Late February often brings a spell of warm sunny weather that's like a preview of Spring. It's even sometimes easy to forget that March is right around the corner and regularly features some of the worst winter weather of the season. While it's easy to say that there will probably be beautiful days at the end of the month, what's difficult to predict is just when that window of reprieve from winter will open and close. Steve Bellerby and Christine Nidd hit it pretty close as they scheduled a trip to the Sequatchie Valley from Toronto, which wasn't nearly so warm this week. Christine brings us this report of their continued exploits in The Hang Gliding Capital of the East.
I have just spent two of the most glorious weeks of flight in Southeast Tennessee with soon-to-be SOGA member Steve Bellerby. I am compelled to tell you about the best kept secret of Southeast Tennessee. One short hour away from Lookout Mountain is an active hang gliding community, nestled among the trees & rocks of Henson's Gap. The Tennessee Tree Toppers membership of only $40 per year gives you access to 2 sites (Northwest rated Hang II & Southeast rated Hang III) AND accommodations!! Sitting right on top of launch is a beautiful A-Frame clubhouse with all the amenities you could ask for...electricity, telephone, fridge, stove, oven, cast iron wood stove for heat, and most importantly...a coffeemaker. There is running water in the bathroom & shower facilities....unfortunately, the water is turned off in the winter, and Steve & I often showered outside by the waterpump...brrrr. Many thanks to Mark Furst & Dan & Cindy Shell for taking pity on us & offering us their homes for a hot shower!
We arrived Sun. Feb. 6 in time for a sled run in nice buoyant air. The ramp is very forgiving and perfect for pilots new to foot launching. The mountains are breathtaking and the easy glide to the large LZ allowed enough time to soak it all in as the sun bobbed down to the horizon. The next morning we rolled out of bed to see the mist rising in the valley below, and the catabatic winds drifting down the mountain. First things first, on with the coffee & fire as we waited for the wind to come around. We flew twice that day for 15 minutes the first time and 45 minutes at the end of the day, landing only because the sun had set. The following day (day 3) saw a flight lasting one and a half hours of mostly ridge lift (my longest flight up to that point).
Day 4 was looking average and I was going to take a sled ride down & meet the two cars at the LZ where we were leaving one car behind & going back up the mountain. I threw myself off the ramp & was heading directly for the LZ when I hit a bump that felt like it might be what pilots refer to as a thermal. I did what I thought pilots should do in that case & started to bank my glider towards the lifted wing. Next thing I knew, my vario was beeping consistently and I was coring up at 700 feet per minute. As I watched the launch ramp fall away from me, several of the pilots who were preparing to drive the retrieval vehicle down to the LZ appeared to drop what they were doing & started throwing themselves off the mountain as well. I started to count the gliders below me & had to laugh when I realized that our retrieval plan had been abandoned altogether, as every breathing body that was on top of the mountain when I launched had now joined me in the sky. I won the altitude record for the day at 2500' above launch, and a local pilot who lives on top of the mountain & saw us flying drove down to the LZ to give us all a ride back up (Thanks Clark!!). I found out later that the locals didn't believe that I had never thermalled before.
Day 5 was another thermal day. Tom launched first with his rigid wing & started to find bits & pieces of lift. I launched next & scratched for a little bit (now that I'm a pro thermaller) but ended up sinking out. Steve launched next & I watched from the LZ as Tom got 4000' above launch & Steve stayed up for over an hour. Feeling sorry for me, Steve & Tom landed & took me back up to try again. The wind was coming straight in now & it looked good for ridge lift. I launched & made a left turn...sank out again. Steve launched, turned right & was above launch in no time. There I was again in the LZ watching other people fly. THAT'S IT I told myself, I can do better than this!! I immediately packed up my glider & started to hitch hike up the mountain. The first car that drove past picked me up & a couple of army guys drove me to the highway leading up the mountain. No sooner had I been dropped off, a Harley bike rider mistook me & my helmet as a bike rider in distress & picked me up. We had a good talk about hang gliding as he drove me up the mountain. Finally, I walked only 10 feet before I got my final ride from another local pilot who had her roofracks with her & brought me immediately to the LZ, loaded up my glider & took me back to launch (Thanks Susan!) No sooner was I back in the air & finally got 45 minutes in ridge before the sun set.
