Monday, November 1, 2010

George’s and Jeff’s Excellent Motorglider Adventure

Predictions were that the passage of the low pressure system, that brought hurricane force winds to the Midwest last week, might produce great ridge soaring conditions Friday, October 29, on the Allegheny ridges. George and I reckoned to find out just how great.

We planned a launch from Skaneateles in the Lambada at sunrise on Friday morning, figuring we’d power to the north end of the main ridge at Williamsport PA by 0930, then head south along the ridge, with the engine idling, and we’d see how far south we could soar by sunset.

Friday morning approached and the short term weather predictions were not looking favorable for an early start. Rain and snow were forecast for the Skaneateles-Williamsport leg, with ceilings possibly down on the high ground south of Elmira NY.

At least it wasn’t snowing when we pulled the ship from the hanger and refueled at 0800, so convinced that though the ceilings were low, the temperature/dew point separation was good and holding, we launched into the dark overcast sky. We figured making a decision first 20 miles on at Ithaca, then again another 30 miles further at Elmira, and that we would be prepared to turn around if the ceiling was not lifting or if some really nasty weather developed. The winds were high and building, we required a 30 degree crab flying in a 25kt crosswind.

Ithaca looked good, as did Elmira as we passed over at 3500msl. The surface layer, at 1000-1500 agl seemed to be breaking up, so we thought to fly above that and below the upper ceiling at 6500 msl. That didn’t work, as the upper layer filled in below as we headed south. The view ahead looked reasonable, though, with acceptable cloud clearances above the high ground. After flying in a bit of snow, and maneuvering around a ridgetop wind farm, we were within sight of Williamsport. We made an initial assessment of winds on the ridge, then landed at Williamsport for a short break.

We relaunched at Williamsport around 1000, powered to the ridge and proceeded south initially with the engine idled. It was tough going, that end of the ridge running mostly SW and not favorable for the particular WSW wind conditions. We had to power up a couple of times, particularly to cross the short water gaps in the ridge. Finally, less than 10 miles south of Loch Haven, where the ridge had turned more SSW, we were able to sustain flight using only the winds on the ridge. I was flying 70-80kts mostly at ridge level, in bumpy air, as we passed Tom and Doris Knauff’s Ridge Soaring near Julian. Several sailplanes were being prepared for launch. We still had solid ceilings only 200-800’ above the ridge.

We reached the gap in the ridge at Altoona. That gap is 8 miles wide, and normally requires stronger ridge winds or thermals to cross, and as I was flying low on the ridge I did not have the altitude to coast across. I had to power up to cross the gap, so I classified that as a land-out. I would have a total of 3 land-outs on that first part of the ridge. The ridge was working really well south of Altoona, the ceiling was rising, so George chose to fly higher above the ridge at a slower speed. He was banking the altitude. Approaching Bedford, the next significant 8 mile gap in the ridge, we observed that the ceiling was breaking up and seemed to be organizing itself with the alignment of the ridge. Curious! With only 1000’ in the bank, and no thermals yet as the sun had not reached the ground, George pushed on into the gap, planning to power up when necessary. Well, to our surprise, we were not losing altitude! Flying best L/D, George kept finding and following little bits of lift, and by the time we crossed the gap and were back on the ridge, we had lost only a few hundred feet of altitude. The Eureka! moment came when we realized that WAVE was developing, and that we had been flying across the gap under the up side of a wave rotor cloud. We proudly announced that fact over the radio to the sailplane pilots at Knauff’s, who were either already launched and flying back and forth on the ridge, or were still on the ground, waiting for thermals to develop in order that they could cross the Altoona and Bedford gaps.

We initially attempted to climb out of rotor and into wave, but that was not yet possible as the wave was still too weak and high, but the ridge was working well south of Bedford, so we proceeded on toward Cumberland, flying at treetop level on the ridge. We negotiated the Cumberland gap, although there was a moment when we were both eyeing a prison yard for a possible land-out field, and we soared on south over the Knobley’s, a very low and uneven part of the ridge. We tried again to stay high and bank the altitude, and that worked until we reached Keyser, where I made my final “land-out”. From Keyser we soared the ridge all the way to Petersburg, WV, where we tested the wave, then landed for a short break. It was only 1300, and already we had flown 120 miles under power from Skaneateles to Williamsport, and 200 miles on the ridge (with only about 10 minutes of powered flight.)

