I was on track to try for my Gold Badge achievement when the attacks on America came September 11, 2001. All private air traffic was grounded, even my poor little wooden glider. The weather was perfect for glider flying during the time that I was grounded - the state was covered in little puffy clouds as far as I could see. The cloud bases were at 14000 or 15000 feet - high enough to feel safe crossing the mountains that reach up to 7000 feet. By the time that the government determined that my glider was not a threat to national security and I was again allowed to fly, the perfect weather had passed for the year. I only got in 60 more miles of cross country in 2001.
During 2002, I continued to fly some local cross country contests, doing OK in my class (will I win the year? - that is yet to be seen...). One of the tasks was 140 miles (a little more than 200 km), my longest flight up to that date. Improvements were made to the glider including a Palm computer running Soaring Pilot Software and a used, but very serviceable, audio variometer. (The audio variometer gives a tone that varies with the rate of ascent. The higher the tone, the faster I am climbing!) The trim on the glider had always been a bit nose heavy. I believe that the builder when left with the option in the plans to "bend as needed", the trim arms were bent up instead of down. This made for one inch less travel than was needed to balance the glider in slower flight. An extension to the actuating arm made the trim effective at speeds where I needed it. The glider now flies very nicely hands off (only momentarily, Mom).
All of this has been in preparation for my Gold Badge. The weather has not been the most cooperative this year. With the El Nino weather pattern, there has been a drought and fairly stable conditions prevailing over the state of Arizona. Smoke from forest fires (some really big ones!) also contributed to weakening the strength of the thermals that keep the glider aloft. The performance level of my old wooden glider (and its pilot) make me want almost perfect conditions for getting far from landable terrain (runways).
The near perfect conditions arrived over Labor Day weekend in 2002. I was preparing for a major photo expedition to Hawaii to photograph the volcanic eruption, but was able to have one of the great days to attempt the long cross country. I bought a second GPS to feed the borrowed flight recorder which failed the morning of my attempt. I grabbed my wife's GPS, which I had a cable for, and headed out the door. The glider was prepared and pulled to the front of the grid. My route was to be from Turf to Hillside to Salome then back to Turf. This is 196 miles or 314 km. There was a cross country contest going on and I was launching ahead of the group. Apparently, while getting strapped in for the flight, the GPS cable to the data recorder had been partially dislodged - there was no signal from the GPS for the recorder to record. This recorder has a built in barograph, a device to sense altitude, which functioned perfectly.
The first thermal felt great. I went back to cross the start line to insure that the full distance, if I got there, was going to count. Only a couple of miles north of the airport, the thermals got very weak. I was headed for Turf North (93 on the map below) for a possible landing when I caught a little rising air. After a couple of turns, I spotted another pilot circling above me about a mile away. I crept under him to get in the same thermal and was able to hang on. It was a weird thermal that did not seem to have a stable core at lower altitudes. It got a bit better as I was able to climb out and I was able to keep up in the climb with the other glider. Soon others formed up under us to catch the same 'saving' thermal. The clouds were enticing just a few miles northwest, right on course for me. I made my way there, keeping a final glide back to the safety of the emergency airport in mind. I hooked a couple thermals to keep some altitude then made it under the clouds. The thermals were strong under the clouds. Now I was looking ahead. The big cloud that I had made it to started to make rain. I got a little on my canopy while skirting around the cloud. I made it to a nice band of clouds (thermals under every one) very nearly right on the direct course line and pushed on toward the first turn point.
When I reached Hillside, I found a nice thermal right over the turnpoint. There is an 'observation zone' for each turnpoint that I need to fly into to qualify for the Badge. This is depicted on the map as little pie shapes. The thermal made it easy to make sure that the GPS recorded me inside the 'zone'. On the way into the Hillside turnpoint, I had been planning my outbound leg. There were nice cloud streets a bit off course, but that was going to be the easiest way on. Flying from cloud to cloud, I was making pretty good time for an old glider. The wind was out of the northwest. The thermals were drifting southeast (little zig zags on the flight trace). Somewhere around Date Creek (#30 on the map) the independent battery on my radio died. I had been making progress reports on the contest frequency, but now no one could hear me.
