Tuesday, February 19, 2008

First Flight of the Year


Santa Barbara is a hard place to call. It is at its best when post-frontal, but more often than not the winds are too north or cloudbase too low to get a great flight in. Since it is an hour and a half drive from my house in L.A., I can’t just jump on the good days like the locals who can just look out their kitchen windows. I always have to take my chances and hope for the best.
Monday was not post-frontal, but the forecast called for the same type of conditions: a steep lapse rate to about 6k with a lot of moisture; the winds were predicted to be WNW in the mid-teens above 4k and about 10 knots below that. If anything it looked like I would at least have Bates to fall back on if Santa Barbara didn’t work. And since I hadn’t flown since the end of October I decided that I was going to go up and give it a shot no matter what.

Woke up at 6:00 to a completely clouded sky. But when I checked the weather discussion page they were talking about a window of just partly cloudy conditions for Ventura County; a phone call indicated that it was mostly sunny in Santa Barbara; the winds, too, were turning more favorable; and so I threw the glider on the truck and hit the road.

When I got to Carpenteria the winds were actually eddying SE. Casitas Pass was socked in, but it was still pretty early so I held out hope that cloudbase would rise as the day progressed. Out to the west there was a beautiful cloudstreet out toward Santa Ynez Peak, so if we couldn’t head east through the pass it looked like a flight out in that direction looked more than doable.

I met Bob Anderson and his friend Marge, a PG pilot, at the beach. Marge was going to take a tandem ride instead of flying herself and drive for us after landing. To my astonishment Bob and I, along with just 2-3 PGs, were the only pilots heading up to launch. Seeing that it was holiday and such good conditions I thought the place would be packed.

The clouds were really starting to fill in as we headed up to launch, but looking down range we could see that the top of the peaks through the pass were visible. Cloudbase above launch looked to be in the high 4s -- maybe a little lower toward the east.

I launched after the tandem PG somewhere near 11:30. After getting a little bit above launch I headed over to the Thermal Factory, which is the first spine on the range heading east. I had a quick climb there to 5k and cloudbase and then I was on my way. A few 360s at Montecito Peak with a PG pilot and a couple more by myself atop East Romero and then it was over to Castle Ridge.

Here is where the flight got interesting. East of Castle I had to contend with a series of low cloud banks. Coming up to the clouds I had to decide whether to go under them or around them. To get under them I would have to cut off my climbs early, which was almost impossible in such buoyant air. For the most part I was just flying straight at this point without stopping so I didn’t have much choice but to go around. This didn't give me much hope of making it through the Casitas Pass. Maybe I would tag Snowball and then turn around and head in the other direction. I had one last bank of clouds to get around before Noon Peak, the start of the pass. I wasn't ready to give up on my progess until I could see what was going on behind that last white wall. If it looked like it would be just more of the same I was going to turn around. But once I got around the last bank I could see that, although base was still below the peaks at about 4k, things opened up a bit and there was some sun on the lower spines. I decided to continue on.

I got back up to cloud base at West Divide, but that didn’t stop me from coming into Whiteledge Peak way low. It would be close, but I needed to find a thermal right then and there or I would be looking at a long hike out (unfortunately, that is what happened to Bob). I lucked out and found something that got me up and over to peak. This is where things got interesting again.

The mountains in Ojai were completely shaded in. There was not one ray of sunlight anywhere on the range. The south side of the valley, however, was bathed in patches of sun so rather than stay in the mountains I angled out to the SE toward the Sulphur Mountains. Three thermals got me to the east side of the Sulphurs in perfect shape to cut the corner to Santa Paula Peak.

Like everywhere else along the range, Santa Paula was completely shaded in so I had to fudge out into the valley on my way to Fillmore. But with such a steep lapse rate I just knew if I could make it out to the Santa Clara river basin I had a great shot of making it to Interstate 5, one of my flying goals. Sure enough, at Fillmore I had a nice climb out to the high 3s above town, and then another climb in the foothills just east of Piru and then it was just an easy glide to the interstate. Further east the sky was completely black so there was no reason to continue on; it was just a matter of finding a nice LZ to land. I ended up putting it down on a plateau on the east side of Castaic Lake at an RC park, complete with a runway and windsock. Distance: 61.7 miles; time: just under 3 hours.

Photos by Bob Anderson

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