Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sleigh Ride

We often call a glider flight a "sled ride" if there's no lift found, because it's a downhill ride all the way from release to touchdown. But since this was the last Saturday before Christmas, let's call it a sleigh ride. And this day of soaring involved some frost and ice!

The forecast was for 450 or so fpm of lift up to 5000 or 6000 feet, but there were hints of an inversion which could defeat the lift. I was determined to fly regardless of lift, because I had not been in the air for about a month. It was very clear due to recent rain, and had been cold overnight. There was frost on the wings of the Grob and the PW5, which I have never seen at Hemet before. T commented on my blog post about the water collecting in the PW5's spoiler boxes and horizontal stabilizer, so we checked the boxes and were surprised to find ice. And not just a little skin of frost - a hard layer of ice a good quarter inch thick and about a foot long! It took quite a bit of work to break it up and pull it out so it would not interfere with the spoiler arms. Then we checked the drain holes in the boxes... one on each side was plugged with dirt, which explains why the water accumulated. Something else to inspect and maintain. There's something to learn every day on every flight!

I planned to take a high tow because I expected there to be no lift. The ground temperature was above the trigger temp, but if the air was too stable that wouldn't matter. On the way up, I decided to use the Outside Air Temperature (OAT) display as I have mentioned before. On the ground, it registered 25C, or 77F, which is way more than the 63F thermometer in the shade on the shed was indicating. So the dark runway must have been heating the air just at ground level. I didn't watch the OAT right after takeoff, but at about 400'-500' AGL it was already down to 16C. It kept going down fairly rapidly as we climbed, and then it stuck at 9C at about 1500'-2000' AGL and stayed there all the way up to 3800' AGL where I released. So there was a definite inversion layer - a big thick layer of 9C air that was not getting any cooler! I knew that I would not find any lift in that zone.

The flight was nice anyway, even if was a sleigh ride. The visibility was incredible! Usually we have some haze or smog, but this day was crystal clear. I could see quite a ways out into the ocean, and the sun was lighting up the water like gold. The mountains and all the lakes were gorgeous. This is why I fly.

I played around a bit with airspeed and sink rate, trying to get the minimum possible sink. Maybe sometime I'll take notes on them and see how they compare with the published polar.

I did find a few bumps at 1200'-1500' AGL, below that inversion layer. I circled a few times and found nothing better than zero sink. All too soon it was time to come in and land. My flight time from 3800' AGL was 26 minutes, or 146 feet per minute - right at the theoretical minimum sink rate for the PW5.

A reminder for the new year: the Air Safety Foundation recommends that your first flight of the year be with an instructor. Not a bad idea!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blown out

It seemed like everything was conspiring to prevent me from getting in a flight last weekend. I had planned to give a friend a ride on Sunday. But the weather is always iffy this time of year, and a series of cold fronts have been moving through. Saturday was rainy (and I was busy anyway). Sometimes the day after a storm is good soaring weather, but this day still had substantial wind in the forecast, so I waved the friend off and decided to go out myself and see if it was flyable. Hemet is often a calm place when there's wind all around... and the thermal forecast looked usable. Really cold air aloft!

Due to other morning commitments, I arrived at the field about 12:30. A few people were flying, a pilot reported some wave lift earlier in the day... so I decided to go ahead. Delay #1 came in the form of rainwater in the PW5's spoiler boxes. I'd never paid much attention to it before, but we checked and found at least an inch. Tipping the glider onto each wing drains the water out of holes, but it takes a while. It collects in the horizontal stabilizer, too. So, to you other PW5 guys in the club: plan on about 15-20 minutes of extra prep time after a rain!

Delay #2 came in the form of an unfavorable wind direction. This is the first time I have ever seen the tow operation reverse directions at HMT. Should be no big deal, right? Except that now the starting end of the runway is a LONG way from the tiedowns. So I need the help of club members to push out (I can push the PW5 myself to the close end of the runway.)

Delay #3 came in the form of more complicated operations using the reversed runway. I won't go into details, but it involves more work to keep the runway clear for landings and for tow plane operations, and fewer good landing options.

There were other little things along the way, minor equipment issues. I finally was lined up on the runway, next in line for takeoff at about 3:30, a little late in the day especially in winter. But as I always tell people, I'd rather take a sled ride than stay on the ground - gotta stay current and proficient! And the view of the freshly snowed mountains promised to be spectacular.

And then the wind picked up! For several minutes it was at least 15-20 knots, and was shifting direction about 30 degrees. The PW5 really does not do well with much crosswind, and it seemed to me this could be the start of and end-of-day wind increase. If I took off, and then the wind got stronger while I was up... well, as I mentioned, the landing options are a bit more restricted when operating the other way on this airport. So I cancelled and pushed off.

Maybe next weekend. Between the iffy weather and the extra stuff that occupies weekends during the holiday season, it may be another couple of weeks.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Final approaches

Some of us were talking about landings today, and one pilot mentioned something that I had just thought about a few days ago. I had been working with the polar (L/D curve) for the Grob 103, calculating appropriate speeds for flying it through sink, when this occurred to me. Each glider has a "normal" approach speed (assuming no wind). For the Blanik L13, it's 50 knots, for the Grob 103, it's 55. Each glider also has a "best L/D" speed (best glide speed). For the Blanik, it's 46 kts, for the Grob it's 60. So what?

  • For the Blanik, the approach speed is faster than best L/D. If you pick up speed on final, your drag INcreases and you will sink faster, but then after the flare you will float farther in ground effect. If you slow down on final (down as far as best L/D), your drag DEcreases and you will glide farther until the flare.
  • For the Grob, the approach speed is slower than best L/D. If you pick up speed on final (up as far as best L/D), your drag DEcreases and you will glide farther, and then after the flare you will float farther in ground effect. If you slow down on final, your drag INncreases and you will sink faster until the flare.

If this is not clear to you, get out the polar for your glider(s) and see where the "normal" approach speed lies in relation to the best L/D speed. If you are not clear on how the Angle of Attack affects the sink rate in a glide, read the excellent discussions in the book Stick and Rudder. It may seem counterintuitive, but in some aircraft (such as the Grob), pointing your nose down (up to best L/D speed) will make you land farther down the field. If you want to get down faster (ignoring the spoilers), pointing your nose up will cause the glider to "mush" and sink faster.

I'm not yet sure what to do with this information. The airbrakes surely have more effect on the sink rate than the speed does, and we try to keep the airspeed dead-on the recommended value (plus a wind adjustment). It does tell me that it's doubly important to not let a glider such as the Grob gain more speed on final, because both the glide and the float will be longer.

Two things:
  1. I'm not an instructor. Please make sure to discuss this topic with your CFI-G! I'm interested in readers' (especially instructors') comments on this.
  2. I can't say enough about Stick and Rudder. Although it was written for power planes a long time ago, it is still a tremendous resource for learning about how an aircraft really works in the air. It is non-technical - no formulas, charts, or math, but you can tell that the author knows the technical background and he does an excellent job of explaining things in plain English. It really explains why so many things are counterintuitive in flying - and why it is so important to learn those "backward" concepts thoroughly, to overcome our instincts and ground-sense. Get yourself a copy and read it carefully. Then read it again!


Today I shared a flight in the Grob 103 with L. Now that the days and therefore the lift periods are shorter, it makes more sense to do a couple of 2-person flights in the middle of the afternoon than to try for several individual flights and have some people miss the soaring times. Though it does mean that we can only log part of the time as PIC, the part when we are actually at the controls. This time L did the takeoff and all the soaring, because he was not happy with his previous takeoff and because he doesn't fly as often as I do. I did the landing and flew from the rear seat because that's what I want to work on in preparing for my Commercial rating. (I'll start writing about the Commercial soon.)

The forecast was for just about 250 fpm of lift, and the day just reached the calculated trigger temperature. There was a lot of haze in the air, clearly showing an inversion. The previous flight reported no lift, so we didn't have high hopes. We let off at 3100' AGL, above the inversion, and we never got that high again. I worked hard at spotting sources of lift and keeping a general lookout. Twice I did find crows nearby, higher than us, and we were able to find some lift under them. I also spotted swallows very close - we nearly hit one - and they can be helpful because they are often hunting bugs that have been brought up by a thermal.

We found some weak lift and worked it extensively. All we got out of it was about 300 feet, and combined with some zero sink, we accomplished a 42 minute flight. I think for a while we were at the junction of two air masses, because to the west the ground was far less visible due to brown haze, and to the east it was much clearer. But there was no obvious shear line lift.

The Grob's wheel brake is kind of weak (we'll be working on it next week) so we wanted to have plenty of space to land in. So another pilot recommended I use the little dirt strip that the tow plane lands in, which I've never done before. It worked out fine... I could perhaps have floated a little further (eased the stick back to a higher angle of attack and landed with less speed) but it landed smoothly and straight. Actually, landing in that spot helped avoid sun glare which can be a problem in the late afternoon. I get to log a whopping 5 minutes of PIC time.

