Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Uncharted: Sword Cutting the Sky

There have been some flying days that have come and gone over the past month that I was either uninterested in due to the cold weather, or working. Saturday looked like a great day, but I was unable to go since it was World Tai Chi/Qi Gong Day and my school was doing a free class on the town common.
View of the convergence line. Quabbin Reservoir in the distance.

Sunday was looking fairly promising and I thought I'd get a nice day at Morningside Flight Park doing some pre-season launch and landing practice. By Saturday night I knew that wasn't going to be the case as the winds had shifted and were then predicted to run from the South. Which is bad for Morningside foot launching.

Since we are seriously lacking South facing launches in New England, and the primary ones we have are still under snow, the only logical choice was aero-towing out of Tanner-Hiller Airport with Hang-Glide New England. Aero-towing my Combat as my first flight since November was not my first choice, but it would have to do.

Mt. Monadnock
I asked if I could hook a ride with Tom Lanning, since I'm currently without racks on my car to transport my glider. He was kind enough to keep me in the loop and drag me along. Since we live only an hour away from the airport (we reside in the same town), we were in no hurry to get anywhere.

Jaffrey, NH
As Tom loaded up at home, and I wrestled with the dysfunction that is FlyChart (still had my waypoints loaded in my 6030 from Big Spring), Jeff piped in that he wanted to join us. John would meet us there as well as Peter - The Grey Ghost. We now had a small force assembled.

On the drive out, the usual second guessing took place in the car as we looked at the sky and the lack of clouds anywhere near where were going. Everyone had an opinion on whether or not we were heading in the right direction. We stayed the course however, and arrived at Tanner-Hiller around 12:30.

Franklin Pierce University Rindge, NH
Some quick hellos and we proceeded to setup and have a quick lunch. More pilots began to show up as the sky started to erupt with cummies. The air was full of smells of smoke from a local fire, spring springing, and Tom's pickle juice that he had all over his hands stinking up the setup area.  Don't ask.

Since I spent last year in some drier climates ripe with the meteorological phenomenon known as 'Dust Devils', I made a comment to Tom that it was nice to setup somewhere that we didn't have to yell 'DUSTY!!!!!' and run for our wings to hold them down while a small twister tried to rip them to shreds.
Western line of the convergence.

I finished setting up my wing, triple checked everything after the long winter, and decided to grab a sandwich and prep my harness. Next stop - the porta-potty. Half way there I saw the wall coming toward me, and became painfully aware of the line of gliders behind me. I yelled - 'DUSTY!!!!' and started running back to try and hold my wing down. So much for my relaxed mannerisms.

Nick Caci was the first in the air followed closely by Nolle, and the Grey Ghost. Nick and Peter, stayed up without issue, and shortly Tom was chomping at the bit to get airborne in his shiny new T2C. So shiny, we were convinced he bathed it in sail-cote just to get everyone's attention. I crewed Tom into the air, and John shortly behind him. I was up next.

As I loaded onto the cart with Jeff and Max's help, I noticed Tom coming in on final; John wasn't faring so well either. Not promising. Rhett pulled up with the Dragonfly and hooked me up to the tow rope. I waited for a few minutes before giving the go signal, watching carefully for any signs of dust devils or switchy winds. Go Go Go!!!

Rhett pinned me off at 3300' in a nice smooth thermal and I was getting a steady 600 fpm climb rate for the first couple thousand feet. Around 6000' my variometer maxed out and I was climbing like a rocket. Spring had sprung!

I quickly arrived at cloudbase - 8600 feet. Oh, this was good. A cracking day! I had previously mentioned to others that I wasn't going anywhere if we didn't get high. The terrain around this area is full of large swathes of trees that stretch for tens of miles with no LZ's, making XC flying a bit sketchy if you are low. Max had asked where I was going and I replied Newport, NH, or Hillsboro. I had ideas, but that is all they were, no real plan.
Hawethorne Feather Airport Hillsboro, NH

Now that I was orbiting at 8600', I knew it was a day to lay some miles and I wasn't going to sit and watch it go by. I briefly considered waiting for Tom to get back in the air, but after looking down and seeing the line of gliders waiting to tow up, that thought quickly disintegrated from my mind. He'll catch up. ;-)

I kicked it into gear and shot for the next cloud to the north. The lift was consistent in strength, location, and I was quickly back to base - another good sign! The itch was taking over. About this time I noticed the giant cut in the cumulus filled sky, formed by a sharp sword slicing the ether. A convergence was taking place, and I was going to take advantage of it, if I could figure out how.

I started connecting the dots from cloud to cloud on the edge of the convergence, making my way toward Mt. Monadnock to the North. As I approached Winchendon, MA (a.k.a. Toy Town), I contemplated heading toward Keene, NH to try and run up the Connecticut River Valley. That wasn't a good idea though, it was the exact line that the bare blue sky was heading. No clouds. I opted against it and carried on toward Rindge, NH to the north.

At this point my hands were frozen solid and it was all I could do to feel them. I thought for sure I was going to have to land in Jaffrey just to keep from getting frostbite. A short sip from my camelback quickly confirmed the temperatures - a slushy.
Some unknown ski area south southeast of Hillsboro

Clouds came and went, and occasionally I would have to orbit under a cloud for a bit, waiting for a new cloud to start forming between the cloud I was under, and the next giant white monster miles ahead. I circled and circled, the blade above my shoulders slicing the air like a hot knife through butter. The side wires whirred and screamed as the air shredded around them. 

