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.

Forget that.

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.”

“Too late?”

“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’.


Look for a mixed bag his coming week, with strong west wind on Friday (think beaucoup lift at the work camp) followed by a shift to northeast after that.  The weather service is calling for cool and cloudy on Saturday, but our patron saint Dr. Jack says full sun.  Either way, if the northeast flow includes mostly north we can expect favorable conditions near the mountains, and if it’s mostly east… bring your own lift.  Remember, you’ve been spoiled by six months of summer, and now it’s time to be spoiled by a few weeks of sweet autumn weather.  Enjoy it while you can.



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.


Many times over the years we’ve pointed out that Crystal offers soarable conditions every single day from mid March to mid October, and guess what? October is half gone as of this weekend and we will have blue thermals — of the sustainer variety. Wind will remain light, and if northerly enough may support better lift in the mountains, but climbing higher than, say, 8000 feet will require holding your tongue in just the right place…