Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Beyond Tracy -- Land Out Locations

Beyond Tracy
Report on Possible Land-Out Locations
Site Visits by Tom Anklam and Shamim Mohammed
May 19, 2018

We drove to 5 possible land-out sites: Patterson, Crows Landing, Turlock Airpark, Westley - Valley Crop Dusters, and New Jerusalem. A summary of our findings appear below. At the end, I offer some thoughts on how intermediate XC pilots might use this to extend flights out of Byron to beyond Tracy.

For each site, I comment on suitability for aero and ground retrieves. As Shamim observed, there may be NCSA rules that preclude an aero retrieve, even when it is technically possible; from an unpaved, non-FAA approved runway, for example. So this needs to be sorted out before assuming the aero-retrieves are possible for some of the sites discussed below.


Patterson is not a currently functioning airstrip. It is located a short distance to the East of I-5. The runway is oriented parallel to a large, white warehouse that is used as an Amazon Fulfillment Center. The warehouse is white and should be useful in locating the field. The paved strip is about 2300’ and oriented due north/south. However, the quality of the asphalt is poor with numerous broken areas (see photo). You could probably roll through the broken area that we observed close-up. It was mostly small pieces of asphalt, not big chunks or pot holes. Ramy says that he landed on the asphalt several years ago without incident.
There are large open fields to the east and west of the runway that are being used to grow hay. The day that we visited, the field to the west was filled with hay bales and farm equipment. Large flatbed trailers were parked parallel to the runway, just off of the pavement. However, the field to the east was newly mowed and wide open. One could easily land a glider there and Shamim commented that he would be comfortable aero-towing from the field, although Club rules may preclude this. Access to the field was open and it would be easy to bring a vehicle in for a ground retrieve. The field is located within the Patterson city limits, just off of I-5, so it should be easy to get an Uber pickup or other transport if needed.

In summary, Patterson is potentially a good land-out location, but you shouldn’t count on it unless you have very current information on its status. The day we visited, the east field was wide open, an almost perfect land-out spot. But tomorrow, it might filled with farm equipment or have stacks of hay bales strewn about. Three or four weeks ago, the adjacent fields probably were probably filled with high grass. Patterson is probably most useful if you fly over it on the way out and then, if clear of stuff and brown, hold it for possible use later in the flight. The other option would be for someone to visit the site on the day of the flight and report conditions back to pilots preparing to fly.

Links to some photos taken the day that we visited appear below:

Patterson Land-out: Note large warehouse to the East. Should be useful in locating the airstrip. The day we visited, the field to the East of the pavement was best area to land. 

Crows Landing

Crows Landing is a former NASA test center. It is a huge area with multiple, concrete runways. Should be a no-brainer to land and tow from there, except that it is being used for other purposes. The day that we visited, a local “Race Club” was using a portion of the field for time trials; rendering a portion of the field unusable. Other areas of the field were covered in orange traffic cones and appeared to be used for automotive or motorcycle training.

Despite this, the sheer size of the facility would seem to almost guarantee that a suitable landing site could be found, even if some areas are off limits due to competing activities. It’s obviously important to commit at a high enough altitude to get a good look at what’s going on before selecting an area to land. It should be fine for aero-tow (the runways are so huge that Shamim jokingly commented that he thought that he could land his Citabria across the width direction).

We drove through an open gate the day that we visited. However, the racing folks were using the same entrance, so it’s not a guarantee that the gate is always open. The site is a little more isolated than Patterson, but a ground retrieve should still be relatively easy to arrange. I’m guessing that the site has cell coverage, but unfortunately forgot to check.

From the air, it should be easy to locate Crows Landing, because of its enormity.

Here are links to some photos from the day we visited:

Crows Landing, lots of places to land, but also lots of other things going on there. Important to get a good look from the air before selecting where to touch down.

Turlock Airpark

The Turlock Airpark is a private airstrip on the west side of Turlock. A sign at the field indicated that you need to pay a fee if you land there. The runaway itself is in good condition, although it appears much shorter than indicated on the Sectional. Apparently, this is an optical illusion because a check on Google Earth verifies that the runway is about 2100’ long. There are displaced thresholds on both ends of the runway and a useable length of 1800’ is painted in large numbers on the runway. However, the full length would be useable by a landing glider. Orientation is 330 deg. The name of the field and its elevation are painted on the runway; something that should be useful in locating the field. There were signs at the field indicating that it is also frequently used for RC aircraft operations. It was all-quiet the day that we visited, but this remains a concern. It might be possible to contact the RC Club and find out their schedule for using the field.

Access to the site was open and it would be easy to do a ground retrieve. Aero-retrieve to the north is not a good idea because a busy highway and congested area is just off of the north end of the runway; not so good for rope breaks. A takeoff to the south looks possible, if wind conditions permit. As mentioned, the Airpark is within the City, so ground transportation should be relatively easy to arrange. Ramy says that he has landed there in the past and found it a good option.

