Inverted and Broken, Part 1: A long-awaited day of soaring

One of the things that my girlfriend dislikes the most about hang gliding is the constant indecision associated with flying. Weather is fickle, and pilots often have difficulty deciding where (or whether) to go. After a month without a decent soaring flight, I was eager to get into the air on what looked like it would finally be a good day, and Jeff was as well. He hadn’t had a satisfyingly long flight in the US all year, nothing since his winter trip to Valle de Bravo. But the forecasts were uncertain. It looked okay for Skinner, but neither of us had flown there and we wanted a good site intro (it turned out some people went, but we didn’t learn that until too late). The Trail looked okay, but since we’re not H4s yet, we would have needed an observer to fly there, and the likely candidates either had commitments or didn’t like the forecast well enough to fly. We weren’t up for hiking Brace two weeks in a row, and Ellenville or the sites near Glens Falls were further than we wanted to drive.

The obvious place to fly was Ascutney, because the forecast was ideal for there: moderate NW wind and pretty good lift. Unfortunately, there was an issue for that site. On several weekends every year, the road is used for races (auto, bicycle, or running), and the park essentially gets rented out for the day to the organizing group. In this case it was the running race, which I had considered entering up through Sunday morning. There had been a notice on the club mailing list a couple of months earlier saying that the mountain was closed that day, but I knew the race schedule and it seemed like they would be done long before our normal flying time in the afternoon, once the thermals started cooking. A couple of us made inquiries on the club discussion board, and there were some phone calls, but the answers were vague, of the form, “The mountain is definitely closed for the day, we can’t fly there, except maybe in the afternoon”. Since nobody generally ever launches before 2 PM anyway, this was perplexing. So we did the next best thing and headed for Morningside, 10 miles away.

The wind looked pretty good at Morningside, and the parking lot was as full as I’ve ever seen it on a normal day (although this wasn’t quite a normal day, because the previous day there had been a memorial service there for a local pilot who had recently died in a sailplane accident). There were lots of gliders set up, some waiting fr tows, and others on the hill. Given the size of the crowd, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to set up, because I expected long lines on launch that would keep me from getting many flights in. Still, many of my friends and acquaintances were there, and I figured I could have a good time socializing and driving the ATV up the hill to bring gliders to launch, even if I decided not to fly. Jeff and I were still waiting to get final word from the club officials about Ascutney, so we decided to hang out for awhile, eat lunch, and maybe set up later.

It didn’t look like anyone was having spectacular success on the hill, just sled rides, though one friend who I hadn’t seen since he had a mishap last year did finally manage to stretch a flight out to 12 minutes, and a couple of the towed pilots hooked into some clouds and headed for the sky. The cumies were okay over Morningside, but they looked great over Ascutney

After trying once more to get info about the mountain, I gave up and unloaded the Ultrasport to see if I could do some launch/landing practice. Around then I got into a discussion with Big Daddy, who wondered why we hadn’t gone to Ascutney. We mentioned the race, and he figured that should be long over and called the park to verify. He got word that the road was now open around the same time that Stevie wandered through the office and said, “Yeah, we got clearance from the park earlier, it’s been open since noon, you should have asked me”. Great! We tossed the glider back on the car, shanghaied Jimmy N. to come along and drive the car back down for us, and headed for the mountain.

When we got to the entrance, we looked at the sign-in sheet and saw that three other pilots had gotten there an hour earlier, so we wouldn’t be alone. In fact, when we got to the parking lot up top, two of them flew over, so we also knew that it was launchable and there was lift. We said thanks to Jimmy and made the first trip out, with the harnesses and Jeff’s Falcon, then came back for a second trip with my glider. We wasted no time, since the day was slipping away (we had signed in at the base at about 3:15).

The other concern about flying on race day was wire crew. Earlier in the day, the wind had been strong, and with the park closed, the concern was that there would be no hikers to help the last pilot launch. As it turned out, the wind was mellow enough that I wasn’t even sure if it would be soarable, and we encountered numerous hikers on our way out. Several of them were interested in the gliders and waited around to watch us set up.

