June 9, 1991. 7:45 am. Coffee. I need coffee. I turned over, wiped the sleep from my two stuck slits they call eyes, reached out and turned on the weather station. The voice on the box penetrated through to my foggy brain. "It can't be Northwest at 10!" I screamed at the little silver box in front of me. Flinging off the covers, I immediately walked to the phone and called IVERS.
"Good morning, Greenwich time is now... blah blah blah." "Man," I mumbled, "I don't care what time it is." I pushed a few more letters on the phone pad. "Do you want winds aloft and at what altitude?" Punching a few more numbers the robotic voice eventually confirmed the NOAA forecast. Figuring it was worth a try at the Rock, I made a few more phone calls to my flying buddies and soon all was set.
A few hours later I arrived at launch to find a Northwest flow of about 5 mph. We went about setting up, taking our time and after a while, the hawks out front left the trees to fly and began to slowly circling up - indicating thermals were forming in the valley. I decided that in an hour or so it might get pretty good.
It was 12:30 when I walked my Euro Sport 167 up to the launch. I'd already made a plan of attack to head straight out and seek thermals, as there would obviously not be sustaining lift on the ridge. I hooked in, got a hang check okay and set about scanning the sky for thermaling buzzards. A few minutes went by, before a small cycle came rolling up the mountain. As it drew near the launch I yelled, "Clear!" and off I went into a near cloudless sky. Leaving Mother Earth and all the cares of the world behind, I headed straight out from the mountain toward the brown fields a half mile away and hopefully some vertical boomers.
Over Emma Jane's house I encountered a small belch of a thermal and immediately rolled my Sport to its core. Up I rose, 50 fpm, then 100, 200 fpm. Cranking and banking for all it was worth I steadily gained much needed ground clearance.
Five minutes later I was a thousand above launch in nice cool air. "If this is what it's going to be like here, what is it going to be like up higher?" I thought. "A whole hellava lot colder, stupid!" Now you may think that the pilot of this ship wasn't to mart as he was wearing only shorts, a USHGA World Team T-Shirt (sleeveless at that), and running shoes. In actuality, the supposed dummy was smart, because if he'd been prepared with heavy clothes Mother Nature would have guaranteed a short and low flight. You see, Mother Nature likes to play tricks on unsuspecting pilots with flimsy attire and get them REAL high so they'll freeze their keels off. That's why I fooled Mother Nature into thinking she'd out witted me. I purposely wore scanty apparel, forcing her to take me to cloudbase.
Back at launch, Tom Jones radioed the idea that I should head towards McConnollsburg 28 miles upwind. Since the therma I drift was basically nonexistent at that altitude, there was a possibility of making it. What the heck, I'm 2 grand above the landing field, why not give it a try. "Okay, Tom." I transmitted back. "I'll head in that direction as long as you stay at launch to keep in touch with me in case I core down in sink and need a ride back to launch."
Heading out away from the mountain in a Northwest direction toward McConellsburg I took note that sink was running either 50 to 75 fpm down or an occasional zero. Not to bad heading out. Boating along I encountered a cute little bubble with upward potential. Cranking around I entered and began my upward journey. Tightening my bank, I heard my Sport gro an in pleasure as we soared this sweetheart together to new heights. Hopefully, Mother Nature will let my glider and me experience many more sensuous upsurges throughout this day.
I topped out at over 5 grand and headed toward the south end of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania 4 miles ahead. With bare arms and legs, I was starting to experience a slight chill, but the natural air conditioning still felt good.
Advising Tom of my every move, I pulled in the bar to best L/D and ticked off two or three miles before encountering the next thermal, a Mother of All Wars - I mean thermals. The bar was being pulled forward as if purposely pushed. Fighting it, I pulled the bar back in for airspeed and cranked left. After banking it up, I eased the bar out and began climbing out at such a rate I'm sure everybody within 10 miles could hear my banshee scream of ecstasy. Man, this baby's a wildcat bronco ready to get broke. Going up at 600 to 700 fpm in smooth, but strong lift I passed 5 then 6 grand, literally gaining 100+ feet with every 360 I turned. A few minutes later I passed the 8 thousand foot mark with cloudbase just overhead about 500 feet. At first, I didn't notice how cold it had become, but then I began shivering uncontrollably. I was still talking to Tom on launch and giving him a running account of what was going on.
"Quite your stuttering," Tom complained. Mother Nature had me in her grasp and was treating me to some very high altitude winter like air. Being a seasoned pilot and knowing the 500 hundred foot limitations for distance from a cloud, I again checked cloudbase. "Close enough." I stammered because of the cold, then sucked in the tubes for a glide passed Waynesboro.
