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.

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