Sunday, May 09, 2010

An ideal intro flight

A longtime friend is visiting from out of state, and she wants to go for a glider flight. She's not exactly the adventurous type, so I'm a little surprised, but I'm always glad when a friend is interested. A first-time glider flight, especially for someone who isn't already a pilot or looking to become one, is kind of a balancing act for the pilot. I want them to have fun, with no motion sickness, but I also want it to be longer than just a "sled ride" and for them to experience soaring upward in lift. But working lift often involves steep turns which can be scary and induce motion sickness. So the question is always: to glide or to soar? To take off early when it's smooth but soaring isn't likely, or to wait until the thermals start but it can be bumpy?

Saturday's weather looked promising, with clear skies, mid-80's, no cloud cover, and moderate lift forecast: 3 knots of lift to about 5,300' MSL. We got to the airport early in case I had to wash and/or preflight the Blanik, or in case a number of us decided to assemble the second Blanik (still on the trailer after our winching trip). As it turned out, another member had washed it, and he and a new student did the preflight, and there weren't enough members to assemble the other one, so we ended up with a lot of time. The instructor had three students for the day, and some paperwork to do with them, so we decided I would take my passenger up first. After waiting in line for a couple ships, we took off at 11:37, pretty early for any thermal activity.

The takeoff was a bit slow and the climb-out was a LOT slow. Usually we climb to about 400-500 feet and turn south, but this time we kept going straight out over the lake and were only 300-350 feet AGL. Had we had a rope break there, we would have made it back to flat open land but probably not to the actual runway. I decided to hang in there and we eventually climbed normally up over the mountains. Later I talked with the tow pilot and he said we seemed to go through area of sinking air. Plus we had a tailwind instead of the usual headwind, so all together it made for a very flat flight path. Once we got onto the southbound leg over the hills, we started getting some turbulence which I hoped would indicate lift. My passenger was enjoying it so far.

As we approached 3000' AGL over the mountains we got into some lift. Between the towplane climbing and the lifting air, it was nearly 1000 feet per minute up, and it continued for several seconds, so I pulled off and turned into it. What luck! It was pretty strong, up to about 300-400 fpm at times, and very broad. Whether it was thermal or convergence, it was big. I was able to stay in it with about a 15-degree bank. That was the best of both worlds: a gentle bank for my passenger's first glider flight, and lift to keep us up for a while. We took that up about 800 feet very easily (to 5,100 feet, very close to the thermal forecast). With nearly 4000' in the tank, we could afford to fly around and enjoy the view. Although the tow plane went by once with a Schweizer, we never saw them again - we had the whole sky to ourselves. We never hit any serious sink, and we found 1 to 3 knots of lift occasionally, so it was a pretty relaxing flight. Jody was enjoying the flight, and the lift we found after that first boomer was weaker, and I didn't want to push it by trying to aggressively work the smaller thermals.

So I eventually turned back after about 35 minutes - I knew we had student pilots waiting to get in the air. Of course, as I started the 45-degree leg we encountered more lift and I had to use spoilers on the downwind leg to get us down. My landing was smooth and the rollout was nice, although I had to hold a fair amount of right rudder and aileron to keep aligned - that tailwind had turned a bit and was now about 30 degrees off our nose, but gentle. We rolled all the way up for an easy pushback, and ended up with a 43-minute total flight.

That strong and wide lift at 11:45 in the morning was really amazing, and made for a terrific guest flight that was long enough to be fun.

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