Saturday, April 25, 2015


After 12 years of soaring, I have decided to stop, at least for now. If circumstances change, maybe I’ll return, but not in the foreseeable future. I probably owe an explanation to my readers and friends in aviation, so here goes.

No, I haven’t had a bad experience that has put me off flying, nor am I afraid to fly, nor am I having any health issues that make me unfit to fly. It’s pretty simple: soaring is a lot of work, and lately it’s become much less convenient to fly in southern California, and I’ve accomplished all of my mid-range goals. To go any further would involve a lot more time and expense and effort, and it has simply reached the point that the enjoyment is not worth the effort anymore.
I’ve achieved my goals

In 12 years, here’s some of what I’ve accomplished:
  • 328 flights totaling 169 hours. Half the time was in Blanik L13’s, 1/4 in PW5, 1/4 in Grob 103’s.
  • Flown from eight locations in three states.
  • Flown in six models of glider: Blanik L13 (half my flights), PW5 (one quarter), Grob 103 (one quarter; three varieties), Krosno (two flights), PW6 (one flight), Schweitzer 2-33 (two flights).
  • Achieved my Silver badge: 5-hour flight, cross-country flight (31 miles required, I flew 75 miles), altitude gain (3,281' required, I gained 5,700’).
  • Two landouts, both planned: one on a road and one on a dirt airstrip.
  • Aerotow, autotow, and winch launching.
  • A few cross-country flights, including two in the Dust Devil Dash contests.
  • 28 passenger flights, six of them strangers.
  • Learned to soar in many types of lift: thermal, convergence, shear line, anabatic, ridge, mountain wave.
  • Mountain wave flight to 17,000 feet.
  • Flown in rain, hail, and a dust devil.
  • Gained 9,100 feet in one flight. Dang, that’s nearly Diamond altitude!
  • Passed my written tests for Commercial and Instructor ratings. I was two days away from taking my practical tests when Hemet shut us out.
  • Conducted ground school classes.
  • Conducted student flights (not loggable).
  • 321 blog posts.
  • Air-to-air photography.
  • Solo spins in two models.
  • Flown with hawks, vultures, seagulls, crows, and hang gliders. I always hoped to meet an eagle, but never did.
  • Helped promote soaring at air shows and model aircraft conventions.
  • I’ve never had an unplanned landout. Maybe that means I’m too cautious, but it also means I exercised good planning and judgment.
  • Properly handled some near-emergency situations: real rope breaks on aerotow, autotow and winch launches; cloud gaps closing during wave flight, winch engine failure, blocked runways on landing, landing on alternate taxiway due to high winds, collapsed gear on landing.
Soaring has become much less convenient

We lost the ability to fly at Hemet several years ago. Lake Elsinore, the other gliderport near my home, is dusty, run-down, constricted, and I have never had a great soaring day there. Others have, but I’ve never enjoyed it much. Crystalaire is a fantastic place to fly - great facilities, and lots of interesting and challenging opportunities for mountain flying. Read some of my posts, and you’ll see why I like it so much. But… it's an hour and 20 minutes each way, there are usually no other club members there to help share the work, so if the flying is brief, sometimes it’s a whole day gone for a half-hour flight, and that’s just too much.

For the last couple of years I was president of a declining club, and then in charge of merging our club into another. It’s been a lot of work with not a lot of flying.

Now Lake Elsinore is in danger of closing down within the next 6-12 months. Or so they say. I’ve been hearing that for the last 5 years, so who knows. Some folks are optimistic that they will resume flying at Hemet, but from what I’m hearing, little has changed with the County of Riverside. Though some in soaring think they are making progress, to me it appears they are still being stonewalled, and I don’t see Hemet being a good situation any time soon.

Advancing to the next level would cost much more in time and money

I don’t own my own ship, and arranging for cross-country flying in club ships is complicated. Getting into frequent cross-country soaring would require buying a ship and basing it at Crystalaire or Tehachapi. Doing it safely requires ground trips to check out landing spots (I did that before my Dust Devil Dash flights). It requires reciprocal arrangements with other pilots for possible retrieves. As I’ve said, Crystalaire is kind of at my distance limit for same-day flying. The soaring from Tehachapi is wonderful, but it requires a whole weekend.

