The Arkansas Traveler Crosses the Mighty Mississippi
Scott Alexander - August 3rd, 2011
It's been almost a month since the start of the Dog Days of summer. Today seemed no different than all the rest of our scorching triple digit temperatures we have dealt with. The preparations for today's flight included standing in front of a giant fan to dry the sweat, just so I could apply more sun screen. Constantly drinking water bottle after water bottle to just barely stay hydrated and it was only 10:00am. I had been studying Google maps for two years now looking for suitable fields for off airport an off airport landing between the Wolf River airport in Rossville, Tennessee and Lawrence Field gliderport in Cherry Valley, Arkansas. The conditions had to be just perfect for me to venture across the Mighty Mississippi. I have been waiting for that big wave.
Anyone who has tasted the rewarding experience of flying further and further on cross country flights in a glider, becomes addicted to this sport. My addiction was forcing me to power through this treacherous heat advisory in hopes to reach cloudbase, in the shade, with a gentle breeze coming through the cockpit with cabin temperatures in the 70's. Two weeks prior the heat advisory had sent a friend to the hospital for heat exhaustion. But even that was not going to stop me from feeding my addiction.
My old 1971 Standard Cirrus glider was gridded on the runway by 11:30am. The task for today was from Wolf River Airport to New Albany, MS then Bolivar, TN, next Holly Springs, MS and a final glide back home. This seemed reasonable as cumulus clouds were popping like fireworks across the horizon.
Due to the good forecast, and desire for a long flight, I had packed 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a peach, apple and a gallon of water in a camel pack. I had a backup handheld radio onboard as well.
Right off of tow, I was carried up by a solid 400-500 fpm thermal to the floor of the class B airspace, which is 4,000 feet. At 3,950 feet, I was traveling at 90 knots, just to keep the nose pointed down as the conditions were so strong it was lifting me up. I knew today was going to be a good one.
Reaching my first thermal, one by one, nearly 20 buzzards joined me, the big bird, for a wonderful dance up to cloudbase from rising hot air warmed by the asphalt tarmac on the Holly Springs airport. This flight was right on schedule. Sammy Hagar would be proud as I can't drive 55 today! Moving further south the clouds were spaced evenly apart like stepping stones. As the lift slowed down in my next climb, I chose not to keep climbing to a peaceful cloudbase, rather stay in the lift band for faster currents. Besides, the scenery is just so much more enjoyable down lower. There was the Walter Place Mansion on my left, Wall Doxey state park on my right, and just ahead was my families land in Hickory Flat. Knowing this area well, I felt more comfortable down lower between 3,000 to 4,000 feet. I have driven past many fields below thinking each time how suitable a landout would be there.
Turning just inside the western edge of our predefined 20 mile turn cylinder I pressed northbound to the next turn point. Suddenly, my wings flexed, the bill of my hat was lowered and without hesitation I entered a quick 60 degree bank 2 g turn. The vertical speed indicator was screaming upwards at 800 feet per minute! This was the big wave, time to hang loose! With only a dozen or so turns, I had rocketed to 6,700 feet and pressing forward with a big smile.
Twenty some miles later I had fallen back down into the lift band. I had spent nearly a half an hour going straight while loosing altitude slowly. During this glide, I had calculated on my GPS moving map Glide Navigator 2 program exactly what it would take to fly ALL the way around the class B airspace to land at Cherry Valley. Today it was possible. Could my 40 year old Standard Cirrus make it all the way? It was time to put it to the test.
I then abandoned the task, and navigated under occasional haze domes and seldom cumulus clouds to just south of Covington, TN. This was my go or no go point. It was do or die from this point forward. Would I soar back to Wolf River with my tail between my legs, or fly west?
Reaching a lone cumulus cloud at my decision point, I gave a good examination of what was ahead across the river. Absolutely no clouds, no haze domes and solid smooth looking haze ahead. Flashbacks of the morning weather briefing from Steve's iPhone recalled 100 to 200 feet per minute lift west of the river….at best. Each turn while climbing in this thermal, I gave serious concern of crossing the river into wide open farmland where homes were separated by endless miles of crops.
What if I landed in one of those fields? How would I get home? Would I spend the night in the glider? I formed a plan of radioing an airline pilot as I know this profession well. I would call upon a colleague listening in on 121.5 MHz, ask for a frequency change to 123.45 to then relay a message. I could obtain the latitude and longitude from my GPS, and pass that along with some contact phone numbers to the airline pilot, to be sent via Acars to company dispatch for a phone call for a retrieve. Not the best of plans, but I knew that jetBlue Airways flight 119 from New York to New Orleans would be in the vicinity at this time, as it is one of my routes that I fly. I'd call upon a coworker.
