Friday, October 16, 2009

Fun Frigid Fall Foliage Flight

Peter had a new toy and wanted to go flying.  Given the forecasts, the best place to go was the Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts.  One of the three forecast models we use predicted a wind direction that would be too cross and, if correct, would mean a wasted day of driving.  Also worrisome to me was the forecasted high temperature in the valley, on the ground, of 42F (5C).  Brr.

Peter stopped by my place, rechecked the forecasts, and then decided to roll.  We spent the entire 2 hour drive looking for signs that the wind was blowing the wrong direction and trying to snatch forecast updates whenever we had cellphone coverage.  I don't know why we played that silly game; we both knew we were committed to the full drive!

I temporarily forgot about the temperatures until I saw the glistening ice covered trees on the ridge top and the snow frosted Mount Greylock on the opposite side of the valley.  I complained a bit.  Peter then reminded me I was a New Englander and that I should suck-it-up and embrace the cold.  He was right.  Come next spring a day above freezing will seem like a summer day at the beach.  I put on every piece of clothing I brought, including two coats, and hiked to launch.


Mount Greylock and the green LZ at the base of Ragged Mountain

The wind was stronger than predicted, gusty, and a bit cross; strong and cross enough that we needed to pay attention but not scary.  We found a couple spots along the trail to rig our gliders sheltered from the wind.  I was comfortable, temperature-wise, once I started moving.  However, I knew I couldn't fly with everything I was wearing.  So I had to carefully consider the tradeoff between staying warm and breathing in my tight harness!  In the end I wore my standard fall/winter gear but doubled up with a spare windbreaker Peter brought along.

We were checking conditions prior to launching when we noticed a black SUV in the bail-out LZ below.  We thought it might be Keith, but neither of us had his phone number to let him know about the conditions on launch.  A short while later Keith showed up.

Peter was anxious to get going since the short day was passing by, the winds were lighter at the moment, and the small breaks of blue between the clouds were disappearing.  He suited up, hooked into his new stead, ambled to launch with Keith and me on his wires, and then took off.  He turned right, flew a short distance before "falling" into a hole several wing-spans deep and then immediately popping back up.  Yee-haw.  I watched for more signs that the air was turbulent, but Peter made it look smooth although strong.

Peter and his new Wills Wing Sport 2

I decided to wait so I could land later when the valley hopefully glassed over.  I watched Peter cruise back and forth overhead as I talked with Keith as he setup his glider and dual video cameras.  Once Keith was finished it was time to play.

I had trouble squeezing into my harness but managed to get everything zipped up with Keith's help.  He helped me walk to launch and then into the air.  (Thanks Keith).  I turned right and was treated to the same "joy ride" Peter experienced after his launch.  The lift was widespread as I easily climbed above launch and started turning in a thermal near the radio towers.  I struggled to "prone out" and close the zipper on my harness.  The combination of shoes with larger soles and more clothing over my shoulders made the harness too small.  I guess its time to loosen the shoulder straps for the winter flying season.

After I wiggled into my harness I enjoyed the colors below.  The hills were painted with yellows, oranges, and reds.

Lots of color

Launch is beyond the towers and above the road.

I flew near launch until Keith was safely in the air.  I relayed to Peter, who had landed at the mini-golf course because he was cold, that we were both airborne.  I flew south along the ridge, but far above it flying cloud to cloud.  At several points I turned and flew upwind almost across the valley following cloud lines or cloud streets.  I gained altitude on several of the crossings.  (I also noted that I was quite comfortable and not at all cold.)

The colors on this little hilltop were radiant.

I watched Keith fly south along the ridge and then cross the valley to land in a hayfield south of the mini-golf course.  I flew back to the north beyond launch and played with some migrating hawks.  The sun was simultaneously setting and fading behind thick cirrus.  Not only did that allow the clouds and thermals to wane, it became darker behind my tinted helmet visor.  The fading light and wind meant it was time to head south and land.

