Since the early days of joining the glider club, I kept hearing about this magical experience called "ridge soaring". The description of flying long distances over Allegheny Mountains without needing to thermal seemed so different from the type of flying i was used to, i knew I would have to experience it one day.
The day came this fall and a lot more days came after that as I got addicted to the experience but, more importantly, was fascinated by people that I met there. It was an incredible cast of real characters with years of flying experiences and i am very lucky to have made acquaintance with them.
The place we went to is called Ridge Soaring Glideport and it even has its own Wiki page. It is a 6 hour drive that is so beautiful in the fall, it is breathtaking. My pictures from the car do not do it justice.
The owners of the Glideport, Tom and Doris, run a smooth operation with an emphasis on safety. They also do ridge checkout in their twin Astir, which was of great benefit for ridge newbie like me. As part of the checkout, they explain and show the difference between taking off and landing at the ridge Vs your typical flatland gliding airfield.
The differences were not trivial. The one that is immediately obvious on takeoff takes a while to get used to: while at my home field, we take off and fly into a great blue (or grey) yonder, at the Ridge you takeoff and head straight for the solid mass of trees... i.e. the ridge itself. The feeling that you are going to fly straight into the trees is overwhelming for the first few flights.
Eventually, you begin to accept that the trees are a lot farther away that they seem and tows are getting a lot less stressful. But just as you begin to feel comfortable, you get to take off on a day the ridge is working and have to deal with an incredible turbulence.
And then you get to reverse this experience for the landing. You start your circuit below the trees and then get beat up by the turbulence on the base and final. High base and high speed circuits are the norm, which suited me just fine as those were very similar to circuits I got used to do for acro flights.
What you get between takeoff and landing is flying magic. When the wind hits the ridge at 90 degree angle (+/- 30 degrees) at the speed above 15 knots, it produces lift that allows experienced pilots to fly long distances (1,ooo km +) at low altitudes and without the need to thermal. When the ridge is "working", in addition to the ridge lift, there are also strong thermals and, occasionally, the wave. In the other words, it is nothing short of soaring paradise. And, if that was not enough, the best ridge times are in early spring and late fall which extends our flying season that otherwise would be woefully short.
When the ridge is working, the day starts early (as soon as the fog lifts that is). This allows for two people sharing glider to both have good flights.
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