Sunday, June 15, 2014

NCSA does Thermal Camp

NCSA Does Thermal Camp

by Dan Colton

Andrew Chant, Boyang Zhang, and Stuart Humphries

ASI Thermal Camp2014 (NV23) – In a Word, EPIC!

Air Sailing hosted their annual Thermal Camp this year from June 2nd through June 6th, 2014 at the Air Sailing airport NV23 just North of Sparks Nevada.  Our own CFIG Larry Suter was the camp director and co-led the daily presentations with John Scott.  Larry led the “how to fly” topics (how to fly better in thermal and cruise flight) and John led the “how not to fly” topics (safety areas).  There were a total of 10 participants at Thermal Camp this year, three of whom (Dan Colton, Andrew Chant, and Boyang Zhang) were from our NCSA glider club.

Saturday May 31st

The NCSA crew got to Byron airport by 8am and disassembled and loaded our 1-26 (972) onto its trailer.  Great thanks to everyone who helped and especially to Van for getting the ball rolling early.   We next started the task of reassembly of our work horse trainer Grob G103 (FB).  Boy, we should have read the factory manual (RTFM, as they say) because there was some mystery step that we all missed and it took almost 2 hours to get the second wing on.  FYI, the mystery step was “call Larry and get him to lead the wing insertion step”.  Larry showed up shortly after our calls for help and we were able to complete the assembly of FB, load our other G103 (81C) onto its trailer and then load our single-seat Grob G102 (SS) onto its trailer.  By 3:15pm 81C, 972 and SS were all on their trailers and we were finally on the road.  Thank you NCSA board for allowing us to take three ships to Thermal Camp.  We got to Air Sailing glider airport around 10pm, parked the glider trailers, and had a late night snack under the gorgeous stars of the Nevada high desert night sky.

June 1st (Pre-Camp check out day)

This morning’s #1 chore was assembly of all three of our gliders.  First up was 81C.  Oh, if only FB was so cooperative yesterday as 81C was today.  All done in no time.  Next up was SS.  
SS coming together at ASI
Oh, a Grob that doesn’t have wings that feel like they weigh a ton! What a delight.  And lastly was 972.  Van was “the man” again and had this bird ready to fly quicker than you can say “jack rabbit”. 
Dan thinks it is really dark in there...

Did I say that we are seeing lots of Jack Rabbits running around?  Must be why there are so many coyotes howling in the middle of the night and telling stories of the really fast one that they caught.  We also helped the BASA guys put their DG1000 wings on.  All throughout the assembly process we were distracted with dust devils firing off everywhere.  And they just kept getting bigger and more frequent as the day wore on.

Does Van really know how to assemble this bird?
Now that the birds were ready to fly we couldn’t just let them sit in the tie-down area.  But first we had to go through the ASI safety briefing that is mandatory prior to flying here.  It is also a requirement prior to each season for all pilots who fly at ASI.

The safety briefing was completed and we could begin the process of getting our area check-out flights with Larry.  Dan flew first with Larry in 81C and completed his checkout.  Then Andrew went up with Larry in 81C followed by Dan flying solo in SS.  The lift was rising up over Dogskin mountain and we even had some cumulus markers.  The thermals were allowing us to climb with sustained climb rates of 4-6 knots and the best thermals had the vario pegged at 10+ knots for a couple of circles.  It was fun to watch the altimeter wind up so fast.  Both Dan and Andrew/Larry landed at around 6pm after 1.5 hour duration flights.  We only came down because it was getting late in the day and we were exhausted from all the activities of the past two days.  Time for a good dinner and lots of rest for the real Thermal Camp that starts tomorrow morning.

