Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Marshall Out and Return

A view of LA from Mt. Wilson

I'm still around. I haven't posted because I haven't had anything to write about. All the family and personal stuff is now on Facebook, and as far as the flying stories, well, like I just said, there hasn't been anything to write about. It's been a terrible year since my last entry. Four out of my ten flights ended up on the deck in front launch -- I think that the last time that I flushed right from launch was back in 2001. On two other occasions I landed early while the other pilots I was flying with ended up setting site distance records. And even though the remaining flights were okay they all ended in disappointment for one reason or other.

Despite the fact that I only fly about 10 to 12 times a year each year I try to make it my goal to break some sort of personal record, whether it be my longest flight in general or a first from a particular site. During the first half of last year I had several personal bests, but with the end of summer here it was beginning to look like this would be the first year in a long time where it didn't happen. Generally, I don't do a lot of flying between the end of summer and the first of the year when Santa Barbara begins to turn on (well, potentially turns on).

During a normal year, August and early September is the time when we see "Four Corners" highs set up, which bring in SE winds and sub-tropical moisture. Here in So Cal SE winds are desirable because they keep the marine air at bay -- no marine air no inversion layers. And other than during the spring rainy season most of the flying done here is under blue skies so a little moisture is always welcomed, with the operable word being "little." Often times it will OD due to too much moisture. Still, it's always a good idea to clear the calendar when the weatherman starts talking about Four Corner highs. But so far this year we've only seen one brief 1 or 2 day period where the high has set up, and with October around the corner it just didn't seem we'd get another chance at a long flight. But, just when you think the best of the flying season is over...

...Along comes a pretty good weather forecast. If late summer means a chance of sub-tropical moisture, fall means the chance of offshore Santa Ana winds. The Friday through Monday forecast was for hot temperatures and offshore winds. But with no upper level support the winds were supposed to be relatively light, allowing the possibility of flying the front range from either Kagel or Crestline. Light offshore winds can be conducive to excellent flying, because if you can get off the hill you have good chance of finding a convergence if and when the seabreeze comes in. Now having said that, this four day forecast showed only the winds above 6k as being offshore. Below 6k, depending on the model, the early afternoon winds were predicted to be either SW, south or SE. Other than RUC, which was showing SE winds all day, the models had a light due west wind push through by the end of the day. That it is, below 6k. Above 6k it was supposed to be east all day.

Despite the lower level winds not being offshore there was no prediction of an inversion layer, which is exactly what you hope for when flying the front range. No inversion layer usually equals high climbs. And sure enough, the predicted tops for the four day forecast straddled 10,000 feet (14k for Monday). Since my son had a football game on Saturday, Sunday was my day to fly.

As I watched the forecast leading up to Sunday the only inconsistency was the amount of north and south influence in the upper winds and just when or if the west was supposed to push through. On some runs the call was for it to be SE throughout boundary layer all day (on Sunday that is what RUC was still calling for) so the thought was a possible flight to the beach from Crestline. But as we got closer to Sunday the upper level NE presented itself consistently with each model run along with the late afternoon west push. We'd have to see how things panned out once we got in the air, but an out and return flight to the west seemed the better call.

Our crew consisted of Jonathan Dietch, Scott Smith, Peter Debillis(sp?)and me. Bruce Barmakian was fighting a cold and graciously volunteered to drive for us. We were to meet Dan DeWeese at the Crestline launch. One person that was missing that I had hoped would be there was Owen Morse. Since Owen owns the both the open distance and out and return records it would be only fair that he'd be there to defend them. Besides, Owen is one of my flying buddies.

Dealing with dust devils. Photo by Jonathan Dietch

The morning flow was out of the north so the decision was to head to Marshall instead of Crestline. Dan opted to wait out the winds at Crestline. The winds were south at the LZ when we left at about 10:30, but it was blowing down at Marshall when we arrived. It wasn't until just before 1:00 when the first switch indicating dust devil presented itself. A few more would show up with one flipping over Chris Van Veldon's glider (no harm) within an inch of mine. While most of us were dodging the dust devils Jonathan decided to launch to take advantage of the convergence. Other than an hairy moment before he had a chance to walk his glider down to launch it ended up panning out for him. Soon after take off he was high enough to take a glide to the back ridge. It wasn't until about 1:30 when the rest of us worked our way down to take-off with Scott leading the way. An earlier launching PG struggled to hook into something in front of us and had to bail off to the west. But that wasn't the case for Scott and I. Soon after getting airborne, both of us quickly made our way to 9k+. Looking out to the west I noticed that PG had skyed out too. It was obvious the line to take was due west rather than to step back to the higher ground.

However, I spent more time concentrating on my radio than what line to take. Dummy me walked out of the house with out a radio. Luckily Jonathan had one to spare. Unfortunately, somehow during my initial climb both my headset and PTT connections came undone. Anyone watching my glide must have wondered what the heck I was doing as I was flying with one and sometimes no hands trying to get the plugs reconnected. Talk about PIO.

