Monday, March 16, 2009

So Cal XC sites

Plowshare Peak

Located in the Los Padres National Forest, Plowshare Peak overlooks the western end of the Cuyama Valley. The site record (Tom Truax) is 110 miles to Palmdale. This is a classic seabreeze front site flown mostly in late spring and early summer. Typically, the desert air drains west toward the ocean early in the morning. However, once heating occurs inland and the air becomes relatively less dense the flow reverses. As the cooler more dense marine air moves its way inland it dives in below the lighter desert air causing it to lift, often times higher than what it would just by convection alone. Plowshare Peak is in a perfect position for pilots to take advantage of this converging air.

When timed correctly pilots will stay with the seabreeze front either out above the Cuyama Valley or atop the Sierra Madre mountains as it makes its way eastward. However, more often than not progress is stalled just east of New Cuyama by air flowing in from the Central Valley, which seeps in through the canyons near Maricopa and meets the seabreeze front head on. However, if a pilot can get around the corner near Santa Barbara Canyon they can get back into a NW flow and be able to extend their flights.

When the record was broken pilots were getting as high as 12,000 ft and were able to fly over the trouble spot near New Cuyama. From Santa Barbara canyon they continued southeast toward Pine. From Pine they headed NE to Frazier Mountain and then out into the Antelope Valley

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is at its best during the post-frontal days of winter and spring. The site record is 100 miles (Craig Warren) to Palmdale. Since the Santa Ynez range is so close to the ocean it is very much influenced by the cool marine air especially in early summer when there is such a drastic difference in ocean and inland temperatures. But even in the winter when ocean and land temperature differences aren't as great, thermal killing inversion layers are still common. However, when cold fronts come through they steepen the lapse rate creating unstable soaring conditions. Its not uncommon to see temperatures below freezing at the top of the boundary layer. Couple that with residual moisture that leads to the formation of thermal marking cumulus clouds and you have the makings of a great soaring day. Having said that, its not uncommon on post-frontal days for the winds to be too strong and or cloudbase too low to fly. But when conditions are just right there aren't too many other places that can compare.

Pilots sometimes do out and returns to the west but going XC here means heading due east along the the Santa Ynez mountain range toward Ojai and the Topa Topa Mountains. From the east end of the Topas pilots make their way to Santa Paula Ridge and the Santa Clara river basin. And it's the Santa Clara river basin where the flight really starts. If cloudbase isn't too low it is relatively easy to make it to Santa Paula from Santa Barbara. But further east the terrain drops to just a series of low foothills. Couple that with the seabreeze flowing up the basin and it becomes tough sledding to continue on. Even on great days there are a lot of 50+ mile flights but few 60+. Most people land somewhere along Rte 126 west of Interstate 5

On the day the Craig broke the record he was getting to 10,000 feet, about 3,000 ft higher than what is common on even the best of days. With that altitude he was able to fly up the backside of the San Gabriel Mountains east of the Interstate before angling out into the Antelope Valley where he landed.

Bates Beach

Bates Beach is a coastal ridge soaring site located just north of Rincon Point. But Bates isn't just a ridge soaring site. When it turns on pilots are able to hop over the PCH to connect with and ridge soar the coastal range that extends down to Ventura about 12 miles away. At the end of the coastal range pilots can either fly out to the beach to land or head over to another ridge know as the Avenue. From the Avenue flights out the Oxnard Plain are common. Rumor has it that Tom Truax was able to continue on and make it to Malibu one day.

Bates is generally the place to go on post-frontal days when the mountains in Santa Barbara are blown out. However, it's not uncommon for pilots to get on course in the mountains and have the winds pick up forcing them out toward the coast. If they happen to be in the right position they can make it out to Bates on a glide and then continue on from there.