But this day can’t end without a summary of what the ASI facility has to offer:
  1. The clubhouse is wonderful and offers:
  • A large kitchen area with a refrigerator (usually full so come with alternate plans if you need to keep stuff cold/frozen), microwave, and full assortment of pots, pans, plates and silverware
  • Tables with seating for 15 and additional room in the main living area with additional chairs and a wide screen TV for watching videos (Top Gun is reported to be the local favorite)
  •  A computer room with a computer to use and two certified/calibrated NANO flight recorders
  • WIFI throughout the facility and campground
  • An awning that surrounds the clubhouse 360 degrees to provide ample shade in the hot days
  • Tons of electrical outlets for charging all your stuff
  •  Men’s and women’s bathrooms and two showers
  • Running hot and cold potable [ed: and quite tasty] water
  1. There is also a bath house out in the back of the campground with additional restrooms and showers and even a laundry room with washer and dryer 
  2. The ASI campground
    The campground is expansive and has lots of areas for pitching tents (free camping) and there are also dozens of places for RV parking
  3. Three trailers for rent at only $15/day or $95/week
  4. A huge hanger building where they store some lucky gliders and where you can plug in your battery chargers\
  5. Ample glider and glider trailer parking/tie-down areas (but you may want to bring extra tie-down rope if there are a lot of gliders coming to the area).  By my count there are 29 glider trailers outside. 
  6.  A covered BBQ patio with four large picnic tables and several gas BBQ grills
  7.  Free Oxygen fills for all NSA members (we paid $30 for unlimited refills for the week)
  8.  Multiple glider for use (free to NSA members)
  9. Seven day per week towing (may need to call ahead to ensure they can schedule tows during slow periods)
  10. Three golf carts to help pull gliders, trailers and the oxygen cart
  11. Fantastic people
  12. And last, but not least, an airport dog named Bear
    Bear - a real sweetheart

    June 2nd (Thermal Camp Day 1)

Today started out with an orientation to Air Sailing and the mandatory safety briefing for all participants of Thermal Camp.  We have 10 total pilots attending the camp.  The first day of Thermal Camp presentations followed with tag-team presentations by John Scott (Jay Bird) and Larry Suter (Flying Penguin).  The presentations included some good pointers on the local “playground” (10 nm circle around the airfield), the structure of thermals, and suggested technique for identifying a thermal and centering the lift.  Larry also covered human physiology in the high desert and the effects of factors such as proper hydration, nutrition and use of oxygen; all of which, if not properly addressed, as Larry said, “Make You Stupid” during the most critical phases of flight.
Larry introduces Andrew to the mysteries of oxygen
The classroom session then ended with a weather briefing by our own Larry Suter.  The forecast was so good that Larry ended the talks at lunch time and said “Go fly!”  So we did.

Dan’s report: There were about 14 launches in planes ranging from a 1-26 to the big BASA DG1000.  Most pilots logged 2 hours duration with cloud bases at 15-16,000’.  The lift was everywhere with well-developed cloud streets so it was hard to keep the Thermal Camp pilots within the official playground area.  Lift was sustained at well over 10 knots while circling and it just didn’t seem worthwhile stopping to circle in thermals with under 4 knots lift.  There was also lots of virga.  At 15,000’ and a few miles North of the airfield I encountered snow showers under a cloud.  It was obviously cold up there but I love the image that snow speeding horizontally past you in flight provides.   Terry Lowe (Magpie) even reported encountering hail under the clouds at the North end of the Dogskins at 14,500’.  I’m glad I only saw snow. 
Just a ho-hum day at Thermal Camp
Just about then the over-development moved in and shut down the lift.  The 6 knots up in most areas turned into 6 knots down in most areas and it was obvious that the day’s soaring was coming to a rapid end.  The sink in the vicinity of the airport was 10+ knots down in several areas, including base leg for the big BASA DG1000 which caused them to alter their runway choice while on base leg for their initial choice runway.

Winds also got gusty on the ground with peak gusts of well over 40 knots for brief periods of time while we were flying, but settled down by the time most of us landed.  Then the winds picked up again in the late afternoon but fortunately all gliders were securely tied down by then.  The wind was so strong that it was a total brown-out from all the sand and dirt picked up by the wind.  Visibility went down to under 2 feet when these gusts blew through (and one is blowing through right now as I type this).  In fact the big BBQ grill was just knocked over and is tumbling end-over-end right in front of the ASI clubhouse.  I think I even see Dorothy and her little dog Toto flying overhead in their farm house.  Seriously, the BBQ grill did just do three cartwheels.  I think I will microwave dinner in the clubhouse tonight.  P.S. Note to self: remember to shut all windows of your trailer during the day at ASI.  This should have been in the ASI guest documents.  I had a layer of fresh dirt covering everything and had to sweep and wet-wipe the entire trailer and shake out all my stuff.  Crap!

