Soaring Is Learning
Soaring is about learning all the time. Here are some tips on becoming a better soaring pilot. Brought to you by Southern California Soaring Academy.
Soaring is about learning all the time. Here are some tips on becoming a better soaring pilot. Brought to you by Southern California Soaring Academy.
It was the kind of day we fantasize about, up with a passenger on what was supposed to be an hour-long demo flight. One very good looking cumulus was growing so rapidly that before we could reach it virga began to appear, and then sparks too. Okay, we’ll shun that one and go where we’re welcome. It took a couple minutes to reach another cu nearby, and by then the thermal behind us was snarling.
Soon we were catching fat raindrops from our new cloud too, and moved on again. At that point I still wasn’t especially alarmed, assuming that what was now a minor storm would soon expend its energy and dry out, desert style. I planned to loiter upwind above sunny ground waiting for things to settle.
But the cloud that started all this just kept growing and began to engulf its neighbors, shading our whole local area while advancing straight toward Crystal. Thirty minutes in, I was still most concerned with finding ways to stay out of trouble while completing the obligatory hour aloft, but hard showers under several darkened cells made getting my passenger safely down the only thought.
We still had feasible options further away, but everywhere nearby the sky was exploding. A slot did remain, dark yet free of lightning, between us and Crystal, so I decided to run for it while we still could. We were maybe six miles out when lightning struck at the airport – then again directly ahead, closer to us.
Off to starboard and closer lay the crossing dirt strips of Brian Ranch, already wet but looking like the nicest place on earth… By now a gust front had developed also, pushing dusty fog toward our new objective, and landing straight into it was the textbook option. We dove with full spoilers, steep and fast onto that muddy haven with lightning suddenly everywhere and thunder rumbling in full surround sound.
Setting up that approach would consume most of another minute though. Did we have time? Instead I chose to land with a pulsing 40-knot crosswind just to be on the ground some few seconds sooner. As we lurched to a stop near the tie downs I worried we might be struck on the ground before securing our bird. (Needless to say, that didn’t happen; we got by with wind whipped sand in the eyes and a thorough soaking.)
Finally under shelter, we called the office to let them know we were okay and arrange for a retrieve tow once the violence subsided.
“Too late,” they said, “We’ll come and get you by car.”
“Yeah, the runway’s washed out. We’re grounded.”
The storm did pass quickly as they usually do here, but not before leaving its mark. Sunlight was returning when we splashed up Crystal’s uneven driveway, the whole airport awash in an inch-deep sheet of white water whose cross-field flow roared like a waterfall. The deluge dug gullies out of our dirt strip, dumping blobs of mud on the pavement. It will take two days of hard work to restore both runways from the effects of a storm that lasted only minutes.
See you in the mornin’.
One endless day in May we flew 200 miles straight-out from Crystal after a 3:35 launch, despite cooler heads insisting it was already way too late. They weren’t entirely wrong, nor exactly right either, for this day had already shown itself to be one of that year’s very best. Twice, midmorning and again after noon, I had taken students southeast far beyond Baldy to where we ‘never’ go, then west along the 210 freeway between a cloud street and Pasadena, running hard at fourteen thousand to LAX’s Mode C veil, then diving twenty miles back to Crystal. That’s something I’ve been able to do only one other time in eighteen seasons here, so with still another four hours of daylight left I had a sense of what we might get away with.
Rather than starting in the mountains as usual for a high climb, we towed northwest to a dust devil on course, cutting ten miles off the distance and saving most of an hour. Normally we’d make this departure so high and so early that thermals over the flat desert wouldn’t yet be of much use, but instead of descending several thousand feet on the long crossing to Rosamond, this time we actually gained height! Way too easy.
Even in ‘perfect’ conditions, the neighborhood around Mojave is often a puzzle to solve, but all we did there was shift into higher gear. My only worry now was that the lucky feeling I’d had all day might suddenly fizzle, though gradually it continued growing stronger… Gotta be a limit somewhere, right?
Out of curiosity I counted thermal climbs along the way, amazed at how few were needed. We stopped to climb only ten times on a four-hour run to Bishop, and arrived there so high we could have glided down another thirty miles further, and thirty back. But nah, happily we pulled full spoilers and started talking about dinner. Granted, the horizon around Bishop is a lofty one, but by the time we landed the sun had fallen behind it.
So that was plenty satisfying by itself, but the flight back would prove even more so.
Early next day we towed to the foothills west of town in order to climb sooner on sunlit slopes and skip having to cross the valley later on. Our initial climb came quick down low, but once we had snow under us the air was dead and each time we started to move the cold would pull us down again.
