Saturday, April 12, 2014

Numerous Cumulus (not just a Few CU)

Last Saturday was one of those lift-is-everywhere days at Crystalaire. Oddly, there seemed to be more moisture in the high desert air than in Orange County south of the mountains... or maybe just more uplift due to surface heating. The forecast called for north winds, which were present upstairs but not so much on the surface.

When I arrived, I found that the PW5 glider was not exactly where I left it, though I was pretty sure no one else had been flying it. The knots in the tie-down ropes were not mine, and it was about two feet further east. Hmm... Then I found that on the nose tie-down, the knot on the ring had come loose, which allowed the glider to yaw with the wind. Tracks under the wheels showed that it had "walked" the two feet, including dragging the main wheel over a sizable rock. The wing tie-down ropes had been on the ground cable, and had slid along it. Some good Samaritan had later moved the wing ropes to staked or concreted chains, which stopped it from walking any further. Mystery solved!

I only had to wait a short time for a tow. As soon as I lifted off, the tail yawed about 15-20 degrees to the right, and the glider drifted over the right edge of the runway. No amount of rudder would counteract it. (The PW5's rudder is really tiny.) As the chief instructor later noted, it was the kind of thing which would cause a new pilot to release and land straight ahead on the runway, which I did consider, but as it was not getting any worse, I decided to stick it out. As we gained airspeed, I gained more rudder authority, and all was well.

Since the best lift was reported to be over the mountains, and I kind of got skunked last time, I took a high tow and let off in good lift. It was all uphill from there.

I spent most of the next two hours between 8,000 and 10,000 feet under and between these nice cumulus clouds. Figuring out which ones were building and which were dissipating was the biggest challenge of the day. Great fun!

I tried to get over the top of Mt. Lewis, but the margin between the mountaintop and the cloud base was a bit too narrow. Maybe next time.

There was indeed a strong north wind at altitude, and if I did not pay attention to it while thermalling it kept drifting me south toward the mountains. Outside air temperature was about 0 to -2 Celsius, but only my feet got cold, and only after about 90 minutes.
Steep turns

Approach and landing were... interesting. The ground reported the wind as being from the northeast. When I got low enough to see the tetrahedron, it indicated wind from the northwest. I decided it was not strong enough to change landing directions from runway 25 to runway 7. Then on final approach, my airspeed increased quite a bit, so it seems that the wind had diminished, leaving me with a lot of kinetic energy. That energy turned into quite a long float before touchdown (which was not at a high ground speed, so it's not like I had a tailwind). By the time I stopped rolling, the wind socks were all straight down - dead calm! So it seems that I had the bad timing to approach and land as a thermal passed through, which caused complete rotation of the wind direction over the course of a few minutes.

All in all, a fun two-hour flight with challenges at both ends.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Is California City the new Hemet?

I have only been to Cal City once, have never flown there, and don't know any of the people involved in the shutdown saga. All I know is what I've read in the Tehachapi group on Yahoo. But I was somewhat involved in and deeply affected by the Hemet shutdown, and some commentators have compared this to Hemet, so let me offer a few thoughts. Keep in mind that much of this is speculation. The chain of events are somewhat similar… maybe the underlying causes are similar too.

It is not really about airport safety. If it was about safety, then airport officials would work with the various aviation groups at the airport to effect improvements. Attempting to address safety issues when they are not really the issue is pointless. At Hemet, the officials refused to meet. Then when they lost the decision on our FAA complaint, they refused to negotiate in good faith. County officials chose to ignore CalTrans citations and recommendations for years until they could use them to their advantage. This appears to have happened at Cal City as well.

It is not really about airport growth. If it was about airport growth, there would be studies and consultants and estimates to support it. The airport officials would develop an airport plan which could be responsibly implemented. At Hemet, the airport officials published a sham plan which ignored the history of soaring and the huge fraction of airport operations which were due to glider operations. The plan postulated growth in other operations which were totally unsupported by any studies or statistics. The plan was developed with no input from airport users, and published silently with no notice to the public to invite comments.

