swarm.

Thanks James for driving my car down!

John posted a video.  So did the BAF and Dan.

Flights: 1, Duration: 2:25

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I knew I had to "give it a go" when I saw a sign tacked to a tree alongside the road pointing to "Hang Gliding" in Groton Massachusetts in the early 1990s.  I had blast spending weekend mornings hiking gliders up the narrow abandoned ski slopes of Groton Hills for a few moments escape from gravity's prison.  Its strange to think those slope skimming flights eventually lead to flights at dizzying heights all around the world.

The school closed long ago, the slopes have grown in, houses fill the LZ, and some of the people are no longer alive.  A few of us still keep in touch, but most don't fly hang gliders anymore.

Here is a video from 1991 that captured a bit of the fun, and people, from that funky place and time.  (Yours truly makes several appearances, including a flight.)


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Almost Home

Good cross country flying is usually only a memory by mid-August, but occasionally a shot of cold Canadian air spilling over the still-warm ground gives us one last fling.  Like hungary kids without money in a candy store, we were unexpectedly given a bag full of treats three weeks ago today, August 23.

Peter picked me up at home and tossed JJ and Randy onto the truck in Leominster before continuing along Route 2 to the Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts.  There was some grumbling about going to the "trail" due to the large number of "sled rides" doled out this season.  I wasn't worried; the forecast looked good.

I was also on a mission to lay-down a late summer flight to beat the embarrassingly short flight winning the local annual XC competition.  I know the season has been pathetic, but surely we could do better.  John Z had the same thought and was driving to aero-tow at Morningside to see if he could fix that.

We pulled off Route 2 into the parking area and met Amy and Keith getting ready to hike into launch.  We were rigging a bit later when PK and Brooks showed up.  No one was eager to launch since the occasional light to calm cycles triggered fears of impending sledders.  The sky looked too good to wait any longer, so I suited up.  Since Randy's glider was between me and launch, he offered to go first.  Randy waited for wind to blow in, while I had to wait for the wind to calm down.  Go figure.  Keith captured our launches on video.

I never got low but didn't beam out either.  Randy and I flew south to the steeper and taller part of the ridge.  The rest of the crew launched and were hanging on close to launch.  Amy eventually flew south to us as we started climbing above the ridge.

Mount Greylock viewed from Mohawk Trail

I was due east of Mount Greylock about 2 miles (3.2 km) south of launch when I noticed Peter getting higher than us.  I started flowing north and shifted into high gear when I noticed PK climbing quickly in front of launch.  I came in way below both of them and snagged the last rowdy bits of the thermal.  I drifted back as far as I dared but luckily (?) stumbled into a rowdy screaming banshee that threw me upwards when I pushed upwind.  Whew, I was finally at base with Peter and PK as I watched Matt creep onto launch far below.

Cloud base was under 5000 feet (1500 m) but still high enough to go exploring.  Peter decided to join me as I carefully ventured east along Route 2.

I played at cloud base as we flew over scenic hills and valleys.  We were heading to the LZs near the ski area in the upper right of the next and previous pictures.  (The lake on the top of the mountain is a storage facility).

Looking east, LZs near ski area at upper right

Peter missed a strong climb that kept me at base, but still had plenty of altitude to make the inviting fields in the valley ahead.

Peter in lower left corner

Looking back to the west

Peter got low as we entered the valley so I moved on.  I had to stop for several weak thermals as I got low at the other end of the valley over the Deerfield River.

Since one of the pilots back at the ridge had a microphone stuck "on", I couldn't communicate with Peter.  I was getting ready to move on when lo-and-behold he came flying in a few hundred feet below me.  Sweet!  We searched without luck for a climb to cloud base.  Peter flew to the southwest along a sunlit ridge while I pushed back upwind to a good looking cloud.  I was rewarded with a trip to base while Peter glided to a large field at the end of the ridge.  Bummer, but still a very nice flight.

I continued on along Route 2 over the ridge towards Greenfield and an easy cruise under a short street to the other side of the Connecticut River valley.

I now had to rely on my flight computer, coordinates I programmed years ago, and my gliding ability.  I plotted a course hopping from airfield to airfield along Route 2.  Each airfield was reachable from the previous airfield, but years ago I planned on a 7000 to 8000 foot (2100 - 2400 meter) cloud base, not the 4500 to 6000 foot (1300 - 1800 meter) cloud base I had.  Oh, I have to rely on the airfields since useable LZs are scarce in that part of the state.

I reached the airfield at Turners Falls without any drama, but the next three required tactical flying.

First up was the forest around the Quabbin Reservoir.  The best clouds were south of course line so I had to work hard to keep within reach of a useable LZ.

The day was changing as I reached the airfield in Orange.  A large mass of overdevelopment was creeping towards me from the northwest, smothering everything in its path.  I left prematurely trying to outrun its grasp.

