Reprieve from the freeze


The early part of this year brought record-breaking snowfalls and low temperatures to Massachusetts. After a lot of shoveling and freezing, I reached a state where I really wanted to get out of town and relax in the warmth for a spell, so I bought a plane ticket to Florida for a weekend excursion. They had been having weather unfavorable for flying down there, but my timing was excellent, as the forecast looked better for my trip.

I flew down after work on Friday and crashed in the bunkhouse at Quest a little before 2 AM. Saturday showed a windy outlook, so as the crew was hurrying to get a couple of tandem flights into the air, I hit the road to visit my high-school friend Dana and his wife Dawna in St. Pete. I think it had been about 15 years since I had seen him. We spent the afternoon at the beach, as I thawed out, and Dana demonstrated how living in a place without snow doesn’t mean you can’t have childish fun.

It turned out that I made the right call, as those two morning tandems were the only flights of the day.

Sunday dawned with more promise. I fished my glider out of the storage unit and set it up first thing (well, after preparing a glass of fresh tangerine juice), then went off in the car to get some food. There were some tandems and student flights going up, and a pretty big crowd had gathered, mostly waiting for the day to turn on.

I had heard rumors of JB’s legendary Falcon, and was pleased to get a chance to see it for myself. He has gone retro and cleverly replaced all of the aluminum tubing with bamboo, for ease of replacement, weight advantages, and numerous other benefits. Who needs carbon fiber?!

I was interested in practice as well as airtime, so I got in line for a tow early. It went smoothly, and Jonny dropped me off next to a cloud that he figured I’d be able to work. Although I had felt lift on tow, I hunted around the cloud and didn’t really find anything going up. I retreated to a safe spot, the junkyard on the SW edge of the airfield, and got a little bit of lift that I was able to work for a while, but I was really just maintaining at about 1500 feet and not climbing. When that deteriorated, I gave up and headed back to land.

So far, so good. I waited a little while until I saw some pilots staying up, queued up again. I was a little concerned about the more active mid-day air, and although it was never scary, the tug and I were getting tossed around some, and at about 800 feet I got pretty far off line and was banked the wrong way. I might well have been able to wrestle it back into position, but one of the things I was taught was that if you’re not comfortable, and you have enough altitude to be safe, you can always get off, so that’s what I did. The wind had switched from south to west, so I flew over the airfield to set up a landing, and there was nearly enough lift there for a low save, but not quite.

I took a short break and walked over to the flight line, where Danny was on a cart, and he looked at me and asked what I was doing back on the ground already. I didn’t wait long for my third try, and as I was putting my glider on the cart to move into position, I saw Danny and asked him the same question. Third time’s a charm, although as I was in line, a dust devil full of leaves emerged from the campground and spun its way across the airstrip straight toward the parked gliders (which were okay – almost all were tied down). I was very glad that didn’t come through while I was taking off! The tow was uneventful, Jonny was nice enough to take me a little high, and when I released and got the bridle stowed, I looked around and… had no idea where I was. I could see Orlando to the east, so I had my bearings, but I had lost track of the tug and couldn’t find any of my usual nearby landmarks on the ground. I found some lift and circled to buy some time, and after a few minutes I spotted the airfield off to the northeast.

The lift I was in didn’t last, and as I headed back to Quest I was worried that I might sled again, but I started finding bubbles as I got close, and then hooked into a thermal right over the northern end of the field that got me back in the game. By this time there were quite a few wings in the air (the day ended up with 62 tows by 28 pilots, plus two who flew in from Wallaby), so there were plenty of markers whenever I needed to look for lift, and plenty of air traffic to keep an eye on when circling.

I don’t have a lot of experience flying in flat terrain, where the sources of lift I’m used to seeking out are absent, and the LZ isn’t typically upwind. There were times when I was a little concerned that I might be too far from the field, but I’d spot somebody else who was further away and lower. I also noted that there were plenty of fields around that I could land in if I had to, a contrast from the nearly solid carpet of undulating forest in New England. Most folks seemed to have gotten up to cloudbase at 5300 feet, but I didn’t get above 4600. I did stay within about 4 km of Quest, but I got out beyond Lake Wash and Lake Sumner.

