Monday, July 28, 2008

Sunny Above, Wet Below

We have been getting an excessive number of rainy days this summer so when I saw a sunny day it was an easy decision to go flying. John B, who was also eager to get away for the day, joined me for the drive north to West Rutland Vermont. I was talking to Jake on the cellphone when we crossed the Connecticut river south of Bellows Falls and Jake commented that the river looked more like the raging Mississippi than the clear tranquil Connecticut we typically see in July.

Once we arrived at the moutain, John and I were relived to find out we could "wade" out of the LZ if we sank out. Even the little stream at the road gate was flowing like it was spring. (We passed numerous waterfalls on the way up and drove through streams running down the road.)

We were surprised no one else decided to fly. It was blowing straight-in around 10-13 mph (16-21 kpm) and wispy cummies dotted the sky, with a few even showing flat bottoms. Oh well, their loss. Well, maybe ours too. See, we didn't have a driver but really wanted to fly north along the Green Mountains. However, we weren't going to let that small detail stop us; we reviewed the best hitchhiking routes back and John even packed a road map from my truck in his harness.
While John was busy packing up, I snapped some pictures of others making the best of a sunny day.

Since John felt a little rusty with his foot launches, he went first. He had a picture-perfect launch and was already above launch as he turned upwind to the west. I ran back, suited up, hooked-in, and walked to launch. I saw John below ridge height part-way out to the valley, but turning and slowy climbing. I ran off in a light cycle and started circling to the left of launch in a thermal that was curling off the downwind end of the ridge line. I climbed over the top but was drifting back too fast to stay with it to cloudbase so I came back to join John. However, John was now setting up a landing approach. Bummer. He had a nice landing on the one dry spot in the field. He dutifully offered to drive and encouraged me to take off.

I wanted to leave but I was working hard just to stay up on the ridge. The climbs were small, punchy, and seemed blown apart although the wind didn't seem that strong. I had a couple climbs that I could have left in, but wasn't confident that I could hit cloud base let alone glide across the blue to the Greens on the other side of the valley. I wondered if the wind was maybe too cross to the ridge line. I flew to the upwind end of the ridge line and got stepped on. I retreated with my tail between my legs back to the bowl, well below the top. Just as I got to the bowl I got a nice climb that I rode to 3200 feet (975m) , about 1000 (302 m) feet below cloud base. Instead of leaving I decided to fly back upwind to a line of clouds where I planned to drift across the valley circling at cloud base.

It seemed like a good plan, but instead of a good climb, I found a good beating. I was rudely, but smoothly, rolled to the left and right; at times approaching 90 degrees. I was having trouble keeping things under control but was climbing. I thought I must be outside the core of the thermal, but more exploring just brought more abuse. Meanwhile two very large areas of the sky to the immediate west were exploding with clouds. I then noticed cumulus clouds below the higher areas of clouds and scud floating under the cummies. Um. I thought maybe a short wave or unannounced front was passing through or maybe a convergence zone was setting up. Whatever was happening, I wasn't enjoying it. I didn't like the idea of landing in these conditions so running downwind seemed like the best option. I had just turned around when the nose of my glider was yanked up. I did my best pull-up to keep the nose down and tossed in a sideways motion to initiate a wing over. For a moment I was afraid I might tail slide but the glider rolled over and I continued to leave with haste.

About 30 seconds after that happened John got on the radio and said Bo had arrived and was taking him up to fetch the truck. (Thanks Bo!) John asked if there was anything he could do to help out. I replied "Land the glider"! I told them I wasn't comfortable with the air and was going to run out into the valley ahead of this stuff and land.

Once I cleared the edge of the large cloud mass overhead the air became civilized. I could have reached the Rutland airport but decided a recently cut hay field near the Route 4 and Route 7 intersection would make for the easiest pickup. I had a good, and dry, landing and walked the glider over to the entrance along the road.

Unfortunately, John had to wade through deep muddy water to get his glider to the truck. Meanwhile I watched the mass of clouds that chased me off the ridge float overhead. In its wake the sky was totally blue. I turned my gaze downwards and noticed a snail crawling across my harness. Sheeze. Maybe some sunny blue isn't such a bad thing.

