Monday, December 12, 2011

The Winch is Back

After several successful weekends of aerotowing at Hemet-Ryan Airport, we decided it was time to start some winch launching. The tow pilot we've been engaging was not available this weekend, and it was probably the last weekend before everyone gets really busy with the holidays. Some of our members had late afternoon commitments, so we knew it would be a short day, but that's OK - we really just wanted to run through our procedures and see how things worked out. The weather was forecast to be mostly clear, cool with light winds.

We knew that there was possibly a problem with our cable, because we'd had several breaks last time we used the winch. Although the Spectra cable is very strong, it can get worn and damaged. We can see some worn spots in the cable, and we have a couple of theories about what caused it:
  1. One time a fairly large loop of cable developed along one side of the spool, i.e. the cable had a bit of slack when the spool went around. The cable that was then laid down alongside that loop could have rubbed against it and worn it down in the area of that loop. The loop was temporary, and removed itself the next time the cable was pulled out, and as far as I know it has not happened again.
  2. The cable was worn by dragging over a peak in the middle of the runway where we operated for a few weeks. Usually a cable does not get a lot of wear, because it's pulled out slowly, and when it's pulled in quickly for launching, it's not on the ground very long - the rising glider lifts it up. But this particular runway has a noticeable hump in the middle. For the first few seconds of the pull, one section of the cable is subjected to quite a bit of friction. On a flat runway, the ground friction would be fairly evenly distributed along the length of the cable. With a hump, it's like dragging the cable over a corner.
We'll probably never know exactly what caused the wear, but we are expecting more breaks until all the weak areas are spliced. We may reverse the cable on the spool, if the worn area is toward one end. If the runway is not too long, the worn section may remain on the spool. 

One of the nice things about the FAA's ruling in our complaint against the County is that it explicitly provides for winch operations. As long as we are following standard radio procedures and the operating manual that we and the County developed, winch launching from the glider runway (4/22) can coexist with power traffic. We can even announce a two-minute pause in power traffic if necessary.

But before we could safely launch, we needed to work on the field. The County has allowed a lot of weeds, mostly tumbleweeds, to grow on the north side of the airport. Many of them are close enough to the runway to be a hazard - last weekend one pilot had a wingtip go through a tw as he was slowing down after landing - it was enough to divert him off the runway a bit, but fortunately he was not going very fast and got it back under control. One of our club members provided a "drag", essentially a length of heavy railroad rail on chains, pulled behind his vehicle. This did a great job of cutting off the tumbleweeds (which are designed to break off at ground level), and did a partial job of clearing them out of the way. I raked many of them out of the way, and we then had enough clear areas for takeoff and landing. If we get a good west wind, it might clear them all completely out of the way. But if we get a north or south wind, we'll need to rake them out of the way again. The County needs to take care of this!

Eventually we were all set up and one of our instructors took the Grob up for the first winch launch, taking off on runway 22 to the west, and landing on 4 to the east. He got up to about 1,000' AGL before the line back-released. There was essentially no wind, so that was a pretty good altitude. A headwind helps the glider climb faster, getting to a higher altitude before topping out over the winch.

He and I went up next, me flying as PIC from the back seat. One disadvantage to the back seat is that you can't see the rope at all - not that you can very well from the front either. The launch and climb were normal, if maybe a bit slower than we might like. We were up at about 800' AGL when I sensed that we lost the rope. He said it hadn't back-released, so we concluded it was a rope break. But we were in lift! We climbed 200' right away without doing anything. In the slippery Grob, 800' is a decent pattern entry altitude, and we were just over the end of the runway, so we actually had a about 300' or more of altitude to use to explore just a little. There was a bit of lift in the area, just enough to take us up to 1,100' AGL and keep us aloft for a few minutes. The thermal was hard to center - I got lift on one side of the circle and zero sink on the other side.

Soon we came back to land on 4. Other than slightly overshooting my final turn, my landing and rollout were great. Since we had the whole length of the runway, I did a smooth "wheel" landing, closed up the spoilers, and rolled all the way back to the starting point.

Unfortunately, that was the last flight of the day. Finding and untangling the cable, and repairing the break, would consume the rest of the time we had available (remember some guys needed to make it a short day). For the next winch launch day, we plan to reverse the line on the spool.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Winds of Change at Hemet-Ryan

The gliders have returned to Hemet! I've been too busy to blog lately, so I'll catch up now. Orange County Soaring and Cypress Soaring have begun joint operations. This was our third week of aerotowing, and my second week of flying. A couple weeks ago there was not much lift, and I only got a 23-minute flight in some convergence.

This week the weather was... interesting. The forecasts disagreed as to whether there would be thermal lift and how high it would go. We're experiencing a "cold Santa Ana" condition, in which high pressure in the deserts causes high winds in the basins and valleys. Such winds usually bypass the Hemet valley, but if they do hit it they can tear apart all the thermals, and usually don't cause much usable wave. (At least that's how it seemed to me... two years ago at Hemet I had no real wave experience, so maybe I just didn't know how to recognize and exploit it.) As the air comes through the Cajon pass it is compressed and warms up, but it was obvious that it was not dry as it often is. As I was driving to the airport, I could see the air downwind from the pass condensing into turbulent clouds, which got bigger and bigger as they went south. Most of the clouds hugged the Mt. San Jacinto area, though, and the Hemet valley was mostly clear. The clouds that did appear in the valley looked like rotor, so maybe the wave would work?

Some of the Cypress guys got to flying earlier than we did, and got to over 10,000 feet over the lake! They seemed to think it was thermal lift.

I took off in the PW5 about 1:00 and found some workable lift right away. It was turbulent but broad, big enough to circle in, but not terribly strong. The highest lift I saw on the ship's digital display was 3.2 knots, but the vario was not working right and I think it was quite a bit stronger. My clip-on electronic vario was often going crazy, so I think the lift may have been in the 6-8 knot range at times. But it didn't go very high: my max altitude was 5200' MSL.

T and M in the club's Grob 103 and I thermalled together for a while, and I took a few pictures. The Cypress PW6 also thermalled with me, but they were higher and I couldn't get any pictures.

The lift was never smooth, so I never encountered wave action. It seemed to be all thermal, which was surprising with the strong wind. But the temperature differential was substantial, so I guess it was strong enough to punch up through the wind. At one point I was about 3,000 to 3,500 MSL, and the outside air temp was 18 degrees lower than the AWOS was reporting at 1,500 MSL. I came back after an hour so G could have the glider. The lift was still working - I just sped up to create extra drag.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Historical Trends in Sailplane Activity at Hemet-Ryan Airport

In support of our negotiations with the County of Riverside regarding soaring at Hemet-Ryan Airport, I have conducted a study of the number of sailplanes based there from 1996 through 2009. The source of data for the study was historical images from Google Earth: I counted the gliders, hangars, and trailers in each image and did some analysis and graphs. The study is available here.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Dual Flight over Early Snow

Friday brought a fast-moving cold storm to Southern California. Saturday looked to be clear skies and cool aloft with possible thermals to 9 or 10,000 feet, but also possibly windy to 15 knots, with the wind maybe too westerly to make good wave. As I was driving to the airport another pilot called and we talked about sharing a flight, so I prepped our Grob 103. It's the better ship to be in if the winds get strong, but its oxygen tank is out for repair, so I knew we couldn't go too high if the wave was working. We needed to do several items of maintenance, but that gave us some time to get early flight reports from a couple of other pilots. It sounded like a high tow over the mountains might be the only way to fly today, so I was glad to be splitting the tow fee.

