2016 in review

This is where I annually post my grouchy holiday message that it was a crummy flying year.

I didn’t do a whole lot of flying in 2016, in large part because I had a lot of other stuff going on. I had more airtime than in 2015, but that’s not saying much; prior to that, only 2007, my first year of mountain flying, had (barely) less airtime. 12 flying days is a tie with 2015 for the fewest for any year in that time, and 16 flights is more than only the 15 in 2012. The year ended on a low note, when I almost managed to finally fly Mt. Tom, but instead blew launch, did some minor damage to my Falcon, and ended up hiking everything back down the mountain.

But the year wasn’t actually bad, it had some nice highlights. After not having flown at the beach the past couple of years, I went to Wellfleet three times, and managed for only the second time to jump the northern gaps and make it up to Highland Light. A nice late evening flight in May at Tanner-Hiller took me to the second-highest altitude I’ve ever reached (7520 feet). My one flight at Ascutney this year had me looking like I knew what I was doing, launching early and staying up when almost everybody had sunk out. And in August, I had what was in some sense my first “real” XC flight, as I just headed out from the mountain (Burke) with no destination in mind or any idea of what lay ahead of me, just staying up as long as I had lift and then landing in a completely unfamiliar field.

This was the first time that I flew all four of my gliders in a single year, at least two flights on each of them. (Seriously, though, four wings is too many, and I don’t need two beach gliders — anybody want one?). Also on the plus side this year seemed to have been without the disaster rate of the previous year. I’m certainly not the only one around here who blew a launch, I was around for a couple of landings that took out downtubes, and a friend of mine on a flying trip elsewhere had a spectacular incident, but I’m not aware of any serious injuries in these parts. And my own landings were generally pretty good.

All things considered, 2016 wasn’t such a bad year as far as hang gliding was concerned, compared with a lot of the other crap that happened. For instance, a lot of people did die, but they tended to be musicians and other admired, famous folk.

By the numbers:
Months flown: 7 (Mar-Aug, Oct)
Flying days: 12
Days when I showed up with my gear but didn’t fly: 4
Flights: 16 (10 foot-launch, 6 aerotow; 10 soaring, 5 sledders, 1 early tow release)
Sites flown: 7 (Morningside, Wellfleet, Tanner-Hiller, West Rutland, Talcott, Ascutney, Burke)
New sites: none
Gliders flown: 4 (Vision MkIV 17, Ultrasport 147, Falcon 2 170, U2 145)
Longest flight (time): 2:27:48 (May 21, West Rutland)
Longest flight (XC distance): 6.6 km (August 27, Burke to East Lyndon)
Total flight time: 13:49
Max altitude: 7520 feet (May 20, Tanner-Hiller, from a tow to 4630 feet)
Damage: 1 bent downtube (Falcon), 1 bent control bar (Falcon), 2 abraded batten ends/strings (Ultrasport)
Injuries: stubbed toe

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Mt. Tom, almost

I’ve wanted to fly Mt. Tom for quite a while, and I finally got a chance to show up, with Jon A and a bunch of other PG pilots. I could make a long story out of this, but the short version is that at a site where it’s important to launch well, it doesn’t work out if you launch very poorly — see picture above. I ended up in the bushes, they helped me carry the glider back up, and I packed up and went home. No injury, and only minor damage to the glider, nothing that would make me hesitate to fly it if I were being chased by zombies.

It’s been that kind of week. As I write this on Wednesday night, the Check Engine light in my car has come on.

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Beach weather

There’s a particular weather forecast that Jon A describes as a chocolate eclair. It’s when conditions are just exactly right for flying at Wellfleet. I think I had looked at the forecast early in the week and it showed barely any wind at all, so it wasn’t even on my radar when Pete J posted a note on Wednesday morning asking if anybody was thinking of flying on Thursday. Kevin said he was considering it, and I took a look and sure enough, it looked promising. There was a bit of dispute about the timing of the tides, but it boiled down to low tide being in the morning, so flying early should work. I had a 2 PM meeting at work, but figured I could still make it as long as I left the Cape by 11:30, and the coworker in charge of the meeting said that my attendance wasn’t really essential anyway. So I hit the road Wednesday night after the last Clinton/Trump presidential debate, and spent the night with my friend George, who lives on the Cape about 40 minutes from Wellfleet.

