Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Independence Day - 5 hour flight!

Sunday morning's weather was much better than Saturday's. The forecast was for relatively calm winds, top of the boundary layer at 11-12,000 feet, strong thermals, but no CU possible. I planned to get an early start to try for a five-hour flight. While I prepped the plane, a couple of the guys repaired a broken battery wire. I was shooting for an 11:00 launch, but actually took off at 11:15 and released from tow in lift at 11:23. I immediately made a 360-degree turn to "notch" the flight trace on the Volkslogger (this enables the flight reviewer to see when you departed from the tow plane).

Thermals were present but not really strong right away. I used a combination of thermal and anabatic lift to get up to around 9,300' and stayed there for quite some time. (If you're not familiar with anabatic lift, search my previous articles and you'll find some descriptions. It's really amazing when it's working!) Over the next hour or so, the thermals off the mountain tops got stronger, up to 10,000' and ultimately over 11,000' MSL.

I had made a decision that my priority was simply a 5-hour flight duration, and that I would not go cross-country. Here's why: let's say I was between landout sites when the lift started to taper off, and I had to choose to head to a safe landing site at 4 and a half hours. That would defeat the purpose of the duration flight. I have not had enough XC flights to have a lot of confidence in pressing forward looking for lift. By staying within gliding distance of the airport, I would have a better chance of staying up as long as the lift would keep me. Boring, perhaps, but I don't get many chances to have the plane to myself all day in good conditions.

I had a few mechanical/electrical problems. The variometer in the PW5 is not showing lift correctly and overstating sink. I relied on my clip-on audio vario, and the simulated vario on my PDA/GPS, and of course the seat of my pants. The vario seemed to get better later in the flight, so maybe we have some dirt in the lines or something. My PDA lost its GPS feed from the Volkslogger and I had to reset it. The second time it did that, I switched it over to my plug-in GPS instead. But it still kept shutting itself down - I think a power-saving setting is turned on. Eventually I figured that out and just made sure to tap something on the screen every 3o minutes or so. And in that mode it didn't leave a "trace" on the screen, which is handy for getting back to thermals. I couldn't find the menu setting to fix that without looking down for too long, so I gave up on it. That's an item to add to my checklist: verify all the important PDA settings, especially since I had restored the software a while back.

Physically, the flight was not too taxing. I know, lots of people have made much longer flights, but my previous longest was less than 3 hours. There's very little room to stretch and move about in a glider cockpit! My shoulder got sore after an hour or so, so I varied my grip and flew left-handed for a while. One foot went to sleep a couple times, so I let out the pedals a bit. I thought my back would get sore, but it really wasn't bad. I took along a couple of trail mix bars and munched on them a couple hours apart. I didn't really get bored. I went to a few different mountains and ridges... I took some pictures... sometimes there were other gliders to thermal with. I experimented with very slow flight into the wind (a technique I read about recently and want to try out some more). I checked in with the ground every hour. And of course I had the PDA gremlins to keep me busy.

About 4 and a half hours into the flight, it was all looking good. I was still between 9 and 10 thousand feet, and it can take 20 minutes or so to get from 9,000' down to the airport at 4,200. But promptly at 4:00, the lift machine shut down, at least on the north side of the mountains where I needed to be to glide back to Mountain Valley. The tops of the mountains were now getting too close, and I had to move down to lower peaks. Based on the wind direction, I tried some ridge soaring when the thermals were nowhere to be found. I tried all of the lower peaks, but they were no longer working, and soon I was over the valley with - maybe - enough altitude to stretch it out to five hours. I needed to make it to 4:23 p.m. I made sure to stay upwind of the airport. I heard a couple of blips on the vario, and tried a turn or two, but whatever lift was under me was pretty weak. By the time I entered the pattern I was at about 5 hours and 2 minutes after release. I landed at 5 hours and 4 minutes after release - way too close! (Total flight time was 5:15.)

A couple of the guys from the club came out to meet me and pointed to their watches trying to convince me I had miscalculated and landed an hour early. Nice try, guys! When one of them wanted to help me take off the parachute, I knew something was up. They've always owed me a soaking, since they didn't toss a bucket of water on me after my first solo flight. But to my surprise I got a shower of champagne, for the first time in my life! (By the way, that was a sticky mess to wash off the glider the next morning.)

Unfortunately, it appears this flight may not qualify for my Silver duration. I mis-read, or misunderstood, or forgot about the rule regarding altitude loss. I won't get into it all here, but I may have to do this again for it to count. If so, I'll do it as a cross-country flight, now that I know I can do a long-duration flight. I know I did the best I could with this day's conditions: had I taken off earlier, or let off lower, the lift would not have been there. And I worked every bit of lift I could find right up to the end. So whether this qualifies for the Silver or not, I did have a 5-hour flight and learned a few things.

Here's a a big thank-you to the club members who helped me out, and who let me have the ship for the whole day, and celebrated with me when I landed!


Roger said...

After reading the latest SSA Badge & Record Guide, and playing back my flight trace, it appears that my duration claim WILL qualify. Using a GPS logger, the time spent before I lost the maximum altitude is a little over 5 hours. I need to put the documentation together and send it in to the SSA, but it should be good.

smith said...

Congratulations Roger. Quite an effort!