Just about 10 miles ahead, the next little town was Greencastle. Maybe, just maybe, I can make that on a glide. Still shaking with my hands almost numb and my eyes watering from the cold, I began a slow descent forward heading toward my next goal.
Coming up just south of Route 16 and east of Route 81, I heard a trucker come on the USHGA channel asking for directions to some weird place. A minute or two passed with no one answering him, so I radioed down and told him to stop in Greencastle at the small truck stop and ask for directions.
"What's your location and where are you heading?" he inquired. "I'm headed in a northwest direction at an altitude of 7,000 feet," I answered. "Man, are you in an airplane?" he asked. "No way my man. They're too noisy for me. I'm in a Hang Glider." "You gotta be kidding me," he repeated half a dozen time. "My lady ain't never goin' believe this!" I bid my new friend farewell and wished him a pleasant trip to his destination.
I flew over Greencastle and headed to the next cluster of houses which was Upton, 5 miles ahead. My altitude was slowly being eaten up at this point and I began to wonder if I could make Upton on a glide. "I'll be landing next to Route 16 if I don't find a thermal soon." I radioed back to Tom.
Tom came back, "Don't do anything stupid, Fred." Infamous words he often repeated throughout my flight. "Love you too, Tom!" I replied.
Looking below at the trees moving closer and becoming more numerous, I wondered if this would be the end of my trip to McConnellsburg. Then, yes my friends, another Mother Earth belch hit me from underneath and sent me rocketing skyward. Coring this baby for all I was worth, I was suddenly smacked on the right wing with a blast of hot air that sent me plunging toward terra firma in a wingover.
Pulling in and regaining balance of the glider, I searched the skies in a classic Denis Pagan maneuver for the monster that had sent me plummeting. This time, I entered her cautiously, found the core and held on for a strong ride up. Up I go past 3000, pass 4000, getting cold baby, pass 5000, shaking now, 6000, 7000, with my hands going numb I passed 8,000 agl. Damn, can't get any higher. Cloudbase city again. "Yahoo. Yes sir Mr. FAA, I'm at least 500 feet below your lovely cloud deck." Pulling in I veered off to the north/northwest to intersect Lamar Road which is on a direct path to the McConnellsburg launch 12 miles away. With Upton now to my left rear and Lamar Road under me I felt comfortable in my surroundings as I have crossed this area several times before, traveling XC the opposite direction from McConnellsburg heading to High Rock.
Adjusting myself in my harness for maximum warmth (who you trying to kid), I noticed my ground speed was next to nothing. Pulling in for more speed and sacrificing altitude, I slowly crept forward. Noticing the cloud shadows far below I began to despair at their mounting speed and movement from the north/northwest. I was now in a head wind.
The remaining 12 miles would be the hardest of the trip. What would happen next would be like climbing a sand dune - three steps up, fall back two. After Upton, the next batch of houses is the little burrow of Lemasters, 6 miles away. It seemed utterly impossible I could make it there, given my present position, but being the former marine I am, I don't give up that easy. I also had the added boost of friends listening in on the radio and dispensing words of encouragement. Best of all, was the offer of cold beer that would be waiting for me at the Pulpit. Now who in their right minds wouldn't fight to reach the cold gusto of the refreshing, golden nectar of the gods. First though, I needed to get there. With Tom Jones and Eddie Miller at the Rock, and Charlie Poland, Keith Ford and Richard Piasecki from the Pulpit all rooting for me, I took off in a renewed vigor. I had a plan in mind. First I'd need as much altitude as possible. Then, I'd head up wind with elbows tucked, toes straight out and bar pulled in for better than best L/D. I knew I'd lose beaucoup altitude, but at least I'd be moving forward and I'd hopefully catch another belch from terra firma. Halfway to Lemasters, I lost about 6,000 from the monster I caught before Upton. Now I was at 2,000 feet and warming up, but who needs warming up this close to my goal.
I was nearing ever closer to the ground when my Litec Vario chirped with a sound only we as hang glider pilots can appreciate. Circling around to find the best lift, I once again climbed circling in what the whuffos' call "an up-draft." Sweet, oh so sweet to hear the vario singing to me in a tone of sheer delight. Back up again to 2500, 3000, 3200, 3300. I gained to an altitude of 6200 agl., but all the while I was drifting back to Upton. Finally losing the lift, I once again tucked my elbows and headed for Lemasters. I was three quarters of the way there and back down to a grand when I received yet another gift from Mamma Earth. I started my journey back up once again, climbing through 5 grand before the lift dissipated. Tucked, I pulled in to max glide and passed Lemasters at about 2000 agl. From Upton to Lemasters 25 minutes total time had elapsed and I'd only gained 6 miles. Whew, now what lay ahead?