The motivation is probably personal gain, not the public interest. People do not resort to underhanded tactics for honorable goals. At Hemet, the county made a deal with the FBO to help get rid of the commercial, club, and private gliders. The county put pressure on other FBOs to not deal with the gliders. The county insisted on applying FBO standards to clubs. The county refused to offer leases to clubs, insisting on month-to-month rentals but requiring renters to invest in infrastructure, which they could lose on 30 days' notice. The county ignored strong cautions in the environmental impact study they themselves commissioned. The county was willing to place turboprop aircraft operations within 100 feet of residences. They were clearly highly motivated to get rid of the gliders and pursue other changes at all cost. Our task was to figure out why.

The airport officials may not be aviators. They do not know what works for aviators, and may not care. They have other motivations which we do not understand. They may be judged by how much they increase revenue or reduce costs, regardless of what that means for aviation. They may not remember or understand the obligations that came with FAA improvement funds they received in the past.

It may be based on completely unrealistic expectations and ego. People in power convince themselves that something is possible and desirable. Even when it is obvious to others that the idea will not work, ego prevents people from backing down. At Hemet, there seemed to be two stated goals, neither of which was realistic, and only one (or neither) of which may have been the true motivation.

- The county wanted to keep CalFire operations at Hemet, and expected the state to pay for improvements to CalFire facilities, ignoring California's fiscal situation which precludes such investment. Why was this believed to be so important? Because by building new CalFire facilities in the space occupied by the gliders, they would make room for redeveloping the older section of the airport.

- The county said they wanted to attract more jet traffic to Hemet, and expand runways to accommodate it. Really? Who needs to fly jets into Hemet - or into California City? Neither is a hotbed of industrial activity, or the home of wealthy people with private jets. Was this a diversion?

At Cal City, the history of infrastructure changes that did not work out, and escalating efforts to make them work, may also have been motivated by ego.

It is about money and power. Someone has a lot to gain, or already is getting a lot and is aiming to protect it. It may be about power, but more likely it is about money. If you can figure out who stands to gain and how, you may be able to come up with a counterstrategy. This can be difficult to discern because of secrecy. 

- At Hemet, the best theory seemed to be that elected county officials would gain political contributions from construction companies seeking contracts for the proposed redevelopment. 

- At Cal City, I have no idea whether the official in charge is elected, so the financial motivation may be different. To figure this out, one needs to keep asking "Why?" until one gets to the root cause of the behavior. Follow the money.

It may involve corruption. At Hemet, we could not prove anything, and did not even really look into this aspect. But the day some glider people went to meet with county officials, they had to wait in the lobby while the FBI conducted a raid on the county offices. And a careful reading of CalFire board meeting minutes reveals a sudden reversal of their position, violating their own process, after they met with Riverside county officials. If corruption is involved, honest organizations will always be at a disadvantage, because the corrupt ones will always be more highly motivated.

It can be nearly impossible to counteract a highly motivated person who already has power. At Hemet, we eventually realized that the only way to even attempt to counter the situation would be to (1) get involved in county politics (a county where few of us reside), and (2) spend large amounts of money on the political process. We did not have the desire or means to do either.

FAA and CalTrans cannot force airports to make improvements or spend money. They can do passive things such as withholding funds, revoking or refusing to renew permits, etc. FAA cannot force an airport to produce an airport plan that is fair or realistic. At Hemet, one option would have been to make the lights on the main runway flush to the ground to make towplane operations easier. Another option would have been to reconfigure the glider runway. The county chose to do none of these, chose to avoid working on an operating plan, and chose to wait for the gliders to leave due to intolerable conditions. The only leverage we have is that FAA may withhold future funds if they find the county violated the ruling that they handed down regarding the gliders.

Back in the Saddle

I finally got to go flying today, after a gap of two months. I know, lots of people in many parts of the country have to take much bigger vacations from soaring due to the weather, and those of us in Southern California are very lucky to be able to fly all year 'round. December and January were just very busy times for me with family activities, a couple of camping trips, and some weekend projects. Last Saturday the weather didn't look good... this Saturday it looked like the wave might be working, and warm enough that thermals might work if the wave didn't.