Flying like this with another pilot is fun. We can share ideas and learn from each other, but it's more relaxed than flying with an instructor. And we split the tow fee.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Test flight

The last couple of weekends we were unable to fly due to the high winds and some restrictions at the airport due to heavy firefighting activity. So I was eager to fly any of the aircraft, for any length of time. My preference was to fly the Grob 103 because I plan to take some passengers up in it in a couple of weeks.

So today I took a short flight in the Grob to check it out after a repair. Although an A&P mechanic actually approves the return to service, our club practice is to have a private pilot take the glider on a test flight before it is flown solo by a student pilot or by an instructor and student. So I planned to take a 2000' tow in the morning (before lift started working) and then land. I actually let off at 1800' AGL because there seemed to be some lift. I never found anything useful, and landed with an 11-minute flight.

I had to leave fairly early in the afternoon because of family plans in the evening. The way the tows and the glider scheduling worked out, I didn't get a chance to fly later. Others seemed to be staying up, reporting 2 to 5 knots of lift.

I now have 77.5 total hours logged.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


"What flying teaches you is to overcome fear with knowledge."

-- Oliver Smithies, 2007 Nobel Prize winner, motorglider pilot

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hands-off flying

I had thought that today would be a great soaring day, because a cold front went through the area Saturday morning. Usually the post-frontal day is quite unstable and often has visible CU to fly. But it must have gone through quickly, and a building high warmed things up. The NAM forecast called for a strong inversion up to about 6000'. The temperatures aloft kind of reinforced that. So no one was expecting a great day, and in fact some pilots landed quickly. There was lift, but no one on the radio was getting above about 4000'. I planned to fly regardless, even if it was just a sled ride from a high tow above the inversion, because it had been quite a while since my last flight.

On tow, as soon as we got above the top of the visible muck in the air, all the light turbulence and lift disappeared... the air was silky smooth. I went up to 3800' AGL (5300' MSL) and released, because there was something I wanted to try out before beginning the work of thermalling. (I could see a couple of gliders thermalling not far away and below me, so I was pretty sure I could jump right in.)

In the November issue of AOPA Flight Training, an article by CFI Ralph Butcher talked about the need to learn to fly hands-off in order to free up one's hands for other cockpit tasks. I know that airplanes and gliders are basically stable, but more so in pitch (due to the trim) and yaw than in roll. But with no active roll inputs by the pilot, an aircraft will eventually roll one way or the other and end up in a spiral dive. Ralph's article crystallized something that I had half-learned some time ago: that small rudder inputs have a secondary effect of causing small roll effects. (This is mentioned somewhere in Stick and Rudder; maybe I'll look for the reference and add it later.) So in this smooth air, in straight flight, I tried it out. If a wing starts to come up, step on it - give light rudder pressure on the same side. That causes a slight yaw, which the airplane's dihedral turns into a slight roll. It works! I was able to fly the PW5 completely straight and level for 30-60 seconds (actually indefinitely). The PW5's pitch trim is in notches, not continuous, so I could not fly hands-off at any speed I want... but it definitely works, at least in relatively smooth air. So this can be used to free up my hands to deal with a chart, radio, PDA, or whatever. (It would be easy to get distracted with inside tasks and not keep a good lookout.)

Note to beginners: do not think for a moment that I am talking about turning the aircraft with the rudder. One can only really turn with the ailerons and coordinated rudder. These little rudder adjustments are intended to induce slight rolls to keep wings level without significantly changing the heading - a secondary effect of the rudder.

Down into the soup... amazing that it was so hazy just one day after a rainstorm. There was a clearly defined top to it, and once below the top, there were little bumps everywhere. I did find thermals of 1.0 to 2.0 knots, enough to work up to 3800' to 4000' MSL. But not high enough to go very far from the airport. It wasn't very strong, but it was wide enough and consistent enough that I could practice centering it using the vario, and the SeeYou "Thermal Indicator", and the seat of my pants. Some said that there was a shear line working, and I did kind of find some dispersed lift, but I could not visually see it. What I did find was generally big enough that I think it was all thermal. I flew with some crows for a while.

Eventually I got down fairly low and wasn't finding more lift, so I came back in rather than work hard on a marginal day. I ended up with exactly an hour in the air. My landing was one of the best I've had in the PW5: in the right spot, very smooth, and with enough speed to give me rudder control to roll off to the side. (The PW5, with its two fixed wheels and small rudder, usually does not steer well during the rollout.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

On getting rusty

A reader asked whether flying about twice a month is "sufficient to develop and keep your skills from getting rusty".

During my student pilot time, there were many months when I flew three and even four days a month if I could arrange it. (A day's training in back then usually included two flights, sometimes three.) I felt it was really important to commit to flying no less than twice a month, and study the books in between.

In the second year, it slowed down to an average of two weekends per month, but then I was doing some solo flights, sometimes over an hour, so the air time stayed pretty constant. I do remember one terrible pattern and landing, that may have been after a bit of a gap.

Since getting my PPG certificate, I've remained committed to twice-monthly flying to remain sharp, and with few exceptions I've kept up with that. This stuff is too much fun to go very long between flights!

I did have a big midwinter gap which happened to be just before a club annual flight review. I worried about being rusty, but it actually went very well. Read about it here.

One thing I do try to keep an eye on is how often I fly in each type of glider. Mostly I fly the PW5, some Grob 103. I usually get in a flight in a Blanik about every 2-3 months, but I see it's been about 4 and a half, so I'll need to give it a flight sometime soon.

Another thing is to have a goal to work on, or to try to do something new each time. My most recent Grob flight was to do some air-to-air photography. My next solo flight, I plan to try a steering trick I just read about in AOPA Flight Training. There's always something to learn!

At this point, I do feel that flying twice a month is indeed keeping me current. I recently talked with another club member, a long-time student, who only flies about once every three months. He said he is not progressing, and had to re-learn some things the last time he flew dual... was disappointed with some errors that he made during his approach and landing.

So... set a minimum flight frequency for yourself, be aware of how well you're sticking to it, and be careful if you're not staying current. Fly with an instructor once in a while even after getting your cert. And fly often because it's FUN!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Airworthiness Directives by email

I think this is new - maybe not many people are aware of this. You can subscribe to an FAA service to send you AD's and Special Airworthiness Information Bulletins via email. Go to and enter your email address. They have an extensive list of aircraft makes and models to choose from, so you will only get the ones that interest you. They have listings for all of our club ships.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lift over the ocean?!?!?!

This is a little off-topic, but all glider pilots are interested in weather, right?

Yes, there can be lift over the ocean, but not the kind you'd want to fly in! This weekend we were camping at a Southern California beach, and a building thunderstorm went by about 2-3 miles offshore. This storm generated about 7 waterspouts that we could see! This picture shows four of them. (Click any pic for a larger, hi-res image.)

A waterspout is just a tornado over water, and tornadoes are swirling, upward-moving air. As I understand it, the sun heated the water and caused intense evaporation, then a cold air mass must have moved over it to cause the condensation. There must have been quite a temperature gradient to cause such intense uplift. Here's a closer shot of a typical funnel cloud... I hope the picture quality allows you to see the little disturbance at the ocean surface as well. Not a good place to be in a boat!

An odd feature we noted is the squared-off "notch" in the cloud on both sides of each funnel. This must indicate a region a little cooler, where the air reaches the condensation point a little earlier (lower). I assume it's circular (disk-shaped), I don't know if it's rotating or not. This may be a form of "wall cloud". You can see a disk around each funnel in the top photo. Also, the funnels seemed to be fairly evenly spaced, so there must be some relationship to the width of the thermals, like in a "cloud street".

Three or four of the funnel clouds stretched all the way to the surface, getting thinner as they went. If you look carefully, you can see that there's an empty core inside the dark tendril, I assume caused by centrifugal force. This shot came out well because of the blue sky behind the waterspout.

And here's a double shot:

We watched this activity for about 35 minutes. The waterspouts eventually died out as the storm moved to the north. The storm transitioned from the cumulus stage (uplifting) to the mature stage (collapsing into rain). I think the north part came ashore as the rain came down, and no waterspouts reached the land that we could see.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Contest / cross-country / landout

Thursday: I did scout the landout sites as planned, all the way to Bishop, and updated my notes with exact mileages, road conditions, etc. A very long driving day! The distances and the terrain got me to thinking a lot and worrying more than I probably should. The route I chose is up the east side of the Sierra Nevada, with the Owens Valley just to the east. Experienced pilots go hundreds of miles this way, nearly every weekend. There are many airports, roads, dry lakes, and some fields all along the way, and most of them are within about 10 miles of the mountains (which are from 8000' to 14,000' MSL). So in theory, if you lose lift, you just leave the mountains and it's an easy glide to a landout spot because you're starting out quite high.

In practice, it doesn't always work that way because of sink or winds. You're not always adjacent to the spots, so you have an angled path which is a little longer. Last year, J had to land in a dirt patch halfway to California City due to heavy sink. Between the safe spots, there's a lot of rough ground. And some of the landouts are several miles down dirt roads, where my truck and the trailer could easily get stuck, so that makes me want to avoid them... which makes the distance between the good ones more challenging. Originally, I thought I was going to fly this with an instructor or experienced XC pilot, but that didn't work out. I've done 3 or 4 mountain / cross country flights, so I have some experience but not a lot. So I'll admit, it was making me nervous.