June 3rd (Thermal Camp Day 2)

First chore of the day for Dan was to wash the dirt off SS so he could try and get an earlier place in line for today’s flying.

The classroom session began with pilot reviews of their flights and analysis of IGC files in SeeYou of a couple of flights.  This was very helpful to see things like percentage of time circling left vs. right and altitude gain during left circling vs. right circling. This gave us all pointers on areas to focus on while flying.

Morning classes provide the foundation for the day's flight
Topics covered in the classroom session included:  Safety in Mountain Flying (associated hazards and how to deal with them including; Ridge flying, Oxygen use, collision avoidance, x-wind take-off technique, towing in turbulent environment, landing in strong winds), Properties of Thermals, ASI Radio Communication Procedures, Advanced Thermaling Techniques, Cone of Safety, and finally the day’s weather briefing.

Andrew completed his ASI checkout with Larry and flew 972 this afternoon.

Boyang showed up mid-morning and flew in the afternoon with Larry in 81C. The flight was a great orientation to the surrounding area and local landmarks.  First, they flew south to Reno Stead.  Later they crossed over to the North side of our playground and flew over the Red Rocks, Dogskin Mountains, and Tule Peak. The flight was a bit over 2 hours and did not end because of lack of lift.

Dan’s flight: Let me start by saying that my longest duration flight prior to today was 2.5 hours and my maximum altitude gain was 8,500'.  Today I beat both of those personal bests and I am happy.  Today my goal was silver altitude and gold altitude.  I was short of Gold altitude by 600'.  My altitude gain was shy of Gold with a 9,200' from low point after release (7,000' to 16,200').   I launched at 1:30pm and the day started off with blue thermals.  Some cu started to develop by around 3pm and the day was a mix with over half of the lift areas not marked by clouds.

My first task for the flight was to “notch” a low point on release (a new maneuver for me).  I released at 7,000’ in lift over the Dogskins ridge and made one full circle to make certain that I was in a thermal.  Then I straightened out and put the nose down, WAY down and quickly bled off 200’ followed by a pull up and turn back into the thermal.  WOW, it worked.  Now it was time for my Silver and Gold altitude gain badge leg hunting.  I easily got the Silver altitude, but the Gold altitude eluded me as the lift topped out at 16,200’ and I needed 16,900’.

Working the lift today was not as easy as yesterday’s wide thermals.  Today the thermals were narrower with no cloud markers early on.  However, after 2 hours in the air I decided that since the forecast was indicating sufficient lift for a duration try I would see if I could manage a >5 hour Silver badge leg duration flight.  And I had to use all the tricks I knew to make it happen because even though there was lift (2-6 knots with the occasional boomers at 6 to >10 knots up) there was also monster sink (typically 6 to >10 knots down in wide stretches).  It was easy to lose 2,000’ in between thermals and I did on more occasions than I care to count.   Also, because of the duration of the flight I flew the first 3 hours on the Western hills (the Dogskins), the next 1.5 hours on the Eastern hills (the Red Rocks) and the final hour in the valley using convergence and random thermals.  By the end I was beat and my butt was sore.  I took off at 1:30pm and landed at 7pm.  I was the last glider to land at ASI today but they still saved me a filet of BBQ salmon.  Unfortunately the battery in the glider died about 1 hour into the flight and the NANO flight recorder got accidentally turned off prior to take off so there was no log of the flight for a badge leg application (bummer).

By the way, did I mention that we eat like kings at Thermal Camp?  Actually, the camp leaders decided to hold the camp BBQ tonight instead of at the end of the week.  On the menu was your choice of steak, salmon or game hen and salad, corn and garlic bread with pie and ice cream for dessert.

June 4th (Thermal Camp Day 3)
We had so many leftovers from last night’s BBQ feast that some people decided to have pie and ice cream for breakfast.  Sounded like a good idea to help us add to our ballast for another strong lift day (ha ha).

