A New Pilot’s Primer To Flying At ‘‘The Ridge’'

Eric Gillespie

The Bald Eagle Ridge at Julian, Pennsylvania. The view is to the northeast from about 3,500 feet. The ridge is the tree covered mass on the right of the image. US Route 220 can be seen following it in the valley. Ridge Soaring Gliderport is the collection of white buildings near the road in the lower right corner. 

"The Ridge". If you say just those two words to a group of glider pilots almost anywhere in the world, someone in the group will probably know exactly where and what you are talking about. 

The Ridge is in fact a lengthy system of ridges forming the Appalachian Mountains and various other ranges spanning much of the eastern United States. These ridges (with the exception of certain "gaps", which definitely require some planning and skill to cross) start in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and extend for literally hundreds of miles to the south through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and ultimately as far as Knoxville, Tennessee. They rise between a few hundred and several thousand feet above the surrounding valley floors. Especially in the spring and fall, when the winds blow consistently at more than 5 to 10 knots from the northwest, ridge lift is created. 

This type of lift means glider pilots can fly in a zone of almost continuous rising air, slightly above and in front of the line of each ridge. You don’t have to "waste time" circling in convective lift, ie. thermals, as long as the wind keeps blowing from the correct direction. Virtually straight flights of tremendous distance are possible. Trips of over 1,000 miles (yes, not kilometres but miles) have been flown at the Ridge. The lack of in-flight time that must be spent turning has also meant that the Ridge has been the site for an astounding number of FAI speed records over the years. 

In addition to ridge lift, strong thermal conditions and even mountain wave (up to Diamond climb altitude) is frequently present during the spring and fall flying seasons. For those who enjoy the freedom of flight without an engine, the Ridge offers a truly wonderful variety of opportunities and options. 

I personally got my first exposure to the Ridge in the fall of 1999. I was in my second year of gliding, and my first season of cross-country soaring. I had completed my Silver Badge and my 300 kilometre Gold Distance and Diamond Goal flights in a Standard Cirrus that I was sharing for the year with the current owner. With his permission, some friends and I took the Cirrus down to Julian, Pennsylvania, the home of Keystone Gliderport, which as of this year is once again reverting to its original name, Ridge Soaring Gliderport.

Eric Gillespie and Bravo 1, a Standard Cirrus, after landing back at the Ridge Soaring Gliderport in Julian, Pennsylvania following a successful 500 kilometre flight.

The Ridge, and Ridge Soaring Gliderport in particular, has really become a mecca for soaring enthusiasts everywhere. While I was there, in a period of less than two months I met pilots from all across the U.S. and Canada, from many countries in Europe, and even from South Africa. Karl Striedieck, who narrowly missed becoming World Champion in the 15 Metre Class this past year in Bayreuth, has his own private airfield just a few kilometres away. For the past twenty five years, the area has also been home to Tom Knauff and Doris Grove, Ridge Soaring’s very well known and respected owners. Among their many accomplishments, Tom has held or holds more than 50 World and American gliding records, while Doris was the first woman to ever successfully complete a glider flight of over 1,000 kilometres. 

Together they run a first-rate professional gliding operation at Ridge Soaring from March until December (weather permitting) each year. Aside from being very congenial hosts, both are often happy to share some of their years of experience with new arrivals who demonstrate that they are realistic and capable of tackling the challenges associated with ridge flying from their field. 

The Ridge is not an environment that should ever be taken lightly by any glider pilot, experienced or otherwise. Some of the hazards include the fact that you are often flying a few hundred feet (or depending on your level of experience and your capacity to endure the physical punishment from turbulence, sometimes even less) above the treetops. At the same time, you can often find yourself only 1,000 feet or so above the ground in the valleys. This means you are sometimes flying for long stretches, at, or slightly below normal landing circuit altitudes. You’re taught that at almost any stage in your flight, you must be ready for your wheel to be touching the ground within 60 seconds or less. 

State College, Pennsylvania. The large outdoor Penn State Nittany Lions football stadium can be seen at  the centre of the picture. 