Friday: I had some prep work to do on the PW5. Somehow working with the aircraft itself makes me more comfortable with new challenges, so by the middle of the day I was feeling OK. But I did have a couple of equipment problems. I had bought a second Camelbak-type water pack, and it was leaking, which took some time to deal with. Then after I programmed the radio memories, hooked up the Volkslogger and PDA and tried uploading waypoints and a flight declaration, I started getting "low battery" warnings from the VL, and the Borgelt displayed 10 volts instead of the 12 it should have had. Long story short, after consulting some other pilots, I decided to fly with it. I have my handheld radio, a new clip-on miniature electronic variometer, my GPS to plug into my PDA, and my charts and info sheets. So I have backups for all the electrical stuff.

By the time I was done with all the prep work and problems, the wind had picked up to about 10-15kts from the south, making a stiff but inconstant crosswind. The PW5 does not do really well in crosswinds, and only one other glider launched the whole time I was there, so I decided to scrub for the day. I've flown in the area several times before.

Saturday morning I talked with L and a couple other pilots about conditions and routes. The weather turned out to be better than predicted, with the wind still out of the south but not too strong. Cumulus clouds started forming both over the Tehachapis and to the north about 10:30, so the launching started about 11:00. I launched at 12:20, let off in lift at 7700 MSL, and quickly got up to 9700 under a little cloud. But 20 minutes into the flight, "low battery" again! My PDA lost its data connection to the GPS but got it back again. As J predicted, the radio was the first to go, but the flight computer was working. I checked that I could reach N with my handheld, and told him I would not leave the valley... low battery this early in the flight was a bad thing.

There were lots of CU, so I hopped around from cloud to cloud seeing how the lift was working. I frankly don't remember how strong it was, but getting up to 10,200 to 10,400 repeatedly was not a problem. Bigger CU to the north were looking promising. So I told N I would go to the east end of the valley and see how it worked. It was doing well, with short hops to the mountains to the north, and I could see California City airport and the Honda track (a good landout site) within gliding distance, so I told N I would head north with Honda track as my first landout option, and he headed out with the trailer. This was about an hour into the flight. The lift was working, and I was soon up to the middle of the Kelso valley... but on the west side, farther from the landout sites than I liked. There were no CU over the eastern ridge. At some point I realized that I was depending on the CU, and thinking that there was no other lift. I now realize that was pessimistic, that there probably was dry "blue" lift in other areas.

The CU followed the western / central mountains, with nothing showing over the ridge that would keep me close to my landout sites. My computer and charts indicated I should be able to make Inyokern, so I headed that way and advised N. The farther I went, the less likely that appeared. Not heavy sink, but a little. With the Honda track visible and at a decent angle, and Inyokern not, I committed to land at the Honda track and recalled N.

As I headed that way, two things started to happen:

1. My glide slope started to deteriorate, and I was approaching a critical altitude that meant I might not make it. Later I figured out why: I had underestimated the effect of the headwind. It wasn't strong, but it was right at me.

2. My variometer went nuts! It was swinging wildly up and down. I finally concluded that the battery voltage was low enough that the vario was unreliable (and the B50 averager display). So I shut off the audio and turned on my micro vario. It's not very loud! (I had not flown with it before, although I have driven around with it a bit.) That faint beeping, and the seat of my pants, and my altimeter were now my clues to lift. And I was wondering whether the data feed from the ship's GPS to my PDA was reliable, with the voltage getting low. Switching to the plug-in GPS during flight is possible, but not desirable. There were no visual lift cues: no CU in the area, no birds, no other gliders, no dust devils (though I didn't really look down much). Well, there was one CU off to the right, but it was about 40 degrees off course, which I thought was too far. Fortunately I found a blue thermal and worked it up to 9300 MSL, which gave me the altitude I needed to no longer be worried about reaching my landing point. But until I found that thermal, I was really getting nervous, and was really busy checking altitudes and glide ratios and making decisions. There was one other landout spot between me and Honda track, a place know as Wide Spot, but it's not very big and is really for emergencies only.

Soon enough I was approaching my landout spot, and could see the truck and trailer waiting. I did not find any other significant lift on the way. That one thermal had done the trick: once I got over the track, I had about 2000' to lose. Go figure! And I found a little light lift right there, so I had to fly around a bit to lose altitude. This being my first off-field landing, I thought back to my XC training. Based on the wind direction (thanks to N on the ground!), and the presence of some power lines, I selected a landing direction, a distance from the "runway", and an Initial Point. (I've learned the TLAR method of approach planning, which does not depend on an altimeter or landmarks. If you want to know what TLAR stands for, contact me with a comment.) The "runway" is a road leading into the Honda test facility. It's a straight two-laner with *very* wide shoulders and no obstructions. I *assumed* it would be empty on a Saturday, but as I was about 200 feet above my pattern entry, a car entered the road. Fortunately I had some light lift and didn't need to land right that minute. After it cleared, another car came, and stopped to talk to N. It turned out to be a security guard, who would stay clear until I landed.

So I set up and landed. My approach was good, although I did get a little fast on late downwind. Touchdown was good, but with a crosswind I could not keep the ship rolling straight. Fortunately the airbrakes and wheel brake work well, and I only rolled off onto the shoulder a little ways. I kept the wings mostly level and did not touch a wing until I stopped. Whew! A good first off-field landing! (It would be good for me to learn to do a "wheel" landing in the PW5, holding off the nose wheel so I can steer on the ground. With a small rudder and fixed wheels, the PW5 on two wheels really does not turn.) Total flight time: 2:25. Total distance: 25 miles (since I turned back southeastward to land).

The security guard took my information, and hung around while we packed up my gear and trailered the glider. He had told N that we were the second glider to land there today. He said they land there all the time - that's why Honda keeps the shoulders graded and cleared, though the're not thrilled. I could not get ConnectMe to download my flight trace from the Volkslogger, and I felt rushed with the guard hanging around, so I'll have to download it next time the glider is out of the trailer.

So... I have now done a semi-successful cross-country flight. It was not long enough for Silver distance, and probably not enough altitude gain for Silver altitude. I probably tied for last place in the Dust Devil Dash, unless someone went to Cal City or returned to Tehachapi.

(click the pic for a bigger view.)
  • Preparations pay off. I had information with me about the location and altitude of my landout spots.
  • Visual navigation in unfamiliar terrain is tough. Even after previewing some of the areas on Google Earth, things look different.
  • Backup devices are important! I used them! (Some would suggest I rely too much on the electronic navigation... probably true, but I don't fly often enough in that area to know my way around.)
I'll have to think on this a while to decide whether the challenge and accomplishment are worth the pre-flight and in-flight stress. I *really* don't want to land out in a location that is tough to get the trailer to, or in a rough desert area. I know, some people do this all the time... and have something to prove. I like to fly for fun, and parts of this flight were definitely not fun. But I probably *do* need to do a certain amount of XC since I want to be an instructor. I do feel good about working through the problems that I encountered in flight.
Whew! That's a long post! I hope you find it helpful... I needed to write it.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Preparing for my first contest

The Dust Devil Dash is an annual contest that starts in Tehachapi. It's a straight-out contest: furthest landing point wins, after applying a handicap based on the glider model. I've flown cross-country in that area before, but not beyond Silver badge distance, so this will be a challenge, but I think I'm ready for it. There's a lot to do to prepare. Here's some of what I've done. Some of this may be overkill, but I want to be safe - I'm doing this for fun!
  • Crew One of my fellow club members, N, will be the retrieve crew. I was hoping to get two, but the contest is the weekend right after a club campout, and few are willing to go out two weeks in a row. I worried about this for a while, but N and J assured me that we should be fine with 1. The PW5 is light enough for two people to disassemble.
  • Navigation I've loaded up my PDA with the latest airspace and map files, and loaded waypoints / airports / landout sites for the region. The region 12 web site has a list of landout sites contributed by pilots, so I've pulled a bunch of those too. Then I have built a task consisting of the sequence of waypoints and landout sites I am likely to use.
  • Backup Since I don't want to be totally reliant on the PDA, I have prepared printed info on each of the landout sites, with runway info and aerial images from Google Earth. I'll take them along on a kneeboard in case I need them. Copies of them will be in the truck as well. Also, I got sectional charts for the rest of the area where I'm likely to fly.
  • Communication I got more familiar with the radio in the PW5, since I may need to get on various frequencies for different airports and AWOS's. No one in the club had really programmed its memories. I'll take along my handheld radio as a backup. N will take his handheld in the truck, and I'm getting a magnetic-mount antenna for the roof.
  • Emergency comm I've bought a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon, the smallest I could find. It'll strap onto my parachute.
  • Ground navigation Last year I got a very good, large-format road atlas that even shows dirt roads. I've marked some of the landout sites on it - need to do the rest.
  • Landout/emergency kit I think I talked about this before... I have a bag with a lot of survival gear, along with stakes and ropes. It fits under the seat and weighs about 3 pounds.
  • Water I had a 1.5 liter Camelbak, but I have found that I can go through that in a 2 to 2.5 hour flight. So I just got a second one that's 2 liters.
  • Badge planning I should certainly be able to do Silver distance and altitude, possibly duration as well. I need to do a little more planning to make sure my likely distances and elevations are acceptable. Gold distance is not a possibility this time - I'm not planning to go past Bishop, and that's not far enough.
  • Equipment and supplies I have an extensive checklist of stuff to take, so I don't forget something dumb like chargers for my radio and cell phone.
  • Preparation I plan to take a couple of days off before the contest. Thursday I plan to drive to many of the airports and landout sites along my route. Friday I plan to fly in the local area around Tehachapi just for practice and familiarity.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Air-to-air photography

One of our club members, J, just bought an ASW-20. Since it was a pretty good day for soaring, we decided to try to take some pictures of his first flight. I've taken some general scenery shots with my digital point-and-shoot camera, but it doesn't zoom close enough for really good images. And managing my digital SLR is not something I want to tackle when flying. Flying formation to take pictures really takes two. So L and I teamed up in the Grob 103. I flew from the front seat, and L was in the back with my camera.

