Monday, September 9, 2019

Region 3 Contest Harris Hill

In July of 2019, I ventured to Harris Hill, located in Elmira, NY.  I volunteered to take QQ up to this regional contest to support the US Juniors.  The SSA allows for many members to fly with experienced cross country pilots (I guess that's me), at one regional contest per year.  The planning for this contest was rather late, and the turnout was smaller than it was last year.  In 2018, I attended as a pilot for the Juniors up in Michigan, flying as a guest in the Region 6 contest.
I took young Joshua Barber along with me; he registered as an SSA Junior, too.   Josh had recently performed his first solo at the Week of Training two weeks before this contest.
The Juniors camped at the campgrounds just outside of the Harris Hill Soaring Center.  Juniors from M-ASA and Aero Club Albatross were also in attendance.

13 July 2019 Practice Day

The practice day didn't look promising.  We all assembled on the grid.  Since I was flying as a guest, I lined up at the very back of the grid.  We launched, we scratched around in very weak thermals, and landed.  I had a 45 minute flight and went nowhere.

14 July 2019 Day 1, Sunday

The weather was much better for this day.  The forecast was for a great soaring day.  Blue skies and the perfectly-shaped white puffy clouds.  I was flying with Brady Reisch, a rated PPL with M-ASA.  We left the start cylinder, headed northwest into the wind, toward Corning, NY.  We followed Interstate 390 and its valley up to Dansville, NY.  Conditions were looking great ahead, so we kept going, even further into the turn cylinder.  The plan was to have a nice downwind dash home, maybe after a few more turns under some good looking clouds ahead, just to the south.

I let Brady do the flying at this point; I figured that the day was good enough for me to dig us out of any holes; that's probably my one good skill in cross country flying -- digging myself out of messes.  Brady took a lift line that didn't look that great.  We went South.  Nothing.  Maybe that cloud.  Nothing. Maybe this field.  Nothing.
"OK, Brady, I'll take over.  I'll dig us out. "

Follow the black marks to see where we landed

Lots of left turns, no really usable lift anywhere.  Brady and I spotted what looked to be a long field, the longest flattest field around.  "If this turn doesn't work, we're landing in that field"  "Which field?" That field with the one lone tree right in the middle of it. "  The lift didn't work.  We were landing.
The KML file above doesn't really show the landing like it should;  Follow the black lines to show the ground track.
I set the landing approach so that we would land to the left of the lone tree in that field. I flared, held it off, waited for the wheel to touch down.  That was the plan, at least.  At about the time I expected the wheel to touch terra firma, the glider kept descending.  It was like jumping into a swimming pool.  Soon the grass was above the canopy, and the wheel still wasn't on the ground.  The sound of a zillion blades of grass scraping the fuselage, wings, empennage, wheel wheel... everything... that sound was a soft rushing noise.  We experienced a soft deceleration.  The glider started to turn left.  I had no control of what happened after that.  Before I knew it, we were turned more than 90 degrees to the left in slow motion.  The glider rolled down a gentle hill, backwards, about 150 degrees to the left of the original landing heading.
"Well, that was unexpected"  Maybe it was Brady who said that.  Maybe it was me. I don't know.  I winced with the mental imagery of the tail boom being busted off.   Most modern gliders with that horizontal stabilizer in T-Tail configuration will get into a twisting motion when the glider is in a ground loop.  If the tail wheel hits the ground while the glider is rotating, the sudden stop at the bottom, in combination with continued motion at the top, causes a twisting motion and breaks tail booms right off of the glider.
I couldn't bear to look at the tail to see how things were. Eyes closed tightly, in exactly the same manner if I had cut myself on the hand and didn't want to look at the blood, I asked Brady, slowly, "Could you look at the tail boom and make sure it's still on?"
"Yep, looks good!"
We got out of the glider. The grass was up to my waist or my chest, depending on the spot. I slowly opened my eyes and looked at the tail.  Looked good. What a relief!  I called the retrieve office to let them know we landed safely, where to get us, who was getting us, etc.
We looked up the hill to see a bunch of kids running down to greet us, and Dad following behind them.  I go straight to Dad:
"Sorry I had to land in your field!"

