by Jeff Driscoll
It was a dark and stormy night. That’s what happens when you get what you wish for. The “second wave” of campers (McIntyre and myself) arrived at Mifflin Tuesday after Columbus Day 1999, ready for flying. After spending Wednesday looking forlornly at the sky all during the overcast day, we prayed for a massive cold front to come through as soon as possible so that we’d be blessed with strong ridge lift, and therefore fulfill the Mifflin Agenda.
That night, it was a dark and … etc. About 10 p.m. the winds started howling. We’re talking 52 mph (whoops, I mean 45 knot) winds, torrential downpours, lightening everywhere, tent destruction of biblical proportions, cats and dogs living together, real end of the world stuff. At 11 p.m. Lee’s brand new out of the box family-and-a-half tent got wiped out. At midnight we unplugged McIntyre’s electric blanket and 2,000 ft. extension cord that he travels to encampments with as a safety precaution because his tent was underwater. At 1 a.m. I couldn’t stand being in my tent anymore with the 500-decibel flapping noise, and moved into the maintenance hanger. At 2 a.m. I couldn’t stand listening to my tent self-destruct and went out to take it down. At 3 a.m. Bill Kenyon dragged his sleeping bag into the hanger and then we went back out into the deluge to rescue his crippled tent. Boy, were we having fun and you missed it. At 4 a.m. I passed out.
But it was all worth it. Thursday the mother of all fronts had passed and left in its wake strong and steady westerly winds that provided a day of high-speed ridge flying on Jack’s Mountain, the ridge just to the west of the airport. At one point, Chris and I grabbed a thermal off the ridge at 1400’ AGL and less than 5 minutes later we were at 6,500’. My averager showed 1,150 feet per minute, the highest I’ve ever seen it. Next, we headed out over the valley and flew right into wave at 300/minute up to 10,000+. The rest of the day was just same-old, same-old world-class conditions.
Friday brought southeasterly winds and the few remaining pilots tried our hand at the backside of the ridge to the east of the airport. It was strong enough to keep us up for a couple hours and produce some thermals, but not really very good. By that time I think it was down to McIntyre, McKinley, Molnar and Szigeti, Kenyon and myself. At the end of the day I found out that Wild Bill Kenyon has ventured over to the back (east) side of Jack’s Mountain and had partaken of some good flying over there. I was impressed.
Saturday it was down to the real die-hards: Bill and myself. I had come all that way, didn’t have to be home till Sunday, and wasn’t going to give up a potential flying day just because it was totally overcast, without a breadth of wind. “But it’s forecast to clear up and have 15 mph winds from the southeast” I reasoned. “You can show me how to fly the back of Jack’s Mountain”, old impressionable me argued. At noon the clouds broke and the wind picked up. At 2 p.m. we were rigged and on the launch line, smiling into 12 mph winds. At 3 p.m. we were still chasing each other back and forth a few miles up the ridge to the north, and back to the gap near the airport. Then we decided to head further north to the end of the ridge.
At 3:25 the wind started to get weaker. At 3:30 p.m. we were both safely on the ground in different fields about a mile apart and about 15 miles from the airport. I landed in a cut cornfield and Bill landed in an alfalfa field, one that he had surveyed that very morning! 15 minutes later four hang-gliders landed in Smart Wild Bill’s popular field. The natives gathered, and thought that they were being invaded. I guess that’s why they carry those shotguns in the back window of their trucks, just for these kinds of emergencies. And a mere 5 hours later, we were back at the airport with our gliders securely tucked away in the their trailers with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.
I won’t tell you here all the interesting things that happened after we landed. Catch Bill or me at an encampment sometime. What I want to tell you about is what happened between 3:25 and 3:30 p.m. Four minutes of looking for fields and hoping that the wind will pick up while slowing down from 75 to 55, and one minute from deciding to land to being on the ground. Yes, 60 seconds, ready or not. Could/should I have given myself more time? Absolutely. One minute of hoping and four minutes of picking a field, trying for a thermal and landing would have been the right procedure.
The difference in picking fields while ridge flying is that if you keep flying the ridge, you are not circling over the field, checking it out, looking at alternatives and weighing your choices. If you keep flying the ridge, the nice field you spotted a minute ago is a mile behind you. And checking out a field is not like thermally over it for a few minutes, trying for a save. You’ve got to keep most of your attention on flying the ridge. Remember those trees? They’re not too far away.
So, I turned off ridge when I was about 700 AGL and abreast of a 600’ long cut cornfield that looked flat with no obstructions for a landing to the south, into the wind, I did a full 360 pattern. Crosswind looked good. Downwind I saw the gully in the middle of the field and the drop down for the last 100’ on the south end. Now I had 200’ to land in. But there were no trees for a few hundred feet on the north end, so I planned to do a normal approach. But I had to touch down right after the gully. I was absolutely calm. I didn’t crowd the field, I watched my speed, I never lost sight of my touchdown point (point, not area!), I announced my landing (to Bill). He responded by asking me if I had my wheel down. I thanked him and told him that I was all set, and he told me that he would be landing shortly. I touched down right after the gully and stopped well before the field started a downhill run to the trees. Thank you God.
So whether you’re thermalling or ridge flying, stop moving on if you’re not absolutely certain you’ll make it to another good field with plenty of altitude. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to check out the fields, pick the best one and try for a save. Don’t be reluctant to accept an off field landing, but be prepared and practice those low energy spot landings.