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?
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.
In some parts of the world, ‘monsoon’ means low clouds and heavy rain, so no, we’re not calling for that. What folks around here call monsoon weather amounts to comparatively more (high) cloudiness than the usual solid blue – plus a bit of heightened humidity. That’s it. So we won’t see any rain at all in this ‘monsoon’, except maybe during a stray thunderstorm. But we will see our share of robust thermal activity throughout, and that’s the important part… See you soon!
A great philosopher once wrote, OBTAIN SUCCESS THROUGH FAILURE, PURSUE CERTAINTY IN DOUBT. Or something to that effect (who knows, I was barely fifty at the time). Point being, failure to try puts your chance of success at absolute zero. What kind of action plan is that?
So kudos to those who dare to try, ‘cause accepting a challenge and learning a ton is what defines success. Diamond distance is a number.
This was the first flight of my second season flying straight out with the Crystal Squadron. Chris was nice enough to launch PK and ES as soon as we were ready a little after noon. A high tow to the familiar second ridge thermals produced an easy climb up the spine of Mt. Lewis. From there South and a comfortable climb topping out at 11,300’ above Throop Peak. PK, now 20 minutes ahead, radioed “no lift over the desert”.
I called down to my crew to proceed to my first alternate, Rosamond dry lake. I pointed ES North and put on my best smile. I reminded myself not to stop for the inevitable sucker thermals over the desert. I arrived at Silver Queen at 5200’, low but with enough altitude to give it a try or two. Above the windmills, West of Silver Queen, I hooked up with a nice thermal and climbed to 7900’. This was enough to call my next alternate Mojave Airport, and then Cal City.
On to the mountains West of Cal City, every time I tried the high ground I lost altitude and retreated to the flats where I’d climb. Back and forth I went until after the better part of an hour it finally sank in that I needed to stay over the desert. Another nice thermal and I climbed to 10,000’ above Cal City Airport. Next stop Inyokern.
Forty miles and 6500’ of altitude to work with should be enough. North again, porpoising through more sink than lift. Half way to Inyokern I started doing The Math and not trusting my flight computer. I watched my margin diminish to minus 500’. None of the few land out locations towards IYK were my first choice. On prior flights, with plenty of altitude, these were barely visible. This time I was low enough to really consider them as alternates. Finally, Inyokern Airport started moving up in the canopy as I approached. ES arrived 1000’ over pattern altitude fat and happy.
As I did my landing checklist I realized that I had flown the entire distance from Cal City with my landing gear down. Gulp. I was going to make a pit-stop at Cal City, lowered the gear, then decided otherwise. PK was disassembling below so I decided I’d learned enough on this day. My crew arrived 5 minutes after coming to stop in front of the glider trailers.
On the drive home we stopped for Mexican food at Rosamond Airport. We had a delicious dinner before driving back to Crystal. We arrived to watch a beautiful sunset while we secured our trailers.
Not much to write home about. This Saturday looked as if it maybe somewhat promising after a long wait for descent conditions. Since I have business and family obligations for the next two weekends and it was my turn in the barrel, despite the fact that I been slightly under the weather recently – I opted to try.
The conditions favored the northerly route despite the north-northeasterly wind predictions. Both Bradley (ES) and I launched as promised – thank you Chris – right about noon. I released at the labor camp after a high tow in zero lift and after what seemed as a long search, I finally hooked one almost at the northwest end of the second ridge taking me to 10k.
Shortly after that I headed for Lewis where a nice thermal was marked by Jim Grey ( thank you Jim) which took us to almost 12k. On my way on the long smooth glide – I did not encounter anything until just south of Backus, now down to 6k I was able to climb again and then again over the Silver Queen.
Tip-toeing to the Three Sisters, finally a nice thermal produced a climb above 8k, pushing over to Cache Peak produced zilch ( should have known – the wind mills were not turning), turned tail down to the Barren Ridge/Lone Tree Canyon area and struggled low in light lift in the heat what seemed like a very long time.
Once again started to belly crawl toward Inyokern, and low behold just south of Boomer conditions kicked in and now back to 10k at Boomer in very strong lift. However I decided to throw in the towel as the combination of not feeling great and the low crawling heat started to take its toll on me, landed at Inyokern with Bradley.
Moral of the story; yep if the main instrument is not firing on all cylinders the obvious choice is a no go, better luck next time!