Ridge Flying the Mifflin Task Area

Posted by on November 10, 2011

National and regional soaring competitions have been held at Mifflin County Airport in central Pennsylvania since 1990. Because of the ridge and valley topography here it is not unusual to fly tasks on days when the wind direction makes low level ridge running the optimum tactic for fast speeds. Since this is a specialized and infrequently used form of sailplane racing, and one with its own set of hazards and techniques, it is hoped this article will contribute to safety, competition fairness and reduced apprehension.

Following is a general consideration of ridge running with the emphasis on safety aspects. Many of these concepts and more are covered in Tom Knauff’s book Ridge Soaring the Bald Eagle Ridge. This is written from the perspective of thirty years ago and tries to meet the needs of a wide range of pilots (experienced to tyro) and gliders (1-26 to glass), so some aspects and a “rule” or two need to be modified in light of the higher performance sailplanes, wing loading and speeds we fly in contests. However, this book is valuable reading.

(To get the most from what follows, check out the collection of sample flight log files, which show the ridge routes discussed here.)

Because ridge running is exciting, fast, turbulent, visually stimulating and memorable it gets most of the “press” when people think of soaring at Mifflin. In reality it makes up a minority of the contest days, averaging about one day per contest. Some years (1991 Standard Nationals) have none and other (1998 Sport Nationals) have had as many as four. While the “locals” usually turn in creditable speeds on ridge days, relatively even wing loadings, day-before ridge briefings, and increasing experience in the pilot ranks produce score sheets with less spread than those tricky thermal days that have the biggest impact on the outcome. And for fairness and safety reasons the competition director will call for a task that doesn’t use the ridges when conditions are weak.

Successful ridge running requires a constant awareness of wind conditions, both direction and velocity. This information will help you anticipate problems ahead rather than blundering into weak areas only to be confronted with a landing in an unsuitable area with only a minute or two to get set up. Lift strength can be gauged most directly by reference to the airspeed indicator. If it has been bouncing around near yellow line and the pilot is regularly taking 2 and 3 G bumps then there isn’t much to worry about. One caveat here: airspeed, especially with high wing loading ships, is very sensitive to descending/ascending topography. Going down hill for a long stretch (such as heading into Cumberland on Haystack) can add on 20 or 30 insidious knots, while going the other way with the same wind can put you down in the worry zone.

Other sources of wind info are weather reports from ASOS/AWOS, FSS (Altoona), towers (Williamsport), GPS, observation of smoke, wave patterns on lakes and reservoirs, wind streaks on the forested slopes, ridge top flags and windsocks, cloud-shadow movement and tree top “tell tales” such as hemlocks and oak tree leaf clusters. A different ground speed between opposite flight directions on a ridge is also a clue to a wind  component that isn’t at right angles.

The lift, and thus the speed of the glider, is strongest right at ridge top. Because of wind surface friction it doesn’t pay to stick the wing right in the trees; a span or two out is better. This clearance will pay off as well in less mental fatigue and improved safety.

The lift strength is controlled as well by angle, a right angle of course being the most desirable. Since there are innumerable curves, projections, and wiggles throughout the ridge system, a smart pilot will continually assess the layout of the ridge ahead. A ridge that turns into or away from the wind is going to have less lift, and if it rises as well (like the Milesburg gap when headed southwest) it can result in a surprise landing, even on days that are pretty good.

Ridge shape (cross section) is also important. A ridge that starts up gradually in the valley and keeps getting steeper, like the backside of the Mifflin ridge or Bald Eagle from Altoona to Bedford, will produce better lift than one that is broadly rounded off at the top such as Haystack from Hyndman to Cumberland.

Beside weather and terrain factors there are other areas that pilots should consider in preparation for a ridge mission. Heavy turbulence is something most glider pilots don’t experience in a normal contest. But on a day at Mifflin with the wind from the northwest gusting to 35 and higher, pilots will be subjected to continuous chop with regular jolts to 3 and perhaps 5 g’s. Although gliders can take this it is important to handle the stick in such a manner as to not add to the loads. Most experienced ridge runners fly with the stick gripped low so that the wrist rests on the leg. All objects like food and water bottles must be secured so they won’t fly around.

It is strongly recommended that you install a crotch strap . This device keeps the standard four-point harness down snug against the hips and shoulders so that negative g’s don’t bang your head against the canopy. Equally essential is a no-hassle relief system. Use of a “hands off” catheter to an overboard plumbing system is vastly superior to the bag toss when flying at fifty feet and the speed of heat.

