2018 in review

“Not much flying” reaches ever greater extremes…

Last year Mom passed away, this year we had to get the house ready to sell, which turned out to be an interesting and epic project which ended very satisfactorily. But that took a number of weekends, and limited my airtime. I did get two mountain flights this year, so that was at least better than last year. Let’s look at the stats:

By the numbers:
Months flown: 6 (Apr, Jun, Jul, Aug, Oct, Nov)
Flying days: 6
Days when I showed up with my gear but didn’t fly: I’ll call that 3, explanation below
Flights: 14 (2 foot-launch, 5 aerotow, 7 static winch; 2 soaring, 4 longish sledders, 8 short sledders)
Sites flown: 4 (Pfeiffer/Nejame, Tanner-Hiller, Ascutney, Talcott)
New sites: 1 (Pfeiffer/Nejame)
Gliders flown: 3 (Falcon 170 belonging to Greg S, Falcon 2 170, U2 145)
Longest flight (time): 1:42:37 (Aug 15, Talcott)
Longest flight (XC distance): 3.04 km (July 7, Ascutney)
Total flight time: 4:58
Max altitude: 4873 feet (Jun 30, Tanner-Hiller, but that was the release altitude)
Damage: hey, none!
Injuries: none of them either!

The three days with no flying were a day at Wellfleet that was blown out, a nice day at West Rutland when I just assumed that other pilots would be showing up, but nobody did, and one adventure. At the end of the year, my friend Nancy and I went to the Canary Islands for a week for an orienteering competition. The races were on Gran Canaria, which is short plane ride from Lanzarote, which has some epic flying. I brought my harness and helmet along on the trip, and there were two days that I had free where flying could have been an option. I made contact with an outfitter/guide from whom I could have rented a glider. I blew off the first one because our flights got changed and that made the schedule tight, and on the second day, it looked like it might be too strong, so I opted not to risk going over to Lanzarote for nothing, and we did some sightseeing and hiking instead. No hang gliding, but a great trip nevertheless.

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November delight


Nearly a week ahead of time, Woz was looking at the forecast and thought that Sunday might be a good day for more practice towing. Depending on the wind we could go either to Tommy’s field again, or take the winch up to Tanner-Hiller airport, assuming Rhett wouldn’t be towing that day. As the day drew near, it kind of looked like either site could work, because the wind forecast was fairly light (though cross), and I put in my vote for Tanner-Hiller, because it’a a much shorter drive for me. On Saturday Woz got in touch with Rhett, who said it was fine for us to bring the winch out. Then a little later, we got word that enough pilots were interested in flying that Rhett would be towing.

I initially thought that it would be best to get an early start, but the last forecast that I looked at suggested that it would be a little strong in the morning, particularly at altitude, so I took my time and showed up a little before noon. Pete J was already set up when I pulled in, and Noel was putting his glider together. I set mine up while Mark H and John M prepared the tandem. Pete and Noel both went up, and there was enough lift to keep them busy for a while — Pete got about an hour or so of airtime.


Pete


Noel


Rhett pulling John and Rachel up in the tandem

I had brought the U2, which I hadn’t towed with in over a year. But it’s just like riding a bicycle, you never forget, and I had towed with my Falcon a few months earlier. But it’s not so routine that I remember everything: the U2 has VG, which I normally set to 1/3, but I forgot to do that. Not a big deal. The lack of practice was more of an issue, though, because as soon as I lifted out of the cart, I was a dope on a rope. I was all over the place, oscillating left and right, and I thought Rhett was going to give me the rope (I even thought I saw him give the signal to get off when we were about halfway down the airfield, but he said later that he hadn’t). I got it settled down, and I wasn’t doing a great job of flying, but I got my spasticness down to a tolerable level. Rhett was turning some, so I figured we might be in lift, then at about 2500 feet, the tug dropped abruptly. That could have meant that he hit sink, or that he had just towed me through lift, but in either case I wasn’t interested in diving to chase him, so I pinned off and looked for the thermal.