Safe and Sound in a field with grass that's way too tall

"Are you all right?"
"Yeah, no damage from what I can tell.  We're all right."
There were about 6 kids there, all excited about the 'airplane crashing in the field.' (their words, not mine).
"Hey would you kids like to go sit in the glider!?"
They all excitedly loudly and simultaneously screamed YEAH!
"I want to sit in the front!"
"Will you sit with me?!"
One little girl looked at the flight computer, still on, "This is the radar that says the tornado is coming!" I got to the master switch and shut it off before any of the kids could broadcast to the whole world on 123.3 by pressing the mic switch.

I will inform Schempp-Hirth that the pilot payload should be revised upward from 2 to 4 pilots. 
Since the glider was already a mess with grass jammed into all sorts of places that grass doesn't belong, I didn't really mind that the kids were pawing all over the canopy, opening and closing it, getting their greasy little fingers on everything.

"How are you going to get that thing out of this field?" the father asked.
"You wouldn't happen to have a tractor, would you? Do you have any rope? Maybe a chain-link?"
He looked around for a suitable chain link.  We hooked it up to the CG hook, and the other end to the tractor.  Slowly, we towed QQ out of the tall grass.

Tractor pulling QQ out of the very tall grass
Chris Schrader from Michigan showed up with the QQ trailer and my pickup truck.  Another neighbor came over to watch the disassembly.

I guess about 20 pounds of grass was wrapped around the landing gear

As we were all driving back, Chris Schrader commented that all of the fields around look terrible. "I don't think you should be so hard on yourself for ground looping on this land-out", as he pointed to the marginal field after marginal field. All of these fields look terrible.  If you landed in that field, your wings would have been broken off.
Landing out is a part of flying contests. However, the game really changes when you land out on the first day of a contest, when the conditions are really great. When you are flying as a guest, and not a full competitor, and land out on the first day, you tend to fly a lot more conservatively for the rest of the contest.  And I did.  The weather was OK on the next day, and never really had a good day after that.  Most of the days ended up with rain.  Karl Striedieck went home after the good flying on Tuesday. Noah Reitter went off to represent the US Junior Soaring team in Europe.  It was just me flying the juniors around.

For the next few days at the contest, the local pilots would come up to me. "I heard you landed out near Swain."
"Where?! There's no place to land around there."
There's that valuable local knowledge I didn't have.  They were right.  There were very few landing opportunities.  All of the good land-out spots are on the plateaus. The valleys were swamp land, or not suitable landing locations.

Tuesday, Day 3

Tuesday was not looking like a good soaring day.  There were rain showers moving through the area. I watched a rain shower approach Harris Hill as we sat on the grid. QQ was the last to take off, and as soon as we got off the end of the runway, we were towed into a rain shower.  While on tow, we turned left and headed toward the clear weather.  We got into a thermal, climbed to the top of that pathetic thermal, and set out on course.  Josh Barber was on board. I made the first turnpoint, headed north and got low.  We hadn't seen a thermal for a while. Oh no, not again. 
I got down to about 1200 AGL (I have a fancy flight computer that will tell me how high I am above the terrain, at any given moment) (Maybe this is information I really shouldn't have).  I found the slightest breeze, and held on tight to that thermal.  "Josh, start looking for a field." I rejected most of the fields he selected, but he insisted on his field of choice.  "OK, I guess you're right.  It's the longest one around.  I really don't like the slope on it, though."  All of the fields in this area have a slope.   The sun broke through the overcast and was shining on this field directly above us. If we can just hang on long enough...   
50 feet a minute turned into 150 feet per minute.  Within 15 minutes we were no longer desperate for anything, and had enough altitude to make it back to Harris Hill. 

