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Record Flying in the Great Basin in the Summer of 2013 How Did This Happen


By Mitch Polinsky


My flying ‘took off’ last summer in a way that delighted and puzzled me.  Although I had never set a record previously in twenty-five years of soaring, I achieved eight U.S. national records over a period of six weeks in the summer of 2013.  I did flights that far exceeded what I thought I was capable of doing.  It made me wonder how this happened.  I offer here some of my analysis of the factors that led to this outcome.

First, the facts — U.S. national soaring records in the single-seat motorglider category:

6/29/13: Free triangle distance: 1157.2 km 

7/2/13:  Triangle speed 1000 km: 133.77 km/h [not submitted b/c surpassed on 7/18/13]

7/18/13: Distance up to 3 TPs: 1070.67 km

7/18/13: Triangle distance: 1070.25 km

7/18/13: Triangle speed 1000 km: 138.99 km/h

7/20/13: Triangle speed 750 km: 150.72 km/h

8/6/13:  Triangle speed 500 km: 156.87 km/h

8/6/13:  Triangle speed 300 km: 156.87 km/h

8/14/13: Out-and-return speed 500 km: 155.77 km/h

All of these flights were done from Ely, Nevada, except for the last one, which was done from Parowan, Utah.

The reason this list seems a bit unbelievable to me is the following.  I started flying gliders in 1979.  Except for a nine-year hiatus, I’ve flown every year since then, a total of twenty-six years of soaring.  In 1985 I joined a partnership to buy a DG-400.  In 2008, I started flying an ASH 26E, and in 2012, I transitioned to an ASH 31Mi.  My ambition was to someday fly a declared 1000 km triangle.  My first 1000 km flight didn’t occur until the summer of 2011 in my ASH 26E, but it wasn’t a triangle, and it wasn’t declared.  In the summer of 2012, I flew four more 1000 km flights, now in my ASH 31Mi, including my first two 1000 km triangles, but none of these were declared either.  In the summer of 2013, I flew ten more 1000 km flights, including eight 1000 km triangles, three of which were declared, and obtained the eight records listed above.  I hope this explains why I still have some self-doubts about whether this past summer was real or a fluke.

Photo #11523 | Polinsky at Minden

I’ve never thought of myself as among the top-tier Great Basin thermal pilots.  For example, until last summer, I never did better than Ramy Yanetz, flying his ASW 27, in terms of OLC (On Line Contest) points when flying from the same airport on the same day.  The same was pretty much true with respect to Gordon Boettger, Bill Gawthrop, Uwe Kleinhempel, Russ Owens, Mike Parker, Jim Payne, and others.  I was solidly in the second-tier, even though I aspired to fly like these guys.  

I welcomed the opportunity to write this article as a form of self-analysis, to try to figure out why I did so much better than I had any reason to expect last summer.  I’ve got a few thoughts about what caused this to happen.

(1) Inspiration

For about two weeks before I showed up in Ely for my summer soaring encampment in 2012, I started noticing on the OLC some flights by two pilots flying out of Ely in really-big-wing open class gliders, John Bally in a two-seat EB28, and Bandar AlFaisal in a single-seat EB29.  I had previously heard a little about these gliders, but not about these pilots.  They were doing remarkable flights from Ely during the first half of June, a period of time that the regular Ely soaring pilots considered too early in the season.  Between June 6 and June 17, John had three flights exceeding 1000 km at speeds between 160-165 km/h, as well as a 910 km flight at 173 km/h.  Bandar also had two long flights exceeding 150 km/h.

How was this possible?  These were speeds comparable to wave-flying speeds, and done during a period of time generally thought not to be the best part of the Ely season.  Luckily for me, John and Bandar were still in Ely when I showed up around the third week in June, and I eagerly sought them out to talk to them about their flying techniques.  After a few conversations, John asked me whether I’d like to ride in his back seat the next day, an invitation I quickly accepted.  The weather turned out to be quite weak and we couldn’t do a long-distance flight, but I observed for four hours how John could just keep scratching and tip-toeing along just above the ridge lines and make steady — but on this day, slow — progress.  I came to the conclusion that what he was doing wasn’t rocket science, but “simply” the superb execution of the same lessons I’d been taught over the years by my cross-country soaring instructors and mentors (e.g., stay over the high ground, search over slopes with sun and wind on the same side, etc.).  I was inspired to think that if I just concentrated on doing better what I knew I should be doing, I might be able to significantly improve my flying outcomes.  A week later I flew the longest flight of my life (1244 km on the OLC), including the longest triangle of my life (1157 km), and broke my first record (more on this flight below).  Thank you, John.