Flights: 1, Time: 1:30, Distance 8.5 miles

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fun on the Ground

I stumbled out the door at 5:00 am Saturday morning so I could be at the base of Mount Ascutney at 7:30 to help with the bike race. (The race climbs 2300 feet (700 m) for 3.8 miles (6.1 km) for an average grade of 12% but with several 19% grades. Bikes included full carbon toothpicks, more common road racers, a couple mountain bikes, and even a single fixed-gear bike). Jake organizes volunteers from the Vermont Hang Gliding Association and we had a great turnout this year.

After helping park cars I joined Jake, Judy, Jeremy, JJ, and Nancy at the second water station. We prepared our little cups of water, ate lots of wild blueberries, and waited.

A few elite riders came through in a small pack and then we had another break before the long stream of the main body passed through. Jake was having way too much fun spraying riders with his super-soaker! However, it was fun to hear the bikers yell "shoot me"!

After the last biker willed himself to the top, some of the bikers cashed in their altitude for a cooling cruise back down.

Once the bikers were clear, we drove to the top, unloaded our tools of destruction, and began cleaning the trail to the south launch. Once at launch we hoisted a new wind sock, did some minor trimming in the setup area, and then ate more blueberries and talked as we cooled off in the stiff breeze under rapidly growing clouds.

Eventually we ran out of gas and human energy so we headed to the Harpoon Brewery in Windsor for a recharge. Mike, Linda, Ryan, Peter K, Lee, Jake, Judy, and myself drank and ate while the sky dumped rain outside. Once the deluge ended I headed over to Morningside for more socializing, food, drink, and another cloud burst. The only flying I saw all day was a couple paraglider flights off the 450 foot (137 m) hill after the rain.

Time: 0:00, Distance: 0.0, Drinks: several ;-)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Over the Greens

After seeing so many forecasts filled with showers and thunderstorms, I was really psyched to see last Wednesday's forecast. I tried to generate enthusiasm by ignoring the usual "lets go to Ascutney" suggestions the day before and instead suggested we go to West Rutland Vermont, fly over the Green Mountains, and THEN fly over Ascutney and continue east to the coast. Only Dennis and Greg were willing (or able) to go. Oh, we didn't have a driver either. So we spotted trucks along our intended course line; Dennis' in Ludlow and Greg's in Rutland.

We met Bob's daughter and son-in-law driving his truck down at the switchback on the way up. She was kind enough to ride back up and then drive my truck back to the bottom. The only other pilot there was Peter Klien, who offered to drive after he flew. Um, things are falling into place! Oh, did I mention that the slightly overdeveloped sky was now breaking up into nicely spaced cummies? :-)

Peter launched first while I was finishing my packing. I walked over to launch fully expecting to see him above us, but everyone on the ramp was looking down. Uh oh. He searched all along the ridge but was soon on the ground. Bummer. Peter's descent dampened the excitement and Dennis encouraged me to wait but it just looked too good to waste time on launch. With Bob's help I waited until the right cross was minimal and launched into a good climb. I made a few passes in front of launch, then started circling in the bowl, and didn't stop until I reached cloud base. I just hung out until they were ready to go. Dennis launched next, then Greg, and then Bob.

However, everyone else launched into a blue hole. After my initial climb I was able to glide to a solid thermal under a cloud upwind, but the guys on the ridge were not so lucky. Can you find Waldo, um, I mean Greg, below?

Bob landed and then a while later Greg. Greg just missed the elevator ride out by 5 minutes. Dennis was soon high enough to leave and as we drifted back in a climb, I asked him where he wanted to go. I was assuming the question was about which cloud to the east or southeast to glide to, but Dennis answered north and took off. Uh? What? Wait for me! The original plan was to head east, but apparently Dennis thought a cloud base of 5500 feet (1600 m) was too low to cross the Green Mountains. I didn't want to fight a 13 mph (21 kph) cross wind that would be blowing us away from LZs into parts of the Green Mountains with nothing but trees and deep ravines. I assured him there were LZs all along Route 103 to the east, that I would hang with him, and besides that, we would go slow and stay high. Taking a play from his playbook I then took off to the southeast. Dennis followed and we climbed out together over the town of Rutland. He was a little reluctant to glide to a climb over the trees south of Kilington but once committed he was fine. (He said something that at least he would have the pleasure of seeing me splat before he went in!) We cut the corner north of the Rutland airport and stayed north of Route 103 and its LZs.

