Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Waiting it Out

Rain, wind, cool breeze on my cheek...nice stuff to break the heat of what is often summer's toughest month, August. Nice stuff if you are sitting, as I am, in a cozy chair, near a cozy stove, in a simple respite by the side of a country road, not far from a little country strip where my airplane sits tied down tight against the gale.

It was gusting to 40 knots just yesterday, and that was before this storm blew in off the Great Lakes. I'd
made it out to the airport, but deferred to better judgement and decided that, adequate ceiling or not, it was no day for flying in the mountains.

Warren-Sugarbush Airport
Anytime the wind blows better than 20 knots at altitude and there are mountains involved light aircraft pilots had best beware. Turbulence known to damage much larger birds can be kicked up by the friction of the wind against the rocks rising to meet it. Though many think that only the Sierras or the Rockies are capable of churning up enough turbulence to damage a light aircraft, they'd best think again. New England's weathered ranges are equally capable of putting a hurt on an airplane. Some of the wildest wind and weather on record have been recorded atop Mount Washington, in Vermont.

I'm sitting in the shadow of Sugarbush peak, in the Green Mountains, and I know the air gets squeezed and contorted as it whistles over this peak. Just two days ago I was soaring in a Schleicher ASK-21 directly over it, working to stay in the rising air kicked off by a bald near the top. Thermaling is fun if you enjoy steep turns and a good challenge. The trick is to feel the lift (seriously, this is a seat-of-your-pants kind of flying) and work to keep the glider balanced, turning, coordinated, right in the rising bubble of air. It is a bit like balancing on a beach ball whilst pivoting. Ever ride a unicycle? Maybe a little bit like that, too.

Look up as well as out. If you see a bird or a glider above you, well, that's a good thing. Keep working and you might get to cloud base, too. Once there, push the nose over, pick up best lift-to-drag (L:D) speed, and cruise to the next potential bubble of rising air. Sometimes ridges throw up beautiful streets of towering cumulous clouds that provide a glider with continuous, sequential columns of rising air. A good pilot can harness that energy and fly straight along the street, pushing the nose over and cruising rapidly through the sinking air, and pulling the nose up to maximize time in the rising air. Get good at it and you can fly cross countries from a single quick tow to the first thermal.

Of course, your mileage may vary. I've yet to build enough confidence in my soaring skill to head off away from the airport. I've been tempted a couple of times, but as a renter, I've always had limited time for my glider, and a deep fear of wandering too far from the home field. Most of all I worry that I might run out of lift.

In my case I just don't trust my skill at finding and staying in the lift long enough to achieve adequate altitude for my cross country—yet. Of course, the -21 has a 40:1 glide ratio, quite a lot better than the gliders I've flown before. I may be underestimating it, and me. Call me conservative if you must.

More than that, though I know I can get the glider down into a short, even a relatively rough field without doing damage, and though I know many potential landing sites along my potential routes of flight, I still want to avoid having to make the call back to the FBO to request a driver bring me the glider trailer, and all of the challenges disassembling and porting the ship out of said landing site and back to the airport. It is time-consuming for all, and potentially expensive for me. So why risk it, I think.

One of these days, soon, I hope, I'll be able to stay at a good soaring site long enough to gain the confidence I require to make that cross country flight in a glider. Maybe not this year, I think, glancing at the rain pelting the glass, but soon. I just need to find a summer long enough to handle that wish. 

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