IT’S NOT THE HUMIDITY, IT’S THE HEAT

First, this week’s congratulations go to Casey Sholz who passed his commercial glider check ride last week, and to Travis Michael (a rated power pilot) who flew his first glider solo solo.

In other news, you may have already noticed our current heat wave.  It will continue this week, with tall and powerful thermals boiling mostly unmarked except for maybe Sunday.   Winds aloft will be very light and southerly, but during the maximum heat of each afternoon a merciful westerly breeze should provide a little comfort.

SEE YOU SOON!

‘MONSOON’ CONTINUES

First, Congratulations to Joe Curtis, who passed his commercial glider check ride last weekend, and to Katie Hetland who flew her first solo!
The humid, sometimes cloudy weather that began last weekend is scheduled to continue at least through Sunday.  Light westerlies will feed plenty of thermal activity of course, up to 12,000 feet or so, with only slight chance of an occasional shower.

BAJA 600?

All the seasons I soared daily in New England, the closest I ever came to a shearline was reading about it — with one noteworthy exception. It was early evening when I spotted two osprey gliding in tandem up the middle of our valley. Pulling in behind them, I was surprised by soft, steady zero-sink that just went on and on for miles. All I did was follow the birds, as a little cloud formed straight ahead. And this was a half hour before sunset.

Turns out it was cooling air down from mountains on either side of the valley and converging between, a phenomenon referred to by that region’s hang glider pilots as ‘wonder winds’. Among the family of convergence phenomena, this may be feeblest, because it happens over low ground and open space, as a function of subsidence at day’s end. Surely it happened there more often than once every sixteen years, but until stumbling across the osprey I’d never noticed it.

(Why shearlines are novelties back east and common out here is a fascinating question. Don’t ask me. Someone who knows should pipe up and tell us!)

So what constitutes a shearline? In simplest terms it’s two or more bodies of air moving together, impelling at least one to rise. This can be due to a difference in temperature-slash-pressure, or one homogenous airmass flowing around some obstacle and converging again. The classic sea breeze can exemplify both. Here in Southern California we have them all, greatly enriching conditions wherever they form.

With this in mind, consider the Baja peninsula a few hours’ drive south of Crystal. Though more than 600 miles long, much of it’s barely 50 miles wide. Water in the Sea of Cortez averages about ten degrees warmer than the Pacific, and land surface temperatures on the two sides follow suit. What’s more, prevailing ocean winds (from north on the west and from south on the east) are pulled by friction, onshore — toward each other…

An interesting website, nullschool.net, shows granular forecasts of wind, temperature, and scads of other data for the whole world in something close to real time. Go there and you’ll find a convergence developing the length of Baja every afternoon. As relentless sun bakes those stony hills, two onshore breezes collide with a combined speed normally in the range of ten to twenty knots. This makes it easy to imagine terrific convection running more or less continuously, unmarked except for fat spots, all the way from La Paz up to… some landable patch a thousand kilometers north.

And therein lies the rub. Baja offers perilously few airports, or even dirt strips. Lake beds are rare and scary small, and except for concentrated sections of western coastland there are no hay fields anywhere. To salt your wounds, our line of convergence typically hugs the eastern (more remote) coast, sometimes spanning creepy miles of open sea. Still, not counting a handful of seventy-mile tiptoes, there’s nearly always somewhere within theoretical gliding range.

Now think about it. Given the extreme dearth of safe landing options, it’s reasonable to suppose that this unique region’s enormous soaring potential has never yet been explored from any sailplane, ever! Thousands of 1000-K days have silently boomed along that rocky spine, unsoared. But today, with 60/1 ships and sustainer engines, it seems only a matter of time.

Somebody’s gotta go first. You game?

VIVA LA THUNDERBIRD

This story is not about flying per se, but mountaintops share some obvious relation, and any pilot who’s not curious about lightning… should be. It happened at the Cliff House, tucked up against vertical rocks below Vermont’s highest summit. Visualize steel cable more than an inch thick (longest continuous one in the world when built) running a mile and a half up and down the mountainside, suspended by twenty-some tall steel towers. Visualize also, up from three directions, pairs of snow-making pipes eight inches in diameter, one for water and one for air, barely covered by cracked rock. Think of all those big steel arrows converging at the top, right where we stood admiring a storm…

Who knows, maybe such minutiae mean little to the lightning god(s) in choosing which tree to split. And what if the aim is pinpoint – we are dealing with the Almighty after all – but interfered with by some unknown ‘factor’? Perhaps a Brazilian butterfly.

Anyway, we were standing on the concrete platform where gondola cars come in and out, counting a strike or two each minute in the few square miles still visible. We’d been at it awhile, and being terminally lazy I leaned against a solid object to help keep me upright. Immediately the nearest crew mate looked over and stepped away, drawling, “Wouldn’t be touchin’ that if I was you.”

What he thought I shouldn’t touch was part of a stanchion guiding the cable around a ten ton bull wheel above the giant electric motor that drove this whole contraption. (Oh yes, nearly forgot about the bigass power cable running up there too!) Those steel beams I stood between at the console when starting the lift and shutting it down every day seemed so benign, not much taller than me and in under the roof for goodness sake — despite their being sunk into a mountaintop and painted bright red! I stepped back feeling like a fool, and seconds later lightning struck that top tower twenty feet out the door.

True fact. My arms happened to be crossed at that moment, and fingernails of one hand dug blood from the other bicep. Better than burns I suppose.

And then… one autumn afternoon I was down in the woods trimming limbs for off-piste ski terrain and listening to the approach of a storm like a ball game on radio. At that same time the crew were somewhere up the line in their bizarre two-level work car lubing sheaves. When lightning finally struck on the mountain itself I heard the emergency diesel crank up to hurry them down SAP. Time to hide the axe and head on in myself… Then a terrific bolt engulfed the whole mountainside, spreading out like roots of a tree and striking many places at once. The lift abruptly stopped.

Momentary power outage? Seeing the guys afterward, I forgot to ask. They all displayed singed hands from where they’d been touching the work car’s steel frame — and the look in their eyes was even crazier than usual.

The storm persisted and there was beer in someone’s trunk, so that was it for the day, which meant I’d have to take the jeep back up. Got home just as the clouds parted, and with a fat moon out it was just plain old heavenly. Don’t miss skiing a bit, honest, but I do miss those storms! As for the Almighty, nothing to do but wait in good faith… for her shocking next memorandum.