HANGING ONTO DREAMS
Hanging onto dreams
By Ian Nadas
Photo-illustration by Tim Larson
It all started normally enough. I wanted to do my 500K, but the year had been horrible for soaring. I had flown my 300K in 1998 to qualify for entering Standard Class in Region 10. But I also noticed that, there were only two more weeks of decent weather after the contest, and then everything shut down for the season.
So the next year, I was approaching the 500K with the knowledge that at any time, the season can end. Mother Nature only deals out so many 500K days a year and it’s up to me to either act on it or keep quiet. The plan is to stay home Saturday, which almost inevitably results in perfect weather, and then go up Sunday, which should be the same weather since Austin was in the middle of a huge air mass that wasn’t going anywhere. I arrive to hear that Saturday was indeed fantastic. I rig, fill the wings with as much water as they can hold, and push out on the flight line. I am thankful that I am able to cut into line in front of our Grob, but not too thrilled that the instructor is suggesting I should have taken off an hour ago.
Gonzo, an actual human, is already up floating around in his monster Jantar. I take off and find a few nibbles, and return to the east side of the field before the 255 Km trip west to Eldorado. Returning to the previous thermal, I can’t seem to get above 3500 ft agl, and I get somewhat tired of searching. About 12 miles east are some clouds, and a Pegasus is heading that way, so I depart. If I learned anything in competition, it’s that if you don’t like what you’re in, leave. There are decent cu to the west, about 20 miles into the trip. The Pegasus, Jantar and I all stop at the same thermal, at which time Jamie announces that he has no audio vario, and doesn’t want to do 500 without one. About 20 miles out, and 5000 agl, an ASW-27 announces that he is just off tow, and in pursuit. “Ha”, I say. Nothing to worry about here… he’s 3000 ft below and 20 miles behind. I’m staying close to a 23m Jantar. I am somewhat invincible.
A wonderful thing happens when we cross Hwy 281 and head west of Lake Buchanan: the lift gets to 8 knots as timed on a stopwatch, and it doesn’t stop until 7,000 ft. I smirk, knowing that Rich is plunking along in 4 knots. Gonzo decides that the massive blue hole ahead is hardly an issue, and heads right through it. A 50:1 glider makes a man brave. I see strong cumulus on an arc over the north, and take that route. 100 Km into the trip, Gonzo requests location and altitude. We are identical distances from Eldorado, but I have him by over a thousand ft. He suggests I fly south to meet up and continue the journey together. We sync up and I have a rare view of the top of his ship. Usually it is tailwheel-only views for me. I revel. However, I notice that Rich does not announce distance and altitude. Rich is suspiciously quiet, border-lining on stealth. Gonzo finally asks for location and altitude, to which he responds with our miles, plus two, our altitude, plus 3000 ft. Blast. A few minutes pass, and Gonzo and I find ourselves not only surpassed, but flogged by a renegade ASW-27.
But our lovely cu-filled sky is rapidly turning into a blue sheet with the occasional cotton ball to tease me on. There is much talk about changing the course. But I called Eldorado, and after trying four different routes in my GPS, and losing at least 10 minutes in blown thermals and lost concentration, I decide to try the next cu, and then the next. I arrive 16 statute miles out of Eldorado, with no markers left. But I have 6000 ft. Assuming no sink, I can get there and back and have 2000 ft. But if there is sink, it’s a 250 km retrieve that nobody I know wants to make. Hmmm. But did I learn something at Littlefield, where I and countless others left 2 knot lift to venture out on a 90 mile triangle from 3200 ft. I have 6000 ft, and a 60 mph average speed. This is no time to tuck my tail between my legs and whimper home.