There was some lift, enough for me to climb a couple of hundred feet until I lost it. I hunted around at the other spots in the vicinity of the airport where I’d found climbs in the past, and at some of them I found zero sink, at least. Finally down under 1000 feet, I was hanging out over the woods just NE of the end of the access road, and I was getting enough beeps from the vario to keep circling, on the principle that you shouldn’t ever land in a field that you can soar over. That lasted for a few minutes, and I think I had a lot of eyes on me. My landing was… not too bad, but not as stylish as I’d hoped.

I took a little break to clear my head after that interesting tow, and to chat with Rhett, then I fetched a cart and wheeled my glider back up to the NE end of the field. I waited while Pete and Noel towed up again, followed by the tandem, and chatted a bit with CT John B, who was setting up. When it was my turn Mark came over to give the launch signal, and this time I remembered to pull on the VG. A little fresh practice goes a long way, and the second tow went much better, so I was able to stay with it the whole way up. The day had quit, though, and there was no lift left to be found, though I did slow my descent in a few places, and it was still an enjoyable time being up in there air. If it had been a couple of weeks earlier, there would have been some spectacular foliage, but I still did have some pleasant views.


But the sun sets early in November…

Flights: 2, airtime: 23 min, 27 min

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Cherry picking


Woz wanted to get us back out using the winch again, so he asked if people were available, and we arranged to meet at the same field where we towed last spring. Over the course of the summer, a bunch of renovation work was done on the winch, so it looks nicer now, and works better as well.

In addition to the obvious paint job, there are some mechanical improvements. The big noticeable one is the level-wind mechanism that Peter B built, a cleverly designed gadget that’s driven by a belt from the spool, and engages the shuttle with one or the other side of a loop chain, automatically switching when it gets all the way to one side. There’s also a foot brake for the drum, so that we don’t need to use a tomato stake held against the drum flange, and some adjustments to the exhaust to make it quieter for the operator. And there’s a comfort enhancement in the form of a seat for the operator so that he doesn’t have to sit on a stepladder.

Although we got there early, we had some things to work through with the equipment. The crankcase oil for the winch motor seemed to have gotten gas in it, so we had to work out how to drain that to change the oil. Then there was a little fiddling with the rope, setting up the gliders, and figuring out how to rig the releases to our own harnesses, since we no longer had Michael’s training harnesses to use.

We thought it might be a good idea to do a bit of practice towing without a glider, to give the operator some refamiliarization time. I had brought a mountain bike, and there was a dirt road running the length of the field, so I rigged a release to my waist, pulled out some line, and we did a simulated tow with me on the bike. To some extent, that worked great, everything went as it was supposed to. But from my point of view on the bike, it was scary. Since I didn’t present any aerodynamic drag, I needed to use the brakes to keep the bike from going too fast, and that meant I couldn’t let go to hit the release. And I didn’t have very good communication with the operator — we hadn’t thought through whether the normal signals would work, and taking my feet off the pedals to wave my legs as a signal to drop the tension didn’t seem smart. But the operator was on top of things, and let up before I went crashing into the winch. Seemed like a good plan, but we decided we’d had enough of that.

By midday we did get started towing, and things went well. We were pretty much all doing full tows. I was flying a borrowed Falcon again (brought my U2 but never set it up), but I did fly with my own harness — I worked out a good way to attach the release to it, that, after I make some adjustments, will allow me to get it on and off quickly. On my first tow, I forgot the proper way to position my hand when pulling the first release, so I inadvertently released both lines at around treetop level. No big deal, just land and try again, and the second flight went according to plan.

I had been manning the signal flag for a lot of flights, then one of the other pilots stepped up when someone else was on flag duty, and the flagman looked at how the pilot had the release rigged (this was his first flight with his own harness), and asked me to come take a look at it. It was the same kind of harness as mine, and I could see right away that it wasn’t going to work the way he had it, the tow lines would be up in his armpits. We pulled his glider aside so I could help him add a lower line, and one of the other pilots stepped into his place. I was cutting some cord for him, and told him to hang on for a sec so I could watch the other pilot launch. The takeoff went fine, and I watched him up to around treetop height, then went back to helping rig the release.