Driving to Crystal, the weather was beautiful. There were lennies all around, but none right over Crystal or the closest mountains. I prepped the PW5 as usual, and polished the canopy, and lubricated all the control joints. By the time I was finishing, little wave-generated clouds were forming within reach. I could see two or three gliders very high over the mountains. I took a high tow over the top of Mt. Lewis, but alas I did not connect with any wave. I didn't even see any more wave-generated clouds while I was up. I did find some weak lift lower down, probably convergence, at about 7500' AGL near the Devil's Punchbowl, and exploited it by flying at minimum sink speed. It really just amounted to "zero sink", as did some thermal lift over the wash west of the airport. I ended up with a 47-minute flight - and a really good landing and rollout.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Back in the saddle

I have not written any blog posts about flying for quite a while. Two reasons: I've been really busy with other responsibilities, and I have not been flying because both of our club gliders have been out of service. Our PW5 single-place glider is now fixed, so it's time to get "back in the saddle again".

In August of 2012, one of our club members landed out in a field, and the main landing gear was badly damaged. Major fiberglass work was required. We tried to work with a pair of local people who said they could do the job, but it turned out to be beyond their ability to plan and execute. They were not able to engineer the repair themselves, and needed guidance from the factory - in Poland. Getting the list of parts, and figuring out how to order them, and getting the repair guidance just did not progress. In December we pulled the plug with those guys.

There are a couple of very good composite repair shops in California, neither of which is close to us. The one we worked with was over 500 miles away. One of our club members towed the ship up there as part of a vacation trip. The shop produced an estimate pretty quickly, our insurance company approved it quickly, checks were sent and received, and the work was begun. They were qualified to design the repair, and they didn't need to order parts from Poland after all. The work was done by some time in May. My wife and I drove up there to retrieve the ship. Fortunately our insurance settlement paid mileage for both round trips!

In May or June our Grob 103 became unavailable (another long story), so we've been completely grounded.

We assembled the PW5 back at Crystal in June and were eager to fly it, but it would not power up. I traced many wires, fuses and circuit breakers, and narrowed the problem down to the positive wiring, but could not find the problem. To make things worse, some screws I needed to remove for further troubleshooting were hopelessly stuck. Trying to work on problems like this, kneeling in the dirt, in the desert sun, far from tools and materials, is not easy and not fun!

I was given a contact for an A&P who does avionics part-time at Crystal, and he agreed to take a look,  and work on it at his hangar. Week after week I called him back to see if he had checked into it, but he never returned my calls. Another disappointingly unprofessional local repair person - and most of another month wasted.

So we towed the glider down to Orange County and a couple of our experienced club members worked on it. The electrical problem turned out to be fairly easy to fix - a second set of eyes and a decent working environment certainly helped! They also did some other maintenance on the glider and made many improvements to our clunky old trailer.

Today I towed it back to Crystal, Greg and Mike and I assembled it, and Greg and I each got a flight. The composite repair looks beautiful, and the ship is flying fine (except for one pesky instrument problem).

We're back!

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Mallettec Mini Vario

"What's that thing on your hat?" people occasionally ask. It's the Mini Vario from Mallettec. I've had one for a long time - I'm not sure just when I bought it. I'm writing about it today just because I finally had to replace the batteries after 6 or 7 years.

It could not be much simpler. It has a small but mighty clip on the back, so you can just clip it to the edge of your hat next to your ear. There's an on-off switch on the back. There's no volume control.

The unit beeps to let you know when you are in rising air (i.e. air pressure dropping). The rate of the beep varies with the rate of pressure change. It is silent in sink (pressure rising). It is so sensitive that it changes if I hold it in my hand and raise it over my head. There's a very tiny adjustment screw, in case the beep rate is too fast or slow, but I've never had to use it.

I originally bought the Mini Vario when I became aware of the safety benefits of audio varios, and I was flying a lot in Blaniks with no electric devices at all. I still use it as a backup or a cross-checking device.

One of our ships has an audio vario system but the static plumbing is sometimes flaky. We have not been able to find the problem, but I suspect it has to do with moisture in the lines. If I don't believe what the vario is telling me compared to the altimeter changes or the feel of the air, I turn on the Mini Vario to break the tie.

I really believe in having backups for systems, because they have saved my neck a few times. In my first contest - one of my first cross-county flights - the battery totally failed, and that ship only has an electric vario. So the Mini Vario really saved the day.

My only complaint is I wish it were a little louder, or had a volume adjustment. If the wind noise in the glider is loud, it can be a little hard to hear. Other than that, it's a terrific little device and I almost never fly without it!