We all know that wind must flow downward before it rebounds to form a soarable wave, right? And beneath every wave’s crest there’s rotor… Yes well, for every atmospheric phenomenon that obeys a textbook drawing there are more that stray from it or defy it outright. I’ve soared in wave with no apparent rotor beneath it, and gone two miles up in rotor that seemed to have no wave above it. Such anomalies should not be ignored or discarded as junk data, but valued as the scent of fuller understanding yet to be gained.

Diagrams of wave usually show an initial downward flow hugging the hill like a blanket before curving back up from the bottom, with rotor churning a mile or more downwind, directly below the ‘primary’ wave’s crest. That’s not always how it works though. Living ten years on a mountain that regularly generates classic wave, but flying daily only spring, summer and fall, I experienced more wave days from the source itself than from any cockpit, and am very sure of this uncertainty.

The ridge is a mile and a half long on top, standing quite perpendicular to frontal westerlies. Ski trails run more than 2000 vertical feet down the lee slope, which I might yoyo ten to twenty times every day of winter, always observing weather on the ride back up. Often as not on wave days, surface wind flowed up that slope, meaning primary rotor in direct contact with the hill.

So what’s the difference? Or is there a difference?

In my expert opinion, maybe. When surface wind flowed uphill the wave’s first crest would sit directly over the base parking lot, but when wind flowed downslope it followed the standard schematic, feeding a ‘primary’ wave (generally larger) where it’s supposed to be some distance downwind.

Of course there were also many wave days with no wind at all near the surface. About them I have, quite confidently, no opinion. Swear to Gaia.

Ultimately, the wave itself has no reason to care where its rotor is, or even if it exists. Like all wild creatures, wave simply does what it’s impelled to. Perhaps that’s the main lesson it has to teach us…


First, my apologies. Should have gotten to this weeks earlier, but every day I’m more like Lucy at the fudge conveyor, falling further behind even as I stumble forward. Things seem to be accelerating, too, though it’s probly only me just slowing down — and down and down. However it’s spelled, results are the same.

Each season about this time I’ll be doing what I’ve done every year since the Carter administration, imbibing from the sky as much energy and enlightenment and plain old fun as possible, when suddenly I’m forced to realize it’s not summer anymore. Time after habitual time I ask of autumn thermals what only summer thermals can provide. All those months of accumulating overconfidence and learning to expect ever more eventually bring dismay at finding the season’s inevitable first gray hair. And as anyone knows who’s tried to disappear their first gray hair, it soon returns — even grayer.

So what to do about this? Complaining doesn’t help much, however irresistible the temptation. And fighting back is pointless because there’s no way to reverse the irreversible. But heartily playing on, even knowing you’re sure to lose, satisfies far better than quitting ever could. (I was one of those knuckleheads who would stay outside until it got too dark to see the ball.)

While high-school coaches claim that sports teach lessons about life, what kids actually learn is that cheating’s okay so long as you don’t get caught. In soaring though, cheating is impossible. Those who cheat perish. Gravity and drag are unforgiving referees.

Soaring is a disco ball of subtle and not so subtle lessons exemplifying all the joys and trials of ‘real’ life, and this inexorable aspect of time is among the more salient. September’s morphing toward November is not the cheeriest prospect for soaring pilots, but it doesn’t mean time to quit. Later trigger temps, slower climbs, lower cloud bases and earlier sundowns are all fundamental aspects of our glorious game, and skipping out on them is like dismissing your grandparents because they no longer toss you in the air like they did when you first met. Savvy grandkids learn to reassess expectations over time, always angling for the very best of whatever’s left.

As October morphs toward December, the wise seek of some kind of worthy tradeoff, whatever that might be. See it as your opportunity to hone fine points of skill or discover some new way – any way – to stay aloft. This can be every bit as challenging, and easily more educational than bombing along at warp speed on supplementary oxygen. Maybe cheaper, too.

