No, this isn’t about ramifications of economic policy, or Brazilian butterflies either. You already know all that stuff. Our topic today is a peculiar house thermal here at Crystal, called ‘the ripples’. Every glider port needs a house thermal, where the emphasis is not so much great lift as ready convenience. Our most potent one is the riverbed, eighty acres of barren boulders a mile off the west end where thermals can be bodacious right on into evening. Unfortunately though, departures and landings in either direction make it the wrong airspace for digging around low. That’s alright, we have other options.

My sentimental favorite, strange to say, doesn’t actually work in most ordinary weathers, demanding always and only one single condition to activate its magic: a northeast breeze. This simple requirement, however, is all it takes. You don’t even need strong sunlight. We’ve seen thermals there, admittedly feeble, on chilly overcast winter days when there were none anywhere else. And for sweetener, the ripples are adjacent to our east IP, so if you fail to climb you can roll straight onto the forty-five entry leg for downwind to 07 (always the active runway whenever the ripples are in play).

Looking from above the airport, you’d think they’re a couple square miles of dunes, but that’s not sand down there. It’s a dendritic pattern of stony ridges ten to twenty feet high, last vestige of hill country before the desert goes completely flat everywhere to the north.

My theory on the ripples is as simple as the effect itself, if only it were so easy to describe. While wind from any northern quarter can generate fine soaring in our local mountains, it’s typically cool air with anemic convective potential in the desert. Under such conditions, baby thermals skidding across flat ground lack the energy to rise away until they bump up against something like our ripples and break free.

Fine, so why in only a northeast breeze?

One edge of the ripple formation amounts to a small but abrupt step, a uniform obstruction perpendicular to only northeasterly flow. Apparently that’s the key. And incipient thermals that don’t rise at first are then pushed across a coarse washboard of ripple after ripple, rubbing loose more soft bubbles.

Thus a distinction with a real difference, the ripples as more a thermal trigger than a source. Granted, in many instances the same terrain feature is both, which may be true here as well, sometimes. But only in a northeast breeze…

Source or trigger, your best path to the whole truth must include sampling these ripples yourself to see what you think.

Everything’s small-scale in this case; light wind, moderate temperatures, minimal topographic relief; so the effect is limited too (character building, we like to say). Expect reluctant one- to two-knot bubbles, seldom much higher than 2000 AGL, but enough to keep you aloft on the kind of day when there may be little else available. If you find one, there might be two more nearby. Hold your mouth right, and a climb with real legs might drift you eventually clear up over the airport — which itself is also one heck of a house thermal!


Here it is April 4th (no fooling), and our thermals have rarely gone as high as ten thousand MSL so far this year. Ah, but it’s only early, right? Well…

April 2nd in the year 2000, I went cross-country at fourteen-five and climbed that high again after returning home, just to say so. A couple weeks later in 2001, we did two days out and back at seventeen-five! Ancient history? Beginning to seem like it.

More than ten years ago an old-timer from the El Mirage days who still remains active said he hadn’t seen a good soaring season in fifteen years, acknowledging a trend (back then) of declining dynamics all around this area that continues to the present.

Oh this is still the best year-round soaring site in North America, just not as fantastic as before… Before what?

We have two main components to work with, Earth and Sky. The ground hasn’t changed appreciably in thousands of years, so what is it that’s different about the air?

Just askin’.


As a kid I was always steadfastly unsuperstitious, having no cause to believe otherwise… until I took up soaring. Several seasons, I resisted conversion even as firsthand data continued to mount, and ultimately it was empirical (not theoretical) reality that persuaded me to sell my soul. Below are a few examples of Truth’s dark side, things you should say or do only if you intend to fail.

Pointing out to a passenger (or fans on the radio) how fast you’re climbing. This was the first such evidence I observed, but it’s still as prevalent today as the incessant gravity it conspires with. To intensify this hex, simply suggest that your companion glance at the vario. It’s guaranteed to plunge a moment later.

Blowing altitude carelessly. Fine with me if you want to pull spoilers at the top of a thermal and dive off thousands of feet — for sensible reasons of your own. Sloppy flying though, mindlessly squandering energy you could put to good use, is not only dumb and ugly, it’s disrespectful. Aeolus recognizes these insults, and is dispassionate in rendering verdicts. Every foot of height you misuse is one you may never get back!

Unnecessary circles. It takes twenty or thirty seconds to complete a typical circle, so every two you waste shorten the available time before sunset by about a minute. It’s always okay to fly another circle, even if only to further enjoy the view, but if you’re trying to get somewhere – or losing altitude – treat pointless circles like distractions on the freeway and fly right on by.

Trying to out-climb other pilots in a gaggle instead of feeling your lift and flying your bird. Gauging oneself against others can be helpful, but you’ll never outperform anyone by flying too slow, banking too steep, squirming, gritting your teeth, or indulging negative thoughts. The point is to ENJOY flying your best, whether it’s better than someone else or not!

Brash declaration before a flight on its speculative outcome. I committed this blunder prior to what would become my all-time favorite flight, ironically, and spent from then till the rest of the year living it down. It was brassy enough to claim a 500-kilometer circuit beforehand, but I mistakenly said, “500-mile circuit,” and when questioned on that, upped the ante by foolishly sticking to it. The flight was memorable for lots of reasons despite the extra burden I put on myself before takeoff, but it fell quite short of five hundred miles. Credit me for that.

Making a badge or record flight more for bragging rights than the joy of soaring itself. A former favorite student once found a state multi-place record he thought was breakable and drafted me to be his ballast. It was his idea, and would ostensibly be his record, so I made a point of not helping him prepare the documentation and barograph, and at least tried to not help much with the flying. He (we) did fine, and ended that long flight with a righteous sense of accomplishment. Then, rather than take a deep breath and celebrate he went straight for the barograph to admire his work. The crestfall was instantaneous when he learned that little ticking time bomb held no visible trace, turning his rosy glow to ash. Moments after completing the longest flight of its kind any two friends had ever made in California, he was bummed. I tried not to laugh out loud, and failed, shall we say, risibly. He eventually forgave me for that laugh, having none to blame but his egotistical self!

Last yet least defensible, failing to fly your very best the entire time you’re up there. This curse demands your compliance up front, willingness to endure tortuous minutes (hours?) staunchly refusing to surrender, persevering with every twitch of finesse you can muster to simply stay aloft until the brass ring finally comes around. Even when losing altitude, doing so as slowly as possible can be what keeps you aloft long enough for the magical moment to arrive. It does happen! Any time I fail when expecting more, I assume it was my own doing and wonder which of my maledictions cost me the most. All other rationalization is delusory.

Avoiding failure does not equal success, yet is often what allows it. There are countless ways to jinx yourself, and now that you’re alert to the peril you’ll probably start discovering them too. Think of it this way: eliminating certain anathemas from your list of options simplifies subsequent decisions, and that by itself could be critical on those occasions when time, uh, accelerates…


The coming week will bring lots of springlike partly to mostly, with pleasantly light winds each day. Thermal potential is still limited to about mountaintop height, but both Saturday and Sunday are forecast to come from the northeast, which is one of our favorite directions, pushing those baby thermals up against the mountains where they always rise higher…