Luck, of various types

Jeff C soaring above bare trees in April at Rutland
Early in the week, when the forecast for Friday looked very promising, I posted a note to the forum saying, “Wow, take a look at Friday’s forecast!”, and Randy replied “Why?”, by which he meant, “Why bother to get my hopes up, since it will probably change?”. But it didn’t change (all that much), and when Friday the 13th rolled around, he was interested in giving the Trail a try, and so was Pete J. Ascutney was a consideration, but this time of year, before the park is open to the public, the process for flying there is a bit complicated. We all rendezvoused at a shopping center and headed out with the sky looking a little too good for that early in the day, clouds already popping up. My traveling companions were a little concerned that it could be blown out, but that wasn’t the impression that I had gotten from the forecast. After a couple of hours in the car, we stepped out and didn’t hear the wires whistling, so that was a good sign. Before getting in touch with Brooks to arrange to leave a car in the LZ, we took our harnesses out to launch to check out the conditions. And it was strong.

There weren’t many clouds in our vicinity, just some wispy things that would form, churn around for a bit, then dissipate. Strangely, they were not drifting at all despite the surface wind that was occasionally making us take a step back to keep our balance. I went back to the car to get my wind meter, and watched it for a bit while Pete talked to Brooks on the phone. It was averaging about 15 mph, and I saw gusts up to 22, though Randy thought it felt stronger than that and questioned the accuracy of my wind meter. Pete said that Brooks had told him of a gust of 28 reported in the valley, so he wouldn’t be joining us. Each of us seemed to be willing to help the others launch if they wanted, but nobody took the others up on the offer, and none of us had any interest in launching alone at the end. Pete checked the forecast on his phone one last time, and it showed the winds increasing as the day went on. So we shrugged, wrote it off to experience, and got back in the car to drive home, with a stop for ice cream on the way.

Word came in later that although it was strong up north at Ascutney as well, the four pilots who went there managed to get off in a lull and put up the first good XC flights of the year, with the best being about 65 miles to Montague, MA, by Jeff B. Down south at Ellenville there were some excellent flights as well, with Dave H getting about 100 miles. Could we have gotten off safely at the Trail if we had waited around? Maybe, but but maybe not, and we were able to get back in time to still make use of the rest of the day. But what about tomorrow? I commented that it looked SW to me, and maybe Rutland would be worth a try. Pete said that he hoped the forecast would be bad so that he wouldn’t have to agonize over whether to go or not, and Randy cautioned that it could be too strong again.

But the day after Friday is Saturday, and that’s the weekend, and that means more people are available. In particular, Jeff C was eager to get out again, and Keith said that he’d be heading up. Jeff got in touch with John B, so we had three in the car, and Keith’s truck could get us up the mountain. Bob R had to be at work at 3 PM, but since he lives close enough, he was willing to try for a short flight as well.
Bob R and Keith B at Rutland
Bob R and Keith B

This was all despite the fact that the date was 4/14/12, a date strongly associated with the word “sink”, being the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s unfortunate encounter with an iceberg. Scheduling issues meant that we didn’t meet at the LZ until 12:30, and it’s still only April, so I wasn’t expecting a tremendous amount of airtime, but a couple of hours looked entirely feasible. Beth had come along to drive Bob’s jeep down; I asked her if she thought we’d be able to stay up, and she said, “Oh, definitely”. She has watched enough launches at Rutland that she probably has as good a feel as anybody.
Beth hanging out in the Rutland setup area

I set up my glider and strolled out to the ramp with my wind meter to get a reading. There was a 21 mph gust just as I got there, but it was averaging about 14. Umm… isn’t that the same as what scared us off yesterday? But somehow, that wind speed didn’t seem quite as intimidating on the comfortable Rutland ramp as it did at the Trail. Almost, but not quite. John C (PG pilot) had come up with a couple of his neighbors, and since it was too strong for his bagwing, he was available to help on the wires. I asked who was going to be first, and because of his schedule, Bob stepped up. No scratching for him, he was well above launch in no time. Keith was right behind him, and had similar luck. Not wanting to be the last guy (who would have the least experienced wire crew), I grabbed my wing and went to the ramp. I waited for a while, because when it was straight in, it was kind of howling, and when it backed off it tended to go kind of cross. I actually picked up the glider at one point, said “Clear!”, then put it back down, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before. I finally got enough of a sense of the rhythm of the cycles to be able to pick a moment when I could go.

Sometimes at Rutland you get a sense of how the day is going to go in the first few seconds, depending on whether, after you turn right off the end of the ramp, you find yourself gradually bleeding off altitude, or if you have an easy climb up to the towers. This flight was in the second category. Despite the fact that there was serious cirrus overcast, there was plenty of wind and we had no trouble staying up in ridge lift. Jeff launched after me, and we all got 1000 feet or so over launch. Then it was poor John’s turn. Faced with strong winds and a wire crew consisting of “a paraglider pilot and a guy who had been drinking”, he decided to wait for a comfortable lull. Unfortunately, that lull was the start of a big sink cycle. I had just decided that it was cool enough to warrant gloves, and in the time it took me to pull them out and put them on, I lost about 700 feet of altitude, and so did everybody else. Losing 700 feet from launch put John in a pretty deep hole, and he wasn’t able to clamber his way out of it. Bob had already gone out to land so that he could get to work, so that left three of us in the air.

The sky actually cleared up for a while, allowing thermals to start working, and we were able to get quite a bit higher. Then some weird-looking clouds showed up, and Keith radioed that it was “getting mooshy”. After that we had more sun, then different clouds, then sun again… there was quite a variety, though the ugly stuff stayed off to the southwest and never came close to us.
Variety of sky conditions in one day at Rutland

After about two hours in the air, Keith had had enough and headed down to land. On the way he encountered some rough air, and radioed to me that I had better save some strength for the last 1000 feet (Jeff’s radio was on the fritz). I had had a few boisterous moments myself, including going completely weightless in the harness at least once. Well, one way to deal with rough air is to keep flying and wait until things calm down as evening approaches. Rutland is known for wonder wind, and that would be a lot more pleasant than trying to set up an approach in mid-day conditions. Right?