I’ve done about all I can in local flying. I can’t commit the time and money to XC. Instructing was attractive within my previous club, with Blanik L13’s. Instructing at Elsinore in a 2-33 is not attractive, and I don’t see a thriving club environment at Hemet occurring any time soon. All things considered, I’ve decided it’s time to move on.

On the plus side

Learning to fly has been a great experience. I learned a lot about many topics:
  • Flying (obviously).
  • Aircraft - this is a very hands-on kind of flying. I now know what all those thingy’s do on an airliner, and I thoroughly understand those numbers on the wall inside a C-141.
  • Weather - wow. You can read in my blog posts how I learned to analyze the ups and downs of the atmosphere we fly in. I wrote extensively about one of my best and most interesting flights in this post It’s Complicated, including pictures and diagrams. I’ll always look at the clouds and think about how I would fly them.
  • Risk management. Flying for fun safely requires making wise decisions - every time. For example, I remember pulling a Blanik off the runway because something in the cloud pattern told me a thunderstorm was approaching.
  • Aviation politics and business. I learned some very ugly things about local and state governments and politicians. The glimpses I got into the FAA were generally all positive.
  • Discipline. Flight training involved some early mornings, some cold and wet days, some blisteringly hot days on the runway and in the greenhouse cockpit of a Blanik. I improved my health and fitness and diet, and reduced my use of medications. I basically gave up watching television when I studied for my written and practical tests.
If you’re thinking of learning to fly, may I suggest that you will learn a lot about yourself. I learned that I could do this! Taking another human up in an airplane and safely back down - and showing them a good time and making them want to do it again - is a huge responsibility. I learned to face fear: first the all-knowing Flight Instructor, who is simultaneously your best teacher and your harshest critic; the all-powerful FAA Inspector, who grills you for hours in words and in the air; the fear of actually screwing up on your own. I must say that putting a glider into a spin with no instructor behind me was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done - and one of my proudest accomplishments. Very little in everyday life scares me anymore, after learning I could face that fear.

I hope new soaring pilots will continue to find and read my blog, and gain some knowledge and inspiration from what I have written. I don’t know that I will write any more here, but if anyone writes comments I’ll certainly see them and respond.

Thanks for reading this blog over the past several years, and thanks for the encouragement along the way. I hope everyone who wants to soar finds a good situation in which they can have a great experience.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Back in the (small) saddle

Due to the transition into the new club, I had not flown the PW5 since June. First I needed to get checked out in the club's "A1" level ship, the Krosno. Then I needed a ground checkout with an instructor to be able to fly the "A2" level (single-seat) gliders. That was more of a formality, since I am very familiar with the PW5 and wrote up a document about it for the other club members. After getting the signoff, getting a free weekend, and taking care of a parachute repack, I was finally ready to fly this week.

The weather looked OK for Friday: a relatively clear day between the passing of a minor front and then the arrival of Santa Ana winds. The forecast was for northeast winds, which aren't really good for either thermal flying or wave lift at this location, but it looked like ridge soaring might develop.

As it turned out, the winds were very light and variable all day, and the early clouds gave way to clear skies and ground temperatures into the high 60's. So thermal activity, though not very strong, was present all over the place. The tow pilot reported that the low hills were working better than the mountains (though one pilot got skunked a while before I flew). Due to needing to do some maintenance in the PW5, I didn't get to take off until 2:00. But the tow pilot was right, and we found decent lift over the golf course not far from the airport. I let off at 2,400' AGL, which is pretty low for me. I've been fooled more than once into letting off low, but this time it worked out well enough. The lift looked to be about 5 knots when I let off, but that was a fluke. The rest of the day I never found more than 3 knots, and often less than that.