Photo #11524 | Polinsky at Ely

(2) Friendly competition

Although I don’t fly in real competitions, I love the friendly competition promoted by the OLC, where everyone has a real chance of winning due to the handicapping.  One of my best glider friends is Uwe Kleinhempel, who is as gung-ho about soaring as I am.  He used to fly a PIK 20E, and did surprisingly well with it in the OLC, given that it was a generation or more behind modern gliders in performance.  But then he got a Ventus 2cM motorglider and his soaring really took off.  In his first full summer with this plane, he ranked second in the U.S. and fifth in the World OLC rankings.  On July 9, 2012, we both took off from Ely on a strong day and attempted the U.S. single-seat motorglider “free triangle distance” record.  I landed just before sunset, having flown a 1083 km free triangle, and breaking the prior distance record by 75 km.  Obviously, I was very happy.  After tying down my plane, I found Uwe to see how he had done, and he reported that he had flown a 1131 km free triangle, breaking the prior record by about 125 km.  Obviously, he was very happy too — about 50 km happier than I was.  He clearly deserved the record, and got it, because he flew further in the same conditions in a lower-performing glider than mine (and he flew faster).  

I spent the rest of the summer of 2012 trying to beat his record, without success.  Uwe’s performance inspired me to try harder.  Throughout the winter, I thought about how I could do better.  In prior summers, I always seemed to be one of the last pilots to launch at Ely.  I vowed to get ready and get off sooner during the summer of 2013.  

On June 29, 2013, the forecast was strong, and I got a reasonably early start.  I flew north first and went 25 km past Jackpot, Nevada, into Idaho before turning southwest towards Gabbs, NV.  If I could make it to Gabbs and get back to Ely, I would have enough distance to break Uwe’s record of the prior summer.  When I was about 75 km short of Gabbs, there was a big blue hole.  I started across it and hit sink.  After a while, I abandoned Gabbs as a target, and went into survival mode, heading for the hills west of Hadley, NV, keeping Hadley as my safety airport, in case I needed to start my engine and couldn’t.  As you’ll see from the accompanying trace, I got really low in the hills near Hadley, heading for the only visible lift, some clouds just west of Hadley.  I barely got there, but recovered good altitude once I did.  Now getting back to Ely wouldn’t suffice for a free triangle distance record, but the day was starting to overdevelop, and I would be grateful just to get back home.  I headed east toward Ely and got eastward faster than I expected, with an hour to spare.  So instead of heading straight to Ely, I headed southeast of Ely, thinking that if I could go far enough southeast of Ely and still get back to Ely, I just might make enough distance for the free triangle record.  

By the time I got southeast of Ely the sky was definitely overdeveloping and there was a dark layer of cloud covering the area I needed to get to in order to achieve the record distance.  I headed toward it but got steadily lower.  About 15 km short of the turn point I needed, I gave up and started back toward Ely.  Approximately 2-3 km later on the way home I encountered strong lift, stopped and climbed a couple of thousand feet for an extra margin of safety getting back to Ely.  But then it occurred to me that maybe I could actually make my turn point, and still get back to Ely with enough daylight to land safely.  I decided to try, with the knowledge that I could land legally after sunset if necessary because I had position lights.  I made it to the turn point and then put my MacCready setting on zero to tip-toe home.  I landed four minutes after sunset with my lights on, having flown a 1157 km free triangle, beating Uwe’s record by 26 km.  And best of all, my wife forgave me that I wasn’t home that day for our 38th anniversary.

(3) Declared flights

The excitement of that flight really whetted my appetite for record attempts.  But most of the records that seemed possible required a flight declaration, and I had very little experience flying declared tasks.  In the latter part of the summer of 2012, I finally learned how to enter declared flights into my flight computer, but failed to complete any of my five or six attempts to fly a declared task.

