Monday, May 29, 2006

Skipping Stones

Although the forecast looked unremarkable, I was ready to shake the dirt off my feet after plodding along the ground for almost 3 weeks. Rodger was also game, so he picked me up at my place around 8am and we began the drive north. Aside from the weak predicted lift, high cirrus clouds dimming the sun, low top-of-climb (3800 feet) and hot humid air oozing in, we also had to deal with light winds that were shifting from the northeast to the southwest. It was a day we could launch (and probably sled) from any mountain in the area. Rodger and I originally planned to launch from Mount Ascutney, but after talking between ourselves and then Dennis on the cell phone we switched to West Rutland instead. After arriving later than most at the LZ, we tossed Dennis’ ATOS on Rodger’s truck and headed up the 4x4 road on the backside of the mountain.

Bo was already soaring his paraglider when we pulled up to launch; a heartwarming sight. It was good to see many new and familiar faces. While we were setting up, another paraglider launched and sunk out while John S, with his ATOS-VR, launched and managed to slowly climb out. I originally planned to launch around 2pm after some more heating, but with thick cirrus approaching, I decided it was now or never. Gary launched his paraglider and quickly climbed above launch. Barry was next up. He waited for some wind to inflate his glider. He waited some more. He waited even longer. Finally, John, a hang glider pilot, asked if he could step through and launch. Barry graciously waved him through. Sure enough, as soon as John stepped onto the launch, the wind began to blow in! Barry had some decent launch conditions after the pilot launched, but wasn’t able to launch in time. So I stepped through and waited for any sign of lift. I finally saw some fluff from blooming trees waft up a few yards in front of launch and decided to take the plunge. I initially sank below launch but found a slow building climb that took me over and then above launch. I looked down and saw Dennis on launch. I radioed that the climb had now built to 400 feet-per-minute and was nice and solid. (John G told me later that as soon as I was over launch, the slight breeze coming into launch faded away).

Although I had a nice initial climb, I was very careful with my altitude as I cruised around and tested out the day. I watched a large group of the pilots launch, struggle, and then land after short flights. Bummer. I found there was a lot of unorganized bubbly lift below 2800 feet that coalesced into more traditional thermals above that. Although there were no clouds marking the thermals, I pictured myself hopping across stones in a river. Miss one stone (thermal) and I would fall into the water (below 2800) and would have to work hard to climb back out. However, the flying above or below the “water line” was fun and pleasant.

I looked around from John S, but couldn’t find him. He later told me he flew south, then east, and then back to the valley. I never saw him until he came back to the valley from the east and then head out to land. I did share a nice climb from down low with John G in his paraglider. Once I topped out I went on a glide across the valley to “Bird’s Eye” where I was greeted by a dozen turkey vultures launching from a cliff to mark a strong climb for me. I flew back across the valley and then made my way west to the town of Castleton and then on to Route 30. I never got low and found that almost all the higher terrain was producing usable thermals or at least providing buoyant glides. I didn’t want to land out so I eventually turned around and came back to play some more in the valley before landing with a no-step uphill flare near the breakdown area.

Many of the pilots had already left, but I got a picture of the crew that was still hanging around when I landed. On the way home I talked to several pilots to see how they did. The pilots at Morningside mostly had pleasant sled rides and the pilots that launched from Mount Ascutney did ok and some managed to dribble 15 miles to the north in climbs similar to what I encountered. Although it wasn’t a booming day it was still fun working light but friendly lift to 4500 feet in very light winds for almost 3 hours. I enjoyed playing in the sky but wish more pilots were able to get that initial climb before landing.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


It is amazing how much work and coordination it takes to fly cross-country in New England. Sunday looked like it would be a nice flying day. I sent out email messages to the XC pilots in my area Saturday evening so we could possibly share the 2-hour drive to Mount Ascutney. I found a flurry of messages in my inbox when I got up at 6am to check the weather Sunday morning. Pete was going, but would be traveling with Adrian so he didn’t want to car-pool, but he did offer to take a load of gliders up the mountain. (The mountain is closed to the public so someone with a key to the state park has to bring the trucks back down.) Rodger planned to leave at 7am and would leave his cell phone on. (Rodger has a 3 hour drive since he is another hour’s drive south of me.) I made a quick call to Mark, but he wasn’t interested. I made another quick call to Rodger and we agreed to meet at my place at 8am and we would take my truck north.

