All this stuff about flying near the good earth might give some readers the willies, but should it? Solid ground has never been known to jump up and smack people; that’s more our kind of thing. Be honest, how many thousand times have you barely missed a freight truck, head-to-head on a two-lane road, at closing speeds over a hundred? If that doesn’t scare the squeezy outta you, you’re braver than me! Six hundred million cubic miles of bedrock is far more predictable than a highway full of complex machines and their distracted drivers. This is not speculation, empirical proof is everywhere.
But isn’t flying within five hundred feet some kind of violation? Let’s look at the FARs.
Sec. 91.119 — Minimum safe altitudes: General.
(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
‘Power unit’— we got that covered. And if ‘emergency landing’ means RIGHT NOW with no second chance, it’s what glider guiders do every time we fly.
(c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.
Believe it or not, that’s all the regs to say have on this topic, and I’m eternally thankful. For where we’re going (and where we’ve been), there are exactly zero persons, vessels, vehicles, or structures. That’s part of why we go there!
California’s White Mountains amount to one enormous ridge of naked rock running north and south. Its lowest saddle in one 25-mile stretch is more than 11,000 feet above sea level, high as the summit of Oregon’s iconic Mt. Hood. Exceptional as this range is, most pilots seek only to escape it, vertically and horizontally, in a mad rush to go somewhere… else. But where else would a soaring pilot rather be? This is the place. The Whites offer more than just a drag strip for number junkies or a jumping off place for your weekly pilgrimage to beautiful towndown Gabbs, it’s a full spectrum playground unto itself with more different ways to play, than the day has hours. Why so many rush past open palace gates to go shoot rats at the dump is a mystery. Different stokes I guess.
This joyride begins at Mt. Dubois, elevation 13,559 ft. (coordinates: 37.7832, -118.3434). Nothing more than a wide knoll a few feet higher than surrounding terrain, DuBois might be the flattest 13-K peak this side of Peru or Tibet. South of it, Pellisier Flats is as ‘sparsely populated’ as the moon, and offers a perfect venue for honing your nap-of-the-earth chops. Not precisely flat, but the smoothest ridgetop imaginable, it rolls languidly like sea swells ebbing after a storm. No trees, brush, or even a clump of grass in sight, just a carpet of frost cracked stones all the same desert beige, few more than inches in diameter.
The procedure is laughably safe and easy. Begin with the lowly outcrop of Dubois off either wingtip, flying southbound low as you dare somewhere between min-sink and best L/D. Hug the contour that keeps speed steady while an incremental drop of eight hundred feet over three miles makes getting too slow impossible. (This is one instance, however, where it wouldn’t cost much to have gear down, just in case… Use your imagination, that’s what it’s for!)
Half a mile in there’s a second knoll to dodge, left or right, in a skidded turn, which ground effect makes officially kosher. You can also hop straight over and down for a negative G fix, but please don’t try that the first time, and really tighten those straps when you do! Remember, this is all downhill, so any speed from fifty to VA is fine, provided you can hold your hand still. If too fast at the top, you’ll soon be way too fast. Chicken out when it doesn’t feel right, pull away to the west, find lift and fuel up for another try. No penalty for restarts!
The basic run seems to go forever, like waterskiing in heaven. Almost hypnotic, but textured enough to keep you alert. Careful not to catch a tip! After the ground finally disappears, slow up and consider what to do next.
You’re all of 26 miles from Bishop airport, but also 7000 feet above pattern height, so no worries there. Climb on up and proceed to Timbuktu, or turn a small gain into another run on those sexy flats. Or wander off and find some other sparsely populated hobby horse to goof around with on the vast and glorious Whites. Everything’s already paid for, and you still have all afternoon!
Going full monty on Pellisier involves more variables, less certainty, and double the fun. You can add at least a quarter mile beforehand by getting down early and fast, and zooming in ground effect up to DuBois. With experimentation, calibrate the optimum speed and start point, extending it further back north to where the ridge is flat only on one side and sheer on the other. How far you push this is between you and your mojo.
You can also tack on an amusing coda by artfully long jumping a mile off the far end to a gorgeous trap that quickly becomes the head of a corkscrew canyon. Follow it on down if you want, or try to, and break out at any time by simply slowing up. From there Bishop’s still in range, with probably gobs of lift on the way… Now doesn’t that sound more interesting than cruising straight at sixteen grand?
(Granted, safe nap-of-the-earth requires benign atmospherics, and this particular mountain churns up some of the world’s liveliest air, but as at the Rock Garden, if wind aloft is light and the hilltop broad enough, air low over it can be remarkably soft. And when it is dynamic near the surface, you’d scarcely be able to get down here, much less stay…)
So, back to our original question of crook or nanny. It’s possible to be two things at once, and Pellisier Flats is further proof. You can shoot yourself down there, or save a flight two hundred miles from home. I’ve done both, and like everything else, if I can do it you can too. Either way, whenever you’re in that neighborhood take a run or two on the deck, and see if it doesn’t alter perspective on which kinds of foolishness are more worth your time.