Why Practice With Condor?

Soaring is a complex sport. Many different skills are required to become proficient. Every instructor will tell you that the best way to develop these skills is to fly a lot. Unquestionably this is true.

Unfortunately, flying a lot isn’t always easy, especially for beginners.  Unlike experienced pilots, who are able to soar on almost any day of the thermal season, inexperienced pilots often need near-perfect conditions to fly, stay up, and practice.  If the conditions aren’t great (e.g. the thermals are relatively weak, wind-blown, narrow, inconsistent, further away from the airfield, etc.), their flights are often short, and thus their soaring practice remains limited.  This can be frustrating, and, considering the number of tows involved, it is also expensive.

Unfortunately, many new soaring pilots give up at this stage. In fact, the statistics from my club, the Soaring Society of Boulder, show that new members who fly less than five hours in their first year have a more than 50% likelihood of quitting their new hobby before their second season even starts. That’s a real shame if you think of all the time and money that they have already put into their basic training.  But also consider this: those who fly more than 5 hours in their first year have an 80% probability of continuing with the sport!  So what can new pilots do to cross the five hour hurdle?

Fortunately, there is a simple, effective, and inexpensive way to supplement the basic flight training and quickly develop many of the key skills that are needed as a soaring pilot. It is called Condor, a remarkably realistic simulator for soaring flight. If you already have a PC with a decent graphics card, all you need is the software, a suitable joystick, and preferably rudder pedals, and you are set. All of that can be had for the cost of a few tows – see details at the bottom of this post. I promise it is the best investment any aspiring soaring pilot can make!

To avoid any misconception: Condor alone is not a substitute for real-life flight training. But I have absolutely no doubt, that it has saved me dozens of real tows and dramatically accelerated my learning curve as a soaring pilot.  

Below are some examples of how Condor can help you quickly develop your skills .  These skills will allow you to become more proficient more quickly, you will be less dependent on perfect days, and you will have the opportunity to gain more real glider time and experience sooner, and at lower costs.

Foundational Skills

1) Thermalling – The thermals in Condor are exceptionally realistic.  Condor will teach you where to find the best lift, how to center the lift, and how to fly consistent circles with constant airspeed and a constant bank angle.  These skills translate perfectly to the real world.  I am completely confident that anyone who can center thermals in Condor can do the same in real life.  Of all the foundational skills (beyond taking off and landing safely), this one is by far the most crucial if you want to be able to stay up and go places. Condor also lets you set the average width of thermals, the level of turbulence, and the upper level wind speed so you can practice thermalling in more difficult conditions as you get better at it.

Thermalling with another glider during a multiplayer online race in the Alps.  I’m flying a Diana 2 (note the side stick).  The Condor flight computer shows the thermalling assistant and the average climb rate during the last turn.

2) Ridge Soaring – Many soaring sites don’t have good ridges for soaring flight.  Condor allows you to practice ridge running in various wind conditions and experience the effect of lee side turbulence and sink without putting your life at risk.  Your first ridge flights in real life should always be with an instructor but it will be instantly familiar to you once you master it in Condor.

Running along the ridge of Mount Nebo near the airport of Nephi in Utah in 15kt westerly winds. The glider is a JS1.

3) Wave Soaring – Since the recent release of version 2, Condor also does a good job at modelling wave lift although it is not as realistic yet as thermal and ridge flying.  (Especially rotor turbulence below the wave bars is not modeled well, and the interaction between thermals and wave is also not very realistic. ) However, mastering wave flying in Condor will still be of help when you first experience it in real life; e.g. the geographic relationship of the wave trigger and the position of the wave lift is well done and you will have learned the necessary flying techniques to stay in wave lift.

Climbing above 18,000 feet (5,489 m) in wave lift next to a thin lenticular cloud. The flight is in Slovenia, which is the default scenery in the Condor software package (the company that makes Condor is based there). The glider is a Duo Discus, which also comes standard.  (Note that the position of the clouds below the wave seems random like on a typical thermal day.  In reality you would expect lines of rotor clouds instead, roughly parallel to the wave bars.)

