We were gliding toward a big mountain in strong crosswind, expecting dependable ridge lift when we got there. A smaller hill lay a couple miles upwind, certain to undercut lift somewhere below, but we intended to remain safely above any of that.
Well below the crest we watched loaves of newly fallen snow tumble from pine boughs in random gusts and wander up-slope. Up on top, spindrift was wafting off the ridge in giant banners that diffused in the wind. Then … I did a blink-your-eyes double take. Exactly where we were headed, acres of wind-borne snow were going the wrong way, an airborne avalanche flowing rapidly down into a narrowing defile!
Entirely unseen but quickly becoming obvious, something was dumping big sink onto the windward flank of our mountain… We could actually see a descending curve bottom out in the flowing snow. Not what we were looking for, so we pulled a quick one-eighty and vamoosed.
What happened later I don’t remember, lots of normal stuff probably. But the question lingered, if that was rotor sink hundreds of feet higher than its source terrain far upwind, how’d it get there?
Recognition came ten years later via the ‘radical symbol’ for square root: √. No mathematical significance mind you, just the figure itself as if a prehistoric hieroglyph. Keep this shape in mind (only a whole lot bigger) as a geographical profile.
For those familiar with Crystal’s locale, we’re looking east through Vincent Gap. The little spike at left is Blue Ridge and Baden Powell is on the right, 1800 feet higher. Wind is 20+ from stage left, tumbling over the low peak, across the gap and up the bigger slope like a tide of lottery balls.
Here’s the thing. Each ball is an individual rotor tripped into motion by Blue Ridge, so from this perspective they’re all rolling clockwise, left to right. Therefore, even as all the rotors are pushed upslope, every one that contacts the hill does so with its down side first… Hence the airvalanche.
Without that flocking of loose snow on the pines we’d have flown straight into nasty sink and nowhere to go but down… One more reason, if you’re counting, to look out the front when you fly.
Kudos to Mark McCurley, who passed his commercial glider check ride last week!
Now we move into the month-long period of shortest days and longest nights. Two days of occasional rain will come to an end by Friday, and it’s always so beautiful after a storm! Expect fair skies and very light wind the next few days (warming to all the way up to 60 degrees F on Sunday!) with soarable lift definitely in the ‘character building’ category…
Jay, a savvy pre-solo student, completed his standard launch protocols by stiff-arming the brake handle exactly as he was taught. Then, when the rudder didn’t wag I supposed he was just over eager and did that for him.
Several times in those next few seconds I could have added a touch of something, but never quite needed to as we veered one way and gradually back, wings almost level, bird finally lifting off by itself the way it should. I remember thinking, ‘He’s usually sharper than this.’
Then fifty feet up, one wing dropped and we swung out to that side. I cringed as remaining runway neared zero, watching for Jay’s response. All he did was tilt his head square with the horizon. Only as I intervened did he blurt, “Uh, you’re flying it, right?”
“I wasn’t, but I am now,” we both said at once… and arm wrestling didn’t work much better.
Jay thought my pedal wag indicated exchange of control and dutifully let go the moment we began. From there on, each deferred to the other and both went along for the ride — a thousand feet forward and a full wingspan into the air with no one in command!
Easy on the kid, I told myself. Not his fault, it’s mine for butting in with the rudder wag.
Someone watching said even our wing drop looked fairly normal, given the context, and wondered only why my correction was so awkward. No harm in the end, and everyone got a smile out of it…
But it’s really not funny, is it?
As the CFIG solely accountable for whatever might happen, I’d like to think my response was at least timely enough. But imagine the same scenario for two casual pilots, each trusting the other with both their lives. How long might either wait to question what neither is doing, and how deft the recovery when both get a grip at the same time? Could get sticky!
The tandem configuration of glider cockpits naturally invites such confusion, but it’s still preventable, and in more than one way. The gold standard is “I have control” or “You have control”, or some verbal equivalent. Also common, a quick jiggle of the stick when control is being transferred frequently. But communication of any kind requires agreement on what things mean, or don’t mean.
Also, someone should be already in control…
Many seasoned pilots can tell of similar embarrassments and most of their stories seem to end well. Maybe that’s because those that didn’t end well don’t get told. Nothing is more important at any time of flight than knowing who actually has the con, and no time is more critical than launch! Otherwise it’s Russian roulette with no empty chambers.
Last week, 14-year old Frankie Fremont flew his first solo flights on Saturday and then doubled down on that the next day! Only the first of what he expects will be a long career in aviation.
Don’t look now, but summer’s really over even in the Mojave. According to one forecast, temperatures this weekend may be peaking in the fifties. Plenty of wind midday too, to keep thermals from even starting to form.
So what to do? If wind’s from the south, we’ll have WAVE, but it’s expected to be westerly. Best bet this week will be our trusty Work Camp and probably all along the Second Ridge.