Just to compound the problem a bit, landing options are also limited to non-existent in certain areas, ie. there simply are no farmers’ fields. Consequently, you must take the time to learn, either from the air (eg. by a power plane tour) and/or from the ground, exactly where you can land your glider any time the need arises. Over the years, far too many "tree" and "water" landings have occurred. They usually cause extensive or even terminal damage to the glider, and occasionally to the pilot as well. However, Tom and Doris will tell you that almost every one of them could have been avoided by better planning or judgment.

The possibility of a mid-air is also increased, because other gliders will be trying to fly in almost exactly the same zone of lift above the ridges you will be flying in. These aircraft will be coming right at you, with a combined closing speed frequently exceeding 200 miles per hour. Special ridge flying rules exist, and these must be followed. In addition, an extremely good lookout is always required.

As already noted, turbulence, particularly near the top of the ridges can be severe! Full control deflections, on every axis in quick succession, are not uncommon. In my case, even though I had talked to many others before going to Ridge Soaring, I was still taken by surprise by the absolute pounding to both plane and pilot that was dished out on some of the "good" ridge days (Tom says I still haven’t seen a really "great" ridge day yet). One afternoon, they actually stopped flying Boeing 727's into the local municipal airport 5 nautical miles away because conditions had become so rough, while I and other glider pilots carried on with our flights, many of which ended with some very exciting circuits and landings.

Add to these conditions some additional hazards, such as the rotor generated when "the wave" is working (and the true joy that I at least experienced of trying to tow in it) and you could be inclined to think "Hey, this Ridge flying just might not be for me".

Bravo 1  Eric's Standard Cirrus  

However, before reaching this conclusion, one has to consider that each and every year a significant number of people have actually taken their first flights, and then gone on to learn to fly; from the ab initio stage through solo, licence, first cross-country flights and beyond, all from Ridge Soaring Gliderport on these same ridges.

The secret is to recognize the level you are comfortable with and trained for, and then, to not try to expand your horizons too quickly. There are many days, even in the spring and fall that are not great "ridge" or "wave" days, but offer very good thermals you can use to get high and check things out from a better elevation. The first five or six solo flights I personally took from Ridge Soaring were exactly these kinds of relaxing familiarization tours.

Even when the Ridge "is really working", it is not necessary to fly low down at ridge-top height speeding along at 100+ knots. Instead most decent ridge days, which are the only ones that make sense to attempt something more than local flying anyway, will allow you to cruise at 50 to 70 knots somewhere between 400 and 1,000 feet above the ridges, with far less turbulence and with much less to worry about in the way of an abrupt mid-air meeting or a serious land out problem.

The starting point for any pilot who is considering a visit to the Ridge is to candidly determine what their level of proficiency is, and then based on this, to determine what their own expectations for their trip should realistically be. Almost any pilot, licenced, cross-country rated or even unlicenced, can really benefit from a trip to the Ridge. Especially "flat land pilots" (which most Canadians from east of Alberta would likely qualify as) can learn a great deal in a short space of time by exposing themselves to a ridge/wave flying environment. Generally people's level of skill and confidence in their flying improves fairly quickly with the proper instruction and advice. It just seems to be important not to try to do too much, too soon. After 25 years, Tom and Doris and their staff are all pretty adept at guiding new visitors. If you follow their direction, there is no reason that a pilot at any level could not have a very enjoyable first experience.

Welcome...come on in! The sign marking the entrance to the gliderport

Ridge Soaring Gliderport is around 4 hours drive from the Peace Bridge at Buffalo and not too much further from the Quebec border, so a trip down, even for a few days is also quite feasible.

However, before just packing up and going, the first practical step for anyone who wants to head for the Ridge is to obtain and read a copy of "Soaring the Bald Eagle Ridge", an entire book on the subject written by Tom Knauff, that is generally regarded as "the Bible" by people who fly there. For newcomers in particular, it is an absolute necessity. It contains everything you need to know that can be put into a book (the flying still does count for something). Copies can be obtained from Knauff and Grove Soaring Supplies in Julian, Pennsylvania, Phone (814) 355-2483, Fax (814) 355-2633, or e-mail here.

