Special permission


The last weekend in August was coming up, and I hadn’t flown in a month due to other commitments, so I wanted to try and get something in. Jon A brought up the idea of heading to Burke, in northern Vermont, and tried to drum up some enthusiasm among HG pilots (PG is usually flown more by PG pilots, though it’s a decent HG site as well.) His suggestion was that a Falcon would be a good glider choice for that site if you had one. It sounded like a number of us were up for it, and Jeff C asked if anybody wanted to carpool, so I picked him up and off we went.

I think we were probably at least 2/3 of the way there when we got a phone message saying that somebody heard there was a road race at Burke that day, but they weren’t sure, but if so, the road to launch would be closed. Maybe not a problem, I figured, since runners usually like to get an early start for races in the heat of the summer, and we could probably drive up the road after the race was over. Jeff started looking for a phone number to call and ask, but I suggested just googling “burke hillclimb” and see if anything popped up. It did, and… uh oh… not a running race at all, but a three-day car race. Jeff has done some racing, and said that they usually take a lunch break at this sort of event, and maybe we could get up to launch then. I was skeptical, and we started discussing other options, like towing at Morningside (but I didn’t have my tow gear), or diverting to Ascutney, or maybe just going for a hike (but Jeff wasn’t dressed for that). I had my mountain bike in the car, so one possibility was to drop him off at Morningside and then I could just go for a ride. We got messages that the other pilots were turning around, but we decided to continue to Burke and see what was up.

We were greeted with disappointment. As we were approaching, we saw a car with a hang glider on the roof heading the other way, and when we got to the base of the toll road, the gate was locked with a sign saying “Closed all weekend for private function”. Oh well, we tried, time for Plan B. I turned the car around, and when we had gone about a mile, Jeff’s phone rang, and it was Tom saying that there were about 20 PG pilots gathered, and they had gotten special permission to make one trip up the road at 11:30 to drop everybody off. So another U-turn, and we met up with everybody at the parking lot near the LZ.

There were two pickup trucks loaded with all the PG people, but we needed to take my car because it had a HG rack — Jeff and I were the only HG pilots there. We caravaned over to the campground entrance entrance to the toll road, signed waivers, and waited for our designated break in the action. It seemed like things were turning our way, but there were still obstacles to overcome. We had two drivers to bring the trucks down, but I was going to have to drive my own car down and hike back up. I don’t mind the hike, and Jeff said he’d carry both of our harnesses and gliders down to the setup area and offered to put my glider together as well. When we got to the place where we normally park, the race marshalls had us move the cars much further off the paved road than usual, because we were at a hairpin switchback, and as it turned out, they were going to run the next race heat while we were unloading. They wanted to make sure we were well out of the way in the unlikely circumstance that a car were to blow the corner. Unfortunately, this meant that I was being directeded to back down a fairly steep, poorly graded access road, and as I did so, with my tires sliding, I got a sinking feeling that I might not be able to get back up it.

We unloaded the people and gear, and waited for the race cars to finish screaming by so that we could drive down. Tom pointed out that the P2 who had launched on what was supposed to be a sledder was hitting thermal after thermal, so we shouldn’t waste any time in getting ready. It was time to drive down, so I told the two trucks to go first, and as I suspected, I had no luck trying to drive up the hill — my car is great, but one of its shortcomings is climbing when the traction is bad. I backed up halfway across the ski slope to get a running start, and with gravel flying I made it up on the next try. Down the toll road we went, and when I spotted the guy who seemed to be in charge at the bottom, I asked if anybody was going to be driving up to bring the race workers down for lunch. He said yes, but the truck would be full. I said I only needed a ride up, and he said that the truck was empty in that direction, so I quickly stashed my car and was back up at launch before Jeff even had time to move all of the gear to the setup area.

There were plenty of PG pilots up there, but we found enough space to set up our gliders while they were launching and there were only a few left by the time we were ready. Stefan was one of the last in line, and we discussed how many Pfams of epicness the day looked to be. He asked if I was planning to go XC, and I replied that I’m not really an XC pilot, and this was going to be an unusual day for me because I’d be landing someplace that I couldn’t see from launch (the “Hidden LZ” at Burke isn’t visible until you get into the air). In general the PGs were soaring well, but a few of them had some challenges trying to get launched.

