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Across Nevada and Part Way Back

The flight had been arranged for Wednesday out of my home airport at Bishop, California, but the weather didn’t look good enough that day for the flight I hoped for. The weather forecast looked better on Thursday, 10 July 2003, so, the flight would be that day. The main impact of the change in days was that flying Thursday rather than Wednesday I had to land within about 200 miles of Bishop or I’d be on my own for the retrieve. If I had flown on Wednesday the plan would have been for me to fly as far as I could that day, with a retrieve tow back to Bishop the next day.

Although the weather certainly looked better on Thursday that Wednesday it still didn’t look great to me. I figured the soaring conditions might be better later in the day so I aimed for a bit later of a start than I might have otherwise.

I took off from Bishop Airport at 1245 in my H301 Libelle behind my friend Jeff Thompson’s 150 horsepower Cessna 150. Right from the start of the tow good lift seemed to be abundant. I released east of the airport at 6,700 feet and quickly centered on the first good thermal of the day. I climbed to about 12,000 feet and headed north up the White Mountains. Right after the tow Jeff landed to do some errands and to pack up for our overnight excursion. He planned to be back in the air about 1530.

During the climb I reported to Jeff that the conditions looked good. A glider flying a 1000 kilometer flight out of Inyokern that day (Zero Zero Echo) was approaching Bishop and we talked briefly about the weather and our respective flights. As it turns out Zero Zero Echo had a pretty good radio and he was good enough to relay key messages between Jeff and I later in the day.

Although lift was good flying north up the White Mountains, I reached Montgomery Peak, the most prominent peak at the north end of the Whites, about 45 minutes after take off and about even with its top at a bit over 13,000 feet. A street of good looking cumulus clouds was forming east of the Whites and a few puffs were starting to form further to the northeast in the direction I hoped to fly. A few miles east of Montgomery Peak near Basalt I contacted excellent lift under some nice cumulus clouds there. I climbed in this lift to above 17,900 feet and then continued northeast flying at my 45 mile per hour minimum sink speed under the good clouds. I topped out at 17,900 feet at the base of the clouds a few miles north of Miller Mountain. Ahead, the cumulus puffs were growing more numerous.

From Miller Mountain I flew over Mina and then detoured a bit to fly over Pilot Peak. I made a good climb here and could look ahead to a few good clouds forming on the Toiyabe Range near Arc Dome and Hadley. In what had been blue beyond the Tioyabe’s cumulus puffs began to form. As I flew on toward the Tioyabe’s I had a minute or two of concern whether or not I would find lift to clear them but as I approached the range, I found good lift and climbed again to over 17,900 feet near Arc Dome. From here the best clouds continued northeast across the Big Smokey Valley toward Eureka. Another smaller branch of clouds and puffs continued more northerly toward Austin with some puffs continuing on a path toward Battle Mountain. I headed on the major branch toward Eureka. I hadn’t flown my glider over Eureka before and flying over Eureka was one of the things I hoped to do on this flight. In addition, the Eureka airport was the last paved airport in the direction of my flight still within 200 miles of Bishop.

The clouds over the Big Smokey Valley provided some good lift and a couple of climbs topping out at 17,900 feet, but began to dissipate as I passed north of the large dry lake in the middle of the valley. Soon the lift was gone, the variometer was pegged down and I was flying on at the 108 mile per hour rough air red line of my Libelle. The sink continued on and on and finally, turned to moderate lift a few miles southwest of Summit Mountain at the north end of the Monitor Range and at about 12,500 feet. Here I climbed a thousand feet or so and then the lift seemed to disappear and I started down again. Back down to about 12,500 feet and a mile or so northeast of Summit Mountain I again found moderate lift and climbed to almost 18,000 feet and high enough to continue on Eureka and beyond.

During the climb Zero Zero Echo relayed to me that Jeff had left Bishop headed for fuel at Tonopah. I use a panel mounted handheld radio in my glider so it took repeated transmissions for Zero Zero Echo to understand I was nearing Eureka, 195 miles out of Bishop. Zero Zero Echo was good enough to take the time to understand my message and to pass it on to Jeff who couldn’t hear me at all.