Links to some photos appear below:

Turlock Airpark: Notice that the runway is identified by large painted letters. Apparently it’s often used by RC aircraft enthusiasts. Landing fees may apply.

Westley – Valley Crop Dusters

As the name implies this is a private, crop dusting strip. The runway is paved, about 1600’ long with east/west orientation of 230 degrees. All of the other sites that we visited in this area have north/south oriented runways and we noted that the day we visited had a roughly 90 degree cross wind whereas the other locations had minimal cross wind. The east end of the runway has multiple hazards including parked aircraft and various structures and fences. The strip is about 105 feet wide as measured between the two lines of trees. The day we visited, the weeds along the edges of the runway were low and probably wouldn’t be a factor, as long as you keep your wings from dropping during the roll out. But of course, this could change as the growing season proceeds. Also, it appeared that there may have been one or more high spots along the left shoulder of the runway that could cause problems for a glider. You could probably land a 15m glider far enough to the right to avoid these areas. But I would walk the runway before using it as a primary land out option.

Not sure about doing an aero-retrieve from there. Would need to discuss with the owners. Ground retrieve would seem straightforward, again with permission from the owners. Overall, I guess Westley could serve in a pinch. But uncertainties in useable width combined with the likelihood for cross winds on post-frontal days, and potential for high vegetation would likely dissuade me from relying on this as a primary land-out. It seems that these concerns could be addressed if the owners of the strip were amenable to us using it as a land out and allow us to more closely assess it. But, as likely as not (maybe more so) they would resist the idea of large winged gliders landing in the middle of their crop dusting operation.

There is another private field near Westley, Del Mar. The runway is longer and more north-south oriented. We weren’t able to locate it in the time we had available, but Ramy indicated that Del Mar is a better option than Valley Crop Dusters.

Links to photos are below:

Valley Crop Dusters Strip in Westley: Notice that the strip is essentially in the town of Westley and just west of some large warehouse-like buildings.

Usable width may be an issue at Westley.
One concern with Westley is usable width. The yellow line is about 107 feet in length. The day that we visited, the weeds along the side of the runway were low, but this may change as the growing season progresses. Also, it appeared that there may be high spot along the south shoulder. The runway is oriented west/east, so cross winds are more likely on post-frontal days. This exacerbates the concern about narrowness.

New Jerusalem

New Jerusalem is a north/south oriented, 3900’ asphalt runway, in apparently good condition, about 6.5 miles east of Tracy Municipal Airport. It is surrounded by fences and locked gates, no terminal buildings or other support facilities, and is accessed via an unmarked dirt road that runs alongside an orchard. In other, words there is no apparent reason for it to be there. However, it is there, and appears to be a good land out option. Aero-retrieve appears to be straightforward.

As noted, the gates leading to field were locked and it appears that a call to the Airport Manager is required to gain access. Ramy says that the combination for the gate lock is in the Club database (of course combinations change from time to time). The only indicator that an airport is at the end of the access road is a small government sign warning against unauthorized access into the airport protected areas. So for these reasons, ground retrieval appears more involved than at other sites visited.

Links to photos appear below:

New Jerusalem: Great land out site, with no apparent reason for being there. Aero-retrieve appears the better option as field is surrounded by locked fencing and access is road is unmarked and non-obvious.

Beyond Tracy

For my glider, I typically set the flight computer for McCready 4 and 1500 feet reserve in order to calculate final glide arrival altitude. This results in a no-wind L/D of 28 compared to book value for the ASW 20 between 40 and 43, depending on whose polar you believe. With a 5000 ft cloud base and a 15 kt head (tail) wind component, I calculate that I should be able to fly back and forth between land-out airports separated by about 30 nm and maintain safety glide to one or the other (in other words, the cross-over point to the destination airport, from 5000’, is still within glide to the retreat airport). This compares favorably with the distances associated with some of the land-outs that Shamim and I visited:

Tracy to New Jerusalem 6.5 nm

New Jerusalem to Crows Landing 18.7 nm

Crows Landing to Turlock Airpark 13.2 nm

Turlock Airpark to New Jerusalem 25.5 nm

So on a good, but not necessarily epic, Valley soaring day, it should be possible to conservatively fly Byron-Tracy-Jerusalem-Turlock Air-Crows then back to New Jerusalem, Tracy and Byron (graphic of path below). As an aside, I’m not advocating that one should slavishly fly point to point, regardless of conditions. But describing it this way is simpler and illustrates how different land-out sites can be used in combination to extend beyond Tracy.
Total point-to-point distance is 95 nm (176 km). The longest leg, Jerusalem to Turlock, could be done as a downwind leg with the option to divert to Crows if, for some reason, Turlock didn’t look good. Also, if Del Mar checks out, it would be an option on the Jerusalem to Turlock leg.