There were lenticular clouds to the north, but way too far away to be useful... that's common at Crystal.

The wind was from the west but not very strong, 5 knots most of the time. There was obviously a gentle south wind coming over the mountains, pushing clouds over the rim into the desert as you can see in the picture. And we were told there was an east wind aloft, so ridge lift on the east side of Mt. Lewis was a possibility. And with the clear air, thermals might pop too. So... the air was in a lot of motion today - what would we find?

I took the rear seat, and G as PIC took the front. He said he had not had much experience with wave or ridge soaring, so he thought maybe I'd do much of the flying and he'd to the takeoff and landing. Fine with me. I took myPDA/GPS device hoping to get a trace of our flight. As we were pushing out to the runway, a cigar-shaped lenticular cloud formed right between us and the mountain, so smooth wave was happening. But by the time we took off, it was gone.

Another pilot reported that the rumored ridge lift on Mt. Lewis was not working, and the spillover clouds were really getting thick, so we let off at 8500' kind of in front of the mountain and went looking for ridge lift in various places. G didn't find anything so after a while he turned it over to me. I had seen some raggedy little clouds in a rough SW-NE line that I thought might be weak rotor clouds, but there was no real lift next to them.

So on the theory that the west wind might be making ridge lift or weak wave, I tried a north-south line over the low end of the Second Ridge. I did find some narrow lift and was able to work up in it through several back-and-forth passes. I tried to keep my lines tight in case it was a narrow band, and that seemed to work. The picture (click to expand) shows a trace of that portion of the flight. It was not smooth enough to be wave, and there was no obvious north-south ridge to be making orographic lift, so what was it? I thought maybe the nose of the Second Ridge was creating what they call "bow wave", but the wind wasn't really strong enough for that. It didn't last long, but I gained 1,000', so we had time to fly around.

Didn't find much after that, and eventually got low enough over the ridges that I decided to head toward a weak little lenticular could that was perched over the airport. I found neither good lift nor good sink on the way, and by the time we got there the lennie had disappeared. I gave the plane back to G and he went in search of thermal lift on the way back to the landing pattern. There may have been a little, but it was pretty weak and not working.

There were a few other odd little lennies to the west, but too far for us to reach. We came in for a landing after 51 minutes. The surface wind was still from the west and only about 5 knots, so it had never really picked up.

We had seen a glider above us and later below us when we were working the one area of mysterious lift. Back on the ground, instructor D asked, if that was us he saw, and commented that the shear line had been good but had disappeared as we worked it. Then the light went on! The wind from the south over the mountain, and the wind from the west, were colliding and going up. It wasn't ridge, or wave, or "bow wave", or thermal - it was convergence! I'm gonna need a checklist just for all the different kinds of lift we find in the chaotic environment over the mountains!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hemet-Ryan Master Plan Includes Soaring - NOT!

The County of Riverside published their new Master Plan, along with an "Initial Study" that addresses environmental and other issues. The Plan is full of unsubstantiated assumptions, unsupported conclusions, and undisclosed motivations. It assumes soaring will come back but will fail... it states that the Cal Fire operation will move and obliterate the soaring space but admits this will not help Cal Fire... it states this is necessary to provide "opportunities for new aviation uses on the south side" but doesn't say what those might be, and it admits that growth at HMT will be minimal.

In other words, it's a sham. FAA forced them to update their plan, and they did so with no input from soaring. Although they state that HMT is primarily a recreational airport, they plan to shut out a segment of aviation that accounts for a large fraction of the recreational operations. FAA ruled their actions illegal... but they persist in being uncooperative.

Here are links to the Plan and the Study.

If you'd like to write to the County about this issue, you can find the address and a sample letter on the Save Soaring at Hemet Today site.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

It's Complicated

The wind was from the south and there was enough moisture in the air that cumulus was a possibility, with cloudbase at 10,000 to maybe 13,000 feet, but little chance of overdevelopment into thunderstorms. One of the very experienced instructors came back from an early flight, so we asked him what it was like up there. He said, "Confusing, but there's lift everywhere." Now, if THIS guy thinks it's confusing, you know it'll be a challenge for low-time pilots like me.

The soaring textbooks show simple, idealized diagrams of thermals, ridge (orographic) lift, and wave lift. In the real world, It's Complicated. Those types of airflows intersect, interact, and interfere with each other.  Figuring out exactly what's going on can be, as he said, Confusing. Why worry about what kind of lift it is, why not just fly in it? Well, in thermal, you typically circle. In ridge, you go back and forth following the contour of the ridge, in the "sweet spot" above and maybe a little downwind from it. In wave, you go back and forth in a (possibly long) vertical zone, or sometimes fly directly into the wind. So... if you guess wrong about the type of lift you're in, you're likely to fly in the wrong direction, and right out of the lift.

From the ground, I saw the mountain peaks (9,000 and 10,000 feet tall) creating an expanding trail of cumulus clouds. But the clouds didn't start above the peaks, they started downwind of the peaks, and at about the same level. So they did not act like classic orographic CU. This picture kind of shows it but not too clearly - the clouds spawned from the left and grew larger to the right, out of the frame:

Here's a sketch of how it would have looked from the side:

And from above:

Once in the air, I found lift under each of these "wakes" of clouds. What kind of lift? It was wide enough to circle in, like thermal, and strong: I gained 5,000' in no time. But it was windy, which usually tears apart thermals. It was downwind of the peaks, like wave... but it was not smooth, and the clouds were puffy like CU, not smooth lenticulars. And it was downwind of the peaks, not starting over it as ridge lift would be. So... it was something else. I came to think of it as "wake" lift, triggered by the peaks like wave, going down and then up like wave, but turbulent enough to make puffy CU instead of smooth lennies. And in front of the leading point of each "wake", there were clouds that were NOT rising and puffy, but rather ragged and rotating: rotor cloud as you would see below a wave:

Imagine three rocks in a stream. They make V-shaped wakes which go up and then down and then up, and get turbulent downstream. And if the rocks are close enough, the wakes start interacting. Remember "constructive interference" from physics? The wakes can constructively interfere and the lift can add up to be stronger and higher than the wakes. And that is just what I found. Where the V-shaped cloud streets started to come together, I saw a small, smooth lennie! Right in the middle of this picture, you can see the smooth, rounded, fuzzy leading edge of it. The CU in the lower left is in one of the wakes, and there were other CU's directly behind me. 

The lennies were wedged between the wakes as shown in the next sketch. The wakes eventually merged into a solid mass of CU.

I got up to cloudbase under a wake, then left the wake and approached the leading edge of the lennie, hoping to find smooth wave lift, and I did. (That's the first time I have actually been close enough to approach a wave cloud and find the lift. Up to now, my experience with wave lift has been in clear air.) The wave lift was pretty narrow, and I could not move very far without getting out of it, but it did take me up above the CU cloudbase, which is pretty rare. In this next pic, you can see the edge of the lennie again, and look downward at the base of the CU:

I went as high as possible under the leading point of a wake, and then tried to hop to the peak that was triggering it, but that was directly upwind. The cloudbase was about 2,500 feet higher than the peak, but since I had to fly upwind that was barely enough to get to the peak with a safe margin of altitude. I was able to overfly Mt. Baden-Powell, but not Mt. Baldy.

