Thanks, Magic Mike!

July was marching on, and I’d had too much going on to get into the air. The forecast for Saturday didn’t look too great to me (apparently some people flew in the torrid conditions, and managed to get onto the ground before the approaching thunderstorms made things intolerably interesting), but Sunday looked more civilized, perhaps even too ho-hum (by which I mean less than promising, not hot-and-humid, in which regard it was an improvement). Northwest wind, so I asked by email if anybody was interested in Ascutney (or the Trail, or Ellenville), and again I heard back nothing. I finally got word that a few pilots were heading for Ellenville, but they went down the night before, and I wasn’t organized enough to join them, then another sounded like he was interested in going in the morning, but decided that the forecast didn’t justify that long drive. I was willing to drive up to Ascutney, but moreso if I knew that anybody else would be going. I finally got word that a crew was probably planning on heading over there from Morningside, and the details were on TwitFace or something. Yeah, whatever. I finally heard from a few pilots who do still read email, but who said that for various reasons they weren’t going. Well, I’ve flown Ascutney alone before, and if need be I could do it again (and on a weekend, there would probably be some hikers I could get to help out on my wires). So I headed up there, arriving at 10 AM, and in serious need of a nap. I parked at the base of the road and sent out one more email asking anybody who showed up to wake me up, and caught a snooze in the driver’s seat of my car.

About a half-hour later, I woke up because I thought I heard Kevin’s voice. Indeed it was Kevin, and some other folks had arrived as well. We all went over to the ranger station to sign in, and Magic Mike, who wasn’t flying, asked if I wanted to toss my glider on his truck for a ride up. Sounds great, thanks Mike! Once up top, I wasted no time because I’m a lightweight who can’t carry all his gear in one trip, so I scooted off to launch with my harness and battens and control bar then jogged back for the glider, and was out at launch early enough to get my wing mostly assembled and stashed off in a corner before some of the others were ready to start setting up. (A number of the other pilots had wisely brought along sherpas to help them bring their gear out.)

One thing that I noticed when getting things together was that the battery on my vario was really low – the warning indicator was already blinking. I asked around if anybody had a spare AA, and Mike said he had one, but it was back in his truck at the parking lot. I considered what the conditions looked like, and decided it was worth a mile of jogging to have it working, so I borrowed his keys and did the 15-minute round trip (thanks again, Mike!). By the time I got back and installed the battery, John A was about ready to go, and we were all eager to see what the wind dummy (or in this case maybe the wind smarty) would have to show us. After a promising but small bump soon after launching, he went into a fruitless hunt for lift as he sank out to the LZ. People were concerned that he might be too low and downwind to even make the field, when he found something that popped him up a little. Max said that he didn’t think it would be enough, and I said, remember down at Whitwell when we thought Mike Barber was about to land and he found some little shred of lift, and Mitch Shipley immediately said, “he’s got it”, and Mike proceeded to work it steadily and climb out to cloudbase? Max said yeah, but lamented that he’s no Mike Barber. I reminded him that he’s no John A, either, as we watched John stick with it and claw his way back up to launch altitude. At that point he disappeared around the corner to the left, and that was the last we saw of him; at this point I have no idea where he eventually ended up.

Despite that display of skillz, nobody looked very interested in going next, talking about how John had only launched so soon because he had other things he needed to do and couldn’t wait around all day. I thought about the fact that there were some other things I could be doing as well, and since my answer to the question “When do you like to launch?” is “Second”, I started suiting up. I had just installed a radio headset in my new helmet, and needed a little assistance to get the PTT button and the helmet connected, and then I stepped up on the rock, with a good crowd of spectators, both pilots and wuffos. The wind was pretty steady, though tending to be cross from the right, so I just waited for some trees down below to start rocking and for the streamers to straighten out, and I went for it. Max captured the launch on video; certainly not the best, as is obvious by the comments from those assembled, but it got me in the air.

Because of the prevailing wind direction, I did my hunting off to the north, figuring that in a north wind, I’d rather be in front of the ski area ridge than behind it. Sure enough, right over the top of the ski trails, I found rising air, and as soon as I got enough separation from the terrain to do complete circles, I was able to thermal up to about 1300 feet above launch. Once everybody could see that things were working out pretty well for me, they apparently decided they wanted some, too, and started popping into the air, with mixed results. Some managed to climb up and join me, others found the thermals too elusive and were soon on the ground. Crystal and Ilya were in my neighborhood for quite a while, and Kevin found a climb somewhere out over the flatlands, and surprised me when I spotted him well above us when I figured he was probably already on the ground.

