I arrived on Friday night near midnight and slept in the Clubhouse bunks. When I got up in the morning I got a chance to see the spectacular view off the great big wooden circular launch ramp. At some point late that morning people started talking about the conditions. They were surprising good. I don't think many people expected good conditions after the rain they had the day before and the low clouds building over head, but the wind was blowing strait in at 12 mph or so and the valley floor was illuminated in sunshine.
The first few launches I got to see off the ridge were tandems. And by the time I had my glider setup and preflighted, I missed the first solo pilot launch that day. My fellow Ohio Flyer Michal launched second, I watched him and tried to take notes. I had been pouring over youtube videos of launches from Henson Gap in order to try to prepare myself for the real thing. After a little bit of struggle keeping the glider level and controlling pitch on his own, Michal coordinated with his wire crew what he expected and what he needed from them so that everyone was on the same page. He stepped back up to launch and had a smooth run off the ramp pulling in as he took the first few steps to follow the contour of the ramp. I reminded myself that I would need to do the same thing.
When I suited up and walked my glider out toward the ramp Ollie gave me a hang check and went through a few key points of advice with me for my first launch. I also explained to my wire crew what I wanted from them and that when I felt comfortable and in control I would yell "Clear, Clear, Clear" and would then immediately launch. It only took me a few moments when I stepped up to the red line on the launch ramp to feel comfortable and in control so I launched pretty quickly. I remember only taking a few steps before the ramp dropped away and I was flying. I kept myself pulled in for speed but I think I could have done a better job controlling pitch in those first few moments. Anyway, I flew strait away from the cliff, put my feet in my harness, switched my grip to the control bar, and banked a turn to the left to stay in ridge lift.
From there, I spent a few minutes drifting back and forth along the ridge, trying to make my turns when my vario was beeping slightly higher. I climbed above launch, drifted a little further up and down the ridge, and spent the next 3 and a half hours soaring the ridge at Henson Gap.
My first flight at the site was 3 times longer than my previous best flight. It was amazing. I followed birds around, explored different parts of the ridge, followed other pilots around, and generally tried to relax and enjoy the view of the valley stretching out below me.
The flight even included a low save. There must have been a sink cycle, or a lull in the wind and I ended up sinking out. There was a 6 or 8 minute period where I heard no beeps from my instrument. And drifted up the ridge toward the LZ while I tried wishing thermals into my path. I aimed my glide toward to the LZ to pass over a small knob at the base of the ridge that I guessed might be a place to find lift. I can't be sure if I just got lucky or if I guessed right, but I did find weak lift right over that bump. It took me another minute once I found it to center myself and drift with the lift, but then it carried me right back up to the top of the ridge. It wasn't the most comfortable thing making full turns in lift so close to the tree tops, but I was fully aware of my proximity and was careful to keep in mind the possibility of getting turned into the ridge. Anyway, I controlled my anxiety and stayed as centered in the lift as I could, and kept my turns as coordinated as I could, as I followed the contour of the mountain up toward the ridge top.
|A view of the tracklog from my 3.5 hour flight at Henson Gap, Tennessee. The lowest part of the track is the low save as I drifted from the right edge of the picture toward the LZ. I found lift over the very last bump in the ridge.|
Other notable moments for me were the gaggle flying (I had never flown with any real traffic before), thermaling up thousands of feet over the ridge at the highest, and finally getting so tired that I actually decided to go land (I've never had a flight where I got to dictate when I landed, mother nature has always done that for me).
So, the summary of my trip to the TTTTC goes like this: the day before the event started I soared my butt off, then sat for the next 3 days in the rain hoping the clouds would break and we would get to fly again. However during the rainy days I did get to listen to some of the best, and most experienced pilots in the world talk about flying techniques, safety, glider tuning, instrument use, cross-country flying, weather, and more!! So even the rainy days ended up being extremely valuable. I headed back to Ohio in the middle of the week to return to work and also for the rare chance to soar the local ridge site in Ohio.