The lift wasn't terribly strong, but it was wide enough and consistent enough that it was fairly easy to center. Since it was weak, I worked on staying as coordinated as possible, and finding a bank angle that balanced between turning steeply to center it, and not turning so steep that I needed to speed up and get into the drop-off section of the PW5's polar curve. I really paid close attention to the two varios and the physical sensations, and found that perfectly coordinated flight really helped with the lift rate - the difference between "zero sink" and actually climbing. Flying that carefully in weak lift takes a lot of attention.

I worked a couple thermals up from 5,800' MSL to 7,300' MSL. Nothing to brag about, but I was happy to find enough lift to stay up. I got high enough to try the Second Ridge, but there was nothing working there, and by that time all the cloud markers were gone. I had planned to perhaps do some spins (since I have not done them in a while), but since I had to work hard to gain altitude I was not willing to throw it away so easily. I'll spin another day.

When I was at about 6,000' late in my flight, I spotted another glider maybe 1,000' higher and to the southwest of me, and thought I'd try to follow him up. But I lost him in the sun after a few turns, and could never find him again. I decided it was not wise to fly into his space if I couldn't see him, so I headed back toward the airport and decided to call it a day since the lift was starting to weaken.

I ended up with an hour and fifteen minutes, and a really smooth landing. It was nice to be back in the PW5, and I'm looking forward to the wave season starting up. I need one more check ride in the PW6, and then I'll be able to give rides to friends, and maybe do some dual wave flights with club members.

First flight in PW6

The club has a PW6, the two-seat version of the PW5 I have flown for many years. The club ships are categorized by performance and complexity, and the PW6 is in a higher category than the Krosno I recently got checked out in, so in order to fly it I need to go through another pair of instructor flights. (The Grob 103 that we brought over from OCSA is the same category: two-seat fiberglass ships.)

The design of the two ships is quite similar, but the PW6 is noticeably bigger and taller. The empty weight is 753 lbs compared to 419 lbs. Here are a few differences I noted:

  • The trim adjustment uses a different latching mechanism.
  • There are no side pockets in either cockpit! No place to stash my handheld radio, so I clipped it to my parachute straps.
  • Although it is larger, the front cockpit of the PW6 seemed more crowded. The seat seemed cramped.
  • No good place to put a Camelback in the front cockpit. Since we were doing short flights, it was not important, but I'll have to look next time to see if I can hang one somewhere. In the Grob 103, I can fit one next to me, but I don't think that will work here.
  • The O2 system is pretty kludgy, hanging a bottle in the rear cockpit under the instrument panel and in front of the control stick. Weird, but I guess it's not in the way. In our PW5, it's mounted on a rear bulkhead behind the pilot's head, out of the way. I thought that was standard or built-in, but now I see there's no mention of it in the PW5 manual, so it must be an add-on.
  • There's little to no room under the rear seat for emergency gear as there is in the PW5.
  • The weight and balance restrictions and calculations are more complex. The PW5 is pretty simple, having only minimum and maximum weight to consider.
So all things considered, it's set up OK for local flights, but it would be rather inconvenient for cross-country flights, though I know people do it.

The flight was pretty normal. It's of course not as sensitive and responsive as the PW5, but flies nicely. It does need quite a bit of rudder pressure in turns, because the rudder is fairly small. The instructor pointed out, and I confirmed, that this particular ship drops the left wing during stalls. It stalls more clearly than the PW5 does. We did not spin it.

It was a nice day, with lots of cumulus clouds early on, but diminishing by the time we flew. You can see from the position of the clouds against the mountains that cloudbase was probably about 8,000 feet. After demonstrating some steep turns and slow flight, I found some nice lift just about under a little cloud. We could have flown around quite a bit, but since it was just a check ride, we came in for a landing after 30 minutes. Others later that day had trouble finding lift, so I guess I got lucky.

The Initial Point and altitude in the standard operating procedures for Crystalaire have changed. The IP is just a little further out than before, but the altitude has been raised quite a bit to 1,600 ft AGL. I guess that was done to simplify the procedure for announcing entry into the airport airspace, but the altitude difference is greater than the distance difference, so I think it has the effect of requiring much more altitude loss during the pattern, requiring more spoiler or perhaps slip in some circumstances. I guess I could measure it on Google Earth, but that's how it seems to me. Other than that, my approach and landing were normal. 

