Sierra Wave Trip Report - Minden 1-9-13

It all started (as it often does) with Ramy’s email to the NCSA list suggesting that members subscribe to Soaring NV’s Wave Watch email service. The service offers Kempton Izuno’s expert predictions of wave in the Sierra, as Ramy said, Kemp is very well regarded when it comes to forecasting wave and has accumulated a lot of empirical data over the years to help refine his forecasts.

Within a couple of days of subscribing a Wave Alert forecast popped up in my inbox forecasting a wave event for 1-9-13:

Minden, Nevada Wave Alert: Jan 9
This day-specific alert is because high confidence wave is coming within 3 days:
1) The forecast maps show a classic, low risk, wave producing structure:
o Winds steadily increase with altitude
o 11,000 ft., 40 knots@250 (ridgeline)
o 18,000 ft., 70 knots@250
o 30,000 ft., 100 knots@250
2) Relative humidity of 50-70%, going from 50% at dawn to 70% by sunset. This
is ideal as the lennies are obvious and the foehn gap is large.
3) Rain/snow arrive very late in the day, so sunrise to sunset looks open to fly.
4) The forecast is little

A quick call to Soaring NV (“envy”) and a discussion of the forecast with Laurie was all it took for me to commit to a dual flight in the ASK-21 with chief CFI Russell Holtz. (If the name rings a bell it’s because Russell wrote the Glider Flying Handbook). I had a chat with Russell the following day and confirmed that the forecast still looked great. Russell described the wave as “beginner wave”, meaning it would be well formed and marked, hopefully without strong rotor.

I mentioned my proposed trip to Fabien Bruning and he was interested in coming along for the ride, if nothing else to see the Sierra mountains up close for the first time. So at 5am Wednesday we were caffeinated and Minden bound on Interstate 80. By 7am we were in the mountains and the sun came up to reveal big fat lenticular clouds to the east:

Our excitement was building, but short-lived. The descent into Carson Valley revealed a blanket of thick fog. Despite a VFR TAF, the AWOS at Minden was reporting freezing fog and low IFR conditions with calm winds. Plan B: Breakfast number 2. iPhone says Cowboy’s Cafe is 3.5 stars, hit Navigate. Pow. 10 minutes later we’re ordering breakfast with the locals and discussing the unusual weather.

By the time we had finished breakfast the fog was gone and it was VFR unlimited. A quick drive to the airport and we’re greeted by Laurie, who is extremely welcoming and is happy to see us. A quick word on Soaring NV if you haven’t visited- the facilities are wonderful: comfy chairs, an awesome flight simulator setup, coffee, hot chocolate, snacks in the kitchen, free WIFI and a constant stream of friendly faces all eager to talk about soaring.

Russell soon arrived and apologized for being behind schedule because of the weather. After an intro flight Russell was back to give Fabien and I some ground instruction on wave flying. He started with an explanation of how a change in wavelength can shift the surface wind direction 180 degrees due to the rotor moving. He had just experienced this phenomenon on the previous flight- winds were from the NW on takeoff shifting to SW by the time he returned for landing. Lesson: always visually check the winds and listen to the AWOS. The departure runway may not be a good choice for landing.
On to our planned flight. There was a high possibility of climbing beyond the limit of the cannula O2 system, which is about 18K, so we would bring face masks and switch in flight. To save money (and for thrills) we would tow into the rotor, release in the rotor and climb using the rotor updrafts. Hmm, I thought. Is he pulling my leg? Negative. Oh and by the way, this is not a beginner wave day. The rotor is very strong. Strong enough to break the tow rope during one of the earlier launches.

We made our way out to the flight line and with some trepidation I buckled in and announced “my takeoff, I have the controls”. Five minutes later we entered the rotor and started taking a mild beating- a combination of random rolling moments, pitch changes and positive & negative accelerations strong enough to eject any loose object. Thirty seconds later the intensity doubled and I was having a lot of trouble maintaining position on tow, in the blink of an eye I was high above the Pawnee and Russell took the controls to get us back into position. WOAH! What just happened???  We got off tow and kept going up in the rotor, a minute later we hit the laminar flow of the wave. A bit like transitioning from Metallica to Mozart.