I found my slot in the launch order and moved down to the steep part of the slope. I glanced around to see who else was in the vicinity and waited for some traffic to clear, but one of the PGs who flew over said “Don’t launch right now, J-J, it’s a down cycle”. Sure enough, nobody was climbing, so I cooled my heels for six or seven minutes and watched what was going on. At first, everybody was on glide, but then one wing directly out front started turning. And climbing. Quite well. And two others joined him. I waited as they drifted closer to the mountain… and I just needed enough breeze for a safe launch run… and I got it, cleared, and was off, and headed directly for that thermal. I was rewarded with one of the best initial climbs I’ve ever had, 10 turns in five minutes during which I gained over 2000 feet. Yeah!

All was not well, though. To begin with, I was all tangled. My harness suspension lines were all fine, I had verified that during my hang check, but I had other issues. The first was that one of the harness zip cords had gotten wrapped around my foot; that was easy enough to straighten out. The second was that the wire for my push-to-talk button was routed around the outside of my left downtube, again, a simple matter of taking the PTT off of my finger and pulling it around. The third snafu was more of a problem, though. The wire from my radio to my helmet wasn’t going over my shoulder, it was under my armpit, and it was too short for that. I tried in vain a couple of times to get the wire past my elbow, but had to give up. Meanwhile, Jeff had launched shortly after me, caught the sink on the back of my thermal, and was on an express trip toward the ground. I radioed that I was going to have to disconnect my headset, and managed to reach back to the connector and unscrew it, which was a lot more comfortable, but cut off my communication with Jeff.

I bounced around between 4000 and 5000 feet MSL over the mountain for about 15 minutes, catching myself a couple of times when I drifted too far back — it wouldn’t have been a concern with the U2, but with the Falcon I needed to be careful about not being able to penetrate. A bunch of the PGs caught a great thermal and disappeared up to cloudbase and off to the southwest, and I was still at the mountain with a few others. I could have kept looking for lift around the ski area, but Jeff was already on the ground, and I kind of didn’t want to go to the Hidden LZ if I didn’t have to, because it slopes the wrong direction and generally isn’t considered a great place to land (when I had flown at Burke in the past, I had landed in a different field that’s no longer available because a hotel got built there). So I did something that I’ve never really done before: with no specific destination in mind, I just said I didn’t know where I was going, but I was going. And I went.

The valley heading to the SW had some decent looking fields, so I picked the closest one and headed in that direction, with my fingers crossed that I’d find some lift. I still had plenty of altitude when I got there, so I looked ahead to the next field, and the one after that, trying to figure out which ones were mowed hayfields (good) and not horse pastures (bad), and which ones were level, or at least sloping the right way. I did find some lift and climbed a bit, which allowed me to stretch things out a bit further.

Down to 1000 feet AGL or so, without any more convincing lift, it was time to commit to an LZ. A large mowed back yard in East Lyndon looked like the best choice, so I S-turned my way down over the treeline, and had a nice gentle Falcon landing. I’ve not often dropped in uninvited on someone’s property, but the homeowners were very friendly, and in fact I was greeted by Murphy and his boy Lucas offering me cherry tomatoes.

I packed up quickly enough and got in touch with Jeff on the phone and texted him my location. Jon called as I was breaking down and asked how things had gone, and as I was waiting by the road, a car slowed and backed up; it was Sue, who had landed in a farmer’s field and he was driving her back to Burke. I said that Jeff was on his way to pick me up, and sent them on their way. Jeff called and said that his phone wasn’t finding the address, and asked me to drop a pin in Google Maps and send that instead, but then he couldn’t get a data connection, so he stopped and asked for directions. The directions weren’t so good, and the GPS that I keep in my car was being finicky, so what we finally did was to have me pull the map up on my phone and talk him in on speakerphone, since I was in a good location for a data connection. Problem solved!

Turns out that this was the third-longest XC flight I’ve ever done, by a small margin. Not so long in terms of airtime, but it was definitely a beautiful day to be outdoors in Vermont.

flights: 1, airtime: 0:38, XC distance: 6.6 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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