Monday, May 14, 2007

Opening Day

Although the mornings are still frosty, the grass is now green, the leaves are bursting forth and the daffodils and tulips are blooming; it must be time for opening day at Mount Ascutney.

I met Rodger and a relative newcomer to the New England area, Greg K, at a mall in Leominster where we tossed everything on my truck for the trip north. Since the state park is not open we are bound to the terms of our "special-use permit". One key provision is that we will not leave vehicles at the top of the mountain while we fly. This implies we need drivers to take the vehicles down and of course most of us don't arrive with drivers. So we all start working the phone network. Jeff, PK, Chip, and Dennis were showing up, like us, sans driver. John had a driver, but no spare room. Dan had a driver and said that Greg H would be there in spite of landing in Boston at 6:30 am after a flight back from Alaska.

While waiting for us at the base of the mountain, PK met Ryan who was checking out the mountain road for land luge. Ryan wanted to see hang gliding and offered to drive my truck back down. Thanks Ryan! We tossed PK and Jeff's equipment on my truck, exhaled, squeezed in, and drove up.

Although there was plenty of mud, I was relieved to see all but a few pockets of snow were gone and that the black flies were still absent. The cool air made the hike almost pleasant. (Notice I said "almost".) I was also pleased to see the wind blowing in at times since the computer models predicted a light NE breeze over-the-back. Foot launching at a mountain site is quite different from the all the aero-tow launching I did in Florida. You need to pick the right time to launch and that was especially true on Saturday. At this site you really only get one chance. Make a mistake and your flying for the day is over; there are no "re-flights". The wind on launch was probably either rotor or air being sucked up from thermals lifting off into the blue on the sunny back side of the mountain. I timed the "good" cycles and found they were between 10 and 15 minutes apart and lasted about 5 minutes. That meant we could probably launch 3 pilots every 15 minutes; it was going to be hard to get everyone in the air at once.

Chip launched first, briefly climbed, and then headed out. John launched and climbed out to the left. Jeff launched and lost of a lot of altitude heading to the north side of the mountain. I stepped up as the cycle was ending. I watched Chip and Jeff start nice climbs far below, but couldn't launch since it was either blowing 90 cross or tailing. Jeff found a climb over the ski area and I wanted to launch so bad but wasn't willing to make my first foot launch for the season a tailwind launch. It started to blow-in as Chip lost his climb and Jeff and John left the mountain. I launched into a slight headwind and a climb; I was above launch on my first turn. As I was climbing I watched Rodger launch, glider a little further out front, and miss the climb. Doh.

Meanwhile I struggled to free my snagged harness zipper; my winter gear made it as difficult as picking up marbles with boxing gloves. I fumbled around, lost the climb, and had to come back to the mountain. I cruised down along the top, down the front, and then back to launch without hitting a bump. Did that mean the next ride was 10 minutes away? Oh no! I was heading down to the ski area before heading out to the LZ when I stumbled into a snaky little weasel of climb. Thinking it might be a long time before the next legitimate thermal came through I swung around and did my best to extract every bit of lift. It wasn't impressive, but I was climbing. I kept looking up at launch wondering why everyone wasn't diving off to join me. Soon I was looking across at launch and then down on launch. Once I drifted back of launch to the sunny side of the mountain the climb turned on and I beamed out and said goodbye to Ascutney.

I headed south over the high terrain on the west side of the Connecticut river valley and found strong bullet thermals but nothing satisfying. I decided to give the man-made areas with less water on the ground a try. I crossed over the river and found a strong climb over the factories, over the airport, and then over the town of Claremont. The entire time I was scanning the horizon for other pilots that might have gotten away from the mountain. If they managed to escape I planned to fly back across the river and join them. Meanwhile I enjoyed the view of the snow capped White Mountains and the sun-dogs in the high cirrus overhead.

I began to think I was the last to escape so I flew south to Morningside. Just before I got there I found another sweet climb to the top floor. I wasn't too excited about heading off without a driver but I couldn't just let all this altitude go to waste so I moved on. As I was gliding south the cirrus became much thicker and I began to second guess my decision. Did I really want to land in a muddy field 20 or 30 miles to the south? Nope. So I turned around at Charlestown and worked my way back to Morningside.

I was down to 500 feet and checking out the wind in the LZ when PK came on the radio announcing he was at 5000 feet, leaving the mountain, and wanted to know where I was. Crap. I thought everyone else was already on the ground. I found a weak thermal drifting from the southeast and tried to climb out but the poor thing died at 1700 feet. Oh well. I set up an unusual approach over the road to land into a breeze coming down the hill from the east. Jeff was there to greet me as the first pilot to fly in from the mountain this year. I talked with Ron, Julie, and several other pilots as I lazily broke down.

PK eventually landed at Morningside after getting too cold and fighting lift to get down. (How can pilots sink out when others are "fighting" to get down?) Somehow I missed Greg K going by on his way to his LZ at the Fort at No. 4 north of Charlestown. Jeff landed north of Fall Mountain for the long flight of the day. I had my first foot launch this year, 2 hours airtime, and lots of time catching up with friends. Not epic, but a good start to the New England season.