One of my best glider friends at Ely, Marek Malolepszy, grew up in the Polish glider environment where people almost always flew declared flights.  Every time I told him about a long flight I did, including the June 29th free triangle record flight, he’d ask me skeptically, “But was it a declared flight?”  In his mind, it didn’t count as a real flight unless it was declared.  I promised him that I’d relearn how to enter declared tasks into my flight computer and started doing so shortly after my June 29 flight.  Two days later, on July 1, I completed the first declared task of my life, a 1011 km triangle at 128 km/h.  I was surprised at my speed, which was only a few km/h short of the U.S. single-seat motorglider record for speed over a 1000 km triangle.  The next day I got a late start — old habits creeping back in — and afraid of losing out on a good day, decided to just get off the ground and try the same task as the day before so as to not to take the time to plan and enter a new task.  Luckily, the weather on July 2 was even better than on July 1, and I was able to complete the 1011 km triangle task faster than the day before, at just under 134 km/h — fast enough for the speed record for a 1000 km triangle.  Thank you, Marek, for “encouraging” me to declare tasks.

(4) Focus on soaring 

Another factor that I think contributed significantly to my leap forward in soaring last summer was my decision to try to structure my summer so that I could really focus on soaring without distractions.  I’m a university professor (teaching economics at Stanford Law School), so I have few professional obligations during the summer, other than continuing to do research and writing.  However, in order to finance my soaring and to pay for the ASH 26E in 2008 and the ASH 31Mi in 2012, I’ve done a fair amount of work as an economic consultant to law firms and corporations involved in major litigation.  

The summer of 2012 was especially distracting due to this work, leading me at one point to put on a headset so that I could put water ballast in my glider while I participated in a business conference call with lawyers on the east coast.  I took off about forty minutes after everyone else that day because of this, and flew about 950 km while several people flew well over 1000 km.  That call clearly cost me a 1000 km flight.  I vowed to try to arrange things to be free of this work during the summer of 2013 so that I could focus more intensely on flying and taking off earlier.  I turned down two consulting opportunities last spring and, for the first time in several years, didn’t have any litigation-related consulting obligations during the summer.  As a result, I got a little more sleep and I found time to study weather forecasts more thoroughly than I had in the past.  I flew more days and more hours — 261 hours between mid-May and mid-August.  The 24/7 focus on soaring while I was at Ely was exhilarating, and I believe made a big difference to the outcomes of my flights.

(5) Risk “management”

This last factor is a euphemism for risk “taking.”  I consider myself a very conservative pilot in terms of safety.  Until last summer, I had only one scary mishap in a glider in twenty-five years of soaring.  It was in my DG-400 in 1989 when, after three days of cross-country soaring training from a champion glider pilot, I set my sights too high on my very next solo flight and got myself in trouble.  It turned out to be a “fender bender,” but it came close to being much worse for both me and the glider.  That was a sobering experience and ultimately resulted in my taking a nine-year hiatus from soaring.  I resumed soaring in 2000 and, flying conservatively again, didn’t scare myself for the next thirteen seasons.  But last summer was different.  I scared myself twice.  

I knew I was pushing myself harder than usual in order to have a chance at accomplishing the record flights, but this consisted mainly of taking “inconvenience risks,” where I might have to motor home a long distance (I did a couple of times) or land at another airport.  Several times, however, I got low when the only safety field was a farmer’s crop circle or a plowed field.  I didn’t consider this dangerous to me physically, but I knew that if my engine didn’t start and I had to land there, I was putting my glider at greater risk for damage.  Then, one day, coming back to Ely from Wells, NV, I was struggling a bit in weak conditions.  I tried to gain height in a range of peaks southeast of Wells, while keeping the Wells airport in safe gliding range.  I did gain some height and kept proceeding south toward Ely.  Eventually, I was out of range of Wells but still within what I thought was within a safe range of a marginal field in the high desert.  As I headed in the direction of this field, I hit unexpectedly severe and sustained sink that quickly put me out of safe gliding range to that field.  I wasn’t going to make it, but there was one small cloud building between me and that field.  If it worked, I’d be ok.  If it didn’t, I’d be starting my engine over very unpleasant terrain and praying that it didn’t fail (it never has, so far).  The cloud worked, I got high enough to switch to another, better field as my safety field, and I made it home, feeling a bit shaky.