Off I go, make the turn point, and return to a newly developing cu about 4 miles east. It is a few knots, so I grab about 600 ft and continue to the good clouds. I know there’s 8 knots out there somewhere. Gonzo is with me. “Mr. Rocketsled” had decided to not go through the blue, as it would appear as a blemish on his flight computer log. It is now Gonzo and the Jantar versus me and a Ventus. We get to a good 6-knot thermal to 11,000 ft and I decide to fly the McCready setting from here on in. So up to about 95 knots or so, and on to the next cloud. Not much there, let’s try another. A third. A fourth. Hmmm. Maybe the day is getting weaker, the little voice says. Maybe you should stop now that you are down to 6000 ft, it continues, in that annoying tone. I approach the next cloud to hear my vario wail out the arrival of 8 knots. I get brave again, and see what looks like some development a bit north of my bearing. Gonzo stays true to course. I get there to find nothing. Gonzo announces good lift at his thermal, but he is over a mile south, and I would get there and be 4 minutes behind him. I now need to stop repeatedly at some very questionable lift to get some altitude. I know lost minutes are stacking up, and a big blue hole is up ahead. Gonzo asks me for location. “54 miles out, 6000 ft, how about you?” “52 miles out, 8000 ft.” But could that be? Could I be just a few minutes behind? I lost so much time back there. But maybe he has had the same troubles? Unless…
“Nautical or statute?”
“Oh,” is the only reply I could muster, for all to hear. Humiliation broadcast from altitude travels a long way.
And nothing but blue ahead. Cu’s are cycling on the order of seconds, not minutes. I hit lift, look up to see a haze dome forming a cu, only to see it disappear within two turns. I look at my trusty flight computer. I need a thousand more feet and no sink. Take a guess which one I get. Thoughts have long since turned from a 1-2 contest finish with the Jantar, to making it home in the air. I find myself at 2500 ft, 25 miles out, but crossing the lake, things get better – a reversal of the morning. A bump, then a gust, then 3 to 4 knots get me the altitude I need. I hear Gonzo calling 5 minutes out. I am still 20 miles, but I’m going to make it. I am now bitten by the long distance bug.
The following week, there is mid-week flying at the club. And the weather just gets better and better. Cu’s are popping before 11:00 am all week, typically 10:30. The days are strong to 6:30 pm. We all decide to try for some serious distance, and I am pushing for 750 Km, because I don’t know better. We agree on a 656 Km course hoping to take advantage of the huge north-south streets we couldn’t use on the 500K. Thursday, we all assemble by 10:30, with none of the aforementioned cumulus anywhere to be seen. Eat, drink water, wait five minutes, and the sky erupts. We begin launching by 11:15, and I sit at 1500 ft for 15 minutes, before getting the real lift to 8K. 8K at 11:30 am. You just have to love that. At cloud base, Gonzo and I depart, knowing that Rich will catch us soon enough. But we get to Mason, 60 miles, and he is still behind, trying to catch up. Knowing now that Rich is not one to offer his location and altitude without prodding, Gonzo asks at each checkpoint. We head north out of Mason to Smokey Bend. Rich is still about 8 miles behind and about 4000 ft below. I know, deep in my heart that it is not a good thing to enjoy knowing that a fellow glider pilot is behind and below, but why does it make me smile so?
About eight miles north of Mason, I enter what turns out to be at least 7 knots. As I turn around, Gonzo is back about half a mile in what I passed up. Good Samaritan that I am, I radio that there is solid lift just up ahead. As he gets to the thermal, he is a good 300 ft below. As we climb, I am looking for Rich, not paying as much attention to where the lift is centered. Without much warning, I am now looking at the Jantar from the more typical bottom view. Mental note: Before telling Gonzo where the good stuff is, gain 500 ft on him.
As we go north, two things are noted. None of the streets that we had anticipated are anywhere to be seen, as there is no noticeable wind at the surface or at altitude; and the lift gets lighter. Rich is on his quiet rampage, as I see a sliver of white go under me about six miles out of Smokey Bend. But I am still above, and he passes by the edge of the thermal, porpoises and continues on. I quietly enjoy my 7 knots and take it until it gets unsettled towards cloud base. Gonzo calls Smokey Bend, heading south on the 148-mile leg to Hondo (the first of two legs on this task that exceed 100 miles). He put 10 minutes between us. Time to press on. Five miles south of Smokey Bend, Rich and I are in the same thermal at the same altitude. He exits first, and heads east of our bearing. I go west, in what looks to me like a better line of clouds. Gonzo is asking for location and altitude again. I start to notice that he is always in the stratosphere when he wants an update, getting Rich’s and my info, and then calling out some altitude that, as far as my flight has gone, has not been invented yet. It looks like this flight is going to be 10% physical, 90% mental, and 30% annoying.