Confusing and complicated - but enlightening! I did not go far, I went all around the airport trying to visualize what the air was doing, trying out and verifying theories. Sure enough, there was lift everywhere, and the corresponding sink was not very strong. I easily stayed up for two and a half hours. Unfortunately my flight recorder malfunctioned so I don't have a flight trace, but I did get some pretty good pictures of these interesting situations.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Wishing to soar

Regular readers may have noticed that I did not post anything in August. That's because I was traveling, mostly on a family "road trip" vacation to the midwest. Using the SSA's list of soaring sites, I looked for commercial ops along our route so I could get in some soaring at a remote site. I mostly found clubs, and as you may know it's not very practical for a visiting private pilot to fly with a club, for reasons of logistics and insurance.

The only viable option I could find was Durango Soaring Club in Colorado. It's a club, not a commercial op, and their web site indicated that their focus is on selling rides and some instruction. It did not look like they rent gliders, and I've heard that the checkout at Durango is pretty extensive because of the challenging terrain. The only option looked to be to pay for a tourist ride and maybe get to do some of the flying, but that seemed expensive and unsatisfying. My schedule was uncertain enough (and the purpose of the trip was to do things with my family), so I didn't really look into it seriously.

Click the pic for a larger image.
While in Durango, our main purpose (well, mine anyway) was to ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railway. This is a spectacular ride in 1880's rail cars, with 1930's coal-burning steam engines, though the beautiful and rugged Animas Gorge through the Rocky Mountains.

Well, guess what: the tracks go right by  Durango Soaring Club. And just as we steamed by, a Blanik came in to land on their beautiful grass strip, and we happened to be on the right side of the train. So here are a couple of my best shots.

Click the pic for a larger image.

Wish the fields I fly from had grass like this!

And that's as close as I came to soaring in August.

Thermal flight - shoulda, coulda, woulda

Labor Day weekend had great weather for thermal soaring at Crystal. It got up to about 97F.The forecast was for thermals to 15K-18K, and there was a little moisture in the air which meant there was a possibility of cumulus clouds at about 14K. After dealing with some maintenance issues, I took off in the PW5 about 1:30. We really climbed fast on tow, and by the time we got to the First Ridge we were already at 2500 AGL and flying through thermals. I thought I'd be smart, save a little on the tow, and let off in a good thermal instead of towing up into the mountains. I let off with the vario nearly pegged, but when I tried to get into it I could find no lift. No sink, but no lift either. I worked little bits of lift near the golf course and the wash (not known to be great sources) and could not seem to climb, and could not get away from the airport. At one point I got down to about 1500 AGL and was thinking about landing to take another, higher tow, but I stuck it out and finally found a decent thermal. There was a significant wind from the west, and I had to hunt upwind to stay in it. Finally it really started to cook, and I got up to about 9,000 MSL (5,600 AGL). That enabled me to head into the mountains and work the Second Ridge.

In the mountains I found thermal lift and some lift that seemed to be ridge. At least one glider was visible thousands of feet above me, working up near the base of one of the few CU's within striking distance. Eventually I got up to about 11,000 MSL and headed deeper into the mountains. I've had a goal of reaching the top of Mt. Baldy, which several of our club pilots have already done (and some did that day). But I had wasted a *lot* of time scratching in that first thermal, and I knew that G was waiting for his turn in the glider after me. So I had to turn back a few miles short of Baldy. As I headed back west I continued to go up, and reached 12,000 MSL quite easily. I could have gone up to probably 14K if I had had more time, but I stopped at 12K and headed back.

Since I was now over the desert at over 11,000 feet, I headed northeast and overflew a private airport known as Gray Butte, and still got back to Crystal with thousands of feet to lose. After pulling spoilers to lose altitude more quickly, I landed after a total of an hour and 24 minutes. My altitude gain was 6,100 feet. I recorded the flight on my GPS/PDA but have not had time this week to upload and analyze it.

I shoulda held on to the tow instead of letting off early and wasting at least a half hour hunting the first good thermal. Then I woulda had more time at high altitude and coulda reached Mt. Baldy. So that goal is still in the future...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nice Thermal Passenger Flight at Crystal

Some months ago I met a colleague M at work who is an instrument-rated power pilot but had never been in a glider. We finally got our schedules in sync and went out to Crystalaire this Sunday. We talked about flying there from Fullerton airport in his club's Cessna to maybe save some time. (Conversely, I've never been in a Cessna.) But there was a good possibility of morning overcast in the LA basin, so we decided to drive up instead. The forecast high was about 95-99F with only 5 knots of wind from the southwest, so it looked like a good day for thermals. I printed out both the thermal forecast and the wave forecast so I could go over them with him on the drive.

We talked about the contrast between M's flying experience and mine:
- He typically flies in congested airspace, and usually files IFR even in VFR conditions.
- I typically fly in uncontrolled airspace, and have only talked to ATC during a couple of flights.

One of his main concerns is staying clear of other traffic. Usually all we see are other gliders and the towplanes. Occasionally a military transport or helicopter passes through the Crystal area, but they're pretty rare. When we do see other gliders in the air, we often circle with them in a thermal in very close proximity, so this was going to be a quite different experience for him.

After prepping the glider and having some lunch, we had quite a delay waiting for a tow. Seems the second tow pilot scheduled for the day was sick, so things were taking a while with just one. It was plenty hot on the ground, probably about 99 or 100F; the OAT gauge in the Grob 103 read quite a bit higher and I didn't believe it. We took off about 1:30, took a 3500' tow (up to 6900' MSL) and let off in strong lift. Other pilots had reported "zero sink everywhere, and narrow thermals". That's what I found over the Second Ridge - bits of lift that would take us up 100' or so at a time, but nothing great. And it was not acting like the wave lift from my last flight. (The wind was not strong at all, and no rotor turbulence.)

I tried all the way down the slope of the Second Ridge and found little, so we headed back over the desert. I always hate to give up on the mountains, because although there's often good lift over the flatlands, it's never been tall enough to let me get back up on the hills. On the way back I let M take the stick and rudder for a few minutes to get a feel for these long wings.

Not far from the airport, we found one of the "house thermals" and climbed quite well. It took some work to stay in it, but we quickly gained over a thousand feet. After tanking up a bit, we flew around looking at the area, tried a couple of stalls, and worked some other minor thermals.

We went back and found that house thermal again. It got stronger and easier to exploit the higher we went. M spotted another glider off in the distance, and it soon came over to join us, at least a thousand feet below. It was a high-performance DG-1000, and soon outclimbed us: better ship, better pilot. Once M saw how this whole "gaggling" process worked, he was fascinated and really enjoyed the experience. Although the other ship was just a few hundred feet away from us at times, his climb was slow relative to our position. We kept our positions pretty well on opposite sides of the circle, so we really never approached each other. It's really quite fun to thermal together - a slow dance in the sky - as long as there are not too many ships to keep an eye on. M had a great time. A third glider (a lower-performance trainer) came in below us, at least a thousand feet down, and never got up near our altitude.

We got up close to 8,000 MSL, and the DG headed for the hills, so we did too. I found a little bit of lift over the lower part of the hills, and we flew for a while about a thousand feet higher than we had released in that same area. So that marks the first time I have been able to get back from the desert to the mountains. I did not find anything to take us higher than 8,000', but I think the DG pilot did.

After about an hour and a half of flight, we decided to head back. M was nearly out of water, and that's a long time to sit in a glider the first time. We came back in for a total flight time of 1:40. M was amazed at the distance the glider floated in ground effect after flaring - another difference due to those long wings.

