Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Attempted 1000km from Williams

I joined Kempton Izuno on an attempted 1000 km flight out of Williams, CA this past Saturday August 10th. As most of you know, Kempton flies far, long, and in his 60:1 ASH 25 often enjoys an up close tour of the terrain below. Here’s our story of the flight.

Alex Neigher recently completed a stunning 1002 km flight with Kempton also out of Williams. Alex’s writeup goes into great detail and I encourage you to reference it for a deep dive into an impressive flight. https://medium.com/@alexneigher/kempton-alex-fly-1002km-494ea80c91d2

Quick notes, for those on the go

  • XC skill shines in switching between micro and macro situations in the same moment. Kempton has lots of this skill. You need high patience to take minutes to core a growing thermal feeling like you might be stuck low, detailed understanding of clouds to notice if there’s a more promising spot nearby, and a full understanding of the big picture - weather/time/forecast/observed/reported/terrain - to decide your game plan both if you do and don’t get the thermal.
  • Kempton’s distances are often measured in duration. He will speak of 30 second clouds vs 5 min clouds. This vastly helps frame your decision making.
  • Intimate knowledge of lift makers is a major point that separates a pro xc pilot from an amateur. Kempton identified shelves and scraggly whisps of clouds that allowed us to push north through some very low, early day development.
  • Birds really can be saviors. We spotted a bird of prey when on late afternoon return NE of Ukiah. It marked a thermal that took us high enough to make the switch to our next safety airport and one step closer to the BBQ back at Williams

Sunday, August 4th - San Francisco
Forecasting started the weekend prior. There was a forecasted cold front with possibly the perfect amount of moisture and strength to setup an interesting, and infrequent, weather pattern across Norcal, northern Nevada, and Oregon. The theory was the cold front would have enough strength to push out dead summer air over CA/Oregon and create great springtime type post-frontal conditions in that area, but not have enough strength to push into the Nevada higher desert where strong summer conditions would be in effect.

Front coming over northern CA

In preflight planning, we covered a possible task. Kempton drew out this nearly tri-state triangle (purple). My only time north of Sacramento was a one time drive to Shasta, Eureka, and back. I thought I was familiar enough with the area to understand the scale of this attempt….

The planned task.

Then, I noticed Lake Tahoe, and mentally overlaid my flights. Here, I’ll overlay a OLC-certified flight path of my longest yet XC (red).

My longest flight yet, red.

Now for you astute map readers and graduates of geometry class, you will notice my flight did not come back to where it started. That’s not because I love the Sierraville hot springs so much, but because this was was going to be my longest solo flight by a lot had I finished it back to Truckee. Let’s just pretend I had made it back to Truckee, okay?

Once I understood how vast Kempton’s task was, I knew I was in for a special flight if the forecast came true.

However, Forecasts always have unknowns. Our unknown was just how much moisture would accompany this Goldilocks cold front. Too little would of course make difficult stretches of blue, but if you’ve noticed the light blue rain clouds above that was not our concern. Our concern was over development, and specifically not being able to get to our NW turnpoint before overdevelopment happened (aka rain, for the glider-uninitiated). We figured the race would be on, so start early.

If we got our early start and cleared that NW turnpoint, it’d be around lunch time and we’d ride glorious rising cloud bases into Nevada, hit the NE turn point, and get final glide from FL350, uh, I mean work our way along a NW headwind from high terrain back down to the valley.

Simple task, right?


Saturday August 10th, Williams - 9:30a launch

Towering cu’s seen to the north while on tow. OD likely to block our northern route.

We awoke and saw more leftover moisture from the front than anticipated. Stagnant clouds burned off as new cu’s quickly began forming over the mountains. We launched.

With a clear view on tow we saw a huge deviation from the forecast. Towering cu’s due north at 9:30am…. This was not a good sign for the northern task.

However, the atmosphere is a dynamic thing and with the moisture delivery having passed it was still worth a shot to see what we’d find by the time we made it further north via bumping along cloud base over the mountains.

Westbound out of the valley from Williams.

Into the mountains.

Bump along cloud base over the mountains at best glide he said. Well, with the clouds that low over terrain this was going to be interesting. I had flown with Kempton in this 60:1 ship before and knew we’d be sightseeing the ridges up close.

With Kempton’s immense local knowledge of the typical lift spots, land out strips, and importantly valley exits - we headed in.

Kempton immediately brought to bear his significant cloud-analyzing knowledge. We hunted for puffs, scragglies, shelves and more. Shelves turns out are small lines of convergence indicated by a shelf shape to the cu base - dramatic, abrupt changes in cloud base altitude making a single step of a staircase sharp gain in height. See below.

Shelf off the nose, ascending from R-L. Fly tight under the high side.

Flying in these low clouds was still early minutes of the soaring day. Lift was 1-2 kt average, and cloud base was nearly minimum comfort over the ridge tops, so bump along at cloud base we did.

