Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Blackhawk 9/14

I actually hadn’t planned on flying. Lauren had a conference at the La Costa Spa and Resort in Carlsbad Thursday-Friday and we had decided that she’d keep the hotel room an extra night and that the kids and I would drive down to meet her for a little poolside relaxation. There was some talk of staying even one more night but dad nixed that for a number of reasons, none of which, ahem, had to do with getting back in order to go flying – I hadn’t even looked at the forecast :-) But out of the blue (I tell you) both RebarDan and Tony called Saturday to say that they were heading over to Blackhawk on Sunday and wanted to know whether or not I wanted to join them, with Dan indicating that it looked like that there was going to be a pretty good turnout. I had to tell them that I would have to get back to them. “So, you want to go flying?” was Lauren’s response after over hearing one of the conversations. “I wasn’t even thinking about it, but…”

However, even with a kitchen pass in hand I wasn’t sure if I was going to go anyway as the logistics would be a problem for me. It’s a long drive out there and even a longer drive home when the prevailing SW winds set up. On long days that means I’m home close to midnight. On Sunday the winds were supposed to be ESE, meaning we would be flying toward home. Great, except that Tony was already out near Blackhawk camping out and Dan’s and John's crew would be heading back to San Bernardino at the end of the day. I could have left my truck out that way, but that would have meant another late night getting home and I just wasn’t in the mood for that. My ace in the hole was Jonathan Dietch.

Jonathan is back in the sport after a 20 year absence. He emailed earlier in the week to find out some information about Pine Mountain because he was thinking of heading up there on Sunday. I told him that I probably wouldn’t be flying, but Blackhawk would be a better call weather wise, and that for someone who is just getting started flying XC would be a better choice than Pine anyway (launch itself can prove to be tricky but once you get on course you can practically land anywhere). But I told him that if things changed I would call him on Saturday night to see if he wanted to throw on board. If the plan came together we would meet at my house in the morning and either hook up with Tony or Dan in Hisperia leaving my truck there for retrieval later in the day. Jon would fly to somewhere near the truck and then drive chase after that and we all would be home at a reasonable hour at the end of the day. Well, when I called him to let him know that my plans had indeed changed, he told me that he wasn’t feeling all that well and that he had decided to stay home and rest. “Well, if you just want to drive for me you can sleep in the truck all the way out to the Lucerne Valley” I sheepishly said in response. Jon was at the house at 7:00 and we were loaded up on Tony’s truck in Lucerne for the ride up the hill at 9:00. Dan and another crew from Crestline, including John Wright, would meet us at launch a bit later. All told I think we had at least 8 pilots up there.

Despite the predicted SE winds it was blowing straight up the NE facing launch when we arrived. Other than a few clouds over the mountains it was supposed to be a blue day with the thermal tops in the 12-13k range. At just before noon Tony was off first as is usually the case; he likes to be in the air when things turn on rather than on the ground waiting for them to. I would like to be able to do the same, but I don’t like wasting my non-sick air time bobbing up and down near take off so I always tend to go for a little later launch.

Anyway, once Tony started climbing out I got suited up and headed to launch. One last radio check and I would be on my way. UGH!! More radio problems. I just purchased a whole new set-up to take care of this crap and I wasn’t transmitting. While Jon and I jerked around with that, Owen Morse took my place in line. Eventually we got the problem fixed, but once I got into the air at about 20 after 12 another problem arose: the radio got wedged against my harness which engaged the PTT on the radio itself causing a constant high-pitched beeping noise. I couldn’t get at the radio where I had it mounted, but if I changed my body position a bit the noise briefly stopped. But after awhile that didn’t even help. I had climbed out a bit by then, but I couldn’t hear my vario and after no longer able to take the sound I decided to go out and land.

I couldn’t access the radio but I was able to grab the antenna. Even after a few yanks I still couldn’t free it up enough for the noise to stop. That is until I was well clear of the mountain and down to about 5k. With on last pull I could hear the Velcro coming undone and the noise suddenly stopped.

Once clear of the mountain the winds were as predicted out of the SE. My normal last chance thermal was nowhere to be found so I pointed the glider NW and blundered downwind. Luckily, it didn’t take too long to find something and after a slow climb I was back in the game drifting toward the 18 at just over 9k feet. Tony, at that point, was already in Apple Valley, Owen, a couple of miles ahead but still in the mountains and Dan, just getting off the mountain. Unfortunately, everyone else got caught in the SE flow and apparently barely made out to a landing area. There was also one blown launch.

After topping out at just above 10k just west of the 18 I continued on toward Apple Valley. As I pulled even with Rabbit Dry Lake Bed I opted to angle over to the Granite Mountains to give them I try. I wasn’t high enough to reach the spine that angles down to the SE and directly into the wind. I had to settle for a spine coming off to the south. The problem was that if the spine didn’t work I would find myself low on the leeside when I angled back downwind. And although I might have gained 100 ft or so I didn’t find anything cohesive and that is the situation I found myself in. Thinking that I made a big mistake I set my sights on a small rocky hill near the Bear Valley Cutoff. Down to about 5k again I started to pick up some scraps of lift before I reached the hill. It was another slow go at first, but it all came together for another climb out to 10k. From there I headed right down the 18 in very buoyant air.

Tony had called Joshua Approach in the morning to see whether or not R2515 would be cold. It was going to be so as long as we stayed above 6k we could fly up 395 toward the Owens Valley. But before I got in position to even consider that I had to first clear the Class-D airspace of the So Cal Logistical Airport. It ended up not being a problem as I crossed over the airport with about 5,000 ft to spare. However, by the time that I reached the 395 I was down below 8k. Couple that with the fact that Tony was struggling a bit up ahead and that there seemed to be more of an east push than south, I opted to head due west toward Palmdale and Lancaster rather than up 395 toward Ridgecrest.

