Saturday, September 27, 2008

New Castle Rookie Report

I've been fascinated for years by flying stories from New Castle and the annual Region 4 South championships held there. The venue is famous for its ridges, rough and tumble terrain and extraordinary hospitality. R4S is often over subscribed and always seems to draw a number of big names. It has a rep as a “big boys' regional”.



With my new/old ASW-20B working out well, I decided this was the year to try New Castle on for size. So I sent in my deposit, studied maps and flight logs, talked my father in law John Boyce into crewing and made the necessary arrangements at work and at home.

The drive seems to go on forever. About 14 hours from Manchester NH. The further you go, the prettier the scenery. “New Castle International” itself is as pretty as an airport gets – and you will not find a warmer welcome as a newcomer anywhere.

Flying at NCI, you are surrounded by mountains – mostly ridges – with tops around 3500 – 4000', valleys around 12 – 1500. I fly practice on Saturday and Sunday in unremarkable conditions. There are many more or less open fields, but at most 1 in 20 is suitable for landing. Most are some combination of too small, too rough, too sloped or rocky. The overall field situation is only fair. Airports are not in abundance. Looking around at altitude I think to myself that this is a finesse site: you get around fast here by being clever and knowledgeable. Putting “both feet behind the stick” here – ridge days being the exception – will simply get you into a valley you can't get back out of. All of this is consistent with my pre-race study. I've been telling myself that this week is more recon mission than race. John Murray is succinct on this point with respect to New Castle rookies: “Stow the ego.” Yep, got it.

Sunday evening – the first of many great meals and campfires... and the weather report. Monday looks like a ridge mission! I guess we're going to get broken in, right quick. All that study time is going to pay off....

Day 1

The day at New Castle starts with Lanier and his cannon. He gets results! The cannon, by the way, is a 3/4 scale replica of a type used in the War of Northern Aggression.


Monday morning rolls around and the forecast holds. 10 – 12 kts from 310, good thermals with Cu to five or six thousand. 10 – 12 is light for a ridge mission, we can expect some areas to be soft. The task is all about ridges, a turn area task with a 3 hour minimum time, potential to fly nearly 500k and turn points on two well separated ridges. All three classes – Std, 15m and 18m have the same task. I start near the back of the 15m pack and settle into the ridge “groove”. It's spooky because the wind is so light that the trees aren't moving at all. Speeds are decent, but we are right on the deck. There's a soft section of seven miles where the ridge is low and there is blocking terrain upwind. It's tricky and not terribly comfortable. Now we are on the deck and slow.

Nearing McCoy Falls – about 30 miles out – a pilot somehow gets on the lee side of the ridge where there is nothing but sink and trees and glides out of the wilderness to crash land in a tiny clearing. The glider is destroyed but the pilot is uninjured. Other pilots are milling about like fiberglass vultures although there is absolutely nothing that can be done to help other than relay radio messages and mark the site (one ship would suffice). I arrive minutes later wondering if they are parked because of the crash or because it is unsafe to proceed. I'm shaken and I get on the radio asking if it is safe to proceed. An experienced pilot, also audibly shaken, answers “best thing for the new guy is to figure out a safe way to fly home and land”. I acknowledge, and head back up the ridge towards NCI with several others. The seven mile “soft” section isn't as bad on the return trip. Along the way I am thinking about the fact that I am about to throw away a flight I've been dreaming about for 22 years (ever since reading "Four on the Floor" in Soaring, November 1986, but that's another story)... I reconsider all the “raw data”, decide the day is within my limits. I can do this, and do it well, so I hang a left and head back South.

With new focus and determination, I start haulin'. Ground speeds range from 80 knots up to an incredible 120 depending on the shape and orientation of the ridge and whether climbing, level or descending. I pass several gliders. The ride is fairly smooth as ridge running goes because the winds are so light. Running back into New Castle for the second turn, there is no thermal lift to be found for the required upwind transition. I turn back down Sinking Creek ridge in search of thermals to get upwind to the front ridge. Along the way I see four or five gliders trying the same scheme but not climbing well. This puzzles me – there are great looking streets a few miles further. I bump their thermal, give it up as a bad job and fly on another 4 miles or so where I connect to a boomer all by myself (evil grin). This does not go unnoticed and soon I am joined by the others. I have made up at least five minutes on these guys and I'm at the top of the stack. We fan out line abreast for the transition upwind. It works beautifully. Collectively we have a 2 mile wing span to sample the air and we bump along until connecting with the second thermal we need to complete the transition... then dive at the back side of the front ridge. There are no gaps here, so we're heading right at the back side of a 4000' ridge and hoping we've got it right 'cause it's all trees over here.