My shoulders and wrists ached like crazy, I was thirsty, cold and needed to get rid of some accumulated body fluids. But, would a pilot give up and take care of those needs? Noooooo way Jose! Get your butt in gear and fly on, bro.
"Hey Charlie? What's happening at the Pulpit launch?" I inquired. "Fred, the are thermals rolling through at about 10 from the north/northwest." "Thanks old pal," I returned. "I'm now passed Lemasters and heading for the school field just passed the burro of Markes. I think I can make it if some hot air from below hits me." From the direction of High Rock, a slow deep voice, oozed through my radio headset. "DON'T DO ANYTHING STUPID, FRED." "Ah come on now, Tom. That's why they call me Turkey. I'm allowed to."
Okay now, I've got just 6 miles to go to the Pulpit. With the luck I'd been having, I began to wonder if I could finish what I started out to do. "Your darn right, I said to myself. "I'm not going down without fighting all the way!"
Catching a few small thermals and working them until I lost them, I managed to make the school field with room to spare. I crossed Route 75 with the tops of the mountain directly in front of me and 2 miles ahead. Ideas started to roll through my mind for a strategy to assault this final wall of trees and rocks. I would have to cross this double ridge before I could reach the Pulpit launch which lay only a half mile on the other side of the secondary ridge. As I neared the mountain, pilots from the Pulpit radioed that they could now see me. I could see gliders in the set-up area and taste the sweet smell of success.
Little did I know that I would spend almost 25 minutes in an attempt to gain the altitude to cross the ridge in front of me. Up to the base of the mountain, I combated the air only to be driven back by headwinds. I retreated to find anything workable and turned and turned to gain anything I could. Gaining a thousand feet over, I again found myself drifting back to Route 75. Sucking in the bar I drove back to the mountain, arriving only half the way up its slope with no lift to be found. Turning back to the fields and flying to the junction of Routes 30 and 75 just to the north my altitude bleeded off drastically. What I needed now was one of those sweet things that I encountered earlier in my flight. Hell, right now I would be happy with a dried up one with potential.
"Land a goshen." I whispered, my prayers were answered with a middle aged thermal with a sparkle in her eye. Circling back up with my vario chirping away, I once more climbed to ridge top level. With every turn I was gaining much needed clearance for another assault on the slopes of this Mother Nature held territory (sounds like I'm back in Viet Nam, don't it?). At an altitude of 2000 over I radioed the launch that I was about to assault it for the second time. Charlie Poland had his camera, and was taking pictures of my attempt to cross the ridge, while Keith kept me appraised of wind conditions at launch. I again advanced, but as I passed the point where I'd earlier had to abort, my altitude started dropping faster than anticipated. I crested the first ridge with only 500 feet of clearance. Damn! Only a half a mile separating me from launch. If I continued I'd have crashed landed right at launch. I made the decision to turn back as there were no landing fields to dump off into, only trees and boulders. Being safety conscious for the 14 years I've flown, I made the hard but wise decision. You see, a safe pilot is a live pilot. Another day will come.
I was turned downwind hoping that another big boomer would be waiting for me in the valley below. I reached the fields at the base of the mountain with an altitude of about 300 agl. I radioed to the Pulpit, informing them of my intented landing field and headed for it. Even as I planned out my approach, I still hoped for a belch from below. No such luck awaited me this time as I set up final. As always, Mother Nature had the last laugh, however, for even as I set-up my approach I could see in the distance a monstrous dust devil. "Whoa, Tom." I wailed into the radio. "If I only could have a chance to snare that sucker." This baby was so big that a moment later Tom came back, "Holy #*&%#. We can see it from here!"
As a last "Don't do anything stupid, Fred" churned through my mind I landed, unhooked and looked back at the mountain. I could have sworn it sneered back at me. "Okay, if that's the way you feel I'll be back. With a load of Naplam!"
My total elapsed flight time was 2 hours, 45 minutes, covering a distance of 27 1/2 miles. All upwind! 25 minutes was spent assaulting the ridge.
My thanks to Tom Jones at High Rock who made my trip less nerve racking. Thanks too to Charlie Poland and Keith Ford, who kept me informed of conditions as I neared the Pulpit, then came down off the mountain and took me back to the Pulpit for some good cold brewsky.
Oh, also. Two A-10 Warthogs passed through an hour earlier on their training flight route on the way to McConnellsburg. Don't forget to call in if you're going to fly the Pulpit.