Yes, it’s been ‘soarable’ every day for a long time now, like every summer, but this season has delivered little of the TERRIFIC thermal conditions our area is known for — so far.  The coming weekend might make up for some of that, with a warming trend and light westerlies generating nearly perfect soaring conditions each day of the ‘foreseeable’ future.



First, once committed to land, don’t trick yourself into doing something impractical or unsafe for the sake of holding to some arbitrary position and altitude. Keep things simple, so that if you do need to make some adjustment the solution will be clear.

Use crisp turns when turning base and final. There’s an insidious tendency for all of us to bank less than we need near the ground. Wide turns in the pattern consume much time and room, possibly carrying you beyond where you meant to be and shortening the time you have on straight legs to judge and recalibrate the approach. If you find you’ve started a steep turn too soon, rolling back to a flatter, longer turn is easy and safe.

Mathematically, 45-degree banks yield the most efficient change of direction, but in landing efficiency shouldn’t matter. In a coordinated turn the lower wing is already moving slower than the high wing, which gives it a higher angle of attack (closer to stall). Sailplanes’ longer wings and relatively slow speed make this difference extremely significant. That reluctance to bank tempts pilots to skid their turns down low, further slowing the slower wing and accelerating the faster one while altering the actual flight path very little. This is the classic prescription for a spin in any situation, especially turning into the wind at low altitude, with wind gradient increasing the difference in airspeed between the two wings. And if all this happens while turning final, you’ll be too near the ground for safe recovery from a spin!

In many emergency scenarios steep turns near the ground are vital. Full control in banks of 60+ degrees should be well within the capability of any proficient pilot. Such skill and confidence you must gain – and maintain. If you feel uneasy banking near the ground, realize that this anxiety itself is a real safety problem. There is no more important time than landing for a pilot’s actions to be effective instead of fearful. (And as with every other aspect of soaring, safety always supersedes standard procedure.)

This same instinctive reluctance to bank near the ground invites yet another common error: rolling out of the final turn with over-eager aileron and little or no rudder. The result, again, is adverse yaw toward the rising wing. By coming out of a left turn with excessive right stick and little or no right rudder, you cause an unwanted yaw to the left – into the turn you’re leaving, and away from where you want to go.

Though very steep turns may feel spooky, the only danger is failing to complete one before touch down. Don’t be afraid of steep banks, but do be afraid of skidding turns anywhere near the earth – whether it’s your landing field or a mountainside. Talk to yourself if it helps, but never skid turns. That’s what the yaw string is for. Use it!

Think of your base-to-final turn as the most dangerous point of every flight. With traffic potentially merging from every direction and a heightened probability of its being unseen, this is where the risk of collision is greatest. Also, if unseen traffic exists, there’s at least a fifty-fifty chance that YOU’RE IT! Failure to see traffic further out, opposite your final turn, means they’re now behind you on final – and you can only hope they’re not inching closer each moment. You’ll never know until…

Any self-respecting pilot wants to make spot landings, and any skilled pilot can… but only if they try. Learning to land accurately at a predetermined point is important, but over-control is not the way to do it. Steeper approaches are easier to judge than flatter ones, especially when a precise touchdown point is important. Of course a very flat approach is just bad strategy and a very steep approach (without flaps) makes stopping short nearly impossible.

Some pilots make awkward, long landings because they unlock the spoilers but don’t open them far enough to significantly steepen their approach. When you’re deploying spoilers for real, glance briefly at one wing to confirm how far they’re extended.

There is great temptation to micro-adjust on final approach, but that distorts judgment of the glide. Small atmospheric irregularities tend to average out if flown through with steady hands, but they seem to worsen when we jockey the controls. Some correction with spoilers may become necessary, but try to minimize large alterations of glide slope. As you near the ground it becomes more important to be steady, steady, STEADY, particularly in higher performance craft. Most runways provide ample room to touch down either short or long by hundreds of feet, so take it easy and let gravity do the work!

Okay, so what about crosswind landings? We’ll discuss them next time.


This recent period of 105 degrees every afternoon may come to an end soon.  It’ll be somewhat less humid over the weekend too, with or without continued smoke from the many fires upwind.  We’ve been very lucky over the years at Crystal, in not losing our beautiful skyline to one burn or another.  Let’s pray that continues!


Back to that ever lengthening roll of most memorable thermals, what is it that elevates any particular one above countless others? Raw climb rate can count for a lot, sure, but I’ve forgotten more boomers than I remember — while revering many squeakers long after serendipity enshrined them. We’ve all seen bug farts transform themselves into beneficent monsters (or if you haven’t you will), but why do so few qualify for the Pantheon?

