Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Santa Barbara 1/5

You can grow old waiting for the perfect day. Especially when that day has to fall on a weekend. Since this is January this is Santa Barbara season for me. Sure, you can't beat cloudbase at 17, 000 ft. over some god-forsaken place in the summer, but flying down range in Santa Barbara will always be where it is at for me. There is nothing like getting in close to the terrain and putting the glider on its ear while you watch the ground fall away. And if I have to say so myself, it is a type of flying that I'm pretty good at. But the problem with Santa Barbara is its proximity to the coast. It can be soarable throughout the year, but it is at its best during post-frontal days when the temperature gradient between the ocean and land is fairly neutral. Unfortunately, last year was the driest year ever recorded. And so far this year has been just a series of Santa Ana days. But, if Santa Barbara is at its finest during  post-frontal days, the second best conditions are during Santa Ana winds. The NE winds are generally blocked by the orientation of the mountain range. But because the general flow is off-shore the marine air is kept at bay. The problem with Santa Ana days is that the XC potential is limited. The strong off-shore stuff usually kicks in between the 30-40 mile mark.

Ever since I decided to come back after my deployment flight I've been looking for one of those perfect days. A day that would really get my juices flowing again. Up to this point I've had four flights; none of which would qualify. But like I said, you can grow old waiting for the perfect day. Sunday the forecast called for Santa Ana conditions, the wife and kids would be on their way to Palo Alto, and an old friend that had been away from the sport would be making an appearance. I decided that it would at least be a good day to shake off some rust.

I met Tom Truax and Todd Quayle at Tom's house in Carpenteria. Since we weren't flying open distance the day took on a more social tone. Tom's wife Pam and TQ's friend Robin decided to join us and act as drivers. Later we would have a nice late lunch and reminisce about the old Topa Flyer days.

The forecast was calling for a better lapse rate above 3k, so we decided to head up to the higher EJ Bowl rather than the normal Eliminator (Skyport) launch. Despite being more exposed to north winds it was blowing up nicely when we arrived sometime around 11:00. The HG launch is off a turnoff in the road, whereas the PGs take off from a knob just above it on the range. TQ and I were dropped off as Tom was driven up to the hike in point for the PG launch. Later Pam would report that there must have been thirty PG pilots waiting their turn to take off.

About half-way through set up the PGs starting taking off with various forms of success. The first pilot off would end up flushing. But, soon after that pilots began sticking just above the spine to the right of take off. Save for one or two pilots, however, none stayed long. One by one they had to head out to the RR where they could be seen yo-yoing above and below the peak. One pilot that managed to hang on was Tom. He was still out front when I launched sometime before noon.

I have probably taken off from this launch a dozen or so times over the years and I don’t believe I have ever climbed out above it. Sunday was no exception. I made a half-ass attempt right below where Tom was, but like most of the PGs I soon found myself limping out to the RR. It should be noted here that I was still well above the Eliminator and so I was nowhere near in danger of landing at that point.

With the number of PGs reported to be at launch, I was worried about death gaggles in front of the RR. I’m not sure where they all went, but I only had to share my rather nice thermal with 3 or 4 of them as I climbed out above the peak. And at no point did I have to go wing tip to wing tip with any of them. But just to be on the safe side as soon as I had the altitude to head west I took it, with the idea of using the VOR as a turn point.

Since the RR worked so well, I just assumed it was going to be a paint-by-the-numbers day: Cathedral, West Bowl, No Name, VOR and then back again. Only, Cathedral didn’t work and I soon found myself flailing away below Tunnel Tit, which sits below the RR. Not finding anything to latch on to I had to fall off even further to the Holy Hills. While this was all happening, Tom transmitted on the radio that he was climbing through 5k over La Cumbre Peak, about twice as high as I was at that point.

But this is what is so great about flying the mountains: you usually get more than one chance to stay in the ball game. Even if I didn’t get up at the Holy Hills, there were still a couple of more option further out front. But as it turned out I didn’t need them. The Holy Hills were breathing rather nicely and I soon found myself climbing out with my old friend TQ. It has been a long time since I a shared a thermal with TQ; it made the climb extra sweet. Having said that, I’m not sure you could say that we were all that in tuned with each other. Because of that I left early and headed back over to the RR. TQ on the other hand decided to head east to the Thermal Factory.

My first go at the RR didn’t work and so I had to limp back to the Holy Hills for a re-boost.  This time I got a bit higher and soon after that I was climbing out over the RR, higher than the very first time just after launch. The goal was still an out and return to the VOR. I had the altitude now to make a play for La Cumbre Peak. When I arrived Tom was still playing in the air there. But where he was above the peak I was a tad below…and struggling. Soon after that I found myself above Cathedral again. This time I was bit higher, but still not able to dial into anything. But rather than limp back toward the east I decided to take what I had and head west to West Bowl.

I don’t know if it was just rust or the conditions, but other than at the RR and the Holy Hills I had a hard time coring the thermals. West Bowl was no exception. But after about 20 minutes of trying I finally got high enough to continue my trek west to No Name. There I came in below John Greynald on an Atos working is way back from the VOR. Robert Millington had made the tag a bit earlier; the last time that I saw him he was making his way back from the Alternator.

No Name was good for a skip to get over to the VOR comfortably where I shared a thermal with a PG that had used it as a take off spot. Tom had already made the turnaround before I arrived. As far as I could tell no other PGs flew west of La Cumbre.

I didn’t manage to get very high at the VOR but it was enough to head back. I think I left with 3k. I came in a bit low at No Name, but I ended up finding one of the better thermals of the day. Soon I was back over at West Bowl. It seemed like the day was opening up a bit, but I couldn’t find anything worth stopping for. Rather than fish around I decided to take what I had and eke over to Cathedral. Luckily, I found the best lift of the day. Good enough to get Tom to leave his thermal directly above Cathedral and head in my direction. Soon after that, both of us were on our way back to the RR. On the way over I declared that I was going to tag the Thermal Factory and then head out to the beach.

I didn’t notice it so much in the mountains, but on my glide to the beach I ran into a significant east wind. It really was a struggle to fly straight. Even though I left above the Thermal Factory there was a point there where I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But as it turned out the lower level stuff was out of the SW and I ended up needing to burn off altitude near the 101 in order not to breach the restricted airspace. Tom, however, would come up short and was forced to land on the railroad tracks. TQ was already at the beach when I arrived, opting to stay closer to launch during his flight. Overall a nice 2 hour jaunt.