Before addressing the peculiarities of specific ridges in the task area it should be pointed out that they come in various shapes and this can affect the quality of the lift. Many have a step and the size varies so much there is no firm rule on whether you should fly the forward (lower ) part or the back. Such situations will be addressed individually later. Just be aware that upwind terrain formations, steps, close ridges, or knobs produce abnormally high turbulence. If you are cruising along Tussey at 130 per just
south of Blair County Airport and don’t slow down (or duck your head) as you round the ridge wiggle there, you will certainly get a reminder from the upwind knob!

Specific Ridge Considerations

This linked drawing was traced over a Sectional and should be compared to your chart when reading the following ridge-by-ridge commentary. Sectionals aren’t very accurate in showing many of these ridges. TPCs (Tactical Pilotage Charts) are better, but now rarely seen. Online resources, especially GoogleEarth, can be extremely useful. Perhaps best of all are 3-D raised relief maps such as the wall display at Mifflin. The great majority of ridge running is done with northwest winds. The rare situations where southeast winds allow “back side missions” will be discussed later.

Nesbit to Cumberland

Beginning at the most northern turn point, Nesbit, and running 90 miles southwest to Altoona is Bald Eagle Ridge (BER).  The main consideration along the portion to Lock Haven is the eastward tendency of the orientation which can be tricky with a wind angle of less than 300 degrees. The insidious feature here is that flying NE to Nesbit you will have a tailwind component and thus gaps and sink areas are passed quickly. Going back the other way can be more difficult, especially in the knobby area approaching Lock Haven. The good news is that if you must land between Nesbit and Lock Haven, the fields are excellent. Between Lock Haven and Milesburg the ridge is uniform and gives few problems. However, the reservoir  takes up a major portion of the valley and landing opportunities are not so good. This is a stretch to tune your noggin to “what if I have to land” mode. The village of Howard, mid-way along the lake, no longer has a landable field. The best landing field near the reservoir is the mowed Army Corps area at the foot of the dam (land parallel to the dam heading northwest).

There is a small-looking gap at Milesburg that has snared more than one US Team level pilot. The combination of angle change to the right and uphill crossing can be tricky with a wind angle of 300 degrees or less. It’s best to get some altitude (flying straight ahead) as you approach the gap.

The ridge gets higher as it passes Ridge Soaring Gliderport (Keystone turnpoint) and the ride to Port Matilda is easy. From Port Matilda to Tyrone the ridge gets lower and it’s another place to stay ahead of events, especially because landing fields are sub-par. There is a small jog to the right just north of Tyrone.  Note that Interstate 99, once a landable option when under construction, is now a busy highway.

A couple miles beyond Tyrone the ridge climbs quite noticeably, but it is not a tricky situation. If you can’t make the grade as it climbs rapidly you will be on top again shortly after it levels off. The fields from four miles southwest of Tyrone to Altoona are good.

Approaching Altoona the ridge flattens but always works. An obvious major power line crosses the ridge here.

The city of Altoona covers the valley from the turn point to the beginning of the Altoona gap. This gap is three miles wide but is rarely a problem heading southwest. If you are at or above the antennas at the end of the ridge you will most likely get across with sufficient altitude. Of course it doesn’t hurt to fly slow approaching the gap in order to leave with a little comfort margin. If you arrive low on the south side of the gap the ridge works well below the top so it is normal to come in below the peak and slide up to the top as you progress southwest. However, should you make the judgment that you are too low, the best landing spot is just short of the end of the ridge at about your 11 o’clock position as you approach. This
means you must make the decision to land prior to contacting any ridge lift.

The ridge now becomes Dunning Mountain and it is one of the fastest and easiest rides in the task area. Landing fields are good all the way to the eight-mile-wide Bedford gap. Here it is necessary to gain some altitude – a thousand feet is enough – before going for it. Northbound a bit more altitude is handy if the winds are 320 degrees or more. Observe the windsock at the airport as you go by.

This next ridge is a two-lane affair between the gap and Hyndman. The upwind lower ridge (Buffalo Mt.) is smoother and has better landing possibilities, while the back, higher ridge (Wills Mt.) has stronger winds but more turbulence.

After Hyndman the ridge loses about 600 feet by the time it gets to the quarry on the right, a mile or so short of  a deep gap. Since it becomes unlandable southwest of this point it is a good place to thermal up for the Cumberland tp. Depending on whether you will be heading back the way we just came or transitioning to the next down wind ridge east of Cumberland, the altitude required will vary.