Eventually we abandoned that idea and retreated to the valley, having fiddled away more than an hour of precious game time. Oddly though, even low again near the airport, that lucky feeling from the day before persisted…
Finally, east of Bishop we stumbled into a nibbly shearline, began tiptoeing south, and soon one obscenely generous thermal gave us height to gobble fully a quarter of the distance home. After that, I’m almost ashamed to say, our luck just kept improving, even into a steady wind. Grand total, we needed only four thermal climbs – plus four very convenient shearlines – to complete that 200-mile return flight, arriving home about same the time we left the day before.
Ah, that lucky feeling! Too bad we can’t store some in a time-proof bag for October.
Like most primary students I was in a hurry to get past the private pilot check ride ASAP. Summer was almost over, and after all the yakking I’d done at home a long winter without that paper in my pocket would have been unbearable.
Was I ready? Well, what I read on slips and skids left me confused, and when I asked about it the answer was, “Ah, the Blanik doesn’t slip well.” So much for that then. Other basics? I’ve already admitted, in these pages recently, to having zero emergency training. What does that tell ya? All I wanted was the sign-off, and that’s all I got.
On the big day, if there was an oral evaluation it was too short to remember. No mention of cross-country flight or a multitude of other essentials. It was 1975 you know.
In the air, when the DE called for a slip I glibly repeated, “The Blanik doesn’t slip well,” causing him to bark, “BS!” or words to that effect. And then, bless his eternal soul, quite contrary to PTS criteria he taught me slips so we could finish the check ride.
Back on the ground, he made an obvious point of deliberating whether to pass me or break my heart, and when he did hand over the white slip, said sternly, “Now I want you to get more instruction, soon!” Not exactly a backslapping attaboy.
In fact I had already planned to take a lesson from my instructor’s instructor that very afternoon, and it was he who instilled what I preach to this day. I was unconsciously moving the stick far more than necessary as if that had some positive effect on control. “Hold it still.” he pled, “and let the bird fly!” Bless his soul too.
Days later, first flight with a passenger (also confessed in these pages some time ago) I managed to both terrify and nauseate a personal friend. And next season scared even myself so badly, I outright quit for two full years. No really, it was that bad. Even so, first thing each morning I’d peek out a window to see what the soaring might be like. Daydreams continually fondled soaring’s unknown joys and possibilities, then increasingly night dreams too. There was no choice, I had to come back.
Then, typical fool, I fell into the same rush for a commercial rating before taking time to learn some things first. My excuse was no one around to learn from, meaning no one to tell me I was over my head. And boy was I!
Hook or crook, I wrangled an endorsement for the commercial written, then showed up after a 150-mile drive without proper ID. Somehow they let me take the test anyway, which I promptly flunked. The good thing, now I knew what to study! It is only high school level material after all.
On that check ride, still knowing next to zilch, I actually made the DE laugh at my ignorance and scream at my methods (also detailed previously in these pages), yet he passed me anyway because I was with his operation — and on the same day he failed a more capable candidate from our competing outfit. I sat in the shade and watched.
CFI? Oh sure.
Still no one around to learn from, so this check ride became a sweaty nightmare without ever leaving the ground. This DE, a nationally known contest pilot, saw right away that I was unprepared, and would spend the entire day indoors proving it.
He was also a contributing author of that era’s principle text, the SOARING FLIGHT MANUAL which of course I had never heard of. That evening he kindly lent his personal copy full of scrawled notations, and gave me five days to read it before we met again.
Take two started later and we still had to finish the oral. It wasn’t much easier but at least I knew some of what he was talking about, and by then he was every bit as eager to get this over with. Then the flight portion began with his grounding our glider because of a bad screw on the instrument panel, something I wouldn’t have noticed in a year of preflights. By the time we procured another ship and went through its paper work, evening had come again.
I had fifteen minutes to teach him towing and basic maneuvers plus the landing. That actually went smoother than expected, or seemed to, and I climbed from the cockpit feeling pretty good about myself.
But no. The DE said he’d made clear an hour beforehand that one thing he could not tolerate was any skidded turn, no excuses. I must have been distracted; maybe he should have said it twice. Anyway, while acting as student he intentionally skidded his turn to final and I didn’t call him on it, ordaining yet another bust.
Time wounds. ALL heals. Expect delays however. Who knows, that disappointment might have saved a life.
Ultimately, clearing the CFI hurdle was little more than hasty formality on a day embroiled by a conflux of frankly more pressing issues we needn’t go into (an altogether different bag of yarns). A battlefield commission you might say. One more bullet dodged, justly or otherwise.
And the rest is mystery.
