Saturday, November 8, 2014


The Opportunity

As the leaves fell on the deck signaling the onset of autumn, imagine how delighted I was to get an email broadcast from Buzz Graves offering his time to fly with any NCSA members at the Glider Palooza soon upcoming at a place called Panoche. Don't ask me what Palooza means, I have no clue! I didn't even know where it was until I looked it up.

The Gathering 

So it was that there gathered in a field in the hills of central California a very welcoming and pleasant group of glider pilots from Bay Area Soaring Association, Hollister Gliding Center, including a tow pilot with a Pawnee from Hollister, and a few of us from NCSA. David Lick and I were the fortunate ones who had signed up with Buzz for some soaring tuition and guidance and Larry also joined for an area orientation flight with Buzz on the Sunday.

A veritable oasis in the hills! 

Mercey Hot Springs

I took a tent and camped at the local hot spot Mercey Hot Springs - a most delightful and tranquil place where one can unwind and soak up the health giving mineral salts in hot tubs and a warm swimming pool. Simple lodgings and camp sites make this a very unique place to stay. Bring a steak, throw it on the BBQ and open a few cold ones after flying. "Is this heaven I've come to, or what?," I thought.

And another great find

The Panoche Inn

An Inn with the perfect hosts - Larry and Cheryl.


Here we had a lovely tri-tip BBQ on the Saturday evening. In all my travels I have seldom met a more welcoming host!
His outstretched hand and a warm and welcoming smile to greet me as I pulled in with KP in tow. "Hi I'm Larry" he said as I got out. He didn't know me from Adam ! Now this man is a real hospitality professional. You would be lucky to get as good a welcome at some $500 a night hotels! And Cheryl makes the best Pastrami on Rye. Just the half sandwich was all I could manage for lunch with a bit of fruit I had brought with me. Really worth the drive just to go and meet these wonderful and charming folks and have a beer and a sandwich. They really couldn't be more helpful and hospitable!

And the flying!

Once we had KP unpacked and assembled, and we had all had a thorough briefing from Ramy as to where the lift might be found, I took the first flight with Buzz on Saturday.  We took off down the dirt strip runway 11 in a cloud of dust.  You could barely see the tow plane and you just have to follow the rope.  It wasn't as hard as it had looked from standing on the field.  

A normal climb out and a left turn to head west and then south west towards the two sets of immediately close by hills to the northwest and southwest, respectively, of the airfield.  The field sits in a very pleasant valley, probably about 15 miles wide in the North/South direction; much wider in the eastern flat portion of the valley. The field elevation is 1300 feet MSL.

I released at about 4,500 feet MSL into some weak but consistent lift which with Buzz's expert guidance (and Buzz on the stick much of the time) we managed to work to get up to about 5,400 feet several times.  On several occasions we had lift at 4 or 5 knots, even reaching 8 knots going up once; this facilitated our ability to explore some of the area over the hills to the west and southwest of the strip.  

At one point we were in an excellent thermal with four other gliders and had a perfect view of all of them at once.  At other times, the Flarm was going off and we had to find the other plane - with some difficulty at times.  One of my biggest fears flying a glider is a mid-air collision, for which there seems to be plenty of potential when one is at a good site like this with lots of eager pilots all sharing the same strong thermal.  "Head over there," Buzz would say, "he looks like he's doing well." 

As to the learning experience, as Matthew, Van, and others reported last year, I cannot over emphasize the great benefit of flying with Buzz in this sort of environment or indeed anywhere where there is sky!  He is a very good teacher, pilot, and mentor and IMHO simply has an enormous and very deep bank of piloting skills second to none. Moreover, he is willing to share and pass this knowledge on to anyone who will listen.  I learned a great deal. I still have to practice a lot of course. Iit is interesting how the value of experience manifests itself when one is with a "master" of any craft, be it gliding or whatever.  They make it look easy, doing it almost effortlessly.  It's quite honestly as if Buzz makes his own lift!

I would be struggling in what seemed to me like a weak thermal -- in perhaps 1 or 2 knots up, or sometimes even zero lift -- and Buzz would take control for a minute to get it centered again and within seconds he would finesse the ship into the sweet spot and up we'd go.  Climb for a few hundred feet and he'd let me have another go at keeping it in the right place.  

So what exactly did I learn ?  Well….

Lesson #1: "Tighten it up," was something I heard a lot from the back seat. When I encountered some lift I had to turn much quicker and steeper than I had been doing.  

Lesson #2: The lift must be detected by the slightest lifting of a wing or by what you can feel in the seat of your pants; Buzz emphasized this repeatedly. Now that man has one heck of a sensitive seat!

Lesson #3 (my biggest single-take away from this great flying and learning experience): "Top Rudder."  A little and very promptly applied opposite rudder as you go round in the thermal helps the glider to climb and remain in a stable and quite tight turn.  I'm not sure I have figured out exactly how or why yet, and having had "Fly Coordinated, fly coordinated!" drilled in to me throughout training, I said to Buzz, "But the yaw string is not straight!" and "we are always taught to keep the yaw string straight to avoid the potential for a stall/spin!" Apparently the Grobs like to (and are set up to) thermal effectively with a little bit of slip in the turn.  I'm going to have to study the theory with all my instructors and get my head round it but - by golly - it works a treat!  I wonder if it works the same for the Grob 102? (Willy was flying his - now my and David's - Grob 102. Little did we know the following week he'd be selling it and we'd buy it.) So weigh in on the question, those of you who know!
Willy Snow, flying the Grob 102 that was his... but is now MINE!

