Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Backcountry Tour

It was hard keeping my eyes open at 6-freak’n-o-clock in the morning as I stared at the computer screen. Jeff B had to make his work-or-fly decision early and wanted my opinion. It was an easy decision once I saw the thunderstorm icons for the next 5 days on the NWS forecast page and good lift on the Blipmap page. The only question for me was to foot-launch at Ascutney or aero-tow at Morningside. Ascutney’s high ground would certainly have better lift than the soggy valley around Morningside but the winds were predicted to swing from the NW to the SW during the day and might be too cross to comfortably launch at Ascutney during the best part of the day.

As usual, I tried to postpone my decision as long as possible. During my 2 hour drive north, I talked with Dennis who was struggling with the same decision. Jake, Jeff, John and Toni Z were definitely going to the mountain. I finally decided to aero-tow since I could at least get airborne and practice towing in mid-day conditions before heading to Big Spring for the pre-worlds next week. (Quit laughing; I know mid-day conditions in soggy New England are not comparable with arid Texas conditions).

Dennis, who also decided to tow, and I wondered if we chose the wrong launch as vigorous clouds drifted into launch over Ascutney as it remained completely blue overhead. However the die was cast and we would just have to make due with what we had. After hardwiring some wires together in my helmet after a switch broke, I suited up, splashed my way across the field, lined up behind Rhett’s green tug, and was soon airborne heading northwest. I released after we made a full circle in lift over the factories so Rhett could go back and drag Dennis up into the same thermal. I was climbing nicely while drifting slowing to the northeast when I noticed the wind increase, my drift shift to the east, and the climb become shredded and weak. I managed to maintain a slow climb in the broken lift and noticed the wind became even stronger and I was now drifting to the southeast. Um, pick your direction and then stay at the correct altitude. I guess that is how balloonist do it.

Meanwhile Dennis was still on the ground. I watched the green tug and Dennis’ ATOS dance around each other as they swapped towing directions. I was quickly drifting too far away to sync up with my flying partner for the day, so I plowed upwind. I arrived back at the factories with only a couple hundred feet over the cutoff point where I would have to run back to Morningside for another tow. I found a scrappy thermal over the hot metal roofs and started climbing. I watched Rhett pull Dennis in over me and later saw Rhett diving away back to the hanger. Dennis got on the radio and wanted to know where I was. I tried to tell him I was right below him but his radio was now transmitting continuously. I listened to heavy breathing for awhile, but eventually pulled the plug to save my sanity! I kept looking for Dennis but never saw him again. (Dennis almost immediately headed northeast. He briefly flew with Jeff, who launched from Ascutney, near Green Mountain but ended up alone again as Jeff passed on a weak climb drifting over the trees near Kellyville).

I drifted almost due east of Morningside and began a scenic backcountry tour. We have a lot of forest and lakes in New England which is nice if you like hiking, biking, or paddling but doesn’t do much for hang gliding. I managed to keep a good 3-4,000 feet between me and the trees that allowed me to enjoy the view instead of freaking out over the lack of LZs. I flew over Unity towards northern Washington in the middle of the “Goshen Ocean” of trees. I was smart and stopped for 20 minutes or so while all the clouds fizzled away when some cirrus passed overhead. I pushed north to Contoocook to avoid Concord and was rewarded with a nice smooth climb back to cloud base. Instead of waiting for better conditions like I did before, I pressed on when I caught up with the cirrus and its shading as I crossed the Merrimack River. From there I drifted in light climbs slowly loosing altitude until I got backed up against a large swath of trees and lakes (Northwood Lake) that I dare not cross. I snooped around for a climb that might get me up and away, but eventually landed in a dry and recently mowed hayfield next to a barn and house at Bear Meadow Farm.

I took some pictures, packed up, and did some work sitting under a large oak tree while I waited for Dennis and Chip S to haul my butt back to Morningside (about 55 miles away). Thanks Chip! I was disappointed that I wasn’t more patient (I probably could have flown to the coast) but it was fun drifting over all that forest that makes flying in this part of the country unique and challenging.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Summer Sledding

I was enjoying a rare morning of sleeping in Sunday when I got a call from Rodger. Although I was still half asleep, I think he said it’s going to be a good flying day and I was invited. I wanted to pass on the offer since the forecast I saw the previous night was not exciting, especially the 95F heat and very high humidity. However that little voice in my head that keeps getting me in trouble with the family took control of my body and said, “Sure”. Oh, I had about 15 minutes to dress, pack the gear, and, and grab some breakfast.