If I had found a nice buoyant seam on my way to the airport it was just the opposite on my glide from it. After starting my glide well over 11k I didn’t find another thermal until I was down below 5k a mile or so east of Lake El Mirage. But, again, after a slow start I had an eventual climb out to the mid 10k. And just like before, I found a great seam of buoyant air. After climbing out to the mid 11s on the east side of the lake, I B-lined to a large dust devil set up about half-way across it near its southern edge. Since the dusty was drifting away from me toward the SW it took surprisingly long to catch up with. But once I did I had the highest climb of the day to just over 13k. Looking down on the swirling dust I could see a number of circling crows and Owen screaming in from the east. Pretty neat.

Once topped out I continued heading west fully expecting to run into the SW sea breeze at any time. I was flying in another buoyant seam. There seemed to be pockets of lift everywhere along my course line, but when I stopped to work them they never panned out. I was content to just dolphin fly my way to the 14. Unfortunately, at about the 70 mile mark my motion sickness kicked in. After that I let Jon know that I would be on final, but that I would try to at least make it to the 138/14 junction.

Up to that point, Jon had been reporting L&V conditions on the ground; it wasn’t until he made it to the 14 that he hit the sea breeze. I was at about 4k when I reached the 14 but at that height I was still seeing an east wind. Thinking that I just above the lower level SW I continued my final glide to the west. As I got lower my ground speed numbers did indeed drop, but not enough as I ended up whacking it in going downwind 85.4 miles from launch.

What happened was simple: when Jon was reporting SW winds he was a lot further south on the 14 than I was; I was on the wrong side of the convergence line. If I had been feeling better and made that assessment earlier I may have scooted south to work the shear line. However, the line would have taken me directly into Class-D airspace.

Owen landed at Avenue H and 20th street for just over 81 miles, a personal best for him. There is a good chance that he might have flown farther. Not being familiar with the area, when I indicated that I was heading for the 138/14 junction he thought that I meant the one on the south end of Palmdale, not the one on the north end of Lancaster. The deviation cost him some mileage.

Tony and Dan both headed up the 395 and landed in the area of Ridgecrest.

Labor Day Weekend

I guess before I post an entry about a pretty nice flight from Blackhawk on the 14th I should do one on a not so great flight from Pine Mountain over the Labor Day weekend. To be honest the main reason I hadn’t posted the write up earlier was because I was going through one of my, maybe it’s time to give the sport up, phases and just wasn’t in the mood. I get that way every once in awhile, especially after a so so flight. In this case it was that and the fact that they had another fatality at Kagel, making it two in the last two or three months; when you have kids that stuff weighs on you. You think, is it all worth it? After such a short flight the answer at that time was no. But like every other time I started thinking this way the feeling past with time and I was right back poring over the weather forecasts for the next opportunity to fly.

Anyway, here is quick recap of my 15 mile flight from Pine over the Labor Day weekend:

On Wednesday the forecast looked perfect: 14-15k tops with cloud development and light SW winds. It looked so good that tried to shame the Santa Barbara crew to come out and join Tony and me for a day of flying. They were supposed to head up to the Owens, but I happily pointed out that other than Saturday the forecast was saying that it wouldn’t be worth the trip and that they would do better by staying home and flying Pine. It worked. Five of them showed up at launch.

By Saturday morning the forecast wasn’t quite as good as the tops lowered to 12-13k with an added 20 % chance of thundershowers. We also had to contend with an upper level north until we got out into the Antelope Valley. Once out in the valley each model seemed to predict a different wind direction, from SSW to due west.

Despite the chance for overdevelopment the sky was completely blue when we stopped by the north launch to check the wind direction (light north). However, by the time that we got to the south launch a towering cloud had formed just east of the Chute. The cloud formed so fast I thought that the day would be over before we even finish setting up our gliders. But after the initial burst of activity things stabilized a bit.

I launched first. As you can see by my tracklog it took awhile to latch on to something. Tony launched right after, and after an initial climb out found himself down in the same position. It was, of course blowing south at launch altitude, but once I got above the ridge there was a pretty good north push. Despite the abrupt wind shift I had a fairly smooth climb to the mid tens. From launch I took a glide to the backside of Reyes where I tanked up to the mid 11s and headed for the Chute.

As you can see by the track of the thermal that I picked up just short of the Chute we had pretty strong NW wind at altitude. By the time that I topped out in the mid 12s I was back above the front range just east of Haddock Peak.

Up until then I was in the sun, but to the east the whole area north of the Chute was shaded in with development. A while back Tony got caught in some cloud suck to 19k (from a 13k base – yes you read that right) in the same area so I was a bit wary of taking a glide toward Grade Valley under the darken skies that extended out into the middle of Lockwood Valley. Because of my worries I flew through some lift in the beginning of my glide because I wanted to maintain a safe cushion between me and cloudbase. That ended up being a mistake because I didn’t hit any lift at all along my course line. As I write above, the shaded area extended well into Lockwood Valley. However, the southern edge of the sun line was just a mile or two off my right wing. From my position just short of Grade Valley I had a choice of either eking a glide to the sunny side of Lockwood or save some altitude by veering off to the south for the sun there. The problem with heading south is that there is only one area to land in. I would have to keep the LZ within reach while searching for lift. The terrain wouldn’t allow me to just drift downwind. Because I didn’t think that I had the horse power to make it to the sunny side of Lockwood high enough to search for lift I opted to head south. Besides, there was a line of wispies that extended from the back side of Thorn Point (the east end of Pine) to Alamo Mountain.

Well, the decision didn’t pay off and I was soon on the ground less than 15 miles from launch.