Once we started rolling, Rodger mentioned his radio speaker was not working. That just wouldn’t do, so I suggested he try to figure out what was wrong during the drive north. Rodger dragged his equipment out of his harness when we stopped for fuel and food in Winchendon MA. He discovered a broken wire in the connector that plugs into the radio. Using a knife I keep in the glove box, he trimmed up the leads and was soon ready to solder the wires. We were approaching Keene NH at that time and we wondered if we could stop and purchase a butane soldering gun. Nope, it was too early on a Sunday morning for that. Maybe someone that hasn’t left home yet has one. I called Greg. Greg didn’t have a butane gun, but did have regular gun and offered to bring it. Maybe there was a power outlet left on over the winter in the camp ground at the base of the mountain. Ok, that sounds like a plan. Greg also wanted to know if anyone had a driver. Oh, yeah, a driver. I called Morningside to follow up a lead that Jeff mentioned on Friday. I was too late; Johnny Z already snagged him for the day. But wait, maybe Rodger could fix his radio at Morningside. We didn’t want to make Pete wait at the mountain so I quickly called Pete to confirm his arrival time. It turned out that Pete was just a few miles in front of us and he was going to make a brief stop at Morningside. Perfect. Rodger called Jeff and asked if he could use the shop’s equipment. Well, it turned out Jeff didn’t have a soldering gun that was small enough, but Billy, who was standing next to him, had a cold-solder gun at home and offered to go get it. Ok, that works. So we end up at Morningside repairing Rodger’s speaker. I joke there will probably be so much conversation in the air today that Rodger will rip the connector back out to get some silence. I briefly talk with Gary, Mike, and a few others. Sean pulls in just as we are leaving. I say hello to him and his mom and off we go.

We arrive at the base of the mountain and see that everyone else has already driven up. We start unlocking the gate when one of the new park rangers walked out to greet us. She told us that someone knocked on her door at 8:30am asking to get into the park. This person didn’t have a key, but seemed to know the right things to say. She finally let him in, but didn’t want it to happen again. I told her I probably know who it was (Dennis), that it wouldn’t happen again, and that we would give him some good-natured grief about it. Before we could get the truck through the gate, Greg and Dan pulled up honking their horns hoping to get our attention before disappearing into the woods. We tossed their gliders on the truck, crammed 4 of us in the back seat, and headed up.

Half of Dennis’ ATOS was still on the truck when we arrived at the top. I also noticed his backpack setting alongside the trail about 1/3 of the way out to launch. I said hello to Marshall as he was hiking back out to the parking lot (probably to get his harness). Once at launch I noticed that Dennis wasn’t around. Someone said he was probably resting in his truck before making the second hike. (Dennis had his first flight since his heart transplant 6 months ago at Morningside on Friday. The hike out to launch is not easy even for someone in good shape.)

I set up my glider in the brisk air. It was below freezing this morning on the surface and was around 15F at 6000 feet (9.5C at 1800 meters), the predicted top of climb. Marshall returned and said that Dennis wasn’t in his truck. Now we all started to worry. Where could he be? We finished setting up and set out to find Dennis. Several pilots headed back out the trail thinking he might have stumbled off the trail and then slide down the mountainside. I climbed down the cliffs in front of launch just in case he stumbled off launch. A short time later we heard Dennis was fine but had taken the wrong trail back and was part-way down the mountain. Dennis still wanted to fly, so Jeff hiked the other half of the glider out so Dennis could recharge before launching.

As usual, Jake launched first, then Johnny Z, Jeff, and then me. I ran off the rock into a nice little climb below Jeff. I flew over launch while zipping up and then headed to the ravine near the ski area. I found a good climb and soon saw John searching just a hundred feet below me. I continued to climb out as John searched around for the thermal. He looked in all the spots I would have looked but just couldn’t find it. We have all been there before! I was soon climbing through 5000 feet with Jake. I thought about leaving but came back to sync up with more pilots. I spent a lot of my time racing in Florida so I decided to fly with my buddies instead of zipping across the countryside. Jake and I joined Greg, Dan, and Jeff in a climb over the southwest bowl that faces into the sun at that time of the day. 5 pilots is a nice size gaggle and we all left for Green Mountain to the east (and northeast of Claremont NH). We found a broken climb across the river that allowed Jake and Dan to regain some altitude they lost on the glide over. I was starting to get cold and bumped around at the top so I started taking little glides to lose altitude and kill time while the rest of the gang was climbing. I would jump back in, climb up again, and then leave with Jeff and Greg. We repeated that pattern all the way to Newport NH; Greg, Jeff, and I up high, Jake and Dan moving along below us.

Meanwhile John and Rodger were moving along but one or two climbs behind us. Remember all the hassle we went through to get his speaker working? Well, Jeff and Greg started commenting on how they looked in their harnesses. “I am head high?” “You look great.” “How clean am I?” “You look slick.” It was funny, I almost expected someone to say “Does my butt look big in this?” About that time Rodger reached over and disconnected his speaker!