Concerning ridge transitions it pays to know a few basics. When bailing off an upwind ridge to one directly downwind it is normally a no-brainer. But an upwind jump takes vastly more altitude, especially since you have to get over the destination ridge. When aiming for an upwind ridge keep options
open; you can almost always get back to the ridge you departed. Sight an object beyond the ridge top and see if objects in front of it are coming into view (good) or if your sighted object is disappearing (bad). The ideal position to make gap crossings and ridge jumps is under a cloud street. Since they rarely occur exactly where you want, it is best to climb under the street closest to the desired departure point, even if it is a mile or so away.

The next ridge chain heads back northeast, starting eight miles out of Cumberland and ending at Woodward. It is wise to leave the turnpoint with 1000 feet above ridge top because low arrival at the ridge (Evitts Mt.) sends you along unlandable terrain (unless Lake Nixon appeals to you). The ridge poses no challenges until you are about six miles past I-70. Here the ridge does an abrupt 90 degree turn to the left and at ridge top level it appears like you will hit a wall. Not to worry, ease back for a couple hundred feet of altitude and go straight ahead over The Wall, whence Tussey Ridge will miraculously appear slightly to the right. Proceeding up Tussey three miles there is a climbing gap to cross but it requires only a prior pull up to feel comfortable. Note the American flag (wind indicator) at the top of the south side of the gap.

The next point of interest is three miles short of Blair County Airport where the ridge zigs to the right. Since it passes behind an upwind knob (Pulpit Hill) you should slow up until through the rough air. Following this zig the ridge takes on a stepped configuration. Fly the higher portion for 14 miles where the ridge zags to the left and then turn out to follow the north-running, short intermediate ridgelet that takes you around the corner. From here it is easy all the way to State College where it is necessary to drop to the lower front ridge to avoid a shallow wooded valley leading to the antennas shown on the map. This forward ridge ends in seven miles and it is necessary to hop downwind for the no-sweat run to Woodward.

Returning southwest toward Cumberland is done along the same route but all the peculiarities are handled differently. The upwind jump near Colyer Lake will require some thermalling. Landing fields are plentiful from Woodward to Bedford. The zag requires about as much caution going each way, but the zig will require a couple  hundred feet of altitude.

Arriving at The Wall you have two choices for a route to Cumberland. It is generally accepted that it is best to thermal over the wall rather than pressing on down Tussey. Trying the latter brings you to a rather low and wide dead-end with a trickier transition.

Arriving at the end of the ridge eight miles from Cumberland, a climb is necessary. If you transition to Haystack (upwind ridge that leads back to the Bedford gap) you need less altitude because it isn’t far from the turnpoint to that ridge. However, if you are coming back to this departure point you need enough to get in and out. Many pilots fly the transition to Haystack then drop back at the Bedford gap going northeast. Less altitude is required going in to Cumberland and the drop back at Bedford is simply a bank and yank downwind turn.

Cumberland to Nesbit

All the points noted before have  different characteristics when northeast-bound. Haystack, between Cumberland and Hyndman climbs considerably and is rounded, meaning slower speed this way. The Bedford gap is about the same each way, but owing to the northerly track there is usually a headwind component and a little more altitude is appropriate. The Altoona gap for sure requires more altitude northbound because of a headwind component and the lack of landing fields along the first five miles after crossing. The run all the way to Nesbit (90 miles) has no problems northeast bound.

Tactically, the “front ridge” or Cumberland to Nesbit via Bald Eagle is not the fastest, generally speaking, because it is longer and there are two gaps to cross. The faster way is the already discussed  route from
Cumberland to State College with a forward jump to Mt Nittany. This ridge is excellent all the way to the bowl at Lock Haven. Plenty of fields and no gaps. As it runs northeast a pronounced step develops, but it is obvious that the forward most ridge is the correct one.

At the Lock Haven bowl a transition to Bald Eagle Ridge is required and there are three ways of making the move depending on what the next turnpoint is. If it is Nesbit the fastest way is flying over the end of the bowl, after following the curve in the bowl for about 30 degrees, and then flying through the gap in BER. Owing to its apparent impracticability, this jump is known as the “Death Dive”. In practice it is rather benign, although pilots can expect to emerge from the gap below ridge top.  If Lock Haven is the desired turnpoint, the time-honored method is a 500 foot climb on Nittany with a glide to BER. For the more adventurous it has been shown that simply flying around the bowl and transitioning to the windward side when half way around works. This is the “Talledaga” transition.

