It was early spring, well into thermal season, and perhaps the last day of winter-like weather. Most thermals were being blown apart by a strong north-northwest wind, and any that did rise only added to the roughness of erratic rotor. No clouds other than cirrus, so if there was good stuff above this disorganized junk we’d have to find it by braille. The wind aloft was steadily increasing as we climbed, yet when it finally began to smooth out up near 10,000 MSL, the ‘wave’ yielded scarcely more than zero sink. With no visible markers, all we could do was gently feel around for more, the way you noodle for catfish, careful not to get bit.
Once established in fully uniform flow, we did the old thing where you hover at zero ground speed precisely as possible and note what the ASI says. That number plus two percent for every thousand feet MSL yielded an ambient wind of sixty knots, triple the theoretical minimum for wave. So why so flat? My guess, this oblique wind direction and that non-linear topography upwind of us would generate no wave at all if the wind were any less. Big energy, weak lift. Like sipping from a firehose.
To go anywhere but backwards we’d have to fly faster, but even a small increase in sink rate risked losing altitude and falling out of what little lift we had. Too slow put us in reverse and too fast meant going down. Call it the ‘coughing corner’. Fair enough. So play the cards you’re dealt, invent some way to make use of this particular set of problems, and you might learn more in half a day than whole weekends of booming thermals.
We were situated a mile off the flank of Bear Mountain, west of Tehachapi, and this wave’s axis ran north to our one o’clock as we faced the wind. We nibbled side to side in our crab, experimenting with minuscule changes in pitch, and even goofed at leaning forward or pulling our feet back in unison to effect CG and find some kind of sweet spot. Little in the way of repeatable results of course, but every effort contributed to improved results, and glacial gain into the wind was our meager reward. (One of the few times I’ve found staring at the vario more useful than staring at my belly button!)
It took almost two hours to creep fifteen miles upwind, finally nearing 11,000 MSL above the hills south of Lake Isabella. Peeking across it into the mouth of notorious Kern Canyon is where the lift finally began to improve — from almost one knot, that is, to almost two…
This was starting to look like a rare opportunity we might never have again. Imagine: not running along the east-facing crest that’s a world renowned drag strip for gliders, but straight up-river into the Sierra high country’s very gut! Problem was, it took us so long to get just this far, and there weren’t many hours of daylight left. Beyond Kern Valley airport in the mouth of the canyon, there’d be nothing even remotely landable across countless square miles of steep mountain wilderness, higher and higher the further you go.
So no, it felt like a gorgeous trap, too easy and too tempting. Unique and spectacular as such an adventure would be, we could think of many better ways to die. Especially so early in the season. It may have been mere cowardice, but we’d pushed our luck enough for this sortie and it was time to turn back.
Whereupon we instantly acquired every advantage. The comparative quickness of our retreat should be no surprise, but was nonetheless a marvel to behold. We now had a ripping tailwind, and still that same weak but consistent lift. Because we were returning to land anyway, most of our height was energy we could afford to splurge. Plus our destination, Mountain Valley Airport, now lay almost directly downwind, which meant no more crabbing as we slid diagonally over the wave’s broad crest into inevitable sink, which in this case also served our interest. Even capping our speed at ninety indicated out of respect for turbulence on the way down, our achieved ground speed was, honest injun, 200 MPH, and four minutes later we were ready to enter the pattern!
That’s why some of us find winter soaring in southern California even more fun than summer, and you don’t need oxygen or a heavy coat.
At the risk of insulting your intelligence, however, here’s some sage advice. Best be cautious about quicking the downwind leg first in such a gale, especially on days that end early! We’ll discuss that temptation of fate next week, reprising another true tale from several years ago.