Day 7 at Montague

A hard day’s work on the “day to skip work”…


The weather today was supposed to be amazing. Locals were saying they’d never seen anything like it before. Take my word for it, when this map goes orange, glider pilots go nuts:

XCSkies "Top of Usable Lift" chart, RAP model. Orange means 17,000'.

XCSkies “Top of Usable Lift” chart, RAP model. Orange means 17,000′

Why so good? Hot and dry weather. Ground forecast highs were 105° F. Usually this weather turns moisture aloft into thunderstorms, but today there wasn’t enough moisture for that. So: an ambitious task set for out east in the dry, volcanic desert.

Lining up on the runway to go, you remind yourself that soon you’ll be ten thousand feet higher and 36° F cooler:

Waiting to goOr not: JOY was sent with two other ships on a “sniffer” mission. Sniffers determine whether the lift is good enough to launch the remaining gliders and start the contest day. This responsibility is shared among all the gliders in the contest, and today was one of our days.

Once we were up, it was an hour or so before weather conditions changed and thermals began to rise up from the mountainsides. We passed the time by grinding out turns in hot, weak lift next to pine-covered mountains. This is fine; all part of the sport. At least we had company:

(Note shadows on mountainside.)

The good thermals came. We started after most of the other open class ships and tore down the Scott Valley. Flying fast is less efficient than flying slowly: you cover less distance, but you cover it more quickly. We were promised a strong day, though, so riding the speed side of the speed/efficiency trade-off seemed like a good idea.

It worked well at first. We soon found ourselves high above the granite crags of the Trinity Alps, breathing oxygen from the bottle and feeling fine:

Trinity Alps

After that, we had to go east:

Eastbound and soon to be down

Eastbound and soon to be down…

and our troubles began. Past performance is not an indicator of future results… A piece of high ground on the direct line toward our next turnpoint failed to work like it had on earlier days. The speed run was over.

We struggled up a few thousand feet and tiptoed across the valley behind some 15-meter gliders, hoping they would mark lift ahead. The short-wing guys had launched after the open class, so we were starting to worry that we’d missed the boat.

Anyway, this worked well enough, and on the other side of the valley, we faced our second decision. Tank up on altitude under some OK-looking clouds about ten miles to the northeast, or head straight on course in hopes that the land there—just now coming out from under the shade of some high cirrus—would start to warm and cook off thermals again.

That same cirrus seemed to be threatening to shade and deflate the “tank-up” clouds. so we decided to press on ahead. We bet wrong. It would be nearly fifty miles of a flat, smooth, slow glide before we hit another thermal:

Long glideAt the end of the glide, things looked bleak. We had two turnpoints left over the same terrain left to go, then the final glide back to Montague. We were low, and the low lift was soft. Our FLARM anti-collision system helpfully observed other open-class ships zipping along half a mile higher, when it observed them at all. The good weather was out there—maybe not as strong as everyone had hoped—but still there, and we had missed it; were still missing it; were a half-hour from being on the ground out here amidst scrub and heat and fossils from the Cold War:

Decommissioned US Air Force over-the-horizon radar system

Decommissioned US Air Force over-the-horizon radar system

A strenuous effort by Mike and some lift marked by other gliders hobbled us along until we finally hit one of the Promised Thermals and climbed above final glide—that is, climbed high enough that we could glide back to Montague without needing to top up on altitude again.

Clouds and virga were starting to roll into Butte Valley, but we picked a likely course line… and found lift, and more lift, and more and more. We didn’t need to be higher. Mike pushed the nose down, and we dove through the rising air, faster and faster:

110 knots indicated airspeed, and this was during a slow part...

110 knots indicated airspeed, and this was during a slow part…

If we didn’t get to be fast that day, at least we got to go fast at the end.

We were afraid to look at the results. For the day, not great. Other pilots had chosen more successful lines, and we wound up in 7th place (of 9). The rankings were a departure from the usual order: seems most ships in the open class ran into some trouble, although JOY had harder times than most.

Two days remain, and plenty could happen. We will push hard, within the bounds required for safety…

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