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

3 Weeks to Americus

Americus is fast approaching. In three weeks I’ll be arriving for my first comp and I am as ready as I’ll every be.

Pre-flight rituals at Laguna launch

Pre-flight rituals at Laguna launch

Flying has been great the last few weeks. 5 hours in the air just last weekend alone. Over 30 hours so far this year. I have pushed myself to go XC more, and in doing so found new challenges and compromising predicaments. I’ve grown more confident and yet very humbled all in the same weekend.

Last Saturday I dug my way out after getting very low far from any roads, and then continued on for an incredible flight. What a great feeling that was! I’m told the area I was low is littered with cacti—certainly a lesson best learned by someone else’s mistake.

The following day after starting the flight well and in half the time getting to where I landed the day before, I ran into insurmountable sink. So much sink that I was forced to land in a small field more than a quarter mile from any road. Officially that makes me a cross-country pilot, right? The hike out would have been more enjoyable had I set a personal record or could not blame my in-flight decisions. Instead I feel deceived by the convergence line which started to zig-zag. Following the convergence and staying under the clouds, I kept up with every zig, but then ran into a zag full of sink. Some very valuable lessons learned in only two days.

I am very happy with myself for about 50 miles of XC in one weekend. Soon, very soon I feel my day will come for a (first) 50 mile flight.

So yes, I am excited about the upcoming trip to Georgia. My experience flying flat lands is limited, but as we always say, the secret is to turn in lift.

The Sport 2 Wins the Day

My ego received a healthy boost of confidence last Sunday (and maybe even my id and superego). No need to name names, but let’s just say it was me on my Sport 2 versus three guys, one a former world competitor, on their topless gliders. Now I typically am not one to brag, especially concerning myself, but this post will be an exception as I savor this rare moment.

The wind was easterly, meaning Laguna was our only option short of the longer trip to Elsinore, but conditions looked great for early season cross-country flights. I was super excited to finally get another flight in March. So far this month we’ve had a rained out weekend and a blown out weekend, and my only other flight between the rain and the wind was a short lunch break flight at Torrey Pines.

Launching first, I easily soon found myself a few hundred feet above waiting for the others to join me. Lured into the ease of altitude I dropped my guard and flew the ridge without a care, enjoying the view, giving up altitude for fun. …never take altitude for granted.

Within 20 minutes of launching, my altitude—and attitude—rapidly changed. Gazing up at launch, and my friends just launching, the day suddenly called out with a challenge. With a 4 mile glide out to the LZ I was tasked with a fight just to make it to our primary LZ. Without a few thermals, I’d be buzzard food in the land of cacti. Luckily this time of year it’s still only about 80 degrees down in the valley.

Working every little ridge and finger, I chose areas that seemed both more in the sun and facing the wind. I sought thermal trigger points, which everyone seems to have a different opinion of where they are. I tried many points on the ridge that seemed like good triggers, and usually I found light bumps and small thermals good enough for a turn or two, but no elevator to the sky.

The landing area lies at about 2,200 feet MSL, and I had sunk to close to 3,000′. With only 800′ feet remaining in my altitude account, my opportunities were diminishing. Altitude bankruptcy seemed likely. Damn you greedy gravity!!!

And then, finally, at one of the last potential trigger points before heading out for the LZ, after a few bumps and half turns in lift, a strong push from below hit me. Banking hard into a turn I determined myself not to fall out of this elevator. …and that I did.

Soon I was back to launch altitude and still climbing. After ascending more than 3,500′ in that one, beautiful thermal the prospects for a decent cross-country flight were good again. Peering down on everyone with a Cheshire grin, I was happy. The drift of the thermal carried me north toward the next large lift generator, Granite Mountain. Just minutes later I was there. Calling out to the other pilots, “I’m over Granite heading for Banner!”

Apparently though, one of my fellow fliers, knowing that the last time he saw me I was close to landing piped up, “I don’t hear any wind noise in the background,” implying that I was full of something other than air, unless it was hot.

But for once, the joke was on him. Soon, after an attempt to keep going my wing and I softly touched down about 12 miles from launch. My ride met me there before even fully breaking down…what perfect timing. As we pulled away heading to the LZ below launch to retrieve two others, the radio crackled, “What are the winds in the LZ?” My friend finally made it over Granite. 45 minutes or so after I landed, he and his higher performance topless glider appeared. Knowing I needed to make the most of this rare occurrence I hollered back, “I beat you to goal!”

That day my confidence grew in knowing that when I get low I can work my way back up. That the saying is true that there are more thermals than LZs–or at least I believe it more than I did before. And though I’ve made low saves before, this time I had to work every puff and think through to my next source all while under pressure to get to a landing area.

What a great training day!

I regret there are no photos to post, but a video is forthcoming.

Prepping for Cross-Country Season

This is it. The first year where I am ready to cross-country from the very beginning. In 2012, my first year flying, every flight was a new first. First flight above launch. First hour flight. First two hour flight. First landing in what we call the postage stamp. Later in the year came first flight above 10,000 feet. What more could a fledgling want in her first year? Well, San Diego kept giving.

XC Season in San Diego @ Mt. Laguna

Late September back in 2012, my power purple Northwing EZY and I went on a trip. On an amazing climb to 11,500+ feet, with a friend and his T2C on my wing, we went on glide for new territories. Correction. He went on glide. I mainly just sank like a somewhat aerodynamic rock. I pulled in for best glide–or what I guessed was best glide–and aimed for the next LZ. Now from the highest I had ever been, I felt like I could go anywhere. I could smell the salty air from the coast, see Catalina island, and peer far east into the desert–Arizona must be out there somewhere. But my single-surface glider had other plans. Seeing the T2C pulling away and nearly disappear above me I immediately gained appreciation for double-surface wings (oh I can’t wait for the triple surface wing!). Having passed the point of no return, I watched intently as the LZ seemed to move up in front of me.

Pushing onward I had no choice. Certainly on a big air day there must be another thermal around here. But where? The moments slowed. Wondering if I would ever near the LZ I began to look for alternatives. Not that I was super low, but on my first flight away from the local pattern I wanted a full report on my options. Now, Butch Peachy tells me, there are more thermals than LZs. Too bad I had not yet met him. He was right though (don’t tell him I said that). Just as I seriously began to wonder whether I could make the LZ, my vario began to chirp. Up. Up. Up until I knew the LZ was mine. As if to add an exclamation point, over the field another thermal rocketed me back up to 9,000! For a few moments I considered whether I could continue on. Tired, and unsure where exactly to go I found sink and floated down. 11 miles from launch, my first cross-country was complete.

Of course, what is a cross-country flight without a long retrieve, packed between gear and guys in a dusty old SUV? Perhaps it was midnight before I half-asleep/half-reliving every circle of my flight opened the door to my home and flared into my bed.

2014 – The Year of the XC
Skipping ahead to today, with an upgraded glider (Sport 2, check), instruments that rival a Cessna 150’s cockpit (Flytec 6030 and Garmin 76S in a cool pod, check), an amateur radio license (call sign, check), and hopefully a slick new harness on order soon (my current harness has so many lines it might as well be called the Flying Spaghetti Monster), I cannot wait for San Diego to once again breath life into the air. This year is the year to hone my skills and soar beyond new horizons.

Butch also tells me he counts Super Bowl Sunday as the kickoff to cross-country season. And he would know. So let me be the first to say, screw football, let’s go fly!

The Ranchita Yeti says, “Y’all fly back soon!”