All in all, a fun day introducing another pilot to soaring.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Mountain wave passenger flight

My friend Jim has been wanting to go for a glider flight for a long time, and we finally decided the only way we'd work it into our schedules was to take a day off work and just go. He'd been in a small power plane before, so we figured he'd do fine in a glider. Today the forecast for Crystalaire was for 99F, good thermal lift, winds out of the west-southwest at 10 to 15 knots.

We took off about 1:00 in light south-southwest winds and let off in good lift over the Second Ridge. We very easily gained 2,000 feet, and then another 1,000. Couldn't quite break the 10,000' mark, but it was working well. I kept the banking to about 35 degrees, and Jim handled it just fine. I looked around for more lift, and all I found was light sink and some turbulence upwind of the ridge. It was a little puzzling, because the south side of the ridge wasn't working like ridge lift based on where I thought the wind was coming from. Not finding a second thermal, we dropped off the hills and out to the desert... and found no lift there either. We landed after 38 minutes. I knew the lift must be better than that, because other gliders had been up for an hour or more. Jim was game, so we decided to give it another try.

We let off again in good lift, a little higher this time. I heard two other gliders on the radio trying to make visual contact, and one said he was at "13,400 in wave over the Punchbowl". Hmm... I'm over the Punchbowl too, but about 4 to 5 thousand feet lower. Huh? Wave? Duh! Of course! Wave! That wasn't thermal lift last time, and it wasn't random turbulence south of the ridge, it was rotor! The wind was blowing over the tops of the mountains, bouncing off the floor of the valley south of Second Ridge, and going up. So... I flew parallel to the ridge and immediately contacted smooth wave lift at about 5 knots. Then 6 knots. Occasionally 8 knots. Eventually 10 knots! In no time we were over 11,000 feet. I found where the rotor started south of the wave, and found the apparent east and west limits of the lift. We got as high as 12,200 feet, though much of the time we were down around 10,500. This is more like it!

This was really only my second time flying in serious wave lift, so I spent some time exploring the limits of it and just enjoying the view and giving my friend a nice smooth scenic ride - that wave lift is amazingly smooth! After about an hour and a half we decided to head back out over the desert and shoot for a two-hour total total time. I knew that losing 6,000 feet would take a while. Heading north, I found sequential patches of moderate turbulence and smooth lift. So I think I traversed secondary and tertiary waves. As we were wrapping up our flight, I heard one of those two other gliders going in for a landing, but the other checked in at 16,000'. We ended up just two minutes short of two hours on that second flight.

So my lesson for today: a south or southwest wind across the San Gabriel mountains can set up wave where I have been looking for thermal and ridge lift. What's surprising to me is how short the wavelength is. From the top of the ridge where I think the wind is getting deflected upward, to the upward flow of the primary wave seemed to be about just 3.5 miles. All the soaring educational materials I've seen about wave talk about the wind bouncing off a stable air layer down low, not off the ground, so I have not been thinking about the wave setting up right in the mountains, but that's what it seems to be doing. And the wind was not all that strong: 10 knots on the ground, not sure how strong at altitude. So I need to think about wave forming in a wider variety of conditions than the books talk about.

A great day!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Thermal and ridge lift today at Crystalaire

Our club planned an outing for the long weekend, but it did not go as planned due to the weather. The NWS issued wind warnings for the Antelope Valley, and many of our club members decided not to go. I've seen that sometimes the Crystalaire area is not as windy as the surrounding area, and we already had reservations at a place nearby, and we had nothing else planned for the weekend, so my wife and I went anyway. Well, I should have listened to the NWS this time! Saturday started out not too bad, just light winds at ground level, but upstairs it was a different story. Some very experienced glider pilots and tow pilots came back saying it was the worst turbulence they'd ever seen, and by about noon everyone was calling it a day. Sunday was forecast to be cool, cloudy, and windy, so we packed up and went home. These things happen sometimes with weather-related sports.

Monday was looking much better, so I headed back out. It was warm, clear, light wind forecast. The morning inversion was forecast to dissipate, with thermals possible up to 8500' or so. (I use NOAA's soundings web site at Check it out! If a formal sounding is not available for your favorite soaring site, it will interpolate one from the closest available ones.) Forecast high was for 76F, but NWS often underestimates desert high temps, and I know it got up to about 81F in the afternoon.

Some other folks wanted to do dual flights in the Grob, so I flew the PW5, taking off a little before 2:00. I let off in lift at 7700' MSL, and found a weak thermal right away, but it only took me to 8200. Eventually I found some that got me up to 9200, and I went farther east than I have before, just a couple of miles. I'm still kind of conservative at this site - I like to stay fairly close to home until I get comfortable with how much altitude I need to get back from various locations. (I did not take my flight computer today.) I could see other gliders at least a couple thousand feet higher, but I could not seem to beat 9200'.

One problem is that the variometer on this glider is intermittently unreliable. That may sound redundant, but it's true. Some days it works fine, other days it's all over the place. Last time I flew, it was fine, and we concluded that maybe there was water or debris in the static lines that had resolved itself. Well, the gremlins were back today! I intentionally took along my clip-on electronic vario, but there are two problems with it: 1) it's not very loud, and 2) it only tells me about lift, not sink. Flying in the mountains, I'd like to keep an eye on the sink as well. So... although it may sound like an excuse (especially to the seat-of-the-pants gurus), partial vario info makes me not want to go very far into the mountains. I think we need to tear the whole static system apart and clean it out.

Some of the lift was too widespread to be thermal, so I began to think it was ridge lift. There was a bit of a northwest wind - I could tell from my drift. I did not think it was strong enough to really generate much ridge lift, but apparently it was. I need to rethink my image of ridge lift: instead of a classic ridge perpendicular to the wind, this terrain was a bunch of short ridges, some of which were oriented against the wind. So each little spur was generating its own lift in a small area. Something to remember and try to exploit in the future.

I developed a bit of a headache after an hour or so. I turned on the oxygen for a while although I was only at about 8500', thinking it might help... it didn't. So I didn't push it, I came back to some of the closer ridges and worked some well-known thermal generators such as the Chimney. I was able to work a thermal up to 9700'. After about an hour and a half I decided to go out over the desert and try a few things.

I realized some time ago that my flying style is pretty "tame": wings-level most of the time, fairly gentle turns, never getting much above best L/D speed except to get out of sink. I've wanted to loosen up and have a little more fun in the air, but often I do not have enough excess altitude to experiment very much. Today I did, so I played around with some dives and climbs and steep climbing turns. Not quite what you would call wingovers, but definitely more extreme than I usually do. (Yes, instructors, I did clearing turns first.)

I found a few thermals over the desert, and could have stayed up longer, but I came in at just under two hours.

The lift was definitely working today - other club members went to the top of Mt. Baldy - I just didn't quite connect with the best stuff. That's on my to-do list for a day when the instruments are working better, and after I've studied the charts a bit more so I know the distances and escape routes.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

RSS Feed

I've set up my blog with an RSS feed. You may now see an RSS logo in your browser which you can just click to add Roger's Soaring Blog to your RSS reader. If the icon doesn't appear or doesn't work, you can use the following URL:


Monday, April 18, 2011

Thermal Season Begins with Passenger Flights

My cousin R and his wife J have been wanting to go soaring for a while now, and I've been waiting for the thermal season to begin so I could give them more than a "sled ride". Well, it's been warming up in the high desert, and reports out of Crystalaire have indicated that the thermals were popping the previous weekend, so things were looking up. We headed out there on Saturday. (The forecast high temperature was 87F.) As it turned out, no one else in the club was planning to fly the Grob that day, so I was able to take my time and show them all aspects of the ship as we washed and inspected and prepped it. Both had been in small planes before, so they were interested and eager.

