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800k on the Ridge

by John Carlyle, 18 Apr 2014


On 9 April 2014 the alarm went off at 5:45 am in my room at the Super 8 in E Stroudsburg, PA, rousing me from a fitful sleep. I had to get to Blairstown Airport by 07:15 to start assembling my LS8 glider that I call Lacey. I needed an early tow in order to have enough daylight for my planned 1,025 km (636 sm) flight along the Appalachian ridges of NJ, PA, MD, WV and VA.

The forecast looked perfect. The wind would be from the right direction for long distance ridge running, but it would not be too windy so as to make for an uncomfortable flight. There would be a good temperature inversion in the lower atmosphere, enough to yield a 9,000 ft cloud base, and it would be unstable enough to produce an average climb rate of 5 kt. The visibility would be unlimited, and there would most likely be good cloud streets. It would also be warm enough to be comfortable, but not too hot.

Nothing in life is perfect, though, and in this case the problem was that the wind wasn’t yet blowing hard enough onto the ridge N of Blairstown. At 07:30 Ron Schwartz took a tow in his 1-26, but he was back 10 minutes later. He tried again at 09:00, but was forced back to the airport once again. At 10:00, however, the wind sock came alive. There was a mad scramble to grid and launch the gliders, with the 1-26s leading the glass ships into the air.

I finally got airborne at 11:00, released from tow 4 minutes later at 3,000 feet, and set off NE along Kittatinny Mountain for Millbrook, my starting way point. I knew my flight was going to have to be shorter than I’d planned, because there were only 8.5 hours of daylight left. To make sure my flight would score, before I took off I had asked Bobby Templin to sign, date and note the time onto a paper declaration that stated I was now planning to do an 804 km flight. 

My SN-10 glide computer said the wind was from 320 degrees at 15 kt, directly onto the ridge. Looking at the sky I could see lots of cumulus clouds starting to appear. I had a huge smile as I turned at Millbrook and headed SW for Shockeys Knob, my next way point 209 miles away down in VA.

I left NJ for PA, crossing the Delaware River. It would be the first of five major rivers that I would cross that day. At Wind Gap the Kittatinny Mountain changed its name to Blue Mountain, and a short time later I flew over the snow covered trails at Blue Mountain Ski Area. Apparently skiers are as optimistic as glider pilots! Then I crossed the Lehigh River, just before I flew over the PA Turnpike Lehigh tunnels.

Sixty miles SW from Millbrook is Hawk Mountain. It is here that the real serious flying started, as I would now need to rise up off the Blue Mountain ridge and transition upwind to a series of other mountain ridges, in order to get to a location that some glider pilots call the Promised Land. The first transition was a 7 mile jump from Hawk Mountain to Sharp Mountain, with a course that lay directly into a 20 kt wind.

I could see about six gliders milling around above Hawk Mountain trying to climb, and not having much luck. Before I got to them Lacey gave a shudder, letting me know there was a thermal around. The wind was blowing it apart but I managed to ride it up to 4,500 feet, and then I lead a parade of gliders onto Sharp Mountain.

Sharp Mountain runs just S of Pottsville, PA. It is a nice, well shaped ridge, but the thing that gets your attention very quickly is that except for some farmers fields at the NE end, there is absolutely no place to land! You have your choice of trying to land in the middle of a large city on the N side, or in big trees in the presence of vicious rotor on the S side. I slid onto Sharp Mountain about 1,500 feet above the ridge and was down to 500 feet above it when I suddenly hit a 6 kt thermal.

Once up at 4,700 feet I decided I’d had enough of Sharp Mountain and its lack of landing options, so I set off in an attempt to get to Mahantango Mountain directly. Not surprisingly, since it was a 15 mile upwind crossing, I didn’t get there! Foolishly, I had been counting on a number of clouds to provide lift but as often happens, they didn’t. So I diverted and slid onto Bear Mountain 1,000 feet above ridge top, and a mile later hit a 6 kt thermal. At 3,600 feet I headed for Mahantango Mountain once again, and after 3 miles I was 2,000 feet above its ridge top.

Mahantango Mountain has a good shape to produce ridge lift, but it is quite low. The wind was hitting it at an acute angle, but the ridge shape was so good that there was no problem with the lift. Plus, there were fallow farmers fields all along its flanks. Twenty-five miles later I came to the Susquehanna River, which was about 1 mile wide at that point. Surprisingly, I lost practically zero altitude crossing it, and I flew onto Buffalo Mountain. As I did, I heard someone on the radio say there was a great thermal at the end of Buffalo Mountain, some 8 miles ahead of me.

