Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nice Thermal Passenger Flight at Crystal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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