Meanwhile, Keith got his wing secured and offered to shuttle John back up for a second try. They asked how the windsock on launch looked, and I said that it looked pretty good to me. The turnaround at Rutland takes a while, due to the long gnarly drive, plus there’s the fact that John’s Lightspeed takes some time to pack and to set up again. Here’s what the upper section of that road looks like — we usually can’t see it very well from the air due to the leaves.
Upper part of crazy Rutland access road

Around this time, I got the best climb of the day, that took me up to about 4900 feet. After a while, John was on the ramp, and I watched eagerly to see him join us in the air again. And I waited, and I waited… and for some reason he wasn’t launching. Finally, after a good long while, he backed off, and said that it was blowing too hard for him to launch, and he was afraid that he was going to get lifted off the ramp with Keith hanging on his nose wires as a passenger! He asked how strong it was up above, and I said that I didn’t know, but it didn’t feel too bad. He said he thought that it looked like about 20 mph based on watching me fly.

After waiting a little while to see if conditions would improve, John and Keith radioed up to say that they were packing up the wing and would meet us in the LZ. A bummer for John, particularly since he had already had two days this season when he showed up but didn’t get to fly, due in part to other pilots crashing. And now he came all the way up to Rutland for only 10 minutes of airtime. That guy deserves a break. But at least he got to watch an exciting show that was about to happen.

I had been looking at my watch, and realized that, despite the late start and the April sunset, there might be a chance that I could break my personal record for flying time. That had happened five years earlier, on my third mountain flight, when my best up to that point had been 30 minutes. Things had worked out for me and I stayed up for 4:20 at Rutland. As long as John and Keith were up top, I didn’t feel bad about staying in the air, but since they were getting ready to leave, I figured I should think about heading out to land, and it looked like I had the duration mark in the bag anyway. But this was when I glanced down and noticed that I was moving backwards.
Rutland launch ramp from well above

The wind had picked up. I was a good 1500 feet above launch, but it’s easy to burn that much if you can’t penetrate. I pulled the VG all the way on, and sped up as much as I could, given the limitations of bar pressure and controllability (bearing in mind that my arms had 4+ hours of flying in them). I wasn’t sure how fast I was sinking because I wasn’t interested in craning my neck around to look at my vario, and there was enough wind noise that I couldn’t hear it (although a couple of times I thought I heard it indicate that I was climbing). I didn’t think I was making any headway at all (it’s difficult to tell from that high up), and had to evaluate my options. The desperation move would be to turn tail and head for some field downwind, behind the mountain. With this much wind, reaching a field back there would be easy, but I would have no wind indicators, and in the lee, it could well be turbulent, and I might have to fly though crushing sink. Out front, the easiest field to reach would be Herbert’s. It wasn’t ideal in terms of how it’s situated, but I honestly didn’t know if I’d be able to reach anything else, and I also had my eye on a couple of other non-approved fields that were even closer just in case. As I descended, it became clear that I was at least crawling forward, and I was pretty sure that Herbert’s was in reach. Unfortunately, at this point I also started getting buffeted hard, with multiple wire-twang incidents. John and Keith later reported that from their vantage point on the ramp, it looked like I was doing wingovers. I was not looking forward to landing in these conditions. From the moment I had looked down and seen the ground moving the wrong direction, I had been in that classic situation of being in the air wishing I was on the ground. If somebody had been able to offer me a a get-out-of-jail-free card that would have teleported me to being safely on terra firma, I would have been willing to pay quite a bit for it.

Once I reached the highway, I got ready to land. I dumped the VG to give myself maximum maneuverability and unzipped my harness. Right around this time Keith called, saying that they could see some kind of dust being blown around to the west of us, and they couldn’t tell what it was, but it might indicate turbulence. I hollered back, “I’m at 1000 feet, and it sucks!”, and prepared to set the glider down. But now I could hear the vario, and I had definitely started going up. Oh, good grief! This did provide me with an opportunity, though, to head instead for the field in front of Jake’s old house, which might have cleaner air. As I got into position to set up a landing there, I got another bump of lift, and that was enough to get me to Ducky’s. That was the field that I really wanted (and where Jeff was headed) because it’s big and flat. Once I reached the near edge, I decided to do S-turns to burn off my extra altitude (I was still at about 500 feet AGL). They weren’t very serious turns, not anywhere near 90 degrees to my overall flight path, just slight heading changes, but looking at my GPS flight track, they stopped all forward progress and just got me lower. I stayed on the control bar on final to maintain as much speed as possible. At about 10 feet from the deck, the wind vanished, abruptly enough that it felt like it had just switched to a tailwind, and most of my airspeed was gone. I found myself close to trim, and I quickly rocked up and flared as best I could, ending up with a couple of steps, and set it down about 100 yards past where I would have been aiming for a spot landing in ideal conditions. Jeff came in right behind me and also landed well.

Sheesh! It sure felt good to be out of that air!
On the ground, and glad of it!

So, I got my duration PR by a few minutes, and although my back was somewhat sore, it wasn’t as bad as it’s been on other long flights. Keith shot some nice video — my glider is the high aspect ratio one with the winglets.

flights: 1, airtime: 4:28


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.
This entry was posted in Flying days, West Rutland and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Luck, of various types

  1. Doug Brown says:

    Nice flight and writeup JJ, I wanted to fly that day, should have called you guys. Doug

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