Buffalo Mountain ends at the Juniata River. Here it was going to be necessary to jump 5 miles upwind to get onto Tuscarora Mountain. Unfortunately, the promised “great thermal” was nowhere to be found! I wound up flying back and forth along the ridge for almost 20 minutes until a cloud moved overhead and I managed to catch a 7 kt thermal. Five minutes later I’d crossed the Juniata River and was safely on Tuscarora Mountain.

Tuscarora Mountain is the start of the Promised Land for glider pilots on ridge days. Upwind are Shade Mountain, Jacks Mountain, Tussey Mountain, Nittany Mountain and Bald Eagle Ridge. They provide hundreds of miles of world famous ridge soaring experiences, with fairly painless transitions between them. Today, though, I was going to stay on Tuscarora Mountain until it ended at the PA-MD border.

Tuscarora has a downwind offset at Honey Grove, and you must climb from a 1,200 foot ridge top to a 1,800 foot ridge top. If you don’t do it right there can be trouble, but I climbed to 2,600 feet and made it across easily. Twenty-five miles later I approached Burnt Cabins. You need to make a tricky 3 mile upwind transition here onto Cove Mountain, but fortunately a 10 kt thermal took me to 5,600 feet and the transition became academic. Cove Mountain quickly morphs back into Tuscarora Mountain, and 23 miles later I was at the SW end of Tuscarora Mountain.

Here I needed height, because I had to jump 10 miles from Tuscarora Mountain in PA to get onto Sleepy Creek Mountain in WV. During the jump I would fly across the state of MD and cross the Potomac River. A rowdy 6 kt thermal took me to 5,400 feet, and I slid onto Sleepy Creek Mountain at a comfortable 3,600 feet. Seventeen miles ahead, at the end of Sleepy Creek Mountain, was Shockeys Knob in VA, where I would turn back for N Mahantango, my next way point 131 miles to the NE.

I climbed all along Sleepy Creek Mountain, getting to 6,400 feet so it was an easy jump across the Potomac River onto Tuscarora Mountain. As I slid onto Tuscarora about 1,000 feet above ridge top, turbulence rocked Lacey and me; it was rotor from Dickeys Mountain 1 mile upwind. After a very uncomfortable 25 miles, during which I was unable to climb at all and kept getting pounded by turbulence, Tuscarora morphed into Cove Mountain again, and then we slid downwind onto Tuscarora Mountain at Burnt Cabins. The PA Turnpike goes through a tunnel here, and I wondered if any of the drivers noticed the small white aircraft speeding along the mountain side far above their heads.

The next 40 miles along Tuscarora Mountain was uneventful. I was getting concerned about the time, because I only had 3.5 hours of daylight left, so I pushed my speed up to 120 kts. Tuscarora Mountain started to end, but another rowdy thermal took me to 5,000 feet. I crossed the Juniata River and made the downwind transition onto Buffalo Mountain at 3,300 feet. I had so much height I crossed the Susquehanna River 8 miles later at 2,600 feet and re-joined Mahantango Mountain.

The wind was again hitting Mahantango Mountain at a very oblique angle. Worse, the ridge was turning so the wind would become aligned more along the ridge instead of into it, reducing lift. I slowed down and tiptoed up to my turn point at the NE end of Mahantango. Halfway to the turn point I was treated to the sight of a bald eagle flying 50 feet over my head! Rounding the turn point I exchanged a 20 kt tail wind for a 20 kt head wind, and my progress over the ground became much slower.

Because the lack of ridge winds had prevented me from taking off at 08:00, my next turn point was going to be 40 miles away at the SW end of Buffalo Mountain, instead of 110 miles away at the SW end of Tuscarora Mountain. I tiptoed again along Mahantango Mountain, and was treated to the sight of two bald eagles circling in the valley to my left. As I crossed the Susquehanna River I met Ron Schwartz heading NE in his 1-26. Nine miles later, I turned around at the end of Buffalo Mountain and started chasing Ron.

The trip up the Mahantango Mountain was better this time, as the wind had shifted so as to be more directly onto the ridge, plus I had gotten my tail wind back. The downside, though, was that the nice cumulus clouds were disappearing fast. I was going to need their lift if I was going to make it back onto Blue Mountain! Just abeam Maser airport I saw 3 bald eagles circling up ahead. They were in a 6 kt thermal under one of the few remaining clouds. Their thermal took me to 3,600 feet and allowed me to transition onto Bear Mountain, as well as giving me an unforgettable close-up view of 3 magnificent birds. The ridge lift on Bear Mountain was okay, but I was slowly losing altitude as I headed NE. Suddenly I hit an 8 kt thermal under blue sky! It only lasted for one turn, but I gained 600 feet and was able to transition cleanly onto Sharp Mountain.