The wave at lower altitudes was not strong, but it was a consistent 2 knots. We zigged and zagged west of HWY 395, Russell emphasizing the importance of not getting blown downwind. With winds aloft at 50kts+ a lapse in concentration can lead to a long journey upwind back to the primary wave.

In the above moving map notice that Foreflight depicts our glider as a stationary blue dot because of our 1kt groundspeed. While maneuvering Russell and I had some laughs playing with groundspeed. At one point we were pointing at Lake Tahoe travelling east at 5kts. With these sorts of windspeeds every turn must be precise.

We were slowly gaining altitude, but just as the grass is always greener, there’s always better lift to be had somewhere else. We proceeded South to try and pick up some better lift from Monument Peak. Moving closer to the ridge the lift slowly died and turned into sink, but we didn’t give up hope, we just figured the primary wave was closer to the mountain. Slowly moving forward I expected the vario to reverse course at any minute, but it never did, so we cut our losses and headed north, maintaining a ground track just west of HWY 395. Soon we were back in steady 2kt lift that increased to 4kts as we moved north. Soon we were back in the game at 15,000 feet after losing about 4,000 during our exploration to the south. Climbing though 16,000 the vario indicated 8kts and it was time to call Laurie to co-ordinate opening the Wave Window with Norcal & Oakland Center. No response was heard after a couple of calls, most probably due to a cold battery. In the meantime the wave had strengthened and we were going up at 9kts and about to bust through 18,000MSL. I put the boards out to keep us legal, while Russell was trouble-shooting, but it was in vain, we could not establish radio contact. No go for the wave window.

Not being one to give up on the mission, I suggested that we get back on the ground ASAP and swap batteries. What followed was a simulated emergency descent from 18K to 5K that was nothing like the one I did with Mike Schneider in the 737 simulator in Dallas, let’s just say it was a little more “hands on”. A short time after getting back on the ground we had a fresh battery and were ready to launch back into the rotor. Compliments to Brad for getting us turned around so quickly. This time the rotor wasn’t as strong and I was able to maintain better position. I think.

Since we has already located the sweet spots on the previous flight, getting to 18K was not as challenging as the first go. At 17.5K Russell made the radio call to base and Laurie responded that the West Wave Window has been opened to FL280 until 5pm. Music to my ears, but not to Russell’s. Some loose tape was resonating and whistling quite loudly right in Russell’s ear. I can’t quite remember what Russell did to dampen the noise, but it got better. In the meantime I was having trouble switching tubes from cannula to face mask. With Russell’s help we got the tubes rigged and it was time to start climbing into the window.

The wave windows are a product of negotiation between PASCO and Oakland ARTCC & NORCAL TRACON. For soaring pilots to have access to Class A airspace it’s important that flights stay within the lateral bounds of the windows (see below).

In our case Soaring, NV requested that the West Window be activated, since this was the location of the primary wave. Unfortunately, the strong lift that had taken us to 18K an hour earlier was weaker on the second visit. After slowly climbing to 21K, we decided to call it a day and give Fabien a shot before the moisture arrived.

We wrapped up with another full spoiler descent to the pattern and landed into a 20 knot SSW wind.

Back in the warmth of the Soaring, NV there was some fresh coffee waiting. I wasn’t sure whether to pour it on my feet or drink it. No matter how many layers of socks you wear, your feet will feel like ice blocks during a wave flight at these altitudes. All of the other layers of clothes seemed to work- plan on wearing long johns and a wool hat. While Fabien was in the air I described my flights to Kemp who had called to get an update on the conditions. I hope I was able to provide some useful data.

After Fabien returned we debriefed with Russell. The day had been good, but not as good as we had initially hoped for. The reason: the winds aloft had more of a southern component than expected, this had the effect of shredding the wave and creating a really gnarly rotor.

It was about 5pm and the storm was coming. Time to hit the road and get out of the mountains before the snow hit. We said our goodbyes and off we went.

Thanks very much to Laurie, Russell, Brad, Gabe & Kemp  (did I miss anyone?) If you would like to fly in wave, Minden is the Mecca and it’s on our doorstep. What are you waiting for?

Terence Wilson

OLC Flight information