The day looked surprisingly good as we drove north to Mount Ascutney and it didn’t seem hot in Rodger’s air-conditioned truck. The death march into launch wasn’t as bad as I feared and we were greeted with a firm breeze blowing straight in. Rodger and I wondered if we were about to receive an awesome gift day while everyone else cowered inside to avoid the oppressive heat. The signs were all there; good looking clouds overhead, wind blowing in the right direction for a flight down the river valley, no launch crew, no idea how we were going to get the truck down the mountain, and no a driver. Yep, we were going far today!

Some innocent but crazy people showed up at launch while we were rigging (see picture). I know they were insane; who else would hike up a mountain in such heat? Although I questioned their sanity, they seemed nice and even agreed to help us launch. I didn’t want to keep them waiting so I launched around 12:30. I also didn’t want them work too hard so I waited for a lull to launch. In hindsight, I should have taken one of the strong cycles. I got above launch for brief moment and then lost it. I decided to fly across the front of the mountain and could barely keep things organized. (I was thanking Gerolf for worrying about stability when he designed my glider!). It took me a few minutes to realize that I was flying on the lee side of the mountain. By the time I wrestled the glider to the north side of the mountain, I was already low. I struggled for about 30 minutes but eventually tucked my tail between my legs and headed to a big LZ along a well-traveled road where I might hitch a ride back to the truck.

Rodger, seeing the folly of my ways, decided to wait a little longer. While I was breaking down and hiding my glider, Dave V showed up and rigged his glider. I started my 6 mile hike back around the mountain when Rodger told me he found a driver for the truck and it would be waiting at the bottom of the mountain. Whew, I least I wouldn’t have to hike up the mountain. I watched Rodger and then Dave launch, struggle, and then land as I continued my journey. Like me, they got some minor climbs but nothing to get them up and away. While they broke down I continued walking. I actually enjoyed the hike; I felt cool air cascade down the mountain side over clear streams, watched wild flowers in full riotous bloom sway in the breeze, and chased silly dogs back into their yards when they started chasing me. I was about ¾ of the way back when I finally got a ride from a couple guys heading to Rhode Island from the Ascutney Resort. A/C never felt so good.

Rodger’s truck arrived at the park entrance at the same time I did. I drove back around, picked up Rodger and Dave around 3pm, and then headed to Morningside for another late afternoon tow. I tossed the battens into the glider as fast as I could and popped into line after Tom Peghiny.

I managed a refreshing hour of airtime in weak thermals with Dave and Rodger before settling down on the little ridge at Morningside. I was playing back and forth on the ridge when a student dove into the air to get some of the sweet air. I just wish he hadn’t launched right at me! I let the other pilot have the ridge and moved away so I could lose altitude and land next to Rodger. The student pilot followed right along beside me. Sigh. I banked over in the other direction and dove away to set up a fast ground-skimming approach. As I turned onto my final the student once again flew into my flight path. I had enough at that point and decided to land across the road on the runway. I checked to ensure there were no cars coming but saw Rhett rolling down the runway with a glider in tow. Rhett would be gone before I got there, but I didn’t want to land in his wake. So once again I made another low turn and landed on the runway too far from the breakdown area on such a hot day.

I think I’ll mute the phone on the next hot hazy day when I think pilots might be calling.

Well … maybe not.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Sweat Shop

I swapped in a replacement sail I got from Moyes yesterday in the hanger at Morningside while melting in the sweltering heat. It was 95F mid-afternoon and the humidity level didn’t feel far behind. I struggled with the Mylar inserts, both removing them from the old sail and inserting them into the new one, and flooded the entire work area with sweat.

Speaking of flooding, I literally walked through a couple inches of water to get to the air strip when I was ready to fly around 5pm. (There was water on the hill side at Morningside. You know its wet when there is standing water on a hill side!) Rhett quickly dragged my soggy butt into the refreshing air before returning for some tandem flights. I noticed a mild right turn in the glider, so after landing I made a quick adjustment and was ready for another flight. I followed Rhett through the sullen air with almost no effort; it was like the tug was stationary in front of me. I think Rhett was disappointed when I tapped the rope and pinned off “early” at 4000 feet over the river.