The front ridge is impressive. Just a puff of wind and 90 knots plus. I run this ridge nearly to Tazewell, the back edge of the designated turn area, both because I am enjoying the flight and because the longer I bomb along at high speed, the more I dilute my earlier detour and hesitation. Along the way we pass ridge top bird watching houses, many hawks and a few landable fields (widely scattered). My '20 goes quietly at high speed. The way I know is that I see a bird watcher gawking at a glider ahead of me. He has his back turned to me and he doesn't hear me until I am pretty close. It's hard to lip read at 120 knots, but I think he said “Holy Cow!”. Or something like that. In any event he's obviously enjoying the show.

The return trip is easy, fast and fun, but winds are weakening and thermals are drying up in the late afternoon. I time things well, arriving at Sweet Springs in time to catch one of the last thermals of the day for the short down wind final glide to New Castle. I've gone over 83 mph for 280 miles, placing 4th in 15m, a superb result for a New Castle rookie. Including the 14 mile detour, I made a realistic if not score-able 87.4 mph. I'm pleased with my decision making. No risks, no gambles, nothing scary.

Day 2

Thermal soaring today. Conditions are forecast to be weak to moderate with slow heating. We are given a short turn area task that keeps us over reasonably friendly (by local standards) terrain. The gate opens for business and the thermals bloom into beautiful Cu. The first turn area is very strong and fast with a fat cloud street running to the back of the circle. I'm the first one in. As I make the turn I see the entire 15m fleet is following – what a great sight.

The second turn is where the race is decided and it goes poorly for many of us. The fast guys got around by leaving for final glide far below glideslope and working convergence lift along the ridgelines to stretch the glide. I see other gliders doing this... and try to visualize the terrain on the way back to NCI. Is there a blocking ridge on this route? I can't recall with certainty. Visibility has declined in late afternoon haze and low angle sun. Along the way, I know of decent looking fields, but no airports. I haven't had the chance to look over those fields on the ground. I stay in U2 mode – high, observant and slow. I get home for an easy 7th place for the day and remain 4th overall. This, by the bye, is one reason you want to finish: good food, good company and the damnedest camp fire you've ever seen.


Day 3

A stronger forecast and a longer thermal task. The first leg is slow, dicey and claims a couple of “lawn darts”. The next three turns go really well... and the home stretch is simply dead. Going into Covington late in the day, I can see I've made a mistake. I've been flying fast and have burned too much altitude. The last three clouds into Covington looked exactly the same as the six knotters I've had all the way from Union WV, but they offer no lift at all. Ugh. I can't get over the mountains and into the New Castle valley. While still fairly high (> 2500 agl) I burn about 500' over the valley floor doing recon on available fields. No airports here. I make my first and second choices, mark the first on my GPS, then press into the hills to try to gain altitude. It doesn't work and I retreat to my field low. The GPS mark provides great reassurance – the low angle of the sun and nature of the terrain make my field hard to locate visually from more than a mile or two.

I sort out the details of how I plan to get into this field. It's a good pick, but not a trivial one. I see a hawk flapping his wings, note the direction he's heading, head that way myself using the last of my excess altitude. It is very nearly time to drop the gear and call it a day... but there's no percentage in giving up too soon. And here, a weak thermal. I get there first, the hawk joins me and we begin a very slow climb. About a half hour later, I have enough altitude to get over the mountains. There's little hope of getting back to New Castle at this point, but there are more distance points to be had and a handful of private airports over on the other side.

Shortly I land at a beautiful grass strip 20 miles short of New Castle. I've flown a lot of miles today – more than some of the finishers – and so score fairly well despite landing, placing 10th for the day and hanging on to 4th overall. The day has been full of mistakes, one major (Covington) the balance minor, but I'm pleased that I hung in, made the best of it and had on the whole an enjoyable flight.


Two additional days fail to yield suitable racing conditions and this proves to be the end of the competition. Competition-wise, I'm pleased. My “recon mission” has turned into a respectable fourth place finish. The guys that beat me have something like seventy New Castle contests between them, which says as much about the appeal of this venue as the value of experience in this extremely technical site. So long NCI! See you next year.

-T8

4 comments:

Rick said...

Outstanding post, Evan!

Skip said...

Inspirational, truely!

Congratulations, Evan.

Matt McKrell said...

Nice writeup, Evan! My buddy HM
had a similar time to you, it sounds like. I've only flown there once but would like to "qualify" myself by next year.

Meanwhile, a friend sent a link to
a great writeup about the contest in
the Roanoke Times, including a video:

http://www.roanoke.com/multimedia/video/wb/177781

    PMSC Member said...

I just read the story again, 9 years after it first appeared. Great reading, still.

By the way, this is still the "most read" PMSC News article of all.

-Rick