Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gold Distance, Diamond Goal

When it comes to merit badges, we soaring pilots are much like the Boy scouts.  The FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) has different badges awarded for glider flights over certain distances, altitude gains and duration.  The awards start out with the A, B, C badges -- usually awarded to pilots who have just soloed.  Each badge increases its difficulty.  The Bronze badge requires some flight instruction with an SSA instructor, a written test, and enough time fly gliders in solo flight.  The Silver badge is awarded for a modest-distance flight of 50 kilometers, a modest altitude gain of 1000 meters, and a five hour solo flight.  Most importantly, the Silver Distance award teaches the pilot how to properly document and apply for this award.  I've failed the documentation for the Silver in so many different ways.

The Gold Badge is more involved -- a 300 kilometer flight, and a 3000 meter gain in altitude.  I succeeded in my 3000 meter altitude gain in 2006. Although I've been a glider pilot for 28 years, it has taken me a while to get up to the Gold Distance.  One of the major obstacles holding me back was having never landed out. I solved that last month. I have most certainly performed gold distance flights before, but I have never declared it and executed it well enough to submit the paperwork for the award.

This past Saturday, I finally achieved this milestone in my soaring career.  Saturday looked to be an absolutely outstanding soaring day.  A cold front had blown through, leaving all of the air aloft to be much cooler than the air below.  Once the sun came out, the ground heated up just enough to make that warmer air rise skyward at about 10 miles an hour.  The excellent soaring days are also the days when the weather on the ground is perfect, too.  Any surface heating is quickly removed by a cool breeze.  It didn't get too cool because the sun could occasionally peak through the clouds, warming up the surface for the next thermal.
Heading South after a quick turn in the start sector (bottom)
The day looked good enough that Joe, Chuck and I  set out to accomplish our Gold Distance task. The two other guys decided to start at Signal Knob (just west of our airport) head 68 statute miles south to Waynesboro's glider airport "Eagle's Nest."  Their second turn-point was a small airport near Martinsburg, WV.  Their final point on the triangle was a return to Signal Knob.
My task was only slightly different. I declared a shorter task starting at Signal Knob, south to Waynesboro's Eagle's Nest, north to the West Virginia Border near Summit Point Raceway, at a small airfield named "High View Farm", and returning to Signal Knob.
The other two guys set out first, and I had a launch 30 minutes behind them.

