Setting a Personal Best: 51.4 Miles

Goal reached! Two weeks ago I set out to fly to Coachella hoping to fly over the festival and land nearby. Two days straight I tried but two issues: 1. the lift did not flow that way and, 2. I’d be the lone hawk to try.

Last weekend another opportunity arose, but I was not even thinking of heading that way. Of course, if conditions allowed and my buddies were willing, I wouldn’t say no.

That’s just what happened.

A happy me in the Coachella Valley

A happy me in the Coachella Valley

Soon after launching from Laguna Mountian we climbed to nearly 10,000 feet. One by one we began to head north. A few pilots in front of me chose a more northerly route toward our first cross-country LZ. Watching my friends climb in good lift along the route, I, choosing to head a little more easterly, began to regret my decision. I aimed for a mountain known for being a thermal trigger, and by all accounts it worked its magic earlier.

As I approached the mountain from the south, I ran into a stiff headwind–and some accompanying turbulence. Fighting my way to the peak I finally arrived only to find few signs of lift. Off to the west my friends continued north thousands of feet above. Another fine mess I found myself in.

But then our driver began reporting the wind directions on the ground. Just to the west of me the wind had already switched to westerly. The convergence had passed, at least on the ground. Then a friend out front on the more northerly track reported sinking like a rock. He would soon be the first to succumb to gravity.

Taking the diminishing altitude I did have, I decided to turn east. If nothing else, there is a landing area in that direction with a store across the street. “I can land there if I have to and get a refreshing cold drink,” I thought. On the glide there I found neither lift nor sink. hmmmm.

Arriving with about 1,000 feet to work with, I found a few burbles of lift. For a few minutes I patrolled the air, a shark in the sky, for anything to feed on. Slowly I sank.

Within 500 feet of the ground I was able to milk more thermals and maintain altitude. Knowing the convergence could potentially begin to pass through I was hoping to either stay aloft until it passed—and pulled me up with it—or gain enough altitude to head further east where a ridge began.

Our driver came on the radio, “low level military jet heading into earthquake valley.” I may have cursed hearing that. There are low level VFR military training routes where jets hug the ground within a few hundred feet. I was still scratching right in that “uh oh” range. I began to pull in to get on the ground and pulled my feet out of the boot. A few seconds later our driver announced that the jet took a different route.

“Phew!” Letting the bar out I slowed down again to thermal milking speed. “It’s not over ’til my feet hit the ground” I kept telling myself. The heat on the ground was likely over 100, further encouraging me to stay aloft.

In a few more minutes a flock of birds—hawks, crows, ravens, perhaps multiple species—in a tight circle approached from the west. “They’re climbing! They’re climbing!” Whipping the glider around I aimed for them. The vario soon began chirping its happy song.

An RV at the landing field began to shrink. Smaller and smaller, I climbed. A friend who had joined me, and thought he may too be forced to land, began climbing well also. Together we followed the lift to over 11,000. “Let’s head east,” he said on the radio. “Ok, let’s go.”

A long, smooth glide over Borrego Springs finally gave me the gift of a few moments to take in the extraordinary view. The Salton Sea to the east, and an unfamiliar desert below me. If I squinted I could barely make out my goal, Coachella.

At Coyote Mountain, our next waypoint on the flight, we found lift plentiful. Before long we were back to over 9,000 feet. Following my friend we went on glide for the Santa Rosas. Perhaps the most unfriendly area of the entire flight, should we have to land between Coyote Mountain and the Santa Rosas it could be a long hike out. We flew a path that minimized risk and gave us ways out, but as I learned a few weeks ago, sometimes sink has other plans.

Celebratory pizzas at our post-flight Italian restaurant

Celebratory pizzas at our post-flight Italian restaurant

Luckily once we arrived on the Santa Rosas lift rocketed us to the summit. Not satisfied with the altitude for glide I hung around a little while longer hoping to climb higher. Nope. A lighter lift cycle passed through and I found myself ridge soaring my way north to Rabbit Peak just barely above the ridge.

“Be patient,” I told myself. Minutes later I was happily climbing well above the ridge and ready to glide into my personal record book. Coachella was set in my flight instrument and I could arrive with over 1,000 feet to spare. Let’s go!

My friends landed in a field a few miles short of the the actual Coachella festival field, at just over 50 miles. I continued another mile or so. Knowing that my goal was confidently attainable I turned around to land with my friends. More than just friends they have mentored and guided me since my early solo flights. To celebrate with them would mean a lot.

On nothing more than the wondrous air that we breath, my feet touched down 51.4 miles from where we launched, 3 and a half hours later. My smile could be seen from launch. What an amazing flight.

Watch my Track: Doarama

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