It was obvious that the day was dying, soaring wise. As I headed NE on Sharp Mountain I saw some white flashes in the sky. It was Ron, trying to gain enough altitude to transition onto Blue Mountain. The sky was almost pure blue, with only two lonely clouds a bit beyond Ron. As I approached him he told me that his thermal was dying, so I flew by him towards the clouds ahead. I found a 4 kt thermal, but it was short-lived and only took me to 3,000 feet, 500 feet short of what I wanted.

Now things were getting dicey. Ron was below me, heading to my thermal since his had completely disappeared. I decided to head off NE along Sharp Mountain to the last remaining cloud, but there was no lift under it when I got there. I was down to 2,800 feet. If I stayed where I was, I wouldn’t make it off Sharp Mountain, because now the clouds were almost completely gone. So in desperation I headed off towards Blue Mountain, some 7 miles distant. I did so knowing full well that I was very low, maybe too low. I was either going to make it onto Blue Mountain, or I was going to land out!

As I cruised at my minimum sink speed of 55 kt towards Blue Mountain I tried to console myself with the fact that I had a 20 kt tailwind, and that there were many fallow farmers fields all along my flight path. But the thought that I might lose a great flight made me quite agitated, and I kept nervously looking at the unwinding altimeter. Two miles from Blue Mountain I was down to 1,700 feet, when suddenly my vario showed that the lift had improved from a steady -2 kts to zero. The ridge top was at 1,500 feet - if I could just maintain this altitude I’d make it! Fortunately the zero sink continued, and with a huge sigh of relief I slid onto Blue Mountain, some 200 feet above the trees. I had a 100 km (62 sm) to go to the finish line.

Now I had no need for any more thermal lift, which was great because the sky was absolutely clear of clouds. Ron radioed that he, too, had made it onto Blue Mountain, so we were both safe, and we passed the good word on to Jim Angelou at Blairstown Airport. All we needed now was for the ridge lift to continue, and we’d make it home just before sunset. Fortunately my SN-10 said that the wind had increased its speed to 25 kt, so things looked promising.

The trip up Blue Mountain was uneventful. The tricky section at Snyders had me concerned, but I managed to climb to 2,100 feet and Snyders was quickly behind me. The PA turnpike tunnels, the Lehigh River and the Blue Mountain Ski Area passed beneath me as well. Suddenly Bobby Templin passed me in his LS-3, going SW to rack up some more distance for his flight, and then I was at Wind Gap, making the transition onto Kittatinny Mountain. It posed no problem, either, and shortly thereafter I was at the Delaware Water Gap getting ready to cross. The Gap proved to be a non-issue, too.

There were now only 14 miles to go to Millbrook, to finish the flight. I managed to climb to 2,300 feet to stay above the rising terrain and soon I was turning around at Millbrook. I carefully flew back to Upper Yards Creek Reservoir and left the ridge at 2,500 feet, heading S for Blairstown Airport. There were 30 minutes remaining until sunset, so I had plenty of time to make a full pattern and land to the W. But I was concerned about being blinded while landing into the sun, since it was so low. So I decided to make a downwind landing heading E onto the 4,000 foot long Blairstown grass strip.

Lacey settled gently onto the grass, bumped over a few ruts, and came to a stop 30 feet from her trailer. Pure elation - she and I had done it! We had completed an 806.8 km (501.3 sm) 3 turn point flight in 8 hours, which would earn me a 750 km Fédération Aéronautique Internationale diploma. And I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had taken absolutely everything I could out of the day; there was nothing more that it could have given me.

Bobby Templin landed and helped me de-rig Lacey, and then we retired to Jim Angelou’s shack to post our flights onto the international On Line Contest. Ten pilots flying from Blairstown that day had racked up flights worth 500 points or more on the OLC. Ron Schwartz’s flight in his 1-26 was worth 1,207 points, and he said it was the best day that he’d experienced in over 20 years. We all chatted excitedly to each other as we drank beer, everyone eager to share the highlights of their flights, no one wanting to let go. We were all still high on adrenalin from the pure thrill of the flights that we’d made that day. Finally weariness overcame us and we drifted away to our homes, all of us extremely happy. We all knew that we’d remember this day forever.

Photo #10899 | Route of 800k Flight

Route of the flight.


Posted: 4/24/2014 By: John Carlyle

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