I won't irritate you with all the details of our many flights, except to say that we flew 10 days out of 12, and made some great friends! I will leave you with one last anecdote that cannot be ignored. On our 2nd last day, I flew for FOUR HOURS!!!! Landing only because my back was sore and nature was calling loudly. Steve braved it for 5 hours and Chris Field (a local pilot) stayed up for 3 hours. What a perfect way to end our trip. A beautiful mixture of ridge & thermals allowed me to practice what I had learned about thermals during my stay at Henson's, and if I started to sink out, I needed only to return to the ridge & get my altitude back up. Chris held the record altitude for the day at 2800' above launch.
On our final day, Steve & I went to Whitwell for one last flight. Taking advantage of my new rating (Whitwell is a Hang III site), I launched in moderate winds....and sank out. Having tried my best to work the ridge to my right, I left it too long to get back to the LZ which was already a significant glide from the launch to the left. I picked a nicely plowed & level field to land in, ending my first feeble attempt at a cross country flight a whopping 3 km West of launch. Once again, I was at the bottom looking up at Steve soaring above launch. I started my hike up the mountain & the third car passing me stopped & the driver--born & raised in TN--gave me a ride all the way up the mountain right to my car at launch (Thanks Mike!).
I had a fabulous time & added more than half the airtime I had accrued over the past two years in two short weeks. I look forward to seeing you all in the Spring & demonstrating my new thermalling ability (tee hee) --Christine. These folks were committed to getting airtime. Last Wednesday I could see them flying over the ridge before my last class at 1:40. I launched shortly before 5:00 just in time to watch Christine land. Steve flew with me until sunset. By then it was all smooth wonder wind topping out at around 500 over. Thanks for the report Christine!
Another front blew through Saturday with the associated cold and gray, which cleared by Sunday with postfrontal northwest winds. These conditions combined with a holiday weekend and temperatures creeping into the sixties brought pilots out of the woodwork. Several arrived early enough to take advantage of ridge soarable velocities early, but this eventually shut down and sent everybody to the field. With plenty of daylight left, a few of them set up for round two. Thermals were available in the afternoon, but without the sustaining ridge lift it was the familiar hit and miss proposition. James Anderson and Dean Funk pursued the elusive thermals around the gap, but were in the field before the velocity started building again. Mark Furst launched in his tandem glider (built to hold two pilots) alone and worked the building conditions until he was obviously soaring a wonder. Buddy Cutts and David Giles both launched earlier in the more difficult conditions but managed to get up and away, if only for a few miles. Buddy has this report.
I got about 1000 over launch and landed about 5 miles from launch. I landed right next to the East Valley Road just south of the church where the power lines cross. David Giles landed about 7 miles from launch and reported about 100 or 1200 over. Definitely not record breaking flights, but very much fun flying. It seemed like I could have boated around launch all afternoon. But we had a driver and had agreed to go XC if we got up. Adds a bit of flavor to the flying in my opinion. Thanks Buddy! Dave Giles adds gratefully that Jeff Laughrey backed off launch so Dave could launch into a thermal, Greg Wojnowski had the flight of the day with 2200 over and a couple of hours, and Dean sprained his ankle in an otherwise good landing. Keep it iced and elevated and it'll be ready for landing again by next weekend!
The forecast calls for warming temperatures, with lows in the 40s all week and highs in the lower 70s by the weekend. This suggests southerly winds through the period, but clearing skies and a temperature spread widening to 28 degrees may hint at winds veering toward northerly Thursday and Friday. It'll be Whitwell for a southerly Saturday with warm prefrontal conditions. Get there early before it crosses out and overdevelops. Rain late Saturday or Sunday. See you in the sky!