As we approached the area north of Newport, Greg found a broken climb over a quarry. It was one of those thermals with multiple snaking cores surrounded by strong sink. We bounced around in that climb while Dan and Jake were climbing out over the airport a few miles back. Once again I got bored with the climb and took a little tour to kill time. I lost much more altitude than I wanted and then I couldn’t re-find the climb. Crap. Greg and Jeff, now much higher, left just as Dan flew above me. Jake started turning at my height slightly upwind, so flew off to join his climb. His climb faded about the time I reached him and I soon realized I was losing the group. I turned around and flew towards Lake Sunapee. (You need some altitude to cross the lake and unfriendly terrain on the other side). I slipped into the climb Dan, Greg, and Jeff found and I was climbing well when it just shut off. I was at 4100 feet and had to make a quick decision to cross the lake or go back upwind. It wasn’t really a tough call, I went back upwind. I said goodbye to Dan, Greg, and Jeff as Jake and I went looking for another climb. I took a bad line and was soon too low to stray far from a good LZ. I found a lot of textured air over my LZ, but couldn’t find the climb. Sean, who I saw earlier at Morningside, was watching us from the road and confirmed the wind was from the north. I went onto final and could see the grass was blowing towards me. Good. I then noticed the grass stopped blowing. Ok, just remember to flare aggressively when the time comes. Then I noticed the grass was blowing away from me and the glider was stalling. Oh no. I tried to flare but it was too late. I landed like a beginner, on my belly. (It is the first time I have done that in 7 or 8 years. I used to use that technique during the glide ratio contests that Morningside held years ago. It was uneventful but not what I planned on.) Jake landed alongside of me a few minutes later.

I was disappointed to be on the ground so soon. The air, unlike my last flight, was very pleasant. I guess I should stop tempting the thermal gods and never throw away good altitude!

I talked with Sean as I broke down. Jake offered me a ride back to the mountain which I immediately and gratefully accepted. A short time later I got a call from Rodger saying he landed outside Claremont and was walking along the road back into town. Jake called his wife and driver Judy and she confirmed seeing Rodger walking along the road. Jake offered to pick him up on the way back, so I called Rodger to let him know he had a ride. Rodger said he would wait at the ice cream shop at the edge of town. A short time later, I got a call from Dennis. Instead of heading east, he headed south down the river. He landed in a large pasture field south of Charlestown NH. His cell phone battery was almost dead, but wanted to let someone know where he was. Once we were loaded in Jake’s truck I called Rodger to let him know we were on our way. I also asked him to have a strawberry frappe ready for me when we arrive! We picked up Rodger and were soon heading back to the mountain. We were not far from the mountain when Jake’s truck started sputtering and then died. Oh joy. We tried in vain to get it running so Jake called Marshall for a ride for the bodies and gliders and AAA for the truck. Meanwhile, Dennis called wondering if anyone was coming to get him. Well, no. I told him we were dealing with a broken vehicle right now! Marshall arrived, hauled me to my truck and then we drove back to Jake’s truck to transfer gliders, packs, and bodies.

The sun was starting to drop and I knew that Dennis’ truck was still on the mountain. Since we are not supposed to drive on the mountain road after dark, I suggested to Rodger we drive up to get Dennis’ truck and take it to him since it was on our way home. I called Dennis when we got to the top, but he didn’t answer his phone. His phone was probably dead. I told him we were on our way and I hoped he wasn’t already heading back. (I also took some pictures from the parking lot. Notice the abundant LZs!) About that time I got a call from Greg. He had just landed 62 miles out and was looking for a ride. I told him we were taking Dennis’ truck south to where he landed. Greg said, ok, no problem I’ll call Jake. I had to give him the bad news that the last time I saw Jake’s truck it was on a flatbed heading for the shop!

Rodger and I met Dennis coming up the mountain road. Apparently a nice couple gave him a ride all the way back to the mountain and even part way up the mountain. We tossed Dennis the keys and finished our trip down. I told Rodger we could just go home or help out the trio that landed to the east. Since Rodger had an extra hour of driving beyond mine, I would let him make the call. We decided to take one of their vehicles to a common transfer point at a major intersection near Concord NH. I called Greg and told him we could help out. It turned out that Jeff’s wife was coming to pick them up and having a truck in Concord would save her several hours of driving. So we grabbed Greg’s truck and headed to Concord. Before we could even leave the area, we came across John and his driver Steve. So Dennis, Rodger, and I had to stop and find out how he did. (He landed in Bradford NH). After we were back on the road awhile, Rodger called to tell me that Greg’s truck was almost out of fuel. Rodger toyed with the idea of coasting the truck into the Chinese restaurant where we were meeting on fumes, but decided to stop and get some gas when he wasn’t sure he could even make there.