We met with our good friend Larry Stahl, the airport manager at Petersburg, consulted the maps, and considered whether to keep heading south, to see if we could soar another 200 miles to reach Tennessee by sunset. We decided to go for it!

Departing Petersburg, we powered to the ridge, idled the engine and soared in wave to near 9000’, with the variometer indicating 6-18kts lift. We continued south in wave, jumping back to the secondary then the tertiary wave as the primary wave weakened and filled-in. Finally about 40 miles south of Petersburg, the sky cleared and the wave quit working, so we made a long descent back down to the main ridge.

We met a significant challenge 90 miles south of Petersburg, 10 miles north of Covington, VA. There the front ridge ended at a remote reservoir, so we had to climb as high as possible then push downwind and east over the reservoir across a 4 mile gap to the back ridge. Reaching the back ridge, we arrived low, so traversed the face of the ridge several times, gaining 50-100’ of altitude with each traverse, until we reached the ridge top and could proceed south. It turned out that the planning and execution of that transition was terrific training for the several difficult transitions that lay ahead.

We pushed on to Covington VA, where we negotiated a 6 mile gap across a smelly industrial valley full of highways, railroads, power lines, rivers and smokestacks. The next 80 miles involved flying closer and closer to the ridge as the winds diminished in the late afternoon. The transitions were managed, and we found ourselves with the goal in sight. We made a last climb on the ridge to near 3000’ msl, turned south, pointed 20 miles downwind to a reservoir on the Tennessee border with Virginia, and hoped for the best, flying at slightly slower than best L/D speed. To our great relief, we kept finding little bits of lift. And the tailwind didn’t hurt either, as we reached the reservoir and the Tennessee border at 300’ agl, with the sun preparing to set. I powered up and made a high speed approach and pattern to the nearby Virginia Highlands airfield at Abingdon, VA. We unpacked and secured the Lambada in the dark, and took a taxi into town.

Abingdon is a wonderful historic Virginia town, with many fine taverns and an fabulous old hotel, the Martha Washington. That restored hotel was once a private residence, then a “finishing school” for young ladies, a hospital during the Civil War, and finally a hotel with spa. We dined at the oldest tavern in town and treated ourselves to a nice room at the Martha Washington, then slept in until mid morning.

We didn’t get into the air until 1000 or so Saturday morning, but with the tailwind that approached 50kts at 7500’ msl, we did manage to do quite a bit of touring and sightseeing on our 520 mile flight back to Skaneateles NY. We briefly visited North Carolina, then turned north and headed initially up the Blue Ridge Mountains toward Roanoke VA. We overflew and wagged our wings at the folks assembling gliders and preparing to launch at the New Castle VA Blue Ridge Soaring Society near Roanoke. Then we headed back over Covington and pointed at Petersburg, WV again. A short stop at Petersburg, to visit Larry and to refuel, and we were back in the air at 1500. At 7500’, with a 30kt tailwind, we were able to burn up the last miles, landing at Skaneateles at 1730.

An epic adventure, possible only in a touring motorglider like the Lambada.

Jefferson Shingleton []
George M Hernandez []

Just south of Elmira. Note snow showers in the not too far distance

Beginning of the main ridge on the Susquehanna at Williamsport, PA

Moist air capped some of the hills with clouds

Passing Ridge Soaring we had some company from a Duo Discus?

Our first signs of wave south of Bedford

Roll clouds over Petersburg, WV

Jeff climbing in rotor

In wave at 8,500'


We were quite low after shifting downwind to the next ridge. It took quite a few passes to regain altitude in the easing afternoon winds

Mountains and haze just past Peterstown, WV

Our last ridge at days end. We worked this for all it was worth to bank altitude for the final glide to TN

We needed every bit of energy to cross the border, arriving under 300'!

Martha Washington Hotel and Spa in Abingdon, VA

Inside looking back at the front entrance

Frost left dew on the Lambada as the morning sun nicely warmed the air

Martha Washington from the air

Slow flight into a 25kt wind. (note GPS and airspeed difference)

Looking back over the foothills of the Blue Mountains

New Castle Gliding Club

There was still some color in the remaining leaves

Ingles Airport located onto the ridge over a resort called Homestead.

What a view!

Ridge crest just south of Petersburg, WV

Over NY again as the sun was getting low in the sky

Descending towards landing at Skaneateles

1 comment:

Bill said...


We would love to post this article on Would you mind if we did that?

Bill and Rand