Monday, September 22, 2008

All work and no fly

Saturday had the potential for good lift according to the weather forecasts, but the wind seemed to break up all the thermals. Very few gliders stayed up for more than a few minutes, so I decided not to fly. There was lots to do at the field, though:
  • Deliver a new spare tire for the PW5 trailer. On the trip back from Tehachapi to Hemet, one of the trailer tires lost its tread. Fortunately it wasn't a blowout, and we had a good spare, so it wasn't too bad.
  • Assemble the Grob 103 after it returned from Tehachapi. Boy, are those wings heavy.
  • Find the calibration certificate for the Volkslogger, to file with the SSA along with my Silver badge application.
  • Move trailers and gliders around for maintenance.
  • Brag about my Dust Devil Dash flight at the club general meeting.
  • Run the wing for and push back several gliders.
Some days are like that in a club...

One of the very experienced cross-country pilots in the club quizzed me pretty intensely about my DDD flight, navigation, and landout. (I think he has his CFI-G rating but is not an active instructor.) He never came out and said so, but it seemed like he thought my choice of landing at the Olancha dirt strip was not a good one. I think his concern was over two points:
  1. The strip is not very wide, with tall bushes on either side that could damage wings. But I walked it last year, and it is fine for a short-span glider like the PW5. I think there were 6 to 8 feet of clearance on both sides. You certainly can't put a 15-meter or greater ship down there.
  2. If there was a strong crosswind, putting it down safely would be tough because you could get blown to the side. Well, maybe. In the case of my flight, the wind at altitude was only about 3 knots, and my crewman reported very light wind at ground level where he was. I had no trouble at all landing on that narrow strip.
Still, it would be good to have another spot to land between there and Lone Pine, which is 20 miles away.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Dust Devil Dash contest

[To any readers who are experienced cross-country glider pilots, please remember that this is only my fourth real XC flight.]

The weather forecast was good for soaring, with thermals up to 13 or 14,000' predicted and not much wind. But the humidity was low, which meant that there would be no cumulus clouds to mark the lift. This made me pretty nervous, because so far all my real cross-country flights have been under CU, and I've gotten shot down on many "blue" days back in my home country at Hemet. I really did not have much confidence in my ability to find invisible thermals over the mountains. I waited until near the end of the launch order (about 25 gliders) in order to let the day really heat up. I decided to fly really conservatively: stay on the extreme eastern edge of the mountains, within safe gliding range of the landout sites in the Owens Valley.

The contest has a launch height limit of 3500' AGL (7700' MSL). I let off at that height but was not in lift. Turning back to look for lift we had flown through, I had to hunt a bit over the Tehachapi mountains but hooked a strong one without too much loss of altitude. It turned out to be really strong, with consistent lift of up to 8 knots. (I noticed that the SeeYou program on my PDA was not displaying the "Thermal Assistant" which usually pops up when circling to help analyze the strongest part of the thermal.) Two other gliders came in under me, and very soon I was at 13,000' and it was time to head northeast.

I was doing OK, staying at 9 to 10 thousand as far north as the Honda Track (where I landed last year). But I started going down a bit. I was really hoping I could stay at 12 or 13, but that wasn't happening. In looking for lift, I headed northwest a bit to stay over the mountains, and found little. Honda Track was looking pretty far away, and eventually I had to tell my ground crew (Irv) that I was diverting to Kelso Valley. I didn't say landing there, but that's what it was looking like. Now, the Kelso Valley dirt strip is a safe place to land, but (I'm told) it's a long drive to get into - about 2 hours. And that was the one place I had not documented in my ground crew materials, so Irv was starting to scratch his head about where he might need to go. And once I got below the ridge into the vally, the line-of-sight radios would not work and I would have to relay messages with other pilots. This was not looking good!

At about 2700' AGL (6700' MSL), I found a thermal near but not quite over the Rockpile, and it just kept going up and up, getting stronger and stronger. Within minutes I was back up at 13,000' MSL and was able to resume heading northeast, hoping to make Inyokern or at least the aqueduct road known as "Brad's landing road". This is where I started going into unfamiliar territory, as I could not see Inyokern airport at this point. Of course, my GPS / PDA showed me the course line, so I knew I would find it eventually. But I do like to be able to see my goal!