If nothing else, I’m living proof of the ‘Peter Principle’, that we all rise one way or another to a level where we’re incompetent, and hang there until succeeded by someone even more so.
The cross-country soaring season has wound to a halt until sometime this coming spring. The pilots’ final effort two weeks ago carried them terribly far (87 miles to Inyokern), but their write-ups are diamond quality:
Having flown Friday I had my climb out strategy pretty well in hand for Saturday’s cross county flight. Add to that a healthy dose of overconfidence having flown cross country for over two months. I launched immediately after PK and expected to out climb him and be leading the way north to Silver Queen. After all I had a newer, higher performance ship. As insurance I towed a bit higher than usual to hedge by bet. Boy did I get owned. I gave it all I had for over an hour and managed to lose 2000’ off tow. It’s remarkable how many cuss words one can utter in an hour. I promised myself to never again think that I am anything other than a neophyte in this sport.
After being taught a lesson I managed to climb to 12K at Williamson, call Silver Queen as my first alternate, and chase PK now 40 miles North. I was able to climb to a comfortable 9K at Silver Queen and call Cal. City as my next alternate. This time I had enough altitude so I headed for the hills towards the Three Sisters and Cache Peak. Here I found thermals topping out at 10K.
The coolest part of this flight was flying with a flock of thirty or so migrating Turkey Vultures. They were flying in single file West of Cache Peak. Bet I “wasted” 20 minutes marveling at their beauty and grace. Migratory birds have evolved to use next to no energy as they cruise along effortlessly.
As I worked my way north, it seemed the best lift was in the foothills rather than over the high ground. East of Chuckwalla Mountain I climbed in smooth thermals to 11K, which was enough to call IKY as my next alternate. Looking down at Cantil, the Wide Spot and Hede’s as I headed north, they looked doable as land out locations. But, I promised myself we would become better acquainted during the off season.
About now I heard Peter, north of IYK in rough air, calling to his crew that he would be landing at IYK. With plenty of reserve I reached Boomer Ridge and headed north of IYK. That was all I needed to hear and decided to join the Peter and Sean for dinner and some glider pilot comradery. So I let down at IYK. Besides, I was in no mood to try to outdo PK anytime soon, at least this season.
I want to thank Sean, Peter, Barry, Karl, Chuck and the rest of the Crystal Squadron for nurturing me along this season. I’ve had loads of fun and gained a couple more grey hairs, but have enjoyed every moment.
I’m looking forward to continuing my apprenticeship with these truly talented and remarkable pilots in 2018.
I have given it a try once again along with Bradley (ES) last Saturday. Although some of the other regular Squadron guys were smarter than us, and had thrown in the towel for the season. Both Bradley and I launched right about noon. I took my usual higher tow on a cross country day, and released over the second ridge.
Not much there but than I connected with a nice thermal just north of the Chimney, climbing to about 9K, than heading toward Mt. Lewis under some growing cu’s, working up to cloud base – about 12k- and on my way north toward Backus.
Down to 6K I encountered small thermal activity just south of Backus, and then over the Silver Queen to about 7500’- enough altitude now to push into the Three Sisters. Arrived way below ridge top level and the usual struggle began but once on top of the ridge, good strong thermals were encountered. Nevertheless it took a lot of precious time this late in the season.
Got to 10K at Catch Peak and 12.5K near the Rock Pile, easy glide to Boomer Ridge. I did not encounter anything to write home about near Boomer or Owens Peak as a matter of fact, not being able to get much above 9K. The air was rough and choppy with an unusual easterly component. There were some clouds forming over the lower part of the ridge closer to 9Mile Canyon, so I headed that way. Sure enough the valley below seamed to be working well, probably a shear line in the making.
I looked at my watch and lo behold it was 3PM- really too late for any sensible distance, maybe Lone Pine or at the very best Bishop. We have driven back from Bishop and Lone Pine at least three times this season… no thanks to getting home after 1 a.m. in the morning, it is getting old. ( As Karl (C3) would say “I don’t need any more exercise, I had plenty in the past).
So I decided to call it a day, and put it away at Inyokern. Bradley ( ES) followed as well.
While breaking down, we had a call from Karen and Tom Serkowsky as they heard us land over the radio, and wanted to have dinner with old friends at the local Mexican joint. We all gladly got together and had a great time. (As a matter affect, celebrated my birthday as one can’t keep any secrets any longer due to the social media.)
At least for me, the cross country season is over for this year, and “the dark ages are upon us” (a John Gonzales proverb)..
I’d like to wish everyone a safe and healthy off season and hope to see you all enthused and ready to do it again in the spring of 2018 .