A successful digging-out
The only problem: There was a huge shower right in between us and the airfield.  We had to divert around the shower to make it back to Harris Hill.  Divert enough to the north to stay away from the rain, but no so far to the north that I don't have sufficient glide to make it back to Harris Hill.  Getting rain on the wings would be a disaster, the performance on those wings drops off significantly when there's rain on the wings. It would be like flying through 300 feet a minute sink the whole way back. 
Josh wanted us to divert to the west.  We were only a few miles from the outer ring of the second turnpoint.  "No way we have enough to make it to the turn area cylinder AND make it home.  I'm not landing out again!" 
Once we got back to Harris Hill, there was a thermal that prevented us from squeaking into the pattern at minimum height. We landed uneventfully. 
Later that evening, we reviewed the IGC. I think the field Josh picked out would have worked OK. At least the grass was cut on that field.  There might have been cows, though. 

QQ Makes the News

Waiting for us on the ground was a news crew, taking video for the local TV station's evening news
The cameras kept rolling as QQ came in for a landing.  The ground crew rushed me out of the glider, so we could get out of the way of other gliders landing behind us.  After we got out of the way, I waited for the ground crew to bring me the tail dolly.  In the meantime, we were good background as the news crew interviewed Moe Acee. 

Moe talking about energy management, Josh and I stand in front of QQ waiting for the ground crew
After the contest, I drove QQ to Gehrlein Products in Erie PA.  I wanted them to give a very thorough annual inspection after that land-out.  They found QQ in excellent condition.  What a relief! 

Monday, May 13, 2019

20m Multi-Seat National Day 2

I might have mentioned before, that I kind of suck at competition soaring. Another day, another "DFL" -- dead freakin' last!  But I'm taking it all in stride. Imagine how bored I would be with soaring if I were some sort of prodigy, able to master all aspects of soaring with one trip around the pattern!
The morning briefing started with yesterday's winners Sarah Arnold and Karl Striedieck. Karl deferred to Sarah, taking only credit for the first two turnpoints.  He mentioned how they dumped their water when they got very low. Indeed, the long cloud street at the end of the day is how they got their speed back up to win the day. The safety message of the day was a stress about the importance of a "hard deck", a lower limit of how low you should be willing to attempt to find lift.  Once that hard deck altitude is reached, it's time to land.  The lift isn't very well organized at low altitudes, and it's quite possible to have low level turbulence upset the glider, causing it to spin. With a low altitude spin, there isn't enough room to recover, and the glider crashes.  "Know your personal hard deck limit, and stick with it!"
Mine is about 800 feet, and I'm pretty serious about it.  The LX-Nav flight computer has a nice way of finding out what the field elevation is underneath you, so there's no guesswork needed. I got to use that feature on the flight computer a few times today. More on that later.
The weather forecast was excellent; but the conditions were better to the west, better to the north. The conditions were forecast to be great even until 18:00 in the day
Forecast charts for Day 2

After the morning briefing, we pulled the gliders out to the runway for an 11:00 grid time.  The first three places for yesterday's flying were put on the scales, to ensure that they weren't overweight. I was in the fourth position for takeoff, but because of my embarrassing showing yesterday, no need to put my glider on the scales. For the record, the maximum weight for my glider is 1543 pounds, and my back of the envelope calculations make my glider about 1515 pounds at the absolute heaviest.

Paul Remde has an odd position for programming the task into his computer

On "The Grid"
We launched and it was already excellent.  You can see perfect soaring clouds over my shoulder in the above picture.  Immediately off tow, I was climbing comfortably.  It's gonna be great!  The contest started at 12:35, and I was on task a few minutes after that.
The first part of the course was easy soaring. Once we got to the first turnpoint, things started looking difficult.  I slowed down and eeked out the tallest thermals at less than optimal climb.  Ahead, I saw an overcast covering the ground and shutting off the surface heating. A few weak looking clouds in the distance hinted that there might be something to work with once I got there.
Again, because I left early, I think I was ahead of the pack. A bunch of the more experienced pilots caught up with me as I was working some weak lift.  I diverted to a thermal where three gliders were circling and appeared to be gaining altitude very quickly.
By the time I made use of that thermal, they were gone. I made the second turnpoint, and things looked much more promising ahead.
Things may have looked great, but this is where I really lost the day.  Getting low was a terrible mistake.  The line-up of clouds that I thought was a street turned out to not be a street, and I got down to about 4000', about 2500 feet above the ground.  This low, I'm starting to take any sort of lift I can find; and I settle for a knot or two.
I saw other gliders heading past me, bopping along in the clouds, while I'm struggling down low. The gliders that passed me were able to hang out at cloud base and keep flying at speed. I finally climbed out of the bottom of my flight, and got up to cloud base. When I got right under the clouds, it was much easier.  The gliders that passed me called in for their "four miles out" while I was at mile 22 from the end of the course.
When we got to the end of the task, we made it back to the airport where we started.  The conditions were perfect-looking.  All of the clouds were perfectly-shaped.  All of the clouds to the northwest looked much better than the clouds we just flew through.