Although I came down to about 9-10K again, that was OK because I was within glide range of Brad's and Inyokern. I kept finding sustaining lift so I could mostly fly straight. I made Walker Pass pretty easily (that's where I turned around last week) and that's due west of Inyokern, which I could now see. (In case you're not familiar with the area, it's due east of Lake Isabella.) Along a steep ridge I found good, strong lift and got back up to about 11,500' as I recall. Now I was within range of Cinder Cone Dry Lake, although I could not see it beyond a ridge. So I told Irv I'd go to Cinder Cone. And then Coso Dry Lake is just a little further on... keep flying north in sustaining lift at about 9,000' (I flew under a hawk at that elevation).

OK, passing Coso I'm still at 9,000', so let's go on to Olancha. About this time I passed over a burned area of forest, and there was a small plume of smoke from a fire high on the ridge. I reported that to Irv, and he called it in. Maybe it was a known fire, or a hot spot from the recent burn, but I thought they might want to know.

By now it's after 3:00, and I'm on the east side of the mountains, so I'm thinking that the lift will start to weaken as the eastern slope loses the sun. Twice in a row my safety harness comes completely loose when something snags it. Try putting four pieces back together while flying at 500' to 1000' over the rocks! The second time, I just steered with my feet to have both hands free. Of course, when I'm doing that I'm not flying efficiently or looking for lift, so now I'm getting down around 8000', with not much hope of climbing back up to the top of the mountains.

So I declared that I would land at Olancha, and focused on that. It's a little dirt strip right by highway 395, quite long but not very wide. It's OK for a short-span glider like the PW5, but pretty tight for a bigger ship. I know from my planning that it's at 3600' MSL, so I have about 3000' to lose by circling. I turned a circle to let SeeYou calculate the wind speed and direction (nice feature!) and it favored a southward landing and was not strong. Once I was in the pattern, as trained, I ignored the altimeter and flew to a good, straight landing with just a bit of a bump. On the ground at about 4:00 after 2 hours and 50 minutes, about 72 nautical miles (83 statute miles) from Tehachapi. More than twice as far as last year's DDD flight, and almost twice as far as the farthest point of last week's out-and-return.

Now, here's why landing without reference to the altimeter (judging strictly by angles) is important. After I landed, my altimeter showed 3900', not 3600' as it really is at that location. So I was 300' lower at my pattern Initial Point than I thought, which is why I felt I had to abbreviate it a bit. (A 700' pattern is not really a problem with the PW5, it's pretty efficient.) So that means the atmospheric pressure had dropped by about 1/3 inch of mercury during my 3-hour flight. Not a surprise, just something we have to always consider - and why we ignore the altimeter close to the ground.

Irv arrived about 5 minutes after I landed. Disassembly of the PW5 was... er... eventful! When I pulled the main pins, they jerked out all the way instead of only halfway as they're supposed to, which let the wing drop and make it hard to pull the drag pins. And we spent quite a bit of time trying to get the drag pins move... the wrong way... Fortunately it was not too hot nor too windy, and after about an hour we eventually got it all sorted out and headed back to Tehachapi. Sorry 'bout that, Irv!

Before I flew, another pilot told me that my flight last week might not count for my Silver because I had not declared it, though that's not how I read the rules. So this time I made sure to load a flight declaration into the Volkslogger. And I had already calculated that Olancha is far enough even with a 3500' tow. The trace looks good, so I should now have Silver distance and altitude in the bag!

As for the contest - it will be a couple of weeks before results are posted. I know two guys from my club got as far as Minden, NV (240 nautical miles) and Fallon, NV (262 nm). Since it's a handicapped contest, and I doubled my distance compared to last year, I should not be as close to last place as last year. But then I never said I was a contender - the contest is just a convenient way for me to extend my XC experience.

And today I figured out why SeeYou's Thermal Assistant was not coming up. My fault - I had a configuration setting wrong.

So... I did OK flying a "blue" day into unfamiliar territory, without Thermal Assistant, and doubled my best straight-out XC distance.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Dust Devil Dash quick recap

Today I flew in the Dust Devil Dash, a straight-out distance contest from Tehachapi, CA. This is the second time I've flown the DDD. I got to Olancha, a little town a few miles from Lone Pine, right near Mount Whitney. That's about 72 nautical miles, more than double my previous best distance. The flight was eventful but the landing was safe (only my second landout ever). About 3 hours, max altitude about 13,000 feet. I'll write more about it when I get home... the network in this motel keeps dying on me.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Day 1 - Two flights: one lead and one silver

Saturday was hot and humid, promising good cumulus clouds. Mountain Valley Airport in Tehachapi is at 4200' MSL, so a 3000' tow starts you out at over 7000'. I launched about 12:20 in the PW5, let off at about 7400' over the Tehachapi Mountains, worked up to 8000' and could not get any higher. When I went in search of more thermals, I found nothing. There were some CU, but they apparently were already mature. I eventually ended up back in the valley and had to close in on the airport. Only 200' above pattern altitude, I found a thermal and went back up to about 6000', but that was all she wrote. I was back on the ground in 40 minutes - frustrated and angry.