The Grob had had some maintenance done on it earlier in the week, so I took it up for a checkout flight to pattern altitude before flying with passengers. Although it was well before noon, there were little bumps on tow, so it looked like things would heat up. I tried for a precision landing right on the numbers, and bounced the landing - haven't done THAT in a long time.

We had lunch and waited for a few others to stay up so we'd be pretty sure the thermals were working. J and I took off about 1:10, took a 3,000' tow and let off over the Second Ridge (there were some decent bumps on tow). We didn't find much there over the hills, and I'm new enough to this area that I didn't want to get too low, so pretty soon we headed out over the desert.
We found a couple of other gliders that were climbing, so we slipped in underneath them. I had explained earlier that this was one of the fun aspects of soaring: flying in a "gaggle" with other gliders. We worked it for a while and were able to gain a thousand feet. I kept checking to see if J was OK with the circling, and she was doing just fine. This thermal seemed to top out at 6,000' MSL, so we went looking for others. Didn't find any... came back to this first one... and it was no longer working. I never did find more lift in the region, so we came back in, for a total flight time of 42 minutes. That's probably about right for a first glider flight anyway. This time my landing was smooth, that is until turning off the runway into the stopping area. Wow, that dirt area is rough!

R was up next, and we took off just about one hour after the first launch. Things had heated up, and we felt a bit more turbulence on tow, but not bad. R video'd the takeoff and tow. This time I held on a little longer, and we towed further up the Second Ridge until we found some good lift. This tow was about 3,500' AGL. We immediately climbed about 500' in 2-3 knot lift. Not bad, but nothing spectacular. It seemed kind of disorganized, and I couldn't find more than 1 knot over the hills after topping out that first thermal. Not much over First Ridge or the punchbowl either, so once again we headed for the "house thermal" west of the airport. There we met up again with two other gliders, so R also got to fly in a gaggle, and was a great help keeping the others in sight. R also was not bothered by the circling. (I've written before about how passenger flights are sometimes a difficult balance between circling to stay aloft, and trying to have a gentle flight to avoid causing airsickness.)

We were working the thermal pretty well, when suddenly my portable radio "jumped" and landed down by my foot. Since I was flying from the rear seat to give my passengers the better view, I could not use the glider's built-in radio (there's only a boom mic in the front seat), so I was using my handheld, my headset, and my Velcro-attached push-to-talk switch. I have a wide Velcro strap that goes around my leg, and the radio's belt clip goes on the strap. Well, the belt clip on the newer, larger battery pack is a little smaller and does not clip firmly on the strap. It's never caused a problem until today, when it crept off the strap and fell down in the footwell. As soon as this happened I straightened out and left the thermal to deal with the radio. It was j-u-s-t out of reach - you can't lean forward in a four-point harness. Fortunately gliders can fly pretty well by themselves for short periods of time, so I trimmed it for minimum sink speed, leveled the wings, centered the rudder and went hands-off and feet-off. Also fortunately, there was no traffic in the direction we were gliding, but I still had to keep a lookout. I was beginning to think I was going to have to unstrap, when I finally got it by the antenna. By the time I got it back in place and plugged in, and dealt with another couple of distractions, we had lost a few hundred feet out of this already fairly weak thermal.

We cruised all around the airport area, even tried to poach off another glider, but he wasn't climbing either. We didn't find any more lift, so we came in for a smooth landing at - how about that? - 42 minutes, same as the previous flight.

Once on the ground, I checked with a few other pilots and several said the same thing: we found one good thermal to keep us up for a while, then nothing.

So, all in all it was a fun day. Both of my cousins enjoyed their intro flights, and we were able to thermal long enough for them to get some idea of why we crazy sailplane pilots keep coming back for more.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Flight trace video of my wave flight

I sometimes record traces of my flights with the SeeYou Mobile program running on an iPaq. I then play them back on the SeeYou PC program to study how things went. I've recorded a playback of my April 2 wave flight and posted it on YouTube - first time I've figured out how to do that. It's played back at 10 times the actual speed, so my 2 hour and 20 minute flight plays back in 14 minutes. Here's the link.

If you just want to see the time when I really connected with the lift and started climbing at a good rate, go to 8:05 through 11:42 in the movie (which is about 13:42 to 14:18 on the flight clock).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Blanik L13 Testing and Modification Plan Completed

Great news! A plan is now in place for inspecting and altering the Blanik L13 structure to determine which aircraft can be returned to service. The proposal has been submitted to the EASA and FAA, and the first few gliders have returned to the air in Europe. Details are available here and here. No info yet on the cost of the program.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Great First Solo Wave Flight

Today a weak front was causing a southwest-to-northeast flow, which made for mountain wave conditions at Crystalaire - the first day it's actually been working since the day of my site intro flight. There were monster wave clouds, closer to the airport than I had seen before, probably too high to be of use to us, but indicating good wave action. As I was prepping the PW5, Dale (very experienced instructor) came over to give me some advice on how to fly the wave today. That was nice - I was going to seek him out! He thought it was weakening today and not likely to go over about 8,000 to 9,000 feet, with maybe some thermal lift later in the day if the cloud cover was not too thick.
I took off at 12:20 and we towed through rotor on the way to wave lift. A high tow was necessary to get there, and I let off at about 8,500 MSL when the rotor abruptly quit. I was immediately in weak to moderate wave lift. I worked it for a while, trying the areas where people had said it had been working a little while ago. I found up to about 3.3 knots of lift in the beginning. I gained some, lost some, in it sometimes, in sink sometimes - worked between 6,700 and 8,800 for quite a while, feeling it out and trying to figure out exactly where it was. Every time I got back into a little rotor, I headed back upwind and found wave lift. It wasn't very wide, so I had to go back and forth in a fairly narrow "sweet spot". A couple times I found *heavy* sink as I got too close to the mountain, as expected (since the wind was "spilling" downslope before it bounced back up again).

A couple times I decided to head back to the flatlands, and when I went over the "second ridge" I contacted even stronger lift. At times it was up to 7.7 knots! (Later I was reminded that the waves tend to move downwind over time.) I finally got smart and realized I needed to turn back sharply when the lift started to weaken, so I could get right back to the good stuff. This worked really well, and I worked it up... and up... topping out at 10,200 feet. Another pilot worked it from 10 up to 11 while I was there, and Dale got to 14!

In this flight trace, the later part is in the upper left, and you can see how much tighter I was making my back-and-forth passes.

(Click on the image to see the full-sized picture.)

As many people have said, the lift in the wave is incredibly smooth. At times there's almost no sensation of motion if you're headed into the wind. In this next trace, the line color shows groundspeed. There were times when my GS was as little as 17 knots.

After about two hours I decided to come down. On the way back to the airport I continued to find lift up to 10,200, but also some pretty hard rotor. I eventually pulled 1/3 spoilers and turned lots of circles to get down. The lift was so strong and easy to find I could have stayed up a long time.