I woke up repeatedly during the night, each time glancing at the clock and realizing with relief that it wasn’t time to get up yet. At 6 AM I did get up, slipped out the door, and headed for White Crest Beach. Pete had posted a message at 5:22 AM saying that he was on his way (from Boston), and he arrived shortly before me. Neither of us had managed to bring a wind meter, but the wind seemed to be straight in, the velocity felt good, and it was warm! 60 degrees at sunrise, which is quite a contrast from the typical day at this winter-only site. The sun peeked over the horizon just as I started setting up my glider. I have two beach gliders these days (too many, anybody want one?), and I had selected the Mark IV, figuring that conditions might be light and I might as well bring the larger wing.

George came by about 7:30, and just as Pete was ready, Kevin rolled in as well. We helped Pete bring his glider out to launch, and he quickly confirmed that it was soarable (Kevin had a wind meter, and I think he said it was 15-18 mph). No reason to wait, so I finished my preflight, gobbled down half a doughnut, and walked my glider across the road. The forecast had predicted that it would be gusty, but as far as I could tell, that never happened, it was perfectly smooth the whole time we were there. Launching was a piece of cake, I didn’t need any assistance, the wind lifted the glider off my shoulders, and I pretty much just picked my feet up and I was flying.

Pete was off to the north, so I headed up that way, and went up to Doane’s Bog Pond, the first small gap. It looked like it would be easy enough to cross, but just in case it wasn’t, I didn’t want the flight to end embarrassingly early, and I turned and headed south to follow Pete. I radioed back to George that we were headed down to Nauset, and we made our way to the easier of the two lighthouses. The wind was very slightly cross from the right, which makes this trip even easier, and strong enough that I had no trouble at all crossing the slightly dicey section between launch and Lecount Hollow. I was able to pretty much keep up with Pete’s faster Sport 2, and on the way he appeared to be surrounded by a big flock of gulls (though he said from his perspective, he didn’t notice that).

At the Nauset parking lot, I did a few swooping turns for the amusement of some beachgoers. On the trip back, I spotted a seal in the surf — there were probably plenty of them out there, but I only noticed the one. The trip back was uneventful, and this time when I got to Doane’s, I went ahead and crossed it and flew up to Newcomb Hollow to check that out. I was able to get pretty good altitude just before it, and the crossing looked feasible, but I decided to hold off on that for a bit. Pete and I spent the next while shuttling back and forth between launch and Newcomb, not wanting to take the chance until we had racked up a decent amount of airtime, and also waiting for Kevin to finish setting up so he could join us in the air.

I didn’t see Kevin launch, but I spotted him a few seconds later, heading north but a bit low. He had waited for a lull in order to be able to more easily handle the glider, and turned a little late, missing the lift band. I suspected that he’d sink out, and I was right, in about 30 seconds he was down. His nose went over gently, and I commented on the radio that George would need to help him bring the wing back up to try again. However, when I flew over, I saw what appeared to be a bent downtube. Sure enough, he had caught a corner of his control frame on the ground and the left downtube crumpled, spelling the end to his flying for the day. In a weird twist, he ended up needing medical care, but not for any kind of injury from the landing. Instead, he broke out in a massive case of hives, apparently being allergic to something at the beach (he’d had a similar reaction on his previous visit to Wellfleet).

So, it was just Pete and me. On his previous flight here, he had tried to cross Newcomb Hollow, but hadn’t made it across. He asked what I wanted to do, and I said I was thinking of letting him try first, because his glider has VG. He replied that he was thinking of letting me try first, because my glider doesn’t. Somebody had to try, so I was willing to be the one. I crossed Doane’s again, and got as much altitude as I could and worked my way out toward the water, then went for it. For a while, it seemed like there was enough lift to maintain my altitude, but then the descending glide kicked in, and it looked like my glide slope would be enough. I got to the bluff on the north side of the gap, and it took a few hundred yards to be sure that I was solidly in the lift, then I radioed that I was soaring on the north side, and Pete called back, “Nicely done”.

Around this point, I missed the shark. It was a dead shark, that Pete said was 6-8 feet long, washed up on the beach, and there was a group of people around it taking pictures, but I was too focused on what I was doing to pay any attention to what was going on underneath me. I did fly through my own big flock of gulls.

But shortly after that, I saw the whales.

Glancing out to sea, I saw the distinctive plume of a whale spouting, and then more spouts close by, and watching more, I saw other groups. I keyed my radio and said, “Whales! There are whales out there, Pete!”. He said he thought it was just whitecaps, but I could tell the difference, and I could also see the occasional fluke poking out of the water. (Later, after landing, he watched and agreed that it was whales, and from the beach I could also their backs from time to time.)

