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C-C-C-C-Cold Front

A cold front went through the Minneapolis-St. Paul area on a first Tuesday night in April several years ago bringing a northwesterly flow of cold and very dry air on Wednesday. The sky filled with cu all day long - I guessed it to be a 7 hour soaring day but since the tow plane was down for its annual inspection, all we could do is sit on the ground and salivate. Wednesday night a new cold front went through the area and headed for parts south bringing more cold air and 20°F temperatures in the morning. This resulted in another beautiful soaring sky and an estimated eight hours of soaring but with neither tow pilot nor crew we were again ground bound. Thursday night brought a weak trough, snow flurries, and continued northwesterly flow to the area on Friday. At 7:00 a.m. the temperature on my deck was 12 F, the sky was clear, the wind was out of the northwest at 15 mph and I was making plans to go thermal soaring! I thought for a while that I'd lost my mind but proceeded to go through with it since I was being flooded with a cornucopia of riches in the way of a tow pilot (Stanton airport regular, Clarence Hines), a retrieve crew (recently licensed glider pilot Stephen Nesser), and an official observer – 1-26 assembly supervisor (Mark Parranto), all of whom showed up simultaneously when they were needed the most. With this kind of support, all that I needed to worry about was flying the glider. It was a good feeling.

By assembly time the air temperature was above 20 F but not by much. Minnesotans don't need to be told how to dress on a cold day so I was ready – wool ski hat, long underwear, ski pants and jacket, leather chopper mittens with wool liners, and two pairs of heavy socks inside of my winter pac boots. Even so, I was happy to get in the cockpit because the windchill was below zero.

Cumulus had begun forming over the airport at Stanton, Minnesota at 8:30 a.m. From that time until the end of the flight I continuously reviewed in my mind, "eight hours at 50 mph is 400 miles, eight hours at 50 mph is 400 miles", something I had been telling myself for more than six years, ever since making a 320 mile flight in slightly warmer conditions. So with these thoughts in mind, off we went at 10:50 a.m., towing straight into the wind with Clarence at the tug controls. Schweizer 1-26A #271 was off tow at 10:55 a.m. at about 2,800 AGL in weak, choppy but dependable lift and drifting downwind, and within half an hour was solidly established at 4,000 AGL, an altitude below which it was to descend only a few times during the entire flight. This flight, in fact, required no low altitude "saves" and only in the final glide did we get below release altitude.

After an hour, Rochester, Minnesota was abeam and 45 miles were behind us. "Got to fly faster than this," I thought. I set the speed ring up and in the next hour went only 43 miles. "What's happening?" Meanwhile, in the retrieve vehicle, Stephen was staying underneath but I was soon to get far ahead. In the third hour I crossed the Mississippi River near DeSoto, Wisconsin as Stephen went through LaCrosse trying to keep up. At the end of this hour I was averaging 45 mph. "Eight hours at 50 mph is 400 miles. But wait a minute, I thought, the final glide requires no circling so I don't have to average 50 up to the final glide. I can do it with less." Buoyed with the results of this observation, I drove onward, increasing my average speed somewhat at the five hour point as Stephen got farther and farther behind and eventually out of radio contact. If this happened, his instructions were to proceed to the Chicago area and wait for my call. He faithfully did this and was "rewarded" about 7:30 p.m. with information requiring him to drive three more hours to reach me.

Now I was in Illinois looking at hazy conditions and snow showers on my course while to the south conditions looked better with clear air and flat-bottomed cu. So, at Freeport, Illinois I turned straight south as far as Dixon, a slight deviation, prior to resuming the southeasterly course. This deviation paid off handsomely, as they usually do and in the sixth and seventh hours I flew 51 and 66 miles respectively. The later the day , the better it got!

At this time, I found myself at the high point of the flight, 7,300 MSL (6,500 AGL), 349 miles out, Watseka, Illinois was in plain view to the east, with Indiana just 11 miles beyond it, good cu between me and Watseka, and I knew I had Indiana made and maybe 400 miles as well, provided the shadows from the setting sun didn't get too long. So I continued to pour it on, reaching Watseka and Sheldon easily, at which point what turned out to be the final glide with miles of zero sink began.

The 400 mile mark on my chart was near Fowler, Indiana. My flight was exactly eight hours long when I passed Fowler. Fifteen minutes later I was buzzing the Reitsma farm just west of the LaFayette airport control zone, trying to get the attention of witnesses and managing to excite a farm dog whose barking brought said witnesses running. Henry Reitsmas had installed a strip for his Cherokee and his sport plane (which I could not identify.) I thanked him for a convenient place to land. It turned out that I had much more for which to thank Henry, his wife Juanita, his niece and her husband and children. In the next five hours, they let me use their phone, warmed my cold body, and fed me. They also made sure that I was interviewed by the local TV station. Then they helped get the 1-26A on its trailer in below-freezing temperatures. Thanks all for your help!

EPILOGUE - An April cross-country flight was possible only because of the sparse snowfall during that winter in southern Minnesota. As a result, the fields were generally dry except in low places whereas in a year of normal precipitation these same fields would be muddy. Also, the infusion of cold dry air brought strong thermals and a 25 kt following wind at altitude. The result was a record-breaking 413.68 mile straight line distance which took 8:15. More importantly, it appears that if one is willing to accept some inconvenience of the cold, these 400 mile flights could become routine. And if one can start a little bit earlier in the day and perhaps wait a few weeks for longer days, then maybe an additional 100 miles might be the result. After all "ten hours at 50 mph is 500 miles."

Posted: 3/23/1999 By: Jim Hard


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