4) Take-Offs and Landings – these skills are actually harder to master in Condor than in real life.  If you can follow the tow plane and box the wake in Condor you will likely have little trouble doing the same in a real glider.  Landing in Condor is also a bit more tricky.  A key benefit of Condor is that you can practice things that you wouldn’t do in real life such as taking off and landing in extreme conditions.  One day you may find yourself in a situation where you have no choice but to put your glider down in a 25 kt crosswind or quartering tailwind.  It’s definitely helpful having practiced this on the simulator.  You can also do these maneuvers over and over again without incurring any additional cost.

Aerotow takeoff in Nephi in an ASK 21 behind a Super Cub with 27 kts cross-wind. You can see the glider drift immediately to the right of the center line despite the crab angle. The maximum demonstrated cross-wind component for the ASK 21 is 8 kts. So you definitely would not do this in real life. But it’s fun to practice it in Condor.

Advanced Skills

One great thing about Condor is that it was originally developed for glider racing.  That means, the learning doesn’t stop with the basics.  In fact, there are a lot of advanced skills that you can readily practice in Condor that are difficult to practice in real life.

1) Using a Flight Computer.   As you progress and get interested in cross country soaring, you will want to become proficient in the use of a flight computer.  Condor has one built-in, which is easy to use, and a great tool for online racing helping you with navigation around the task, speed-to-fly calculations, and final glide.  But, even more important, Condor gives you the opportunity to directly connect your real life flight computer with Condor (e.g. an Oudie).  This way you can practice flying particular tasks using your own real-life flight computer.  I have found this to be a huge benefit.  Flight computers tend to be pretty complex and the last thing you want to do is stare at a screen when you sit in the cockpit of a real glider, trying to understand what it’s telling you, while you really ought to pay attention to what’s going on outside the cockpit.  Not only will you not be able to use the flight computer to your benefit, you are also a safety hazard to yourself and anyone around.  Practicing this in Condor is a great way of becoming proficient without the risks.

Condor has an easy-to-use built-in flight computer which is optimized for FAI racing tasks.  The picture doesn’t show Condor’s flight computer but my personal real-life Oudie flight computer connected to Condor and setup for a Turn Area Task (aka Assigned Area Task) in the Nephi scenery. Turn Area Tasks are not yet supported by Condor – I think this is planned for a future update. My task on the Oudie is based on the 3rd day at the Nephi Sports Class Nationals in 2018. Minimum time is 4:00 hours. The plane is heading towards the start cylinder. I’ve sampled some thermals and set MC to 8 kts because the day seems very strong. Most of the navigation boxes are not displaying useful information until I leave the start cylinder and get underway.  (If you are interested in using an Oudie for Turn Area Tasks, there is a great tutorial here.)

2) Terrain Transitions. Condor was built to fly cross country.  One of the trickiest aspects of XC flying are terrain transitions, especially upwind in mountainous regions.  You’ll learn how much extra height you need to cross a mountain pass when flying into the wind, and you’ll figure out where and how to best gain that height.

Approaching a tricky terrain transition across the pass straight ahead. The wind is from the southwest and the vario shows a modest climb rate of 1 m/s (2 kts). I’m counting on additional ridge lift from the slopes to the left before sliding over the pass and into the next valley beyond. There is likely some sink in the lee of the steep mountain to the right of the canopy before getting to the ridge that I have to cross and I need to gain some more altitude quickly. I probably have another 10-15 seconds or so to decide whether I can make it or if I should turn away to the right, come back to the ridge, and try to climb higher before shooting over the pass. This is definitely a very tricky situation of the variety “do not attempt this in real life”. But it is very educational in learning to judge the relationship between terrain and wind, and the glider’s energy in form of height and airspeed.