And I heard somebody say, “Uh oh”.

I looked back at the field and saw:

I told the pilot who I was helping with his harness that it would need to wait, and ran over toward the tree to join everybody else. I could go into this in detail, but the short story is that the pilot had dental floss, we were able to use that to get a dubious-looking rope up to him, and got him on belay so that he wouldn’t fall out of the tree. That kept him secure until the fire department got there, and we let them take over. After a bunch of debating what to do, and sending up different harnesses and other gear, they ultimately got a tree guy with a bucket truck to show up. The bucket was able to retrieve the pilot, and then remove the glider from the tree as well, with no apparent damage to either. (Then it took a while to get the bucket truck unstuck in the soft cornfield…)

The whole rescue operation took quite a while, and it was getting to be late afternoon, so after all of the emergency personnel were finally packed up and gone, there was nothing left for us to do but to…

… start towing again.

flights: 3, time about 4 min

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Sunset cruise


Woz had had a nice weekday evening flight at Talcott the week before, and, seeing a similar forecast, was encouraging others to come out and join him. Now, it’s easy for him because he lives only a few minutes from the mountain, but for me, it’s more like a five-hour round trip. It did look promising, though, so I packed up my car before heading to the office, and knocked off work a little early to head for Connecticut.

I had brought my cart for dragging all of my gear up the trail, but as I got close to Talcott, it occurred to me that I hadn’t used the cart in a while, and I also didn’t have a tire pump with me… sure enough, both tires were soft to the point of being flat. So I went for Plan B and parked up at the helipad. The hike is shorter and with less climb from there, as opposed to taking the big trail, but it’s rougher and wouldn’t work well with the cart. I’m not a one-trip kind of guy, so I schlepped the glider up to launch, then jogged back and did the second trip with my harness. It was a reasonably hot and humid afternoon, but I survived.

Woz had arrived early enough that he was already set up when I got there, and Digger was pretty far along in assembling his wing. When I returned the second time, Woz was ready to go, so we wired him off while a couple of spectators took pictures. After a few minutes, he was sending us text messages from the air. I was able to set up pretty quickly since I had brought my Falcon (easier to carry, and it’s not as if I needed performance at this site), and by the time I had it together, Digger was ready. He talked to a couple of wuffos about helping out on his wires, and the one who worked out was the Asian gentleman who had been taking pictures. There was a bit of a language barrier, but because he had seen one launch, he had an idea what to do. The wind was behaving nicely, and Digger had no trouble getting into the air.

Digger

I realized that I had forgotten something else besides the tire pump: my vario mount. It was still on the downtube of my other glider (I ordered a second one soon after). I considered my options, and decided to use the velcro of my camera mount to strap the vario to my control bar. I couldn’t read the display very well because it was sideways, but at least I could hear it. This also meant that I didn’t have a way to mount my camera, so I got no pictures from the air.

The Heublein Tower, but taken from the ground

I finished my preflight, and recruited a second bystander to help out. I spent too much mental energy on explaining what I wanted them to do, when I should have just said to hold onto the wires while I moved out to launch, then back off and I can handle the rest by myself. The wind was just right, and I really didn’t need any launch assistance, it was more or less like launching at Morningside, which I did plenty of times with no help. But since I was so preoccupied with explaining what I wanted them to do, I spaced out on doing my seven-point final checklist (from shoelaces to hang height). I had informally checked all of that stuff during the process of setting up, but it’s a good thing to go through the ritual.

And I had an… adequate launch. No sense in not admitting it. I definitely popped the nose, but I pulled it right in, and climbed right away. One short pass to the right, and I came back comfortably above launch height.

Aaaand, I settled in for some easy flying. Talcott is a somewhat short ridge, and the highest I got was about 550 feet over launch. The lift was solid, though; I could fly well out in front of the ridge without sinking, and I went much further north and south than I had gone before, from the helipad almost all the way down to Hoe Pond. Because I didn’t have a camera, I failed once again to get a good picture of the Heublein Tower, even though I flew right by it a number of times.

