For over 20 years, I worked as a consultant, which meant that I had lots of flexibility in my schedule and could easily arrange to take days off to do things like hang gliding. Last spring, though, I started a regular full-time job (initially as a contractor, but I recently switched over to being on salary). It’s been good for my bank account, but my free time is a little more constrained. There is a holiday schedule, though, and the company was closed the Friday before Easter. I asked around if anybody else was interested in flying, and John B was, plus Keith B said he’d be going down to Ellenville. Ellenville was the best bet, since being further south, it would already be mostly clear of snow (the Trail probably still had snow on launch, and Ascutney would not be open for many weeks yet).
John and I rendezvoused south of Worcester and headed for New York. The sky was clear when we started driving, but cumulus clouds started popping up, which we found encouraging, until they got thicker and thicker and started to really fill the sky. In addition, the wind, which we expected to be NW trending toward W, seemed to be coming from all kinds of strange directions. Not a lot of action when we arrived, but by the time we got signed in and drove up to launch, there were several wings in the air.
It was completely overcast by this point, and one pilot who had already flown and landed said that he had gotten high enough that it was pretty cold. We both launched as soon as we could get ready, and there was enough ridge lift that staying in the air was easy (the wind had straightened out, or maybe what we saw in the valley was simply deceptive). Despite the cloud cover, there was thermal action as well, and I was able to climb to 3200 feet. Still only early spring, and there was still a fair bit of snow in the woods on north-facing slopes.
Because the temperature had been mild on the ground, and I wasn’t expecting to get particularly high, I wore only gloves and left my bar mitts in the car. It wasn’t long before I was regretting that decision, as my fingers started getting quite cold. It was pretty neat to consider that I was flying a hang glider, and getting paid at the same time (due to the holiday). I kept wriggling them, and flew one-handed some of the time, but after about an hour that was getting old, so I headed for the LZ. I flared a little too aggressively and early, and settled down from a few feet up. (It seemed fine at the time, but I actually tweaked my right ankle a bit, which became a bit of a problem after I did a 16 mile run two days later.) It was one of those flights where the first few minutes after landing are spent in agony as warmth trickles back into the fingers (maybe that’s why I didn’t notice my ankle).
There was a decent crowd flying, considering it was a weekday, and after John retrieved his car from launch, we headed off to join some other pilots at a local restaurant for dinner (and Tony, proprietor of the launch and LZ, came along as well). As we were heading out, Voighter was heard to say, “The forecast for tomorrow looks like it could be epic, but don’t talk it up too much on the internet, because it could get really crowded.
John and I split a motel room with Keith for the night, and we were able to have a leisurely breakfast while others were making the long drive (a number of PG pilots came down from New England, as well as Todd K from Vermont and Jeff C from near where I live). Tom L had been thinking about it, but also worked really hard at talking himself out of it. Apparently as he was checking his messages in bed Friday night, he mentioned to his drowsy wife that I said I’d be flying with bar mitts on Saturday. In the morning, she asked what he had told her the night before, and he repeated that J-J said he was going to fly with bar mitts. “Oh”, she replied, “I thought you said J-J was going to a flying Bar Mitzvah”. In any case, Tom used this hint of chilly conditions as part of his excuse to stay home. Meanwhile, the sky was looking fantastic at Ellenville, and John was antsy to get going, so he and I drove up while Jeff and Todd signed in, leaving them to catch a ride up with Keith. We set up in a hurry, but then nobody was launching, although it wasn’t clear why.
Normally the PGs launch early, but they were all just standing around. Keith is another one you can count on to go as soon as it looks good, and when he moved to launch, I was ready to go right after him. Off he went…. and down he went! Solid sink all the way to the LZ, so bad that he said later that he wasn’t even sure he was going to make it, and the PG who launched right after him got about the same. Dang! Although it was true that the sun hadn’t really swung around far enough to heat the NW-facing slope, the clouds looked fantastic. Tom called to ask how things were going, and I told him that the thermometer on my vario was claiming that it was above 60F in the setup area (a little hard to believe, but it was certainly over 50F). Todd drove down to grab Keith for a second try, and we waited a bit longer. When John G launched his PG and shot up toward the sky, that was all I needed to see, and I moved up to take my turn. It didn’t take much time at all to find air that was going up, and I started corkscrewing my way toward the clouds.