After taking a break and thinking it over, I launched again at 13:42. Gotta get back on the horse, right? The CU were cycling up again.

This time I let off at about 7000' in strong lift, and immediately found two thermals that took me up to 13,500', still over the Tehachapis south of the airport. At some points I was above the base of some of the clouds - apparently some thermals went higher than others.

Whew! I do still know how to fly! That first "lead sled" flight was just bad luck. It's generally accepted that you need 10 to 11 thousand to hop over to the north side of the valley and make the mountains, so off I went across the hills on the east end of the valley (the "windmill ridge") hopping between scattered CU. I was fully prepared for a cross-country practice flight, and the CU over the Piute Mountains were looking nearly continuous. I lost only about 1500' getting to the good stuff, then was back up to 12,500' or so near cloudbase.

The air was very clear and I was able to look around and see some of the landout sites that were hard to see on previous flights. From my location and altitude, it looked like it would be easy to reach Mojave Airport, the Honda Track, etc., so I was feeling pretty good about going on. Some pilots reported rain and hail north of my position, and I could see it like a gray curtain. As I skirted around it to the west, I did go through a little hail, just for 10 or 15 seconds. It seemed to have no effect on the glider's flight. I also was watching the lift rate to make sure I did not get sucked up any stronger than was safe. But I was occasionally able to see the sides and tops of the CU, and they were not overdeveloping into thunderstorms, so I just cruised along below the clouds. That is the most amazing thing - cruising forward continuously, and not losing any altitude, just balancing the glider's sink rate with the lift, and doing about 50 knots. Way cool!

Another thermal and some cloud suck took me up to 13,500' and I kept going north over the Kelso Valley at up to 14,500'. Walker Pass and Inyokern were in sight. I had seen Walker on my earlier flights but had not made it that far. Last time, Inyokern was off in the hazy distance; this time I could see how close it was (about 13 miles), and a glide to there in an emergency certainly looked possible. I think I may have switched my task in my PDA to Inyokern to get the distance... don't remember for sure. I was using my marked-up sectional quite a bit, which showed 5-mile and 10-mile circles for all my landout sites. The clouds kept me up, and I turned back over Walker Pass at over 13,000'. That was far enough for this day - I did not want to tempt fate and a possible landout. It was about 15:00, and I expected the lift to start diminshing at any time. Most of my clubmates were going about as far as Kelso Ranch.

On the way back south, I made one mistake. I followed the same clouds that had brought me here, but did not realize that they had drifted east and so I was more over the desert foothills than over the mountains. Some of the CU started looking ragged, indicating that they were mature and the lift would be less. I started to lose some altitude, getting down to 11,500' by the time I was opposite Kelso Ranch. The margin was starting to look thinner, and my PDA lost its connection to the Volkslogger GPS. I got that fixed. Guys on the radio confirmed that they had found better lift on the west edge of the clouds, rather than where I was, and I got back to the west. One thermal took me back up a ways and so I had an easy glide from 12,500' back to the valley. By the time I made it into the valley, I was under 9,500'. That's an interesting aspect... you need a certain amount of height to get back and clear the final ridge, but then once over the valley, you have 5000' to burn off! So I did some lazy circles and landed after 2 hours and 21 minutes.

From my furthest point south (at the top of that great thermal) to Walker Pass where I turned around was 43 nautical miles, well over the 27 needed for the Silver distance. SeeYou calculated my total distance flown (not counting circling) as about 105 nm. I downloaded the flight trace from the Volkslogger to my PDA's external memory, and later my PC, for safekeeping. That night I re-read the Silver distance rules, and my south-to-north leg should clearly be acceptable for the flight claim. I wasn't really planning to go that far, so I had not uploaded a declaration into the VL before the flight, but the way I read the rules that should not be a problem. I have an Official Observer lined up to confirm that the trace from that day is mine. So I should have both Distance and Altitude for my Silver.

Back home, I found that SeeYou makes uploading the trace to the On Line Contest totally automatic - way easier than I was expecting!

So now I'm feeling pretty good about flying in the Dust Devil Dash contest next weekend. If you read my account of last year's contest, you'll see why I was not feeling so good about it before this flight. So if the weather is good, I'll go for it again.

Soon I'll write about the remaining days of the weekend trip - totally different weather conditions!