TTT TC 2014 Day 5: Gone Critical

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Thursday’s forecast finally called for a bit of wind. It was supposed to be from the south, or maybe SSE, at about 8 MPH, which translated to cross conditions at Whitwell. That site works early, so we got going right away, and once again found ourselves arriving ahead of everybody else, with the rearmost setup area. We left my car at the C goal, Vitaly dropped off his van down below, and we all set up and waited. The task committee had called a similar task to the first day:
C pilots: WAGNER
B pilots: GALLOWAY
A pilots: GALLOWAY-WHITWELL-GALLOWAY
Lee was an early wind technician, and headed out toward the Church LZ in light conditions. As he got near town, we saw him climb dramatically, and everybody was yelling “Turn! Turn!”, but he of course couldn’t hear us, he flew through the thermal, and soon landed. Mike Barber was the next to step up, he waited quite a while to launch, and when he did, there was nothing. He headed south to sink out at the Castle LZ, and a few hundred feet over the valley floor, he took a turn in lift. By the time he had turned two or three times, Mitch said “He’s got it, he’s up”, and we watched as he patiently stayed with it up to launch height, then to cloudbase, then he was gone.

One expert catching a low save wasn’t quite encouraging enough for the crowd, but Joe and Pedro tried, and they slipped around the corner to the right and vanished. A while later they reappeared over the trees, having found a climb over there. Terry was ready next, but he’s conservative and Tom said he’d wait until he saw something inspiring confidence. As he waited, pretty much everybody got in line behind him, with us near the back.
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Max was the first of our team, and he didn’t find much. Jeff was next, and he tried working some lift, but then got pounded as he headed for the church. I was still on launch when I heard him on the radio saying, “That wasn’t elegant, but I’m on the ground” (I got to hear later about his harrowing approach, which contrary to rumors did not involve flying under power lines). Vitaly, Tom, and I were one after the other in line, and we all launched without much waiting. And the game was on.

I never saw much of Vitaly. I had a plan, which was somewhat influenced by Lee’s radio messages that the wind direction in the LZ was east and strong, which sounded horrible for the Church LZ. I figured that if I were going to sink out, I’d rather be at the Castle in those conditions, so I decided to head right. This also allowed me to get above the ridge, because the ground drops off on that side. The first thing I heard after launching was Tom on the radio saying “Nose too high, J-J”. This is a problem that a lot of people had all week, myself among them. There are two things typically pointed out as reasons to not do this. I acknowledge the safety issue, you don’t want the wing to be stalled or close to it so that you’ll have good control and can get away from the terrain. But the other point is, “He had the nose high, see how much altitude he lost after the nose dropped?”. That didn’t apply in this case, as I had a great cycle and dropped only about eight feet before climbing strongly. I immediately went to 400-500 feet above the ridge and was able to stay there. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing pretty much “up the ditch”, parallel to the ridge we were on, so the air was seriously ratty. I was managing to maintain, but I couldn’t work anything to get up any higher. Tom was lower than I was, but he worked his way up, then said he was looking for better air. Slightly north of launch he found it, let me know, and I joined him in the climb.

Getting a little higher smoothed things out, and I was able to relax a little as the two of us did lazy circles, drifting downwind in the direction of my goal. The climb tapered off, and when were were 1100-1200 over launch, it stopped. Tom decided to head back in the direction of launch to look over there, and said he’d let me know if he found anything. I decided to go on glide up the ridge and try my luck there. There had been some gliders circling just before Star Gap, but they were gone. I glanced at my vario, and I was dropping at 200 fpm, which is the rate for still air, so at least I wasn’t in sink. There was a huge field before my goal that I knew had been mowed, and I headed out that way to look for a thermal over the flats. As soon as I left the ridge I started climbing, so I did a few circles and gained a little, than I spotted my goal and realized that I had it on easy glide. I radioed that Team Critical Mass was not going to be going home scoreless, and headed for it.

I probably could have crossed Star Gap, found lift on the other side, and tried for the B goal, but I wanted to tag the C goal first, and I was a little wary about staying in the air too long, because I thought landing might be rowdy, and indications were that it might continue getting worse. There was nobody in Wagner’s field when I flew over it (passing just about directly over the turnpoint, though I never even glanced at my GPS), and I had more than 1000 feet of altitude to play with. I flew around a little bit, looking for lift, but didn’t fly though anything persuasive, so I set up my landing.

The prevailing wind up higher had been SW, but Lee had said that at the surface (at least where he was) it was SE at about 15 mph. I didn’t see anything on the ground to indicate the wind, so I split the difference and went for a landing almost directly south, diagonally across the field, with over 400 meters of space in front of me. As I went on final and rocked up, I caught myself being casual and reminded myself to fly fast in case I ran into a wind gradient. I reached a point where it felt like the bottom dropped out, then as I got into ground effect, the glide flattened out, and I just cruised along for what felt like a very long time before reaching trim. Perhaps because I was getting nervous, I flared a smidge early, and ballooned up, thinking, “Not this again!”. And I hung there like Wylie Coyote. I was expecting the nose to drop and the glider to come in like a lawn dart, but as I held the flare, the wing remained nose-high, and only nosed over a bit at the very end, so I dropped the control bad in the tall grass but didn’t whack. Safely on the ground at goal!
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Three more gliders came in as I was moving my glider. Tom’s final had him going up and down repeatedly before landing; he described it as “full-on combat landing conditions”. Another pilot landed on his belly, caught a corner of the control frame, and ground-looped (no harm done), and the third one broke a downtube. The gate to get out of the field was unlocked, so we carried our gear out to the road before any curious cattle came to visit, and started breaking down. We got radio calls from Vitaly as he crossed the gap, then got a climb up to cloudbase, and finally arrived at his goal at Galloway. Yeah!

Max went up to pick up Vitaly, and Lee and Jeff stopped by Wagner’s to chat with Tom and me as we packed up. At the beginning of the week, Tom had mentioned that maybe we’d get milkshakes some afternoon, and I had replied that I liked that idea, so with two pilots in at goal we had something to celebrate, and went to Sonic. (I got two milkshakes!)

It wasn’t an especially impressive XC flight, only about a half-hour, and less than half the distance of my longest flight (Ascutney to Morningside), but I got it done.

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Team Critical Mass: Lee Minardi (driver), J-J Cote (C), Vitaly Pogrebnoy (B), Tom Lanning (A), Jeff Curtis (A), Max Kotchouro (C)

flights: 1, airtime: 0:33, XC distance: 7.3 km

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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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