I mention the wind speed since I know things get interesting in the valley when its blowing at or above the current speed; especially at The Range, a mini-golf course which sits directly in the wind shadow of a ridge line.  Peter also told me that he encountered smooth 1000 fpm (5 m/s) down one the way to the LZ.  I positioned myself along the last line of wispy clouds and flew upwind across the valley arriving above the ridge line.  Peter reported light northeast winds in the LZ below although the winds at ridge height were strong west northwest.  I knew I would be flying directly into the rotor downwind of Ragged Mountain.  The glide down was smooth and easy until I was just slightly below the top of Ragged.  At that point I was pushed down and around.  I made sure I didn't get too far from the LZ.  Although the sink and wind direction changes were big, there wasn't any jarring turbulence.  I mistakenly thought the sink would cease at a couple hundred feet, but since it didn't I had to use an approach that should have left me on a light crosswind final.  I rounded out and kept skimming along the ground faster than I should have been going.  Dang.  Downwind.  I flared too late and/or too weakly and demonstrated how not to land a hang glider.  No damage to me or glider; aside from the ego.

Peter and Keith shared a cab back to launch to fetch trucks while I packed up in the fading light.  Everyone had enjoyable flights and I know Peter and I enjoyed the warm truck ride home.

Flights: 1, Duration: 1:16

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Columbus Day Weekend

Columbus Day is a major 3-day holiday in New England, not because New Englanders view Christopher Columbus differently than most Americans, but because the trees are at peak color and everyone goes outside before winter comes crashing in.

Morningside (and John's car) after the skies cleared.

Amy and I took a long slow drive to Morningside Flight Park Saturday soaking up the views along the way.  The rain stopped as we arrived and cold dry air started blowing in.  Luckily the large party tent came complete with heaters.  We enjoyed the company, barbecue dinner, live band, costumes, over-the-top fireworks, and the traditional after-party around the campfire.  (The fireworks were awesome as rockets launched from 3 locations on the hill.  You can see the full spread in the second half of this video Bill took.)

Since it was blown-out Sunday we found another indirect route home that included the Fall Foliage Festival in Warner and a stop in Henniker to check out their covered bridge from the ground.

We also stopped in Groton to pick apples and watch the hawks play in the wind.

The flying didn't look great on Monday either so we enjoyed the smells, colors, and sounds as leaves flittered around our bikes on the Nashua River Rail Trail.

On cue, snow fell on the Green and White Mountains overnight Monday signaling the beginning of the end of this flying season.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Team Challenge (Day 7)

Day 7 was also blown out so Ollie organized a "round-table" discussion where pilots could set the agenda by asking a panel of experienced pilots questions.

Mark B launched late in the afternoon and I helped several team members setup and fly as the day glassed off before sunset.  Otherwise, pilots starting packing or getting ready for the catered dinner, awards presentation, and party that evening.

The scores and more pictures are available online.  "XXX" placed first, "Knights in White Dacron" second, and the boogers of team "Aerosnauts" in third.  However, the Team Challenge really isn't about winning a competition, its about pilots learning from each other and learning to work as a team.  As corny as it sounds, almost everyone was a winner at this year's meet.

The trophies are a gorgeous creation of Eric Donaldson who was given a new helmet in appreciation for his work.  Ricker did a great job encouraging sponsors to go overboard with a bevy of non-trival prizes.

The team hoped to fly on Sunday, the day after the meet, but the forecast was totally wrong.  A sunny stable day turned out to be totally overcast and with scattered showers.  We tried to find a spot in Virginia to fly, but the winds were just too strong.  While Allen, Jim, and I continued our drives home on Monday, Dan and Doug joined Randy at Skinner State Park for an afternoon flight.

I missed way too many recent Team Challenges, but will do my best to return next year to help "pay forward" the help I received years ago.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Team Challenge (Day 6)

Day 6 was seriously rained out but we did get to see the sun by late afternoon.  We had a variety seminars in the morning and afternoon.  Buddy and James directed the Aerosnauts to the Cookie Jar Cafe where we had a nice lunch and great dessert.  Last evening we enjoyed barbecued chicken in the pavilion and a late night around the camp fire.

Team Challenge (Day 5)

We launched at Whitwell, which meant starting early since launch is atop an east-facing ridge.  Things were going well until the task committee started debating how to encourage "C" pilots to launch early and land in the LZ unless they were high.  After some lengthy debate, the committee decided to scrap the "re-flight" bonus, only count the first flight, and award "C" pilots in the LZ the same score as someone who landed 3 miles out.

Setting up at Whitwell

With the task settled, the Aerosnauts mounted up and heading down into the valley.  We filled the truck with fuel and junk food before traveling the back roads on the west side of the valley exploring potential landing areas.

We were relieved to see it blowing in a bit at times instead of totally cross.  However, I was worried about launching conditions since it was blowing mostly 90 degrees cross from the right and the clouds 1500 feet above were blowing over the back.  The Aerosnauts rigged quickly so we could launch early and snot be trapped on launch if it started to blow down.

