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  • by Tom Eastman

Soaring High on the Wind

"Clear prop!" With that command, the propeller of the red L-19 tow plane whirls into action, readying the craft for take-off down the runway of the White Mountain Airport in North Conway. The motorized plane's tow cable is attacked to the glider trailing behind, with the slack taken in as the roar of the engine increases. The attendant standing beside the glider gives the go-ahead signal with his arms; the pilot of the L-19 sets the craft racing down the runway, and both motorized plane and glider are soon airborne, high above Mt. Cranmore.

Feeling a thermal lift - warm air rising from down below - Lt. Col. Kenneth Hoser (RET) signals to the glider pilot to release the cable and break free to ride the air lift. Silent, smooth and pure, the cable is released, allowing the sleek vessel to veer sharply to the right and its pilot to experience what many consider to be the ultimate in flying.

"Nothing can compare with that silent sensation - it's like getting high on something," former Luftwaffe fighter pilot and 40-year veteran glider ace Eberhard Geyer of Detroit, Michigan, commented when back on the ground.

Geyer and 281 other gliding enthusiasts visited North Conway over the past three weeks to participate in the annual Wave Camp, an informal gathering of sail pilots from throughout Canada, the United States and Europe. The camp takes place just after the foliage has reached its peak when the prevailing winds are from the northwest, sending cold arctic air and clear skies down over the top of Mt. Washington to the Valley and airport. The flying conditions which result are said to be unmatched in the United States, if not the world. Says Geyer, "I've been flying since 1938, and I've never flown at any site which can compare with the Valley and this airport. That's why we're all here."

Geyer wears a simple yet coveted pin on his black tam, a sign of flying excellence and achievement known among fliers as the Diamond Badge. It is awarded for the successful completion of sail flight of 188 miles to and from the same starting point; 312 miles in one direction, a triangular pattern or return trip; and thirdly, for achieving heights of 16,400 feet above the release point. To achieve the latter test, an air pattern known as the wave effect is usually needed, precisely the condition found in the Valley when the prevailing winds are from the northwest during the autumn months. The pilots know that, and consequently head to the Valley every autumn with high hopes of achieving their goal.

The wave effect can best be explained by the analogy of water rushing over a log in a brook and the resultant wave patterns which re-occur further downstream. the same effect is produced when winds of 50 mph or more blow from the northwest over the 6,288 foot summit of Mt. Washington - the pattern is reflected and reinforced over Wildcat, the village of Jackson, again by Mt. Kearsarge North and South, and lastly by Mt .Cranmore and Rattlesnake near the airport.

Able sail pilots ride each successive primary, beginning in North Conway and culminating in climbing to the top of the second wave in Jackson to heights of 18,000 feet or more. The highest primary over Wildcat is generally avoided by most pilots due to the turbulent airflow and clouds that occur frequently around Mt. Washington. "Our ships are strong enough, but we'd rather stay away from the cloud cover as much as possible. It's safer," Geyer explained.

The two other flying conditions found in the Valley are mountain or ridge lift and the previously mentioned thermal lift. In the first instance, winds blow across the Valley floor, strike the Green Ridge and Moats, and are then rebounded straight up to produce a current for the sail gliders to ride, the oldest form of non-motorized flight. The second phenomenon - thermal lift - occurs when the sun warms a land surface such as the Valley floor or large asphalt parking lot. The warm air rises as cool air moves in from the sides, lifting the sail glider at a rate of up to 500 to 600 feet per minute.

Likewise, pilots who are caught in a rotor cloud-formed perpendicular to the wind, can find themselves dropping at speeds approaching 1000 feet per minute, as Geyer once did in in one of his infrequent crash landings. "I was flying along a ridge lift in Cumberland, Maryland, a few years ago in a rotor condition, when I soon found myself dropping. I went from 30,000 feet to an empty baseball field in just three minutes. I wrecked the glider that time, but I've got thousands of hours of safe flying behind me," the Diamond pilot laughed while placing the wings of his 500-pound glider toward the sides of the craft before moving it into its trailer.