We launched about 13:15 and I let off tow at 2300' AGL (3800' MSL) in some OK lift. It wasn't really strong - about 2kts, enough to sustain - but it was small and hard to work. L took over for a while and demonstrated that I need to tighten my bank to work smaller lift. I was only banking about 30 degrees, and not staying within the thermal. He worked us up a ways and then I took over and flew the rest. Later, in another thermal, we found some really good stuff, I think up to 6.7 kts. We got as high as 7000' MSL, went over to the "S" ridge and found nothing, came back and got set to take pictures.

We took a few of what we thought was J's glider - we didn't have good radio contact yet - from some distnace away. My radio stopped working (I think the rechargeable battery is bad), and I could not hear L's conversations. Later we met up with T in one of our Blaniks, and got a few decent pictures but not from really close up. I don't think T was on the radio, so we kept our distance since we were not really coordinating our directions.

It's challenging to try to maneuver my glider into a good position for the photographer to get a good angle, and keep a safe separation, and work the thermal so we can stay up, and keep a good lookout. In the case of the Blanik, our speeds were often quite different. I imagine that in a pair of power planes this would be a little easier because you could fly straight and level for longer periods. It worked out pretty well after a little practice and thought. Sometimes we would have to turn away in order to work lift, and come back later for another set of pictures.
Our Grob 103 has a new canopy which is tinted blue. That affected many of the pictures. Eventually L pointed the lens out the vent and took most of the pictures that way. (That's got to be hard - the vent is pretty low. I need to ask him about that.)

J finally launched, and I was wondering where he was... remember I did not have radio. Suddenly L said something from the rear seat about him being above us, and I was surprised to find that I had not seen him. Maybe he came in from behind at a higher speed? Anyway, there he was, and I kept a close eye on our separation from that point on.

We circled together for quite a while, and L took lots and lots of pictures. I had set up the camera with the basic 28-80mm lens and a 2x teleconverter, so he had some zoom to work with without getting too close and shaky. (Autofocus sometimes has trouble with my bigger lens, and I wanted to ensure we got some decent shots.) And here's one of the best:

We came back to join J again and found that there were two hang gliders in the same thermal. We flew with them for a while and took a few pics of them... nothing worth posting. Then we flew over the airport to watch J land. That was interesting... he and a 2-33 got into the downwind leg at the same time, just about parallel to each other. J extended his downwind to give the 2-33 room to land first, then came in and landed on the runway to avoid a conflict. No big deal, but not something that happens every day. We cruised around to lose altitude, and then ended up with a total flight time of 1 hour 52 minutes.

Monday, July 30, 2007

An OK flight on a hot day

I took a flight in the PW5 on Saturday. With the monsoon weather, I thought there might be some CU to mark the lift, but all the CU were up higher and on the other side of the mountains marking orographic lift. Down in the valley, it was too dry for the thermals to generate clouds. I think it was about 100F when I took off. I let off in lift at 4200' MSL and worked up as high as 5900'. There was lift, but it was ragged and hard to center, and turbulent. (It wasn't just me, others on the radio were mentioning it as well.)

It made it hard to control my speed well. I want to double-check the recommended speeds for thermaling in both the PW5 and the Grob 103 to make sure I'm not flying too slow... sometimes it's hard to tell whether I'm hitting wind effects in rough thermals, or feeling stall buffet and slightly falling out of my turns. I want to practice some turns in still air next time and see how they feel.

I passed just under a hawk. He was heading the opposite way, so we were moving very quickly relative to each other. He (she?) was white underneath with black or brown spots, not a Red-Tailed Hawk.

I got high enough to fly over to the "S" ridge, which is I guess 6 or 7 miles from the airport. But then there was nothing working on the ridge, so I came back and joined a thermal underneath A. in one of our Blaniks. Then I flew around for a while and did not find any significant lift, though it was probably still working. It was pretty warm up there... I did not get high enough for it to really cool down. So when the lift petered out I came down, hot and a little tired after an hour and 20 minutes of bumps.

My IPAQ shut off again during this flight, and this time it was strapped to my leg, which negates my vibration theory. I guess it must be heat getting to it. Turning it on did not resync it with the GPS in the Volkslogger. I had to stop and start SeeYou, and then it hooked up right away. But I imagine it broke my flight into two files. This is not good - I don't know what else I can do to keep the unit cool.

I worked on improving my approach planning, paying more attention to the wind direction and its effects on each leg of the pattern. It was important today because the wind aloft was from quite a different direction than the AWOS was reporting. I also paid more attention to giving radio calls during each phase of the approach, something that we are pretty lax about at our field. (It seems that's the part that I forget if things get busy during the approach.) That was also important today, because there was another glider about 30 seconds behind me in the pattern. I knew he was an expert - we landed close together a couple weeks ago, too - but I wanted him to be clear on where I was.

All in all, a good flight - but I had to work for it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Soaring with TVs

No, not televisions... turkey vultures. Although I've seen them from a distance, I've never had the opportunity to fly with them until today. (Hawks and seagulls, but not TVs.)

Today I flew the PW5... it was not a really strong day but had potential. Another pilot told me roughly where he had found a decent thermal, so I headed that way. I was in weak lift and saw a dust devil some distance away but didn't want to go that far. Then I spotted two vultures just a short distance from me, maybe a quarter mile, right at about my altitude. At that point I was at about 4000' MSL.

I headed toward the closest TV and got into lift. I turned in a direction that would hopefully keep us close but circling the same way... birds aren't bound by the same rules as gliders! He wasn't exactly circling, so we kind of moved about each other. Sometimes he would half-fold his wings and drop down, other times he would outclimb me. After about 3 or 4 "turns", he kind of cut across about 50 feet or less from the nose of my glider. He looked back, seemed startled, and then dove away and was gone. I never saw him or the other vulture again. But I worked that thermal up to 6600' MSL, and then took off across the valley. So thanks, Mr. Turkey Vulture.

I flew over to the Ramona Bowl, then skirted Diamond Valley Lake, most of the way over to Winchester. I never found any more lift, just some moderate sink. I ended up with a 56-minute flight. And no one on the radio reported getting any higher than I did - the other pilot got to 6300'. So I guess I did OK for a marginal day.

My PDA cut out just a few minutes into the flight. It turned itself off. After I turned it back on, it never got any GPS data from the Volkslogger - I think SeeYou reverts to wrong serial port settings. That won't do! It did this on my last flight, too. I think it's probably caused by vibration, since I'm now mounting the PDA on an arem connected to the instrument panel. It could be heat, but if it was heat I would have expected it to fail earlier, before I got up to a cooler altitude. So next time I'm going to try strapping it to my leg again. I think I can see the screen better that way anyway - it's closer to me than when it's on the arm.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A little of the Right Stuff

This may seem to be off topic, but bear with me. My blog is about becoming a pilot, and this story is about how being a pilot has changed me.

I'm in Florida on business, and today I went to the Kennedy Space Center. It turned out to be a very powerful and surprisingly emotional experience, and part of that is because I now feel some kinship with the astronauts. That may come across as arrogant or lofty - I don't mean it that way. Being a glider pilot is in no way as important or as daring or as tough as being an astronaut. But... they're pilots, we're pilots, and I think I feel maybe 1% or 5% of what they feel. That's not much, but I think it's dramatically different from how I felt before taking the stick and learning to fly. Let me explain.

  • First off, I grew up in the 60's with a deep interest in the space program. I knew as a non-athletic kid with thick glasses, there was no way I was going to be an astronaut, but science was in my blood and I followed the Apollo program closely. I built the models, I read the NASA newsletters, I watched the moon landing in 1969. One of the command module pilots has the same last name as me (it's a pretty unusual name), and so I always wondered if he was related, and was secretly proud of my possible slight connection to the space program. So to visit the place where it all happened was already a thrill.

