Saturday, June 18, 2016

Todd's 2016 Glider Palooza Report

Dan Colton generously offered to take NCSA students and new pilots along in the club two-seat Grob 103 “KP” during the “Panoche Glider Palooza” Memorial Day weekend gathering, which presented opportunities for flying cross country, located in Panoche, CA.  After chatting with Dan at Byron about it, I jumped on board!

First, the drive.  I elected to take a “direct” route, 101 to Gilroy, Hollister, CA-25 to Panoche Road, which narrowed down, and later on one could easily fly off a cliff in the car if not paying attention, as it was so winding and narrow and bumpy.  There’s no cell service.  I would not recommend it at night.  (The route through I-5 from the north is better.) There seems to be a transportation jinx for new club members, as last year Star got stranded and had to wait a couple hours by the road for a car to even come along, someone told me, and this year Ace got locked out of his rental car with no possible service.  I was glad to arrive safely after the cross country drive.  Still on the ground and already it was an adventure.

Panoche International

The “Panoche International” airstrip setting is in a dry, beautiful and uncanny flat valley surrounded by mountain ridges.  And in the middle of truly nowhere, a stark setting, almost cinematic.  Before flying, it already looked to me like a glider pilot’s dream to be there with other pilots.  Everyone camped at Mercy Hot Springs which is about 8 miles north. 

In the morning I had a quick chat with Ramy and Dan at Mercy Hot Springs, Ramy asked if I was ready for my first cross country experience.  Yes!  We talked briefly about what it means to fly cross country, what the risks and mental approaches are.  Ramy said he defined it with three points: to fly beyond glide of your home base, to fly beyond sight of your safe glide airport, and to be able to move comfortably between safe glide airports without stress which you learn by experience and good planning.
Buzz, about ready to launch.

After a brief drive to the airstrip, everyone was prepping and eager to fly.  There was a lot of scanning the horizon for the first sign of cumulus or the sound of an arriving towplane.  Buzz was the first to launch, and radioed down he had 8 knot lift just above us, making everyone jealous and antsy and excited while waiting.  There were still no clouds and no tow plane.  Ramy was lined up next.  Eventually the towplane appeared and immediately one launch after another with quick, low releases into lift. 

Dan and I launched near the back of the pack of gliders, after noon, into a cloudless sky.  Despite worrying about the dust, I accidentally left my side vent open during take off and as we flew into the dust cloud behind the tow plane I got a couple nose fulls before quickly closing it!  Once in clean air we immediately opened our vents.  We released at 5100' MSL (3800' AGL) on the West Ridge and caught our first thermal in the blue and rode it to about 8,000 feet.  We then proceeded to the convergence line marked on the West side of the Idria Valley by intermittent clouds.  (At this point, I didn’t know it was the convergence, we were just looking for lift and a route south.)  From there we followed cumulus clouds and picked our way down the Benito Range, over many remote open-pit mountain mining sites which at times looked like snow, to Wright Mountain.

We flew cautiously with some back and forth yo-yoing up and down the Benitos and meandering, still keeping Panoche within safe club glide (18:1) and unsure what else to do.  Early on Marianne had warned us that conditions were weak and uncertain beyond the first mountain ridge and the clouds did not have reliable lift under them, so we were in doubt how good the lift could be, especially further south.  We finally cruised to the southern-most end of the Benitos at the Microwave towers.  It looked promising, so we tried to set out across the gap over a valley to Center Peak and almost made it but stopped just short because we were hearing other pilots ahead of us reporting to be struggling.  We headed back up the Benitos to EL5 (elevator 5 waypoint, as mapped by Ramy) and did some more yo-yoing.

Just then Eric Rupp in his ASW-27 “ER” offered over the radio to team fly with us down to Black Mountain and said the convergence was well established further on, filling in and now nicely streeting along the way.  It was just the excuse we needed.  (I’d like to think his kind offer was because I bought him a drink the night before, but he probably already forgot.  Though it was non-alcoholic!)  We flew north and Eric flew south to rendezvous at EL5 and we turned south together and were off.

Clouds marking the way
We thermaled a few times but it was a good day as Eric put it, “to practice not thermaling” and just fly straight down the line of convergence.  We did a lot of dolphin flying, which I found a little challenging at times, being uncertain how dramatically or quickly to change speeds.  Flying too fast and we’d zip through lift, flying too slow and we’d get trapped in 10 knot sink and by the time you react to either it was too late.  Dan chose speed-to-fly as 70 knots in sink, and we practiced mostly 60 in average air and slower in lift.  We managed to spend the whole day between 8,000 and 11,000 feet with lift often between 6-8 knots and a few times pegged at 10 knots even though flying straight ahead and not circling. 

The lift followed the line of mountains south.  It was overall predictable, yet varied and interesting, and not always where I would expect.  Sometimes lift was between the clouds, sometimes there was little or no lift under a promising looking cloud with a well-defined flat bottom, sometimes the wispy clouds that looked to be dying had great lift.  Other times we experienced the textbook situation of hitting strong sink at the periphery of a cu, pushed through it and found lift within the periphery.  Then strangely no lift under the center of the cloud.  And so on.

