A lively wind was gusting straight at the window beside my desk, limbs swaying like they wanted to bust loose. (The wind knows it only makes them stronger.) That can be entertaining sometimes, but not when you’re trying to read. For an hour I’d been sitting in my usual spot, feet up, with that window’s splendid distraction at my back, and the end of another chapter made it start to feel like nap time. Lulled to midday slumber by the breathy roar of an ancient Joshua, definition of the good life.
Then, being fundamentally a creature of impulse, I glanced hard, back up over my head out the window, so quick if I’d been standing I might have dizzied. It was involuntary, prompted by no external stimulus I was aware of — until a vulture materialized right where my eyes were cast. It had glided low over the roof unseen, beating into that wind like a long-haul truck up a grade, and the moment it came into sight it entered lift above the wall. While I was gathering to swivel around and follow it, it shot up thirty feet and stalled, then dove out of sight in desert brush beyond.
Two more vultures soon appeared in similar fashion, plus another from around the side sweeping across at eye level. They also paused to absorb energy from deflected wind before diving through it into the bush. Might more be coming?
Tradition bestows insightful epithets for these unfairly maligned soaring avatars, depending what they’re up to. When perched glumly in trees waiting for something to die they’re a committee. Huddled on the ground around a mess of carrion, they become a wake. And flocks of vultures on the wing are called kettles, which unlike kettles of hawks, can number in the hundreds.
As more and more vultures arrived and repeated this performance, I finally grasped the obvious and ran to look out the other end of the house, where they’d been coming from. There, a dozen tail enders were staggered, some still a quarter mile downwind, all merging toward this lone spot while scarcely flapping a wing.
One small house and a few big trees smack in the geographical heart of nowhere amount to a worthy landmark for birds in a wind. Air not pushed up over the obstruction flows around it and sucks in behind, forming an invisible stream of convergence like the wake behind a boat. The well-known Tehachapi shearline is a perfect example on a far larger scale, a turbulent zone downwind of Bear Mountain with the energy to propel a sailplane miles either way, eighty knots at cloud base in the strong stuff! These feathered exemplars had recognized our little bump’s atmospheric significance, somehow, and angled in to score. A rip this size delivers not altitude, but energy sufficient to carry a raptor – at less than one tenth of our wing loading – slowly into the wind and straight at the obstruction itself, where things get more interesting.
Next question, why did they all dive afterward, down between the bushes? No way to know, so we may as well speculate.
First, vultures fly low more than other soaring birds because they have no need of surprise. Their prey is already dead, and slow beats fast when scouring camouflage for detail that’s melting into it. Also, scattered brush around here averages head high, blocking much of any surface wind, and five-foot wings below that height can tease the top of ground effect as well…
So their strategy may have been to absorb the energy where they could, then carry that inertia quickly into the relative calm below and translate it to forward movement. A clever inversion of ‘dynamic’ soaring, you could say, extracting distance instead of speed from an abrupt change in ambient wind. Only long later, far upwind, would each individual pull up when the time came, grudgingly flap those wings again, and resume their endless search for other ways to cheat.
Last question, what do you suppose prompted my lurching glance overhead to sight that first vulture? (Or was it the first?) Could be I sensed not one individual, but the whole blessed kettle homing in like an avian flotilla, laden with knowledge of the sky we can witness and admire, but never possess. I knew they were coming the same way they knew where to come: blind intuition, unwitting awareness, subliminal perceptions no one will ever understand. It’s why this is such a fun planet.
That’s the only time I’ve seen a full kettle of big ominous scavengers disappear into the bush at my particular spot, so it may not happen again for a while. It served them well before, though, so we know they’ll return eventually. My task is to be ready when they do, to observe, report, and honor. One of several reasons there’s a permanent ladder affixed to the roof these days.
Even got a bed up there… Hope I’m not napping when they come!
First thing, we’ll be closed this Sunday only, so everyone can spend Easter however they wish, just because.
Next, we’ve been remiss in forgetting to congratulate Larry Harris for passing his glider check ride some few weeks ago… way to go, Larry!
Now for the coming week: Expect some of the best thermal conditions so far this year on Friday, a probable return to wave on Saturday, egg roll on Sunday, and Monday, back to thermals.
SEE YOU SOON!
The phrase ‘knife fight in a phone booth’ must have been common somewhere, sometime, but I’ve only heard it once ever, from a pilot in my favorite soaring film, GLADIATORS OF THE SKY. Knife fights remain popular for reasons we needn’t go into, but these days only Superman uses a phone booth. (BTW, what if Superman gets in a hurry and flies off before stepping outside, ever wonder about that?) I haven’t experienced a knife fight myself, but I do remember what phone booths were like. We squoze six of us inside of one on graduation night — and dueled the very Devil getting that door open again. None chose to fight though; there was no room for a knife.