I never got below 4500 feet and spent most of the time between 5000 and 5500. Every young cloud produced a usable climb. We would glide to the southeast and drift in climbs to the east. We had one very sweet run near cloud base that deposited us just north of Mount Okemo in Ludlow. Here's Dennis climbing over some lakes. Greg, who relieved Peter of his driving duties, was following below and had us in his sights.

We got a nice view of the Mount Okemo ski area as we were leaving.

Once past Mount Okemo we had plentiful LZs on our way to Mount Ascutney to the east. We were also gliding downwind instead of gliding crosswind.

We stopped for a developing thermal in the blue on the way to Mount Ascutney over familiar territory. I was down to 3500 feet but didn't want to leave the climb until I saw something better. Dennis took off to the south side of Ascutney to a cloud that was collapsing by the time he got there. Meanwhile my thermal was blooming into a 500 fpm climb that took me back to 6000 feet. I crossed over Ascutney at cloud base and started a long glide to the other side of Claremont to a line of flat bottom clouds that extended beyond Mount Kearsarge.

It was about 4:30 so I guessed we had a couple hours of flying left. Just then Dennis called on the radio "MAYDAY MAYDAY, I'm hurt!" I've never heard anyone use that term in real life and a shot of fear went right through me. I answered his call and asked his condition and location. He said he either broke his leg or ankle and couldn't move. I started getting location information and relayed between Dennis and Greg. I soon spotted Greg in my truck and gave him explicit directions to Dennis' location in a wheat field on the Vermont side of the river due east of Ascutney. Apparently Dennis landed in a mature wheat field, flared high over the tops of the grain as expected, but twisted his ankle when he landed. Once Greg was with Dennis I turned south and went to Morningside assuming I could bum a ride to the hospital and maybe get help breaking down Dennis' glider. Greg wanted to take Dennis directly to the hospital, but Dennis wasn't going to leave the field until his glider was broken down. At that point I knew the injury wasn't life threatening! Furthermore, I got a call on my cell phone saying they were driving 20 minutes in the wrong direction to pick me up before going to the hospital!

Once they picked me up we headed to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon New Hampshire. The building and staff were nice but we still had to wait in the emergency area for the usual collection of weekend warrior injuries and health ailments. We eventually discovered that Dennis broke two different bones in his ankle and he would need to have surgery to secure the breaks. Oh joy. Dennis would have to wait a few days for the swelling to go down before they could do the surgery so they would release him later that night. Dennis' wife Anne and his daughter arrived at 11:00 and around 11:30 Greg, Anne, and I headed towards Rutland to start retrieving vehicles. I dropped Greg off at Rutland, Anne at Ludlow, and then drove home. Thank goodness for rumble strips! I got home just before 4:00 am.

Time: 3:34, Distance: 41.2 miles

Monday, July 21, 2008

All Ships Rising

Rodger and Jeff C met at my place before heading to fly at West Rutland two weekends ago. The weather looked good, but after a sled ride and a rain-out at my previous two visits I was still a little apprehensive. We talked about XC flying on the drive north. Jeff talked about his short flops over the back on a trip to Valle de Bravo but had yet to "cut the strings" in New England. We described the open fields to the north of West Rutland and encouraged him to head out if he felt comfortable. We met Dennis and Ryan at the base and talked about retrieval arrangements on the way up the mountain so we were covered for some XC flying.

Launch was decorated with piles of colorful cloth, the setup area was sprouting hang gliders, and the wind was blowing in nicely when we arrived on top. Pilots continued to stream in, including Carolina and Eric from Wallaby Ranch in Florida, pilots from the Ellenville New York area, and locals I haven't seen yet this season. It was a first-class social scene.

