The doldrums and frozen winds of winter have abated and the flowers and thermals of spring are rising from the desert floor. For those of us fortunate enough to fly this month we have found amazing clouds at the top of most of our climbs.
And it has been those clouds and the associated lift that have been different from prior years.
This spring the air at cloud base has been very, very cold. Our spring flying started almost a month earlier than last year. When we look at April 2010 in our league flying, there was only one flight of significance in all of April. This year, however, there have been nearly 20 flights worth more than 100 points on Leonardo. We have been very fortunate to have a number of exciting days and a lot of great flights.
In the midst of this month, I was fortunate enough to get my longest flight ever, both in terms of distance and duration. The setup for the flight actually began two days prior when I decided to take a chance on a somewhat windy forecast for Chelan on a Sunday afternoon. I arrived at launch around 1 o'clock, there were three or four other pilots standing about contemplating the conditions. I don't think I have ever spent as much time on a launch considering the go no-go decision. The sky was menacing, and, as I have learned, springtime skies change very rapidly. This sky seemed to have the potential to blow up at any moment. The cumulus clouds were changing rapidly; the winds on launch where near maximum.
On the one hand, I really wanted to be up in those clouds to see if the lift was good or not. On the other hand, I was afraid of being blown over the back and rotored behind the towers. After a great deal of consternation and discussion, I made ready a launch to Lakeside. Penetration was not a problem; but lift was not particularly prevalent. I eventually left the high wind bowl soaring experience in preference for a landing at Lone Pine. On the way down, I pushed to the West seeking lift and finding none until I set up for a Lone Pine landing at which point the LZ provided a cranker to 6,500 and subsequent lifting line to McNeil Canyon. All this is being recounted as a foundational report for crazy spring clouds. I didn't get to cloud base that day; but with the wind being strong and everything being as bad as it might have been the air was benign. I had been fearful of being sucked into oblivion; yet those massive clouds were mostly frosty mists of fluffy puff. Very cold upper air creates very big clouds that actually have rather minimal lift potential. It was the new understanding that I took into the big flight day on the next Tuesday.
Watching the weather on Monday for what looked to be a very active Tuesday took my emotions and thoughts to a height where I was almost unable to sleep Monday night. Initially it was difficult to get my flying partners to even commit to flying Tuesday. The weather just looked to active. But I made assurances or rather promises that it would be just fine, and a group of seven were finally aligned to assault Baldy midweek.
While big fluffy puffs of cold cloud did not present danger in terms of lift, they did present the potential for precipitation and overdevelopment which can shut down lift. Because of this I encouraged my partners to get to the hill as early as possible. Our earliest prior launch had been one o'clock, and I hoped to be on launch before 11. The best I was able to negotiate was rock at 11, and so it was plus about 10 min.
We drove as fast as we could to the top of the hill, and as we were climbing I was looking about at these massive and threatening clouds thinking I've got to get off the hill. I am not sure, but I bet my buddies were thinking what I had thought on Sunday, "damn I don't know if I want to fly in that." This was my advantage; I had flown in it and knew it would be fine. I was able to leap into the air without the normal cautious mental preparation and launch decision cogitation and associated expenditure of time.
It was that move, made possible by my experience on Sunday, that made all the difference on Tuesday. When we arrived on launch, there was a light northerly flow which normally switches around Southwest at about that time of the day. There was also a large cloud drifting our way from the Northwest. It had the potential to shut everything down. In very short order, I was ready to launch and with the last puffs of the northerly flow I made it off the hill. I made two or three passes on the north side gaining only a little bit before I dove over to the Southwest thermic generator. I knew there would be turbulence in this transition, but I was surprised by the size of the frontal I took as I passed through what I figured was rotor wash from the North slope. My happy little DHV2 handled the event without concern; but it was a little low for my comfort. A quick turn to the right and the house thermal just down ridge provided its normal energetic lift to 7,000 feet or so.
On Glide To Menashtash
The big cloud to the Northwest was drawing closer, and I was at the top of lift leaning towards Menashtash - so it was on glide for me. I had a nice lift line to exit 11. I found the thermal there a little difficult to track down; but once I found it, it worked just fine right up against the boundary of the firing range. Again, I say thank you to Dr. Wheeler for his map in my Garmin. It kept me clear of airspace violations at least my body, if not my wingtip. At one point right at the corner my best guess is that I was 13 feet away from airspace violation, but I was crabbing so my wingtip may have stayed clear. In any event, the track was clear; so I posted the flight.
Menashtash to the Boylston's over Badger pocket was fairly lifty with a thermal mid-crossing; and again and airspace "catch me if you can" along the northern edge of the pocket.
