Everybody and his brother

The chatter started early about Greylock looking promising for the weekend. Gary announced that he’d be opening up his house for anyone who was going to try and fly more than one day who was looking for some floorspace to crash on. And here I was stuck at home because my transmission died.

My Pontiac Vibe has 300000+ miles on it, and the gearbox ate itself a couple of weeks ago when I was helping deliver my girlfriend’s daughter to college. I got it towed to a repair shop, went online to find a used transmission, which I had shipped up from Texas, and it’s awaiting repair. In the meantime, I’m driving a borrowed car that I don’t have a rack for, so I’m reduced to groveling for a ride if I want to go anywhere with my glider. With such a promising forecast, it shouldn’t have been a problem, because my house is only about 10 minutes from the highway. I was busy Saturday, but the prime day looked to be Sunday. Unfortunately, a lot of the pilots who might be passing by fly paragliders, Pete had a full car, and Jeff was heading off on vacation. Tom looked at the forecast the night before and decided it was likely to be too cross and strong, so he decided to skip it. Randy was my best bet, because he lives really close by, and he said he’d take a look in the morning. The reports came in that Saturday’s flying was okay, mostly sledders, but pleasant. I wanted to fly, but I was inclined to agree with Tom’s assessment of the forecast. When morning came and it still looked questionable, Randy sent a message saying that he was going back to bed, but might consider a trip to Plymouth in the afternoon for some beach flying. And that was that.

But then… about 9 AM, Tom called and said that his wife was kicking him out of the house because he was antsy. He decided to go to Greylock, not because he thought that it would be flyable, but because there were pilots coming in from a wide area, and he could visit with some old friends. Since he was driving out there, he figured he might as well bring his gear just in case, and since my house isn’t very far out of his way, he offered me a ride if I wanted to go hang out at the mountain as well. We were getting a late start, because Greylock is an east-facing site and therefore works best earlier in the day. It’s normally a 2.5 hour drive, but we knew that we’d be facing some detours, because damage from Tropical Storm Irene had washed out some bridges, and we figured it would be past noon when we got there. Still, I was up for it.

Despite our doubts, we expected that a fair number of pilots would show up. Ross, Stacy, and John were a way ahead of us, and we got updates from them by phone. When we got to within about a half-hour of the mountain, none of our friends were answering their phones, which Tom took to be a sign that conditions were looking good, and they were all busy setting up. I couldn’t spot any wings in the air as we crossed the valley, but as we rounded some switchbacks approaching the summit, an ATOS suddenly appeared over the trees: John S. He wasn’t very high, and he didn’t have any company up there, so we knew that it was launchable, but not easy. Relieved to find an empty spot in the parking lot, we wasted no time in carrying our gliders out to the lawn and hustling over to the office to sign in. We were certainly not alone.

(definitely click on that one to get the larger view)

I count at least 24 hang gliders in that picture, including the one in the air and two that I can spot that haven’t been unpacked yet (mine and Tom’s). Plus John’s ATOS is out of sight, there might be more than I can identify behind the evergreen tree, and I know at least a couple more arrived after I was set up. And you can’t see the paragliders who were waiting down front, and who likely outnumbered us. I don’t know the breakdown between the wing types, but I’m told that the official count was 58 pilots signed in at the office register.

Fifty-eight is a lot of wings. I’ve flown in moderate traffic before, at West Rutland, Ellenville, and Wellfleet, but this was probably more than twice as many as the busiest day I’d ever experienced. At the other sites, there’s a respectable bit of room, particularly at Wellfleet where you can head off down the coast to get away from the paragliders hovering around launch. As I set up at Greylock, though, the situation got more and more scary looking. The day hadn’t really turned on, so almost everyone was packed into a space in front of launch that was only about a half-mile long, with not much vertical space, soaring the ridge and hoping for some thermal action. Everybody who launched joined the crowd and made it more and more congested. I later heard it described as a “mosh pit” and a “fur ball”. As soon as I was ready, I got in line to launch, though not without some misgivings. There were two lines leading to paraglider launches, and one in the middle leading to where we take hang gliders down to the steeper slope. We couldn’t get past the paragliders when they were laid out and building a wall, and they couldn’t launch if there was a hang glider in front, for fear of gliding out low and hitting it. Because they’re more mobile on the ground, it was tough for us to elbow our way into an opportunity, and it was particularly annoying being caught behind a paraglider making multiple inflation attempts. To be fair, though, it’s probably just as well that things were slowed down a little, because it kept the situation from getting even more crowded out front.