I could tell the slight turn was gone. I snapped a few pictures of the hazy view and then yanked on the VG to check out the high speed glide. Ok at 50mph, 60mph, yep, still ok at 70, still under control at 75mph. I continued to buzz around the flight park and did a few wangs to help “set” the new sail. I set up for a SW approach into the bull’s eye and held off the flare until the last possible moment to see if a wing would drop. Nope, everything remained level. I just need to see how the sail works while climbing and I should be set.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Down the River

The national weather service said the wind would be light NW when I checked the forecast this morning (Friday) in my tent using my new Motorola Q with Internet access. (Sometimes I am shocked at how much technology has changed my world. Besides inspecting weather maps on my cell phone, I drove into the town center and sat on a park bench using my laptop computer and the WiFi connection provided by the library to take care of several business issues. I would not have flown today if I didn’t have this technology). When I got back to Morningside I started pushing John and Rodger to get an early start. John was interested in going XC, but only if he didn’t have to fly over as many trees as he did yesterday when we flew to the east. I ensured John there were more fields available in the river valley, but we would have to spend time working cross wind and that the river valley is notorious for its lack of lift when it is wet. John still liked the sound of LZs so we decided to head south down the river.

Once on launch at Mount Ascutney, I was surprised to see the wind was really more north than northwest. Even more surprising was the strength of the wind. Yeehaw, it was going to be a fun day standing on the rocky perch we call launch. I was the first to go. I asked Judy to standby on the keel wires since there was a lot of ramp suck when the gusts roared through. I cleared Lee, Marshall, and Judy, dove forward, and was immediately blown straight up for a classic Ascutney elevator launch. I probably gained a hundred feet in just a few seconds. It was easy to soar in the ridge lift and the occasional thermal blowing through. One-by-one pilots punched into the air and joined the gang floating around the top of the mountain. John and I repeatedly flew upwind looking for a climb, but always came back to the mountain to recharge our depleted altitude. I began to think we would be chained to the mountain when I noticed Jim circling low in front of the ski area. I flew across the mountain and merged in above him for a genuine thermal climb. Rodger and John soon joined in and we finally had our ticket out.

I left first and had a buoyant glide to a cloud to the southeast. I was already climbing at the next cloud before Rodger and Jim left. I didn’t want to get too far ahead so I started gliding back towards them to loose altitude and get back into the same air. Jim headed further east and didn’t do as well as Rodger and John. Rodger, John, and I were soon back at cloud base and continued south. John and I zigzagged back and forth as we cruised from cloud to cloud on our way to Bellows Falls. I ended climbing on the New Hampshire side of the river while John worked a weaker climb on the Vermont side. I took some pictures of the dam, falls, and power plant before heading over to join him. A sail plane cruised in from the southwest and I flew further west to see what that pilot was climbing in. John took off to the south but I returned to the New Hampshire side to rejoin Rodger. All this sightseeing and playing around had its cost; I was now getting low and needed a climb. Rodger helped me center into a broken climb that got me high enough to glide to strong climb to the south.

John got on the radio and said he landed on the New Hampshire side of the river (near Putney). He offered us a ride back if we landed with him, but since I was at cloud base almost directly over him, I asked if he could find someone to drive my truck to pick up Rodger and me. If he didn’t find anyone, I would land with him. He almost immediately came back and said two students from Morningside would fetch us. Cool. I looked back and saw Rodger was considerably lower than me and I wondered if he would even make John’s field. I decided to press on over some forested high ground while I had plenty of altitude. While on that glide towards Brattleboro, John got on the radio and said “that cloud you’re climbing under Tom looks like its working”. I responded he must be talking about Rodger since I was gliding in the blue. It was good to know that Rodger was still in the game.

I flew over Brattleboro and played with some crows over the fields south of there. As I flew further south high cirrus began moving in and the climbs got weaker. I floated down the river slowly climbing as I approached the jump over Turners Falls, Massachusetts. On the way there I noticed one of my favorite landing areas below; a large sod farm with fields so large you could land a Cessna. I could go on a long glide over trees to the Turners Falls airfield or turn back and land on the perfect hang gliding LZ. Um. Easy choice!