The classroom session again began with pilot reviews of their flights and analysis of IGC files in SeeYou of a couple of flights.

Topics covered in the classroom session included: Review of prior day lessons, Glider Accidents – Statistics and Prevention, Finding the Next Thermal.  The forecast was again very good so we ended the lectures early to give us time to re-fill the oxygen tanks for another day long/high flights.
Pretty birds all lined up waiting their turn at Thermal Camp


Boyang (81C with Larry): Did a high tow and had another 2-hour duration flight plus some pattern practice.

Dan (SS): Finally figured out the NANO flight recorder and got an actual trace for today’s flight.  He had lots of fun practicing thermalling to the left and to the right.  The battery crapped out again today after 1.5 hours flying time so he had to thermal “old school” using the altimeter, needle on the vario and good old seat of the pants inputs.  Great practice but he sure appreciate the benefits of the audio feature.  This flight was almost 3 hours and he also got to do some exploring of the areas to the North since he flew mostly to the South yesterday.

The lift was high enough and well-marked such that it would have been easy to cross county to Truckee and back but this was Thermal Camp so I kept it within 10-15 miles of the airport, which was a good thing as you can see in the analysis of cruise L/D discussion described in the summary of tomorrow’s lecture.  By the end of the flight, when I had had enough flying for the day and was still at 5,000’ AGL I said to myself, “Self.  What do you do at the end of a 3 hour flight at Thermal Camp?”  Well, you practice entering and recovering from stalls, incipient spirals and then top it off with some 60 degree bank turns right and left.  What fun.
Shh! All tuckered out from the day, the NCSA gliders are resting

June 5th (Thermal Camp Day 4)

The classroom session again began with pilot reviews of their flights and analysis of IGC files in SeeYou of a couple of flights and an analysis of performance in lift and cruise flight.  Percent of time circling right/left, average climb rate and climb rate circling right/left, IAS when thermalling vs. cruising, mean L/D and L/D in sink.  We then compared us to the former national champion David Volkman (he won hands down but our analysis of his flight trace showed that he was definitely on a mission to do some serious cross country that day).
Topics covered in the classroom session included: upper level instability cause and effect (get high/stay high), ridge lift, wave lift, cloud streets, anabatic lift (upslope winds) and late afternoon valley lift.  We also covered soaring safety subjects including: windsocks (specifications and performance), checklists, takeoff tips, landing tips, landing glideslope and spoiler specifications and optimal usage technique.

We then analyzed our actual L/D for the cruising legs of our flights to see where we were with respect to the recommended 50% safety cone glide slope vs, the published L/D.  My worst L/D cruising yesterday was 22:1 in SS (recommended safe glide is 18:1).  Andrew did 14:1 or better in the 1-26 (recommended safe glide is 12:1).  This validated the recommended NCSA 50% safety factors for our club ships.  Again we ended the classroom session with the daily weather briefing which was once again “absolutely amazing”.

Flying WOW:

The day was blue with no cloud markers but a strong forecast in the RASP so we loaded up on Oxygen and took to the air and Dan, Andrew and two other camp participants all achieved greater than 10,000’ altitude gains!!!  A truly Golden (badge leg) day.

Dan again flew SS and logged 3.3 hours.  He did not have availability of a NSA flight logger but switched batteries in SS with one that was working in 81C the day before.  This time the logger captured the flight and so long as we have calibration paperwork for it he will be able to claim his Gold altitude leg (actual altitude gain was 3,300 meters to 17,998 feet).  This was yet another new personal best for Dan.  Seems everyone is getting new personal bests each day of camp.
Pyramid Lake

Dan also did a bit of exploring on both sides of the ASI area going to the North end of the Dogskin range, West to Fred’s Mountain, South to the middle of the Virginia Range and East to the far side of Pyramid Lake.  One pilot observed Dan crossing over Pyramid lake heading East and just about got on the radio to say, “Hey guy what are you doing?!?  Check you oxygen.  Don’t you know that gliders can’t fly over water!?!”  Well I guess they can.  Dan was in calm air all the way over the lake and back and was 3,000’ above safe glide (18:1) back to ASI all the way.
ASI from on high.  If things go poorly, you have a lot of runway