I see Rich circling over San Saba a few miles behind, as I decide to go to the top of this thermal. Things didn’t seem as strong. I head south, noticing that I am getting a bit sloppy after two and a half hours in the air. Taking what each cloud has to offer, I make a pretty good run back down to about the same latitude as Mason, 100 miles out of Hondo, where I notice a reflection. Can it be? Can I still be with Rich after 50 miles of flight? I aim for the thermal and cut through the arc he had just flown, and continue on. Flying through lift that someone else has stopped for, and continuing on course saying nothing, but thinking, “well, I’m sure that lift is good enough for some pilots,” has that two-fold benefit of making you feel great, while making the other pilot mumble curses. It is one of those instances in life where you do more by doing less.
Unfortunately, this single act has a side effect that benefits neither Gonzo nor me. It puts Rich into high gear. As post-flight discussions reveal, Rich decided at this point not to chase anymore, but just to fly at his own pace.
As I approach Hondo, I am now flying at about 70% concentration, if that. We are over four hours into the flight, and I am noticing huge levels of discomfort in areas I didn’t know existed. A fold in that material in my shirt feels like a nail in my back. Squirming and adjusting, I feel better, but I am 200 ft lower. Gonzo turned at least 15 minutes earlier. Rich at least 10 minutes. I limp up to the turn point, to be welcomed by a new GPS distance of 127 miles. I want to get to cloud base. The clouds are fewer and further between. It is getting late, and the lift hasn’t been all that good for the past 50 miles. As I am about to leave, Rich asks Gonzo for an altitude. “4500 ft.” Rich responds with the same altitude. I had not been below 7K since the beginning of the flight. I stay at cloud base. Not much is said for a while. Even though trying to maintain altitude, the time and the conditions required keeping up the momentum. The next thing I know, I am at 4500ft, then 4200. Gonzo mentions something about the irony of it all if we all have to land at Boerne. I have no interest in irony at the moment.
Birds help me center some very weak lift, and I get 300 feet before I decide two things: these birds must be blood relatives of those that were circling in sink at Region 10, and it’s time to go. Enough to get to the next cloud, lift increases from two knots to seven as I pass 5500 ft and top out at over 9000 ft. I need 18000 ft to make final glide, but the day is still working. The weak stuff must have been lake shadow, because it is great all the way home. Amazingly, Gonzo is about 2000 ft above me, somehow losing his 15-minute lead along the way. He takes off first, but marks the next thermal for me. We are close at the top of this one, as he takes it to the top, and I take a chance that the lift goes all the way across the cloud, gaining 500ft in a straight line. I take the line west of our bearing, and Gonzo goes east. It is now down to the final glide. Mostly porpoising, with one more thermal, I finally have a 37 mile final glide, and I point the nose home, taking the lift under clouds, but not slowing. It puts me about a minute ahead of Gonzo, and 20 minutes behind Rich. Six hours and six minutes for 656 Km. I am smitten. The three of us eat red meat for dinner, men that we are.
My ultimate goal was 750Km. Alas, that 656Km flight has been my best distance to date. Through a series of events, I have sold my plane and am on the periphery of the sport until a more appropriate time. I truly wanted a 1000K before selling my Ventus, but that was not to be. It is a perfect example of an experience that you don’t realize until later was the pinnacle of your own achievement. For the time being, I must hang on to the dream.
About the author: Ian Nadas learned to fly in 1976 at the age of 15, later owning an LS-4 and then a Ventus B, both of which he flew in various regional competitions.