Lessons learned for today:
  • I sure do like AT more than MAT.  When the CD decides what course we should fly, I can spend a lot more time trying to fly, and a lot less time trying to be creative in unfamiliar territory. 
  • There were two different times that I was sharing a thermal with another glider, and instead of following him, I took an extra turn.  By the time i finished that turn, he was gone.  This isn't always a recipe for success (leaching on somebody), but it certainly would have been better for me today! 

Here's a video of my flight track:

Now QQ is parked outside, tied down and covered against the elements.  It's forecasted to rain tomorrow. 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

2019 20m National Contest Day 1

I kinda suck at glider racing.  I'll be quick to admit. I'm here at the 20 meter multi-seat nationals contest, and I'm among a group of pilots who have a lot more cross country experience than I do.
I convinced two Skyline Soaring club members to come with me to Minnesota for the contest.  This involved taking QQ in a trailer for 2 straight days of driving; twenty hours of driving time.
Yesterday (Saturday) was the practice day.  It was grey and yucky, and I didn't fly the glider.  Today (Sunday), and it looked like one of the better soaring days I've seen in over a year.
2018 was a terrible soaring year. I had only one or two really good soaring days among all of the practical tests I administered, and all of the rainy weekends.  Maybe this year will be slightly better.
The morning started off with blue skies with only a little bit of overcast.  We assembled the glider and got to the grid by 11:30. I was the fifth to launch. I haven't put water in the glider very many times, so that was kind of new for me, too. Our ramp weight was somewhere around 1500 pounds.
I didn't really understand that the weather was just going to get better and better as the day went on, so once the task was open, I was off on the course.  The task started with a 5 mile start cylinder north of the airport.  I exited the start area on the backside of the course.  I made OK time north to the first turnpoint. I didn't see any gliders, so I assumed I was in the back of the pack.
Here's me leading the pack (in yellow)
I made it past the first turnpoint and still didn't see anybody.  The conditions didn't look that great; the clouds were getting big and I thought that the conditions were getting slightly overdeveloped.  At this point in my flight, I got to the lowest altitude, and started getting desperate for any sort of lift I could find.  I found something terrible, and limped up to a better altitude.  I saw the rest of the pack catch up to me at that point. 
Still ahead of everybody, but things get worse quickly
After the second turnpoint, the remainder of the day was the pilot's choice.  A type of task called a "MAT".  The pilot chooses which turnpoints he is going to fly to. All turnpoints are 1 statute radius circles.  Repeat as much as necessary to get the minimum time in the air.  Today's minimum time was 3 hours. 

I was rather overwhelmed with the task of finding new waypoints.  I also struggled with the flight computer, coming up with turnpoints that seemed OK, given the current conditions.  I thought the conditions to the north looked terrible, and it seemed to me that there were better-looking clouds to the southeast. 
We went south, and just kept going east to Austin MN.  I kept going upwind, east.  The conditions were getting much better now.  Anywhere I went, the thermals were at least 4 knots, and sometimes as strong as seven knots. 
Way out to the east, all by myself
I had a nice tailwind on the way home. I was the first to get back from the task. 
After dinner, the scores came in, and I'm not surprised, but also disappointed.  Seventh place out of seven.   Well of eight contestants.  The eighth guy hasn't started yet.   Well... at least I'm in the top ten?!