I did some sightseeing while I cashed in my altitude and set up a long lazy aircraft approach along the tree-lined road and had a perfect no-step landing on the inch-high grass a wing span away from the road. I casually walked across the road to a shade tree in a yard so I wasn’t breaking down on the “cash crop”. I turned on my cell phone and almost immediately Rodger called to tell me our new-found drivers just passed him on the ground in Brattleboro. Before I could listen to a voice mail with their telephone number, they called me. What great timing! I explained where Rodger was and gave them my coordinates. They showed up minutes after I finished packing. Again, great timing! There was only one little hitch; one of our drivers wanted to test fly a glider at Morningside earlier in the day but was waiting for the wind to calm down and switch to the west when Judy asked him if he wanted to pick up some pilots. He didn’t think he would be gone so long, how far away could they be? ;-) We rushed back to Morningside and got him to launch in time to beat the catabatic winds. He had a good strong launch into nearly calm conditions and landed near the bulls-eye.

The flight is available online, but will not be scored since it has a bogus point in the track file.

This was a fun 56 mile flight across three states. However I was happier to see that Rodger broke out of his recent slump with style. Everyone goes through dry spells if you fly long enough. The “sled king” is dead!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Joy Ride

I had a genuine cloud base joy-ride today.

The usual gang, plus John C and Judy M from upstate New York and the recently missing-in-action Jon N, showed up for a possibly over-developed day at Mount Ascutney. However this season, any day without rain in the forecast is a good day. We were surprised to find the wind was blowing into launch instead of crossing from the west as predicted. It would be easy to dive off the rock today.

We launched rapid-fire style into light lift. I snooped around the western ridgeline, but not finding anything I flew over to the ski area. I was just above ridge height when I felt the tell-tale signs of a thermal on the “backside” of the ridge. If I went back there and didn’t find a thermal, I would probably spend most of my remaining altitude circling back around to the front of the mountain so I could land. Ah, go for it! I popped over the ridgeline, “enjoyed” a few minutes of amusement-park style shake-and-bake, and then locked into a nice 500 fpm climb. I looked around and everyone else was cruising back and forth on the conveyor belt at launch height to the south. I announced on the radio, “If anyone is interested, I have 500 at the north end. No wait, make that 700.” It brought a smile to my face as I watched the other gliders, except Rodger who didn’t have a radio, turn in unison to the north. My climb steadily grew to 1200 fpm as I was rocketed to cloud base. I dove for the blue as I was thrown at the cloud. The transition from lift to sink, as expected, was invigorating. I could see everyone climbing towards me so I jumped back in and then out a second time. Jeff then announced he found strong lift. I warned him and everyone else about the serious cloud suck. I watched Jeff take two more turns before he was diving for the edge. We dove back out, lost some height, and went back in. Jake, just as Jeff before him, announced he found a sweet climb, took two turns, and was soon running for the blue!

Although a couple of pilots were not yet synced with the group, I didn’t want to push my luck by crossing the edge of that thermal any more than necessary. I drove off to a line of clouds over Claremont. John followed me, while Jake and Jeff took a more direct line through the blue towards Green Mountain to the east. I was treated to a buoyant glide, while Jake and Jeff were crushed. Jake and Jeff soon hooked up with Greg for a slow drifting climb while I raced under clouds just to keep out of the “white room”. I slowed up for a few turns at the edge of a cloud at the eastern edge of town so I could mark a climb for John and the rest of the group. However, I was soon at base and moving on.

As I was diving from cloud to cloud regaining altitude by just gliding under them in 500 fpm lift, the pilots below were settling for 100 or 200 fpm. Bummer! I flew over Kellyville, Newport, to Mount Sunapee before I needed to stop for a climb. By that time the sky was filling with clouds. I parked in a weak climb hoping to survive until the clouds decayed enough for some sun to hit the ground.

John raced in far below me and continued on towards the ski area. John was soon trapped at the top of the mountain. He needed more altitude to move on but didn’t have a safe glide to anywhere else. Even the LZ at the ski area, a bunny hill in the rotor of a ridge in front of the main mountain, was not inviting. As I turned to continue down wind, I saw John still hovering around the top of the mountain.

