Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Dan Colton goes to White Castle (well, flies the Whites, anyway!)

On July 16th, 2016 I had the distinct pleasure of sharing a 503 km cross country flight with Tim Gardner as my XC mentor.  The flight was a raffle prize generously donated by Laurie Harden of Soaring NV at the Pacific Soaring Council awards banquet last winter.   

Thank you Laurie and Tim!

The Soaring NV flight line

My soaring cross country experience started last summer and since then I have logged a little over a dozen flights in the 200-300 km range and I was thrilled when they pulled my name out of the hat for this cross country mentoring flight up at Minden in a Duo Discus.

I scheduled the flight and watched the weather with great anticipation as our date approached.  It is a 4 hour drive to the Minden airport from my house in San Carlos, CA.  But this was well worth the effort given the huge learning opportunity I was looking at.  I arrived at KMEV at 10am and met the staff at Soaring NV.  They were polite and professional and I felt right at home.  

Tim showed up shortly thereafter and we discussed the weather, TFRs (what would flying the Sierra be without at least 1 forest fire TFR), airport procedures, and chose our route of flight and outer turn-point.  Based on the forecast we opted to fly South to the Whites and get to at least Bishop before turning back and we agreed that 4pm would be the latest we should turn back in order to make it home before the lift shut down.

Inside Soaring NV
Lucas was working the line and helped up get the glider ready and out to the line.  We were number two for tow and were in the air at noon.  We took a 3,000’ tow because it was completely blue, the local lift wasn’t very good for getting out of the valley the day before and the forecast for today was about the same.  Our first climb got us 13,500’ and the optimism to run down the Pine Nuts and try for the altitude needed for the jump to the next range.  But we got stuck at the end of Pine Nuts waiting for the lift to get organized.

After thrashing around for over a half hour working week/disorganized lift we made it to just over 14,000’ near Farias Wheel Airport and headed South to the Pine Grove mountains where some clouds were starting to form.  A couple thermals later we were over 17,000’ and charging on past Baron Hilton’s Ranch and Lucky Boy Pass (I took this as a good sign).  All along the way Tim was pointing out airports, waypoints, decision points and xc strategy.  I was impressed and grateful for his wealth of knowledge and teaching style.

Southbound into the blue

Soaking up the adventure with an excellent teacher
Now we were cooking and making good time.  We worked a couple thermals along the way and were able to stay above 15,000 and with over 17,000’ had a comfortable altitude cushion for the 35 km jump to our next goal, Boundary Peak and the White Mountain range.  The flight thus far was an incredible experience and I was a sponge absorbing all the information along the way.  My prior cross country flights were in the area to the North and West of Minden between Truckee, Air Sailing and Nervino and this was this was my first time flying out of Minden and to the South.  As we approached the Whites I was awe struck.  Tim said that soaring the Whites is a great experience, but all that much better when you have to fly a hundred miles to get there.

Heading back to White Mountain
We started off ridge running all the way to White Mountain where Tim showed me how to thermal a canyon from below ridge top.  I let Tim take the controls for this lift and was impressed with his skill and a bit nervous every time we turned into the ridge as this is a skill I had not yet developed.  We were climbing like the proverbial bat out of Hell when Tim asked if I could see any hikers on the ridge-top path.  There were about a dozen and Tim decided it he wanted to give them a photo opportunity.  So it was time for full spoilers and we spiraled down a couple thousand feet back down to the ridge were he gave them a high speed pass “up close and personal”.  Here is a link to a video of the fly by: 

"This is Maverick, requesting permission to buzz the tower..."

Now it was back to my turn to get that altitude back and off we went South across the valley, over Bishop and beyond to just pass Coyote Flats.  We got there low, at around 11,000’, and it was a struggle getting back up.  Another glider was reporting a strong convergence over the Sierra to the South and West of our position and asked if we wanted him to wait so we could join him.  We could see the cloud streets from where we were.  However, it was going to take us too much time to climb out so we told him to keep going as we again struggled, waiting for the thermals to cycle. 
Our persistence paid off but it was now around 3:30 pm and close to our agreed upon turn-back time.  Since the clouds to the North were starting to dissipate we agreed to head back and had to make our next decision.  Do we cross the valley back over to the Whites where the lift was still strong and marked by a cloud street all the way back to Boundary peak or head off on the more direct path toward Mono Lake. 

Cu markers ahead

Although we saw only two cloud markers we decided to go direct to Mono Lake.  It was 35 km to our next good climb and then we crossed a big blue patch with no lift for about another 55 km.  This lift was a bit disorganized but we again persisted and got the altitude we needed for the next jump to Mono Lake.

Looking at the Sierra from the east

 We chose well and reached just South/East of Mono Lake at 14,000’, found a climb to 17,000’, and were off on our next jump North.

Running the gauntlet direct to Mono Lake, Sierra to the left and Whites to the right

Time to go, Sierra on your hip, go fast!
Our next struggle was above the old ghost town of Bodi in weak/disorganized lift with only 1 knot on the averager.  Our second thermal in that area was much better and at about 15,000’ we encountered wave and were blessed with smooth 6-8 knots lift to 17,999 and had final glide in the bag.  Our glide back was a straight shot of 95 km at 120-130 knots ground speed and was very satisfying after such a challenging day. 
By the numbers we did 503 km, soared for 5.5 hours at an average ground speed of 90 km/hr, and used 41 thermals to get around the task.  It was an amazing experience and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to kick-start their cross country soaring training.

Here is the trace of the flight, which can be found in more detail at 

And lastly, I cannot end this tale of good fortune without again praising the staff, tow pilots, instructors and line kids and fleet of SoaringNV.  This type of one-on-one training cannot be passed up.  

So give a big Hello to Laurie and the rest of the crew from me next time you are out at SoaringNV and take them up on their offer, whatever it may be.  You will be glad you did.

Dan Colton

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