Approach and landing were challenging. I called in for a wind report, and was told it was from the southeast at 15 with stronger gusts, so I chose to land on runway 7 (to the east). On the way into the pattern I continued to get battered by turbulence, a couple of those big bumps that knock everything around in the cockpit and lift you out of the seat even with the belts tight. On short final I got a couple more fairly hard bumps. I carried some extra speed due to the expected headwind component, so I was able to control it pretty well, but once I got down low I put it down as soon as I could - no floating in ground effect - I wanted to be on the ground! Once I started to slow down a bit, I found out how strong that crosswind really was. It turned me about 45 degrees to the right and off the runway. (The PW5 has a decent sized tail but a tiny rudder, so crosswinds really push it around.) I applied full spoilers and wheel brake and stopped just a few feet to the side of the runway.My wings were level, or I should say right wing down a bit because of the crosswind, so I don't think I even came close to touching a wing. But it sure turned me!

Later the fellow who gave me the wind check said that although the wind sock showed it to be from the southeast, when he stepped outside a few minutes later he saw how cross it was. By that time I was committed to 7. Some other folks pointed out that there is a dirt crosswind runway which would have been much more into the wind, and in fact someone landed on it moments later.

So although I landed safely, I learned two big lessons:
  1. Even with a wind report from the ground, make sure to look at the wind socks or tetrahedron for confirmation. I was approaching the field perpendicularly, so I knew by the time I could see the socks I would be really close and need to commit to a direction, so I relied on the report. And I was dealing with a lot of turbulence and a strong headwind, so I really didn't plan for or have enough altitude to overfly the field.
  2. Know all of the resources available. Even if I had known how cross the wind was, I really had not thought about the value of that other dirt runway. I chose between 7 and 25 based on the wind direction, but I did have another option which would have been better.
My flight was 2 hours and 20 minutes, and up to 10,200 feet MSL. Not bad for my first day of surfing the mountain wave.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Progress Toward Hemet-Ryan

This week the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, on the advice of their counsel, declined to appeal the ruling of the FAA to allow gliders to operate at Hemet-Ryan Airport. One more obstacle out of the way! It will take a few months to work out arrangements (leasing space, filing operating plans, etc.). But it looks like it will happen!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sunglasses for Soaring

A reader asked me about sunglasses. Here's what I know and what I think.
  • Aviator sunglasses are designed to prevent light from coming from a wide range of angles, so they all tend to have a large teardrop shape. They don't change much to follow fashion. I happen to like mine, so I wear them for general use as well, not just for flying. A long time ago, I used to get headaches from bright sunlight, so I tend to wear sunglasses most of the time I'm outdoors or driving.

  • Polarized sunglasses generally should NOT be used for aviation. Two reasons - one pretty obvious, one more subtle:

    Cockpit glass and canopy (or plastics) may have some unintentional polarization, and when combined with polarized sunglasses can show dark spots, distracting color patterns, and even large dark areas which can greatly interfere with vision. Some instrument glass windows, devices such as handheld GPS units and PDA's, and digital watches can also be partly polarized and difficult to read. We need to reduce problems in the cockpit, not create them.

    Polarized sunglasses are designed to cut glare. But sometimes a little glare is a good thing! When we're flying, we're always looking for other air traffic, sometimes at great distances. Depending on light conditions, sometimes a "glint" off a distant aircraft's canopy is all you ever get to see - but that may be enough to catch your eye and distinguish the aircraft from a plain background or from ground clutter. Polarized sunglasses tend to filter out that "glint" and make it harder to see small, distant aircraft. Glare from our own aircraft tends to be not so much of a problem, due to the design and colors of dashboards, cowlings, etc., so I've never felt that losing the polarization caused me any local problems.

  • I started out using American Optical's FG-58 sunglasses. They were advertised as kind of the "standard" aviator sunglasses used by the military. They were OK, but due to the straight and kind of heavy design of the temple, I found them a little uncomfortable. They're pretty rugged. Although I've switched away from them, I still keep them in my gear bag as a backup, or in case I ever have a passenger who needs sunglasses.

  • When I started using a PDA for soaring navigation, I found the AO's to be too dark. I couldn't see my iPAQ's screen. I switched to "gradient" sunglasses in which the lower part is not as dark as the upper part. That way when I glance down I can see the PDA screen, but when I'm looking out the cockpit I get more protection.
All that could apply to any kind of aviation. But for soaring, there's one other feature that I learned to love. Yellow lenses help you see cloud structure better than other colors. It sounds like a trick, but seeing is believing. There's something about the colors of light that water transmits, and the fact that yellow lenses filter out more blue light, that enhances the contrast of clouds, especially the thin wispy parts.
When we're soaring on a day when cumulus clouds exist, we look for clouds that are just starting to form - they have the strongest lift. If you look at the bottom of a "young" CU, it may look flat or slightly concave. That's where the rising moist air cools to the dew point and the cloud forms. But look carefully below the bottom of the cloud. Sometimes you can see that it is not a definite line, you can see wispy trails leading up to the base. You're actually seeing the water vapor starting to condense, and you'll see it more in some places under the cloud than others. Those are the areas of strongest lift. Try this (even from the ground) with and without yellow sunglasses. Huge difference! With lenses of other colors you may not see those wisps at all and with the yellow lenses they pop out at you. Sometimes you can spot the wisps a few minutes before you can see the CU at all - and when you're hunting lift, sometimes that makes all the difference.
So I'm now using Serengeti Aviators Drivers Gradient glasses. I like them a lot. Only two things I would improve about them:
  1. The lenses are not as hard as some other sunglasses. I scratched my first pair after a year or two, right in front of my pupil. I got another pair and am much more careful with them. I always keep them in a semi-rigid case with a soft lining.

  2. The temples are a pretty thin wire. They're strong, that's not a problem. But I have a radio earpiece that I clip on when flying some gliders, and the temple is so narrow the clip slides around a bit. Not a big problem - I much prefer the smaller and lighter temple compared to the AO's.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

FAA rules in favor of soaring at Hemet-Ryan Airport

We won! After a year and a half, the FAA has ruled that the County of Riverside violated Federal law when it closed the glider runway and prohibited gliders from taking off on the main runway at Hemet-Ryan Airport.

Since they have accepted Federal grant money in the past, they must not discriminate against any type of aviation activity unless there's a safety issue. FAA ruled that gliders can operate safely, recommended some procedures, and ordered two-minute windows for winch launching, which we did not even ask for!

The County must submit a plan, negotiate in good faith, and consult with FAA, or they will be denied future Federal funding. Unfortunately the FAA ruled that the County does not have to pay costs or damages incurred by the clubs and private owners that were displaced.

Our club, the Orange County Soaring Association, filed the complaint. We've been fine-tuning our winch operations at several other locations and hope to return soaring to Hemet-Ryan in the near future. First we have to see how the County reacts, file an operations plan, etc. Stay tuned!

More information:

Monday, February 07, 2011

Winch launch in the PW5

This weekend we again conducted winch launches at Crystalaire gliderport. The weather was nice - low 70's all day, enough to create a little "zero sink" lift, but not enough wind to help with the launches. (Sorry to any eastern readers... not trying to rub it in!)

You might recall that the other times I tried winch launching in the PW5 (almost a year ago) I had an aborted takeoff and then a winch failure, so I've never really had a good launch. Since I had four good launches in the Grob 103 two weeks ago, I was eager to try the PW5 again.