The day was no longer a joy ride. I began to hear fellow pilots landing. Greg, who will typically talk to anyone at anytime, was suddenly “too busy”. The blow-off from the explosive development now smeared across the sky shading the ground below. I still had an easy time moving south but needed to push east if I wanted to continue past the controlled airspace at Manchester. The sky to the east, unlike that behind me, was mostly blue. The area in front of me to the east had been shaded most of the day by a departing front. I considered heading further south, but only forest awaits pilots heading that way. I flew around Henniker hoping something would develop to the east. When nothing materialized I turned around and flew back to a private airfield with a wind sock, shade, and a mowed lawn.

I later learned John managed to climb away from the ski area and flew to one of the last fields before the large forested area south of me. Greg, who was “busy”, managed a nail-biting climb over Lake Sunapee and flew to his new favorite field along Route 89.

Although I didn’t set any personal bests, traverse any new territory, or push any boundaries, it’s hard to not smile after such a sweet joy ride through the sky. (The flight is available online.)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Where to go?

The constant rain has made it nearly impossible to fly in New England this season. So when a dry day miraculously appears during an extended holiday weekend, its time to fly. Pete, Rodger, and I carpooled north, but were not sure where we were headed. Rodger wanted to launch from Ascutney, I favored towing at Morningside, and Pete just wanted to fly. Some of the computer models predicted 10 mph winds at 300 degrees while the National Weather Service predicted westerly surface winds going to southwest by evening. We quickly ruled out West Rutland since it added a couple hours of driving to our already long trip. Ascutney is a good thermal source, but launching with a crosswind or even a tail wind would not be fun. Launching behind a tug at Morningside would work well, but Morningside is famous for its scarce and anemic “valley” thermals. Even after talking on and off for 2 hours, we still hadn’t made a decision when we approached the Morningside / Ascutney decision point in our drive. We decided to stop by Morningside and check out the local conditions. We eventually decided to tow after Rhett reported the wind aloft was blowing from the west around 10 mph and it was obviously hot, humid, and mostly stable.

Dave D towed first and managed to hang on for a decent flight. Pete was next and then it was my turn. I pinned off in some broken lift to the northwest over the metal roofs of the factories. I slowly climbed there until I noticed Scott L, who towed after me, was climbing better to the southwest. I came in well below him and was treated to very rough sinking air. I searched in vain for the juicy center, but left with just enough height to get back to the airfield. I found a weak climb on the low hill to the west of the airfield and slowly clawed my way back up. Once again I left a steady slow climb to join Dennis and Scott who were circling to the south of me. They abandoned their climb and started sniffing around just as I arrived. Crap. I decided to head upwind to the west and was joined by Rodger for a short time. Rodger turned around but I kept pushing on to the other side of the river. I found a broken, but productive climb, and settled in for a long ride up. I watched Rodger get ready to land on the runway between the tall grass hayfields. (Check out Rodger’s story in this month’s USHPA magazine about landing in tall grass!. That is Rodger standing next to the hayfield in the picture above.) I also watched Scott and Dennis start to slowly sink out on the other side of the valley. I continued my climb for awhile until it eventually fizzled and I went looking for something better to the south. I made a big pass around the area and didn’t find anything. I landed back on the strip hoping to get quickly towed back up, but I was now at the end of a long line. Oh well. I should have worked harder to stay in the air.

While I was waiting for another tow, Chris H arrived at Morningside from Ascutney for his first XC flight; congratulations Chris! He said it was blowing in lightly on launch, he left the mountain at 6200 feet, and he had a smooth glide over. He also said that Greg and Jeff were climbing below him when he left but some other pilots had already landed in the LZ after extended sled rides. (I found out later that Greg and Jeff got to over 7000 feet and flew 22 miles to the north. Um, maybe Rodger had the right idea. The pilots at West Rutland had soaring flights ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours and were topping out around 4200 feet). Meanwhile, most of the other pilots being towed up were getting extended sled rides.

Although the soaring was over, Peter, Rodger, and I each took another flight into the glassy early evening air. I took some pictures of the river valley to the north (with Ascutney) and to the south. I also took several pictures of the airfield at Morningside. You can see a glider on approach to the bull’s eye near the bottom of the picture, Rhett’s green tug on the runway, and the smaller RC runway near the top of the picture. After I tucked the camera away, I yanked the VG tight and proceeded to make the “wires sing” as I sliced through the buttery smooth air. I zipped around until I ran out of altitude and flared for a nice landing in the mowed LZ at Morningside. I was really hoping for some XC flying today, but after sitting through all those rainy days just getting my feet off the ground was a real pleasure.