Timing trumps preparation

My hopes of flying on Memorial Day didn’t work out, because the weather didn’t cooperate. However, a couple of my coworkers were taking the following Friday off, and it looked like a good day for me to get some fresh air as well. Todd said that he was planning to go to West Rutland, and I said I’d join him if the forecast held. It still looked good in the morning, so I made the nearly three hour drive up, and found five more pilots getting ready to head up to launch. What little wind there was didn’t seem to be coming from the right direction, but that was okay, as it wasn’t supposed to get good until early afternoon.

We got set up, and scrutinized the not-so-encouraging conditions. It looked totally launchable, but there wasn’t enough wind to ridge soar, and the thermals that occasionally came through were kind of lukewarm.

I had a couple of unfortunate findings as I set up my gear. The first was that my camera didn’t work. I remembered having charged the battery, but when I looked inside, the battery was missing, because I had apparently left it in the charger at home. Not a big deal, but it meant I could only take pictures with my phone.

John was the first to think that it was worth getting into the air. He took his time and picked a good cycle, and immediately gained some altitude. Usually a pilot staying up means that conditions are good, but when that pilot is John, it doesn’t really count, because his skills put the rest of us to shame. Todd took it as a good omen, though, and got ready as John climbed over the far end of the ridge. By the time he was on the ramp, John was back, and we had to give Todd a traffic warning, because John was now barely above launch height. We watched as he lost altitude, and was eventually hundreds of feet below launch, but he caught a climb over the valley and got back up… but not for long, and soon he was on his way to Ducky’s LZ. Todd gave it a try anyway, and did manage to briefly break above the horizon, but then it was all downhill and he joined John on the ground.

Hmm.

The other veteran pilot in attendance, Al, is noted for not liking a lot of wind, so this was his kind of day. He launched, scratched, found something down low that he worked for a little while, but basically got a sled ride. Pete followed him, and flew at min sink to delay the inevitable as long as he could, but sank out to Herbert’s field. Fred had a birthday party to get to, so he wasn’t interested in waiting any longer, and figured that the best bet was to look for a thermal out over the valley like the one that John had found. He flew straight out, but didn’t bump into anything usable. Gary and I were left, and I said I was happy to go last without wire crew. Gary had the additional disadvantage of not having a working vario (dead battery), and had no luck as he sledded down to join Pete.

And there I was, by myself. Seemed like I could go ahead and take a sled ride right away, or wait and do it later. I wasn’t in any particular hurry, so I carefully preflighted my glider, moved it over near the ramp, and tried to turn on my GPS tracker, which didn’t work. That was strange, I specifically remember that I charged the… oh… yeah, also still sitting at home on the charger. I stood on the ramp, and couldn’t see any motion in the leaves anywhere else on the ridge, so I pulled out my phone and started doing a crossword puzzle.

After about a minute, I heard a car door shut. A couple of the pilots had come up to retrieve the vehicles, and had brought PG pilot Bo, who had arrived later after going to work in the morning. I was surprised that nobody had packed up a glider for a second try. Bo went out to the ramp, and after a couple of false inflations in the light wind, got into the air and stayed up — paragliders can do that in light conditions. Meanwhile, John was telling me that it looked like it was getting nice and soarable, and I might have the flight of the day. Yeah, maybe…

It’s said that the formula for getting high to to underdress. I didn’t bother with a jacket or gloves, and didn’t wait very long on the ramp, but the first minute or two was encouraging. I climbed a little right away, made it over to the spine and turned back, arriving above launch. Nice! But it was short-lived, as I started leaking altitude, and was a couple of hundred feet below launch before long. Oh well, at least Bo was doing well. I did find a little lift in front of launch, and worked it carefully, until I managed to get above the ridge, and then I was able to follow the crest up to the summit, where things got more comfortable. Ahh!

My U2 has wheels, which aren’t the greatest wheels, but they provide me with some reassurance in case I get a low weak-link break while towing. For foot-launching, though, wheels can be a problem, as they can make it difficult to ground-handle the glider on launch. To address this, I improvised “parking brakes” for my wheels: I drilled a hole through the wheel and the bracket, and put a cotter pin through when I want the wheels to not turn. In theory I can pull the pins out once I’m flying, though I had never actually done that. Seemed like a good thing to practice, though, so I popped them out and put them in my front pocket.

Staying up wasn’t too hard as long as I flew carefully. Bo and I cruised around, never getting very high – I topped out at about 600 feet over launch, and he got a couple of hundred feet higher. Most of the lift was near the mountain, though I sometimes went out a bit further, and sometimes encountered weak thermals that I’d try to turn in, but if I banked up too much my sink rate would be too high, and if I didn’t, I couldn’t stay in the small core. Bo left after about an hour, because the flying honestly wasn’t that interesting. I did a lot of passes in the bowl, and when I’d venture elsewhere, I generally lost altitude and would have to retreat to the sweet spot.

Tom has mentioned that an interesting challenge is to try and land at a specified time, which is harder than you might think. It comes up if you’re demoing a glider, and are typically given one hour, which you’d like to maximize, but you’ll get yelled at a bit if you go over. I saw the opportunity to try and make my flight be exactly two hours, and figured that there might still be somebody in the LZ if I did. With a few minutes to go, I left the ridge, flew down the valley to the west, then doubled back, and did some S-turns to prepare for a landing in dead calm conditions. My approach was pretty good, and I was just about right for a spot landing, but I got weirded out by my high groundspeed and botched the flare just as I was approaching the dirt road. The landing turned out different than I remember ever having done before: I kind of sat down and did a butt slide. No harm done, and the wheels actually came in handy, as the control bar skipped off the road and the glider didn’t nose over. Total time was less than a minute over the two-hour mark.

And then a couple of those helpful guys even brought my car over and saved me the walk. Thanks!

I learned afterwards that it had turned out to be a pretty great day at Mt. Greylock, which I totally would not have expected from the forecast.

Flights: 1, airtime: 2:00

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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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