The highest I had ever managed to get in the past was a hair under 7000 feet (once at the Trail, and another time at Ascutney) so I was somewhat excited when I saw my altitude closing in on that number. It didn’t stop, either, and went right on up to almost 8000. I fiddled around with my camera and dropped below 6000, then started climbing again until I was somewhere above 8600. At that point I noticed that there was frost building up on my helmet chinguard (the thermometer was reading 27F, I think). Other pilots commented that up at that altitude, the air was filled with sparkling ice crystals. I also noticed at this point that the ground was getting a little hard to see, things were getting fuzzy. Whoops! Time to head for the edge of the cloud and get out from under it.
My hands were getting a little chilled despite the gloves and bar mitts, so I pulled out a packet of teabag hand warmers and stuffed them into the backs of my gloves. Doing that dropped me down to 5000 feet, and I made another trip up to 8000, then decided that I didn’t need to spend all my time shivering to have fun, and I headed north, using up some altitude to cover some distance. Just to the north side of town and back, but that got me down to nearly 3000. There weren’t all that many wings in the air, and I think it was around this time that I watched four or five gliders launch and sled down to the LZ like they were playing follow-the-leader. Weird. It seemed like this was a 50-50 day, where you either sank out or skyed out. I briefly talked on the radio with Todd, who was one of the former, wondering whether Keith had launched again. In any case, I headed up once more.
By this time, I was a wimp and my arms were getting tired. I decided to head toward the LZ and do some things that would waste altitude. Specifically, I just headed upwind, and pulled in to fly fast and lower my efficiency. There was no getting down over the LZ, though, nothing but lift there. It was entertaining to be pulled in that far, flying into the wind, and to be at 7000 feet and still climbing. I managed to fly nearly three miles NW of launch, well out into the forest on the far side of Ellenville. It was cool to see the site from that perspective. Eventually I decided that I needed to land, because I had a lot to do ahead of me. I hadn’t seen John’s glider in a while, which meant that he had probably been successful in heading out XC, and I was going to need to pick him up somewhere. So I started actively looking for sink.
I explored in a few more directions, and the one that brought me success was SW, which got me into a blue hole where I could finally get down. Dropping to below 5000 feet, I headed back toward the LZ where I found lift again, but I was able to evade it. Landing had me concerned. Because I kept finding unexpected lift, I was worried that it might happen on final and cause me to overshoot. I flew a normal pattern, but I wasn’t really dropping like I hoped, and when I was on my base leg, I was too high. The surface wind was kind of north, so at this point I was deep over the pumpkin patch, and had to start doing S-turns to lose altitude. But that wasn’t working, I was kind of just maintaining. After a half-dozen turns, I was finally low enough to go on final, but of course I misjudged and came up about 75 feet short, landing in the weeds. Doh! At least it was early enough the year that the seasonal scrub hadn’t grown up yet, and I was less than a wingspan from the trail that runs through there. I carried my wing across the LZ to the fence, climbed out of my harness, and just flopped down on my back on the grass. Woo!
After packing up, I started looking around for a ride up top to get John’s car. My friend Six was heading that way, and we actually piled so many people into his Honda CRV that it bottomed out when we got to the road in to launch. No matter, easy enough to get out and walk from there. It was a funny thing, while I was bouncing around at cloudbase, I kept looking down and seeing a dozen or more gliders set up, and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t all rushing to get into the air. When I reached the parking lot, there were none left on the ground, but still a number in the air. It’s possible that launch conditions got funny, and people were worried about having trouble, or about sinking out. But I think the real issue was that some fraction of the people who showed up were not interested in 1400+ fpm lift going up to above 8000 feet. That can be intimidating stuff. They just like boating around in smooth evening air, and that’s what they eventually got.
I drove back down to the LZ just after Jeff landed, with about 5 hours of airtime. I was so tired that I asked somebody for help to load my glider onto the roof rack. I had gotten a text message from John telling me where he was, and I replied that it would be a little after 9 PM before I could get to him. He had flown about 50 miles, crossed the Hudson, and was in Connecticut, pretty close to Brace (though he didn’t realize it). He landed in a farm field, packed up, and walked about 3.5 miles to Lakeville, where he found a pub and had eaten dinner and was relaxing with a pint of beer when I arrived. Sweet! Timo, plus several PG pilots, had nice XC flights as well.
It was quite an experience, at least 9 Pfams on the epicness scale. There were times when I was climbing faster than I could run. I don’t mean faster than I can climb stairs, I mean 16 mph vertically, faster than I can run on the level. There have been numerous times when I’ve been flying and seen a tiny wing, quite a way from launch and waaaaaaay up there. This was a day when I got to be that guy.
Friday, flights: 1, airtime: 1:05
Saturday, flights: 1, airtime: 2:43