  • Every time I looked in a capsule or cockpit exhibit, I found myself looking with pilot's eyes for the familiar controls, looking at the visibility through the windows, the tiny space available, and imagining how it would be to fly it. The Mercury capsule has about as much space as our PW5. Being in the Gemini capsule with one other pilot would be about the same as being in our Blanik, although they're side-by-side instead of tandem.

  • The exhibits and the films and simulators at KSC are fabulous, really well done. They're powerful, patriotic, inspiring, and really show the dedication of the people on the ground as well as those in the capsules and shuttles. To walk around and under the giant Saturn V and the others is truly amazing.

  • Each of those craft had a pilot, and at some point the pilot flew the beast for the very first time. I think the experience of my first solo flight, and especially my first flight in a single-seat glider (where no instructional flight was possible), gave me a sense of the bold steps the astronauts took. Those experiences made the impact of the space flights so much more real. One of the astronauts described the feeling of being strapped in, ready to go, waiting for the launch to occur, and thinking that he had done all the preparation he could do... now he just needed to fly it and do his best. Exactly!

  • There's an IMAX 3D film called Magnificent Desolation about being on the moon. Some of it's up close, it's in your face, it's big and it's extremely realistic. We've all seen the video of the lunar module and the astronauts... they're all fairly close shots. But this film has some shots (no doubt artificial) showing the tiny LM as nearly a speck alongside a big lunar mountain... very small and very far from home. I thought of a photo I have of a glider climbing the face of a big mountain in the Sierras. The glider is so small against the mountain you have to look to see it. It's not me flying in that picture, but I've done some similar flights, not quite so dramatic. But still... the sense of isolation, of being tiny surrounded by something huge, is very powerful.

  • There's a scene in MD where a moonwalking astronaut leaves a photo of his family, perhaps to be found by someone else someday. His kids were 5 and 7! Imagine the risk he was taking and the sacrifice he was making! I can't really relate to that... I do fairly low-risk recreational soaring. But there is always that element of having to rely on myself, my preparation, and the training I have received, to get myself home. Even a 30-mile cross-country flight is a long way from home the first time.

  • There's a feature called Astronaut Encounter wherein an astronaut gives a speech in a theater, with a slide-show backdrop, and then greets visitors and takes pictures with them. Imagine the serendipity: today's astronaut was the command module pilot who might be related to me! You can bet I was near the front of that audience. Later I introduced myself and he was surprised, and told me there's another fellow with the same name who runs a major NASA research facility. So maybe I'll do a little more research into the possible family link. Amazing - and one more event that added to the emotional impact of the day.

OK, so I'm rambling a bit, and you might think I'm stretching the association between a pilot and and astronaut. But I felt it. One in a thousand is a pilot, one in 10,000 is a glider pilot, one in a hundred thousand is a test pilot, one in a million is an astronaut. What pilot would not aspire to flying to the moon? Learning to fly is about finding out if you yourself have a little of the Right Stuff - these guys have tons of it. Knowing what little I know made me feel so much more in awe of their accomplishments, and I would not have felt that if I had never taken an aircraft up by myself as a pilot.

As always, I invite readers to share their comments and experiences.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Grob 103 Rear Seat

Today I helped T and an instructor work on the instruments in the Grob 103. It needed a test flight to see if they worked correctly, so the CFI and I took it up together. That was a good opportunity to get a signoff to fly the Grob from the rear seat. You may wonder why that needs a signoff... well, there are a number of differences between flying front and rear seat (in any glider):
  • First of all, the forward view is different, sometimes rather restricted. In this case, it's not too bad. The front passenger's head blocks the view directly forward, which makes it hard to see the towplane. CFI suggested I tow just a little to one side of center, which helps quite a bit. Actually, with the big canopy, the view is not as restricted as from the rear seat of the Blanik L13. And in the Blanik, you get quite a lot of reflections on the inside of the canopy. In the Grob, that did not seem to be nearly as noticeable. The view down and forward was just good - no problem for landing.
  • The view down and behind is blocked by the wing. But not a problem. My view of the runway during the downwind and turn to base were fine.
  • The posture is quite reclined, depending on how you set up the cushions. CFI thinks it's uncomfortable. I thought it was fine.

Anyway, it's different enough that it's worth having an instructional flight. Mine went fine. So now if I want to take a passenger in the Grob, they can sit in front and get the best view.

I mentioned the instruments... the rear variometer turned out to be bad, or hooked up wrong, or something. Its indication was useless. So for most of the flight I was going by feel or asking CFI what his vario said. Quite a pain, and I would not fly a passenger with it bad. Hopefully we'll get it fixed or replaced soon. And that was the purpose of that flight, right?

The other thing was that the airspeed indicators were off a bit. The front reads about 5kt less than the back. CFI seemed to think I was flying too slow (i.e. thought his was correct) so I went by his. But on landing that meant mine indicate 60kt instead of the target 55kt, and the results were consistent with 60kt: longer float and rollout. We actually stopped past the end of the box a bit. So I conclude that the rear ASI is correct, and the front under-reports.

It was about 10:30 am, and there was a little bit of weak, scattered lift which we took turns working. I realized that I have not been a passenger in a glider for about 4 years. Ever since I started taking lessons, I've done all the flying. It was strange just doing nothing. And at times slightly disorienting, without the tactile and kinesthetic feedback of flying the plane, especially when I was looking inside the cockpit (reading instruments for our testing). A good reminder of what passengers feel! We ended up with just a 27-minute flight.

Later in the day I flew the PW-5, taking off at 15:12. Although there had been pretty good lift until then, marked by strong dust devils, by the time I got up the wind was blowing out the lift and no dust devils were visible anymore. I found some zero sink and scraped out a 25-minute flight. On the plus side, we were having a contest, which included a spot landing event. On the rollout after landing, you have to see how close you can come to a cone without going past. I stopped 10.5 inches from the cone. As far as I know, that was second place... the mark to beat was 8 inches. I'll have to wait to find out the results.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Grob 103 checkout - again

Our club's Grob 103 Twin Astir was out of service for several months for some repairs. Because it was for such a long time, our instructors decided everyone who wants to fly it should get checked out and signed off again, a decision with which I agree. Due to my availabilty and the instructors', it's taken me a couple of months to arrange it. Yesterday was the day.

Flight 1 was to about 3000' AGL. Very good wings-level takeoff. The Grob, especially ours, is pretty heavy on the controls, especially ailerons. So it takes a *lot* of stick pressure if you get wing wobble at low speed, before you get much control authority. The tow was weird... low for a long time. I don't know if the towplane was low on power or if the pilot just chose a very flat flight path. CFI said all his tows were that way. Much lower than I've experienced there, even in the heavy 103.

I had forgotten how great the visibility is from the front seat of the G103. The canopy is huge, and comes down pretty far on the sides. And being new, it's perfectly clear and clean with a blue tint. What a view!

We found a little zero sink, but not much. The flight ended up at 20 minutes. Good approach and landing, but with one mistake. I used my airbrakes on base leg, and part of final approach. I judged that we were undershooting a little, so I closed them all the way. We were still undershooting a bit (not dangerously) but I figured we were just getting more headwind or some sink. Then CFI said to close my brakes, and I said they were. But when I looked out, they were up about an inch. I had closed them until I felt a bump, which I assumed was the locking detent... but apparently what I was feeling was some bump before they were closed. And they are so effective, an inch is very noticeable! Once I pushed harder and closed them (still not locked closed), we proceeded normally. I even paid better attention to my aiming point and landed nicely within the box.

Because of that issue, CFI wanted to see one more flight, even though my pattern and touchdown were great and my speed control was right on. So we went up for a pattern tow, or so I thought. Remember that low tow flightpath? By the time we got to where I would normally release from a pattern tow, we were only at about 700' AGL, which would have made for an abbreviated pattern. So I hung on. By the time we got to the initial point area again, we were at about 1300' AGL, so I had to waste some altitude before entering the pattern. This pattern and approach and rollout were just fine. CFI liked my approach planning very much.

So now I'm signed off to fly the Grob, which is a very nice ship for passengers. But... one of the instructors will be taking it to a cross-country workshop for a week, and then we're talking about placing it at Tehachapi for most of the summer. That'll be great for some XC mentoring - maybe I'll get my Silver there soon - but not so great for passengers.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Just because you can doesn't mean you should

I observed and was told of some very questionable practices regarding how some people teach and practice launching and soaring. While some of these pilots and instructors may be highly skilled, the practices they are teaching may not be appropriate for students and low-time pilots and can get their students into dangerous situations. I spoke with one person who is a long-time power pilot but a short-time glider pilot... I don't know if he has his PPG rating or is still a student. He told me stories which go along with what I observed and were very disturbing.