So now I've flown six different models of glider.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A few stats from my logbook

I just completed selling an old Blanik L13 for my club. This particular ship had been crashed, and totaled by the insurance company, but was really not damaged very much. As I wrote the final email to the buyer I mentioned that I would miss the ship, having made 75 flights in it.

That made me wonder just how many flights I have made in which ships. So I ran some stats from my electronic logbook. My flights turned out to be surprisingly evenly distributed. Check this out:

Blanik L13 #178
Blanik L13 #275
Grob 10373
Blanik L13 #317
Other Grob 103's5

Sunday, August 17, 2014

First flight in Krosno

Those of us from OCSA who have become members of Cypress Soaring (CSI) have to get instructor signoffs to fly each category of Cypress' gliders. The starting point is the Krosno trainer. I'd seen the Krosno many times when both clubs operated at Hemet, but I had never even taken a close look at it until this weekend. Between my schedule and theirs, this Saturday was the first time I was able to book the first of two checkout flights. It was about 102F for much of the afternoon at Lake Elsinore.

I had of course read the flight manual, so I was familiar with most of the features of the glider. OCSA used Blanik L-13's for trainers, so here I'll list a few similarities and differences between the two.
  • Both are all-metal ships, with fabric control surfaces.
  • Both have forward-swept wings. As I understand it, that places the center of lift very near the center of gravity, so when the instructor gets out for the student's first solo, the flight characteristics hardly change at all.
  • The Krosno has a T-tail. Just ask my forehead!
  • The Krosno only has instruments in the front cockpit. The instructor has to look around the student's head to see them.
  • It has a main wheel, a non-castering tailwheel, and a nose skid. I'd never flown with a nose skid before.
  • Its airbrakes are retracted automatically by springs - you have to hold them open.
  • Its rudder is medium-sized, which takes more effort.
  • Its wheel brake is activated by a handle on a cable, not a lever. It's not very effective, so the nose skid is the main brake.
  • This unit has wingtip wheels, so it can do wing-down takeoffs easily (which we did).
  • It has bolt-in ballast on the front cockpit floor.
  • It has a handle on the tail, which makes ground handling pretty easy.
  • It has NO pockets or storage in the front cockpit. Fortunately my little water bottle fits in my cargo-shorts pocket, and my radio clips onto the harness pretty well, though it would not be very secure in turbulence.
The flight went fine. It seemed to me that the ship wanted to yaw to one side, and took a bit of both aileron and rudder to get the yaw string straight. (One of our Blaniks used to fly that way - we called it "right-wing-heavy" and eventually installed a little trim tab to even it out.) Or maybe there was a crosswind on tow that was causing it, but I don't think the wind was from that direction. It was not a big deal, but it meant always flying a little off-center, and it's farirly heavy on the stick.

The still-air sink rate seemed a little high at about 200 feet per minute. I'd have to check my records, but I thought the Blanik was more like 160. We found some broad lift of about 2-3 knots and I was able to climb a few hundred feet. The Krosno seemed pretty easy to control in a medium-banked thermaling turn. Part of learning the quirks of each new ship is finding just how steep and/or slow you can go in a thermal before it wants to stall out of the turn.

I did a couple of straight-ahead stalls, which were quite gentle and easy to recover. It had no tendency to drop a wing, which surprised me since I had had to hold some aileron and rudder in straight flight. Maybe that effect is more pronounced at tow speeds... in any case, it had no tendency to fall off either way in the stall. Then I rolled in and out of some steep turns. It definitely takes a lot of rudder pressure to stay coordinated coming out of turns, which will be something to work on.

The biggest difference for me was using the nose skid for landing. We discussed that I would do a "wheel landing" and then let the nose down to brake to a stop. I put the nose down quite early and then when I realized we had a lot of runway left, it would not come up again. So we stopped quite short. That's another thing I'll have to work on: keeping it balanced on the main wheel longer, until I really want to stop it.

So, one signoff is in the book. One more to go for that level. Then it will be on to the PW-6.