First Soaring Flight
Mon Jun 25, 2007 4:54 am
[ Mood: Happy ][ Currently: Working ]
Yesterday, June 23, I got my first soaring flight! It was flight number 25, and it was about damn time, I think. I aerotowed at around 12:30 in the afternoon on a 95 degree day, and I was a bit nervous before launching. I wasn't sure how strong the conditions were going to be, but I knew that if I didn't like it I could just release.
The tow was the roughest and most difficult that I've done by a factor of 10. I had no idea that the airplane could move up and down relative to me so quickly. The tow line got close to my nose wires twice, but I managed to get centered again each time, and fought the turbulence the whole way up. I was nervous about how strong the thermals were going to be all the way up at 2500 AGL, and I was not sure if I was going to enjoy this flight or end up pissing my pants.
I got the wave off at 2500 and was quite happy to release. The pilot dropped me off downwind of the field, which I thought was odd but I had plenty of altitude and I thought the wind wasn't that strong, which would prove to be a bad bit of judgement on my part.
I tooled around for a few minutes, getting the feel for the air and starting to relax a bit, deciding that I could probably handle it. I was looking around at the clouds with a watchful eye because they were building up bigtime. These weren't light fluffy cotton ball clouds, they were rapidly turning into huge dark grey glider destroyers.
Out of nowhere my nose was pointed up into the sky, I was pressed into my harness, and my vario started screaming. I had just stumbled into the thermal that was feeding the cloud that was building over my head, and I was along for the ride. I glanced at the display on my vario, and it was increasing through 300 fpm, 400 fpm, 600 fpm. Just as quickly as it started, I found my left wing down and I fell out of the lift. I stabilized the glider and made a 180, and this time found a more gentle entrance into the lift.
Now this is more what I was looking for. I could feel a slow, steady acceleration upward as I flew deeper into the lift, and I started making slow passes back and forth across the lift area trying to map it out. I played with the lift for 5-10 minutes, easily keeping my altitude steady between 2000 and 2400 depending on how fast I was flying and how strong my lift was.
I was keeping an eye on the cloud above me, because it was getting darker and wider, and although I couldn't exactly judge where the base of it was, I could tell that I was getting closer than I expected. The lift was everywhere, I didn't have to turn to stay in it. I was flying around fairly fast, in the school's Falcon no less, and I was maintaining anywhere from 50 fpm sink to 300 fpm climb.
The higher pitched tone of the vario caught my attention. I found myself climbing at 400 fpm, then 500 fpm. When the vario passed through 600 fpm I saw the base of the cloud coming down to meet me and I pulled in. 500 fpm. I pulled in more. I was going as fast as my little falcon could go without climbing over the bar, and I couldn't get less than 300 fpm up. My attention was fixed solely on the cloud that stretched from my all the way over the back of the mountain, and I decided to bail. I didn't know if it was cloud suck, but I didn't want to find out.
I pointed the glider at the LZ and made a run for it. It was at this point that I realized that in the time I was playing with the lift, the wind had picked up, and I was now 3 or 4 miles downwind of the field, with 2400 feet of altitude. No problem, I thought. Just then everything went completely silent.
The sound and feeling of the wind stopped, the wing went limp, and I heard the glider creak as it was finally relieved of the load it had been carrying. I had found the sink. There was the half second pause, and then the entire world started lifting up towards me. My vario started telling me that I was going down just as incessantly as it was telling me that I was going up a few seconds earlier.
I tried pulling in to fly faster and get out of it, but this was no joke. The electronic beeping of the vario worked its way down the scale, a lower tone for each of the sink rates I was finding. 900 fpm, 1000 fpm, 1200 fpm down. I didn't have the excess processing power to do the math, but this wasn't going to work. The wind had obviously increased since I launched, as I was just crawling across the ground.
Having no other choice but to try to make it back to the LZ, I kept the glider pointed right at the field and watched as the trees between myself and the field started covering more and more of the landing zone. The sink combined with a headwind of at least 10 knots, plus the piss poor wind penetration of a Falcon were all conspiring to keep me from making it back.
I was looking at the fields around me for more options. The one to my left was too small. The field with the chicken farm would be ok, but it was hilly and it would have to be downwind, which was ok since I had big wheels. The field surrounding the red house would work, but if I hit any more sink I wasn't going to make it either.
I decided to go for the LZ for another 10 seconds and bail out to the red house if I couldn't make it, and the chicken farm if I couldn't make the red house. I saw one of the instructors, Eric, standing outside the pavilion watching me and taking nervous steps to the left and right. He could tell that I might not be making it back, maybe he could tell that I knew it too.
As I was scanning the trees between the LZ and the red house, I saw a swirling wind moving through them. Some sort of vortex was twisting the tops of the trees and it was heading toward me. I braced for whatever was about to hit me, and when it did I felt a gust of warm air surround me, almost like opening the door to a steam room. The vario beeped higher and higher, and the ground started to fall away again. I had found a last second thermal!! I flew straight through it, gaining 100 feet as I did, and set my sights on the LZ once again. That thermal is always coming off that corner of the trees, and it has made so many of my approaches bumpy and a little uncontrolled, and yet this time it was like a familiar friend giving me a hand.
With that boost I set my sights further down the field and brought that glider back to earth rather uneventfully. When I unhooked and stepped out of the glider it started rolling backwards, and it was then that I realized how much the wind had picked up in the 20-25 minutes I had been in the air.
From start to finish, this flight was at the far limits of my ability at this point. The aerotow, the thermal flying, glider handling, decision making, and weather observation were all challenges. That being said, it was the most educational flight I've had so far. A few key points that I will work on and get better at:
Keep in mind what glider you're flying. I didn't think about the difference in penetration and glide between my double surface and the school's Falcon, and that was an oversight on my part.
Don't assume that the wind hasn't changed since you launched. I was only flying for 20 minutes, but the wind increased substantially in that time. I'm sure it was partly due to the clouds the were building (which produced rain just an hour later).
Always have an out in mind in case you're not going to make it back to your preferred landing zone. I waited until I realized that I wasn't going to make the LZ before picking out other fields. In this case it was fine because I knew 1000 feet AGL that I wasn't going to make it, but I will still try to pick them out earlier from now on.
Know what speeds to fly ahead of time. While I was trying to get back to the LZ, I realized that I had no idea what speed I should fly in order to get the best distance across the ground and still penetrate the wind. Not only that, but I didn't have an airspeed indicator.
That about wraps it up for this time. If I'm not too lazy, more interesting blog entries will follow.
Flight time: 20-25 minutes
Weather: Rapidly building dark gray cumulus clouds, 90 degrees, winds 10 - 13 mph.
Altitudes: released at 2500, held 2200 for long time, reached 2600 before leaving thermal.
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