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The Saga of Day 5, Ephrata Contest 2011

The day dawned with the promise of good thermals; but a hard inversion at 7000' and increasing winds aloft as well as dry air.  This meant little or no clouds to mark the lift! So our working band would be narrow - pilots couldn't get too high (above 7000) and didn't want to get low (below 5000).  And without clouds we'd be partially blind - groping our way through the air and using limited clues from the ground (mostly dust devils) to find possible lift.  The task for Sports Class had a 3 hour minimum time, with a 15 mile circle around Mansfield, a 20 mile circle around Wilbur, and a 20 mile circle around Waterville.  Nominal distance (to the center of every turnpoint) was 165 miles.

My flight trace is here.  (Note that I spent a lot of time floating around before the start gate opened, so my OLC speed is not indicative of my contest task speed).

Today's flight was 80% awesome and 20% absolutely horrible.  The start was great! I was out-climbing everyone and going out on course, and coming back still above everyone...  Then I had a near-midair: I fell below a couple of guys and was gaggling with them for a bit.  One of them was about 200 feet above me in a thermal and straightened up to leave... so I cut inside him (still 200 feet below and behind him).  Then he suddenly changed his mind as he flew out into the sink, and he cut back in. Meanwhile I'd turned inside him and hit the core - the net effect being that he descended right in front of me as I climbed up his tail, and I had to haul on the stick and do a big wingover to keep from ramming him.  He never saw me coming from below & behind, and my left winglet missed his rudder/elevator by about 20 feet - OOF!  I immediately went off and flew by myself for awhile so I could calm down and clear my head.  It is something that I will be keeping in mind whenever I gaggle in the future:  Just because someone looks or sounds like they're leaving the thermal does NOT mean they won't change course - and even 200 feet is not a whole lot of vertical separation when one person is sinking and the other is rising!  Also, I probably made things worse by trying to reverse my turn and get back outside of the other glider as I was coming up towards him. I could have tightened my turn even more and popped my airbrakes, and gotten better separation that way...  Even a spin would've been better - although with other gliders in the thermal it wouldn't have been a great option.   All are things to think long and hard about, so that I can be safer in the future!


Luckily once I went through the gate, the flight started rockin'...  I went out planning to be slightly more conservative than yesterday, because I think I flew too fast for the conditions and I wanted to try a bit more reasonable approach. As I cruised on up the first leg things went amazingly well, my plan was paying off, and I even got into a small wave that took me up to 9000' (remember there was a strong inversion around 7000') - I started to worry about having Oxygen; but unfortunately the wave was not aligned well for the course so I used it like a thermal and then continued my run North.  I made such good time, I continued north past Mansfield on the west side, turning when I got up near the Columbia river dam north of Chelan.  At this time a wave cloud appeared up near this area and I bent my course around to the NE to try to use it.  Alas, it idn't work out.  But there I met up with Richard "Van" VanGrunsven (of RV Aircraft fame) and he and I cruised east for awhile.  We were very close and had a hard time thermalling with each other (our techniques just didn't jive well in close quarters, and I was a little skittish from my ealrier episode).  But we did run into rotor clouds (often associated with wave), and we worked the rotor for some moderate climbs as we cruised to the east.  Eventually I lost track of Van, as his big wings allowed him to cruise on ahead of me without losing as much altitude.  Crossing Banks Lake, I noticed a dearth of Dust Devils so I patted myself on the back as I "changed gears" - slowing down and conserving my altitude.  Finding very little to work with, I turned just shy of Almira/JZ and headed back across the lake.


