Travels with Alby – Georgia On My Mind

In 2009, the Pacific Area Soaring Council (PASCO) decided to send Alby the Albatross on a coast-to-coast trip across the United States. Alby's voyage began on the west coast and his destination is Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where Orville Wright set a soaring duration record in 1911 and the sport of soaring began. Click here to see where Alby has been and to read a full account of Alby's story. Here's an excerpt that explains why Alby wants to make this trip and how he has enlisted the aid of a special breed of humans who call themselves soaring pilots to help him travel across the American continent.

Alby would like to go inland, see the beauty of the country, but he is not fit to go there. He does not know how to master the thermals the way eagles, pelicans and other birds with big wings travel there. He is made for the ocean. 

The soaring people offer to take Alby inland, and to show him the beauty of the countryside. They offer to take him aboard their flying machines and let him cross this big island in silent winged crafts, no noises, no vibrations, no offending gas smells. 

Alby accepts the invitation. He wants to see the mountains, the valleys, the lakes, the deserts and the forests, and the towns and the towers, and the roads and the bridges and the rivers of this beautiful land called America. He realizes that it is not possible for him to travel here alone, without the help of the flying people. 

So the soaring people take Alby in their silent aircrafts across that vast territory. They understand. Because they themselves share the curiosity, the need for adventure, the thirst for knowledge of that young spirit. They share the independence that flying gives, the endless autonomous decisions that need to be taken in this constantly moving environment. They know the far-reaching view that this privileged position allows. But most of all, they share the elation of infinite freedom by being immersed in the sky, floating, suspended in the brilliance of this transparent ocean. Those are the reasons why they aimed for the skies, and now they cannot live any more without the magic of flight. 

They take Alby with them, in the togetherness that unites all aviators. Alby’s great voyage has just begun. 


My planning for the 21st leg of Alby’s journey began after my soaring buddy (and partner) Bill Elliott trailered his JS1 Revelation to Sylacauga, Alabama on June 23rd and received custody of Alby from Eric Hey. Bill made sure Alby was comfortably tucked away in his JS1 and then soared  to our home base at Moontown Airport (3M5) near Huntsville, Alabama. Bill and I are both long-time members of the Huntsville Soaring Club, which has operated from Moontown since 1985.

Bill suggested that I consider flying the next leg on the following Saturday, June 30th. The synoptic forecast looked OK, although the weekend would be a scorcher.  Max forecast ground temperatures for Saturday and Sunday were 107F! Temps that high are extremely rare in the Southeast, especially in June. The soaring forecast, however, was extraordinary. XC Skies predicted thermal heights at 7,000 to 9,000 feet and climb rates of 5 to 7 knots. It has been very dry in the South this spring, so it would be blue around Huntsville with perhaps some cu near my destination at Georgia’s LaGrange-Callaway Airport, southeast of Atlanta and home to the Southern Eagles Soaring (SES) club.

On Friday, the night before my flight, Tim McGowin (2EZ), a long-time soaring buddy and SES member, called to tell me that my friends and SES members Mary Jo and Wally Berry (WB) had graciously offered to put me up for the night if I made it to LaGrange. I’ve known Mary Jo and Wally for two decades, but hadn’t seen them for a couple of years, so I was tempted to take them up on their offer.

LaGrange is 143 miles from Moontown by air, so it’s not a particularly challenging cross country flight on a decent day. My only concern was the terrain along the latter half of the route. Much of the area along the Alabama-Georgia border and toward LaGrange is hilly and heavily forested. Although there are small airports every 20 to 25 miles near a direct course between Moontown and LaGrange, landable fields are few and far between.  If the forecast panned out, of course, I should easily be able to hop from one airport to another.  Landing out would be far down my list of concerns. Nevertheless, with the terrain in mind, I chose the following route: Moontown – Guntersville – Albertville – Gadsden – McMinn – Anniston – Ashland – Roanoke – LaGrange: 153 miles.

Alby's intended route from Moontown to LaGrange

As expected, Saturday morning dawned hot, hazy, and blue. High pressure, which in the absence of the extreme temperatures would normally suppress convection, dominated the area, causing visibility to suffer.

A couple of days before, I had contacted a fellow HSC pilot, John Mittel, whose ASW-27 is undergoing repair, to find out if he could crew for me. John kindly agreed to retrieve me, which was a major commitment, since a round trip by car between Moontown and LaGrange is an eight to nine hour road trip.

