Every year a different soaring club hosts a national competition for the big two-seat gliders like mine. In 2018, the first of these competitions took place in Mifflin, Pennsylvania. In 2019, I drove to Albert Lea, Minnesota for that 20 meter competition. In 2020 COVID caused the contest to be canceled. It was rescheduled for June of 2021 in northern California. (I missed that one). This year, the contest was being hosted in Sunflower, Kansas.
Back in January, I sent a note to the membership, seeking copilots and crew. I got two responses in a few minutes after sending the email: Mark Schababerle and Chris Norris. For these sorts of events, it's really good to have one crewmember standing by for the inevitable landout, while the other one acts as copilot. The gliding competition requires that both seats in the glider are occupied for every flying day during the contest.
Sunday May 29th (five days before driving out to the contest), Chris is crewing for Shane up at Mifflin, Pennsylvania for a different glider contest. Chris drives back early from the contest because there was an outbreak of COVID at the contest. A total of six contestants withdrew from the contest at Mifflin. Chris had no symptoms. I start looking for an alternative copilot anyway. I scrounge through my list of retired guys who would fit the bill. It turns out that the 6 people I called all had something better to do. (I can't believe it either). Chris and I decide that he'll fly out to Wichita on some indeterminate date, and I'll drive to Kansas alone. In the meantime, I'll fly with Mark every day, and hope I don't land out.
Chris was originally planning on being my co-driver for the epic 20 hour drive from Front Royal VA to Yoder, Kansas. Somehow Erik (Weezy) gets wind that I need a helper to drive and volunteers. We make arrangements to rendezvous at Dulles Airport on Friday morning. We get to Front Royal, hook up the trailer, and are on the road to Kansas by 10:00 AM. We plan to overnight somewhere in Kentucky. Maybe Louisville or Knoxville. We take the southern route, down I-81, to I-64 West, through Kentucky. Google Maps had an alternate route, going through Petersburg, WV. Those roads are really no fun with a big trailer, so I insist on the southern route, sticking to Interstate highways.
When you're driving with a huge trailer, I have to be more picky about the sorts of gas stations we use for fueling. I like the big truck stops that advertise being RV-friendly. I really don't like small town gas stations, where there isn't much room to maneuver the big trailer around. Hitting the back of the trailer on a gas pump, or smashing the wheel into a curb is no fun. We managed to navigate 4 different gas stations without any percussive interactions. Only once were we faced with a situation where we had to disconnect the trailer because "it just wouldn't fit. " We spent the night in Louisville, KY; where we met up with some old buddies of Weezy's.
On Saturday, we resumed the trip. I dropped off Weezy at Kansas International airport. If you could imagine the big QQ trailer driving through the passenger drop-off, it was as weird a sight as you might think. I continued the next 233 miles solo, arriving at Sunflower Aerodrome at around 10 PM that evening.
Mark met me at the airport and helped me set up the tent in the dark. We parked the trailer between two Ensign Hangars on the northern side of the massive glider tie-down areas. We were warned as to where the glider tie downs would be huge puddles, and which areas would be drier.
Sunday: Practice Day 1
The conditions were marginal. I assembled QQ with Mark, and we pushed out to the line for an informal grid time at 12:00. We were second in line to launch, behind Pete Alexander, flying in "98". Pete's glider is a motorglider. The sniffer report indicated "We're climbing 200 feet a minute with the engine out", so we waited a bit longer. I finally launched to the smoothest conditions I could ever imagine. We worked some marginal lift to stretch the flight out to 22 minutes.
Monday: Practice Day 2
I couldn't even get to the start line, the conditions were so weak. I landed and followed a rule I learned from Dave Weaver. "Never get a relight on a practice day." Mark and I put away QQ with some help from a neighboring glider pilot.
Tuesday: Contest Day 1
[SeeYou.Cloud track of this flight] We get our grid position, right behind "98" and right in front of "2PP", a Duo Discus from Harris Hill. 2PP was being flown by Noah Reitter and Daniel Sazhin. The conditions were marginal. All of this part of Kansas had been drenched by rainy day after rainy day. I head out on task anyway.