Woz went out and landed, and so did Digger. I had driven a long way to get there, and had a long drive home, so I stayed in the air to justify the time behind the wheel, and kind of wanted to see if I could fly for as long as it had taken me to drive there (I just about did). I like being able to wave to people on the ground when I fly, and as this was an evening flight on a west-facing ridge, there were plenty of people up there to watch the sunset. One “highlight” was watching with incredulity as a group of at least 10 people, who did not appear to be at all properly equipped, trying to climb the cliff. This is a real cliff, and the crack they were trying to go up looked like something I’d find interesting, but I’d want to be on belay with my rock climbing shoes, not in a conga line wearing sneakers. I think they finally backed down, but that didn’t look easy, either.

Woz


Digger


J-J

The limit that I set for myself was that I’d head out to land once I couldn’t stay above launch. The evening lift got soft, so I called it a day, and came in for a no-wind, no-step landing in the center of the LZ. My longest flight at Talcott by more than an hour, 25% more than my other flights combined. Digger said that he initially thought my approach was too high, then he remembered that I wasn’t flying a U2 like those two were. The other advantage of the Falcon was that I was able to pack up quickly. Woz brought Digger and me up to fetch our cars, and I was on my way home.

Flights: 1, airtime: 1:43

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Ascutney for all


Jon A was the first to start posting that Ascutney looked promising for Saturday, I think. I emailed him to find out what time he was planning to arrive, and he said he’d be meeting some H3s early at Morningside. Then Jeff C called to ask if I was interested in carpooling, and we had a plan. I hadn’t yet used my new (since last fall) car to transport a glider (I’ve been using my old car for that, but a friend borrowed it), but I was able to get a ladder on the roof, which seemed adequate for the relatively short drive to Jeff’s house. We took his SUV the rest of the way. Nobody at the base of the mountain when we arrived, but Mark G showed up shortly after, and Jon, Jessica, and Magic Mike weren’t far behind (they had all been on a tour of the LZs), along with John M.

We loaded onto two vehicles for the drive up, and hiked our stuff out to launch. I did two trips, Jon and John cooperated to move their stuff in shifts, Jeff carried his gear partway then dropped half of it and came back for the rest. Jessica and Mark did one trip carrying all of their gear, including both gliders on slings. And Mike had a personal roof rack to carry it all at once.

John and Jon


Jeff


Jessica and Mark


Mike

I set up my glider in upper level in the back, figuring that Jon was going to send the H3s off early and they should be up front. Jake and Jeff B also arrived, with Ryan helping out. The wind looked completely soarable when we first arrived, but as we got ready, nice cumulus clouds moved in and the wind situation got more complicated, with thermals intermittently suppressing the prevailing breeze. It didn’t look that great for the less experienced pilots, but Jeff C was game and moved up to launch. He stood there for a long time with the wind too light to be interesting. At one point Jake, seeming a little impatient, came up and asked what was going on, but when he assessed the conditions he didn’t push. He and Jeff B were ready to follow Jeff C once it turned on, though.

Finally the cloud that had been spoiling the fun moved downwind, and Jeff found his opening. By the time Jeff B was ready and standing on launch, he was 1000 feet over, but not continuing to climb. We watched as he hunted around for more lift, and Jeff B and Jake waited out the soft cycle. Again the sun appeared, and Jeff B launched, followed very quickly by Jake. I had already decided that I was going to grab my wing as soon as Jake was off, which I did, but by the time I could move it up to launch and get buckled in, he was already on the ground.

I didn’t dawdle when I got out on the rock, the wind looked good, and I just launched. My timing was good and there was a thermal right there, so I got a little altitude and didn’t have to start out scratching. There was more lift, and boy, did I feel rusty. I was able to stay up, and managed to get up to a decent altitude a couple of times, but it really seemed like there was more opportunity than I was taking advantage of.

