[To any readers who are experienced cross-country glider pilots, please remember that this is only my fourth real XC flight.]
The weather forecast was good for soaring, with thermals up to 13 or 14,000' predicted and not much wind. But the humidity was low, which meant that there would be no cumulus clouds to mark the lift. This made me pretty nervous, because so far all my real cross-country flights have been under CU, and I've gotten shot down on many "blue" days back in my home country at Hemet. I really did not have much confidence in my ability to find invisible thermals over the mountains. I waited until near the end of the launch order (about 25 gliders) in order to let the day really heat up. I decided to fly really conservatively: stay on the extreme eastern edge of the mountains, within safe gliding range of the landout sites in the Owens Valley.
The contest has a launch height limit of 3500' AGL (7700' MSL). I let off at that height but was not in lift. Turning back to look for lift we had flown through, I had to hunt a bit over the Tehachapi mountains but hooked a strong one without too much loss of altitude. It turned out to be really strong, with consistent lift of up to 8 knots. (I noticed that the SeeYou program on my PDA was not displaying the "Thermal Assistant" which usually pops up when circling to help analyze the strongest part of the thermal.) Two other gliders came in under me, and very soon I was at 13,000' and it was time to head northeast.
I was doing OK, staying at 9 to 10 thousand as far north as the Honda Track (where I landed last year). But I started going down a bit. I was really hoping I could stay at 12 or 13, but that wasn't happening. In looking for lift, I headed northwest a bit to stay over the mountains, and found little. Honda Track was looking pretty far away, and eventually I had to tell my ground crew (Irv) that I was diverting to Kelso Valley. I didn't say landing there, but that's what it was looking like. Now, the Kelso Valley dirt strip is a safe place to land, but (I'm told) it's a long drive to get into - about 2 hours. And that was the one place I had not documented in my ground crew materials, so Irv was starting to scratch his head about where he might need to go. And once I got below the ridge into the vally, the line-of-sight radios would not work and I would have to relay messages with other pilots. This was not looking good!
At about 2700' AGL (6700' MSL), I found a thermal near but not quite over the Rockpile, and it just kept going up and up, getting stronger and stronger. Within minutes I was back up at 13,000' MSL and was able to resume heading northeast, hoping to make Inyokern or at least the aqueduct road known as "Brad's landing road". This is where I started going into unfamiliar territory, as I could not see Inyokern airport at this point. Of course, my GPS / PDA showed me the course line, so I knew I would find it eventually. But I do like to be able to see my goal!
Although I came down to about 9-10K again, that was OK because I was within glide range of Brad's and Inyokern. I kept finding sustaining lift so I could mostly fly straight. I made Walker Pass pretty easily (that's where I turned around last week) and that's due west of Inyokern, which I could now see. (In case you're not familiar with the area, it's due east of Lake Isabella.) Along a steep ridge I found good, strong lift and got back up to about 11,500' as I recall. Now I was within range of Cinder Cone Dry Lake, although I could not see it beyond a ridge. So I told Irv I'd go to Cinder Cone. And then Coso Dry Lake is just a little further on... keep flying north in sustaining lift at about 9,000' (I flew under a hawk at that elevation).
OK, passing Coso I'm still at 9,000', so let's go on to Olancha. About this time I passed over a burned area of forest, and there was a small plume of smoke from a fire high on the ridge. I reported that to Irv, and he called it in. Maybe it was a known fire, or a hot spot from the recent burn, but I thought they might want to know.
By now it's after 3:00, and I'm on the east side of the mountains, so I'm thinking that the lift will start to weaken as the eastern slope loses the sun. Twice in a row my safety harness comes completely loose when something snags it. Try putting four pieces back together while flying at 500' to 1000' over the rocks! The second time, I just steered with my feet to have both hands free. Of course, when I'm doing that I'm not flying efficiently or looking for lift, so now I'm getting down around 8000', with not much hope of climbing back up to the top of the mountains.
So I declared that I would land at Olancha, and focused on that. It's a little dirt strip right by highway 395, quite long but not very wide. It's OK for a short-span glider like the PW5, but pretty tight for a bigger ship. I know from my planning that it's at 3600' MSL, so I have about 3000' to lose by circling. I turned a circle to let SeeYou calculate the wind speed and direction (nice feature!) and it favored a southward landing and was not strong. Once I was in the pattern, as trained, I ignored the altimeter and flew to a good, straight landing with just a bit of a bump. On the ground at about 4:00 after 2 hours and 50 minutes, about 72 nautical miles (83 statute miles) from Tehachapi. More than twice as far as last year's DDD flight, and almost twice as far as the farthest point of last week's out-and-return.
Now, here's why landing without reference to the altimeter (judging strictly by angles) is important. After I landed, my altimeter showed 3900', not 3600' as it really is at that location. So I was 300' lower at my pattern Initial Point than I thought, which is why I felt I had to abbreviate it a bit. (A 700' pattern is not really a problem with the PW5, it's pretty efficient.) So that means the atmospheric pressure had dropped by about 1/3 inch of mercury during my 3-hour flight. Not a surprise, just something we have to always consider - and why we ignore the altimeter close to the ground.
Irv arrived about 5 minutes after I landed. Disassembly of the PW5 was... er... eventful! When I pulled the main pins, they jerked out all the way instead of only halfway as they're supposed to, which let the wing drop and make it hard to pull the drag pins. And we spent quite a bit of time trying to get the drag pins move... the wrong way... Fortunately it was not too hot nor too windy, and after about an hour we eventually got it all sorted out and headed back to Tehachapi. Sorry 'bout that, Irv!
Before I flew, another pilot told me that my flight last week might not count for my Silver because I had not declared it, though that's not how I read the rules. So this time I made sure to load a flight declaration into the Volkslogger. And I had already calculated that Olancha is far enough even with a 3500' tow. The trace looks good, so I should now have Silver distance and altitude in the bag!
As for the contest - it will be a couple of weeks before results are posted. I know two guys from my club got as far as Minden, NV (240 nautical miles) and Fallon, NV (262 nm). Since it's a handicapped contest, and I doubled my distance compared to last year, I should not be as close to last place as last year. But then I never said I was a contender - the contest is just a convenient way for me to extend my XC experience.
And today I figured out why SeeYou's Thermal Assistant was not coming up. My fault - I had a configuration setting wrong.
So... I did OK flying a "blue" day into unfamiliar territory, without Thermal Assistant, and doubled my best straight-out XC distance.