3) New Terrain.  Condor has a very committed user community.  Several talented members put in many hours  developing photo-realistic sceneries for many of the world’s best soaring areas.  Many of these can be downloaded for free at the Condor Club fan site.  E.g., you can fly in the Alps, in New Zealand, the Andes, the Atlas, the Pyrenees, etc.  I have recently practiced in the Nephi scenery in preparation for a real life soaring camp in Nephi, UT this summer.  Being familiar with the terrain is obviously hugely beneficial before you fly at a new location.

This is an image of the Dachstein mountain near the airfield of Niederoeblarn in Austria where I first learned to fly gliders. It’s taken from a similar perspective as the cover picture on my blog ChessInTheAir.com. In Condor I am flying an LS8neo whereas in the real image the glider is an LS4b.

4) Flying in Different Gliders, with and without ballast.  Condor is realistically simulating many different gliders from frequently used school gliders (e.g. ASK 21) to the latest and most expensive racing machines (e.g. Ventus 3, JS1, ASG 29, Antares, etc.)  The Schweitzer 1-26 is also supported as well as several other historic gliders.   A number of gliders comes standard with the software package, others are available for an extra fee.   You can experience the different handling characteristics of different ships with and without water ballast, and with different CG positions.  Obviously you can also practice flying with flaps if you select a flapped ship.

Outside of Condor it is unlikely that you will get the chance to fly an open-cockpit Grunau Baby in ridge lift along steep Norwegian Fjords. It’s fun to try out the completely different flight characteristics of different gliders.

5) Glider Racing.  Perhaps the coolest thing about Condor is live multi-player racing  against the world’s best Condor racing pilots.  Many of them are experienced racing pilots in real life and you can test your skills in live competitions.  After a flight you can compare your flight trace against the traces of those that were faster and see where you lost precious minutes on task.  You also experience flying in big gaggles – there are many races with 30, 40, 50 or even more other gliders, all of which you can see live on your the screen.  Most scoring is based on the 1000 pt format used for real glider races, and some races are scored based on the Grand Prix format with regatta starts.  Races can be high adrenaline events and a lot of fun.

Here I’m on the grid waiting to be aerotowed during a multiplayer online race. You can display/hide a directory of the other competitors with a key stroke. This was one of the first online races following the release of Condor 2 and the Diana 2 was the only 15m class glider supported at that time. In the meantime you can also fly a Ventus 3 in 15m configuration.

Limitations of Condor

As I tried to point out, Condor is a fantastic tool to help anyone (from beginner to advanced pilot) hone their skills and become better at real soaring.   It is remarkably realistic and almost all the skills learned with  Condor translate directly into the real world.  That said, it is of course a simulator, and as such it has certain limitations that are useful to contemplate and understand.

1) There are no g-forces.  Obviously.  You are sitting in your chair in front of the computer and you can’t feel lift and sink. So you have to hone these skills in real life.  There is no substitute.

2) Condor does a great job at modelling thermals, ridge lift, and – to a somewhat lesser degree – wave lift.  However, it does not model some other real-life weather phenomena such as weather fronts, convergence lines, or sea-breeze fronts.  This is an obvious limitation, especially when using Condor as a training tool for new soaring areas, where some of these phenomena are typical.

3) There are no weather hazards.  With Condor you are in control of the weather settings and can select (before each flight), how strong the wind will blow (and with what variability), how strong the thermals will be, where the inversion layer is (and therefore the cloud base; or if the day is blue), if there is is wave and how strong, etc.   But there are no thunderstorms, squall lines, tornados, or hurricanes. There’s also no precipitation, i.e., no snow, hail, or even rain. Condor weather is always soaring weather.  The greatest wind strength at the surface is 50 kph (just under 27 kts).   (Higher up in wave, it can be twice that.)  Hazardous weather is obviously something you need to really think about and plan for in real life.  Condor won’t teach you that aspect of soaring.

4) There are no airspace restrictions and you don’t learn radio etiquette.   Condor gives you the opportunity to set up penalty zones and thereby simulate airspace but in general, you can fly anywhere and there are no TFRs.  You can chat with other pilots online but you won’t learn proper radio communications.