One by one the other pilots launched, but they had more trouble staying up,, and some ended up on the ground. At one point I was up at the north side, above the old ski area, but not finding much rising air. I looked over toward the LZs and saw two gliders circling, so I grabbed an armful of VG and headed over to join them. It turned out to be Jeff C and Jessica, and they had a great thermal. Jessica I think was hesitant about flying in close proximity to other gliders, and dropped out after a while. I was climbing under Jeff for about 2000 feet of gain, but then I lost it, while Jeff kept going up, and that was the last I saw of him. I got a couple of other half-decent climbs after that, then there was a weak cycle and I played my cards wrong, and had to head west to the fields. My hopes of finding a nice climb over them didn’t pan out, so I chose the Kansas LZ and had a perfect landing (perfect in the sense that there was nobody there to see me land on my knees).


Jon


John

I started packing up and figured I might need to jog or hitchhike around the mountain to get Jeff’s car, but a few minutes later John came in, and not long after that Jon as well. Mark and Jessica had landed in Africa, which was where John had stashed his truck, so they drove over and I got a ride with them to grab Jeff’s car. Then when everybody was packed, I gave Mark a ride up the mountain to grab his truck, and then I went to pick up Jeff. He had gotten up high enough to go over the back, but he was also underdressed and got really cold, so he pretty much made a beeline to Morningside, and that’s where he was waiting. A few minutes there saying hi to people (some pilots had done towing and got decent flights), and we were on our way home.

Flights: 1, airtime: 1:23

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Tanner-Hiller-Sledders


On my way to the airport, I had a car pull up alongside me and wave. I recognized John B behind the wheel and waved back. He seemed to be heading my way, but he didn’t have a glider on his car. We took the same exit, but then he went a different way — off to a different airport, as it turned out, to fly sailplanes.


Wayne


Mark and tandem passenger

Not having aerotowed since last September (heck, I hadn’t even flown a glider that I own since then), I opted to ease back into it gently by flying my Falcon (hadn’t flown that in a year and a half, since I banged it up at Mt. Tom). Wayne was all ready to fly when I pulled in, just waiting for a tandem flight to go first. I wasted no time in setting up so that I’d be ready soon after him. I put my glider on the cart and moved out to the start position, and Rhett came up on the tug and said something that I didn’t completely understand about the amount of fuel that he had and the status of the tandem… whatever. The bottom line was that he could take me up to 1000 feet right then, and I was fine with that. No problems on the tow, and no lift once I released, either (which didn’t surprise me, since Wayne hadn’t been up for very long).


Max


Woz

Max and Woz pulled in and started setting up, and there were more tandem flights going on as well. The other two guys told me to go ahead and fly again if I was ready, so I took a second tow, this one up to full altitude. There was a slightly funny moment as I was coming out of the cart, I think I had the control bar cradles set up a little wrong so that one of the wheels had some friction again one of them, or something like that. No big deal. I had one of those funny moments when I’m concentrating on the tug the whole way up, and when I release, I’m not sure where I am. I looked around and couldn’t find the airport anywhere… until I looked straight down. Oh.

Woz went up after I landed, and Max decided to wait a bit longer, so I went up for a third time. I was optimistic that the day was improving, based on reports from Mark (the tandem pilot). But when I got off tow, Woz was already on the ground. I hunted around and found a little weak lift at one point, but not enough to work. Then I tried the spots where one might typically hope to find some rising air: the solar farm, the sandpit, the woods near the NE end of the runway, the middle of the airstrip — nothin’. Or at least not enough to keep me up. And I cruised in for my third sweet landing of the day.

Max had towed up after me, and he applied enough skill to make it work, staying up for well over an hour, with a couple of low saves and a climb to above tow height. He said he was working pretty hard the whole time. I decided to pack it in, as the sky was getting kind of overcast and the day was getting warm, and I had a rare chance to get back from hang gliding early enough to be able to do some other stuff on the same day.

Flights: 3, airtime: 7 min, 24 min, 26 min

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Towing practice


Michael Robertson spent a good portion of the winter down in Florida and in April was headed back up to Ontario. He was available to swing by Connecticut for a weekend to give us some more help with the surface winch, so we organized another training session. He met with a few pilots who had not been at the session last fall on Friday night for ground school, then on Saturday we went outside. The airport that we used in October wasn’t available, but longtime HG pilot Tom N owns a farm field that we were able to use.