I’ve flown down south to Nauset many times, but up here on the north side where I had been only once before, it was adventure territory. Pete crossed Newcomb, but I was quite a way ahead of him, so I turned back briefly to sample the crosswind: I could still make progress going back, but it was slow progress. The next obstacle was Ballston Beach, which looked different from what I remembered. I think the erosion on the southern part of that gap has improved the situation from a soaring point of view, because the ocean has chewed its way into some higher ground and created more of a bluff, but north of the parking lot, it’s completely flat, with waves at high tide washing clear over into the marsh that drains across to the bay, thereby making North Truro and Provincetown intermittently an island (and maybe that will become permanent before too long). With the tailwind component, crossing that gap was pretty easy, and it was onward to Highland Lighthouse.

I didn’t push my luck by going very far past the lighthouse, and when I turned around, I was pretty much parked. I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to make any southerly progress at all, and would have to go a bit further north and land at the Coast Guard beach, but I pulled in some more and was able to crawl forward without sinking out. So, patience, patience, and I worked my way back,and as the shoreline curled around, the headwind gradually lessened. But the Ballston Beach gap looked pretty wide from this direction. I doubled back to the tallest part of the bluff and slowed down to get as much altitude as I could, then pulled in for best glide speed and gave it a shot. A pathetic attempt, I think I got a little more than halfway across, but I’d had the foresight (pessimism?) to unzip, so I got upright, and had a landing that was the complement of my launch: I slowed to a stop just above the sand, and didn’t need to flare, I just put my feet down. There was enough wind for the glider to keep flying once my weight was off it, so I kited it over behind the dune next to the parking lot and set it down, then grabbed my camera and went out to cheer Pete on.

He also got as high as possible, and with full VG and still zipped up, he went for the crossing. I thought he very nearly made it, he thought he was pretty short, but in any case he went further than I did and coasted in for a gentle belly landing (turned out that he was still zipped up because he forgot). Since the zipper on a pod harness is on the bottom, I knew he was kind of trapped until I came by to unhook him (been there, done that), and he therefore had to pose for pictures.

Pete got in touch with Kevin by phone, and he relayed to George where we were, and George hopped in my car to come pick us up. While we were packing up, a young lady stopped by and asked what we were doing, and when she heard that we were hang gliding, she said that was something she’d always wanted to do. Pete always carries business cards to refer interested people to Morningside Flight Park for lessons, and it turns out that her sister lives near there, so maybe we’ll see her in the sky at some point.

OK, so, that 2 PM meeting… well, I had to stop for gas on the way back, and I needed something to eat so I grabbed a sub, and those things slowed me down a bit. By the time I was approaching the office I had already missed enough of the meeting, and it was still such a nice day… ah, screw it. I took the rest of the day off and went mountain biking.

flights: 1, airtime: 2:13, XC distance: depends on how you look at it. I landed 8 km from launch, but if you consider the lighthouses as turnpoints, then it was more like 35 km.

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A foliage peek

I had been looking at the forecast for Wellfleet for several days, and it had looked like Saturday was a promising day. But as the time grew nearer, a high pressure system got closer and it looked like the wind would be too light. People started chatting about the possibilities for West Rutland, though. This was a little odd, as Wellfleet is a NE site and West Rutland a SW site, and you wouldn’t typically expect the wind direction to be right for both of them on the same day. When the time for the decision arrived, I decided to join the crowd in the mountains, with hopes of viewing the Vermont foliage at peak. As it turned out, Jon A did go to to the beach, and found light conditions that allowed him to get an early flight with his PG.

Tom L was interested in heading to Rutland, so we met and took my car up. Tom had brought his PG, so he hopped in the first truck heading up the mountain, while I looked around for somebody who could carry my HG. Bill G had a rack consisting of just two bars with a ladder for his wing, but it was simple enough to take my ladder with the glider on it and just transfer it to his truck, and Kevin W did likewise, and with the three ladders we headed up the mountain. We were relatively early to arrive, but more kept coming; by my count, there were eventually 20 hang gliders up there, and probably about the same number of paragliders. This brought concerns that it was going to get crowded in the air, but these fears turned out to be unfounded.

