Northwest winds in these parts usually means either Ascutney or the Trail, sometimes Skinner or Ellenville. I had arranged for Friday off from work because things looked good, and a couple of friends were available to carpool. I met Randy B. and Tom L. late in the morning, because we were in no hurry — the forecast looked better for later in the day. Some folks had opted for Ascutney, but we went for the Trail. Peter J. and Keith B. were already mostly set up when we arrived, and Brooks E. and Matt C. rolled in a little later.
We had to wait around a bit after setting up, because things weren’t really right yet. Tom killed some time by eating the wrong berries (serviceberries, maybe?) instead of blueberries, and we all spent some time speculating as to whether he was going to die. Keith, meanwhile, decided that he was going to give the air a try and launched, but it was bumpy, and he had to stay far enough out front that he wasn’t able to ridge soar, and was on the ground after 13 minutes. Not encouraging. Pete went down to fetch him for another try, as a big dark cloud approached, accompanied by 15-20 mph winds, and when it passed, we were left with blue sky and almost dead calm. Still not what we were looking for.
Eventually the wind started picking up bit, and Randy and Matt decided that they’d had enough of kicking rocks, and something had to be done. Randy moved out to launch first, and was able to stay up. Matt was just a few steps behind him and did likewise, so that was good enough for me and I climbed into my harness and carried my glider around front. Just as I was finishing my hang check it started blowing as hard as it had all day, and I had to stand there for a while with my foot on the control bar leaning into the downtubes. I hollered back to Brooks that he was welcome to play through if he liked, but he was in no hurry with that much wind. When a lull came, I took the opportunity.
When we were waiting around, Tom had mentioned a couple of the objectives that everybody should have, and one of them was “Don’t land there!”, gesturing toward the bailout LZ directly in front of launch. The Trail is a kind of funny site. At first glance, it’s a 700 foot ridge, with an LZ that’s in the lee of another ridge and therefore often quite turbulent. The existence of that LZ (owned by HG pilots) is critical, because if you don’t get up, you have to have a place to land, crappy though it may be. In fact, it’s where I’ve landed on all but one of my flights at the Trail. But what you really want to do at this site is get a few hundred feet of altitude, and scoot south to where the ridge is taller, the valley floor is lower, lift is more plentiful, and you can reach the main LZ, known as “the RC field” (actually a golf driving range these days). Common wisdom is that you can safely go south if you’ve got 500 feet over launch, though pilots with good skills or a good glider have been known to head south from at launch height. I have neither of these advantages.
After I launched, it was Brooks, then Peter, and a little while later Keith, and eventually Tom. One by one each found his ticket out until it was just Keith and me left making endless passes on the short part of the ridge. I could see wings way above the summit far to my south, but I couldn’t claw my way up to a high enough point to make the jump and join them. Several times I made it to about 300 feet over, but then I’d rapidly lose it and find myself down at launch height again. There was one point where I sank enough that I was concerned that I was going to have to head for the bailout, but I worked my way back up (and Keith got a save from even lower). I was watching the trees, trying to fly the spots where the leaves were indicating thermals blowing through, but I kept failing to connect, feeling like the lift was diffuse, but probably really just demonstrating rusty skills. Finally, after a bit more than an hour, I got some strong beeping from the vario and really banked the wing up steeply, like I remembered doing. The climb continued all the way around my circles, and in no time I was 700 feet over. I lost the lift at that point and had to make a decision: do I try to find it again and risk losing what I had, or do I invest this altitude and head south to the land of plenty?
I remembered that Tom said a primary objective was to get away from the bailout LZ, so I made the decision to go, and ventured into the bigger world that I had visited only once before. I’m satisfied with that decision, based on the information that I had at the time, although if I knew then what I know now, I might have chosen differently. As I moved down the ridge, I became aware that everybody seemed to have vanished. In addition, unbeknownst to me, Keith stayed put and climbed out to 5000 feet. The others had sensed that the southern part of the ridge was drying up, but there were appealing looking clouds to the north, so they chased them and got to base. Meanwhile, I was slowly spending my altitude, doing my best to keep my elbows in and my head down, trying a couple of turns in meager lift, and just generally sinking. I might have done better by taking a more aggressive path close to the trees, but so it goes.
Before very long I had to start thinking about LZs. The RC field was the objective, but it’s on the far side of the valley. I got myself to a spot where I was certain I could reach the old landfill (but that’s a bad idea because of the pipes), or the cemetery (even worse because of the headstones), but I wasn’t sure if I had enough glide to reach the RC field or not. I scoped out my options, and decided to continue down the ridge to the south. That might give me a shot at finding enough of a climb to cross the valley, or alternatively, there are some farm fields closer to the ridge down there. I reached the fields and flew over them to make a decision. The closest one looked like it was full of tall weeds, then there was one full of corn that was giving off some lift, but not enough for me to try and exploit. The third one that I considered bordered a paved road, looked like it had short grass, and had a flat area on top.
I couldn’t tell what direction the wind was blowing (turned out to be dead calm on the ground), so I picked the prevailing NW direction of the day and brought it in for a smooth landing in the clover. It was the farthest I’ve ever landed from launch (about four miles), and in a sense, my first real outlanding, in the sense of being a field that I had never even thought about before landing there. A modest XC flight, but an XC nonetheless. I carried my glider down the hill toward the road, then saw a car pulling in, so I trotted over and said hi to the landowner and apologized for dropping in uninvited. He was cool with my landing there, and just requested that nobody drive a car up into the farm to retrieve my glider. Not a problem, my plan had been to fold it up and carry it down to the road anyway.
My orienteering friends would think nothing of going for a training run of five miles with 1000+ feet of climb, but they think I’m crazy for flying. Most of my fellow pilots, on the other hand, think I’m crazy for doing something like grabbing my radio and heading back on foot to retrieve the car. So that means I’m almost universally regarded as crazy. As I was on my way back, the other pilots trickled in to land, either in the RC field or close by.
I got the least airtime of anybody for the day, and I still never got as much as 1000 feet AGL, but the flight did help restore the idea in my mind that it really is possible to soar with these gliders, which I had been losing touch with after so many months of failing to stay up. It was also the first time all year that I had managed to get two flying days in the same month. I am feeling like I miss the better glide performance of the other gliders I’ve flown, which has me itching to move up to something better than a Falcon again, but that will still have to wait a bit longer.
Finally, capping off the day, most of us stopped for dinner at a place that had pretty unimpressive service, but which afforded a pretty decent view to the west (you can click on that one for a larger view).
flights: 1, airtime: 1:22, XC distance: 6.45 km