After burning off more altitude than I should have I had to decide whether or not to continue on to the San Gabriels or search around for one more boost. I was out in front of Pine Mountain at the time. With Scott in tow I opted to continue on. In the middle of the Cajon Pass I stopped to work a little pop. It didn't seem like it was going to take me anywhere so I blew it off and continued my trek west. As I continued on I looked back to see what Scott was doing and to my chagrin he was climbing out in the thermal that I had just passed up. Oh well.

Down to just under 5k I found some light lift just west of Lytle Creek on the foothills of the San Gabriels. The core was a bit elusive but the air was pretty smooth. Scott had joined me after a few hundred foot gain and having another pilot there helped in finding the thermal's sweetspot. There's nothing more pleasurable than when a thermal opens up as you reach altitude. The lift gets stronger but the air becomes smoother. This particular thermal was perfect example. It was so smooth in fact, that by the time I topped out somewhere over 11k, I finally was able to get my radio wires sorted out. Well, at least to where I could hear people; for some reason the PTT wouldn't work.

Scott was having radio issues too. His PTT wasn't working from the beginning so the idea was for us to stay close together. But once I topped out and went on my glide to the west end of Cucamunga Peak I never saw him again. At the western side of Cucamunga I had to fall off the main spine after not finding anything over the high ground. It didn't take long to dial into something. The lift was the strongest of the day -- Owens Valley type stuff. But just as I was thinking that I was going to be taken to the stratosphere the lift just disappeared. Not finding anything again after a brief search, I decided to take my 10k and move on.

Now with a semi-working radio I could hear Jonathan report that he was making a play for Monrovia Peak with the idea to continue on with an open distance flight west. Not long after that, however, he reported that he was getting flushed off the mountain and was now going to attempt an out and return, with running into an headwind a contributing factor.

With something close to 10k above Ontario Peak I still had a tailwind. And that remained the case by the time that I reached Silver Mountain in the mid 5ks just west of Monrovia Peak. The mountain range between the San Gabriel Reservoir and Mount Wilson is fairly shallow with no real distinct spines to stop to work. At least not if you're not high enough to give Monrovia Peak a chance, which I wasn't. However I did get enough of a boost at Silver Mt. to make a play for Clam Shell Peak with the idea that if I didn't get up there I would turn around. If it didn't work I'd still have enough altitude to play with for the return flight. But, if I could get up at Clam Shell I'd have no problem tagging Mount Wilson. Well, Clam Shell worked and soon after that I was topping out at 9,500 feet above Wilson for the return trip home.

Radio reports indicated that only Jonathan and I flew west of Cucamunga. Peter had decided to step back to Mount Baldy for the view before heading back and Dan decided that once he tagged Cucamunga he'd attempt to fly east to San Grogornio before turning back again to land at Andy Jackson. He was successful. Up ahead Jonathan was now busy working the front points above San Dimas.

From Wilson I made my way back to Clam Shell, but for the return flight it was only good for a couple of the 360s(looking at my track I had given up and headed out a bit west of where I actually had my initial climb out). From Clam Shell I wouldn't hit anything to stop for until I reached Glendora Ridge, which is located just on the other side of the wash that leads up to the San Gabriel Reservoir.

East of Glendora Ridge there are a series of low points at the base of Cucamunga. Skimming the tops of them isn't the best place to be, but they seem to work. More than one of them has a long shallow spine running to the west; on the two occasions that I've been through here, which includes Sunday's flight, I just put my glider on it's ear and let the west wind do the rest. In both cases, though, the lift only got me high enough to make an attempt at the next point down range. During the first time through, which was during a flight from Sylmar, that remained the case until I finally flew off the end of the mountain range at the Cajon Pass. On Sunday, even though I had gone through much lower, getting down to 3,700 ft at one point, I managed to dial into something much sooner that enabled me to work my way to the high ground in front of Cucamunga Peak.

Me & Southside - 3/28/2009 from NMERider on Vimeo.

A video of the area from our flight from Sylmar last year.

Once I stepped back to Cuc, however, and didn't really find anything, I started thinking that I made a mistake. That that late in the day the lift that I had just left was being generated by converging air. I decided that perhaps it was better to angle back out to the front of the range. Of course, that didn't stop me from giving the back ridge one last shot before heading out over the Cajon Pass. Well, it didn't work so it was out to the front points again. Especially when I heard on the radio that it was blowing down in the LZ at Andy Jackson. If it was blowing down there it would definitely be blowing north through the Pass. Perhaps I would blunder into a convergence that would get me into goal?

Earlier on the radio I could hear that Jonathan was going to make it back to goal. I was happy for him, but the devil inside me wanted to show him up a bit with a grand unannounced entrance. I left the end of the San Gabriel range with 7,000 ft; by the time that I crossed the 215 I was up to 7,800 ft -- all on a straight glide. I had indeed found the convergence.

Distance: 86.89 miles for a new out and return record.
Duration: 4:36 hours for more than likely a personal best.
Max Altitude: 11,200 feet