Practically speaking, the thermal transition to BER costs a minuscule amount of time compared to the other two and since it probably wouldn’t be used more than once per task it makes sense for first-timers to go that way.
We have now covered the two main ridge systems where the preponderance of ridge running is likely to occur on a task out of Mifflin. The remaining ridges are usually used at the end of a task to transition back to Mifflin and run out the clock (on a pilot-option task).

The obvious candidate for almost uninterrupted ridge running back to Mifflin is the ridge lying along the south side of Raystown Reservoir. 15 miles in length, it is reached by thermalling off Tussey directly off the end of runway 30 at Blair County Airport. A lower intermediate ridge obscures the water, and a huge potential landing field right next to the water, until about halfway there and committed to the transition. Just have faith that an extension of runway 30 leads directly to both. The coordinates for this field are: 40’16”.089 and 078’12”.071.

In addition to the field referred to previously, there is one other possible landing site along this ridge. It is at the foot of the ridge just as it veers to the right at the half-way point. (N 40 21 19 W 078 07 32) Being on the undeveloped side of the lake, a retrieve would require either a vessel of some sort, or rough access via the gated road of the Turkey Federation of America. It is therefore imperative for those pilots wishing to avoid aquatic vexations to ensure that the wind will be satisfactory.  

 Since this portion will come after a couple hours of ridge running, you should have a good idea if it will work. If you’ve spent the last hour stalling along the ridges in weak lift, don’t go home this way. Thermalling off the ridge at Spruce Creek is a better option. And if you do commit to this route, get on the ridge immediately, avoiding the natural tendency to come in cautiously high. You must know whether the ridge is working before you get out of gliding range of the field. If you have been doing 100+ on the other ridges and there are wind streaks on the wooded slopes, this ridge should be fine. It has a good shape and no gaps. The one caution spot is halfway along where there is a wiggle to the right. Pull up prior to this point and float along the short stretch for peace of mind.

This ridge ends just beyond the dam (upon which there is a nice landing spot) and it is necessary to climb here for the transition to Jacks Mountain which runs all the way past Mifflin on the southeast side of the valley. This is another stepped ridge with the higher part being the main highway. The lower part works for saves. Many pilot-option flights finish out the time by using Belleville, Mill Creek and Mifflin in various sequences.

Referring back to the Raystown Reservoir ridge for a moment, this should be considered to be a one-way ridge. Normally, when outbound from Mifflin, you will have starting altitude sufficient to fly directly to Tussey, Nittany or Bald Eagle. The transition to Tussey at the end of the reservoir could be difficult and it makes more sense to use your “free” start altitude getting upwind.

Ridges south and east of Mifflin 

There are two ridge systems that can be used for turn points south and east of Mifflin: Shade and Tuscarora. Parts of these ridges can be useful when the winds are too westerly for Tussey and Bald Eagle ridges. This is because they take a more north-south alignment where winds of 270 and less will work. Dickeys Mtn, McConnellsburg & Orbisonia turnpoints on Shade, and Honey Creek on Tuscarora are in this family.   

As Shade Mtn curves more easterly going northeast it becomes less tenable with winds of less than 310 degrees, and this is important when heading for the Shade Mtn turnpoint. 

Mifflin to Dickeys Mtn  

From the Mifflin start cylinder, a straight glide to Shade is the normal route. A path to the end of Jacks with a downwind drop to Shade works as well, but takes slightly longer.  

Shade Mtn ends 45 miles from Mifflin at Gobblers Knob. A slight course to the left, passing over the I-76 puts you on a stepping stone to Dickeys named Scrub Ridge. A 200-foot climb here is sufficient to attain ridge lift on the jump downwind to Dickeys. 

The run to the end of the ridge is straightforward, although the last couple miles are into a rising bowl of solid forest.  

Dickeys to the Shade Mtn Turnpoint

The route back to Shade Mtn is the same but the two jumps transitioning to Shade are upwind and greater reserve altitude is required. Once on Shade the run past Orbisonia is easy with a short upwind jump a couple miles further along. This brings the pilot to Lewistown where another upwind jump is required, which, although slightly longer, is usually not a problem. Then the ridge is unbroken for the final 25 miles to the Shade Mtn turnpoint.

The tricky part about ridge running Shade Mtn is that the angle changes 50 degrees between the Dickeys and Shade turnpoints. The optimum wind angle for the entire ridge is 315 degrees, but that direction will most likely see pilots running the “front “ ridges, leaving Shade missions to days when the winds are closer to 280 degrees.  

