Saturday, September 10, 2011

Wishing to soar

Regular readers may have noticed that I did not post anything in August. That's because I was traveling, mostly on a family "road trip" vacation to the midwest. Using the SSA's list of soaring sites, I looked for commercial ops along our route so I could get in some soaring at a remote site. I mostly found clubs, and as you may know it's not very practical for a visiting private pilot to fly with a club, for reasons of logistics and insurance.

The only viable option I could find was Durango Soaring Club in Colorado. It's a club, not a commercial op, and their web site indicated that their focus is on selling rides and some instruction. It did not look like they rent gliders, and I've heard that the checkout at Durango is pretty extensive because of the challenging terrain. The only option looked to be to pay for a tourist ride and maybe get to do some of the flying, but that seemed expensive and unsatisfying. My schedule was uncertain enough (and the purpose of the trip was to do things with my family), so I didn't really look into it seriously.

Click the pic for a larger image.
While in Durango, our main purpose (well, mine anyway) was to ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railway. This is a spectacular ride in 1880's rail cars, with 1930's coal-burning steam engines, though the beautiful and rugged Animas Gorge through the Rocky Mountains.

Well, guess what: the tracks go right by  Durango Soaring Club. And just as we steamed by, a Blanik came in to land on their beautiful grass strip, and we happened to be on the right side of the train. So here are a couple of my best shots.

Click the pic for a larger image.

Wish the fields I fly from had grass like this!

And that's as close as I came to soaring in August.

Thermal flight - shoulda, coulda, woulda

Labor Day weekend had great weather for thermal soaring at Crystal. It got up to about 97F.The forecast was for thermals to 15K-18K, and there was a little moisture in the air which meant there was a possibility of cumulus clouds at about 14K. After dealing with some maintenance issues, I took off in the PW5 about 1:30. We really climbed fast on tow, and by the time we got to the First Ridge we were already at 2500 AGL and flying through thermals. I thought I'd be smart, save a little on the tow, and let off in a good thermal instead of towing up into the mountains. I let off with the vario nearly pegged, but when I tried to get into it I could find no lift. No sink, but no lift either. I worked little bits of lift near the golf course and the wash (not known to be great sources) and could not seem to climb, and could not get away from the airport. At one point I got down to about 1500 AGL and was thinking about landing to take another, higher tow, but I stuck it out and finally found a decent thermal. There was a significant wind from the west, and I had to hunt upwind to stay in it. Finally it really started to cook, and I got up to about 9,000 MSL (5,600 AGL). That enabled me to head into the mountains and work the Second Ridge.

In the mountains I found thermal lift and some lift that seemed to be ridge. At least one glider was visible thousands of feet above me, working up near the base of one of the few CU's within striking distance. Eventually I got up to about 11,000 MSL and headed deeper into the mountains. I've had a goal of reaching the top of Mt. Baldy, which several of our club pilots have already done (and some did that day). But I had wasted a *lot* of time scratching in that first thermal, and I knew that G was waiting for his turn in the glider after me. So I had to turn back a few miles short of Baldy. As I headed back west I continued to go up, and reached 12,000 MSL quite easily. I could have gone up to probably 14K if I had had more time, but I stopped at 12K and headed back.

Since I was now over the desert at over 11,000 feet, I headed northeast and overflew a private airport known as Gray Butte, and still got back to Crystal with thousands of feet to lose. After pulling spoilers to lose altitude more quickly, I landed after a total of an hour and 24 minutes. My altitude gain was 6,100 feet. I recorded the flight on my GPS/PDA but have not had time this week to upload and analyze it.

I shoulda held on to the tow instead of letting off early and wasting at least a half hour hunting the first good thermal. Then I woulda had more time at high altitude and coulda reached Mt. Baldy. So that goal is still in the future...