We got to the first turnpoint without much difficulty. The journey to the second turnpoint featured the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. This wildlife refuge is known for its marshy wetlands, and zillions of different species of birds. Birdwatchers come from all over the world to this place. I had never heard of it before, and wondered why there were so few fields below. I was also wondering why there were no thermals. There were no soaring birds, either. I spotted a wildfire to the southwest, so I immediately headed for it. There were three other gliders circling in that smoke. By the time I got to it, it wasn't really working anymore. I pressed on to the second turnpoint.
By the time we reached the second turnpoint, Mark and I were desperately looking for anything that was an updraft. I spotted some big black field. "Do you think that's good black or bad black?" Black has to be good, right? Black means dark, absorbs sunlight, makes thermals, right?
This was bad black. It was a cattle feeding lot. We definitely smelled it as we passed overhead. Also, there was no lift over bad-black. I had asked the flight computer to draw a solution for a nearby airport. "No nearby airports." Great. It wasn't even seven minutes after flying over the cattle feeding lot that I found myself on the ground. There were all sorts of great fields all around. We chose the field that looked like recently-harvested wheat. Perfect.
I'm amazed that other people made it around the course that day. I wasn't amazed that we weren't the only ones to land out. I probably would have made better speed on course if I knew that the wildlife refuge was a marsh. Just because Kansas may be flat, doesn't mean that the features are homogenous.
Mark and I waited for about 1 and a half hours before the trailer appeared. We investigated the oil derrick that was adjacent to the wheat field we landed in. We talked to a few people who stopped to see if we were all right. The farmer never showed up to say hi. The Kansas Soaring Association's treasurer, Mike Davis, drove up with my truck and trailer. What a sight for sore eyes! The retrieve wasn't uneventful; we had a hard time getting the glider up to the ramp, since the fuselage had sunk into the soft dusty sandy soil. As we put the glider away, the sky turned from pure blue to an increasing amount of high cirrus overcast.
Wednesday: Contest Day 2
Brian, a member of KSA, showed up in a very short time. We weren't that far away from the airport. In the meantime, a second family of individuals, also named "Yoder" showed up. This one had his grandson, Theo. He was very interested in the glider, and of course, I promptly put him in the cockpit.
The retrieve was not without issues. My truck got stuck in the soft soil with the trailer attached. Despite my truck being in four-wheel-drive mode, the soil was too soft and sandy. Getting the glider up onto the cradle also proved to be a challenge. We eventually got the glider out of the field and headed back to the airport. By the time we got home, all the food from the dinner being served was gone. :(
How did I do on the scoresheet!? I was hoping you wouldn't ask. Two landouts in a row can really hurt your chances on the scoresheet. I placed 7th out of 9 that day. Only 3 gliders in our class made it around the course that day. The other gliders that landed out in my class were mostly motorgliders who used their motors to get home) (must be nice). I've got 302 points and the leader has 666 points.
Midnight Tent Destruction
Friday: Contest Day Three
[SeeYou.Cloud track of this flight] I definitely don't want to land out three days in a row. Getting on the podium wasn't ever really likely for me anyway, so let's just get this straight: Don't. Land. Out. Again. Chris Norris has arrived in town. Somewhere between Contest Day 2 and 3, we had a thunderstorm roll in and cancel a flying day. This third contest day looked like it could actually work out. Chris took the back seat, while Mark acted as the retrieve crew.
The conditions are pretty dicey at the start. For those of us near the back of the pack, we can't get to a starting height near the start line anywhere near the time the gates open. I watch the gliders that launched before us get to the starting line and go out on course without me. I struggle to gain enough altitude to get to the start, and limp toward the first turnpoint. 9 thermals, 57 minutes, and 58 kilomters later, I dip into the first turn area. There are plenty of clouds along the way to the first turnpoint, but once we get to the first turnpoint, there's nothing but blue sky wasteland ahead.