We had six returning pilots who already had some experience with the winch, and four who were trying it for the first time. Although we had gotten the operation down to an efficient process last fall, we were nearly back to square one, with the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. Part of this was because of the new pilots, but much of it was due to the rest of us simply not being organized. One contributing factor was that we had only one training harness from Michael, which we had to move between the different size gliders and readjust for different size pilots. However, Pete B had built a prototype release mechanism and he had another harness, but hadn’t tried it out yet. It was a fine looking piece of engineering, so I decided to try and get it working.

Typical release that we’ve been training with


Pete’s new release design

On my first try I used it the way Pete had set it up, and the cords attaching the release to the harness were up in my armpits, which was pretty uncomfortable (I didn’t hit the release on that flight). I talked with Michael about what happened, and he recommended adding lines from the release to the leg loops to keep it from riding up, so I did that. On the second flight I again did not release, in part because I had made the extra lines too short, and the release was too low. Try again, I got the release positioned properly, and did a third tow, but when I reached for the release, I missed. Three strikes.

We took a break for lunch, and we also repositioned the winch. The field wasn’t ideal, but but it was workable. We were using it diagonally, and the portion we were using had a slope to it. Initially we were towing uphill, which limited the altitude we could get, but after the wind shifted we were able to tow downhill. I took shifts on support duties, operating the radio, or as flagman, or driving the go-cart for line retrieval, or observing Michael operating the winch. During the lunch break I also tried my hand at running the winch, with the line attached to a truck so that it didn’t actually move, but I was able to control the tension. It’s a finicky piece of equipment, and it’s kind of like learning how to drive with a clutch.

As the afternoon rolled on, the wind picked up, which is a good thing up to a point. But it increased to the point where most of the pilots were getting intimidated, and we had long periods where someone would be hooked in, but not willing to pick up the glider and call for tension. Michael has explained to us that it’s different from foot-launching, that the hydraulic winch makes towing in wind no big deal, but pilots were still reluctant. Finally I decided to give it one more go. I set up a glider with Pete’s harness and release, and despite a healthy breeze, called for tension and then for launch.

It was fairly breezy on the surface, but substantially stronger once I got above the treetops, with the result that I took off like a rocket. I reached for the first-stage release, and found that Pete needs to work on it a bit more, because it was really hard to pull. I was able to do it, but only with great effort. And I continued my screaming ride upward, which was quite an experience. From the perspective of those on the ground, I wasn’t moving forward, I was just getting smaller. Those at the winch reported that, despite the winch running at full tension, I brought the drum to a complete stop (one said it even backed up a smidge). I was being flown like a kite! Nothing wrong with that, I was gaining altitude while keeping tow line in reserve. I rode the tow all the way to right over the winch, at maybe 500 feet of altitude, and then released.

I knew what I’d be facing, and I was prepared for it, and determined to not screw up. I’d be flying in a strong wind, and unable to penetrate any further forward. but probably needing to turn and fly downwind. I did that, and immediately had a huge amount of groundspeed. No problem, I’m an experienced pilot, I know how to handle this. Turning upwind again over the far portion of the field, I was parked again, and had to keep pulled in pretty hard on this Falcon. As I got lower I made slight forward progress and got back to a bit forward of where I had launched from, and had a smooth landing. Fantastic tow and a great flight, and nobody else wanted to step up for a taste of the same. And it was getting to be a bit late in the day anyway and we still needed to pack up.

There was tentatively another day of towing on tap, but I looked at the weather forecast and didn’t think it looked likely (rain), and I had other things to do the next day anyhow, so I headed home. Pete went off to made adjustments to his release, we’re in pretty good shape as a club in terms of moving forward with towing, and if we want more advanced training (including how to step tow), we discussed the option of heading up to Ontario at some point to work with Michael using his more modern and more capable winch.

Flights: 4, airtime: maybe 3 minutes

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