Ojai (Topa Topa Mountains) is known as the place to go on Santa Ana days. It is best flown in the fall. The site FW record (Robert Millington) is 85 miles to Santa Maria and the RW record (Tony Deleo) is 133 miles to the Lucerne Valley. Santa Anas are down slope winds that filter through NE to SW oriented canyons. Because of the protection of the San Rafael Mountains that sit directly north and the way that the Topa range aligns, Ojai is generally not affected by them. It can be gusting up to 60 MPH offshore in the nearby Santa Clara river basin and still be dead calm in Ojai.

Flights to Santa Barbara are common. Typical days produce 6k thermal tops; on the day that Robert flew to Santa Maria they were getting to 10k in Ojai. On the very next day three of us went in the opposite direction out into the Antelope Valley using Pine and Frazier mountains as stepping stones. On a non-Santa Ana day Tony jumped over the back and got under a cloud street (13k) above the Sespe wilderness area that extended east to Interstate 5 between Lake Castaic and Lake Pyramid. From I 5 he angled NE to fly along the Leibre mountains before dropping down into the Antelope Valley and points east.

Pine Mountain

Pine is located just north of the of the Topa Topa Mountain range. The site FW record (Robert Millington) is 186 miles to Furnace Creek and the RW record (Tony Deleo) is 212 miles to the base of White Mountain in the Owens Valley. Pine is generally at its best when "Four Corners Highs" set up in late summer, which pump monsoonal moisture into the area. Lift is better when there is moisture in the air because a moist parcel of rising air retains heat longer than a dry parcel. Of course, there is also the added bonus of having thermal marking cumulus clouds present. But one of the drawbacks of this infusion of moisture is the chance of thunderstorms. However, Pine generally doesn't see the overdevelopment that some of the other desert sites to the SE do when the monsoonal flow sets up.

Another drawback on monsoonal days is that they are accompanied by SE winds and all of the long XC flights from Pine are toward the east. However, when the SE flow is light pilots can easily fly upwind; and if they're lucky enough to make it around the corner of the Tehachapis near Mojave the wind direction is perfect for a push up into the Owens Valley. Often times, though, a west wind will push through in the afternoon forcing pilots to angle over to the Panamint Valley instead.

Pine can work on other days well in the summer; the old FW record of 180 miles to Ludlow was set on a "blue" west day. On the same day that the Kagel record was broken Tony Deleo flew over 200 miles landing east of Twentynine Palms. Also on a west day.


Kagel is located in the San Gabriel Mountains above Sylmar. Although arguably the most consistent site in Southern California, it is not known for it's XC -- although the site record for both FW (Jeff Chipman and Ron Wiener) and RW (Sebastian Lutges) is a very respectable 141 miles to just east of Twentynine Palms. The building density of Los Angeles County makes XC flying problematic. Having said that, the XC flying can be very good on light Santa Ana days, for example, when the seabreeze is able to push back against the NE to set up a nice convergence over the mountain range. Flights to Crestline and beyond are possible. The old site record (Ted Boyes) was to the Palm Springs area. The new site record, however, took place on one of those magical days where pilots were able to get high enough to cross directly over the San Gabriel Mountains into the desert. And during another great flight, Adam Stone dropped over the back to Acton and then flew east along the north side of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains before dropping back over to the front range again near Yucca Valley to land in Palm Springs area.


Crestline for short. Crestline is located in the San Bernardino Mountains just a few miles east of the Cajon Pass. Although not as consistent as Kagel due to its exposure to northerly winds, it is a reliable place to fly. Like Kagel it not known as an XC site. But on the right day Crestline has the potential to produce exceptionally long flights. The site RW record (Bruce Barmakian) is 168 miles to Lone Pine.

The problem with XC here is timing. The desert works best in the summer, but during this same period the front range is susceptible to low inversion layers brought on by the marine air flowing east through the L.A. Basin. Generally speaking, pilots simply can't get high enough to go over the back into the desert when the prevailing SW flow sets up. A SE wind in the summer keeps the marine air away, but it also leaves the possibility of thundershowers. Still, for XC a SE wind is preferable. It was SE when Bruce set his record. On that day a number of us were able to climb to over 13k on the front range before heading out into the desert toward Hesperia and points north. The rather paltry FW record (John Scott) of 80 miles was set on the same day (later broken by Zac Majors with a 96.8 mile flight to Santa Paula).