The lift was strong enough that I didn't have to circle very often.  I was not terribly impressed with the thermals on the Massanutten, and soon headed across the valley to the Blue Ridge mountains.
Leaving the Massanutten mountains (right) to the Blue Ridge Mountains (top)
This view is over the Massanutten mountains, looking south to the Blue Ridge mountains
Once on the Blue Ridge, the amount of lift available to me changed for the better.  I could cruise comfortably without having to circle.  I just bobbed along under the clouds, slowing down a bit more under the clouds, where the wide area of lift allowed me to gain modest amounts of altitude.  Once the lift stopped, I pointed the nose down, and gained a little speed. In the soaring contests, there's an expression, "If you're turning, you're losing."  A glider that spends less time circling in lift will generally have a better time around the course.  I chose to maximize this type of flying as much as I could.
I've been having battery endurance problems for the past year.  I keep meaning to buy a new battery that doesn't die out by the middle of the flight.  I could give you a laundry list of excuses about why I haven't done it yet.  Never do I regret it more than when I'm flying, and the equipment on board starts complaining about the battery levels.  There generally isn't enough juice in my on-board battery to handle the burden of flight computer, flight recorder and radio for more than a few hours.  To prolong the battery life and make the flight computer available to me, I kept the radio turned off. On a good soaring day, the radio is full of chatter, mostly from the glider pilots out of Fairfield, PA.
Having the radio turned off didn't make much difference, as by the time I got to Waynesboro, the battery had depleted its charge enough to prevent me from using the flight computer at all.
No matter, I know the way back, and I could always navigate with this paper map I had in the cockpit with me.  The biggest drawback after the power failure is that I had to reference the flight instruments for all of the speed changes, lift changes, and I had to fly something on my instrument panel called "MacCready speed ring."  The good news is that my flight recorder's power source is independent of the aircraft's battery, and will continue to record the flight's details every 5 seconds.  I just don't have access to the GPS's information while the battery is in the red.
Heading northbound.
Hardly having to turn at all
in the strong thermal streets
I headed northbound along the Blue Ridge mountains. The other two pilots who were attempting the Gold Distance made the turn-point at Waynesboro at about the same time as me -- four minutes apart. Instead of taking the Blue Ridge on their northbound route, they chose to return to the Massanutten mountains.
It was here that the strength of the Blue Ridge mountain chain was much better than the Massanutten.
We were essentially neck-and-neck until the other two guys got to Luray, where their thermals got weaker.  In the meantime, my thermals were so unbelievably strong that I was ignoring thermals with a mere 600 feet per minute, eschewing them for the 800 and 1000 feet per minute thermals.
Joe hit what he described as "a wall of sink" and was forced to land his glider in a field 5 miles to the south of Front Royal's airport.  Chuck managed to break free from the wall of sink, but was far behind me.  He got to the West Virginia border 35 minutes after I did.
I approached my turn-point at High View Farm.  If you don't know where this field is ahead of time, it's nearly impossible to find from the air.  There are many better, longer, flatter fields immediately surrounding this small runway.  A few miles to the northwest of High View Farm is the Summit Point Raceway, which is a far better turn-point, much more obvious from the air.
Turn-point diagram for FAI badges
I made my turn, made a short video on my iPhone, and headed south.  My task is running smoothly, and the lift has proven to be quite plentiful.  I was aided by a tailwind on the northbound track, but found myself battling a 17 knot headwind, and less plentiful lift on the way to Signal Knob.  It was still a great soaring day by almost any measure.
For any FAI distance awards, a valid trip around the turn-point is judged relative to a turn sector.  The turn sector is a 90 degree wedge opposite the incoming and outgoing courses. The diagram to the right (From the SSA) shows the definition of the turn sector relative to the course.
As I headed south, I approached Winchester's airport. On the way, I started to wonder if my positioning relative to the turn-point was valid or not. This is the kind of nagging worry that you feel when you leave the house, and you're not quite sure if you turned off the oven or not.  Did I remember to feed the cat?  Did I put the milk away?
Sometimes this obsession about fixing these things overwhelms you so badly that you have to turn the car around and go home to check that you turned off the oven, fed the cat and put the milk away.
I approached the second turn-point twice. Rookie mistake!
After further review, it was completely unnecessary.
Since my flight computer was deactivated with a dead battery, the day was still pretty strong, and I wasn't that far from the turn-point, I turned back, and made double-sure that I had crossed into the right area around the airport.
It's obvious now that I was well within the turn-point sector (shown as magenta lines above), but I really didn't want to discover that I was too far east of the sector after the flight. The second trip to the turn-point cost me time and average ground speed.  Most importantly, the second approach to the turn-point meant that I would be fighting a headwind home with ever increasingly weaker thermals.
The second southerly trip to the final turn-point left me really regretting the back-tracking to the second turn-point. The nice white puffy clouds that marked all of my thermals no longer looked as good as they did before the turnaround, and there was a huge distance to the closest thermal markers to the south.
I tiptoed along at the most efficient speed, attempting to circle in any lift that was available along the way.  I also knew that with the headwind and the weaker thermals that I would get blown further from my next waypoint. In other words, each time I stop to thermal in weak lift, I would be taking one step back after two steps forward.
I finally made it to the city of Strasburg, VA, and performed a climb just high enough to comfortably get across the mountain, past my turn-point.
After I landed, I found out that both Joe and Chuck had landed out.  Chuck landed out at Martinsburg, WV, where the lift had gotten so weak that he couldn't gain any headway against the winds. I wonder if he would have found his Gold Distance flight if he had followed me along the Blue Ridge.
I submitted the paperwork to the SSA, and received this note today:
I have processed the application for a Gold Distance and Diamond Goal claim on your May 17, 2014 flight.  I am happy to approve these claims and your records have been updated. This completed your requirements for the Gold badge and  I issued you Badge  #2690.  Congratulations on your achievements
The Award will be coming separately from the SSA office in the near future. You should see your flight listed in the August issue of Soaring Magazine. You will also find that the flight will be included in your member achievement record. 
Rollin Hasness 
FAI Administrator

Here's my flight in OLC, and the Google Earth KMZ file that I created from the IGC file.

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