Based on an account by BOB FITCH in The Albatross' Pinions. It's like climbing Everest twice. First, build your own HP-18. Then earn the FAI 1000-Kilometer Diploma with it. Hats of to the archetype sailplane homebuilder/pilot!
"I was still asleep in the bunk house when Ridge Soaring's Tom Knauff burst in at 5:00 a.m., snapped on the lights, and hollered, 'everybody up -- it's going to be a super day!"
"My soaring buddy Tom Templin and I had arrived in Pennsylvania late the previous night after a long drive from our homes in New Jersey. But we didn't have any trouble answering Tom's call and Bob was soon out helping me rig Blue Fly, my HP-18. In the predawn gloom we filled water ballast tanks, installed camera and barograph, and got my declaration squared away -- and out-and-return that would take me to Bluefield, West Virginia, and back. It would also make me the first U.S. homebuilder to win the prestigious international FAI 1000-Kilometer Diploma in his own bird."
Bob Fitch and his Blue Fly had made previous attempts at this coveted "Double Diamond," but even earlier they had cemented a relationship born of hard work, many challenges, and accomplishments that included several state records and awards. In June 1977, after two years of epoxy, microballons, rivets, sanding, soldering, and swearing, Bob eased Blue Fly into the sky for their first flight together. In the spring of 1979 they made a first pilgrimage to Ridge Soaring for their 1000-kilometer attempt. Poor weather had thwarted the effort of that first trip; when appropriate conditions failed to arrive, no attempts were made, although the Allegheny Ridge was explored as far south as Maryland's Cumberland Gap in preparation for future flights.
Perseverance prevailed and the duo returned the following year. Two attempts were made: the first flight was started too late in the day and was aborted after 615 kilometers when the light began to fade; the second flight was closed off by descending cloud cover and snow showers.
This year brought good conditions on April 2nd and Bob's third 1000-Kilometer Diploma attempt. Early that week developing weather pointed to Thursday as a good day for the flight. This was confirmed by a call from Ridge Soaring's Doris Grove. By Wednesday evening Bob was on the road for Julian, Pennsylvania, home of the gliderport. He left directly from work, stopping only long enough to pick up his soaring comrade, Bob Templin. They made good time and by eleven o'clock that night they were asleep in the "Ridge-Snoring Bunk House" where they were awakened next morning by Tom Knauff's call to flight. Eight other pilots also responded to Tom's call. They, too, had flights planned for the day and were soon assembling their craft on the grid as the first rays of the sun crept above the lighted ridge crest.
A Promising Start
"Doris was first to tow off -- a little after 6:00 a.m.," wrote Bob. "She had declared an O&R to the Fincastle Country Club turnpoint south of Bluefield. This was my chouce, too, but Doris was using the Piper Memorial Airport north of the gliderport as her release and starting point for a feminine out-and-return record attempt.
"The towplane was gone nearly 45 minutes. Blue Fly was next in lne and off we went, releasing at 6:51 a.m. at about 1200 feet above the gliderport. We immediately moved onto the ridge and started cruising southward in turbulence to just past Tyrone. At this point it began to look as if dreams really do come true."
Bob's flight plan envisioned climbing into a wave at Tyrone and riding in smooth air southwest as far as possible. Surveying the sky, Bob saw a rippling cloud deck extending to his right away from the ridge almost two miles upwind and stretching southward farther than he had ever hoped for. The clouds' feathery upwind edges had an unmistakable look of classic wave formations. Farther upwind, across a clear 5 to 7-mile window, another unbroken line of cloud crossed the wind. Half an hour after release, Bob was 35 miles out on course above the clouds, crusing straight ahead at 60 knots, and climbing through 7000 feet. This was going to be the day!
"As Blue Fly and I passed through 10,000 feet, we increased speed to 80 knots indicated (102 mph TAS) and just watched the miles roll by. When we made the transition into wave lift, we passed the word back on 123.3 so that others wouldn't miss finding the wave. (I was not to see another glider, however, until we were over 220 miles out.) This first 120 miles of wave were the strongest and had us flying well upwind of the ridge as high as 12,000 feet."
During the next hour and a half, the sleek HP-18 hissed along at high speed, slipping along on the smooth breath of the wave. Exactly two hours out, Snowy Mountain marked 185 miles and the end of the cloud bands. For the remainder of the flight, the sky would be cloudless.
