Congratulations to Susan Bell, who got her commercial glider rating this past Monday!
So now what? Because this awful Santa Ana fire weather has all been blowing down from the north and east, up here in the desert we’ve not seen even a bit of the smoke. We should expect several more days of the same, with temperature gradients essentially preventing useful thermal activity, but if that wind is northerly enough, ideal slope soaring conditions will prevail, and again, more bow wave.
In the summer of ’93, one day each week we ferried a 2-32 for glider rides at a sleepy country club on the shore of Lake Champlain. This gig was such a kick that 45-mile aerotows there and back were usually the most interesting part. Even so, there was nowhere else I’d rather have been. Why? Unless you like enigmatic answers, don’t ask.
Headed home one time, we were skirting class C airspace when suddenly, despite our being painted on radar, here came a Cessna departing BTV and intersecting our course from 90 degrees left — behind Tug the tow pilot’s peripheral vision.
He was on tower frequency but we had no radio in the glider, de rigueur. My steering either way would make things even more hazardous; turn left and hike our closing speed for a three-way head-on, or turn right to put the bogey directly behind. This was someone already failing to see us crossing directly ahead in broadside position.
Obvious choice, release and turn away. But then what? Beyond glide range from any proper airstrip, we’d just spent the whole day proving there was zero lift of any kind. No chance of gliding home in free flight.
I picked a couple potentially landable fields and waited while the Cessna bore on in. It was exactly at our altitude and moments from cutting the line when someone finally awoke and banked hard over to starboard, behind us by the grace of Gaia. (Oh to be a fly on the wall of that debrief!)
Though I came about point nine seconds from pulling up thirty feet and releasing, actually I did nothing, and Tug was unaware of the whole episode until after we landed. He heard a lot about it then of course, and laughed so hard he sharted. No really, but we needn’t go into that.
All done and said, watchful inaction averted a late-night retrieve, and the Cessna’s propeller possibly gnarling our line and steel ring!
…given my heart a change of mood,
and saved some part of a day I’d rued.
Another week, same setup only closer to the end of the season, and therefore to dark, wouldn’t you know, halfway home we stumbled into wave. Tug nosed down to hold altitude and soon we were over eighty. “Screw this,” said I, cutting loose to rise away and sail home in ironic style.
While Tug circled below searching for me I smiled inside, thinking, ‘If I had a radio you’d be glancing up about now. C’est la vie.’
Ahh, first time in daze with no reason to land except impending darkness. Most fun of the whole week! My soul begged to stay up all night, but it grew chillier by the minute and nature was calling too. So that day would end as anticlimactically as a thousand others. Vie la c’est?
When I rolled to a stop at dusk, there stood Rave, the boss, arms folded and slowly shaking his head. I had taught him to fly, then worked with him daily for years, poor guy. He never could stay mad at me for long.
I got away with so much whateverwecalledit back then! And have ever since, come to think about it. That’s why I try so hard these daze to think of ‘other’ things.
As if we didn’t already have character enough, we’re scheduled to build some more again this week. The weather will officially be so-so (a rarely used technical term), with variable winds and sporadic cloudiness. Stronger than predicted southerly wind could bring wave, and the dynamic between areas of sun and shadow might spawn thermals around the second ridge. See SOARING IS LEARNING, below, for details…
Some of us think soaring at Crystal is more interesting and more downright fun in winter. It’s never too hot, seldom too cold, windy no more often than summer, and unlike summer, each day’s soaring is apt to be very different.
During the ‘off’ season, most soarable lift near Crystal is a function of wind interacting with hills. Westerlies are most common, flowing parallel with our ‘second ridge’ where wind often rises along both sides, creating a line of convergence and maybe even some modest thermals off the ridge top as well.
Behind this ridge lies Fenner Canyon, its upper end gathering wind right where steep sandy slopes face the sun and warm the air as it rises. That’s also where the ridge top’s narrowest saddle collects air from both sides atop those sandy slopes. Triple whammy! On winter days with little or no thermal activity anywhere else, this corner we call ‘the work camp’ might work all day.
Once up above 8000 feet over the second ridge, one good choice is to hop across to Mt. Lewis. A west wind can also create slope lift on the big ridge that runs south from there to Throop Peak. Lift near the hill may be treacherous, but up around 9000 feet it can turn into wave generated by Mt. Williamson, offering spectacular views of low clouds over the LA basin. (If you’re high there and lift turns suddenly to sink, that’s an indication of rotor coming your way, and a dive to windward might restore the lift and carry you up into the wave itself.)
Southerly wind brings classic wave with the best lift typically above a rock formation known as the Devil’s Punchbowl. When that’s happening we usually have a harmonic somewhere near the airport – plus who knows how many more downwind into the desert. Often it’s possible to climb up into wave from thermals or rotor, or some combination of both, and the best place for this is the west end of that same second ridge. (Spoiler alert: when rain is forecast in LA, with a ‘chance’ of rain in the desert, we expect conventional wave activity both the day before the rain and the day of it, so drizzle near the coast is no reason to cancel your appointment!)
When the forecast calls for ‘Santa Ana’ winds in LA, that north-to-south flow can provide not only good ridge soaring on our north-facing slopes, but also ‘bow’ waves upwind of the Mountains. Bow waves are weaker than the classic variety and won’t carry you very high, but are a fun challenge to explore. They’re seldom marked by cloud and tend to drift downwind toward the mountains like a surf, growing as they approach and then collapsing as waves do on the beach. (Here too, if you’re in lift near the hill and it quits, flying straight upwind may put you in the next approaching wave…)
Also, in light northeast winds we have a predictable, if sometimes subtle source of lift very near the airport, a wide pattern of dune-like ripples that act as a thermal trigger. These ripples lie right where you go to prepare for landing on Runway 7, and drifting as you climb carries you toward the field — a pleasant convenience when scratching in weak winter thermals.
These are only a few of the local treasures that can make soaring in winter actually more interesting (and educational) than the booming days of summer. Add to this the sheer beauty of snow on the mountains and you have ample excuse for maintaining currency all year long!