We wanted to assemble the glider early, so John and I met Bill at a Waffle House for breakfast. Bill was on his way to Tullahoma, Tennessee to fly his JS1 with Dick Butler, who would be flying his brand new Concordia.

After breakfast, John and I drove to Moontown and stopped at the HSC trailer hangar, where my LS8 spends most of its down time. We were joined by former HSC instructor Don Gamble and HSC tow pilot (and Grob Astir owner) Doug Morris. While checking the trailer lights, Don pointed out that I had no left turn signal and that one taillight was brighter than the other.

Fortunately, Doug tackled the trailer lighting problem with a vengeance and managed to successfully troubleshoot the issue and fix it (Thanks, Doug!). Unfortunately, we lost about an hour of time, so we had to assemble after the ground temp was well into the 90s.

Finally, the ship was ready to launch and I scurried around making sure the last few items were in the cockpit. By that time, I had decided to either stay with Mary Jo and Wally or try to get a tow at LaGrange if I landed early enough and there was time to make the return trip. So John was off the hook.

I launched at about 1:00 PM CDT and soon found a 2 knotter that took me to ~ 5,200’ AGL. The sky was blue as far as I could see (~15 miles), but by 1:20 I was high enough to get started, so I pushed the nose down and headed southeast toward Guntersville.

A few miles down course, I ran into the first decent thermal of the day. I averaged 3.3 knots and climbed to 6,800’ AGL. I was relieved to get that high because Lake Guntersville, which is a large bulge in the Tennessee River, lay a few miles ahead. I had crossed Lake Guntersville and the river many times and usually experienced much weaker or non-existent lift in an area extending to 5 to 10 miles on either side of the lake. Sure enough, as I approached Guntersville, the air became ominously smooth. I slowed to ~65 knots and hoped that by the time I reached Albertville, about 10 miles east of Guntersville, I would run into a thermal.

Lake Guntersville Airport—no lift here

I glided in dead air for about 20 minutes and lost 4,000’. As I approached the city of Albertville, I felt a few bumps, but nothing worth circling in, so I turned toward the airport, hoping the runway or a nearby construction site would trigger lift.

I flew over the runway from north to south, getting down to 1,600’ AGL before the vario came to life. I rolled into a right turn and held my breath. It started off slowly, but the climb rate increased and in a few minutes I was at 6,500’. Even better, there were cus ahead! On the way to Gadsden, I circled under a couple of nice cus and worked my way up to 8,300’. Cloudbase was still above me. The forecast was right on!

Leaving Albertville—at last

Past Albertville...and the day's first cu dead ahead!

Short of Gadsden, I headed straight for McMinn Airport, working a couple of clouds along the way. The clouds proliferated and grew in size as I flew further south, so the rest of the flight was pretty much a cakewalk. My concerns about terrain evaporated. Who cares about the ground when you’re at 8,000’?

The rest of the flight was high and fast. At 3:23, 47 miles from LaGrange, I started a 30-minute final glide. Except for one circle, I flew straight to LaGrange and arrived over the airport at 3:56 CT.

Alby's flight trace

On final glide with eight miles to go!

Before landing, I called Tim McGowin, who was preparing his glider for its annual inspection in the SES hangar. The hangar is on the west side of a beautiful wide grass landing area, which lies between runway 13/33 and a taxiway near the hangar. On final, I saw Tim waiting for me. As I rolled to a stop, he ran out and caught my wing.

NN at LaGrange

First things first: As soon as I stepped out of the glider, I retrieved Alby from his perch behind my seat, and turned him over to Tim, who will shepherd Alby to his next stop at Chilhowee Gliderport in Tennessee.

Tim McGowin (L) takes custody of Alby from Rand (R)

After Tim helped me move the glider off the runway, I relaxed in the hangar, made a few phone calls, and enjoyed the air conditioned comfort of the pilots’ lounge. Later, we shuffled gliders around and made room for my LS8’s overnight sojourn in the hangar.


Tim gave me a ride to Wally's and Mary Jo’s home near Auburn, Alabama, where Wally is a professor of agriculture at Auburn University and a specialist in poultry science. The couple had recently built a new house in a wooded area outside of the city, so I was treated to a tour of their beautiful new home. They did much of the interior work themselves and it is truly a work of art!

Rand, Mary Jo, Wally...and the dogs

We had dinner at a nearby restaurant and stayed up late catching up on the years since we’d seen each other.

The next morning, I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast, courtesy of Mary Jo, who also packed a cooler with lunch and dirinks for a morning at the airport.

