TRIMMING SAIL

Whatever the strategy of any long descending glide, degree of success depends in great part on effective, efficient technique.  Of course it’s imperative to always fly exactly the appropriate speed for each individual moment, but there’s more to it than that.  Every little deviation from absolutely straight and level means a longer flight path, plus additional drag from corrective inputs.  Meanwhile each fluctuation in ambient air will push you further off course unless you respond immediately.  When a wing rises by itself and you level it, that causes adverse yaw and instantly puts you off course – unless you use rudder too while leveling that wing.  The longer your glide goes on the more these little things add up, costing precious altitude upon arrival at your destination.  Here’s an example from a prior era of the Crystal Squadron. 

Two soaring pals left wave at 17,000 feet, gliding in identical sailplanes from the Devils Punchbowl here at Crystal downwind toward the Sierras.  When they arrived at Owens Peak 85 miles north, the one who flew a teeensy bit more carefully had lost three hundred feet less altitude than his buddy.  This enabled him to fly straight on up the range without pause, while the other pilot had to stop and climb.  It separated them by miles, and they never saw each other again that day.

The disparity in altitude lost compared to the great distance flown on that one glide was 0.067 percent, or less than seven ten-thousandths!  A very small difference, but impossible to recover once that energy’s been wasted.  To get the very most out of every glide, carefully manicure your bird’s attitude in all dimensions, each moment, with utmost thoughtfulness.  There is no other way!  

YGGDRASIL ?

Imagine a hill or mountain of any size, with rills, gullies or canyons running together from all sides toward the top.  Now visualize a gargantuan tree growing from it, made of thermal lift.  Its roots originate low in surrounding draws and grow together where the heads of tributaries meet.  When two or more roots join they push each other UP, accumulating kinetic mass times velocity squared, and flowing toward a large central current (the tree’s trunk) above the summit.  From there, lofting into even cooler air, the whole bundle continues to expand and accelerate.  In this way, one weak thermal scarcely wide enough to circle in down low may swell into a rampant, miles-wide brute high aloft. 

Say you begin among tight foothills nearly encompassed by rocks or trees, with one sure route to safety.  It’s either climb or retreat.  At first you may need to turn tight and reverse directions like a barn swallow until your thermal merges with one from a neighboring ravine.  Then you feel enveloping energy swell with each clawing step up the hill like the growth of a newborn flying tiger.  Grab its tail and hang on!

This same sequence of redoubling continues at ever greater scale until the biggest, strongest lift has been collected above the highest peak for miles around.  If mountains are steep with narrow crests like we have here at Crystal, booming lift from opposite sides of the great watershed will collide overhead in huge volumes.  Above there, lift may quickly weaken, or continue yet another vertical mile depending on the temperature spread (potential for overdevelopment is a function of humidity).  Inspiring to be a part of. 

The divine reality of such soaring potential should have some kind of special name, and since no one was here to stop me I coined one.  Okay, two.  YGGDRASIL is most appropriate, but it’s hard to say and almost nobody knows what it means.  (Scrabble players, look it up!)  So lest a listener think you’ve got something stuck in your throat, here’s another, tastier name for the ultimate over-the-top treat in any soaring playground:  BIG CANDY !   

The opposite occurs later, as high ground cools and these diurnal processes reverse.  Cold air from aloft flows down-slope, flushing away from hills into low areas, our magical tree melting into the ground.  Winds are always named for where they flow from, so these are known as ‘mountain’ winds.  They’re essentially all sink — until they flow against some obstacle, solid or atmospheric, and who knows, maybe head back up again… 

LUCY AT THE FUDGE CONVEYOR

A brilliant student on his third lesson posed a question that I’d mulled many times myself but never heard aloud.  “The positives of soaring are too many to count,” he said, “but what should I be most afraid of?”

Hmm.  Takeoff?  Landing?  Traffic?  Weather?  I settled on the surest way to poop in any of these beds: “Not thinking… and not keeping up.”