Reaching the thermal top of 4,500 feet a few miles east of the Mississippi river, I took two more turns in zero sink just to build up some more confidence. It was time to fly west.
As expected, no lift over the water, I knew this would happen since the water would cool the air. Barges below were pushing hard upstream with an engine, while I was pushing silently west with no engine using only my knowledge. The view of the river was spectacular!
Loosing more and more altitude, the reality of landing out set in. East Arkansas is not known for easy soaring. It is a challenge to find lift over the rice fields cooled by their water. Lower I went. I was downshifting to a lower gear and saying goodbye to life in the fast lane behind me.
Having lost almost 2,000 feet coming across the river, I aimed straight towards a group of metal farm buildings. I could see this structure to be hotter than the surroundings, along with its parking lot and cars. If it didn't pay off, my thumb would be vertical to hitch hike aboard a John Deere from a nearby field.
Lucky me, this paid off like the warm granite rocks on the side of Johns Creek mountain, in Virginia, where I learned to soar as a teenager. Only this time, it was a much-much slower climb.
Looking ahead I had serious doubt as to whether I should expect to land at Woodbridge airport owned by club member Mark Warren, or push further ahead and end up using my Boy Scout survival lessons. The thought of Marks mother cooking me a fine meal for dinner sounded nice, but not as nice as maybe, just maybe making it all the way to Cherry Valley. No guts, no glory!
Most of the flight on the west side of the river was between 1,500 to 2,500 down low hitting thermals that were so slow, it was virtually zero gain. Some thermal bubbles were only producing 25 fpm, but at a low altitude of 1,500 feet, I needed anything I could find. A field being plowed by a tractor ahead showed dust flying north. After a few minutes of watching the tractor, I saw the dust flying in a different direction. It was now being sucked southeast bound towards a black field that had just been burned a few days prior. An invisible thermal had just become visible. This was just what I needed. So far I'd flown from Tennessee, to Mississippi, back through Tennessee and now to Arkansas.
Reaching the final portion of my flight, I was pushing the limit and pushing it hard. I had closed off both air vents to maximize aerodynamic efficiencies. There was a harsh trade off. This meant dealing with ungodly amounts of heat, down low, under completely blue skies with no shade from the clouds. I felt it was worth the minuscule gain in performance, as I needed every gain I could get. I continuously pushed my sunglasses back up my sweaty face each time they slide down my nose. It was steaming!
Finding this rising air took me aloft not too high, but gave a slight hope that I could at least reach Crowley's Ridge. It was now 4:45pm and time was running out. The soaring time window was reaching an end. My glide path computer said I needed to gain 500 feet more altitude to reach Lawrence Field with no altitude to spare upon arrival. I was below glide path and headed towards a big open field bordering the east side of Crowley's ridge. Arriving over this field, I could just barely make out the lake next to the runway at Cherry Valley. However, I was well below glide path to make a safe glide over the unlandable last ten miles.
At 5:15 pm I found a slight workable thermal that brought me up to glide path altitude where I could have only 500 feet of altitude to spare upon arrival. I started thinking about the grimly thought of ending up in the trees if I ran across sinking air. Or worse, walking through the forest in copperhead snake infested territory. I could hear David Cahoon's voice telling me about the snakes on Crowley's ridge and the snakes in the rice fields. I hate snakes.
When reaching halfway up the thermal, I had more than enough altitude to make it over the ridge and be snake free. Yeee-hooo! I was going to make it! The Arkansas Traveler trophy would be mine to bring back to Wolf River! Barreling across Crowley's ridge at 90 knots to bleed off excess altitude for my approach, I ran across a strong 500 fpm thermal. I looked above me and a cloud street had formed directly over the ridge. It was 5:30pm and a first-class soaring day.
Landing at Cherry Valley, I had spent nearly 5 hours in the cockpit. I had gone through all my water and all my food. I was exhausted, dehydrated, yet overjoyed all at once. I had made it!
Shortly there after, the Arkansas traveler trophy was removed from the club house. Leaving my glider behind I hopped in a friends getaway Cessna Bird Dog to head home. The trophy rested on my lap while relaxing in the back seat. How long would this trophy rest at Wolf River? Would it return back to Lawrence Field before Michael Poe of Eagleville would soar in to claim it? Or might world competitor Bill Elliot from Huntsville cruise on in to steal it away? Whoever gets the trophy next I promise to help them out in anyway I can to get them back to their home field. Free use of my truck, trailer, house and dinner on me will be provided to the next challenger who carries the Arkansas Traveler away.
My big wave had finally come. I had surfed the air currents through three states. The joys of soaring are endless. This is why I love this sport. Thanks to all who make this awesome aviation adventure possible. Soar on my friends!
Written by Scott Alexander
August 3rd, 2011