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Day 1... Safe but not fast

OK, Contest Day 1 is in the books!  The bottom line is that I completed the task and all went well (unlike my land-out during the practice day on Sunday when I ended up in an old dusty airstrip about 30 miles south of the Warner Springs airport where I launched from).  Here's the scoop:
The air here is stable right now, meaning there's no thermals (updrafts) to circle in for lift.  However, this area is actually a very good place for Mountain Wave.  It is not as well known as other areas because the wave here is a little harder to get into - however it does work, and if you can climb high it works well!  The task today was to fly from Warner Springs to Mount Laguna (down towards the Mexican Border), then up to an area called "Taqhuitz" (Mount San Jacinto), then home.  With the lack of thermal lift the towplanes took us straight to the wave, and we were all able to connect with it relatively easily.  The top of the starting area was 8000' so we all popped up and out the top and continued to climb to over 14000' (glad my glider came with a good oxygen system).  Wave flying is interesting because the air has to be smooth in order for it to form - so there are no bumps or jerks, just the sound of air rushing by outside the canopy and the feeling of floating.
I ghosted slowly down south, feeling the air and managing to go a couple-dozen miles without really losing any altitude (even in places where the wave wasn't working).  I could have significantly increased my points for the day by burning back to the starting area/wave at this point - but my experience on the practice day made me extra cautious.  That and the fact that this southern area sees a lot of biz jets and commercial traffic (and being at 14000' we definitely had to contend with the "heavies" that occasionally descend through those altitudes on their way to land at San Diego or other airports nearby).
The run up north was interesting, but hard to describe.  Basically I strayed a little further north than what most of others did (although we were strung out in space and time at this point - I wasn't able to visually track any of the others except for brief moments).  I was trying to feel for a minor wave behind Warner Springs Ranch, but nothing was there.  So finally I turned downwind and slid through a saddle at the south end of Taqhuitz/Mt San Jacinto.  There was sink here that dropped me down to 9000' - not much above the 6000' that was so hellish the day before, so I was a little concerned.  But clouds were beginning to confirm the wave back in this area and as I turned the corner and began heading north I ran into some MONSTER lift!  I tried to run the wave to the north and use this lift, but it weakened off to a modest amount (I would later learn that two people used this lift to gain some incredible height in a short period of time - one of the reasons they scored ahead of me for the day).  Climbing along the back-side of "San Jac" mountain was a beautiful experience, and sadly I was unable to take photos due to some equipment SNAFUs earlier in the day...  Looking to the east was Palm Springs and I listened in for awhile on their air-traffic frequency to the comings and goings of small commuter plans and biz-jets.  Its a busy place out there!
The final run home was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating at the same time.  I came back south along the "San Jac" wave, dreading the moment I had to push out in front of the mountain - as I knew there would be sink there... Afterall, if there's a wave going up, there's some descending air in front of it that starts the wave "bouncing"!  My flight computer said I had 3000' of "extra" altitude to make it home, but looking towards Warner Springs I saw a long long flat glide (over 30 miles), crossing 3 or 4 ridges.  Given the winds, I knew there would be both lift and a LOT of sink around each ridgeline!  I pushed out in front of San Jacinto/Taqhuitz as it dropped towards the valley floor at its south end, and was instantly "rewarded" with 6 knots of sink...  This isn't terrible, but it certainly started the altimeter moving donward!!  I watched my computer like a hawk as my excess altitude bled away, foot by foot and second by second...  When I'd finally gotten forward of the mountain by a few miles and into clear air, I was showing only a 1200' cushion - eep!  One or two more experiences like that and I would be toast, with no thermals to use to climb back up and get home!
I carefully controlled my speed and tried to work little bumps I found without stopping to circle, but mostly it was a tense series of small corrections over a 15 minute span of time, as I tried to make sure I would clear the ridge-tops that were growing ever closer.  Finally, I squeaked across the tops of the biggest ones and knew I could make it "downhill" to Warner Springs.  At that point I knew I could make it back - and in fact it became apparent that my cushion would be more than enough...  As if to rub it in, I began to hit lift about 7 miles out from the airport, which meant I could have flown faster all along and then used this lift to make it home - argh!  But my minor frustration was replaced by excitement as a couple of other gliders started calling in that they were also only a few miles out from "home".  Up ahead I spied 3 gliders, all running fast and low.  Unable to resist the temptation, I shoved my stick forward and dove for speed.  I still had a good 2000' over the ground, which was droppping away from me, so I ran it up to 100 knots (~120mph) and slammed through the bumpy lift like a speedboat through another boat's wake.  Watching the gliders ahead of me scream for the finish cylinder was an absolute blast.  After crossing over the airport at high speed, one by one we pulled up into beautiful arcs, converting our airspeed into extra altitude.  Being a bit high, I actually then dove for speed again and pulled into a wide arc out over the valley floor, giving the gliders ahead of me some space for landing.  I thrilled at the green and brown desert grasses zipping by a thousand feet below me, and then with a contended sigh I pulled a hard left and entered the landing pattern.  I'd flown a little over two hours (the task was to fly the course in about this amount of time) and covered nearly 130 miles of distance (straight lines between waypoints) - and I'd never circled ONCE...  What a trip!
After the results were posted, I found out that I was only 3rd from the bottom in scoring (and last place didn't finish today's task) - BUT the speeds were not too far apart, and I took heart in knowing that my mistakes were few.  After conversing with the friendly local pilots and experienced competitors, it seems that I made most of the correct choices - I just played it a little too safe today.  We all chatted and goofed around over Mexican food at a nearby eatery - a great way to end the day!
Now I'm sitting here under the stars out in a field, typing this in on my laptop and sipping Red Wine.  Yes, things got off to a good start today.  I may not be in first place (or anywhere near it) - but I turned in a respectable performance and I enjoyed the hell out of it!  Tomorrow looks to be another wave day before some weather blows through and gives us a chance to fly thermal lift later in the week.  I'm looking forward to it - wish me luck!!
--Glider Kilo Romeo (Noel)

Posted: 4/27/2009 By: Noel Wade


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