The CG hook on the PW5 is really low to the ground, well below the actual center of gravity, so there's a significant rotational moment which raises the nose. On a glider with a tailwheel on the ground, that's not a problem. But the PW5 rests on its nosewheel, with its tail up in the air, and that rotation caused the tail to strike the ground as soon as the winch started pulling. Our winch has been improved over the last few months, so it's even stronger than before and could really slam the tailboom, so we decide to start with the tail on the ground. The way to do that is to have a person hold down the stabilizer until the glider starts its ground roll. That means that the nose is pitched up at a rather unusual attitude. What does that mean for the elevator position - will I need to hold the nose up, or push it down to fly level? What about the trim setting, which for my weight is supposed to be fairly far forward? These are all things I'll have to work out in the first... um... 0.7 seconds of the takeoff roll.

The first launch starts out smoothly enough. The nose angle seems good, and there's no tendency to PIO like my first time. But I'm keeping an eye on the line and the parachute, and I'm flying faster than it again. Before I am high enough to rotate into the climb, the 'chute disappears below me on the left side, so I have to release and land straight ahead (which goes perfectly well).

The ground crew agrees it was straight and smooth and good, but they say there was a gust of tailwind just as I took off. That probably helped the glider accelerate and helped the parachute inflate, which contributed to outrunning the line. And our experience has shown that once the 'chute inflates, the glider always passes it by. What to do? We decide that the winch driver needs to not use full speed with the PW5, so it won't accelerate so fast, and will keep some load on the line in the early part of the flight. The PW5 empty is 400 pounds lighter than the Grob 103, and it only carries one person, so it's nearly 600 pounds lighter all told. It just doesn't need full power like the big Grob 103 does. We also think that keeping the nose up slightly will present some drag, which will help keep the line taut.

Launch #2 goes just fine. The line stays tight, I can gain a little altitude, and then rotate into the climb. The speed in the climb stabilizes at 60 knots, right where I want it to be (the maximum allowed is 65). It climbs just fine. Finally the glider starts to level out, and I can look down and see that I'm nearly over the western airport fence. So I nose over to relieve the line tension, and release at about 1300 feet AGL. If there had been a headwind it would have been higher.

We've designated an area to the left of the runway where we can look for lift without interfering with either the right (glider) landing pattern or the left (towplane) pattern. I look around there and find a little zero sink, but nothing strong enough to lift me up more than 150 feet or so. The thermal forecast for today did look like there could be lift - no inversion to stop it - but it was not to be. With only 450 feet above pattern altitude to play with, I couldn't go very far, and soon enough I was calling my pattern entry. I had a good landing and rolled off into the parking area.

Later three other pilots launched in the PW5. Two of them had done it before, and one had not. One of them thought that his weight would be enough to counteract the rotational moment, so he opted to start with the tail up. Wrong! Slam! After that one, we all agreed that we need to always hold the tail down. I think everyone's release altitude was about 1300 to 1500 feet.

Here's a video of one of the other pilots launching. From the time you hear the line boss say "Launch, launch, launch" until the glider is in the air, it's about 2.5 to three seconds! This one is noisy, but that's just normal bouncing noise since we're launching on dirt with some rocks. The tail-slam was even louder!


Friday, February 04, 2011

Logbook in Excel

I've copied my flights from my paper logbook into an Excel spreadsheet for several years. There are several advantages to having my logbook in electronic format:
  • Easy to search for a particular flight
  • Does the time arithmetic to carry forward from page to page
  • Can print a copy for safekeeping
  • Can use Excel analysis tools to count up flights and time in different ways. Like: "How many times have I flown model X vs. model Y?" I used it a lot when writing my last post, Review of 2010.
I've added several Pivot Tables to the spreadsheet recently to make that analysis really easy. I thought others might like to give it a try, so I've posted it for download here. Instructions are provided on the second tab. It has a few glider-specific fields, but it could easily be adapted for power pilots' use as well. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review of 2010

2010 had its ups and downs. I completed my Silver badge, but we saw our training fleet grounded and our club struggled to find a new operating model. Here are some highlights.

I had a total of 28 flights, 5 fewer than in 2009, but 17 hours, 4 more than in 2009:
  • Nine flights with instructors
  • Seven flights with other Private pilots
  • No flights with student pilots
  • Two passenger flights
  • That leaves 10 solo flights
  • No cross-country flights
  • Four winch launches
I got around some:
  • Four flights at 29 Palms
  • Ten flights at Crystalaire
  • Six flights at Lake Elsinore
  • Eight flights at Tehachapi
I worked toward my Commercial and Instructor ratings early and late in the year:
  • Two flights at Lake Elsinore in the Blanik L13
  • Seven flights at Crystalaire in the Grob 103
Along the way, I did have a major accomplishment and some fun flights:
  • I had my longest flight ever, 5 hours and 11 minutes, to complete my Silver badge. First time in my life I've had someone douse me with champagne!
  • First really successful flights exploiting shear line lift at Tehachapi
  • First flights at Crystalaire.
  • Learned a bit about flying in wave over the mountains near Crystal. Lots more to learn!
  • A really successful passenger flight in which we were able to thermal with gentle turns
And some bad news:
  • All Blanik L13's worldwide were grounded after an accident in Europe. They're grounded until a testing plan is developed and approved. (I did get to learn some interesting things about aircraft safety and documentation procedure as I helped prepare paperwork related to our club Blaniks.)
  • The FAA never ruled on our complaint about Hemet-Ryan airport, so we lost a whole year in that battle. The ruling is due "any day now".
  • My plans to take my Commercial and Instructor Practical Tests did not progress much. I was not satisfied with the prospects of taking the tests at Lake Elsinore, and we lost the use of the Blaniks. Late in the year we placed our Grob at Crystal, and I resumed training late in December.
So... another mixed year. I continued to fly as much as possible, but there were three months I did not fly at all, the most I've ever sat out. We'll see what happens in 2011 - I'm hoping to do some cross-country out of Crystal, and I'm hoping to fly at some other gliderports as I take a family trip to Kansas in the summertime. And I have several friends and relatives who say they want to fly this year.

Winch Launching the Grob 103 at Crystalaire

Over the last few years our club has developed our winch launching program by refurbishing our winch, by training a number of pilots, and by testing it at several different locations. We have launched the Blanik L13's many times, and the PW5 single-seater several times. Our Grob 103 Twin Astir did not have a center-of-gravity hook, and it was considered pretty heavy and not really a training ship, so we had never winch launched it. The grounding of the Blanik L13 fleet put us on hold for a while, but the club refused to give up. We found out that there is an approved CG hook add-on for our ship, which could be purchased and installed for less than $1,000. It was completed on our ship in mid-January. And some of our mechanically adept members have made improvements to the winch which have increased its power and reliability. The operators of Crystalaire have been open to having us conduct winch launches there. The runway plus dirt extensions add up to about 4500 feet which is plenty long for winch launching. So finally it has all come together. The question remained: how well would the winch launch the Twin Astir?

So the club organized a "Winch Weekend" at Crystal. I wasn't able to make it Saturday, which was just as well because the winch engine broke down after just two launches. But the crew was able to get the part and fix it early Sunday morning, so we were back in business.

Winds were good, probably 8-10 knot and at just a slight angle to the runway. Our instructor took a solo flight, then did some flights with one of the senior instructors from Crystal. The verdict was in: the combo of our winch and our Grob 103 Twin Astir works great! It accelerates really well, climbs straight and smooth. The winch has plenty of power, and its shifting of gears is not a problem. Launches were anywhere from 1300' to 1600' in the early flights. We also launched one of Crystal's gliders which I think is about 100 pounds heavier, with a greater wingspan and much better performance, and it got up to 1800'. Wow!