Here at Crystal, making chicken salad out of chicken s**t is often easy. About the time thermals disappear for our month or so of winter, a panoply of various local phenomena and hybrid mountain effects generates at least some kind of soarable condition nearly one day out of two, often in ways quite different from those before and after. In other words, unique. And all with snow gracing the mountaintops like that lovely silver at Grandma’s temples that would have looked out of place when she was your age.

So no, the first gray hair does not signal an end of anything, except summer. And summer’s end, especially in the Mojave, is in many ways a welcome change of pace.

Why this always comes as such a surprise is a separate issue…


When entering a thermal not already marked by a circling glider, which way should you turn?  Toward it of course, if you know which side it’s on.  But that’s not always certain at first, so what other rationales might there be?

Everyone agrees on flying our circles against any lateral rotation, if it exists, but that’s seldom apparent either.  One old timer said that since most dust devils in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise due to Coreolis effect, he always turned clockwise, i.e. to the right.  Okay, but even if there is lateral rotation, it’s typically very minor (except in dust devils) and will approach zero not far above ground level anyway…   Another pilot always turned left regardless of any other considerations, because that’s required for competition where he came from in Europe.  Other than solving the problem of folks occasionally circling opposite directions, these strategies seem more trouble than they’re worth.  And there are others that confuse the issue even further.

All other factors being equal, I nearly always make that first turn into the prevailing wind, left or right.  My rationale:  every thermal drifts in the wind as it rises, so an infrared snapshot would show the thermal leaning downwind (visualize this schematically and think it through so you really understand it).  Because air rising toward you comes from the windward direction, if you turn downwind and don’t find lift you descend through the sinking air beneath the thermal while it continues to rise, and you’ll need to fly an upwind leg to relocate that thermal at some lower point further away.  But if you turn into the wind and away from lift you’ll be descending into space from which lower, newer pulses continue to rise, and simply continuing your circle will probably bring you back into lift with minimal loss of altitude or time.

It’s a big sky and which way you turn for any particular thermal is, usually, a small stakes gamble.  There’s plenty of room up there for you to devise your own strategy.  Meanwhile, in any possible scenario from aborted takeoff to crash landing, if you’re unsure which way to turn, the best default is into the wind.



Some pilots begin their landing pattern far higher than the normal altitude, or from some unusual place, often from mere sloppiness.  We generally discourage that for several reasons.

First, here at Crystal more than half our flights are for training, whether with an instructor or solo, and it’s tough to develop solid technique for predictable landings while starting from a different point each time.  Those who lack inexperience or currency need practice, and dismissing standard procedure denies that purpose altogether.

Also, other pilots may be nearby, lower but still above pattern height, still trying to stay aloft (I’ve been right there a hundred times).  By entering too soon you could oblige me them to give up and land first, only to pay for another tow.  Perhaps someone is below you in a blind spot – theirs and/or yours – intending to land before you do.  They may never see you and unknowingly cut you off.  Or others may see you but not believe you’re really in the pattern, and so commit to their own approach…

You think we’re overstating this?  True story:  A student once entered downwind 300 feet higher than standard, and while he was arguing that the difference didn’t matter, not one, but two other gliders passed under us at the proper height, supposing we’d follow them in a minute or two later.  Yes, that happened.


If you happen to arrive lower than standard pattern entry height, however, flying a ‘proper’ pattern would only squander precious energy and lengthen the period of increased hazard.  Instead (being careful not to interrupt ordinary traffic!) fly directly to the point where you can intercept standard procedure as high and as soon as possible — even if it means a nice crisp COORDINATED turn to final at 100 feet.  The objective, after all, is to make a safe landing in a safe place.  Nothing else matters.


Practicing the straight-and-narrow of standard landing patterns leaves all that other air space available for dire improvisation in genuine emergencies — for which every self-respecting aviator should develop the flexibility to adapt when necessary.  We do encourage rated pilots to practice unusual approaches when appropriate, but only with communication beforehand.