On my way to Eureka I could see the line of best clouds passed over Eureka and continued northeast. Another branch of clouds was forming northwest of and parallel to my course and seemed to be reaching for the Ruby Mountains. Flying along the Ruby Mountains was another thing I hoped to do on the flight so that forming branch of clouds was mighty inviting. Still the best clouds by far headed past Eureka and further on east of the Ruby’s. It seemed pretty clear I could go the furthest with the best clouds so that is the way I headed. Except for some clouds near Ely and the 10 or 20 mile wide corridor of clouds I was following, skies were mostly blue with no clouds over the middle of Nevada. This course seemed to be the best one to take today.

I passed over the Eureka airport at about 1615 and 16,000 feet. The plan that developed in my mind was to continue on following the clouds to the northeast until 1730, and then turn around a head back hoping to get at least to Eureka and to a paved airport within 200 miles of Bishop. I could see the clouds continued on way into the distant northeast and considered just continuing as far as I could and leaving the retrieve to my own devises, but I decided otherwise.

On drives and plane trips across Nevada I had always admired the Diamond Mountains east of Eureka so yet another thing I wanted to do on the flight was to fly this range. In a mixed blessing I passed by more than a mile over its top so couldn’t enjoy it much.

The clouds over the next range east, sort of a southern extension of the Ruby Mountains, looked really good and formed a continuous cloud street extending thirty or forty miles to the northeast. I reached them and flew on in good lift at minimum sink speed only circling in the strongest lift. Soon I was at 17,900 feet at the base of these clouds, the highest I have ever been in purely thermal lift. The Ruby’s were 30 or so miles to the northwest and I could see there was only a puff or two of cloud along these mountains. I was high enough to easily make it back to Eureka.

I was also high enough to hear Jeff calling me every few minutes as he climbed out of Tonopah but at first he couldn’t hear me respond. After a while Jeff could hear my return calls, but not well. I was reporting to Jeff that I was near Currie but at first Jeff heard it as being near Currant. A few calls back and forth and we straightened it out. He would head for Eureka.

As I reached the northeast end of the good clouds virga was starting to fall. I could see well formed widely scattered cumulus ahead 10 or 15 miles on the other side of the virga and the blue beyond that. It was about 1700. As I flew clear of the virga and into the blue on the other side I found strong sink. Flying through the sink I soon lost enough altitude that I couldn’t glide back to Eureka any more but I could still make it on to Wendover Utah about 50 miles ahead. I flew on, northeast bound, at rough air redline, rapidly loosing altitude. A few miles short of the well formed clouds I saw a scrap of cloud forming a mile or so northwest of my course. I was aware it was getting later in the day and I was aware of my commitment to Jeff to try to get back to Eureka for our tow home the next day. The good clouds ahead looked great but were far enough apart that I was concerned that if I didn’t find lift under the first one and if there was sink between that cloud and the next one, that I could a struggle to get back to Eureka. I diverted over to the scrap and found moderate lift. After what seemed to be a long time the lift started to drop well off. I was at 17,900 feet and it was a little after 1730. I was about 295 miles out of Bishop.

The clouds a few miles ahead to the northeast still looked great and I could see a beautiful cloud street passing over Wendover and continuing north. Beyond that as far as I could see into Idaho were more well formed cumulus clouds. It would have been easy to fly well into Idaho and maybe as far as Wyoming. If these conditions had only existed the day before when everything was in place for me to fly as far as I could straight out! The sink wasn’t so bad heading back to the excellent cloud street where I had gotten so high a while before. The clouds still worked well, though not quite as strong as they had before, and seemed to continue almost all the way to Eureka. Scattered cumulus continued on beyond Eureka back toward Bishop.

A little more than halfway back to Eureka from my turn around point, at about 17,900 feet and with good clouds between me and Eureka, I entered strong sink and sped up to rough air redline again in response. I should have been more than high enough to make it to Eureka though the sink was certainly stronger than my glide computer card accounted for. There were good clouds ahead between my position and Eureka. I was pretty sure the sink would end soon and I could climb again under the good clouds and continue on to Eureka and beyond, but I continued down.

At about this time Jeff arrived at Eureka to land, wait for me, and get fuel. A few minutes after Jeff landed, the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) at the Eureka airport called my up on 123.300 even though it was after 1800 by this time. It took me a call or so to figure out that he was calling me and for me to respond. He passed his microphone to Jeff and Jeff asked me if I thought I’d make it as far as Eureka. I replied that I was sure that I would and, based on the look of the clouds ahead, expected to go substantially further.