1. Immediate Pull-Up From my instructors and from some nationally known instructors who spoke at the recent BITS seminar, I learned that in a ground launch it is safer to gain some altitude (at least 150'-200') before beginning the steep part of the climb. I observed some experienced pilots beginning their 40-degree climb as little as 10-20 feet from the ground, as soon as they get any airspeed. They seemed to think this was the best way, and that we were wasting time and cable by climbing gently before pulling up. The problem with this practice is that if you have a loss of winch power, a cable break, or any other anomaly that requires you to abort the launch, you may find yourself at a steep pitch angle relative to the ground and needing to nose over quickly to execute a landing. I realize that in most cases you would have sufficient airspeed into the relative wind to avoid stalling, but that speed will decay very quickly because you are climbing. You need to nose over very quickly to regain safe flying speed (by using gravity to accelerate) and then round out and land straight ahead. If this occurs at low altitude or if you do not recognize the power loss immediately, you could find yourself stalled or at least mushing and have insufficient altitude to execute the pitch-over. If this occurs at 200' or higher, pushing over to regain flying speed and then landing straight ahead is a non-event.

I did not observe any incidents or problems personally. All rope breaks or power losses I saw occurred at safe altitudes. But the pilot I spoke with said he had personally had what he called a "six-G landing," what many would call a "pancake" - landing hard straight down either still rounding out or perhaps stalled. Here's how he related it to me. In one launch, he experienced a loss of winch power but the winch recovered promptly and he continued the launch. In the very next launch, he experienced another loss of power, and he figured the winch paused again, but this time he was fooled: it was an actual rope break. He waited for a few seconds, expecting the winch power to recover, then finally realized it wasn't going to and nosed over. Problem was, this occurred at about 100' AGL. He lost at least 25' while waiting, another 25' or so while nosing over, and barely had enough altitude to round out to his "six-G" landing. It did not seem to occur to him that the low altitude pitch-up is what made this dangerous. More altitude would have given him time to recover. A rope break at low altitude is not a problem if the pitch angle is still low.

2. Low-altitude Thermalling This pilot and others spoke admiringly of an instructor's ability to find a thermal and save a flight, from as low as 100'-150' AGL. They spoke of him being on final approach, hitting a thermal and flying away. Where I learned to soar, and where I have rented sailplanes, that would be unthinkable. Our rule is "no thermalling in the pattern - period". The standard lower limit, where one must commit to landing, is 1000' AGL. At another gliderport I visited, the limit was 1200'. Once you enter the pattern, that's it! Now, I realize we're talking about winch launching, and a 1000' limit would really limit your ability to find ANY thermal, when you're only achieving 1500' or so from the launch. So I personally would be comfortable lowering the commit level to about 800', especially if there are many alternative landing sites on the airfield. But 150' ?!?!?!? I did see a launch abort at about 400' due to a rope break, and the instructor took over and caught a thermal right over the launch zone, and the student got to go on a soaring flight. But it's another questionable thing to teach a student. Here's why:

That same pilot mentioned above tried to pull off his instructor's trick: he flew through a thermal off the approach end of the runway, about 150' AGL, and decided to try to work it rather than continue his landing (I don't know if he was on base or final leg). Only problem was, the thermal gave him lift for about a half of a circle, then turned to sink... and now he was pointed AWAY from his runway. He could not make it back, crashed the glider into the wash off the end of the runway, and destroyed the nose. The pilot was unhurt.

The problem with this whole set of circumstances is that this pilot thinks he SHOULD be able to do these things, because he sees an instructor do them. So he's had two "hard landings" and he only has 15 hours of glider time logged!

The FAA's Aviation Instructor's Handbook has this to say:
The safety practices emphasized by instructors have a long lasting effect on students. Generally, students consider their instructor to be a model of perfection whose habits they attempt to imitate, whether consciously or unconsciously. The instructor's advocacy and description of safety practices mean little to a student if the instructor does not demonstrate them consistently.

The flight instructor must not only teach students to know their own and their equipment's limitations, but must also teach them to be guided by those limitations.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Winch Launch

Our club is joining with two others for two weekends of winch launching, one of which was last weekend. Our club just finished rebuilding a winch and loading it with Spectra cable. We have instructors who have extensive winch experience, but none of the members did, so we thought it would be good to learn from other clubs who do. Some members worked on learning to "drive" the winch, and most others worked on learning to fly the gliders. We have done autotowing before, and some of us already have our "ground launch" endorsement, which you can get via either auto or winch. Technically you don't need another endorsement to do the other kind of ground launch, but you'd be crazy not to get instruction in it before doing it.

Saturday I did one launch, and Sunday I did two more. All three were very straight. It's the speed control, the angle of attack, that is tricky. My first one was not very controlled, my second one was better although I let off early when my speed got low. My third was quite good, achieving an altitude of 1400' AGL.

Ground launching involves redirecting the forward-downward force of the cable motion, using the resistance of the bottom surface of the wing against the air, into a forward-upward force. The amount of force converted depends on the angle, so increasing the angle of attack (with the elevator) directs more of the force, increasing airspeed. This is the opposite of the action of the elevator when in free flight. So you have to reverse your thinking: if the speed gets low, pull back to increase the force... up to a point, of course.

Now, there are two schools of thought on this, so I inv1te comments. A few months before doing this for real, I studied it in books and on the Internet and RAS. Some highly respected instructors insist it does not work this way, that lowering the nose is the way to increase airspeed during winch launch, just as in free flight, that it is NOT reversed. In my limited experience, six autotows and three winch launches, it IS reversed. The HRI's say that if the winch is underpowered, the reverse method is true, and if the winch has excess power (big European diesel or diesel-electrics), it is false. All three winches in use at our event were traditional gas V8's... powerful enough to launch pretty darn high, but maybe not in the excess-power range.

The other tricky part is that since you're going up at a 40-degree angle, directional control is harder. Until you know the surrounding landmarks, you can't judge direction very well.

Things happen REALLY fast. Zero to 55kt in about 3 seconds. Off the ground in as little as 50 feet. Up to 200' AGL in about 5 seconds. Then up at 40-45 degrees for about a minute or less. Wow!

Our club did some launches with our winch and steel cable some months ago, and did not get nearly as high. With about 3500' of lightweight Spectra, launches of 1400 to 1600' were common. That's enough to snoop around for thermals until you're down to about 800' and need to enter a pattern. Some folks found thermals and went off for hour-long flights of up to 10,000'.

Usually where we fly no one is on the ground near the approach end of the runway. At this site, we took off from a taxiway and landed on the adjacent runway, so we were quite close to the round-out point. In this shot you can see the flaps and airbrakes open.

I'll have more to say about some critical things that I learned about safe launches... after our second winch event weekend is over.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Ups and downs

I launched in the PW5 a little before 3:00. There was some lift, and I almost let off at 2500' AGL, but didn't, and did not find more until 3500' AGL. I cruised around and eventually found lift over a rocky set of hills near a canyon. It was not terribly stong, but workable. Another fellow called over and joined me, at least a thousand feet lower. Two guys in one of our club Blaniks also came over, at nearly my altitude. So we circled together for quite a while, working our way back up to about 5000' MSL. At times we were closer than I have ever been when sharing a thermal, but we were on the radio and kept in touch. It was choppy lift, some up and down... sometimes the Blanik was higher than me and a few seconds later it would sink lower. Later J said he thought it was shear line lift, but I thought it was thermal.

We all took off in different directions from about 5000' MSL. I got right into some moderate turbulence and some serious sink! At times the vario was pegged at more than 10kt down (that's 1,000 fet per minute down). I don't think I've seen such sink in the Hemet area, although I've had it at Minden. It was everywhere! I tried to find lift again - found a little zero sink briefly - but it was really bad. There was sink and lift on my downwind leg. I ended up with just a 37 minute flight! The Blanik guys did not hit the same elevator I did, but they didn't find lift either, and landed right behind me. My landing was fine.

Driving home, analyzing my flight, I realized that although I get the wind direction from the wind sock (and occasionally AWOS), I'm forgetting to fully use it. I use it to plan for crosswind landing, lowering a wing if necessary and expecting drift. And I use it to confirm drift during the downwind leg. But I'm forgetting to use it to adjust my approach speed. I've pretty much just been using the standard approach speed (e.g. 51kt in the PW5) and not increasing it by 1/2 the headwind component. Something else to work on next time!

I just bought an oxygen tank for the PW5. The club provides one, but this way I don't have to worry about whether it is full or not. It cost $30 to fill the first time.

I also bought a kit to mount my PDA in the PW5. J had already mounted a base on the panel, so I got a compatible arm and a bracket for the PDA. But I'm having trouble with the battery and cover. When I got ready to fly, my PDA crashed. Not sure if it was due to heat or battery, but everything was lost from memory. So I was unable to use it today and need to restore it.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

There's more than one way to climb a mountain

Yesterday turned out to be a booming lift day and I had a great flight. It almost didn't happen... I had stuff to do in the morning, I am trying to get over a cold, and I was just planning to do a checkride with an instructor in the Grob 103. But when I checked the thermal forcast, it was for over 10kt lift to 14,000', and I knew we had some assembling to do, so I headed out to Hemet. As it turned out, we didn't have an instructor, the PW5 had been reassembled (thanks, guys... I owe you one), and no one was planning to fly it. So after taping the wings, doing a thorough post-assembly inspection, problems hooking up my PDA, and resting a bit to make sure my cold was OK, it was nearly 3:00 before I took off.