We arrived at the restaurant about 10 minutes before the trio. Once they transferred the equipment to Greg’s truck, we ordered and inhaled a good meal while exchanging our day’s adventures. I drove the hour back to my home and sent Rodger off for his hour of driving to his home.

Looking back it is obvious it takes a lot of coordination, effort, and team work to fly around here. (I spent 14 hours to fly 1.5 hours!) It also points out that you never know how the day will unfold when you leave in the morning.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Back Home

I flew for the first time today since returning home from Florida. Mark, Peter, and Rodger met at my place and then we drove the 2 hours to Morningside to drop off PK’s glider for repairs. From there we zipped over to Ascutney where we found all kinds of trucks and cars with racks at the bottom. Jeff and Jake were already at the top, Dave and Jon were just opening the locked gate at the bottom, and Tim and others were consolidating gliders on a single truck. We snuck in behind Jon and followed them to the top. The tower wires where singing when we got to the parking lot. Um, sounds breezy; at least it was crossing from the west. Everyone was groaning as we started the “Ascutney death march”; at least we had the biting black flies to keep our minds off the long slippery hike.

There was a good turnout for an early season weekday. (I want to thank the State of Vermont and the club members that worked to allow us to launch before the park opens to the general public.) Although cirrus was filling the sky and the wind was crossing at times up to 90 from the left, everyone was happy to be outside in the warm weather, setting up their flying toys, and chatting with fellow pilots for the first time since last fall.

The first pilot to launch gave everyone a scare when his glider made a 90-degree turn to the left while launching. I thought we had a tree landing in progress, but he just managed to clear the trees and fly away. Whew, too close. Jake and Jeff launched next and then it was my turn. With John and Judy’s help as wire-crew, I got off in a light cycle and began to climb above launch. (I heard that John and Judy helped most of the pilots. Thanks much!) I had a mellow climb above the top the mountain as I quickly drifted back. I pushed upwind to snag a climb out front so I could have some altitude before drifting downwind of the mountain. I was rudely trashed around as I “found” a climb. Yuck, I hoped that wasn’t going to be typical for the day. Unfortunately, it was. We had the prototypical “tossed salad” going on. There were about 15 gliders flying between 500 below to 1000 feet above launch in trashy blowing air. I saw several gliders flung around in very unusual and sometimes comical ways as the air had its way with them. It was tough to figure out what was going on. The top of climb wasn’t far above the mountain. Although there were strong chunks of lift and sink there was also lots of wide spread areas of lift. I thought maybe a secondary front was pushing through, but I never did really grasp what was going on.

After two hours of this “fun” I thought about landing out front just to be done with the day. Finally Greg mentioned that Mark just left at 4500 feet. I thought that was too low for the wind, but it didn’t really matter anyway since I was at launch level when he left. I joined Dan and Peter in a climb over the southwest bowl and decided to head to Morningside when I broke through 4500 feet. I felt like a person that discovers the bank made a mistake in their favor when I looked over and saw I was at 5200 feet. Dan took a line to the east and I stayed over the higher ground to the west. Dan made the better decision; he soon had 900 feet over Peter and me. Dan went on a straight glide for Morningside, but we needed another climb. I bumped into some broken lift near the river that Peter couldn’t find. It gave me enough altitude to move on while Peter backtracked to the “red barn field”. (Peter had to land zipped up in his harness. He managed a good landing and, for a second, was standing upright with the glider and then fell forward since he couldn’t take another step. Bummer.) Meanwhile I floated low over the factories with their metal roofs but didn’t get a bump. It now looked like I would be landing short of Morningside with a long walk to the road. I stumbled into a weak broken climb down low and slowly drifted towards the ridge behind Morningside. The climb got better and better and I was soon climbing with style.

I spent the next hour or so flying around Morningside in what seemed like endless lift. If the windsocks were pointing west, the climb was in the notch behind launch. If the windsocks were pointing north, the climb was southeast of the ponds. The climbs also became more and more civilized. The day was changing. I took pictures and enjoyed the view as I watched Mark, Dan, Rodger, Greg, David, and Jon come in to land. I finally found some sinking air across the valley and came in to land so the rest of the crew wouldn’t get tired of waiting on me. I later found out pilots got to 7500 feet at the mountain! Jeff landed near Lake Sunapee, Tim near Mount Kearsarge, and John 69 miles away in Strafford NH. (My pathic little flight is available online).

While I was breaking down at Morningside, Dennis had his first couple of flights since his heart transplant surgery (6 months to the day). It was good seeing him back in the air. Afterwards a large group of us stopped in at the local pizza shop for a drink and bite to eat.