5) Some of the controls are obviously different from a real glider unless you build your own cockpit with authentic input devices for flap handle, spoiler handle, gear retraction handle, break handle, release knob, etc.  (Some clubs have actually done that but it really isn’t necessary.) You will want to use a mix of keys on your keyboard and joystick buttons for those functions.  I urge everyone to at least use a good joystick and rudder pedals even though Condor will work without them.  But if you want to use it as a training tool for real gliders, you need to operate the main flight controls in a realistic way so you develop the muscle memory to react appropriately.

6) Your life is not at risk.  This is not just a big advantage but it is also a limitation.  There is no doubt that you are likely to take more risks in Condor than you should ever take in real life (a case in point is the screenshot of the mountain pass earlier in this post).  You can also see this in online racing:  almost at every multiplayer race, one or more of the competitors end their flights in a crash (which in many cases would be fatal in real life).  Condor is very tempting in this regard: to gain precious seconds you might scratch over mountain passes with a few feet to spare; you might fly between clouds in close proximity to mountains, you might fly in extremely dense gaggles, etc.   I remind myself each time when I assume a risk in Condor that I would not be willing to take in real life.  The last thing I want to do is teach myself hazardous habits.

These limitations are real.  You should understand them but they should in no way deter you from using Condor not just as a game, but as a tool to practice various flying techniques in preparation for real soaring.

What do you need to fly in Condor?

At the minimum you need the software and a computer that can run it.  You find the system requirements here.

In my experience an excellent set up looks like this:

  • A computer with a good-sized screen and a fast graphics card that supports Condor in high resolution.  You can get all the training effects on a smaller screen, and with a barely adequate graphics card, but the experience is obviously much better if you have a nice computer.   Condor requires Windows but it can also run on a Mac booted up as a Windows machine.  E.g., I run Condor on an Apple iMac running Windows through Bootcamp.   There are some geeks that run Condor with multiple computer screens.  (If you want to fly in different sceneries (landscapes), you will also want an external hard drive because photo-realistic sceneries take up a lot of storage space – some are larger than 50 GB and you may want 10 or 20 different ones.  You can either install Condor and all the sceneries directly on the external drive (the easiest solution) or you can install Condor on your main harddrive and use the mklink /J command to link to sceneries that are on your external drive.  If you don’t know how to do this, ask me when you get there.  It’s easier than it sounds.) 
  • A joystick with force feedback. The best one is most likely the Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback 2.  For a long time I used a a Saitek AV8R joystick without force feedback but after reading the glowing recommendations from the Condor user community for the MS Sidewinder, I switched and I can attest that the experience is incomparable and hugely improved.  The MS Sidewinder acts and feels just like a real glider stick.  The forces depend on airspeed and attitude, and the stick will even indicate the buffeting in a stall just like a real glider.  The MS Sidewinder has been long out of production but you should be able to get a used one on eBay.  They are very sturdy and well built.  I highly recommend it.  Whatever joystick you use, Condor allows you to easily program any of the buttons and levers to your desired functions.
  • Rudder pedals.  There are multiple ones available and probably any of them will work well.  I use T-Rudder MKIV pedals from KBSim, which are heavy and sturdy and work very well.  But less expensive ones will definitely do as well. 
  • A head tracking device such as the TrackIR 5, which is what I use myself.  This is not essential but it does make a very big difference.  It basically allows you to move your head to control what you see on the screen.  If you want to look out over the left wingtip, you simply turn your head a little to the left as you would in real life and the screen will move just as you move your head.  If you don’t have a head tracker you can alter the view by moving your mouse with one hand while you fly the ship with the other hand, or you can use the head-switch on the joystick.  But neither is easy to do, especially if you also want to change flap settings or control the spoilers at the same time.  Using a head tracker is much easier and more intuitive.  For online racing, using a head tracker is almost essential unless you don’t mind colliding with other gliders in dense gaggles or along ridge lines.  (There’s one thing to be aware of when using a head tracker:  it will not work if there is sunlight coming in from behind where you are sitting when you look at your computer.  The sun will confuse the tracker and the screen will jump all over the place.  So think about where you will use Condor before you decide to buy this item.  (Most recently, Condor now also supports virtual reality devices such as Oculus Rift, which would make a head tracker unnecessary, but I have not tried this feature yet.)
  • Condor has a built-in flight computer that is easy to use and specifically designed for Condor.   It will help you with navigation, thermal centering and teach you all you need to know about MC speed-to-fly, final glide, arrival altitude, etc.  If you also have a real-life flight computer that you want to practice with using Condor, check if it can receive GPS data through a COM interface. Most should be able to do it.  Note, however, that the Oudie IGC does not allow this because it only accepts GPS data from it’s own built-in GPS.  The Oudie 2 and Oudie 1 will work just fine.  If you have an Oudie 1 or 2 you will also need a dedicated cable to connect the Oudie with your computer.  I have no experience using other flight computers with Condor but you typically can find what you need on the Condor user forum.  
  • Finally, you will want to use earphones with Condor, unless you live alone.  Any ear phones will do as long as only you can hear them.  I promise that a beeping vario from your computer would annoy everyone around you in no time.