Andrew had another epic flight in the 1-26.  He also achieved Gold altitude gain while gaggle flying with Dan.  He and Dan were competing to see who could out-climb the other.  But Dan in the G102 just couldn’t out-climb Andrew in the 1-26 or get quite as high.  At the top of this climb Andrew excitedly announced, “17,000.  That’s Gold for me!”  Then Dan broke off to the West and Andrew broke off to the North.  Andrew was amazingly adventurous in the 1-26 and logged 119km and 229 OLC points.  Check out his flight on OLC at

June 6th (Thermal Camp Day 5, Final day of Camp.  Boo Hoo)

The classroom session again began with pilot reviews of their flights and analysis of IGC files in SeeYou of a couple of flights and an analysis of performance in lift and cruise flight.  Percent of time circling right/left, average climb rate and climb rate circling right/left, IAS when thermalling vs. cruising, mean L/D and L/D in sink, difference between GPS altitude and pressure altitude (several pilots flight recorders showed >18k GSP altitude even with <18k pressure altitude.

Topics covered in the classroom session included: preparing for next year’s XC Camp (practice what we learned at this camp), dangers of low altitude thermalling, how to apply for badges (several of the camp pilots will be applying for badges), and comparing soaring forecasts to actual experiences during the week.  Lastly we went over the weather forecast for today.


Dan: I was on a mission today to log 5+ hours in flight and claim my Silver badge duration leg so he borrowed a calibrated flight recorder from ASI and made sure that I had a functional battery in my glider.  I flew SS again and was in the air by 1pm.  I released at 7,000’, climbed 200’ and then dove 200’ off to notch the flight recorder.  The lift was a bit hard to figure out at first but when I finally got to above 12,000’ the thermals got a bit easier to work but they were still a challenge as they were tight and it felt like they were being blown over a bit.  I managed a climb to 13,000 that allowed me to move over from the Dogskins to the Peterson range where some clouds were beginning to form.

Reno Stead is the nearest airport, although there are safe landouts closer
After climbing to over 15,000’ I was able to make it over to above the Stead airport and nearby dry lake where the lift took me to over 17,600’ (Gold altitude!).  I continued to work the clouds South East a bit to highway 395 and at 17,000’ had wonderful views of Lake Tahoe and the Truckee basin.  I was actually exactly midway between the ASI airport and the Truckee airport at this point and had both in safe glide, but remembering that after all, this was thermal camp I did not venture farther West.  The lift was still over 6 knots at 17,600’ and it took some effort to make sure I did not bust Class A airspace (and I did not as verified in my flight recorder log).

It may have been 90F on the ground but the temperature aloft at 17k was 21F (-6C) and I kept closing the air vent just to keep that refreshing (f&*@%ing cold) air from blowing in my face.  After over four hours in the air I headed back toward ASI and did a lap around the Virginia Range just to put more miles on the flight and see some more of the scenery while I killed the final 90 minutes required for Silver duration.  Larry was at the end of the runway to view and capture a video of my landing.  A perfect ending to a perfect week.  The fight trace is on OLC at:

Larry helped me process the FAI application for the Silver/Gold altitude gain and Silver duration badge leg achievements.  A reply was sent from the FAI administrator a few days later which read as follows.  I am stoked!

I have processed the application for Silver and Gold Altitude claims and Silver Duration Claim on your June 6, 2014 flight.  I am happy to notify you that your claims have been approved and your records have been updated. Congratulations on your achievements!

You should see your flight listed in the August issue of Soaring Magazine. You will also find that the flight will be included in your member achievement record.

Rollin Hasness
FAI Administrator

Andrew took a vacation from flying the 1-26 (972) and jumped in the back seat of the BASA DG1000 for a 3-hour flight in a super-high performance glider.