Mind is the glue that holds the whole shebang together, and the fidelity of cognition governs risk.  Your own brain, left unattended, might be the single greatest threat, for it never stops cranking away whether anyone’s in control of it or not.  Most of what we do in life involves complex thought and favors precise action, but no activity demands continuous, extemporaneous improvisation in many dimensions more than soaring – all while we’re hurtling through the air at highway speeds with our very bodies at the tip of the spear!  Each moment presents new arrays of potential to either consider or ignore, crucial options to seize or dismiss, and even those choices require slivers of time to deliberate…  Tock tick.

Time not invested mentally is time lost.  Falling behind in the execution of ongoing processes invites a vile magic, accelerating time and ceding serve to the Devil.  As in takeoff for example.  Or landing, or traffic, or weather.  Or Lucy at the fudge conveyor.

Soaring is safe if you THINK concisely about what’s happening NOW, and it’s scarier than driving a car if you don’t.   Brrr!

WHITE HAWK?

The moist climate in northern Vermont produces lavishly beautiful scenery, but tends to limit soaring potential. That, plus having only lower performance ships to fly, kept me from straying far there, but the ten mile ridge downwind of our airport became so familiar, I could put myself to sleep at night visualizing each fold and roll in the hillside I hugged so many hundreds of times to the far end and back.
We soared with hawks there daily, and what a blessing! They mark lift with amazing accuracy, yet seldom seem to mind when we nose in. One might be parked above a slope facing into the wind with its head down, hovering motionless over unsuspecting prey, and when we glide by it would only glance over briefly, then return its eye to the hunt.
Of course in a limited number of square miles the hawk population amounts to only a few individuals, and to humans passing at 50 knots they all look pretty much alike. Where one hawk’s range ends and another’s begins may be clear to them, but we have no way of knowing. Except…
One spring I was high above a broad area of canopy forest and saw a single white speck down against the sea of rich green. At first I supposed a big trash bag adrift, but it was moving across the wind so it had to be some kind of bird. Never seen any white birds around there large enough to spot from such a distance. A goose perhaps… but one all by itself? Hmm. I wanted to fly down for a better view, but it was too low to be sure of regaining enough height to reach home. Oh well, probably never see it again anyway.
Then a few days later there it was again, this time much higher, but before I could close in for a look it dove into the trees. That happened several more times as the season progressed, always somewhere along the same stretch of ridge, and the more I saw of it the more it looked like a big hawk – except pure white…  Eventually I caught it perched in a high treetop looking the other way (into the wind of course). I set up a careful approach and swept in from behind low and fast, reaching our nearest point before it startled and took wing. It was a hawk alright, an all white red-tail, believe it or not!
So where others of the species are downright brazen about holding their own airspace, why was this one so elusive? I’m no ornithologist, but have to wonder if the bird somehow knew that it’s plumage was a warning beacon instead of effective camouflage, and instinctively adopted more covert habits. Anyone’s guess. Supposing no other humans knew of my albino hawk, I almost wrote a piece about it for the local paper, but decided not to for fear some oaf with more ammunition than brains would get inspired and blast it into eternity.  Under those terms, all I could do was continue to enjoy the show.
October in that region is when hawks of all kinds migrate south, funneling from vast forests across Quebec onto the singular ridges of New England and Appalachia. About the time those first migrants started passing through, my secret friend disappeared. Generally, hawks return from southern winters to occupy the same territory year after year. Would the albino come back as well?
Sure enough, next spring it did return to reclaim its previous domain. Again its habits were reclusive, but familiarity brings benefits and more than once it let me near enough to see that this season it had one big feather of normal coloration on its left wing!
And then it came back a third year. This time the albinism was not so brilliant, a softer creamy shade, and it sported several tail feathers of conventional color as well.  It also seemed less elusive, more bold about allowing itself to be seen. That summer I finally had the pleasure of thermaling with the majestic beast, even making eye contact at times, as with all its ordinary cousins.
After the third year I never saw the white hawk again – or had it outgrown the albinism, now free rule its sector of Paradise without the onus of vivid costume?  We’ll never know.  Either way, that ended the white hawk phase of my story, just another in the growing list of wonderful, unique, always open-ended experiences accessible only to soaring pilots.  So many marvels have accumulated, it’s hard to imagine whatever could come next.
Only one way to find out…