What bumping along at cloud base in a 60:1 ship looks like, note the ground…

I was amazed at how well this was working. The performance of this ship at best glide is incredible. We were making quite a lot of progress under life that should only continue to improve. Success so far!

10:56 am - ~65 statute mi north of Williams
Either the clouds were closing in, or the terrain was rising, but I actually think both. Kempton had stuck to the plan quite effectively, given the narrow slot we were working with. Either the strong development we had seen to the north would be lifting and we’d eek through while dodging rain, or we’d simply be shut down by minimum cloud height above the ground.

Minimum cloud height won.

Northbound, looking blocked by clouds.

We eventually were blocked to all points to the north by clouds touching, or nearly touching, the ground. After some amazing attempts to find micro-climbs trying to poke through to the next north-bound sustaining shelf of lift, we conceded that clouds were developing in all directions around us. There was no indication a path would open. We bailed out to the valley under a taller, growing ‘cu.

Quitting the task, heading out to the central valley’s edge past over development seen on the right.
Now heading south, our task was dead. However we had still notched an hour and a half of flying and a non-trivial head start to the day on distance. With stronger lift, and far more terrain clearance, we formulated a new plan while flying fast between lift and evaluating our pilot reported cloud options to the south.

It didn’t take long to realize we were still coming into a great soaring day.

Southbound past the northern overdevelopment. Williams in far distance to the left.
Nor did it take long to realize further north just wasn’t in the cards for the day.

Anvil development directly on our task at about 11:30am.

1:30pm - South.
Fast forward past Williams, past Lake Berryessa and onto between Vacaville and Napa. Clouds were working well but bases were dropping, and so were we. Despite promising clouds towards Byron and beyond, the delta crossing was looking low. Possibly doable, but low even for the 60:1 ship, and further the return and climb back up to Sonoma county cloud bases and beyond was questionable.

At ~2500’ MSL in terrain sight seeing distance and safety airport being Napa to the south nearing max safe glide, it was time for a thermal. Kempton worked his skills for a climb, I took over to head back north, and soon enough we were back at cloud base sitting happy up high passing Calistoga.

Passing Mt St Helena northbound.

3:00 pm - Ukiah
Time to plan the remainder of our ad hoc task. What direction looks good? What sounds fun? When’s the bbq?

We agreed the clouds look promising to the west towards the ocean. Kempton said that’s unusual, and seemed to factor in my love of sailing and kitesurfing in suggesting we see how close to the ocean we can get. Easy yes.

Passing overhead Ukiah, westbound. Ukiah airport lowest right half out of frame. (above)

Conditions were staying solid past Ukiah. Lift was still plentiful, we headed past Booneville. "Go West, young man.” (Below)

Passing Booneville, westbound. Booneville airport lower right.

West of Booneville the bases dropped slightly. We still had enough working room to head for the ocean. Soon we had the ocean in sight - marine layer fog pushing up against the coast was visible below the horizon.

Ocean fog on the horizon.

We u-turned after spotting the coast, and a few minutes later I was at the controls with the view photographed below*. I didn’t quite know for certain exactly which ridge we had to clear to make it back into the Booneville valley. Kempton clarified that we had ~25:1 glide to Booneville, so not to worry. However given he was behind me I wasn’t quite sure he had looked up to see there might be a ridge in the middle of that 25:1 glide. As I saw the ridge move up the canopy while pushing the nose over through some sink, my Grob-glide-ratio-brain was firing that Garmin glass-cockpit alert voice, “Ter-rain! Ter-rain!”. I was not feeling certain about our ability to clear this ridge. I asked Kempton to fly and said I trust him, but that I didn’t want to be responsible for any major speed to fly errors. Pretty sure he chuckled quietly as we cleared the ridge by a ridiculous amount. 60:1 he said.

The view back to Booneville
4:30 pm - NE of Ukiah
The lift was changing. Weaker, presenting one last obstacle to making it home. After trying several thermals, we spotted a bird of prey and joined it up to a comfortable height. This gave us access over to Mt. Snow. From this position we tried further north to notch more time and distance, but the lift was not cooperating, and personally at just over seven hours in the glider I was feeling ready for the bbq.

On our final glide I flew us at best glide speed for a sightseeing route past an incredible variety of cu development. We chatted about the marvel of soaring, how we are lucky to live in the first era of humans having 60:1 gliders 🙂

~5:20 pm - Williams
We landed Williams 0.1hrs shy of eight hours of flying, having covered 570 km. While far short of our big 1000km task goal, we still had a very interesting flight with a wide variety of conditions. I learned plenty around identifying lift indicators, micro vs macro decision making, what a 60:1 glider can do, and overall a lot about strategy of using all available conditions throughout the day to make a great glider flight.

Big XC flights are not necessarily all the high speed, high altitude cruises we like to hear about. Big XC flights are often the patience and skill to search the widest number of thermals as lift is deteriorating at any particular part of the flight - even if booming conditions are spotted just beyond reach. Patience, skill, excitement, good snacks, and optimism to keep exploring a variety of options is what it’s about! Thanks Kempton for a good flight.

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