Does this mean there are no thermals? Does this mean there are thermals, but they're invisible? I don't know. What I do know, however, is I'm not freaking landing out today. So we're not going to blunder off into the blue and find out if there are no thermals or not.
I head back into the second turn area, and follow as many clouds as I could find. I hang out with Mike Brooks in his Genesis 2 and make the most of a tall thermal. After this thermal, I look across a vast swath of land, unmarked by thermals. It's 15 kilometers until we get to the edge of the third turnpoint, and all I feel along the way is: NOTHING. Not a blip on the variometer. It's the smoothest air I've seen all day. You know, landing out three days in a row isn't that bad, right?
The photo above shows the turn area for the third turnpoint. The turn area has a 20 km radius. The task is to fly into that area as fast as you can. The object is to make it home after 3 hours. I have configured the flight computer to show how far we should go into the turn area. Given our current speed so far, if we went approximately half-way into the turn area, we would arrive at home exactly at 3 hours. What the flight computer doesn't know, however, is how terrible the soaring looks ahead. There is what appears to be one small cumulus cloud way off in the distance. Maybe another 20 kilometers ahead. Will it work? Will we have enough altitude to get there? Will we maybe find some kind of thermal between here and there? I don't know the answers to these questions.
What I do know, however, is "I'm not freaking landing out three freaking days in a row." I clip the edge of that turn area, and head for home. I will surely be penalized for returning as much as a half-hour early. I don't care. I just want to get home. I limp home. "Think skinny thoughts. Fly exactly Max L/D" We didn't find anything for a long time, but there were promising clouds ahead. I eventually found some very weak thermals of about a knot, which we used for a while. The flight computer got more optimistic about our ability to make it home. We went from needing 4000 feet of climb, to needing 2000 feet of climb, to being 300 feet over final glide altitude. I'll take it.
We made it home. We were the first in our class to get home. I got penalized for showing up under the minimum time. There were three gliders in our 20m class who landed out on Contest Day 3, so I'm pretty sure I made the right choice, limping home when I did.
Four Canceled Days in a Row
We've had a total of five days cancelled due to weather, but four of those happened consecutively. Between contest days 2 and 3 we had a thunderstorm roll in right during the best time of day for soaring. After contest day 3 we had strong southerly winds in excess of 30 knots that lasted for a few days. This would have made lining up all the gliders at the grid problematic. For two of the four consecutive days that were cancelled, we put all of the gliders on the runway, and then decided that it wasn't going to be flyable at all. In other words, we put all the effort to assemble the glider, drag it to the launch point, drag it back to the trailer, and put it away again.
I took a day off and went to the local Hutchinson Kansas museum called "The Cosmosphere." What a gem! There were all sorts of museum specimens from the US-USSR space race in the 1960s.
Wednesday: Contest Day Four:
We connect with a solid 3 knot thermal. I circle to the left (like I always do in times of stress), and we climb over 4000 feet in 12 minutes. Since we already hit the turn area, there wasn't much point in going further, so we headed back.
The Final Contest Day
Lessons Learned / Take-aways:
- Learn more about how to identify and make use of convergence lift.
- Learn more about how to line up the task with the terrain features;
- Spend more time looking at the land features and see if there are any areas where there is likely to be less lift. Just because it's Kansas and Kansas is flat, that doesn't mean the terrain is homogenous. Find out when the task might go over a marsh, and plan a way of avoiding it.
- When the conditions are blue skies and no thermal markers, stick together! It's unlikely you'll get really far ahead against this caliber of pilots.
- Make sure the FLARM is working well before the contest starts. There were times a glider appeared out of nowhere. (It turns out that the antenna has become loose on the PowerFLARM unit).
- Consider getting an electric winch to help get the glider unstuck from a sandy or muddy landout field.
- Tents and Kansas and thunderstorms don't mix.
- Learn more about how the HAWK variometer works. I got the software upgrade only 2 flights before the contest started, so I really haven't fleshed out all of the ways to make use of it.