The Magic Valley By: Kevin Brooker Posted: June 25 2004
After driving nine hours through bright sunshine, torrential downpours, snow squalls and some of the darkest sections of road I have ever encountered I just wanted to sleep. Arriving at Mifflin County Airport, Reedswille, Pennsylvania a bit past 11:30pm I had planned on pitching a tent and sacking out. The wind was howling. Drawing on my miserable experiences of pitching tents in high winds on the slopes of mountains this wind made curling up in the passenger’s seat of my 02 Toyota Tacoma the more appealing bivouac. Falling asleep was easy; staying asleep was more difficult.
The original plan was to meet my club mate, John, at the airport and start the flying season the next morning. When I parked the truck and trailer I saw no reason to make the effort to disconnect Papa Mike (PM) and tie down the trailer. But at 2:23am the wind had shifted and the cupola of PM was trying to weathercock the truck and trailer into the wind. With each gust the truck shook as if a dozen drunken fraternity boys had grabbed it and were trying to start a riot after the football team just won the National Championship. Evidentially I did get some sleep and awoke as the brightness of the moon was replaced by the brilliance of the rising sun.
As a kid I had fantasised about becoming an astronaut. I dreamt of donning a spacesuit and piloting my Apollo capsule to the moon. I had just spent 19 hours in the cab of my truck and this experience put that fantasy to rest.
Returning from breakfast I stopped at the single story brick terminal building to see if anyone had seen or heard from John.
"Nope. Haven't seen him but rumer has him flying out of Karl's place today", answered Quill the airport manager. "They Jeep launch 'em and behind the trees the wind ainí' so bad".
I glanced at the wind display next to the door- 27kts steady with gusts to 40 blowing from the north-west. Mifflin's runway is oriented south-west/north-east so the crosswind was as direct as it could be.
I was eager to fly but was hoping for a mild ridge day. It had been six months since I'd flown a glider and figured it was too early in the season to tear up a sailplane. Butch wouldn't even consider taking the tug out of the hangar.
Karl, driving a maroon van, pulled into the parking area towing a trailer with the contest ID Kilo Sierra (KS) on the cupola and I figured he'd know where I might find John.
"Launched him at 7:02 this morning. Windy as hell and god damn cold too. Glad there was just one of 'em. Still not warmed up yet", Karl tells the gathered crowd.
I cracked a smile. These Pennsylvania ridge runners have no friends on a windy day, just like my ski buddies back home in Vermont have the same mantra on a powder day. Last night I was a bit put off at the idea of being ditched; now I'd feel worse if John had passed up this day just to meet me and say goodnight.
The next day, a three minute tow deposited me 500ft above the top of Jack's mountain. The ridge was working just fine and at 500ft above the terrain I was able to maintain altitude and 85kts. The 304 has a pretty stiff wing and I felt a similar sensation to being in a speedboat in really rough water. Bam, bam, bam with an occasional crunch as I was abused by the ride. Peppi was the first to launch and was just returning from the far end of Jack's; about 40 miles round trip.
"Papa Mike - how you like the ride?"Pep called from Sierra Quebec; his voice was filled with joy.
"A bit rough but still pretty cool." I tried to sound excited but 3 1/2 hours of this pounding didn't appear to be like too much fun. "X-ray up yet?" John was the last to launch.
“Yea. Right behind you. Let’s grab a thermal and jump to Stone and then to Tussey", was the call from John.
Before this flight I had about 40 minutes of ridge flying experience. Now I was sitting at the feet of a Master in an area that is a glider pilot's dream. (John was the holder of several world records before the FAI re-aligned things and his records became the new minimum. Under the new system, he was not given credit for setting the bar.) The ridges go on for hundreds of miles and land-out friendly fields border many of them. I can only imagine that the ridges were created by a template that was pulled through the Earth's crust since the shape is so uniform. A slight wiggle during creation gives them character and navigating them requires some experience, since quite a few end in a convergence with another ridge and this leaves a space that is very unfriendly to sailplanes.
We left Jack's and drove upwind across the Big valley (real name) before up again on the end of Stone.
The jump across the seven mountains is nothing but an upwind slog over trees for five miles, so I took an extra turn while X and SQ pushed on. The sailplanes were spaced about a mile apart and my view was just fantastic watching the sailplanes move up and down as they flew through areas of lift and sink. The aerial carousel ride deposited us on to the flank of Tussey mountain where we turned left and began our run south.
My faith in the ridges ability to keep me airborne was put to the test when we followed John on the infamous Raystown dam run. The Raystown ridge is about 20 miles long and bordered on the north by a reservoir and on the south by a huge forest. An intimidating place since the landing options are to turn the glider into a seaplane or decorate the trees with broken glass-fibre. I was intimidated but trusted John's judgment in our safe passage. Fifteen minutes of seeing nothing but trees and water was thrilling but I was relieved to over fly the dam and see farm fields once again. A sketchy crosswind landing put me back on the ground and the 2004 season was underway.
Friday's weather was predicted to be a copy of the Introduction to Ridge Flying day and I planned a task to pick up my Diamond distance. I awoke to 25kts of wind blowing from the north-west and thermals predicted to be 6kts to 7000ft. I could see the luster of my prize before I took off. The day was better than the forecast and my confidence was high; maybe too much so.
Fifteen minutes after taking off I was struggling just to stay in the air. I had found the sink street and fell from 4000íft agl to pattern altitude in about two minutes. X-ray, Sierra Quebec and Foxtrot Sierra were already out on course (no friends on a windy day) and I was back at Mifflin disgusted with myself and seriously considering just leaving the glider on the runway, heading home and stop flying anything at all. Eventually I decided to take a tow and give soaring one more chance.
I found Butch and decided to take the yellow thermal, a tow behind the Husky, to Tussey and try to make flying an enjoyable experience. On this flight I was by myself and retracing the route I flew with X and SQ. When I reached the jumping off point for the Raystown dam run I kept heading south over terrain I had never seen before.
I decided to fly the task if only because it gave me some where to go that I didn't need to think about. I passed Rick in FS as he headed north. I made the first turning point and turned back north. The GPS told me I was 98.2 miles from my second turn which, given my mindset, might as well been the moon. I was demoralised but decided to keep going. My route took me back past Mifflin and I could always just bale out there.
Approaching the spot where I was to turn and head back to the airport I started my right hand turn for the seven mile glide back. No sooner had I established my heading when I abruptly turned back to the left. If I baled out now I was quitting on the sport and myself. People wait entire careers for conditions this good and I, the spoiled brat, am willing to toss it all away out of frustration. I made the slight upwind jump to Nittany mountain and was picked up by SQ.
"Papa Mike how you doing?" Hearing Peppi on the radio was somehow comforting.
We exchanged a few words and Peppi offered to finish the task with me. I took a pull on my drinking tube and discovered I was out of water. The childish ranting after my early landing had cost me a lot of energy and the three hours on the second flight was taking its toll.
"Thanks Pep. I'm going to grab Lock Haven and head in. I'm spent".
"Sounds good. I'll fly your wing".
I ended up at the back of the two-ship carousel as we flew the last 100km back home. I went in for a landing and Pep took another blast down Jacks before bring the ship in for a landing and a cold beer.
The drive home was sunny and I was able to reflect on my adventure. During the trip I had logged a bit over eight hours of ridge flying and covered a little over 800km. I made some new friends and was able to see some fascinating terrain and learned much about myself and flying a sailplane. The ridges will endure far longer then I will so I can always return to be challenged by them once again. I was humbled by the wind gods and started making plans to return to the area the locals refer to as "The Magic Valley".