You may already have several of the things needed.  But even if the only thing you have is a computer,  you can get all you need for about $100-400. Cumulus Soaring even sells the essential components in various bundles priced between $117 and $380 if you don’t want to follow my hardware recommendations or go to the trouble of making your own choices.  The price tag may sound high, but, as I mentioned earlier, you should look at this as an investment.  It will ultimately safe you a lot of money in tow fees and you will become more proficient much faster.

Now, unless you are already an expert and master all the skills listed, go and get Condor.  You won’t regret it.

(Disclosure:  this article reflects my own personal opinion and is not unduly influenced by anyone else.  In particular, I have no relationships with, no financial interest in, and receive no benefits from the sale of Condor, Cumulus Soaring, Amazon, eBay, or any of the recommended hardware or software products. )

Speed Surfing the Rocky Mountain Wave

Yesterday was a glorious day for wave soaring along the Colorado Front Range.  But first I had to get there.  Almost every wave flight in Boulder begins with a climb in the wave’s rotor…  which is always a piece of work and not for anyone who’s just out for a pleasure cruise.

Boulder, CO from the wave at 17,500 ft MSL with rotor clouds below.

As I climbed behind the tow plane – we had barely reached 1,700 AGL ft – all of a sudden, the tow plane shot straight up into the sky.  From my glider cockpit’s perspective it looked like I had instantly dropped down to the low tow position.  But I did’t try to correct it for I knew what was about to happen.  And sure enough:  two seconds later I felt a huge bump from below and my high tow position was restored on it’s own without any control inputs.

A long line of cap clouds tops the Colorado Front Range. The cap cloud is a typical sign of wave conditions. The cap clouds dissolve in the lee of the mountains as the air warms up as it gets pushed down along the lee slopes, opening a “Foehn Gap” to the next line of clouds downwind (not visible here). The small clouds below are rotor clouds.

After a quick look to the right I pulled the release. Two turns later I had already climbed 1,500 feet off tow.  What an elevator ride!  The oxygen system started peeping, confirming my rocket-like ascent.  Why hadn’t I put the cannula on before taking off?  When I reached for it I noticed the extent of my mistake:  when I closed the canopy before taking off, I had trapped the cannula’s tube between the canopy and the fuselage.  There was no way to get it out. Bummer!  You really can’t go on a wave flight without oxygen.  So, just a few minutes into the flight and on a fast track up into the wave I was left with nothing else to do but to put the gear back down and pull the spoilers out.  Three minutes later I was back on the ground.  I grabbed a new cannula, and took another tow…

A close-up shot of the cap cloud. The fuzzy area below the cloud is blowing snow due to the strong surface winds directly above the mountain range. The air flowing over the mountains gets squeezed between the inversion above and the mountains below, thus accelerating the wind speed at the tops of the ridge line. The wind would have made back-country skiing really unpleasant.