It was 103 F! I had not done my usual detailed weather study, so I didn't know the forecast temperature profile, but as I was driving in I could see that the few clouds were only over the high peaks and the bases looked to be about 14,000', so wow - looked like great conditions. Some of the experts on the radio were reporting in anywhere from 12 to 15,000' MSL.

I released at 4500' MSL and hooked a nice thermal right away up to 7500'. Then it was off to the "S" ridge. I found some moderate thermal lift on the low ridge and worked my way up the side of Mt. San Jacinto. I had been here one time before, in the Grob 103 last July. Last time was pure thermal lift, strong and topped by lots of cumulus clouds at about 10,500'. The clouds were the reason I did not get to the top that time.

As they say, though, every flight is different. This time the lift was not so strong, and not so clearly thermal. I found some anabatic lift coming off the ridges, and rode that up a ways. That is really weird stuff. When it's working, you fly toward the ridge of the mountain and the lift pushes you up, keeping you a fairly constant distance above the "spine" of the ridge. I remember thinking it was like magic - but I don't quite trust it, and San Jac's ridges are steeper than where I learned it in the Tehachapis. I don't have a huge amount of experience in the mountains, so I made sure I stayed some distance off the ridge, and turned away when I seemed to be getting too close. I got as high as about 9,100' MSL.

I also knew that there was about a 10kt wind from the west-southwest, and since I was working the side of the mountain that was roughly perpendicular to the wind, there should be orographic ("ridge") lift. But this isn't a classic "ridge", there are lots of canyons to break it up, so I wondered how strong it might be. I have never had any dual instruction in classic ridge lift, so I was really careful. I went back and forth along a fairly steep, rocky cliff and found sustaining lift, but not enough to take me any higher.

By that time I had been up about an hour and a half, and didn't feel like trying something else to get to the top, so I headed back. There was some lift all the way across the valley, so even though I had a 10kt headwind, I got back to the airport at about 5000' AGL. I floated around for a while trying to lose altitude, and I just couldn't. I think the shear line had moved in, because everywhere I went I found sustaining lift. I wanted to stretch it out to a 2-hour flight, which turned out to be easy!

So... that sustaining lift came back to haunt me during my pattern and landing. I hardly lost any altitude on the downwind leg. I extended my downwind leg so I would have some more room to lose height, and even used airbrakes on downwind, which I almost never do. I planned to try for a more precise landing by adjusting my "aiming point" closer to the field, because I've been landing just a bit short lately. Although my airspeed was a bit high on base leg, it was fine on final. I rounded out, and floated... and floated... and floated... Now, a bit of float is expected because of ground effect, but this was ridiculous. I didn't want to pull airbrakes too hard, 'ciz that sometimes causes hard landings. But I was near the end of the landing zone and still in the air. There's a taxiway that crosses west of the landing zone, and it's rough to roll over. At that low altitude and with decaying airspeed, it's not safe to "zoom" over it. So eventually I closed airbrakes and "hopped" over it, then pulled them out and landed on the other side. It's an approved landing area, but usually for downwind rope-break practice... unusual to land there upwind. I've done it before, with an instructor on board. It all worked out OK... it was the right decision for a safe landing. Pilots on the ground agreed. But it was weird. I played back the flight on my IPAQ, and I think my speed was right where it should have been. So... maybe there was lift in the landing zone, if the shear line was active all the way down to ground level? Maybe the wind died, or even reversed? Not sure why it happened, but I was glad to know I handled it correctly.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Some work and some fun

Saturday we did some more maintenance work on the Grob 103. We took out the seats and some of the interior coverings so we could clean and lubricate all of the accessible linkages. One of our club members has over the last couple of weeks installed several replacement instruments and repaired the landing gear doors. (He's qualified as an aircraft mechanic - it's great to have him as a member!) That's one of the nice things about being in the club: I get to learn to do minor work on the gliders, and there's always someone who has done it before. All that needs to be done now is to get the weight and balance recalculated. That was supposed to happen yesterday, too, but the inspector had a foul-up with his equipment, so it'll have to wait until next weekend. We're all eager to get the big ship flying again, for several reasons:
  • It's a more attractive ship in which to take someone for a ride.
  • It's more comfortable than a Blanik L-13 for some larger club members
  • It soars beautifully. I think I can feel the lift much better in the Grob than in the others.

The afternoon shaped up into a really nice soaring day. Lift was plentiful and relatively strong. The ground temperature heated up to 86F, about 6 degrees higher than forecast and 10 degrees higher than my calculated thermal trigger temp. My thermal tops forecast was 5200' MSL and the NWS's was 6685.

I took off about 2:00, and had a weird tow. The tow started off fast, about 70 kt instead of the usual 60. I kept getting strong lift on tow, got out of position on the high side and got *lots* of slack. I never lost sight of the towplane but did have a big loop of rope under me. I was able to get it out but it was the worst I've ever seen - I usually have very little slack line. The next time the vario showed a really high rate of climb, maxing out at 10kt, I released, at 2600' AGL = 4100' MSL. I got into the lift right away and took it up to a bit over 5000' pretty easily and went in search of more lift. In three or four decent thermals I worked it up to 6000' MSL and that's where it seemed to top out. I cruised over to the Ramona Bowl and back... not very far, but in a different direction than I usually fly.

When my hour was nearly up, I tried some stalls, but the PW-5 doesn't really stall very much for me. It just kind of mushes down. I then tried pulling up more steeply, and it stalled but it pretty much recovered itself.

After I landed, with a 0:56 flight, the next fellow took off at 3:36 and got a 2.5 hour flight nearly to Elsinore, returing on strong shear line lift. I heard some folks got to 7 and maybe 8,000 feet.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Work day

Although the soaring forecast looked promising, I ended up not flying today. Our club had its general meeting, a guest speaker, and a work day.

We just got our Grob 103 back from some major repairs, so we put the wings on it, taped it up, moved it to a new tie-down, and did some general preparation. The new canopies are blue-tinted. There are still some things that need to be done before it flies, but we wanted to get as far as we could.

I did some other general maintenance on it and the PW5 well into the afternoon. There was lift, and eventually some shear, but it seemed more important to get the work done today. So no flight. Next week I'll be going to a soaring seminar... so maybe I'll fly again on March 31.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fabulous February Flying

Well, maybe "fabulous" is too strong a word, but we had pretty decent conditions all day yesterday. Two days post-frontal, very clear, about 10 degrees above trigger temperature. Lots of people had hour-long flights, and came down only because their time was up. Pretty amazing for February!

In the morning I took a visitor up for a flight in a Blanik. Fortunately this was not his first glider flight, so he was OK with all the turning and ups and downs and was looking forward to soaring. Unfortunately (due to scheduling) we took off at 11:37, before things really heated up. We found a bit of zero to 1 kt lift, enough to keep us up for just a few minutes beyond a simple glide. His friend went up about 15 minutes later and got an hour-long flight. He wanted to try his hand at flying (he flies R/C, and has been flying the Condor glider simulator for a while), so I let him. He found out pretty quickly that the real world is harder... after just a few seconds of straight flight he was ready to hand it back.

Then in the afternoon I took a flight in the PW5. Although I didn't take off until 15:37, lots of lift was being reported. I pulled the release at 2200' AGL (3700 MSL) in good lift... and immediately flew out of it. After wondering for a few minutes about the wisdom of this low release, I found a good thermal that had been reported in the same place all afternoon. It wasn't really strong, but did produce about 3 kt at times. I circled right up below a fellow club member in his Standard Cirrus. The thermal topped out at 5800 MSL. With no smog to speak of, and no visible inversion layer, the view was spectacular!

I wandered around for a while, then came back and tanked up in the same thermal, this time sharing it with a Krasnow. I was above him by a couple hundred feet. Circling at the same speed with another glider is fun. They stay in the same relative position, and the world goes around in circles below you. It's like there's an invisible rope or something linking the two aircraft. Unfortunately I did not bring my camera along this time. Eventually he headed northeast toward the "S" ridge, and I headed southwest and flew over the town of Winchester. I eventually sped up and did lazy circles just to get back down after an hour.

On downwind in the pattern, I hardly lost any altitude at all, so I ended up really high on the base leg. I needed a turning slip and then a forward slip for most of the final approach to lose altitude. My mainwheel touchdown was pretty gentle, but the nose wheel came down pretty firmly. Rollout was nice and straight, and I came to rest with my wings level. I think I need to learn more about "wheel" landings - how to keep the nose up after touchdown, and set it down gently, or how to touch down in a more level attitude. This probably comes from having learned in taildraggers (Blaniks) where you "hold off" by slowly pulling the stick back, letting the mainwheel and tailwheel touch down simultaneously. Comments welcomed! Always something more to learn!