I finally found myself working some lift down low just south of the airfield, with some other gliders that seemed to be going up when I was not. When I got too low, I set up over the pond to land before getting myself in trouble, and had my third fine landing of the day. This was my longest towed flight ever, by more than a factor of two, and was the first time I’ve ever really soared convincingly over flat terrain.

I was a little disappointed that I had sunk out, but within the next 10-15 minutes, nearly everybody else did, too. This would seem to indicate that the day had shut down, but some people are more tenacious than others: much later, after we were wondering where he might have landed out, Larry Bunner appeared, having flown for 5.5 hours and made it all the way around Green Swamp.

I was in Florida for three days, and had some hope of getting into the air in Monday as well, but although it was a beautiful day, it was too windy for the thermals to hold together, and the only flights were early-morning students and tandems. The wind got strong enough during the day that one of the gliders came loose when its tie-down rope snapped; we ran and grabbed it before it got flipped or any damage occurred.

My flight back to the frozen wasteland of New England was early – 5:20 AM – so I set my alarm for 3:00 and was on the road by 3:20. I was told that with no traffic it would take 45 minutes to get to the airport, and I needed to check in 45 minutes before my flight. That left me 30 minutes of margin, which seemed like it should be enough, unless everything went wrong, which it kind of did. First, I needed to get gas for the rental car, so I got off at the exit just before the airport. I was just about to start pumping when I looked at the prices underneath the octane listings, and couldn’t make sense of them. They ran from $5.75/gal for regular up to $5.95/gal for premium. What?! I’m pretty sure that’s the highest prices I’ve ever seen in my life, at least in the US. Price gouging like that would not be legal in Massachusetts, but things are different in Florida. The station directly across the street was about the same, but half a mile up the road at 7-11, it was $2.39. So that was a bit of a delay. Then when I got to the rental car dropoff, I had to hunt around for an attendant, and “the system was down”, so I was told that I had to take the paperwork in to the Avis desk in the terminal. The woman there was very friendly, and wondered aloud whether the system was really down or of the attendant was just to lazy to check me out himself. That was another delay. Then it turns out that the Avis desk is at the opposite end of the terminal from the USAirways desk, so that walk took a while. When I got to the line, an agent was asking if anyone was on the 5:20 flight to Charlotte. That included me, and I was expecting that she’d whisk us to the front of the line, but instead she said that we were too late to check in and that we’d have to just take everything through security, but not to say that she was the one who said that. Great. So I headed to security with my small carry-on bag and my big bag containing my harness and the rest of my flying gear. It didn’t look like the bag would even fit through the scanner, but it just squeezed in. Unfortunately, it got pulled aside for a manual inspection. No sense in looking like I was in a rush, so I patiently stood by while the TSA agent unzipped the bag and went through the contents. He said something about there being liquid – I had forgotten that there was a bottle of water in one of the pockets of my harness, which is presumably what triggered the search. But as he examined the contents, he asked, “Is this a parachute?”. (TSA gets a little weirded out when you bring a parachute through security.) Yes, I said, and explained what he was looking at. Eventually he ran the contents through the scanner again, then hand inspected my helmet and instruments. Deciding that everything was acceptable, he engaged me in a conversation about hang gliding that I would have been happy with at any other time, but when he wished me a good trip as I was hastily trying to repack my luggage, I said, “Yeah, if I make it”. He asked what time my flight was, and agreed that it was going to be tight. I still had to take a shuttle train to the gate, where a flight attendant looked at this giant bag and said, “Don’t tell me, it fit under the seat on the last flight, right?”. I rolled my eyes and laughed along with her. My sprint to the gate didn’t help, the door to the jetway was already closed, but they were able to put me on standby flights that got me back only two hours behind schedule, and I got to work just after lunch.

I did manage to miss a pretty cold night. Although it didn’t drop quite this far at my house, while I was at the airport, my brother sent me a picture of the thermometer reading at his place in Vermont.

flights: 3, airtime: 0:22, 0:04, 1:35

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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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