My next climb was the best of the day. Another full peg on my variometer and as I hit base, I was passing 9000'!!! The sky was my playground and I was a lucky little boy flying the coolest toy in the world. (Hang-Gliding is about 50% skill and 50% right day, right time, right weather, right situation/luck. All the skill in the world does nothing for you on a bad day, and on a good day, a lack of skill means you get nowhere.)

Ascutney and Kearsarge in the horizon.
I passed over my alma mater in Rindge - Franklin Pierce College and took a few pictures from almost two miles up. I was now enroute to Silver Ranch Airport in Jaffrey, NH; another potential landing place if things went bad (and right next door to Kimball's Ice Cream). But things were anything but bad. I was having one hell of an enjoyable flight. All the things I enjoy, high ceilings, beautiful clouds/sky, flying solo, never getting low, exploring unfamiliar territory, and forging a new XC route that no one in a Hang Glider had flown yet. A finer moment in life.

I flew by Jaffrey spying ahead for possible LZ bailouts to the north. I took in the amazing view of Mt. Monadnock with a descending Sun in the western sky behind her. I punched in Hawethorne Feather  Airport on my GPS in Hillsboro off on the horizon. It was buried in some trees and difficult to spot and I had to ensure I had alternate landing fields. As I scouted the area to the north, I watched 737's flying across my route into Manchester at my altitude. The pucker factor increased - I couldn't be dilly dallying around in that area without being on high alert. Not at these altitudes.

I jumped to the next couple clouds but found the day waning. Lift was weaker now. It was taking longer to get to base and the sun was dropping. Up until this point, I don't think I ever went below 6500' to 7000' on the entire flight. Most of it was above 7500'. Now I started leaving early instead of waiting to top out. Afterall, Hillsboro was a good place to put it down, and the day was getting late.

I approached Hillsboro Airport watching a paraglider with a motor buzz around the fields playing in his own little kingdom while soaking in the setting sun. I intended to land there, but after hitting another climb, and considering the difficulty a retrieve crew was going to have picking me up there, I decided to try to get closer to I-89, a major artery further to the North and North East.

I picked out a nice airfield in Henniker, NH (Intervale Airport) that I landed at last year coming from Mt. Ascutney, pulled the bar in, and went on glide for a 10 mile stretch. This would put me a bit closer to the highway, and ice cream; which I now convinced myself I deserved. Getting down to around 3500' over Intervale, I hooked another climb and started eyeing where I could go next to put me closer to a ride.

Concord was a good option for a pickup, but it was a 20 mile glide and there was nowhere to land in between. After seeing some BIG sink along my flight, I didn't feel comfortable in taking a 15 to 18 mile 90 degree crosswind glide from 5500' with no bailouts, and a giant bag of wishful thinking that I'd find a late day climb in between.
Penacook, NH

I looked at Bradford, Warner, Mt. Kearsarge, New London as options if I wanted to continue, but all were going to put me further away from transportation. I decided to head crosswind over to Boscawen/Penacook north of Concord and try to put it down in the farm fields. I had seen the surface winds while circling around Intervale and knew I was in for a rowdy landing. The bigger the field the better.

I pulled on the VG, slid my CG forward, and tucked in for a long 20 mile glide. As I cruised through the air I noticed things were relatively bouyant and I was having no trouble keeping altitude for this over the earth stretch. I soared over my brother-in-laws shop off I-93 right next to the Merrimack River and a long farm field that was facing right into the wind.
Concord to the South

I snapped some pictures for him from various heights while I bled off altitude. I kept finding lift everywhere and contemplated continuing on toward Tilton, NH, again, further from a ride. It was now after 6 PM, no one knows where I am, I don't know if I have a ride home, and I can't decide if I want to land, or go forward.

Eventually logic won out and I decided to land in the nice field I had in front of me and end an already fun flight. I soared around over the river and adjoining fields trying to get down. 20 minutes later I was on final and hoping to get through this landing in one piece. The LZ was ripping with 16 to 20 mph winds and tons of turbulence.
LZ getting closer. Wondering if I could land in that dirt pile...

I think my approach landing went something like this - Bounce, bounce, bounce. Whoa!!!- I don't want to turn that way, nope. No. Ok, here we go. Pull in, pull in. Get speed. Oh boy, now were coming in fast. Let it out. Easy. Easy. FLARE! Then kiss the ground. Well, not quite. Had the field not been filled with cow shit for fertilizer then I may have 'actually' kissed the ground, but I was happy to be in one piece none the less.

I contacted Tom and Jeff to let them know I was down safe and to find out their positions. Tom wrote back that he just landed back at Tanner-Hiller and was picking up Jeff nearby. I was discouraged to hear this for two reasons - 1) no one else was able to enjoy the awesome sky and new route out of Tanner-Hiller going XC, and 2) my odds of getting a ride were in serious jeopardy - my friends were going to be pissed that I landed 3 hours away from them.

With a little help from Eric at MSFP and my early flight instructor Dave Baxter, I managed to get a ride from Ilya and Krassi coming back from Morningside on their way home to Boston. They were kind enough to drive out of their way to pick me up and throw my glider on with theirs for a cramped ride back to Chelmsford where Tom met us for dinner. While I waited for them to pick me up, I was able to get an ice cream with my sister that lived relatively close by. Good day!

Flight Time: 3hrs and 50min
Total Distance: 72.2 miles
Max Altitude: 9000 feet.

Thanks to all that assisted in this endeavor - Tom, Jeff, Rhett, Max, Dave, Eric, Ilya, Krassi, and my sister Sara for the warm vehicle to wait in instead of a cold ass field.

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