Areas where I feel I could use some improvement: 
  • I really suck at MAT tasks, and I need to get better at this. 
  • I'm not very good at figuring out which turnpoints are best to go to on a MAT day. 
  • I need to do a better job of flying faster when I've got water ballast. 
  • I need to spend more time cloud-streeting, if possible.  The winner for the day had one point where he had an average L/D of 159; and I never approached anything higher then 60. (He was flying under clouds and didn't have to turn). 
  • I shouldn't be impatient about starting.  There is a lot of strategy for choosing the best time to start, and I've never paid much attention to that. 
  • I should be more impatient with thermals that aren't giving me what I need; especially when I'm high and don't really need the lift. 
  • I should understand that the minimum time doesn't mean that the task has to be that time.  if there are opportunities for flying fast later in the day, then I should take those opportunities to increase average speed. 
  • I need to make sure that the water in my Camel back doesn't come from a hose, because that water tasted disgusting. 
  • Use more often and make better use of the subscription that I've paid for. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Wave Soaring January 2019

2018 was a terrible soaring year.  Washington, DC recorded more rain than any other year in history. It seemed that every weekend was rainy and stormy, or cloudy and miserable.  For the most part, QQ sat in her trailer for the 2018 flying season.
Hopefully 2019 will be a better flying season. This past weekend was hopefully a signal that things are getting better.  Skyline Soaring Club put together an ad-hoc operation to fly on the 7th of January 2019, and it turned out to be a great soaring day. It was not always obvious that it was going to be a great soaring day.  Many of the sources of information that I use for soaring forecasts were disabled due to the latest Federal Government funding crisis. The NOAA's rucsoundings website showed me this apologetic message:

Normally, I view the NOAA's rucsoundings webpage to see if the following conditions are being forecasted for the day:

  • Wind strength at about 15+ knots at 2000-3000 feet. 
  • Wind direction around 315 (ideal), or 270 (very marginal), or 350 (very marginal)
  • Temperature inversion starting somewhere around mountaintop height or lower
  • Temperature inversion ends at a very high altitude; anything about 18,000 is not that important. 
As we did our morning briefing, I asked if anybody wanted to be a passenger for flying in QQ, and Pete Maynard raised his hand immediately.  We assembled QQ, installed the oxygen bottles (which I normally don't have installed during the summer months), installed the oxygen systems, put on my electric socks and all of my warm clothes, and I installed my male external catheter, just in case. 

QQ is assembled and ready to go
Our towpilot asked where we wanted to go.  I responded that we wanted to go to Signal Knob, at or around 3000 feet above airport elevation.   The flight computer did not report any winds, but corrected once we made a few turns. Either the flight computer was narrowing in on accuracy for the winds, or the winds weren't that strong yet. For the first 30 minutes of the flight there was lift, but it was turbulent, spotty, and erratic. 
Instead of immediately heading off to fly low and fast on the ridge, I wanted to connect with the wave.  Earlier sightings of the scrappy clouds we recognize as rotor clouds were proof enough to me that the wave was somewhere out there.  Pete and I were jostled around for 30 minutes in moderate to severe turbulence, grinding back and forth in front of the Massanutten mountain just south of Strasburg, VA. There were a few moments where I was sure we had made it into the wave, only to be thwarted with a downdraft erasing all of my temporary gains.  There were brief moments when I had full control deflection, and the glider didn't respond to the aileron control inputs. 

Grinding along the ridge, hoping to get into something that gets us up into wave
I gave up after 30 minutes of attempting to connect with the wave.  Without anybody to tell us that the ridge was reliable, and a flight computer indicating that the winds were only about 8 knots, I set course to fly along the ridge top anyway.  On some days, this is a bigger gamble than others.  Sometimes the wind is not strong enough to keep the glider from descending. I took the calculated risk, understanding that there are plenty of fields to land in if it didn't work out.  I've done it before! 
Good news! At about 500 feet above the mountaintops, I could maintain 80 knots of airspeed without descending.  Past experience with these ridges on days like this told me that if the wave wasn't achievable in Strasburg, then there was going to be a better chance above Short Mountain. Short Mountain is a 7 mile long ridge which is the mountain between Edinburg and Mount Jackson, VA. It is slightly upwind of the rest of the Massanutten mountain chain. There are days when the only way to get into the wave is from Short Mountain. 
Doing the quick jaunt south was definitely the right choice. Once we made the short upwind jump, the bone-jarring turbulence was gone, now reduced to mild annoying bumps.  I performed figure eight patterns on the upwind side of Short Mountain, and attempted to drive upwind into the wave at around 6500 feet MSL. 
At 6700 feet MSL, the mild annoying bumps turned into the most smooth air that could ever be described.  Once making that transition, words really fail to describe the joy of achieving that smooth air with strong steady lift.  It was after we got into the wave that we put on the oxygen masks and started taking pictures.