John G launched first with his paragliding tandem passenger and started soaring after sinking a bit below launch level. A couple more paraglider pilots and John S in his ATOS stepped into the air and all were climbing out. Since the number of pilots needing to use launch was growing by the minute and it was already soarable, I excused myself from the mountaintop small talk and got in line to launch. When my turn came, I walked up to launch, sized things up, ran, started flying, took a couple "S" turns, and was soon circling to cloud base; I wish it was always that easy! It was tough returning to the ridge when the two paragliders (Caju and Van) I just shared the climb with took off towards a sweet line of clouds downwind, but I wanted to fly with Dennis and Rodger since neither had flown in that direction before.

I spent the next hour cruising the valley waiting for my flying buddies to get up so we could go exploring. I could see the crowded ridge below sprinkled with hang gliders and paragliders, but no one was getting exceptionally high. I kept myself busy by exploring the other side of the valley, "shadowing" John S as he came back low after investigating the surrounding countryside, and by amusing Ryan with my unanswered pleas for someone to leave the mountain.

I finally got a call back from Dennis saying he was ready to leave even though he wasn't at cloud base. I was relatively low across the valley but encouraged him to go and that I would catch up. (That's the racer's arrogance speaking! ;-) ) I zipped back to the ridge and immediately started climbing at 400 - 500 fpm on my way there. I kept waiting to fall out the other side but never did. I noticed a couple HG pilots doing their best blender imitation to my right, a couple PG pilots turning flat circles ahead of me, and 3 novice HG pilots doing their best to maintain a simple circle to my left all climbing at the same rate. Cool. The entire valley was releasing and all ships were rising, no matter what they were doing. I told Dennis I would soon be on the top floor and then cruised around climbing at 400 fpm looking for Rodger. I did a big wing over in front of him, pointed downwind, and started heading for the edge of the cloud. As I plowed through the wisps at the edge I looked back and saw Rodger following and to my left and saw Jeff. Sweet.

I told Jeff the next cloud looked good and that the fields below and in front of us were good LZs. That was all the coaxing he needed; he was leaving. Although I thought the cloud in front looked good, it was dying by the time we got there. Rodger and I scouted around looking for remnants, but there really weren't any. I felt bad for Jeff, another good climb would allow him to reach the really open area where the Rutland valley meets the Champlain valley. I glided across the valley to a large complex of clouds that provided a cushy smooth 200 fpm climb that allowed me to watch the show on the other side. Although I wrote him off, Jeff wasn't ready to land yet. He found bits and pieces of climbs that allowed him to keep going. He then found a slow climb not far from the quarry and settled in. Dennis caught up with someone but wasn't sure who it was. He said the pilot had an "ugly" colored harness and Jeff assuredly announced it must be Rodger! Ouch.

I tried waiting, but my climb was turning into sink so I pushed on. I noticed that it just wasn't my cloud that was drying up, all the clouds were fading away. Although it was late afternoon, it was too early for the day to shutoff due to the lack of sunshine. I thought it must be the predicted warm air moving in and suppressing thermal development. I needed a couple climbs but set the small airport at Middlebury as my goal. It was fairly easy getting there, but I doubt I would have gone much further given how quickly the sky turned blue.

Jeff continued until he ran out of LZs just south of Brandon Vermont. He landed next to an ambulance service and was given a big bottle of water to keep hydrated with. An excellent first New England XC! Rodger made it a bit further and landed close to a restaurant where he cooled off with a beer after breaking down. Dennis eventually landed in a field next to a factory in the same town I did. I also had a comfy LZ, complete with windsock, a pilot's lounge, a soda machine, shade, and company. I briefly spoke to the person rebuilding a Dragonfly that someday might be towing hang gliders in Vermont. I also took pictures of wildflowers as I waited for the gang to show up.

The truck arrived but one too many people stepped out! They found Van, one of the PG pilots that took off early, in Salisbury Vermont. After we tossed my equipment on and squeezed into the truck we drove back sharing stories and the excitement of a fun flying day. We continued the flying "lies" while we had dinner in Rutland with a few other pilots before starting the long drive home.

Time: 2:12, Distance: 25.5