We all set up, and PGs started launching, but there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm among the HG crowd, as, despite the fact that the PGs were soaring, the wind was pretty light for our needs. I had the pleasure of finally meeting Ryan V who had come up from Ellenville; I’ve interacted with him on the internet for years, and I own a glider that used to be his, but we’d never happened to be in the same place at the same time before. He stepped up to be the first to launch with his T2C, with John S and his ATOS close behind him. I noted that this was going to give the rest of us no information about the conditions, because if those two ace pilots could stay up, it was no indication that any of the rest of could.

Ryan immediately got above launch, and soon swung back and buzzed launch at a zillion miles per hour. That was the beginning of the end, though, as he started getting lower and lower. He worked some bits of light lift tenaciously, and almost looked like he might pull off a low save, but ended up in Ducky’s LZ, which, thanks to the extreme drought this year, was completely usable instead of being a big shallow swamp.

Meanwhile, John didn’t fare any better, and we were dismayed to see him headed the same way. My prediction turned out to be wrong, because the fact that those two didn’t stay up was a pretty strong indication that there was no hope for the rest of us. And we continued waiting.

You can’t wait forever, though. Various pilots would either work up the gumption or lose their patience (depending on how you looked at it) and launch into a promising cycle, only to take another sled ride. The PGs who launched in between almost all got right up and soared, and we looked up at them, thinking they might present a traffic concern, but none of the HGs were getting high enough for that to be an issue. Ilya brought us some hope, though. He had done some damage to his Sport 2 at Wellfleet the previous week, so he was flying his tired old Falcon instead, and a single surface seemed like it might be the best bet in these conditions. Sure enough, he came back above launch and was able to hang in there. That was all it took to get a bunch of lemmings to jump off the cliff, myself included.

By the time it was my turn, it wasn’t like the other HGs were all specked out. They were sinking, maybe even Ilya by this point. But you can’t wait forever, and it was already 3 PM, so it was time to take my shot. I picked a less mediocre looking moment, ran down the ramp, and turned left. People had been trying various strategies, but I hadn’t seen anyone go for the approach of hugging the contours of the ridge tightly, so that’s what I tried. If the purpose of the trip was to have a flight over spectatular foliage, then I succeeded completely. The colors as viewed from the ramp had been pretty nice, but when I got around the spine into the bowl, there was an explosion of color, even to these colorblind eyes. I figured I might not be up for long, so I’d better take some pictures while I had the chance. They came out blurry, and the colors on the screen are nothing compared to what I saw in person, but here’s a taste.

After one long pass all the way to the west end of the ridge, I turned back and made my way back to launch, but got there having lost 400 feet of altitude. My method clearly wasn’t working, so I headed out toward the valley to hope for a thermal. It always feels encouraging to leave the mountain, because the terrain drops away and it looks like your altitude is increasing, and that’s a pleasant illusion. The vario beeped a little at the beginning, and then again as I got closer to the highway. I took one shot at catching that bit of lift, but only succeeded in exploiting the sink next to it, and the resulting spiral dive left me concerned that I wouldn’t be able to reach the LZ. I pulled on some VG for good measure and stopped fooling around, arriving at the field safely, but with enough altitude for only a single S-turn before going on final. I inadvertently left the VG on slightly, which may have contributed to the very crisp flare, resulting in a no-step landing and bumping the ground with my keel.

HGs continued to rain down out of the sky for a bit, but conditions did eventually improve, and for the last half-dozen or so, who waited the longest, the air finally agreed to hold them up, and they had sweet soaring flights. And Tom, my traveling companion? He had been among the very first to launch, and he landed a little after I finished packing up my glider, with a 3h45m flight. Awesome!

flights:1, airtime: 0:09

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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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Third time’s… less spastic

The lift forecast a day or two out will sometimes look outstanding, but then when the day arrives, the outlook gets less rosy. That was the case with Saturday; the lift map was all red when I looked on Thursday, but by Saturday morning it had faded to yellow with a little orange, and there was a possibility of rain late in the afternoon. With little to no wind in the forecast, it was an easy call for aerotowing, and I figured I might as well get an early start. I arrived at Tanner-Hiller a little after 11 AM, and the only ones there were Rhett and Ghassan. After a brief chat, I drove down to set up at the SW end of the runway, since the little trickle of wind was coming from the north.