Just southwest of the Flying D (FLYNGD on the map), I ran into the edge of the clouds. There was a dry layer of air with smoke on top of it extending all the way to the Salome turnpoint - about 25 miles. I had to really shift gears, getting the maximum altitude while leaving the last cloud and hoping to find some invisible lift along the valley towards the turnpoint. I found and had to work some weak lift to keep a good altitude margin, but it was slow going. There was a small thermal right over the Salome turnpoint which gave me the confidence to make a run for the Harquahala Mountains where I hoped to find more lift to get me back to the clouds and certain lift. There are quite a number of landable fields just north of the mountains, so the gamble was not too great. Right over the little airport at Wenden, I got a thermal that was carrying me towards the clouds and home. A couple of small clouds formed south of my course and I deviated to intercept them. Getting high under the clouds, I saw that one of the bigger clouds between my position and home was overdeveloping. This cloud had rain showers and a large anvil top that was shading the ground along my course. I climbed as high as I could to glide through this shadow area that would surely have no lift. You can see my track curving north as I went through this shadow and trying to get back to where the sun was heating the ground (near point 140).
I had a good glide to several airports, but only wanted to make it back to the home airport to finish the task. After getting past the shadow (there was NO lift), I spotted a vulture circling below me. The birds always seem to have the best lift, so I circled to join above the bird. After a few turns, it was clear that I was climbing faster then the bird and it departed. The thermal got stronger and I stayed with it until I had a safe final glide solution back to Turf. The thermal was drifting me towards home so I was in no great hurry to leave. At 8500 feet above my home field and about 25 miles out, I started my final glide.
I realized that the hour was getting late and I had not made a report for a couple of hours since the radio quit. I tried firing up the cell phone. Little coverage is available out in the desert. When I finally got a signal, I tried calling Turf Soaring to let them know I was on final glide home and not to worry. The phone got answered just as their phone machine started making the announcement. Roy wanted me to wait until it was over since he could not hear me well. By the time the line was clear, the cell phone dropped me. They knew I was ok, but the message did not get passed. After a while, Roy called over to the Arizona Soaring Association clubhouse to tell them he thought I landed out somewhere. Just as I was passing over the airport to make my approach, my phone rang. Cliff Hilty was calling to find out where I had landed and I was able to tell him to look up and see me landing! While turning final, the phone rang again and I could see that it was my wife. It was a long flight and I had not checked in. I did not take the call as I was a little busy at the time... The landing was nice and smooth.
I had made it! 196 miles in an old wooden glider! Over 300 km! With the slow start and the slow cloudless 50 miles of the distance near Salome, it had taken me two minutes short of six hours. This was my second longest flight, in terms of time - by two minutes, and certainly my longest in terms of distance. I called my wife back to tell her I was safe and then just sat in the cockpit for a few minutes to let the feeling soak in. Flying this distance in a lower performance ship is an accomplishment! I, a steeley eyed flying man, was met by the flying crowd at the club house. Most everyone had a great flying day. Steaks were cooking and beer was being consumed. I still had some things to do - it was time to download the flight recorder.
The flight recorder download time was way too short. I knew that there was a problem. The barograph had worked and showed the altitude trace just fine. Since the GPS was not communicating with the recorder, none of the positions got recorded. I would not be able to claim the distance for the badge, only the altitude achievement. I was bitterly dissappointed and headed home. The next day was going to be another great soaring day, but the preparations for my volcano trip would require that I not fly. The Palm computer, with Soaring Pilot software, keeps a record similar to the 'official' flight recorder. It is not acceptable for badges or records, however. With this information, I was able to see that I had, indeed, made the turnpoints. The map above was extracted from a program called IGCView using the information from the Soaring Pilot software.
No one, besides me, really cares if I get a badge or record flight. I am happy that I did it and can't wait for the conditions (and my schedule) to allow another try. The broken GPS is away being repaired and the backup cable and GPS have been tested. Everything should be ready to go. I also have had offers from club members for loans of their flight recorders that have the GPS built in. Maybe I will go with a whole bevvy of data recorders!
Maybe next weekend...
IGCView can be found at IGCView.
They are both fantastic, and the price is right - free!