Our club has placed our two glass ships at Crystalaire Airport (which we all call Crystal) in the desert north of the San Gabriel mountains. I'd never flown there, though several of our members had and said it was great. The problem for me is that it's farther from home, about an hour and 20 minutes each way, vs. 1 hour to Hemet and 45 minutes to Lake Elsinore. But with the Blaniks grounded, there's not much choice, so we're all getting "field checkouts" so we can fly there.
The commercial operation is very good, with nice facilities, friendly people, and good services. They have line crew for not only launching but towing gliders out and back with electric golf carts... nice office, clubhouse, shaded areas, nice restrooms. Very good! They have a 2600' paved runway with 1000' of dirt runway extensions on either end. Limited emergency landing options, but not too bad. Good tiedowns. Excellent information about their Standard Operating Procedures, as well as sources of lift, on their web site.
I got there about 9:15 and had an 11:30 appointment with an instructor. I got some ground orientation from some of the (regulars? employees?) and prepped our Grob 103. Very interesting weather conditions: clouds and drizzle where I came from south of the mountains, lots of lenticular clouds to the north, shear lines to the east and west where canyons cut through from the coastal side, high thick cirrus blocking the sun, and a moderate wind from the northwest. They said it was the first "wintry" day yet this season, and it was only about 68F by 11:00, so we did not expect much in the way of thermals.
We took off about 11:50, instructor X in the front seat and me in the rear. We towed up over the ridges and found NO thermal lift, so we kept going up to one of the mid-level peaks named Mt. Lewis. Still nothing. Finally near the top we found some lift and let off. It was probably the highest tow I have ever taken, 4700' AGL, but we needed the altitude in order to do a proper mountain flying checkout. They want to make sure we're well versed in the risks of mountain flying, since that's where most of the soaring occurs here. I'm not an expert, but I'm not without experience in the mountains. I've flown from Hemet-Ryan to nearly the top of Mt. San Jacinto, a gain of about 5,500', using thermal and ridge and a little anabatic lift. I've flown over the Tehachapis, using thermal and anabatic lift. And a couple of cross-country flights north from Tehachapi over the southern Sierras.
But today's lift was different. It was mountain wave lift, and it was going up adjacent to a ridge, not at all where I expected it, so it was somewhat confusing as to where the best lift actually was. X showed me how to feel the rotor turbulence, to go upwind from it to the wave lift, and to feel out where the (fairly weak) lift was the strongest. We flew back and forth looking for "sweet spots" and working up 1 hundred feet or so on each pass. He also demonstrated flying much closer to the peaks and rocks than I usually go. But let me point out that X is one of the most experienced and well-known instructors in the country, so I was in good hands. Occasionally he would say things like "let's go over here... usually not a good idea, but I want you to see what this is like...". These mountains are fairly rugged and with sharp tops, so the turbulence on the downslope side can be intense, and there's the downward side of the wave flow to watch out for too. I learned a lot, and flew higher in weak lift than I would have been able to do on my own. X pointed out my errors in coordination (I guess I'm a bit rusty in the Grob, with its heavy ailerons), and pointed out how I needed to improve in staying in the best part of the lift. Did I mention I learned a lot?
We eventually went back out over the desert, and X pointed out many lift sources as well as the many fields and airstrips and flat spots that are NOT landable, and the few that are. We found wave lift over the flatlands as well, and I got better at feeling the rotor and finding the wave. I guess I had always assumed wave lift was usually up high, but we were only about 3 to 4 thousand feet AGL. This area can get wave lift when the wind is coming from several different directions, so it's a major source of lift that we need to learn to exploit.
We eventually had to pull spoilers to get down, and landed after an hour and 20 minutes. I was careful not to overshoot the final turn as I have done a few times in the Grob, and actually ended up undershooting the turn a bit! But after straightening that out, my landing was really good - a long float in ground effect, smooth touchdown, and perfect roll off the runway into the wind into a stopping area. It's always a little intimidating flying with a new instructor, so I was pleased that I got a good landing to finish up with. And then the crew showed up with the cart to pull us back - I always dread pushing the Grob after a flight!
So although X and the others declared this was one of the worst soaring weather days they had seen in a long time, we got a good flight. One of our other members was coming out late in the day for his checkout, so I stayed and took care of a few equipment issues until he took off. A nice first day - I'm looking forward to coming out again soon. With the help of the line crew, it'll be feasible to come out and fly the PW5 even if no other club members are there. One of my goals will be to fly to the top of Mt. Baldy. It's about 10,000' high and the airport is at 3400', so with a 2500' tow the altitude gain will need to be about 4000'. I think it's actually a bit closer to the airport than Mt. San Jacinto is to Hemet, so it should be fairly easy, though the terrain in between is less forgiving.