I think I can safely say both Dan and I felt the attachment of safe glide to Panoche, and It was a big moment to switch our safe glide to New Coalinga, and then from New Coalinga to Avenal, both places I had never been before either in the air nor on the ground, but knew we were now in the southland.  We were truly going cross country and the feeling was one of freedom and excitement!

Flying with a friend over the valley

Eric was very helpful and periodically asked, “Kilo-Pop, what’s your safety airport right now?”  It was so fun, and also reassuring, to have the visual flying contact and chats with him.  Dan always knew our status from the flight computer in the back seat and replied right away.  Dan and I coached and cheered each other on at times as we took a few turns at the controls, and kept trying to read the conditions and offer suggestions and course corrections to each other, and sometimes with Eric.  Which side of the cloud was the lift on?  Should we aim for the darkest area?  Let’s explore this cloud off course over here just for fun (that was me).  We’re in lift, turn right!  Good job, you got it!  There was a lot of chatter from the other gliders at various points along the route, which was helpful and interesting.  There was a strong sense of community and everyone helping each other make the task, read the conditions, and get home safely. 

We easily made it to Black Mountain team flying with ER, which everyone had been talking about on the radio all day as the southernmost destination, at the southern tip of the mountain ridges.  Lacking a further line of mountains to the south, the clouds and convergence appeared to stop and I know many pilots had difficulty going further.  We turned around.

Eric in his ASW-27 disappeared (he later told me he took a final glide at over 100 knots) leaving us to enjoy a slower trip home flying best L/D plus a few experimental explorations under nearby
clouds (me again).  There were plenty of things to keep us busy and interested in as well as worrying about getting home before the lift died.

The convergence created a virtual north-south glider highway, and we saw other glider traffic flying out of Avenal cruising with us in the convergence.  We saw a lone 1-26 heading south while we were heading north, probably also out of Avenal.  We saw a motor-glider, a power plane, and other gliders.  Having the FLARM was very helpful and reassuring that we were in less danger of a collision with gliders flying through the same corridor, especially in opposite directions, like head on at high speed.  Dan talked with one glider approaching before we could see it, and we both adjusted with each other in sight to pass safely on the right.  I’d hear the FLARM beep behind me in the cockpit and sometimes Dan would announce we had traffic and he told me where to look.  Sure enough, we’d find the glider nearby, exactly where indicated — sometimes directly behind us which we’d never know otherwise.  A slight turn and I cranked my neck, and often it was ER sneaking up on our six.  Flying relatively cautiously, we found much of the traffic we encountered was at or below, which made us proud of KP’s performance, hanging with all the big high performance birds!

Thermaling at one point with ER was interesting, as the eastern side of the turn was in 8 kt lift, the western side in 2 kt lift and we watched as ER alternately rose above us and fell below during the arc as we thermaled together.  It was amazing to get a clear visual reference for what a few seconds in net 6 knot lift will do to your altitude.  We were expecting to see ER outperform us in climb within a few rotations but usually he was just flying faster or a little tighter and pulled up behind us.  This flight was my first time entering a gaggle (four gliders at this point) while at the controls and Dan gave me some good tips and coaching about how best to enter and exit, it was a thrill. 

On our glide back we “practiced not thermaling” making a mostly-straight line for home, and our resultant glide ratio at one point when I was flying moderate dolphin technique, Dan told me, even with some unfruitful side trip diversions, was averaging 71:1.  We had some stretches of flying straight ahead at 70-80 knots and still climbing, trying to prevent not getting sucked too close to the clouds.  The clouds eventually disappeared as we flew north and we were so high we could see the Panoche Valley over several ridges from a long distance.  With plenty of altitude, Dan suggested we make a run/final glide of 106 km to the north past Mercy Hot Springs and as far north as the Release Ranch (but east of that waypoint) and return to our release point from tow, and then complete a lazy rectangle to bleed off our altitude while approaching Panoche.  Eerily, the air over the Panoche Valley was dead still, in contrast to earlier when it had propelled many gliders to make an early release.  Our total flight was 4.5 hours and 271 km, per OLC, which doesn’t include a lot of meandering, circling and yo-yoing! 

After landing we helped other pilots disassemble and stow their gliders in trailers, then we got the remaining team to help load KP into its trailer.  It had been hours since the last landing, most had left the field, and the sky had long since gone cold and the clouds vanished.  Yet suddenly I was aware of a glider silently rolling up to a stop nearby.  It was Ramy, another very long flight.  I marvel how he stays up so long.

Huge thanks to Dan for sharing some stick time with me during his flight.  He went to great lengths to plan the event and encourage pilots to attend, including drive sharing and helping everyone, loading KP into the trailer at Byron and assembling at Panoche and one more time loading into the trailer at Panoche, and offering to share his flights with NCSA, me and Ace.  The team flying with Dan in the cockpit, and ER in the air, was a fabulous, fun learning experience.  I was all grins, as was Dan.

It was a wonderful introduction to cross country flying, and hanging out with other pilots who were routinely flying far and hearing stories, humor, and chat over the radio during the flight, brought it all into focus.  Particular thanks to Dan, Marianne, Eric and Ramy.  I feel very fortunate to have experienced this, it’s truly unlike any other soaring.  Thanks to NCSA for allowing us to take KP cross country.  I’m officially hooked and can’t wait to go again.