Back at LaGrange, Wally assembled his Libelle H-301 and we conferred with Chris Ruf, Tim, and Dieter Jaeger about the weather and their tasks for the day, which was forecast to be another good soaring day.

Chris Ruf, Rand, Tim, and Wally await tows at LaGrange

We began launching around  1:00 PM. About 20 minutes after I release, I found a strong thermal under a large cu near the airport. Tim and Wally were higher but in the same thermal, and waited for me to climb up. I intended to fly back to Moontown and they decided to join me for a leg or two, so the three of us headed NW toward my first waypoint at Roanoke, with Chris Ruf a few miles behind.

Early over-development west of LaGrange

Tim McGowin's HpH 304CZ

Wally Berry's H-301 Libelle

The cus were clearly overdeveloping even before we left LaGrange, but the lift was great. When I passed Ashland/Lineville Airport, the others wisely decided to rurn around and head back to LaGrange before the sky blew up.

For me, the flight all the way to McMinn was high and fast, but after turning toward Gadsden, I ran under blow-off from a storm that had dissipated. It was shadowing the area ahead, but I had plenty of altitude to make it to the turn, so I wasn’t too concerned. Mother Nature, however, had other plans. I was soon running through interminable sink. My netto was indicating a constant 3 to 4 knots down, and the altimeter was winding down at an alarming rate. This continued unabated for several miles, until I became concerned that I might not make Gadsden Airport. There are few places to land on a direct route to the airport, so I deviated to a private strip, Golden Pond, about 10 miles south of Gadsden, hoping to find something going up around there.

The sink finally abated, but by that time, I was ~1,500’ above Golden Pond and the shadow from the high altitude blow-off had apparently killed the lift. The dying cu-nim must also have dumped a huge volume of cool air, which caused the large scale sink. I was stunned at the dramatic turn of events, but I had to accept my fate. Gear down, spoilers out, land. . .

Golden Pond turned out to be a nice wide, grassy strip with no surprises. As soon as I collected myself, got out of the cockpit, and surveyed the strip, I called Doug Morris, who was waiting for my arrival at Moontown, and requested an aero retrieve. Doug fired up the Pawnee and was there within an hour.

On Golden Pond

We took a few pictures, pushed the ship back, hooked up, and took off. The tow back took about 45 minutes in relatively smooth air. The clouds had all but disappeared and we ran into only three or four bumps along the way. The day had definitely died.

After passing Guntersville, I released from the Pawnee and raced the 25 or so miles back to Moontown at ~90 knots. When I landed, club members John Mittel, Randy Stout,and Stu Venters were there to greet me and help me disassemble my bird. As I was getting out of the glider, Randy handed me a beer, which I thirstily consumed in a few gulps.

I am honored to have participated in Alby’s voyage. It was great fun and I enjoyed a wonderful weekend of soaring in outstanding weather and the excitement of getting reacquainted with old friends. Thanks Alby!

Alby Pin for Leg No. 21

Rand Baldwin

Rand is a Soaring Cafe Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief.Fascinated by soaring since early childhood, Rand learned to fly sailplanes while in graduate school (at Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics), and earned his private glider rating at Yankee Soaring in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He joined the M.I.T. Soaring Association in 1974, where he completed his Silver Badge and became a flight instructor. After moving to Huntsville in 1977, Rand flew and instructed on weekends at Eagleville Sailplanes south of Nashville, Tennessee. In 1985, he and a handful of other soaring enthusiasts organized the Huntsville Soaring Club at Moontown Airport. Rand chaired the 1996 SSA National Convention and has served as an SSA Director-at-Large, SSA Governor and State Record Keeper for Alabama. He has set two U.S. national soaring records and many AL and TN state records.

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  3 comments for “Travels with Alby – Georgia On My Mind

  1. John Murphy
    July 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Great article Rand and I’m sure the adventure will always be a good memory.
    John (SRK)

  2. Frauke
    July 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    I was wondering, where Albi got stuck. Hadn’t heard anything from and about him for a long time. I hope he swings back north and visits our club in Virginia, We are only hours by car from Kitty Hawk

    • July 9, 2012 at 8:34 am


      The bottleneck for Alby was Louisiana and Mississippi. Once he got to Alabama this spring, his pace picked up substantially. I’m sure the Southern Eagles gang at LaGrange will expedite a flight to his next stop in Chilhowee, Tennessee. Alby’s route is pre-determined; you can view a map at .

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