In GLADIATORS, our hero wielded ‘knife fight’ to describe gaggling against world-class competition, and to excellent effect. Touché! Here we adapt the metaphor to a tableau equally compelling, even absent other traffic. In fact, only one aircraft nearby would render this phone booth implosively dangerous. The opponent in today’s game is at the same time our source of energy, namely big time rotor turbulence with the power to make your hair stand on end whether you’re scared or not. No soaring environment is more unpredictable than extreme turbulence, but it too can be eminently soarable if you know what to do.
First, tighten your harness and secure everything in the cockpit so it won’t be smacking you in the face, and if your hat has a button on top, throw it out or risk busting the canopy. However you feel about shocking turbulence, there’s – theoretically – no risk for a properly maintained aircraft unless you fly too fast. Slamming yourself against it, another matter.
Prevailing wind direction is always of cardinal significance, but small-scale sub-currents are equally so as they erupt and quickly vanish. Rotational flows speak for themselves, rising (mostly) on the windward side and rolling down the lee, but don’t assume they’re always entirely vertical… Even monster rotors are beset by potentially greater pressures fluctuating on all sides, including above and below. The one you’re stabbing at is caught in it’s own phone booth.
Think of yourself as completely surrounded by adversaries. You battle against everything, pulled and pushed like a whitewater kayaker except you’re paddling upstream. Every updraft of any kind will always shove you into the nearest sink unless you resist it, instantaneously, no exceptions. You respond the same as to ordinary bumps, essentially, but the magnitudes and intensity are multiplied. Try to visualize the actual fluid-dynamic state of play exactly where you are at every precise moment and do whatever it takes NOW to square attitude and momentum directly into THIS ambient gale.
Nuance and finesse are eclipsed by immediacy, with force proportionate to the specific impulse at hand. Momentary full control in every combination may be necessary, and any strong input might require its opposite a second later, to reset balance and start again. I’ve never ridden a bucking bronco either, happy to say, but this feels like that looks.
Due to the abruptness of everything, smooth and comfy application of control may not be practical or even possible. Coordination is always good of course, but in each successive thrust from a different quarter it’s more important to bite in hard and level out soon, than be precise. The degree of action needed relates directly to airspeed. VA’s a consideration, sure, but disruptions are so frequent there’s seldom time to build hazardous inertia before needing to haul back stick again for some new and urgent reason. Very low airspeed calls for more of everything in all dimensions, and real handling savvy. When a cresting rotor sucks the white noise out of your cockpit, you’ll be needing both barrels to produce any effect at all.
No one’s more critical of skidding than me, and not only to avoid spins. Skidding holds the nose down and increases speed, which won’t help to stay within a small airspace or climb. In chaotic turbulence however, there are times when a long, ugly mash of full rudder may be the only way to reorient, or hold attitude, and grasp a lifeline in the tempest.
While beating directly into the wind, simple responses to lift and sink might involve rapid swings in pitch from thirty degrees up to fifty down, and the reverse, but if you stay well under maneuvering speed the worst stress to your bird should be only sand in her canopy via negative Gs (plus a hideous and terribly expensive crack if you wear that hat with the button!). Such radical differentials of ambient wind and attitude make an airspeed indicator nearly irrelevant. If you need numbers to avoid stalling or overspeed, this is not the phone booth for you. Better avoid knives too, and go practice the fundamentals.
To sum up, the very wildest garbazhé can demand extreme measures of every kind from each wrenching gambol to the next, including personal forbearance. Grab lift where you can, eat sink when you must, and scuffle on. Still feeling fussy about smoothness and style? Tell Mike Tyson. What’s amazing is how well this rock ‘em sock ‘em stuff works when you get it right.
Say you fail at one attempt and dive out in strong sink, then whump, a wing slams up and brings the nose with it. You’ll need a brief spin recovery to counter that, matching its impact and tempo with your own. Then bingo, you score at last, a six-knot wallop that smooths to nine, surging stronger here in rotor than reports from wave overhead! You know it can’t keep swelling like this forever. The longer it lasts, the sooner you’ll be clobbered by a fresh pulse, sweet or sour, probably from straight upwind but you never know. Be always poised to jump right back in the fray the instant lift weakens, often with another dive, if only to gather speed for yet another 2G turn… Three seconds later could be one second too late.
Do all this and learn to like it, and if you’ve said your prayers the ups eventually widen, the downs fall away, big hits begin to soften, and somewhere juuust a little further upwind all textures suspend as if Aeolus flipped a cosmic switch. It’s rotor’s wildest rides that provide our most breathtaking transit to the timeless calm of wave.
Ahh, so now I’ve had my turn with the knife fight thing, and gladly leave it for whomever cares to clean the blood off, sharpen it up, and put it to better use. We’ll be waiting to see how you do!
After a cool and windy week, wave season may be ending today as a warming trend begins that will extend into the foreseeable future. Light winds and improved temperature gradient will push our thermals finally a bit above mountaintop height this weekend. (Everything else comes later…)
SEE YOU SOON!