Tom Knauff and Doris Grove
owners of Ridge Soaring Gliderport

After you’ve read the book (Tom will test you, usually with a smile but occasionally not if you do something really dumb), then you’re ready to make some further arrangements. There are motels and hotels somewhat near Ridge Soaring, but almost all are expensive ($60.00 to $150.00 U.S. per night) and every one of them is governed by the "Home Game" phenomena. Penn State University is very close to Ridge Soaring, and for eight or more weekends during each football season, Penn State home games create pandemonium ending up with very few rooms being available, and with those being sold at outrageous prices (2 to 4 times the already high rates). More importantly, you’ll also be away from Ridge Soaring, where most of the "hanger flying" and some of the best learning can take place. I personally found the Bunkhouse at Ridge Soaring, which has recently been remodelled and improved, is really a pretty good deal at $18.00 per night. Make sure you reserve early and confirm though, as it does tend to fill up quickly.

Once you’ve figured out some place to sleep, or perhaps even before, the question becomes "What should I fly?" A variety of training gliders, with or without instructors, are available from Ridge Soaring directly. Detailed information and prices can be obtained by calling, e-mailing, or by checking Ridge Soaring’s website

Flying above the Bald Eagle Ridge on a clear autumn day.

If you haven’t flown at a commercial operation before, you may be slightly surprised at the cost. For example, $26.00 U.S. every time for a 2,000 foot tow could seem rather steep to some of us who are more accustomed to Canadian club rates. Instructors aren’t provided free of charge either. At the same time, Ridge Soaring’s rates are in fact pretty standard for a well run U.S. commercial facility. Before you’ll be able to fly on the Ridge at all, you will need to take a check flight, and this should be budgeted into your costs as well.

If you want to try flying cross-county at some point though, you’ll basically have to bring your own aircraft, rather than attempting to rent from Ridge Soaring’s internal fleet. However, this does not mean you have to own a plane. Aside from having some sort of an agreement with another glider owner, as I did, it may also be possible to use your own glider club’s equipment. For example, I know that my home club (SOSA) has allowed members to trailer a Twin Grob and/or the club’s Hornet down to the Ridge quite a few times at very reasonable rates. This is something that other clubs might already be doing, or be willing to consider.

If you don’t have access to your own plane, then bear in mind that just like a club operation, there is a lot of pressure on the Ridge Soaring fleet limiting your flight times. As well, Ridge Soaring’s rules will not allow you to take any rental aircraft beyond final glide without an instructor being along for the ride.

Overall, as the title to this article suggests, the foregoing observations really only encompass some of the general information one needs to know before venturing down to the Ridge. Much more knowledge can be gleaned from Tom Knauff’s book, by talking in person to some of the many other pilots at almost every SAC club with experience flying there, and from Tom and Doris themselves. This article is simply meant to provide some initial "how to get started" information, and to suggest that even relatively new pilots can clearly benefit from taking the plunge, and heading south to a site like Ridge Soaring.

For me, as a novice cross-country pilot this year, the seven weekends I spent at Ridge Soaring last fall capped what had already been a throughly fun-filled and enjoyable gliding season. At the Ridge, I was able to fly another 80 hours or so in a wide variety of conditions, including ridge lift, thermals to 8,000 feet, and mountain wave to over 12,000 feet. With a great deal of help and encouragement from Tom, Doris, their staff, and from Dale Kramer (another SOSA member who literally lived at Ridge Soaring for the fall season), I was also able to extend my distances to the point that on November 15, 1999, I completed an FAI 500 kilometre Diamond Badge leg with a flight of 660 kilometres. This flight came after quite a lot of preparation, including driving the entire route on the ground to survey all of the possible land out options. Unfortunately, my own flying was cut somewhat short when the very next weekend, I was involved in an automobile accident in West Virginia, while I was once again in the process of surveying land out opportunities along the route for a future flight that I still hope to complete.

In the end, I will definitely be back to the Ridge. In the meantime, hopefully some of you who read this article will be encouraged to get there and be soaring even sooner.

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