Another notable XC flight (Dan DeWeese) was to the Mexican border (116 miles). The prevailing wind was north near launch but an east/west convergence set up further south along the course line. After first flying east to San Gorgonio, where he climbed out to 14,000 ft., Dan found a nice cloud street heading south set up over the town of Soboba. From Soboba Dan flew over Palomar Mountain then Laguna and finally Campo before turning back to land on Hwy 8.


Blackhawk is located on the northside of the San Bernardino Mountains not far from Big Bear and overlooks the Lucerne Valley. The site FW record (Rick Culbertson) is 161 miles to the north side of Las Vegas and the RW record (Bruce Barmakian) is 221 miles to Mesquite, NV. Although it is sometimes tough to get out of the Lucerne Valley, Blackhawk is probably the most consistent XC site in Southern California. Because it is open desert flying, there aren't a lot of obstacles and pilots can land practically anywhere. Also, despite having two launches that face NE and NW respectively, pilots, for the most part, can get off the hill in any wind direction. It just seems to always convect up slope.

Having written about the lack of terrain obtacles, there is restricted airspace (Twentynine Palms) just to the NE of launch. It is easily avoided, however. In a west wind pilots fly east along the mountains before angling out over Landers and then Joshua Tree. From Joshua Tree they only have to stay over Rte 62 to avoid the airspace to the south.

Even when the prevailing SW sets up it is pretty easy to stay west of the airspace from launch. During SW winds pilots either head up Rte 247 before dropping into the valley east of Daggett or they take a more direct route north over the Ord Mountains. Either way their destination is Intersate 15 where the SW provides a nice downwind shot to the Nevada border.

Tony Deleo had the most notable flight to the west when he landed just short of Santa Maria for 204 miles. Bruce Barmakian went 183 miles on the same day.

Ord Mountain

Located just east of Hisperia the XC pontential here is not that much different than Blackhawk's. One drawback, though, is it's proximity to the Cajone Pass, which makes it susceptible to the marine air that will often seep in from the L.A. Basin. Another problem is that it only has a north facing launch, but unlike Blackhawk, doesn't have a mountain range behind it to protect it from anything blowing from the south. But that didn't stop having both the FW record (Larry Tudor 173 miles) and the RW record (Bruce Barmakian 306 miles) occur on SE days. Both pilots on separate days flew up into the Owens Valley with Bruce contunuing on to Gabbs Nevada. At the time Bruce's flight was an unofficial "foot-launched" world record.

Lake Elsinore

Like Plowshare Elsinore is a convergence site. Located in the Santa Ana Mountains Elsinore faces east overlooking, well, Lake Elsinore. The site FW record (Randy Haney) is 167 miles to the Needles area. Just like Plowhare the early morning east flow reverses and comes onshore once it starts heating up inland. Pilots try to time their launches to coincide with this west/east convergence as it passes through. However, because of the terrain, the seabreeze also wraps around the north and south ends of the Santa Ana Mountains only to meet up again in what is known as the Elsinore Convergence Zone (see above) east of launch. Once across the lake pilots will follow this shear line to Hemet and points east. That is, if they can get up and over San Jacinto Mountain. Randy was able to do that on his record flight out to Needles. When San Jacinto proves too much of an obstacle "Out and Return" flights are common.

But, because of the surrounding terrain, seperate and localized convergence zones are also present, which pave the way for long flghts in different directions. One day Bill Soderquist and Bill Rear flew to Barstow after crossing over the San Bernardino Mountains via San Gorgonio.


1 comment:

Dizzy said...

John, Excellent summary! Thanks a lot.