I had an hour and half on my first flight that day and by then it was time for David to fly and I had had enough anyway, so I set up for a pattern. Pattern entry IP is over the "pub" - Larry's - so I had to maneuver a little to position myself to be at 2300 feet over Larry's. Then downwind for an approach to runway 29 is the standard pattern.  There are a couple of good visual clues for the aim point on the quite narrow strip and the need for managing energy to ensure that one gets nearly to the end and can stop in the right place to clear the runway and get into to the parking/staging area.  I actually made a decent landing but came up a little short on the roll out which is also slightly up hill. So we had to get out and push it the last hundred years or so.

Unfortunately the device Buzz had on board apparently did not let him retrieve the data for an OLC trace to be posted or incorporated here.  However, the stats were:  Several - perhaps 10 or 15 climbs to about 5200 - 5400 where the lift petered out. Duration first flight saturday 1.6 hours. My second flight on Sunday 1.2 hrs.  Maximum single climb in one thermal approximately 1200 feet.  Maximum lift encountered 8 Knots.  View beautiful and no battery charge in my camera to catch the spectacular shot of four other gliders in my canopy view to my right as we circled gracefully with what seemed like everyone else who was there that day all in the same thermal at once.  For once, I was not phased by it as I could clearly see them all.  It's like the "fish that got away".  You'll just have to take my word for it that there were five of us in that thermal that day and it was a sight to behold!

My second flight on Sunday was also a delight.  We took off and released over the other hills to the North of the airfield into a little thermal which I quickly lost track of. Buzz set it up again and i had a little explore and promptly lost it again.  He told me later that was a strategic error so another lesson learned. 

Lesson #4 If you have lift - any lift - stick with it, don't go looking for more somewhere else until you've exhausted all that this one has to offer.

Buzz did get us back up with a decent climb to about 5200 and we went across the flat valley almost to Mercey Hot Springs and had a good view of that area.  I was learning about the LNav with its indication of height to spare over what is needed to get you back to pattern altitude plus a margin over the runway.  Buzz said I could have gone all the way to overhead Mercey Hot Springs before turning back but i am still learning to trust this device and wanted to head back to the airfield when I was about two miles short of Mercey as I did not feel comfortable gradually losing altitude and heading directly away from my landing target with no likely lift to find if I needed it or if I hit some heavy sink.  I got back with plenty to spare and actually had to burn altitude to get down to 2300 over Larry's.

Then, lo and behold, I encountered some lift.  Only about 1 to 2 up but lift.  So I worked that and managed to stay at 2400 - 2500 with moments of zero interspersed with the weak lift and a little light sink here and there.  Then I get a radio call from Marianne, who asked me my intentions, as she was at 3000 feet on a 3 mile downwind for 29 which would take her right past or through my position. She wanted to know if she could go in before me?  

For some reason this question completely flummoxed me.  

"What do I tell her?" I asked Buzz. 
"What are you going to do?" came the reply. 
"I don't know what to do!" 

"Should I let her go in, or should I land?" I thought. 

Here's the problem as it sat I'm my mind.  I'm not sure I can sustain this altitude. If I cannot sustain it, then I could get down too low to make my pattern safely. If I wait here, and wave Marianne on by, I'll then have to wait here circling for long enough for her to make her approach and clear the runway before I can then make my approach and land. With the benefit of hind sight and having now had time to think about it, I now realize that my safe choice (and I like safe) was to tell Marianne I was going to go ahead and land and not try and hang out in a thermal I wasn't sure of and didn't have enough skills to definitely sustain.  

What did I do?  

I said to Buzz "You take it, I don't know what to tell her."  He was not especially pleased! He said, "Don't do that to me." And he was right, of course. You don't usually have anyone you can hand it over to if you don't know quite exactly what to do, so you must...

(Lesson #5) ...make the safe choice and do what you KNOW 100% will work. Don't take chances. That's how you keep yourself out of the trouble you were about to get yourself into! (It's even on the flight training I'm doing for a power rating, so I know this.) 

Anyway, Buzz took it and needless to say, with his superior skills, he could and did sustain us in the weak thermal and I told Marianne to go ahead and land before us.  Had he forced me to make the decision (as he tried try very very hard to do but I resisted), I would have landed ahead of Marianne (remember, I like safe!).   What I did, though, was I "dithered!"

Lesson #6 Don't Dither.  Be decisive.  Use all the information you have at the moment and make the safe choice right there and then bearing in mind ALL the relevant factors which includes your own piloting skill. Unless you're in a situation where you have the luxury of time to think about it for a while - and I wasn't in that situation.

Truly a memorable couple of days

So all in all a fantastic gliding experience and a great learning opportunity for me.  Looking forward already to going there again and I would encourage all NCSA members to try it. It a great location to fly at.  

And one last thought.  Again I repeat the encouragement to all solo students and newly rated pilots that you have heard before from Matthew. Go and fly with Buzz when there is an opportunity. It is definitely worth it. I guarantee you will learn a great deal and have fun!

KP enjoyed herself and so did the rest of us. Many thanks to NCSA'ers: Mariane, Willy, Larry and David for all the help and of course Buzz who made it happen for us. 

In the well worn words of Arnie, the Governator: "I'll be back!"

Too soon came the end - time to pack up and go home...