Snow on Baldy
I had one or two good lifts crossing to the windmills; but when I got to the other side of I-90, I just missed the thermal which is usually easy to catch. Down, down, down I went in the big sink that is often associated with being near big lift. Right over the windmills, down through the windmills and down below the windmills until I was scratching at 180 feet off the deck. The windmill towers are 222 feet high and their blades have a circumference of about 260 feet. The windmill save was one of the coolest parts of the flight. I'm sure I was at least 150 feet away from the blades. They didn't seem too close; but they were close nonetheless.
Clouds looking East
Down to the Windmills
The Clouds didn't look promising enough to cross the Big Badlands North to Wenatchee
The climb out and subsequent climbs to cloud base were actually fairly straightforward. I chose northerly terrain as I moved closer to the Columbia. I find that the lift generated off the valleys to the North more consistent and easier to find. By the time I got to the Columbia I had found wonderful lift all the way to cloud base, and I crossed about a mile and a half north of the bridge.
Bundled up and Still Cold
Now the cold began to set in. I can't say for sure, but someone said it was to be 8 degrees at base. If this is the case, then wind chill put the experience at -12. All I know is that with a down jacket and long-johns, my legs were violently and uncontrollably shaking due to the cold.
On the other side of the Columbia there was a very large cloud. As I watched it grow I could see dust devils in the fields below and to the south of it. At this point during the day, as expected, there was a light flow from the South.
It was fairly easy to find lift under the large cloud on the flats to the east of the bridge, and I got up high again. At this point, it was a matter of flying the clouds, and they were reasonably easy to work. Although if you look at my track, you'll see that there was a bit of meandering. After leaving the large cloud east of the bridge, the best of the clouds that I could see and get to were to my South, and the winds were not particularly oppressive, so South it was.
Big Cloud acros the Columbia
Just prior to the crossing of the Columbia my video died so there are no more vids or pics to share, sorry about that.
At one point I did sink out and began to look for terrain features which might indicate lift triggers. I noted a fairly sharp bend in the road and wondered to myself, "why does the road bend there?" This was the first time I clearly realized that bends in the road in the midst of the flatlands indicate terrain anomalies also known as lift triggers(duuhhh.) And so it was that I got the next climb from the bend in the road.
By this point I was about halfway to Saddle Mountain. Immediately to the North of Saddle, running its entire 10 to 15 mile length, are sloping badlands that have a southerly face that generate nice lift. On my way to them I floated, above an unplanted crop circle and drifted into lift coming up out of one of the ravines from the badlands. This West to East badland terrain feature carried me 10 miles east.
About 15 miles West of Othello, I needed to choose between staying on the Badlands or tracking east-northeast with the farmlands. While the Badlands offered potentially better lift, they are also part of a wildlife refuge. I was concerned about landing in prohibited land space and voiding my flight. The farmland also had slightly better clouds set up over them; so I went east-northeast. The lift was reasonable; but it felt like the day was ending.
As I neared the end of the farmland bounded by more badlands to the east, I found myself setting up for a landing. I hadn't yet chosen a field; but was looking for one when I noted that in the next field to the east, three seagulls were soaring in a very large circle and rising. Now I have been saved by raptors, eagles, hawks, crows and such but never by a brace and a half of seagulls.
My seagull thermal was a nice big one to 7,000 or better and definitely enough to clear the rather menacing looking badlands to the East before the safety of the fields of Othello.
The badlands were lifty and a line to Othello cost little. The city itself provided my last big climb. By this point in time, I had been in the air over five hours and my brain was beginning to fry, my ability to focus had waned and I just tried to float.
For some reason my biggest concern was the Spokane airspace some 80 miles away. I really had not considered going due east on this track, and hadn't placed in my mind the reality that Spokane was not a concern. Following this last big climb was a gentle slide to about 1,500 to 2,000 over where the equivalent of a late afternoon glass off provided a consistent continuing lift that held my flight level until it finally died off some 20 miles past the settlement.
I landed in a very nice, unprepared field right next to the road which had been my guide to the East. A press of the SPOT and a call to my friends resulted in the news that retrieved was on its way. Ten minutes of walking and a ten minute hitchhike ride got me to the truck stop where a 20 ounce beer quenched my thirst as I anticipated reunion with the living. Chris and Frank arrived right on schedule, and we enjoyed a nice meal at a bar in Othello.
Long flights like this make for very long, late retrieves, and without friends it would be very difficult to endure. Getting a big flight changes things in my head (just a bit, that is what to shoot for and all) but I expect I'll be on the hill this Friday to try for it all over again.