Based on our site visits, I feel pretty confident about using Crows Landing. For Turlock, I want to do a little more homework on RC operations before committing to use it as a primary. The leg from Crows to Jerusalem flies almost directly over Patterson, so it could serve as an additional option, if site conditions are known with certainty.

A second option would be to fly Byron-Tracy-Jerusalem-Crows-Gustine and then back the same way. We didn’t visit Gustine, but my impression is that it’s a legitimate airport, suitable for landing out. This circuit would be better when lift is limited to the hills west of the Valley.

I would consider completing either of these circuits the makings of a darn good day and a step forward in terms of flight complexity and management compared to what I do now out of Byron. I suspect some of my fellow early career XC pilots would agree. 

One possible “Beyond Tracy” task. Total distance is about 95 nm. Longest leg is about 25 nm.

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Day of Aerobatic Training

I recently took YC, my MiniNimbus, up to WIlliams to get a bit of work done on the glider and the trailer.  I hate to drive all that way just to drop off the glider and come back home.  So, as I’ve done several times before, I decided to stay and take a couple of aerobatic flights with one of their aerobatic instructors.

MDM Fox.
In the past I’d flown their ASK-21, which is good for most aerobatic maneuvers, except for spins, which are prohibited.  I’ve wanted to fly their MDM Fox, which is a purpose-built aerobatic glider, but it had not been available during the previous visits.  So I was very excited to learn that the Fox was available for my flights on this visit.

Nope.  Not a glass panel.  It's a holder for the card reminding
the pilot of the planned maneuvers!

My instructor on this day was Ben Mayes, son of Rex and Noelle Mayes, the founders and owners of WIlliams Soaring, Inc.  Ben is a dynamic young guy, and I found him to be a very good instructor.

I took two flights with him.  On the first, we worked first on spins, then we did a set of loops, then several rolls, a couple of  chandelles, and then a few more rolls. Then it was time to go land the aircraft. 

Here is a link to a GoPro video of the flight. There is a fair part of the beginning that is us on tow, releasing, and making some clearing turns.  The actual aerobatic work starts somewhere around 2.5 to 3 minutes into the video.

 Aerobatic flight #1

I’ve had spin training before, in an L-23 at Air Sailing, and I’ve worked on loops and chandelles during prior visits.  So I was getting the hang of those pretty well (although my loops need a lot of work if they are ever to be round).  The rolls, well, not so good. I keep dropping the nose about halfway through the roll.  Guess I’ll have to go back and have Ben teach me some more.

In the second flight Ben introduced me to the “Humpty Bump.” This cool maneuver starts with a dive to pick up sufficient speed, then a leveling off to a bit of horizontal flight; once the horizontal line is established you pull into a vertical up line. Just before the energy is expended, you pull back on the stick and go inverted “over the top” and then take a vertical down line, and then pull out to the horizontal.  Essentially, it is similar to the loop, except where the loop resembles an “O” the humpty-bump resembles an upside down “U”.  I found establishing the line vertically downward in the humpty-bump to be the most thrilling of the maneuvers I’ve worked on to date.

Here is a link to a video of the second flight.   Second Aerobatic Flight  

Great fun!  I highly recommend this!

-Van Henson

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tom and Ramy’s Excellent Adventure

XC Mentoring Flight, April 2017

This report documents a XC mentoring flight that I did with Ramy on April 20th of 2017.  Let me start by saying that this was highly instructive but also a fun thing to do.  It was a beautiful blue-sky day with nice cumulus.  Bases were in the 5K to 6K range, light surface winds and about 10 to 15 kts northerly winds aloft.  Our pal John Scott was towing, it was a weekday and local traffic was light.  Walter was flying his glider and flew along with us for part of the flight.  Ramy and I shared the flying duties with Ramy doing the heavy lifting when we really needed a climb to continue the flight.  We used the same conservative glide ratios and reserve altitudes that I would if I was flying solo.
We headed south, towing a little past I-580 and released in lift at 4K.   Going was pretty easy, hopping from cloud to cloud heading first toward Mt Osa.  As we got further from Byron, our working altitude range shrank in order to maintain a conservative glide to safe landouts.  Eventually we got almost to the northern end of the San Antonio Valley.  About a year ago Van and I drove up to the SAV landing strip in order to retrieve Ramy and his glider.  It was great to see the same landing strip from the air and to understand how it’s situated and take note of surrounding landmarks.
Beyond this point there was too much blue before the next set of clouds, so we decided to head northwest into the Livermore Valley.  By this point in the day, things were drying out and clouds were becoming scarce.  It was instructive to see how Ramy would read the conditions to find the next climb (more about this later).  We worked our way down Mines Road, coming out into the flatlands near my old workplace, Lawrence Livermore Lab. 
We flew over the Lab and I snapped a few photos of the National Ignition Facility (NIF).  The NIF is the world’s highest energy laser and is used for laser inertial fusion research.  I really wanted to get this photo because, about 2 years ago, a glider pilot in France photographed the ITER Facility in Cadarache.  ITER is another large fusion research facility, but won’t be operational for a number of years.  So I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to match ITER in glider-based photography (photos at the bottom). 
After overflying the Lab, we headed toward the Livermore Airport.  Once roughly over the airport, we again encountered too much blue to continue west, so headed northeast toward Morgan Territory, with the hope of eventually reaching a line of clouds up toward Mount Diablo.  But, by the time we reached Morgan Territory, we were starting to get low, so we explored the area north of the Byron Airport.  Although we found some nice pockets of lift around the Byron Highway, we weren’t able to get further East than Discovery Bay.  We were reaching our lower limit for glide to Byron, so we decided to end the flight and landed a few minutes later.  Flight duration was about 3 hours and distance was about 140 km.  Not surprisingly, average speed was low because we needed to stop often to thermal in order to stay within our working altitude range.
In doing this flight, I learned a huge amount from Ramy, more than I can or should try to write here.  But I thought that I’d try to summarize some of the major takeaways:

