Many times I’ve been flying with Pete J, and he has asked, “What are your plans for today? Are you going XC?”. My reply has always been a shrug and “I never have”, and his response has been to tell me that I’ve got to stop saying that.
As far as I was concerned, all of the elements lined up perfectly. I had not yet flown Ascutney this year, and the forecast was pretty much ideal based on the weather sites that I look at (though others had a different interpretation). Nancy had to work Saturday, and I had worked a lot of hours during the week and felt like I deserved a break. Jeff C was heading up, and his nephew was coming along to drive. What more could you ask for?
Various people expressed interest in heading up from Massachusetts, but it settled out to being Lee M, Pete J, Tom L, Jeff C, John B, and me. We rendezvoused at a park’n'ride and consolidated into two cars for the drive to Vermont. Arriving at the mountain, we were surprised to learn that it was “Vermont Day”, and admission to the state park was free! Arriving at launch after the hike, we found Z already there, setting up his ATOS. Before we were ready, we were also joined by Jake, Jeff B, Doug B, Kip, PK, and Megan. Lee didn’t come out to launch (he went over to Morningside), but Nate had come with Megan and Ryan was driving for Z, so we had two pilots for wire crew.
There was a sense of gloom in the setup area, because everyone was eyeing a thick band of cirrus that was to the northwest and probably heading our way. There were cumulus clouds under it, but the fear was that the high clouds would block too much sunlight and shut down the lift, and people really don’t like it when they get sledders at Ascutney. There was some breeze, though, so failing all else we could probably soar ridge lift. We waited around for a while, and a little after 1 PM, Z decided to test the air. Lift must have been adequate, because he was able to buzz launch a few times before climbing out. There were no launch potatoes, everybody else played follow-the-leader into the air. It was a little disorganized to start out. I’m used to seeing the top pilots all circling above me, but people were looking all over the place for good lift. Sometimes the best ones would be pretty low, and sometimes I’d be looking down on almost everybody, but it wouldn’t last long. There didn’t seem to be any obvious way to bank up a lot of altitude, but the radio chatter was about what clouds looked promising, and what the XC prospects were.
I followed Tom to one climb that was maybe drifting more than it was worth, and went to the front of the mountain again to avoid getting stuck too far back with not enough altitude. Soon afterwards I hooked into something that got me to 5000 feet, which happens to be the rule-of-thumb altitude for heading over the back: if you’re at 5000 feet and climbing, you can think about heading downwind. I thought I was back about as far as the summit parking lot, but when I glanced down, I saw that I was all the way back to the scenic overlook a mile downwind. Thinking I might be able to climb more before leaving, I pushed toward the summit, but all I accomplished was to burn 500 feet of altitude, and I wasn’t sure I could make it past the ridgeline. So now I was a half-mile further from anything downwind, and I was at 4500 feet instead of 5000. Rather than get myself in deeper trouble, I decided to turn around and make a run for it. I was scoping out various fields that were within reach, including the off-limits horse track by the river, figuring that anything is better than landing in trees, when my vario started making happy beeping sounds. Lift! I turned circles and climbed to a more comfortable altitude.
My options now included that Claremont airport, which wasn’t ideal in my mind, but I knew pilots had landed there before. I also scanned further along for the “Red Barn field”, which I had seen from the ground, but wasn’t sure where it was located. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s adjacent to the airport and a bit closer — it’s an accepted bailout LZ with an easy retrieve, so I was in good shape. Trying to stay clear of the airport pattern just in case, though there was no traffic evident, I found lift just south of there and climbed up to an altitude where I was confident that I could reach Morningside. From there I decided to improve my chances by moving to “the factories”, a couple of flat-roofed buildings that are considered to be Morningside’s “house thermal”. They’re very familiar to most pilots, but since I’ve done no aerotowing, nor have I ever climbed out from Morningside, I had never seen them from the air.
Lee radioed from Morningside, asking who was low over the factories, and I said that it was me. I had hopes of getting back up, but all I was finding was zero sink. I made the decision that if my altitude dropped below 2000 feet, I’d call it a day. The altimeter soon read 1998, and I headed for the park, such a familiar place, but one which I had never viewed from this angle.
My approach took me over the buildings, then I set up for my first landing on the runway. I was concerned that the wind might be cross, but as I turned onto final, I saw the streamers pointing directly toward me. Nice! I flared well for the spectators, and I think I might have even heard some applause. Before I could carry my glider over to break it down, one of the instructors showed up with an ATV and a trailer to give me a ride.
Over the course of about the next hour, most of the pilots from Ascutney arrived, some having flown high and far in the interim. Of the remainder, one landed out front, a few flew about the same distance in other directions, and one went longer. And after a while, I was approached by a group of pilots who said we had some business to attend to. I had been expecting this, and in fact had been carrying a change of clothes in my harness for the past couple of years in anticipation. There’s a tradition that on the occasion of a pilot’s first flight from Ascutney to Morningside, he gets thrown in the pond. John S and John M did the honors, appropriate for a baptism.
Back in 2004 when I was first taking lessons, my instructor Steve P had gestured toward Ascutney and said that a flight from there to here was a common first XC flight. It took a long time before I finally gave it a try.
Doug B, PK, John B, Kip, Pete J, Tom L, J-J
Here’s a track of my flight. Note that the altitude indicated is of the ground that I’m flying over, not my altitude.
flights: 1, airtime: 1:24, XC distance: 15.3 km