And this is when things turned terrible again.  Up to that point, my average speed was nearly 60mph, a really great speed given the conditions and altitude limits.  But as I flew back to (and across) Banks Lake again, I was having no luck finding lift.  I didn't despair, however, because there were a bunch of wispy clouds percolating SE of Mansfield.  It was off my course-line, but I deviated in that direction, fully intending to find something under the big bunch of wisps.  But as I reached them, cloud after cloud did not work.  I was too low for the clouds to be useful markers, and the area I was over was full of green fields - no possibiliy for dust devils!  My altimeter quickly unwound in the sink that was below these wispy clouds, and I suddenly found myself too low to even make it to Mansfield!  Several times I turned into a little bit of lift, on to have it become sink.  It got me closer to Mansfield, but I was still drifting lower.  I couldnt believe how quickly my fortunes had changed.  I went from being confident in winning the day, to confident that I was landing out in a matter of minutes!  As I continued to sink, frustration and vitriol spilled forth as I cursed Mother Nature, the Heavens, and anything else I could think of.  I actually shocked myself with the forcefullness and energy; but after a moment I decided to channel that rage and try to make something happen - even if it was just getting me over the last rise in the terrain so that I could turn and land at the Mansfield airport!  A couple of bumps suckered me into unproductive turns, but I gritted my teeth and focused with all my energy.  Just as I got to 700' AGL and was about to reach for the landing-gear handle, I hit some solid lift and cranked the ship into the tightest bank that I could manage without putting it into a spin.  The lift wasn't super, but it was continuous around the circle and I could gain altitude.  I waited until I'd taken 3 or 4 complete turns before I began to breathe again; but I was amazed to actually be escaping from the doorstep of doom.  The thermal carried me up almost 2000 feet; but even then I was only at 5000 feet - not totally out of the woods!  It would take a couple of more miles of westward travel before I could find a worthwhile thermal to climb back up over 6000' and into the working band again.


At this point I was frustrated at what my low save had done to my score; but I didn't let relief or frustration shake my focus.  The only thing I could do now was to "suck it up" and try to finish the day as strongly as possible, to salvage whatever speed that I could.  To my surprise, a street-like formation of clouds began puffing up between my position and the northern half of the final turnpoint area.  I was going to be over the normal 3-hour time; but I figured that a good run late in the flight would help pull my average up (after it suffered brutally from being stuck down low).  The clouds were not quite as strong of a street as I'd hoped, but I was able to make a really good cruise out near the NW corner of the cylinder, and climb up almost high enough to have a 40 mile final-glide home.  Excited, I turned and headed for Ephrata at 70 knots.  Lift along the first few miles brought me even closer to final glide and a couple of nearby contestants fell behind as they stopped to circle.  I chuckled about that for awhile, until I hit some sink and started to fall below my final glide.  Not wanting to cruise home at a slow pace, I began to worry.  But a few wisps appeared dead-ahead of me, and pulling into them I was rewarded with one of the best climbs of the day, pulling me up well above final glide home, with almost 25 miles still to go.  I pushed the nose over and zoomed out at 85-90 knots, delighting in the rocket-ride home as I slammed my way through lift and sink like a powerboat smacking through chop on the water.  The ground raced past underneath me, and I finally allowed myself a smile as my PDA proclaimed that I'd improved my overall average speed by a few MPH on the way home.  Meanwhile, I listened as 3 gliders landed out (one from each class).  As far as I know, they all went down in fields near where I had my low save... so apparently I wasn't the only one who got caught in Mother Nature's evil trap!


After landing at Ephrata, I was a bit of a basket-case...  The day had been full of ups and downs, and I spent some time venting both my exhilaration and frustrations to my fellow pilots.  I'm glad my fellow contestants are good sports - a couple of them got to hear me talk about my low save many many times throughout the evening!  Nine of us headed to the "Blue Flame" asian restaurant in Ephrata (relatively new place with good Asian food; not upscale but then nothing in Ephrata is).  We had a great time chatting about our flights, our experiences in the sport, and how we each got started in Soaring.  The people in this sport are as diverse as they come; but 99% of them a real quality people who - despite some quirks or habits (god knows I have plenty) - would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it.  The dinner conversations and discussions were a delight!  I'd say they topped off the evening; but the Asian restaurant adjoins a small ice-cream shop (which is run by the same people) - so after dinner a few of us headed over there and bought a bunch of hand-made ice cream shakes and malts... and THAT topped off the evening!  :-D


As for the scores - well, imagine my surprise when I saw that I took 4th place for the day (out of 16 pilots in my class)!!!  Furthermore, the top 5 pilots (including myself) were separated by less than 1mph!  On the one hand, I'm delighted because it means I am still in the running for the overall victory.  But on the other hand, I'm left wondering "what might've been" if I hadn't gotten low.  I would've had such a high average speed that I'd be in first place overall, and pretty much guaranteed a top-two finish even if I had a bad flight tomorrow.  *sigh*  Ah, well.  I'm 100 points out of first place, and 160 points ahead of third place.  So I'm gunning for the leader (Nelson Funston) tomorrow.  And I'm sure that my friend Keith Purves (in 3rd place) is gunning for me. Its all going to come down to the final day; and it'll be a dogfight to the finish!  Cue the "Iron Chef" music, and let the battle begin!

Posted: 7/2/2011 By: Noel Wade

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