Crystal and Ilya

The highest any of us got was somewhere around 4700 feet, which is maaaaaaaybe enough to go over the back, but maybe not if you aren’t confident of finding more lift, and this was a day with no cumulus clouds, just some cirrus. The one time I did go XC four years ago, I had been at 5400 a way back, and chickened out and tried to make it back to the mountain, but then I wasn’t sure I’d make it and turned around and ran. This time I was almost as far back with quite a bit less altitude, but the U2 has more get up and go than the Ultrasport did, so I was able to get in front of the ridge with only a modest altitude loss.

The other downside of my new headset, beyond the difficulty hooking it up, was that it doesn’t have an external volume control, and out of habit, I had turned the volume on the radio all the way up. So I’d be in a climb, listening to my vario, and radio chatter would start, so I’d hear “beep… beep beep… bip beep… bipOK, I’ve got a climb over here, 400 fpm, nope, it just petered outboooooooop“. OK, gotta work on my equipment.

The thermals near ridge height were kind of chunky and occasionally rough, though they tended to be better when we got higher up. Ilya and Crystal got pretty low at one point, but caught a climb up the ridge that got them back up to launch height. For a while we even had a visiting lift indicator, as a sailplane showed up and soared with us for a while (I was too busy to try and get a picture). The best thermals seemed to be narrow, snaky things that were small enough to be difficult to turn full circles in, and before long Ilya and Crystal had enough of getting kicked around, resigned to the fact that they weren’t going to get enough altitude to go XC, and headed for the LZ. Denise had launched in the meantime and joined them, while I decided to stretch out whatever else I could find. The ski area worked for me again, little up little down as I patiently did circles for about 20 minutes. I hadn’t known that the old ski lodge had burned up (apparently a year and a half ago), but there it was.

Unfortunately, it was time for a decision. Up at launch, we had talked about the two LZs, Africa and Kansas. Africa is always OK to land in, but there was some question about Kansas. Only OK on weekdays? Or as I suggested, only OK when Jake (site director) isn’t around? It was certainly appealing, since there were haybales on one edge, suggesting that it had been mowed. But Max and Mike H had landed in Africa, and then everybody else had joined them.

Doesn’t look too bad, does it? Nice grassy field, and there are the other pilots… but I know that field, and I’ve landed in each of them about the same number of times. I had been hearing radio comments:
“It’s… manageable…”
“I just kept going and going… oof, this is awful.”
“It was lifting off, I should have waited.”
“Are you okay?” “Yeah, just got some grass in my teeth, it’s chest-high here.”

The field slopes downhill in the direction I needed to land, and I know well that what looks like grass from the air can be tall weeds when you get there. Africa isn’t a hayfield, it’s some kind of bird sanctuary, and what the meadowlarks prefer isn’t necessarily good for hang gliders. The tallest stuff was in the northwest quadrant of the field, which was right where I was headed. I also hit lift down low, and had to do a number of S turns trying to bleed off enough altitude to get as close as I dared to the trees before diving into the field. I got it down as quickly as I could, following one of the mowed paths through the weeds, looked at the treeline, and wasn’t sure whether I was going to stop before I reached it. But then I flew over a wind streamer, and saw that I wasn’t heading into the wind. I judged that I had enough energy left and did a quick turn to the right, improving my wind heading but going more downhill. I probably waited a bit too long to flare, but I ended up very close to one of the trails, so that was good. And tall weeds make a nice cushion for a belly landing.

It took me 20 minutes to drag all of my stuff up the field to where everybody was hanging out, and as I packed up, the remaining three pilots who had launched after I landed came in. I was beat, and gratefully accepted a ride back to my car from Magic Mike (thanks once again, Mike!), and headed home. I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast except for a little water, so when I got to the car I sucked down a quart of Gatorade in less than a minute, and on the way home wolfed down a steak and cheese and a large ice cream. Mmmmm!

flights: 1, airtime, 2:00


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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