Geyer was packing it in on that gray, cold and wet Saturday after enjoying a week of exceptional flying in North Conway with friends made over the years at the Wave Camp and other sail gliding gatherings across the country. The week had seen fair weather and strong northwesterly winds, culminating on October 23rd when an amazing 34 diamond flights were made high above Jackson. No-one had broken the record of 32,500 feet set by Edgar Seymour in 1973, but all seemed quite satisfied. Speaking about those flights, Geyer said, "There was a lot of celebration going on that night up at the Schuss Verein Club in Jericho where 50 pilots were staying for the camp. Pilots just could't believe the conditions - it's a good illustration of why this area is considered to be so unique, and also why it should be protected and preserved."

Geyer's concern over the future of the White Mountain Airport and the Wave Camp in particular was echoed by other pilots who had traveled from Canada, the Mid-Atlantic states and the South to participate in the 15th annual flying exercises. Airport owner Wylie Apte has already sold the property once, the infamous Stewart-Meyers real estate case last year which fell through, and he says that he has let it be known that the airport is for sale once again. Citing $15,339 in property taxes, little profits, and failure to receive either approval or support to run the strip as a municipal airport, Apte says that the selling of the property will be a sad yet inevitable necessity. "We'll keep flying until the bulldozers arrive, but they're going to come," he stated. "Before my property was reassessed in 1978, I couldn't make much of a profit but I could keep my head above water. Now, it doesn't take much to see that the airport is going to go down the tubes. It's a shame, but it's going to happen."

The bleak prospects about the airstrip's future undercut some of the festive spirit which is normally found among the fliers at the Wave Camp. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, former fighter pilots, students - they lamented the thought that this could very well be the last Wave Camp in the area. "There are other flying sites, such as the Black Forest in Colorado, but none of them are located so close to a resort town like North Conway, and none of them can rival the flying conditions here in the fall," Ken Hoser stated while enjoying a hefty breakfast with other fliers from the Philadelphia Glider Council at their Windsock Estates apartment. "This airport is of economic value to the town, and the Wave Camp brings thousands of dollars to the tourist economy during what is normally a slow season. Unfortunately, though, neither the town nor the state has granted an abatement for the airport." Adds Geyer, "It seems to me that a resort town needs or will need an airport. I'ts an important resource whose time will best be appreciated within the next 10 years, and I can't understand how it could be allowed to slip away."

If 1980 does turn out to be the last Wave Camp, it will mark the end of an era that began when Wylie Apte's father first towed some fliers from MIT into the skies above North Conway in 1938. Those fliers discovered that the area boasted some of the best great wave flying ever experienced and soon spread the word to their flying friends. World War II interrupted sail gliding in the Valley during the 1940s, a lapse that continued after the war and on to the early 1960s. The Wave Camp was rejuvenated in 1965 by Alan McNichol, a pilot from Wellesley, Massachusetts, who invited flying clubs from throughout the country and Canada to the Valley. The Camp has been held every year since, growing in size and reputation to its present status as the premiere flying event in the Eastern United States.

For the past 15 years, many of the pilots have stayed as the guests of Roger Merrill at the Schuss Verein Club in Jericho, an institution founded by Harvard and MIT faculty members. Others stay at local inns and motels, or rent apartments for the Wave Camp period. Whenever and wherever they meet, the pilots enjoy sharing their flying experiences and knowledge with one another.

"We all get to know one another pretty well from these camps - there's a great camaraderie here which crosses over international borders. It's a virtual Who's Who of Eastern sail gliders as well as those from Canada and Europe - Steve Dupont, Grayson Brown, Mike Stevenson, Dana Darling - all these guys have been flying for 30 years or more. Their knowledge, along with their willingness to share it, is part of what makes these gatherings such special learning experiences for young and old pilots alike," commented Geyer before hitching his glider trailer up to the back of his station wagon for the long trip home to Michigan. "I really enjoyed it here this week," he said, "I just hope that this isn't the last trip."

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