Jeff C and Pete J arrived as I was getting things together, and I fetched a cart and got ready to tow first. I announce that in the interest if getting high and flying far, I was using the Murphy’s Law approach of dressing lightly and not bringing my glider bags. Rhett took the turns maybe a little tighter than he has with me in the past, and I got into a bit of oscillation on one turn , but gt it settled down. Soon he started another turn, and I did a worse job, got headed for the outside and figured I was about locked out and was just about to reach for the release lever when the weak link broke. Well, okay, I was maybe 1000 feet up, but we had encountered some lift, so I figured I might as well try to find it. I hunted over the sandpit and found some air rising weakly, but it wasn’t enough to get me climbing, so I headed back for the airstrip, and after consulting the windsock, landed in the opposite direction to how we had taken off.

Pete and Jeff went next, and Rhett took them up kind of high, because there weren’t many climbs to be had. Meanwhile, Mark D had arrived and set up, but the two of us considered what the flags had been showing, and though it seemed to be mostly just thermals, what wind there was had been coming from the opposite direction, so we put our gliders on carts and took them to the NE end of the runway. Jeff and Pete were back down before too long, and in the meantime Matt C, Mark H, and eventually John B showed up as well. Unfortunately, the sky had kind of overdeveloped, so there were clouds, but not any sunlight heating the ground.

Jeff C on final with his spiffy new S2C, under a gray sky

Jeff C demonstrating an excellent flare

Mark was the next to go, and schooled everybody by staying up until the end of the day on his new-to-him T2C. When it was my turn, the initial tow went only a few feet before my release let go. Probably the result of the release handle having gotten pushed off to one side or something, we reset it and took off without incident. I was a little better on the back end of the rope this time, up to a couple of thousand, at which point I got locked out again, and this time Rhett gave me a somewhat frantic gesture which I took to mean “Get off!”, which I was about to do anyway. It was pretty obvious that I was seriously out of whack from the spiral dive I found myself in right after releasing, but that was easy enough to pull out of, and this time I did manage to find a climb over the sandpit. I worked that for a while and got enough altitude to work with, so when it gave out, I went looking. A few spots nearby didn’t yield anything , so I decided to try the solar farm east of the airfield, but there wasn’t really anything going on there either. After a little circling around it was time to set up to land, but the flag was showing NW, so I set up to use the side lobe of the field that isn’t really a crosswind runway, but is close enough for hang gliders. My flare was maybe late and definitely ineffective, and I came in on the control bar, but thankfully the small wheels worked on the short grass, and there were no ill effects other than a scraped knee and shin (that’s what I get for wearing shorts).

As the afternoon progressed, the clouds got more organized, and there was a lot more blue showing. Pretty much everybody was getting towed up and sticking, and I figured it was worth one more try to see if I could do this right. Fortunately for me, Rhett spotted a friendly cloud SW of the airport and took me there in a straight line, no turns, and I was able to maintain my position behind him adequately to get towed all the way up. He told me later that he was initially concerned because after releasing I kept going straight and he thought I was going to get past the cloud, but I did turn back and find the lift.

It wasn’t strong lift, but I was going up, not down, so I stuck with it. There was a much nicer looking cloud 4-5 miles to the NE, which was where I figured I should go, but first I needed to get enough altitude to get there. I patiently worked what I had, gradually gaining, with Matt and (I think) Mark D in my vicinity. Every time I decided to head for the enticing cloud, I’d pull on the VG, go a few hundred meters, and realize that I was in lift and should stay and exploit it. At some point I heard a radio conversation between Pete and Jeff, where Pete was asking Jeff how he was doing, and got the reply that he was just finding sink. I chimed in, noting where I was, and that I was climbing at 350 fpm. Those guys found climbs, and eventually I could see that there were gliders high under my target cloud, and I had enough in the tank to go for it. Pretty cool experience when I got there, several other wings within a moderate distance, all circling up nearly to cloudbase at over 5000 feet.

The drift was to the ENE,and looking out ahead, mostly what I could see was the wide expanse of trees in the state forest, not very inviting to land in. As the cloud appeared to be dying (and maybe all of the lift elsewhere along with it) I headed back to make sure I could reach the airfield safely. Arriving with ample altitude, I lazily wandered around in the last weak bits of lift as I watched the others land, then set up a landing I can be reasonably proud of, not too far from the hangar and my car. Glad I stuck around for that third flight, my longest so far at Tanner-Hiller.

Mark H on approach

Mark H on base leg

Mark H and John B (sporting his stylish utility gauchos)

flights: 3, airtime: 0:09, 0:26, 1:17

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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

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