I was next up for a couple of launches with our instructor. If you've been following my blog you'll recall that I have had quite a few winch launches in Blanik L13, and several abortive launches in the PW5. The first few times I winch launched in the Blanik L13 it really got my attention: 0 to 55 in about three seconds, really startling the first time. I expected the heavier G103 would accelerate a little more slowly. Quite the opposite: with our beefed-up winch, the acceleration is even faster. The first one this time actually gave me a bit of a "head rush". I estimate we're now going to 50 or 55 in less than two seconds. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I think that's between 2.5G and 3G or more of acceleration. To put this in perspective, some of you may be familiar with thrill rides that use linear induction motors to accelerate ride vehicles. The one I'm familiar with is California Screamin' at Disney's California Adventure park. It goes from 0 to 55 in four to five seconds. I think the acceleration of our winch launch is nearly twice that. (I didn't notice the "head rush" effect on later launches.)

Once we were moving, the G103 seemed very smooth and eager to climb. I focused mostly on staying wings-level in the climb. The best climb rate requires having the stick all the way back or nearly so. There's sometimes just a little "porpoising" as the line gets little amounts of slack or as the winch shifts gears, but it's not very noticeable. My first launch was to 1300' AGL. The first thing I noticed after getting off the rope was that it's a little difficult to get one's bearings. During the climb, you can hardly see the ground due to the steep angle. Getting off the line nearly over the winch, the airport is behind and below, and you can't see it until you turn. All you can see is the nearly featureless desert. Once we completed our turn first turn I could see the airport and get reoriented.

On the second launch, we got to 1500' AGL but then the weak link broke. We don't think we pulled on it too hard, because that launch was about the same as the previous 5 or so of the day. It may be that the link was getting weaker with age and use, and it was just its time to break.

My first landing was not as close to the beginning of the dirt touchdown area as my instructor would have liked. Probably I was aiming a little further out because of the proximity of some wires on that end of the runway. The next time I brought it in steeper, established my aiming point closer in, and had a good landing (e.g. we didn't have to pull the glider back quite so far).

My third flight right after that was solo, and the launch went quite normally. I got up to 1400' AGL before releasing. Shortly after turning north I found lift, probably thermal. It was pretty big, and was anywhere from 300 fpm to 700 fpm and fairly consistent. I worked it for just a short while and probably could have soared away. (I spotted a hawk doing some aerobatics below me.) But this was not a day for soaring, since we were trying to get several people experienced with winch launching the Grob. So I came back after just 10 minutes. But I'm convinced that when the weather heats up we'll be able to hook thermals and get away.

A number of other people had instructional launches and short rides. I prepped the PW5 for flight, but it was getting late and we had other priorities, so I'll launch it another day. As it turns out, I flew the G103 once more late in the afternoon, the last flight of the day. One of the Crystal staff wanted to go for a ride (has flown in gliders many times but not had a winch launch). So off we went again. The initial acceleration was a little bumpy, which was new. Later we figured out that as we rotated the ship to line it up for launch, we dug the main wheel into a bit of a hole in the sandy soil. Next time we'll know to push it forward a bit so that it doesn't have the resistance of having to pull out of a hole. Not that it's a problem for the winch - plenty of power there! But it makes the initial roll start with a bump, which you don't need when you're getting to 55 in 2 seconds. Anyway, we got up to 1400' and released. We found a little sustaining lift but it didn't keep us up very long - by this time the sun was getting fairly low in the sky so the thermal was weaker. She had a great time, and we came back after just about 7 minutes. This time I intentionally landed long onto the paved runway (really smoothly, if I may say so), and rolled all the way to the east end of the airport, stopping perfectly in front of our tie-down spot.

I think we had a total of 14 winch launches that day. A good beginning to what we hope will be a new standard operating procedure for the club at this location.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Discontinuing work on Commercial and Instructor

Followers of this blog will recall that I was days away from taking my Commercial and Instructor practical tests back in September 2009, when gliding at Hemet-Ryan airport was abruptly shut down. I had completed all three written tests, and completed all my flight training requirement. Since then it has been difficult to work out a combination of aircraft, gliderport, instructor, and examiner that would enable me to finish the practical tests at an acceptable cost.

Recently I had resolved those logistics, or so I thought. I had resumed working toward completing my Commercial certificate before my written test expires at the end of January, and my Instructor certificate by the middle of March. I have been flying with an instructor in the club Grob 103 at Crystal, revisiting the maneuvers for the flight test and getting current on the required instructional flights. I have come to realize that I would not be sufficiently prepared for either the oral or flight portions of the Commercial test by the end of January. In addition, trying to balance this work with a number of other family commitments and projects was causing me some problems. I simply needed more study time and more practice than I would be able to accomplish before the deadline. I could retake the written test and continue on, but I have decided it is not going to work out at this time. There are several factors leading to this decision:

  • Proficiency in the Grob. I was well prepared for this test a year and a half ago in the Blanik L13 (before the Hemet crisis). But I have three times as much experience in the L13, and the Grob 103 Twin Astir (at least our unit) is more difficult to fly precisely from the rear seat. Some of the things that I need to demonstrate for the test are things I have not used recently in recreational and cross-country flying, so I’m out of practice on those maneuvers. I could get there, but not quickly enough.
  • Preparation for oral knowledge testing. I was prepared for this part a year and a half ago, but that knowledge (airspace requirements, regulations etc.) fades if it’s not refreshed. Since the time the OCSA Grob became available at Crystal, and I located an acceptable examiner, I have not had time for refresher study due to a family situation that is requiring much more of my time over the last few months.
  • Cost. When I started on these ratings three years ago, I was able to work with the OCSA volunteer instructors (whom I greatly appreciate!), the tow fees were significantly less at Hemet, and the drive and gas prices were much less. (For example, Crystal does not offer a break on pattern tows.) I understand why Crystal’s tow fees are higher – better facilities, great services, and fuel has gone up – but I can’t afford $450 to $650 in tow and instructional fees and other expenses every flying day – and I would need many more flying days to go on to the Instructor rating. Getting the proficiency I need in the current situation will be too expensive. It could easily cost another $3,000 to $5,000 to complete the Instructor test. Maybe I’ll be able to resume in a lower-cost environment in the future… Lake Elsinore Soaring Club’s tow and instructor fees are lower, but there are some other issues in taking practical tests at that location that I will not comment on here.
  • Purpose. When I started on this three years ago, I planned to become a CFI in the club environment, and “give back” to OCSA and soaring. I realize that each certificate is a “license to learn”, and I was expecting to work under the guidance of our club CFIs, and work with our constant flow of primary students as I built up my knowledge and skills. Now that the OCSA teaching environment has changed due to the Hemet and Blanik L13 situations, I don’t know what I would even do with my CFI rating. I don’t envision working as a paid instructor on Saturdays at Crystal or anywhere else. I don’t especially want to teach in 2-33’s for Lake Elsinore Soaring Club. A CFI needs to train and solo and recommend a minimum number of students to stay current – and I don’t see that situation in my future anymore.

So until some of these factors change, I’ll put my Commercial and Instructor ratings on hold, and re-take my knowledge tests later if necessary. This is a difficult decision, since I have been working on this for three years. I greatly appreciate the training and guidance I have received from my instructors, and the support of my OCSA friends. I’ll continue to fly the Grob and PW5 for fun and wave experience at Crystal and elsewhere with OCSA, and look forward to some cross-country flights this summer.