"I was able to stay with the now invisible wave by the 'known-error' method. With my Cambridge set on high sensitivity, the Schuemann Netto gave me excellent trend information while I steered a heading intended to fly out in front of the wave. When lift eased off, I simply veered away from the wind until the needle peaked again. This process worked, keeping me high until I was past Mountain Grove."
"About this time, Tom Knauff passed me in his Nimbus II. I spotted him on my right, slightly lower, and about 2 miles upwind. I watched him dive for the ridge at Lick Mountain and then Peters Mountain near Covington. Lift continued, though it was weaker, and I descended through 6000 feet but easily made the good ridge past Covington as I crossed Interstate 64. Running the ridge, Tom passed me again shortly after 10:00 a.m., but this time he was flying in the opposite direction, making me wonder what his task was for the day."
"I crossed the Narrows, sighted the turnpoint, took the pictures (yes, just one!) at 10:41 a.m., and was ready for the return trip only 3:50 hours from release. My speed that far had been 82 mph -- twice as fast as my usual cross country speed! I was 30 minutes ahead of my most optimistic flight plan. Now all I had to do was get home."
Ridge-running northward brought Bob back to Covington where he hoped to find that benevolent wave which had carried him south was still working. A search as to no avail.
"I got low enough to be concerned and dumped my water ballast -- then promptly found a thermal to 7000 feet! From there I went well upwind hunting for wave, but my efforts were rewarded with more down then up. Determined to stay as high as I could, I returned to the ridge and used thermals until I was past Hot Springs. From a little over 5000 feet, I dove for the upwind side of Mountain Grove, crossing over a saddle at about 3500 feet -- and immediately sighted the cheerful scene of a downed glider in a field there. It was somewhere along here that I started telling myself, 'Every mile you make now cuts 2 miles off the retrieve.'"
Thermaling and gliding, Bob flew the next 70 miles carefully and methodically. Not trusting the ridge lift from the dying afternoon winds, he worked in an altitude band of 4000 to 5500 feet. Occasionally he sighted Doris working her way northward using the same technique. Near Hopeville, 150 miles out from Ridge Soaring, he picked up the wave again and began cruising happily at 55 knots with 7000 feet showing on the altimeter. But at Cumberland the wave stopped working and it was back to thermal and glide. He caught his last glimpse of Doris when the two neared the Bedford Gap; she left first for the crossing.
Crossing the Gaps
Bedford Gap posed no threat to Blue Fly and her pilot and they crossed with ease. Slipping along the ridge north to Altoona Gap, the radio sputtered to live with a call from a fellow pilot.
"Is anybody still flying?"
"Blue Fly is coming up on Altoona northbound," Bob replied.
One of the nine who had launched from Ridge Soaring was down at Altoona Gap and said he would be watching for Blue Fly. Leaving the ridge at 4000 feet about 5 miles before it ended, Bob climbed straight ahead to 4300 feet while going upwind until he was a little past even with the next ridge on the north side of the gap. Then he turned and went for it, spotting the downed glider on the ground below as he glided across the gap.
"Once established on the final stretch of ridge, I knew it was only Silver Distance back home, so I flew quite slowly and carefully in the now-weak ridge lift. Passing Karl Striedieck's aerie atop the mountain just south of Ridge Soaring, I picked up the mike and announced my position with a sigh of relief saying, 'Blue Fly landing in five minutes -- ice the beer!'"
Back on Earth
When Bob rolled out on the ground at 5:45 p.m. after a 622-mile day of 10 hours and 56 minutes, he discovered that none of the nine who had departed that morning had yet returned. Numerous retrieves were in progress. Half an hour later, Tom Knauff landed, having flown a prodigious 1000-km triangle for a national speed and distance record, the first such to be flown in the U.S. His was the only other completion of the day. Bob intended to relax and finish off his day going over the flight in his mind.
"Post-flight analysis revealed that I had flown 240 miles in wave lift, 200 miles in ridge lift, and the balance in thermals. Of the three ways to go, there is no question but what cross-country wave is the deluxe method."
But his adventures were not yet over.
"Less than an hour after my touchdown, I was on the road for a 520-mile round-trip retrieve of one of the nine, who, like me, had come to Julian sans crew. My companion, Bob Templin, was also being retrieved. He had made both turnpoints in his 500-km triangle, but had to land after completing more than 400 kilometers."
"I got back to the gliderport early the next day. I was completely bushed but still very, very elated. It hasn't worn off yet!"
Soaring, July 1981.