Stuart: Indeed I was very grateful to Larry for the invitation and thrilled to be able to join the thermal camp for the last day and fly dual with Larry in 81C on Friday.  What a great soaring site it is at Air Sailing!  Now I know why everyone heads up there.  I think it's maybe even better than Truckee - at least it was last Friday - and it does not have the intimidating cliff with mandatory downdraft wind shear hazard at the threshold of the runway as you approach to land!

I was able to learn and practice some thermaling technique and I was astonished at the power and abundance of the lift.  Clear off the top end of scale the vario some of the time.  What's more, there were plenty of occasions when the lift was strong in straight lines or almost straight as one followed the ridge line of the mountain tops.  My excursion took me, as Dan mentioned, for the grand tour taking in the Dogskins, followed by a straight flight over to Stead - an alternate landing airport some 10 miles to the South West - after a climb to 15,000’.  Then another climb in a strong thermal and a straight flight over to the Virginia Range to the South East of the field.  Then on to the Red Rocks just East of the field, where there was no lift, and back over to the Dogskins where we climbed in strong lift again.  Then up the valley to the North to a small dry lake bed with much larger Flanagan Dry Lake in view further on to the North and Northeast, used for land outs I understand.  All in all we had several, probably 8 or more very good climbs, a couple to 15,000’ and could have stayed up longer than the 2.6 hours we did but by then I was interested to see how planning to enter the pattern worked and to get on the ground to stretch my legs.  You can have too much of a good thing and there is always another day.  Larry showed me how to set up an OLC account so the flight is there.
The end of a beautiful day at ASI, with the sun setting over the Dogskins

Definitely worth the drive up there, learned a lot and certainly plan to do the whole camp next year.  Altogether an outstanding place to fly with very hospitable folks, a nice campground, great showers and facilities etc., and superb sunsets to round off your evening before retiring for the night totally exhausted in my case.  I'll be back!

June 7th (Thermal Camp Day Epilog)

Some final thoughts from Dan: With Thermal Camp now officially over we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the clubhouse and went about the task of disassembling and loading two of our club ships (81C and 972) on their trailers to be taken back down the mountain to our home airfield.  Sadly we thought of this as putting them out to pasture because the lift conditions back home are abysmal in the summer compared to here in the high desert at ASI.  Our single seat Grob G102 is staying at ASI for another week to be used at the annual ASI Cross Country camp.  We wish you XC Campers excellent weather like we had.  It was truly an epic week of soaring and one for the record books of our personal log books, with numerous personal bests, FAI badge leg claims, and even one Region 11 record.  As for me, next year I am planning on attending the Cross Country Camp and expanding my horizons and skill level.  As Larry put it, “flying gliders and understanding the weather is a lifelong learning exercise.”

Some final thoughts from Andrew: Thermal camp was an introduction to the bigger world of soaring: two new communities of pilots and the incredible thermals of the desert valley surrounding the Air Sailing gliderport.  The other students of the camp were pilots from other Bay Area clubs, Oregon, and Pennsylvania and beyond.  I was probably the least experienced pilot, but we all had a lot to learn, and it was a great pleasure sharing stories, tips, and experiences with them.  I was shown an immaculate Blanik L-33 that one pilot brought, and managed to squeeze in a flight as a co-pilot in BASA's beautiful DG-1000.

In the end I had six days of flying at Air Sailing, with each flight between two to three hours.  Every day taught something new – high density altitude takeoffs, landing on unpaved runways, the importance of oxygen to my stamina, aggressively using trim to help maintain thermal speed, the general location of lift vs. the local terrain, and safely expanding my glide ratio comfort zone doing solo mountain-flying. My butt may have been sore from the firm seat of the 1-26, but after every flight I had a huge grin. The weather and lift were incredible.

Meeting this great group of pilots was an added benefit
Over the course of the week I also got to know a broad mix of non-camping air sailing pilots as well, both CFI-Gs and private pilots.  On days when we thermal camp students were making laps around the valley, the other pilots were reaching for Minden and the White Mountains beyond.  Everyone was happy to share stories, opinions, lots of bad jokes, and relive the excitement of the day's flights.  With such an introduction to the greater community, my next steps are clear.  Thermal camp was a blast. XC camp next year will be even better :)