Interstate adventures

I had a trip scheduled to the DC area for a reunion of people who I knew from college, centered around an activity (model rocketry) that I pretty much lost interest in 25 years ago. It seemed like an interesting enough prospect to see my old friends, but if I was going to drive all that way, I ideally wanted to do something else to make the trip really worthwhile. I figured that there had to be someplace where people would be flying in the mid-Atlantic area that weekend, so I put out some feelers, and the most likely venue seemed to be the Cumberland Fairgrounds in Maryland. After a nine-hour drive (from Massachusetts) on Saturday, a couple of parties, and about three more hours behind the wheel on Sunday, I arrived at the fair.

The forecast had been for somewhat light wind conditions and moderate lift, but with a possibility of thunderstorms. The storms developed farther to the east, but as I was heading into town, it sure looked like the wind was stronger than the predicted 5-10 mph. Since I was in an area of narrow valleys, I wrote it off as local venturi effects. On the positive side, when I arrived at the fairgrounds I saw that the overflow parking lot (aka LZ) wasn’t nearly as full as I had feared, so there would be more room to land.

I met JR and Mark G at the LZ. The situation as I understand it is that the folks who own the fairgrounds give the local club permission to land there provided they fly as much as possible during the week when the Allegany County Fair is happening, for the entertainment of the patrons. I was pleased to be able to help the cause. A couple of sailplanes were cruising the ridge when we arrived, so we could see that there was lift available.

Due to the wind direction, we didn’t go to the Fairgrounds launch, which is right above the LZ, but went instead to the High Point launch, a mile or so south of there, and across the river in West Virginia. A new state to fly in! I set up my glider next to JR with his Sport 2.

This was the first time I had flown my Falcon since early April, and it felt surprisingly strange to set it up. For one thing, it’s so light! 16 pounds less than the Mark IV is really noticeable. In addition, it has hardly any battens. I got my gear together first (I put some effort into being expedient about setup, since I’m often the last one ready), and got to be the first one to launch. This has its drawbacks, because there’s some value in watching somebody else launch, but in this case it was very nice to have two highly-skilled (and self-deprecating) pilots as wire crew. As I noted above, the wind was stronger than the forecast has called for, and JR recommended that I start pretty far down the slope. I waited and watched the wind for several minutes before picking a bit of a lull — it was way too strong at the peak of the cycles. Launch was quite fine, and I started climbing moderately right away.

I made a few passes on the section of the ridge near launch, gaining steadily, and Mark launched after me. Ben came on the radio and asked how the air was, (wondering about flying his PG) and I replied that it was a little bumpy. JR joined me soon after, and said that he thought that “a little bumpy” was kind of an understatement. There was no problem gaining altitude, as the thermals were quite strong. My wacky vario recorded lift/sink of 2000/-1220 fpm, and my more credible GPS said 1500/-945, or 1395/-765 for a 20s average. Definitely the most active air I’ve ever flown in. I also now know what people mean about “sharp edges” on thermals. I’d be flying along, I’d feel forward acceleration, and brace myself (getting ready to pull in) before I hit the rising air, which was kind of like being hit in the chin with a 2×4. (I exaggerate for poetic purposes.)

Looking at my GPS track, it doesn’t appear that I did much circling, but it wasn’t necessary, because I certainly was able to climb. Unfortunately, what would happen was that I’d get a couple of thousand feet over launch, then get concerned about being blown over the back, and push hard upwind, losing the altitude that I had just gained. I had brought the Falcon instead of the Mark IV because the forecast was for light winds, and I was concerned about having very little room in the LZ, but I think I would have been happier with the DS wing. I would have been even happier with something like a Sport 2, I bet.

After wrestling with the air for around 45 minutes, I heard JR say on the radio that he wasn’t having any fun at all. Mark was specked out, and I had to make a decision. I could try getting up again, but I didn’t like flying into the wind really fast and not being sure if I was making any forward progress, as opposed to just going straight down. Flying downwind would have been an option, of course, and I think the XC guys would have had a great time with these conditions, but adding the delays of an uncertain retrieve wasn’t going to work, considering how much driving I had left to get home. So I exercised my wisdom muscles, and tried to get to the fairgrounds parking lot.

I was a little concerned about whether I’d be able to penetrate enough to get there, and I had been warned that the big friendly-looking hayfield directly in front of launch (“The Dog Pit”) was to be avoided if at all possible, due to landowner relations. Once I got lower, I could see that I was making progress, and as I flew across the Potomac, I entered Maryland, adding another state (I believe I’m up to eight now) and making my first interstate flight, though I got only about 100 seconds of airtime in MD. A radio call came in at around this point suggesting that I consider landing in a big field about a mile and a half to the south, but I was too low and already committed to the fairgrounds The air wasn’t any less boisterous as I approached the LZ, and I dreaded the worst-case scenario, which would involve something like crashing into a Ferris wheel, since I pretty much had to fly right over the fair. I couldn’t see the streamers that JR had set up, so I based my landing direction on the flag that I had flown past, and decided to land to the north. I was really getting tossed around as I did a figure-8 and got unzipped, but when I dropped down to phone pole height on final, it smoothed out and I did a no-step flare just into the rough at the end of the lot.

As I was breaking down, JR called on the cell and said that he had landed about five miles to the south. I finished packing up and met him down there, along with the PG pilots who had driven his truck down because it was too strong for them to fly. We waited for Mark to come land — took him quite a while to get down.

A very successful outing, all around. I hit the road right after that, drove for 9+ hours, and made it back home to Massachusetts at 3:45 AM.

flights: 1, airtime: 0:46

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About cleversky

Hang glider pilot in New England since 2004. Also an avid orienteer, and an embedded systems firmware engineer. And some other outdoor stuff.
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