  • First time I've allowed a passenger to take the controls
  • First time I've flown two models aof aircraft in the same day

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A short flight

The public forecast was for a storm to move in this afternoon. The thermal forecast was dismal. I figured if the weather was bad I'd just do some patterns to practice landings in the PW5... They've been bumpy lately. But the ground temperature exceeded the trigger temp by 6 degrees by 11:00, the cloud cover was thin and no more than 50%, so it turned out to be soarable.

The tow pilot took me to an odd location, so I knew she was trying to take me to lift. I let off at 3300' AGL and found a little 2-3 kt lift. But all I could find was sink until I was down near pattern altitude. Then I found some zero sink and a knot of lift.

A hawk was at my level a short distance away, so I coasted over near it. It was hard to tell whether it was circling, hovering, or what, but it seemed like I was going around it. At one point, to stay centered in what little lift I could find, I passed right under the hawk. I was no more than 30' below it. Then it was gone! I guess I was too close for his comfort.

I ended up with a 24-minute flight. The pattern was weird... First sink, then lift, so I ended up high on final. Then I ended up short in ground effect. I think I need to move my aiming point closer to my intended touchdown point so I can flare and touch down without needing to close spoilers during the float. Touchdown was pretty gentle and very straight. I think the PW5 touches down on the main wheel and bangs down a bit on the nose wheel. Maybe if I let the nose down a bit (unlike the tail-dragger Blanik) it will touch down on both at the same time, more smoothly.
Sent from my Blackberry. 

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Good January soaring

A cold front went through on Thursday, and Saturday's forecast looked pretty good to me. Cold air aloft, clear skies and probably heating to 10 degrees above the trigger temp, only a weak inversion forecast at 6000' or so. Driving in, there were some clouds at about 6000' in some valleys, but the Hemet valley was clear. Later I spotted some very concave-bottomed little clouds over "the mesa". Later they looked really choppy, and some people thought they were rotor clouds, as there was supposed to be some strong wind higher up, and we could see lenticular clouds southwest of the Big Bear area. But eventually they formed into full-fledged cumulus. And as the afternoon progressed, nice CU formed in and around the valley, up to about 50% coverage. They just weren't very high - some people said about 4500' MSL.

I took up the PW5 about 2:00. At 3000' AGL I was in clear blue, so I hung on for another 200' and let off nearer to clouds. Sure enough, there was good lift under all the clouds - just needed to find the best parts. I went down a ways and then made it back up to my release altitude. I flew around for my allotted hour and eventually got up to 5000' MSL, and the cloudbase was probably 500' higher. Finally I just sped up to 60 kts to reduce my L/D, and flew around for a while to lose altitude. I landed with a 1 hour and one minute flight. Not bad for January!

Several other ships were in the area. As someone put it, "Not a good day to get very far from the airport." At one point I shared a thermal with a Discus. At another time both of the club Blaniks were circling below me, and I took a couple of pictures of them. Not the best shot, but at least I got them.

It's really hard to fly smoothly, turn to stay centered in a thermal, keep a good lookout, and take a picture! With my digital camera, if I use my left hand, I can't see what I'm shooting. If I use my right hand, I have to fly left-handed, which works OK in a Blanik, but is hard in the PW5 because it's so sensitive.

I mentioned using the Outside Air Temperature display to watch the gradient during tow... I did remember to look at it a time or two, but not often enough to be useful. Maybe next time. I did check it up at 5000' MSL, and it was 3 Celsius. AWOS was reporting dewpoint as 2 C, so since I was just below cloudbase that made sense. That's 37 Fahrenheit - cold up there! I spent just a moment looking at SeeYou Mobile to see if it could display the OAT. I don't think it can, although the data is supposed to be in the feed from the Volkslogger. More to check out.

I plugged my PDA into the Volkslogger, and that worked OK for a while. But halfway through my flight, the PDA shut off. I turned it back on but it never synced up with the VL again. Maybe a setting related to external power. More to check out...

The latest SeeYou Mobile has a thermal strength display when you're circling. It's not clear to me how to use the display... there's an arrow and circles of varying size representing relative lift strength. I'm not sure if the arrow means the compass direction, or the nose of the ship. More to check out... If anyone's used this, please comment.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Lean

My brother is an avid motorcyclist, owning dirt bikes for years and recently a Harley. He mentioned to me an article (or column) titled "The Lean" in a Harley magazine. The author, often asked what was so attractive about riding the road on a motorcycle, distilled it down to "the lean". That is, the fun of riding the curves and the way you have to (get to) lean the bike into the turns.

I think that's part of the fun of flying a glider: the lean (or the bank). We spend a lot of time turning in banks of 30 degrees to 45 degrees or more. That's something that one doesn't experience in an airliner - they tend to keep to 15 to 30 degree banks to keep people comfortable. But you know what? If you're not afraid of it, the lean is great fun!

It's partly the G-force: 1.4G in a 45-degree turn, 2.0G in a 60-degree turn. That's what makes a roller coaster fun, too.

It's partly the visual: the earth passing by sideways... the wing pointing down at the ground...

Turning a car around a flat city street corner is not the same... centrifugal force pushes the car away from the turn and does not feel natural. Taking a car at speed through a properly banked mountain curve or freeway ramp invokes "the lean" and is much more satisfying.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Today I was thinking about the temperature inversion that was forecast for yesterday. Each flying day as I'm preparing, I look at (among other things), the atmospheric temperature forecast from NOAA's NAM site. The closest forecast to Hemet is for San Diego (I think Miramar NAS), so I don't quite believe it, but it's the best I can find. If an inversion is forecast, then I don't hope for too much out of the day.

Sometimes I can see evidence of an inversion, a haze layer with a defined top. Sometimes it seems to correspond to the forecast inversion top, but I've never paid too much attention. I've sometimes wondered whether the inversion develops locally as forecast. The local commercial operator could, I suppose, take temperature soundings as they tow or go up for a morning checkout flight, but I don't think they do.

Today it hit me. Duh! The PW-5 can display Outside Air Temperature (OAT) on its flight computer LCD. It displays in degrees Celsius, just like the DUATS and NOAA sounding forecasts that I use for my daily thermal forecast. I've never used it, I leave the computer set to display average lift. But I could use OAT to confirm or refute the sounding forecasts during my climb! So... I should pay attention to the forecast temperature gradient, and then keep an eye on the OAT during the tow. That should tell me whether there is or is not an inversion... whether the air is or is not stable.

Anyone else do this?


I can't believe it's already been two years since I achieved my Private Pilot certificate. But since it has, it's now time for a Flight Review. FAA regs require all pilots to have a Flight Review every two years, so we call it a Biennial Flight Review (BFR). It requires an hour of ground instruction and an hour of flight instruction, or in the case of a glider, three flights of at least pattern height. It's with an instructor, not an examiner, and it's not a pass/fail thing, it's more of an educational thing.

The day was clear but not soarable, so many club members were doing checkrides and signoffs of various kinds... our club requires a single checkride with an instructor at the start of each year, and I think CFI did four of those along with my BFR. And student pilot JD got signed off for his written exam. Quite a busy day.

I had not flown with this CFI for a long time. He asked me if I'd had any good flights this year, so I told him about Minden (10,000' in 10kt lift and sink), Tehachapi (silver distance but not logged, 15,000') and San Jacinto (10,500' under CU right here in Hemet). I think he was pretty pleased with my progress. He had also flown a Grob 103 at Minden.
  • First flight was to be 2000' AGL but of course he pulled a rope break.
  • Second flight was to 2000' AGL or so, I just flew around and did some turns and stuff. Not a hint of lift. Too stable... there was an inversion forecast up to about 6000' MSL. I undershot the landing... should have closed airbrakes some on final.
  • Third was a pattern.

I asked him if he had any comments or anything... "Nope, you're good."

Monday, January 01, 2007

Passenger flight

My younger daughter N wanted to go for a flight for her 19th birthday, so we went out on Saturday. The forecast was mixed... it had the potential to be a good day if it heated up enough. We took off about 1:30. I flew from the back seat to give her the better view. No one was reporting any decent lift, so we took a 4000' tow to ensure that we'd get a decent flight time of we didn't find any lift. We found a little bit of 1-kt lift late in the flight, not enough to sustain us. So we ended up with 27 minutes... a bit more than a sled ride but not much.

Critique: The variometer in the back cockpit only goes up to 5 knots, so on tow I found myself looking around her head to see the one in the front seat. This proved to be a bit of a distraction. Just as I was getting ready to release, after visually clearing left and right, I noticed I was a bit out of position high, and lost sight of the towplane. I nosed down a bit, caught sight of it again, and released immediately.

On final approach, I seemed to be a little high at the last minute, rounding out very close to the start of the landing box instead of well in front of it. Again, I think the view from the back seat is a little limiting, and I think I was looking around her head to the right and left for alignment, instead of having a clear straight-ahead view. So I kind of fixed on my aiming point incorrectly, and ended rounding out AT it instead of BEFORE it. That has not been an issue on previous flights from the rear seat. But it all worked out... we didn't float very far, and touched down and stopped well within limits.