The second scare occurred on my last day of flying last summer.  It was my last day because of what I’m about to describe.  I was flying out of Parowan and trying for a 300 km out-and-return speed record, having achieved the 500 km out-and-return speed record a few days earlier.  The forecast on August 17 was for thunderstorms to the north of Parowan, but conditions appeared better to the west.  I set up a 300 km out-and-return task to the west and took off mid-afternoon after it looked like the overdevelopment was starting to dissipate.  I rounded my turn point, though not making great speed, and discovered when I looked back in the direction of Parowan that the weather there had gotten worse, not better, with widespread thunderstorms and lightning.  As I got closer, it became apparent that Cedar City, about 30 km south of Parowan, was a much safer place to land, so I landed there.  I expected the stormy weather around Parowan to clear and planned to take off from Cedar City about a half hour before sunset and land back at Parowan.  I did take off again, but when I got to Parowan, it was clear from the windsock that the cross-wind component far exceeded the capability of my glider, and I’d be landing on a 75-foot wide runway, with a 69-foot wingspan.  So I returned to land at Cedar City for a second time and spend the night there.  However, by the time I got back there, the same winds that were problematic at Parowan were problematic for landing on the 150-foot-wide main runway at Cedar City (23 kts gusting to 33 kts, essentially perpendicular to the runway).  The only option then, now that it was sunset, was to land on the auxiliary runway, which only had a 30-degree crosswind component.  I knew it was much narrower, but didn’t learn until I was on the ground that I had landed on a 60-foot-wide runway with a 69-foot wingspan.  The landing was in very gusty conditions, and I bounced hard, but remained in control.  Near the end of the rollout, a gust caused my right wingtip to go down just off the runway, scraping the bottom of it.  Luckily, the only damage was cosmetic and easily fixed, but this was a wake-up call — two scares in one summer after thirteen summers of no scares.

This flight drained me emotionally, and my body and mind were unanimous that it was time to call it quits.  I packed up the next day and drove the glider to the Williams Soaring Center for an inspection after the hard landing (no damage) and the cosmetic repair of the scrape.  This was a disappointing way to end the most exciting and satisfying soaring season of my life, but I knew that I’d come close to having too much excitement.  I learned a lesson again about the psychology of flying and risk-taking that I’d first learned twenty-four years ago in my DG-400.  This was a refresher course that, happily, I passed.  I’ve got a new goal for next summer: No more scares.

*  *  *

So, in the end, my soaring success last summer made a little more sense to me.  It was the culmination of things I’d been working towards for many years.  I hope the magic will continue this coming season and beyond.  

Acknowledgements:  In addition to the people already mentioned above, several others were instrumental to my soaring enjoyment during the past year.  The three FBO’s in the Great Basin where I fly have all been wonderfully helpful: James Adams at the Ely Jet Center, Laurie Harden at SoaringNV at Minden, and Dave Norwood at Parowan Aero Services.  At Minden and Ely, my friends Darren Braun, Terry Delore, Buzz Graves, Eric Greenwell, Craig Melvin, Michael Mitton, John Morgan, Dieter Reuter, Ed Salkeld, Tom Seim, and Tom Stowers all provided moral and technical support of various kinds.  A special thanks to Rex Mayes at the Williams Soaring Center for his excellent maintenance of my glider, and to Paul Remde at Cumulus Soaring and Richard Pfiffner at Craggy Aero for help with instrumentation and equipment.  Lastly, I dedicate this article to the memory of Doug Armstrong, a great meteorologist and cheerleader for Great Basin soaring. 

About the author: Like many pilots, I was bitten by the flying bug at a young age. My father was a flight instructor in World War II and was in the U.S. Air Force Reserves for twenty-five years after that. While I was growing up, he’d spend every other weekend as a Reserve pilot at a nearby Air Force base flying missions. Around the time of my nineteenth birthday, National Geographic magazine ran a big article about soaring, with beautiful pictures of gliders. I learned that these planes without engines could stay up for hours. That seemed like a great adventure, and much more fun than flying a conventional plane with an engine. However, it wasn’t until twelve years later that I actually started taking lessons to learn to fly gliders, after I moved to Stanford from the east coast in 1979. At that time there was a glider airport a half an hour from my office. During my first year of teaching at Stanford, I took a long lunch break every other Friday to take lessons. After a year, I received my license to fly gliders. During my first six years of gliding I’d rent planes from a gliding school or from the glider club I joined. Then, in 1985, I bought my first glider with two other partners. My two partners were much more experienced than I was, and held numerous U.S. records in self-launched sailplanes and one world record. I learned a lot from them. Until my record-setting year, I had the longest flight of my life in July of 2010, starting from the Ely, Nevada airport. That flight was 975 kilometers, which is 606 miles. 

 Photo #11525 | Polinsky last photo

Posted: 7/23/2014