It was a nice, comfortable day to hang out on top of a mountain, and having all those wings close together was great for the numerous spectators. The fact that this site has such visibility to the public is the primary reason why it’s rated H4/P4, or H3/P3 with observer. The site isn’t really that difficult in terms of launching or reaching the LZ, but as I looked up at the swirling mass of wings in the air, I was glad that there weren’t any H2s or P2s in the mix. When I finally managed to wedge my wingtip into the line and get my turn to launch, there was no need to hesitate, and I was down at the slope for only about 45 seconds including a hang check.

Yow! Keep your head on a swivel. If the lift had been working better, people would have been up and spread out, but only a few were. I was determined to be one of them, and although I sank a bit at first, and got below launch for a few passes, when I did find a climb I cored it tightly and got myself above the craziness. Over the course of 15-20 minutes I got to about 2000 feet over launch, but then a sink cycle came, and I lost it all quicker than I had gained it. Which left me with no choice, but… nooooo! I didn’t want to go back into the bumper-glider ride! At some sites people talk about flying “in the fishbowl”, but this was like being in the little plastic bag full of fish that you bring home from the pet store.

When I found another good climb, I decided to just leave, and try to find somewhere else to fly. One advantage to having so many wings in the air was that it was easy to look around and see who was climbing. There were some paragliders above me getting lift under a cloud to the south, so I pulled on the VG and headed off to join that party. Much, much better, plenty of room underneath them. I stuck with that climb as long as I could, eventually thinking that I was getting pretty close to the clouds. They were numerous, but not tall at all, so they weren’t scary. I have spent very little time near clouds, and it’s difficult to judge how far away they are. It looked like I was getting close, but then I noticed a pair of paragliders that were maybe 100 feet above me, and they clearly hadn’t reached the cloud yet… but then one of them started getting hard to see, sort of fading away… I guess he had! I was at a little over 6000 feet, which is pretty good for September in New England, my highest flight in over two years. I had only been higher than this a couple of times before, and all of the previous times to 6000 feet had been in April, May, or June.

Some days the time just slips by when flying, but this wasn’t one of those days. I remember looking at my watch at one point and being amazed that only a half-hour had gone by, because flying in the crowd was so tiring. It got better once I was skyed out and relaxing. Eventually it looked like the crowd was dissipating, which I took to mean that things might be shutting down (and my hands were starting to get cold). Wanting to make sure that I’d be in the vicinity of my intended LZ (where a friend had left Tom’s car), I headed out into the valley and started flying north. There were some gliders climbing over North Adams, but that was out of my reach. When I was down to about 1000 feet AGL, I did get some beeping from my vario, and tried milking some rising air that seemed to be coming from parking lots or flat-roofed buildings or something. I gained a few hundred feet a couple of times, but not enough to climb out again. I gave up on that game, but it did extend my flight by 13 minutes or so.

The driving range LZ is nice because it has windsocks for the golfers, and there’s also a flag on top of the hill in the adjacent cemetery. I set up my landing pattern, and when I was turning onto my base leg, I wondered why the pilot ahead of me was landing downwind. Just after he touched down they were limp, then they came to life again… but now I was downwind! Doh! I did what I could to alter my landing direction, and the wind switched again as I was on final, and I’m not sure what it was doing as I reached the ground. My landing sure wasn’t pretty, but it could have been a lot worse.

Stacy P

Tom L and Doug B

Before hitting the road home, we joined some other pilots at a local restaurant. It was interesting to be sitting next to Tom, who was the second-newest pilot there, having “only” 20 years of experience. During the dinner conversation, there was a point brought up about John S having had a disagreement with a particular instructor, and I jokingly noted that John had done hardly any flying before that instructor was born (John got his H5 rating in 1982). He gestured toward the other pilots at the table and pointed out that they had all been flying longer than he had!

Lest you get the wrong impression, it really was quite an excellent day, and everyone was in agreement about that. There was definitely some post-flight grousing about the crowded conditions and some particular pilots who were not so good at following the right of way rules, but there were no mid-air collisions that I’m aware of, and it was judged to be a spectacular day all around. My perspective on this is limited, too. I know that there are much bigger gaggles in comps (though they are all experienced pilots flying similar wings), and I imagine there are sites that get this kind of attendance on a regular basis. I wouldn’t go seeking out sites like that, but I probably wouldn’t hesitate to return to Greylock on a busy day.

Some pilots called in to work “sick” and stayed over, and there was more flying the following day, though conditions reportedly weren’t quite as good. Nevertheless, three days in a row at Greylock is quite a fine stretch. Some videos have popped up, and I’ve provided links below; I’ll add more if I find any.


flights: 1, airtime: 2:06, XC distance: 6.2 km


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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