  •  Scan the sky and read the conditions – constantly:  Of course we are all taught this at various points in our soaring career, but seeing a Top Tier pilot put it into practice is a very different learning experience.  Throughout the flight, Ramy was constantly scanning the conditions: which clouds look best, under what portion of the cloud are we likely to find lift, is the next cloud isolated or part of a group or line of clouds, what is the direction of the wind aloft, look for traffic, if we can’t make it to that cloud are there other options in the same vicinity that we can detour to, etc, etc, etc.  Early in the flight, when the going was easy, this was interesting.  Later in the flight when the clouds started to go away, this hyper-situational awareness was essential. 

  • Don’t commit to a steep turn too quickly:  When Ramy was flying and we encountered lift, I noted how he would fly relatively shallow turns to explore the thermal before committing to turning steeply.  Sometimes, when a cloud looked productive, but we encountered sink rather than lift, we would take the time to explore a bit and often found lift, just under a different part of the cloud.

  • Have a Plan B, C, … and be ready to use it if things aren’t working:  If we started heading off toward a cloud or wisp and either discovered it was too far away or it started to deteriorate as we approached, Ramy would have an alternate plan for where to detour.  I don’t recall ever striking out in a direction and then having to retreat back to the last thermal because things didn’t work out.  There was always one or more detours in the same general direction that he had scoped out in advance.

  • If you accept Livermore, Tracy and Meadowlark as possible landouts, you have a very large area to fly in: It was interesting to see how much terrain we could cover using only these three landouts as safe havens.  If you include the SAV strip, the area expands even more.  Of course the flip side is that some of these locales are darn inconvenient and you really don’t want to retrieve a Grob 103 from the SAV.  Also, Livermore has a tower, so there is that to contend with.  But I found this observation to be sort of mind expanding for what is possible from Byron.  

  •  Sometimes what looks scary is not:  I think that this is a very important point for new XC pilots.  At one point, we were scratching around over pretty inhospitable terrain, no suitable landing areas in sight and we didn’t seem all that high.  Ramy is flying at this point, but I realize that I would feel pretty uncomfortable if I was flying alone.  But stepping back, I see that we have two paved landing strips in conservative glide.  Furthermore, we are in the same valley as Mines Road, so we have a nice straight shot to the flatlands with no terrain obstructions.  So while the visual is intimidating, the reality is that we are actually in very good shape from a flight safety perspective.  My takeaway is that it’s important to find the right balance in this situation.  If you respond too much to the “looks-scary” part of your brain, then you probably won’t progress much as a XC pilot and worse, it can interfere with making good quality decisions.  Of course you don’t want to totally ignore the flashing red light in the back of your head, because that can end badly.  Each pilot will have their own balance point depending on skills, experience and temperament.  Also, the balance point should change depending on familiarity with the location, conditions of the day and so on.  But the bottom line is that you need to learn to trust your training and make good decisions to progress. 

As I said before, this flight was not only instructive but enjoyable.  Ramy has a great mentoring style, informal and willing to explain what he is doing and how he is making decisions.  Sharing the flying, with Ramy handling the more difficult stretches, allowed me to step back and observe how he handled various situations and compare to how I would handle them.  I flew over new terrain that I’ve heard about from more experienced pilots and had a chance to gauge degree of difficulty in flying further from Byron.   Ramy and I both enjoy hiking so we pointed out some of our favored spots as we flew over the hills. 
In short, great experience.  If you get a chance to fly with Ramy, or another of our Top Tier pilots, don’t pass it up.
Lots to learn, it’s definitely a life-long endeavor.