Climbing at 600 feet per minute over Edinburg, VA

Happy Piet in wave

Since I brought along the oxygen, this was a good time to put on the mask and to see just how high the wave lift will take us. 
Soapbox: The FAA mandates that oxygen mask usage must begin at 12,500 feet, but as a personal rule, I will start using oxygen at around 9000 to 10,000 feet. I have the oxygen system, it is extremely cheap to replace the air in the tank, there is no good reason to have a macho attitude about how high I can go without needing the oxygen. The brain loses its function with oxygen deprivation. Unfortunately, the brain is the only device that detects if is losing its function. An oxygen-deprived pilot will get stupider and not even realize it. Check out this video of an airman in a hypobaric chamber: the airman is trying to read out loud the cards in a deck with hilarious results in a controlled environment. If I were to exhibit the same results while performing the duties of a pilot, the results would not be nearly as comical.  
Pete in front, Piet in back. That's not confusing at all
On the way up, I occasionally took some photographs to document the victory. The rate of climb was steady at around 400 feet of climb every minute. We topped out this first climb at 12,000 feet. The winds were significantly stronger at this altitude. The flight computer indicated that winds were still from the northwest, but now at 51 knots. During our climb to 12,000 feet, the flight computer would occasionally show our ground speed as completely canceled out by the wind. If I slowed down a little bit more, the glider would be flying backwards into the wind, which the flight computer was nice enough to show as a negative ground speed. 
Once we topped out at 12,000 feet, I decided to head south to get some OLC points.  I wanted to get to Harrisonburg, VA, but was willing to see what kind of lift we could find along the way.  We contacted some strong smooth wave lift that took us to the highest altitude of 14,800 feet.  From this altitude, the lift got weaker, and hanging out here would not get us to cover any ground.  I turned south again. 
View of Winchester to the northeast of our position
With a right crosswind and good airspeed, we were occasionally flying along with a groundspeed of over 110 knots.  While cruising along in the wave, it is important to stay in the updraft, stay out of the downdraft, and more-or-less maintain heading.  Also the wave changes position, due to shifting winds, varying geography below, and just plain luck.  The key to flying like this is to make small course corrections.  When the lift disappears, make large course corrections; sometimes by 90 degrees into the wind. 
Several of the skiing trails were opened up at the Massanutten ski resort
We turned around near the Massanutten ski resort, and headed to the north. As we headed north, I tried to get the glider slightly further to the west, hoping that the wave lift would be stronger.  We bopped along with occasional course corrections to stay with the lift, and eventually made it to the West Virginia border.  Our most northerly position was at the border of Virginia and West Virginia. 
We could have flown for much longer, but the daylight was starting to run out.  By 15:30, I started thinking of returning to Front Royal with enough time that we would put the plane away with daylight remaining. It really is a burden to disassemble a glider in the dark. QQ is not legal to fly after sunset at 17:08.  After one last climb over the Alleghenies, we did a final downwind dash with 50 knots on the airspeed indicator, but 110 knots on the groundspeed.  By 15:55 we were over Front Royal at 10,000 feet.  I downdraft from the wave, and we descended in that air at about 500 feet per minute. We were on the ground by 16:09.  Sunset was 17:08. has a pretty animated graphic of our journey. has a lovely replay of our flight, too.

Of all the glider flights in the United States, ours was the one with the most points (from what I can tell).

This may sound impressive, but in reality this isn't such a big deal because there normally isn't much glider flying in the US on January 6th.

Here's the flight with the IGC trace:

Thanks for reading!