Jeff was able to set his Falcon up faster, so I happily waved him on to launch first. He had broken a wire in his headset a week earlier, so he wouldn’t be flying with a radio, and I didn’t bother to hook mine up either since there would be nobody to talk to. The hikers took pictures as Jeff launched, and watched what I did to assist him so that one of them could do the same for me. I was pleased to see that Jeff was able to come back over launch after a couple of passes, and looked like he was heading up and over so I climbed into my harness and prepared to join him.

The wind was straight in, not gusting at all, and at a moderate speed, which was perfect for my first wuffo-assisted launch. I did a hang check on the ground behind the platform, and discovered a twist in my hang strap that I straightened out before moving up onto the deck. Once everything was set, I moved into position with one handler on my left wire, and waited only 10-15 seconds before clearing him and running down the rock. Just as Jeff had, I was able to find lift, come back higher than launch, and wave to my wire crew before they headed back to their cars. Although the clouds had overdeveloped and looked like a useless bank of gray, the wind was steady enough to provide ridge lift. It was now 5 PM.

There was a flock of vultures nearby when I launched, and I figured I could look to them to find some lift, but that turned out to be unnecessary. They flew off anyway, but I found a decent climb over the ski area, and was soon even with the summit. The lift was never strong, typically 100 fpm, sometimes 200, but it was steady and reliable. I spent a lot of time in the vicinity of launch, and some further back, near the north end of the summit ridge. It was almost like wonder wind conditions, and at times it was possible to just point the glider directly away from the mountain and slow to min sink, just hanging there, making almost no forward progress, but barely climbing at 10-20 fpm.

This was a day for racking up airtime, and in some ways it was almost boring flying. Staying up didn’t require paying very close attention — if you lost a few hundred feet, it was easy enough to get it back. Early on I briefly managed to get as high as 4000 feet, but most of the time I was around 3500. It would have been great to fly over to Morningside (I think one of the the other three pilots had headed out that way), but 5000 feet is required to go over the back without getting rotored, so we had to stay put. I had forgotten to bring my camera mount, so I had just put the camera in my top harness pocket. That made it more difficult than usual to take pictures, because the camera was on a short leash and I couldn’t see the viewfinder very well, but I managed to get a few decent shots of Jeff.

Both of us took advantage of the smooth conditions to explore the handling of our gliders. I flew out front to get plenty of ground clearance and did a couple of straight-ahead stalls, I flew slowly, I pulled on the VG and flew faster, and also tried turning to experience the stiffer handling that that VG would bring. My overall impression was the same as it had been, that the Ultrasport basically flew like a hang glider, and that it wasn’t that different from the Mark IV or the Falcon — you pull in to go faster, move right to turn right, etc. I guess it did fly more like I wanted a hang glider to fly, in that pulling in actually made it go faster forward, unlike the novice gliders that just sink faster. After a couple of hours, the time came to wrap things up. I remember thinking around this time that I had a trip coming up in a couple of days, playing chaperone to my elderly mother on her only vacation abroad, and that it would be really bad timing if I were to screw up my landing and break an arm.

I saw Jeff heading out toward the LZ, and decided to wait over the summit until he landed, then follow him. He had a long straight glide out, then boxed the field, and there was finally enough sunlight that I saw his shadow as he approached the ground. Once he stopped and I saw that he had landed okay, I pulled on full VG and headed in his direction. I wanted to see if I could get to the LZ with a lot of altitude, but may have actually been flying somewhat faster than best glide, because I wanted to experiment with the high speed handling with VG on. As I had seen at Ellenville, it was easy to PIO, though more slowly and less pronounced than on the Mark IV. Slowing down corrected it easily enough. I lost only about 800 feet of altitude on the way to the LZ, and got there with 1600 feet AGL according to my vario (I switched the secondary display from height above launch to height above LZ when I got there). It was now just about 7:30 PM, and I had been flying for just shy of 2 1/2 hours. All that was left to wrap up a pretty sweet day was to slowly circle down and do a clean landing. But since I had plenty of altitude to burn, I thought I’d try something else.

To be continued…

flights: 0.99, airtime: 2:29


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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