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Sid's Report from the USA - Summer in New England

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This weekend, I visited the Greater Boston Soaring Club at Sterling Airport east of Boston, Massachusetts. I had agreed to meet a colleague of mine, John, an aeronautics professor from MIT, who is also a pilot and glider instructor. The weather was hot, blustery and blue, so not a lot of people were out to go soaring that day. 
 
Sterling airport is about an hour and a quarter’s drive from Boston, a drive that takes you through little towns with lots of so-called ‘Five-four-and-a-door’ wooden colonial-style houses (with five windows on the upper floor, and a front door in the middle of the lower floor with two windows on each side), and small white churches, all spatiously dotted around bucolic, thickly wooded and slightly undulating countryside. 
 
The Greater Boston Soaring Club is heavily dominated by private owners (up to 50 gliders). There is no hangarage, so everybody’s glider is sitting in trailers. The season is from April to October, with the best months being April and May (which is often the case in the Northern hemisphere). Winters in New England are fierce, and long, and very cold, typically with massive amounts of snow. 
 
The club has three tugs (two Pawnees and a Cessna Bird Dog), and three two seaters: a Blanik, a Puchatek and a brand new ASK-21. I was offered to fly the latter with John. I am happy to report (or perhaps not) that a totally new ASK-21 flies like it did when I first flew one in 1984: heavy to control, slow to respond, but entirely forgiving and docile. And of course, flying something that is so new (and punctilliously German to boot) is always a pleasure. 
 
New England is heavily forested, and I mean very heavily. I recall a story of a Learjet that disappeared in Vermont in the 1980’s. It was swallowed up by the forest, and has not been found to this day. This thick tree cover is obvious as soon as you take off from Sterling (or even before: I asked John what to do in case of a cable break or tug problem. He assured me laconically that there was no option to land soon after take-off. Only trees. There might be a small orchard, he then recalled, which would offer some space in between the trees (of course you’d lose the wings, and you’d better aim really well)).
 
A veritable sea of dark green spreads before you when you get airborne. There is no end to it; neither in the west, north or south (Boston itself was to the east, but even that seemed lost in a sea of green until the real sea (the Atlantic) takes over). Almost any trace of human habitation is lost to the trees. The few towns that I recalled seeing on the drive over are lost to the eye, covered over by leaves. Only occasionally do you spot some evidence of human settlement; strewn through the trees as if it merely were some pieces of litter blown on the wind.
 
To the north, where most soaring flights go, forests get ever thicker (if, indeed, this is possible) and even less interspersed with roads. There are some (very occasional) airports, so ‘airport-hopping’ is one way to go cross-country. John has an ASW-27 with no engine. He told me that almost all national team pilots from the US come from New England: I think it is because they have no option of an outlanding, which probably breeds a pluckiness that doesn’t come from flying in the wide-open, thermal-pumping, drier West. Not all is thermal flying to the north: there is also ridge-soaring that happens at a couple of hundred feet off the valley floor (since mountains, such as they are, are not high in the Northeast). This sounds more reassuring than it is, however, since the valley floor is often as covered in trees as the ridge itself.
 
John shared plenty of stories of pilots landing in trees and lakes: insurance companies must have a different relationship to gliding in New England, I suppose. One of his buddies did indeed land in a lake during a competition (the trick, he assured me, was to not stall it on, but to have a bit of speed, as you will first submarine, and then resurface again… What a lovely prospect). This pilot did, and swam to the shore with his glider in tow (literally just pulling it behind him). The only problem was that he ended up, with his glider, on an island in the middle of the lake he’d landed in! This made a retrieve a bit challenging. And required more swimming. But, John assured me, the next day he flew in the competition again. I guess he might not have had to clean bugs off the wings that evening… The glider had undergone a whole bodywash, after all. I hope the pilot scored a fresh parachute somewhere, but with guys like that, who knows. Perhaps he’d simply hung it to dry overnight.
 
Given the weather, John and I were offered little option other than to bob around some shorn-off thermal bubbles that were blown in lines across the countryside. The landscape, for someone who is used to flying in more open terrain, is profoundly unreadable: with only trees, and more trees, there is very little in the way of clues to pick up on. Some bumps and hillocks in the landscape might give some suggestion of trigger points, but I was not able to establish a meaningful relationship between what I saw and what we experienced. 
 
With a hot, 20-plus knot crosswind over the trees, you can imagine how the approach felt like getting caught in a tumble drier. It made our Warwick 09-approach in a southerly wind almost a walk in the park. I have offered John a flight in Australia in return, so you might well meet him at Wawick one day. He can then explain to us what we need to do if we ever feel the need to land in Lake Leslie…
 
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