Friday, June 19, 2015

The Spring '15 Panoche Glider Palooza

The Spring '15 Panoche Glider Palooza

May 23-25, 2015

by Dan Colton

It was exactly a year ago that I was reading about the great times folks had, even with marginal soaring conditions, at the Glider Palooza in Panoche.  I had no idea where the heck Panoche was, but I made it a point to remember this event and sign up the next time it rolled around.  This idea reinforced my intentions to improve my soaring skills throughout the subsequent months.

When the invitation for the Glider Palooza finally came back around I jumped right on it.  My first thought was to request to take the NCSA single-seat G102.  However, I thought about how I could participate in this event AND support others in the spirit of Hollister League and the PASCO initiative (let's give Marianne tons of credit here!) to promote soaring as a lifelong adventure.  So I decided to request the NCSA G103 Twin and offer to share all my flights with any other adventurous souls in NCSA.
I won’t bore you with the logistics and planning, let's just say that plans seem to work out if you are willing to make a commitment, endure small inconveniences, and follow through.  And with great help from Marianne especially, and all of the other participants of the event, It all worked out and I found myself driving into the barren Panoche Valley.

The Panoche International Airport with Larry’s Bar in the background

I quickly found that there are actually three (and only three) attractions in the Panoche valley: 1) Mercey Hot Springs, 2) Larry’s Bar, and 3) the Panoche International Airport (affectionately named).  So if you are looking for beaches, blue water and bustling nightlife you probably took a wrong turn on the Interstate.  But if you want a great soaring adventure with good friends in a meditative and relaxing environment, and you don’t mind being dirty and sweaty, then you have found your heaven.

Warm mineral water swimming pool

While I was helping the last few pilots to launch I saw one of the BASA guys (Gunther Hagleitner) struggling to fit into their club’s Pegasus.  Since I had an empty seat in the NCSA Grob I offered him a more roomy accommodation and he gladly accepted.  We towed toward the Panoche hills and released at about 2,000’ AGL under a nice cloud that took us to over 6,000’.  From there we headed west to EL1, climbing in the occasional thermals in the blue.
Post-flight pilot's debriefing room

The first order of business Saturday morning was to rig all the gliders, of which we had about ten due to a fantastic turn out.  There was a heavy fog over the hills preventing the valley air from becoming conductive and the tow plane from launching from Hollister to get to us, so we could pace ourselves nicely.

I got the first two flights of the day, those being area orientations flights from Buzz so that I could fly Panoche and then take two NCSA student pilots (Johnny Boldt and Tobin Fricke) for rides.  After my orientation flights we launched the fleet.  The wind was blowing along the runway at about 10-12 knots and the initial launches were downwind.  Daniel decided to push the BASA DG1000 to the far end so he could launch into the wind.  It was a great idea except that he forgot to close the air vents before take-off and when he rolled into the dust cloud kicked up by the tow plane, well you know what happened then.  :-)

Tow pilot Allen heading over to ask the glider pilot his intentions

See this YouTube video of Daniel’s launch:

Johnny, Tobin and I took turns running wings and trying to figure out where to fly based upon the early pilot reports of lift. Then Johnny and I launched and towed toward the hills south of the airstrip.  We passed through three good thermals in the first thousand feet on tow and I was feeling good about the prospects for this flight.  However, I was overly optimistic and released too early to get a solid contact with our first thermal (my bad) and this flight was quickly drawn to a close.

The next flight was with Tobin and I had a better idea now of where I wanted to release.  We let go at 4,000’ MSL in solid lift under a cloud and quickly climbed to 7,000’.  We played below a string of clouds at the north end of the Idria valley but didn’t venture much farther than that since this was our first experience flying in this location.

Tobin at cloud base in 81C
The radio was crackling all around us with reports of one group of adventurous pilots headed for the Sierra foothills under low cloud bases and valley haze.  Amazingly enough they were successful in making the Sierra foothills, though the low cloud bases prevented them from flying further East.  All but one pilot made it back to Panoche this day with the only land-out being on an aero-retrievable runway.

After flying concluded on Saturday and all the birds were tied down we headed off to Larry’s Bar for a real treat.  We didn’t have to go far.  Larry’s is just at the end of the driveway to the airfield.  What had been advertised as the Saturday BBQ ended up being a full service meal cooked and served up by Larry himself.  The bar has its own special atmosphere and is a wonderful collection of memorabilia dating back to the early 1900’s including bullet holes in the walls.  Yes, if only the walls could talk...

Marianne educating the Panoche Airstrip caretaker about glider flying (Larry and his wife Kim are behind the bar)

After dinner we headed back to Mercey Hot Springs to set up our tents and soak in the mineral water hot tubs.  This low-key resort has hot sulfur mineral water feeding a swimming pool, about a dozen bathtub sized hot tubs and also the showers.  I was introduced to the daily Glider Palooza routine which goes something like the following: breakfast, complimentary chair massage (if you are one of the lucky ones), soak in the hot tubs, swim in the pool, shower, fly, enjoy drinks and a meal at Larry’s with tall tales of the day’s flights, soak in the hot tubs, sleep and repeat… What more could you want?

Sunday was starting off with improved soaring forecasts and the sky showed clouds marking thermals as early as 9am.  I ran wings until the fleet was launched.  Lift was so good today most pilots released at just over 1,000’ AGL a couple miles off the end of the runway where they were able to climb to 6,000’ MSL and depart the valley for the convergence.  Their task today took several of them past Santa Barbara to within spitting distance of Oxnard and the Channel Islands.

Buzz makes a big run down south

The rest of the day we played connect-the-dots running from cloud to cloud along clearly marked energy lines.  We ran back to the Panoche hills and followed a cloud line across the valley toward the Idria valley where we were able to join another glider and ride the convergence line along the east side of the valley.  It was an incredible feeling to be sharing the sky with the big boys and flying straight ahead and climbing under strong cloud streets. 

Thank goodness we had PFLARM in 81C that day.  It was very helpful pointing out potential conflicts with other gliders along the convergence line and made me a believer in the value of this technology for safety.

How could you not be grinning ear-to-ear on a day like this?

After some yoyo-ing up and down the convergence line we again connected the dots, following a series of clouds, back across the Panoche valley to the Panoche hills.  From there we decided to fly to Mercey hot springs where we met up with the Daniel in the BASA DG1000.  We decided to declare the day a success and did a victory lap around the Panoche Valley and landed.

Dan and Gunther tip-toeing into convergence

Our task before dinner was to put 81C back onto its trailer so it could go to Air Sailing the following weekend for Thermal Camp and XC Camp.  That meant an end to my weekend of flying but there was a lot of hanger flying left to do at dinner at Larry’s and in the hot tubs before bed.

The flight totals for the weekend speak to the success of the event and I encourage anyone in NCSA who hasn’t yet attended the Palooza to put it on your calendar for next year.

Flight Totals as Reported in OLC
OLC Points
OLC Distance (km)
Ramy Yanetz
Buzz Graves
Harry Fox
Ramy Yanetz
Buzz Graves
Harry Fox
Shannon Madsen
Tom Hubbard
Daniel Ruegemer
Dan Colton / Gunther Hagleitner
Ramy Yanetz
Buzz Graves
Eric Rupp
Harry Fox
Shannon Madsen
Tom Hubbard
Dan Colton / Tobin Fricke
Dan Colton / Johnny Boldt
18 Flights in 3 Days
6,985 OLC Points
7,167 km

And here is a link to a short video from our flight as we head across the Panoche Valley to Mercey Hot Springs at the end of our day: