Wednesday, August 31, 2016

First XC by Mark Hopkins

I flew my first x-country flight on Saturday with Greg Hanlon (JD). I took a 3K tow and parked under a dark cloud to the south of Tug. The lift was weak, but I managed to work up to 4100’ or so. The cloud base was probably 4500’, but couldn’t make it. Our task was to head NE so I flew a few miles to a spot on the north side of the airport to wait for Greg. He joined me soon and we headed to the ridge between PM and the river and tried to gain as much altitude as possible for crossing the desert between PM and the first clouds over near Cube. I circled awhile under a decent cloud and got up to 4500’ or so. At this point Greg said there was nothing to be gained by waiting. He pointed out that we had Dean by 2000’ or so, although there was a substantial disagreement between JD’s glide computer and mine - mine said Dean by 1500’ (Greg had put my polar into his computer, which was really thoughtful of him). I definitely would not have made the jump if I were by myself, but having Greg’s experience and coaching made all the difference. I was very surprised that once I committed to Dean I didn’t think about PM again. We worked our way towards the first mountains and found enough scratchy thermals to maintain our altitude WRT Dean, although my MSL was decreasing. Eventually, we reached the NW shoulder of Moosilauke. At this point I was showing 1200’ to Dean although Greg had me somewhat higher. I almost pulled the plug here and headed for Dean (I think I was down to 3500’). Just when things looked bleak (to me) we found a decent thermal that took me to 4500’ and put us in glide for Franconia. We headed for the ridge at the back side of Cannon and found plenty of good lift to take us over the north end. The thermals here were topping out about 5500’. So things were starting to work. Listening to the radio of the goings on at Post Mills where folks were falling out added to the excitement of having made our getaway. Greg was making things pretty easy for me, looking ahead, coaching constantly, and patiently circling overhead while I thermaled slowly upward. All I had to do was fly my plane and try not to do anything stupid. Over the mountains it was a beautiful soaring day with plenty of nicely spaced cumuli. We still stopped at almost every cloud to tank up, which I suspect Greg might not have done without me. But perhaps it wasn’t the easiest day either. So we flew over Franconia ridge at 5500’ or so and then continued over to Garfield and on to Twin Mt. I think I reached 6000’, my high point for the day, at one point. The scenery over the mountains was awesome. I really enjoyed flying along the ridges and taking a little time to watch the scenery below. Our goal was the Mt Washington Hotel, but the clouds there had a different character. The cloud base was lower, the bases were wispy and the area looked overdeveloped. At some point Dan Mac (EA) passed us on his way to Washington after escaping PM. Greg probably would have continued, but he thought things might get a little bit exciting and that I had had about as much stress as I could take. So we turned around and headed back along the ridge to Garfield, over Cannon and on to Moosilauke. The flight home was as easy as the flight out was hard. There was plenty of lift and we passed Moosilauke at almost 5000’ with PM in comfortable, fast glide. We got to Post Mills at 1800’ (just as the glide computer predicted). 
Looking back on the flight, I think that it has given me the confidence to venture out on my own. I know that Greg was balancing a lot of variables that I was just dimly aware of that made our flight possible, but the essential parts of the experience are to make the psychological leap to leave PM behind and make Dean (or Warren) your airport and then to maintain a sufficient reserve altitude to glide to each successive airport as you move away from PM and again when you return.  Having done that once, I hope I can do it again.