Dickeys to Mifflin 

A major upwind transition faces pilots returning to Mifflin or Jacks Mtn Two points have the advantage of not requiring a ridgetop crossing. These are from Lewistown, through the Reedsville Gap and from Shade to Jacks north of Gobbler’s Knob.  

The Reedsville crossing can be a nail-biter owing to the inhospitable terrain the last mile before the gap. However, McArdles Airport (N40 39 .776, W077 33 .301) a mile short of the Gap and four miles from Mifflin is a bailout option.

Going around the south end of Jacks is another way to avoid a transition that passes over the downwind crest of the ridge. The valley from the south end until past Mill Creek is uninviting for landings, so coming around the corner low is to be avoided. 

Tuscarora Ridge 

The two turnpoints on Tuscarora ridge are Honey Grove and Thompsontown. The route from Dickeys Mtn and McConnellsburg to these would bear to the right at Burnt Cabins, which is near the I-76 crossing to Shade Mt.

Other Ridges 

A number of ridges populate the area between the Tunnels  and Clarks Ferry turnpoints. On days with northwest winds these ridge can be used for short runs and saves, but don’t offer sustained runs of any length. A good percentage of the Waggoners Gap to Tunnels section passes over Tuscarora State Forest with most of the valleys totally covered in forest – not the realm of a safety-conscious pilot.

“Back Side” Missions

Occasionally, when a thermal task is not possible, or the thermals have quit but a southeast wind is blowing, the southeast side of Jacks Mtn can be used. In the latter case this can happen at the end of a day when an approaching front has canceled the sun and prefrontal winds make it work. The SE side of Jacks has an ideal profile for orographic lift and it will support a glider when there is scarcely a breath of wind at the field. If the Mifflin AWOS is calling the wind direction between 110 and 170, at just about any velocity, it is worth a cautious try.

If the task is planned for these conditions the most frequently used turnpoints are Saw Mill, Three Barns, Belleville and Mill Creek. There is an offset in the ridge about one mile northeast of Sawmill that could be a problem when southwest bound with a southerly component in the wind direction. A glider-friendly airport (Gilfert) is located right at the foot of the ridge at this point, should a landing place be needed.

General Safety Concerns

We do not what we ought;
What we ought not, we do;
And lean upon the thought
That chance will bring us through.

Matthew Arnold

Compared to thermal flying, ridge flying affords the pilot less time to assess and react to unexpected events. This makes it vital for the pilot to stay awake and think a couple chess moves ahead for possible problem solutions. A typical accident scenario places the pilot low (unexpectedly, of course) on a ridge after having crossed a gap or having fallen off after the seeing the airspeed decay to near stall. The thinking cap gets put on at this point but with little time or altitude the outcome has a high luck factor in it. Think ahead!

Pertinent to the “fall off” scenario is the observation that no amount of stick squeezing, breath holding and slow flying is going to change fundamental physical law. Attempting to stall yourself back up the side of a ridge will likely terminate with a shinny down a tree.

June 2006 Update

15 contests have been held at Mifflin County since 1990. With an average of two ridge-running days per contest the total number of ridge days would be 30. During the 15 years there have been four accidents (one fatal) where improper ridge techniques were factors. Two of these involved low energy stalls into trees and two involved flying along sheltered ridges where the wind was altered by the close proximity of an upwind ridge.

Statistically, there has been an accident associated with ridge running about every eight ridge days. Although this is probably close to the accident rate for flat land contests, the potential for greater damage and injuries should be motivation for pilots to arm themselves with the knowledge of what the hazards are (the easy part) and then fly their gliders accordingly (testosterone makes this the difficult part).

All ridge runners will face low energy/weak lift situations at some point in almost every flight. Three fundamental rules must be adhered to in these situations: keep more clearance from the trees, add some airspeed to insure controllability in a tail gust, and have an escape route. Never put yourself in a situation where your plan has to work. Assume you will get smothered by wave suppression as you approach or fly along a ridge with low energy.

Ridge Etiquette

An old rule of ridge flying is that when overtaking someone, pass on the ridge side. Expunge that concept from your memory if it was ever there. If the overtakee is way up there and out away, this is OK. But normal passing is done to the outside and preferably preceded by a radio call. Head-on passing uses the same protocol as driving on the highway: the southwest-bound pilot pulls out to the right. On “back side” tasks it is the northeast-bound pilot who pulls out to the right.

Even though ridge running constitutes a small fraction of the flying at Mifflin contests, it is hoped this document will make this sort of task less daunting, reduce local knowledge advantage and contribute to safety. You certainly will never forget a day at Mifflin when the winds are 320 @ 25.