Height? Talk about relativity! First, cloud base at any given time is about the same everywhere nearby, whether it’s two thousand feet or nineteen. Where an individual thermal does rise much higher than others it’s probably due to certain conditions that may be predictable, and therefore to some extent commonplace. No, the altitudes that ring my memory bell are of the three digit variety, how bug-eyed close was the surface when a save began? My personal floor has already been described in these pages, from below the level of our launch point to a quick and dirty two-mile climb. That one ranks in my personal top ten, but the GRANDEST THERMAL EVER demands more.

Uniqueness? Tough characteristic to quantify. Some hall of fame thermals, like HOF athletes, work their marvels against what are called ‘the odds’, over-performing in multiple categories despite whatever handicaps. A blue boomer from flatass nowhere that powers up through thirty-knot wind, or a grey cripple under low overcast, meager but determined as the dandelion cracking your sidewalk? Both are welcome surprises but not exactly rare. Again too many to remember, so no cigar here either.

What is it that renders any kind of thing most memorable? What makes one dish better than another, or one relationship… Hard to say sometimes. Could be a lot of one ingredient or smidgeons of many. We don’t have to understand why we forget some things and remember others, but the fact is we do. That’s what matters.

The sunset of life awards mystical lore,
As coming events cast their shadows before.

Thomas Campbell

It was 6:30 P.M. in September. We’d crawled against the grain all the way from Crystal to Bishop, average ground speed no better than forty. The whole area had been soaked by thundershowers before we arrived, yet go figure, searching for a way down is how we ended up at the highest point of our flight. “Say what?” Don’t forget, this is the Owens Valley we’re talking about.

Ragged cu were still dissipating above that 14,000-foot skyline making the backlit valley look almost black. We were exhausted and ready to land, but the sun was technically still up, so… Caring little how long our descent took, we wandered southwest across town and stumbled into unexpected shear. Improving zero led toward Coyote Flats (a legendary place far more special than its name implies) miles upwind. By then it really was time to turn back, but more and more, and then more improving zero made doing so… constitutionally impossible.

At some glad moment it was Nature’s choice
To dower this sunset with a winged voice.

Edgar Fawcet

Soaring is pure indulgence, we can’t deny it. But could any indulgence be less worthy of moderation? I once rhapsodized about soaring with the tipsy zeal of a college sophomore at a kegger, flinging terms like, “Guzzle, not sip its glories!” Now though, my toast for the home stretch is, “Take time to sip, not guzzle.” Savor your favorite tonic and leave the volume stuff for those still plagued by unquenched thirst.

Easy for me to say. Almost before we knew it, temptation became irresistible, became overpowering, became the awesomest hole in gravity we’d seen all day! And then some. From down inside cubic miles of the deepest shade, we were drawn up into some kind of hybrid phenomenon too enormous to define. Whatever it was was so exceptional I broke character and turned on the flight computer to verify a sustained 15-knot climb in lift as broad and smooth as wave. That’s twenty-five feet higher every second for more than five minutes! And to boot (queen of sirens), the sun suddenly seemed to be rising… At seventeen five we scanned all around for cops — then agreed to ignore the altimeter, just because.

Yeah yeah, once the lift finally weakened we did nose over and scram, leave it at that. Another case where approaching darkness bestows the ultimate luxury: flying as fast as you want. We indulged in a magical alpenglow tour, weaving through sunset among the Golden State’s most spectacular summits. West of those pinnacles we found it oddly quiet, then smoked back around on a descending ridge, across deep saddles to the east face drop-off, still well above timberline.

As the cockpit grew dark, lights were winking on everywhere around Bishop except straight beyond, where the airport lay. Looked like twenty miles, but being dusk, call it twenty five. While nosing over to what sounded like VA, I fished for a penlight to illuminate the panel. 110 indicated at twelve five, over 137 knots true (158 MPH).

Pounding downwind still way above glide slope, we had time to ask what in the world was that lift, anyway? There was insufficient wind for wave, no sunlight at all, wet foothills below and snowy mountains looming ahead. And then kablam. Here’s a half baked theory, hardly original: subsidence from high ground undercutting much warmer air from the valley — plus some indecipherable cocktail of who knows how many other components. In other words, no idea.

All I knew was this would stand as my GRANDEST THERMAL EVER, forever. Nonpareil. And just when we needed it least! Makes you wonder if it happens every evening there after a storm, and how much more was surging right then all along that 80-mile rampart! Good questions for some other summer evening. This one was in the book.

The schooners and their merry crews are laid away to rest,
A little east of sunset in the Islands of the Blest.

John Masefield