I arrived at the next airfield in Gardner but was running out of options.  There were good looking clouds to the southwest over Mount Wachusett but no LZs.  Everything along my course line to the east was shaded.  I decided to carefully venture over the trees towards the mountain looking for a climb while still keeping within glide of the airfield.  I found a broken climb that got me high enough to barely reach the Fitchburg airport or the airfield at Sterling.  I couldn't see either but quickly needed to make a choice.  I could probably fly further heading southwest to Sterling, but the deal with the crew was to land along Route 2 AND home was only one more climb away to the east.  It looked hopeless, but maybe, just maybe, I'd find one more climb.

I started the long nail-biting glide towards the Fitchburg airport.  The landing options along the way were not enticing and neither was the sky overhead.  I knew my day was done, now the only question was would I make it to the airport?  I had a neutral glide and arrived with enough of altitude to enter a left-hand pattern half-way down the runway.  A pilot taxied out and took off as I was turning onto final, so I shifted my approach to the north, flew along the taxi-way, and landed next to the wind sock.

I chatted with several pilots and airport personnel as I leisurely packed up, thrilled with afternoon I just had.  I watched students practicing touch-and-gos, including someone in a Stearman.

I waited in front of the terminal building while JJ fetched the truck (after landing with Amy, Brooks, Keith, and PK in the valley below Mount Greylock), picked up Randy and Peter along the Deerfield river, and then came to get me.

I talked with John Z as I waited.  He had a nice flight from Morningside to the fairgrounds in Deerfield NH and was also grounded by overdevelopment.

This flight was a real treat.  Its getting difficult for me to find unexplored places in New England to fly over, but aside from the launch, every part of this flight was new to me.  It's also sweet flying directly back along the way we drove to launch, dramatically shortening my usual multi-hour drive home.  The only bitter-sweet aspect of this flight is that I landed 11 miles (18 km) from home; one more climb and I could have landed in my back yard.

Flights: 1, Duration: 3:45, Distance: 67.7 miles

Monday, August 29, 2011

Social Sledder

The valley was smothered in fog as I looked beyond the cliff edge when I woke up in my tent at Morningside Saturday morning two weeks ago.  I wasn't too upset; it gave me an excuse to sleep a little longer after hiking into Ascutney and drinking a few beers around the camp fire the previous night.  A check of the weather on my phone later didn't motivate either; stable with light winds.

After a leisurely shower, a few rambling conversations with student pilots, a long breakfast with Peter and Rodger at Dusty's, I was finally forced to decide what I wanted to do for the day.  Rodger decided to race home and take his daughter for a flight in an ultralight.  I decided to drive further away from home to West Rutland so I could socialize with the paraglider pilots heading there.  I told Peter and PK I was going for a "social sledder".

As expected a good crowd had gathered on launch.  It was good catching up with everyone as we waited for someone to "dive off" and convince us we were wrong about the day.  Dan was the first to launch and fought a slow, but losing, battle to the LZ below.  The fact he maintained over the LZ for awhile was encouraging.  Keith didn't want to wait and was the second to launch.

A few minutes later, Keith was climbing above launch from far below.  Yahoo!

Launch was busy for the next half-hour as hang glider and paraglider pilots ran off into the air.  Surprisingly, at least to me, everyone was staying up.  My turn came and I ran off into a nice easy climb along, and then over, the ridge to the west.

I had a good time flying with everyone; weaving around, above, below, and between my fellow pilots.  PK and I talked about going XC, but the uninspiring sky and a lack of drivers kept us local.  (Remember, I was counting on a sledder.)  Since we were not going anywhere far, I had to find something challenging to do.  I decided to fly upwind into and beyond the upper bowl across the valley.  (The bowl is beyond the peak behind and to the right of glider in the picture above.)

I followed John in his ATOS but stopped for a rowdy lee-side thermal before pushing on.  The view of peaks to the south was refreshingly unfamiliar.

I played in the surprisingly rough air but still managed to snap a picture of the south facing cliff of the tallest peak and of the view across the valley towards launch before returning to the ridge.

Looking towards launch

I zoomed around the ridge with a "late" crew and made another trip across the valley to verify it was indeed still rowdy over there.  ;-)  PK and I flew awhile with Dan (on his second flight) and George before they headed to the LZ.

Dying thermals gave way to a pleasant wonder-wind which West Rutland is well known for.  Finally there were only three of us in the air, soaking up what the lazy evening was offering.

All three of us left a still-soarable ridge and headed to the LZ satisfied, at least for the day.

I started breaking down while PK snagged a ride to launch with Bo to fetch his truck.  I chatted with Amy, Dan, and George while I packed my glider and then started working on PK's when he didn't return.   He was late getting back down since he helped several pilots launch into soarable air at 7PM!  Hardly a day for a "social sledder".

Flights: 1, Duration: 3:40