All the while I continued to sink. I could judge my glide angle by sighting between the top of the Diamond Mountains and the fields and features in the valley north of Eureka. Although my glide card showed I still had plenty of altitude to make it to Eureka, sighting between the ridge of the mountains and the valley clearly showed that often in the stronger sink I was loosing ground on a glide over the ridge. The valley east of Eureka valley had a large dry lake that appeared to be good for landing and towing if the sink continued and I was unable to clear the ridge. Overhead were fractured cumulus clouds.

As I passed below 12,000 feet I became lower than I had been since my initial climb out of Bishop in my first thermal of the day. Occasionally the sink relented and I would gain on the glide to Eureka. But, although it relented from time to time, the sink did not stop, and lower and lower I went. As I approached the ridge I was relieved to see I would clear it despite the continued sink. Jeff reported a moderate north wind at Eureka even though the automated observation at Ely had been reporting moderate wind out of southwest when I had checked it a few minutes before. This opposition of wind direction was probably related to the good lift I had experienced (but didn’t explain the sink to me). I was optimistic that the sink would stop when I crossed the ridge, but as I crossed the ridge, it didn’t stop. If the sink continued I would be able to glide to alfalfa fields northeast of the airport but probably wouldn’t make it to the airport. Finally, a mile or so west of the ridge, the sink slowed and then changed to light lift. My lowest altitude was 10,300 feet at about 1830.

The lift was only moderate but I was climbing again. After climbing 2 or 3 thousand feet I flew south a few miles down the ridge until I was over the high point of the range, Diamond Peak, where the lift got better, but was still not much better than moderate. Starting a little higher than 10,000 feet I had a long way to climb. As I got higher I again could hear Zero Zero Echo calling his ground. I was able to reach Zero Zero Echo by radio. He said he was on final glide to Inyokern so it looked like he was going to make his 1000 kilometer flight. I congratulated him and wished him well.

After about 45 minutes of climbing I reached 17,900 feet and headed slowly southwest in zero sink and reduced sink. It was late in the day and although I was high enough to be at least close to having a glide to Hadley airport near Round Mountain, I didn’t know of a lot of good to land and tow out of places between Eureka and Hadley. In addition, Hadley was behind the highest part of the Toquima Range. That would require me to be high until almost on top of the airport. I also had a glide made to places I knew to land to the sout. I might be able to make it as far as Tonopah if I found good lift and could go fast enough to get there before dark.

I called Jeff and we agreed I would fly south. Jeff took off and flew that way. I found zero sink and flew slowly for a long time over 17,900 feet. Jeff passed me about 30 miles south of Eureka, 5 miles to my east and 10,000 feet below. I could see a little white speck moving against the hills and shadows below and to my east. To the southwest, an area of scraps of clouds stretched on toward Tonopah.

About 50 miles or so south of Eureka, the zero sink ended while the sun approached the horizon. I could see Jeff landing on the dirt road near a place Jeff and I had flown our planes several times. We agreed we would both land there today. I didn’t want to completely waste the altitude so I flew on to Highway 6.

I was a little nervous landing on the dirt road there because I knew from previous visits that if the main landing gear of the glider was in the middle of the road the wing tips would be unsupported in the ditches on either side of the road. I had to land to one side of the road or the other and then be sure that the right wing tip went down when I came to a stop. There also was the problem that a car might come along the section of road I was about to land on.

A good landing starts with a good pattern but my landing pattern wasn’t flown very well. As I entered the pattern a truck came and stopped to one side and at one end of the section of road I was going to land on. I overshot my turn from base to final and was a little low on final and flew right over the truck kind of low. Thankfully I touched down right where I wanted to and at the right speed and rolled to a stop right where I wanted to with my wing down on the road. It was 2015.

We pushed my glider off the road and parked it next to Jeff’s Cessna. A few cars went by on the road and just about all of them slowed down when the saw the glider and plane parked there. One car stopped and a sister let his brother look the aircraft over, then they left. Jeff and I had a picnic dinner under our wings, or almost under them, including what has now become a traditional good bottle of red wine.

After a cool night on the ground under a bright moon we were up at dawn Thursday. In a cloud of dust and sand we took off with no one to run my wing on the dirt road, but without incident, just before sunrise. We were back in Bishop a little over 2 hours later.

Posted: 8/4/2003 By: David Grah

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