Allen launched first, followed by me and then Dan.  Jim and Erin launched a bit later to spread our risk.  Allen turned left and maintained.  I launched and turned left to sample the ridge to the south.  I didn't find much aside from a butt-beating and returned below launch.   I told Erin and Jim to be ready for a "bar room fight" as the wind was blowing across the face of the ridge producing turbulence and broken lift.

Jim launched and stayed on top of the ridge but Erin got flushed to the church LZ.  Meanwhile Allen was working a thermal away from the ridge, Dan was impressing us all, and unfortunately I was looking up at my team.

I like a good fight and started clawing my way up.  Allen sank out and Dan kept pushing on.  I managed to snag a climb and joined Jim on our way to cloud base.  We waited for several other pilots (Bryan, Dennis, and Mike) to reach our altitude before moving on.  We spread out and easily glided over the first large gap and even cleared the second gap.  However, it got interesting as Jim didn't have enough altitude to keep moving on and I barely had enough.  I came into a climb just above ridge height and wrestled with the air as Jim landed at the airfield south of Dunlap and Dan landed a few miles further behind, just short of his goal which was the airfield.

Low ridge where I was just a few feet above the trees before climbing back out.

I once again fought my way up and hooked up with Mark B for a climb on the ridge and then over the quarry.  I glided across the valley towards my second waypoint at the Henson's LZ.  I flew over dry corn fields looking for lift when I noticed Mark turning behind me to the west.  I quickly ran over to him and joined the climb.  From there I got high enough to snag the Henson's LZ turn point and glide back upwind to my goal at the airfield assisted by lift lines over the small ridge in the middle of the valley.

My wing at goal

Jim was still breaking down as I flew overhead searching for air that wasn't going up.  Figures.  I spent 15 minutes looking for a way down!  The lift softened and I spiraled down and landed next to Jim.  Our driver Frances showed up with the rest of the team just as I was zipping the glider bag.

We won the day with me at goal, Dan almost at goal, and Jim 2/3 to 3/4 of the way to goal.  Snot bad.

Ollie handed out some shirts to the "C" pilots after we enjoyed a good meal in the pavilion.

I want to extend a big "thank you" to Rick who allowed us to park on his deck and steal his internet connection during the Team Challenge.

Flights: 1, Duration: 1:45

Friday, October 02, 2009

Team Challenge (Day 4)

We had a lot of launches and landings today, but not much soaring.  It was a blue day, with the exception of the tantalizing cumulus over the plateau on the other side of the valley and the occasional wisp over the back.  The launch window opened early and teams wanting to maximize points starting diving off the ramp to make use of the "re-flight" bonus.

Staging at Henson's Gap.  Notice the blue squares on the Aerosnaut gliders.  Soon everyone was copying our idea.

Wow, what team work!

The Aerosnauts decided to forgo the "re-flight" bonus and try to soar.  Mark B, Mike B, and Dave H managed to snag a climb while the stream of flights to the LZ continued.  Erin, Jim, and I dove into the blue hoping against hope to find a climb.  Erin settled to the LZ while Jim and I entertained the crowd on launch with our team flying in front and below launch.  Clark joined us for a turn or two with the tandem before heading out.  We did our best with the broken weak lift and even managed to get back to launch height before losing it.  Jim eventually sank out while I started working the mechanical turbulence to the right of launch.  I maintained for quite awhile before slowly climbing in a real thermal.  I met Dennis P at ridge height as we climbed to 500 - 600 feet above the ridge.

Mike B looking for signs of life.

I glided over launch and headed towards the "C" goal across the valley.  I noticed two gliders gliding below me and momentarily got excited when one started to turn.  However that excitement was squashed when I noticed the glider continue on with a loss of altitude.  I had to quickly decide between continuing on and probably landing out or running back to the LZ for a shot later in the day.  I decided to return the LZ and try flying with the team later.  I landed and quickly broke down so Erin, Jim, and I could drive back up for another chance.

Mark B teasing everyone by climbing above launch.

We quickly rigged and got ready to launch again.  The late afternoon wonder-wind never materialized so we should have "dove for distance" with our two "C" pilots Dan and Erin.  However that's not our style.  We once again tried to soar on a stable day and ended in the LZ.  We all had good launches and landings, but essentially zero-ed for the day.  Snot the way to win!

Flights: 2, Duration: 0:49