I asked the tow pilot to take me to the same spot where I released in anticipation of another rocket climb.  However, this time, climbing off tow wasn’t nearly as easy.  I hit some big sink and dropped down to 2,000 AGL.  Time to pay attention!  This close to the ground, strong lift and strong sink were in very close proximity to one another.  The vario flipped back and forth between max climb and max sink indications, and I had to bank about 50 degrees to get a positive average climb rate.  To make matters more challenging, the position of lift and sink changed constantly.  After some experimenting, I eventually found a reasonable spot to climb in.  The higher I got, the more consistent the lift became and my climb rate improved.

On my first leg north. Below the rotor cloud on the right is Carter Lake.

At about 14,000 MSL I got into weak laminar lift and was able to relax.  I pointed the nose into the wind, noticed that I was barely moving forward relative to the ground.  Occasionally I looked back over my shoulder to watch the developing rotor clouds behind the plane.   More than one glider pilot before me got “swallowed” up by the clouds as their glider drifted backwards.  I knew I had to be careful so this would not happen to me.   Gradually I gained another 3,000 feet and the rotor clouds were finally below me.  The hard part was over and it was finally time to cover some ground!

Another view of the Continental Divide northwest of Carter Lake. The Twin Sisters and Mount Meeker / Longs Peak can be made out right of center underneath the cap clouds. The town of Estes Park is in the distance on the right edge of the picture.

With the wind blowing at about 30-40 kts I knew I had to fly fast if I wanted to get anywhere for a significant portion of my airspeed would be used up just to avoid drifting off with the wind.

Unlike on some of my prior wave flights,  there was no continuous line of rotor clouds.  However, many smaller, individual clouds were sprinkled about the sky below.  There were enough of them and in sufficiently regular intervals to easily work out the area where the best lift was likely to be.

Nice view out into the prairie to the East after my first northerly turn. The suburbs below the rotor clouds belong to the city of Loveland.

And so the surfing could start.  Depending on the strength of lift I would adjust my airspeed.  But unlike flying in thermal lift, where you pull up when the lift increases and you push down when the lift decreases, I would basically do the opposite:  In strong lift I would push and fly faster to avoid getting close to Class A airspace.  In weaker lift, I would pull back a little, to avoid dropping lower and possible getting back into the rotor zone.  The sweet spot was clearly between 16,500 and 17,999 feet.  High enough to stay clear of the rapidly developing rotor clouds and the associated turbulence below, and low enough to avoid busting into forbidden territory.

Downtown Denver on my second leg, heading south.

For the next hour and a half I flew up and down the front range between CO Rt 34 in the North and I-70 in the South.  The strength of the lift varied between 2 and 10 kts.

In exactly 1 hours and 30 minutes I covered 275km, that’s an average ground speed of 183 kph or 114 mph or 99 kts.   I stayed between 16,300 and 17,800 feet for the entire time. Except for reversing directions at the northern and southern turn points I made not a single turn.  My indicated airspeed was  between 80 and 100 kts most of the time, only occasionally dropping a little lower – mainly to open the window and take pictures.

The cap cloud stayed with me for the duration of the entire flight as a constant reminder that the wave continued to work. This picture is from my third leg, heading north again.

I had not remembered the exact VnE of the Discus at this altitude, and so I decided to err on the conservative side, keeping my indicated airspeed below 105 kts at all times.   This meant that on several occasions I had to pull the spoilers to prevent the ship from climbing above 18,000 feet.   (I have since checked the operating handbook and my actual VnE at this altitude would have been 124 kts.)

There was a lot of commercial air traffic in and out of Denver International at my altitude.  It was very comforting to know that the ship is equipped with a transponder and ADSB out so ATC was aware of my position and heading at all times.  The screen of the S100 showed me the other aircraft in the sky, usually well before I could spot them myself.  The color coding was very useful as well, so I could see whether to look for other traffic above or below.

Last picture before putting the camera away and getting ready to descend. The panel shows the typical cruise mode for the flight. Speed around 100 kts, lift 2-3 kts, altitude 17,500 MSL.

Visibility was absolutely perfect for the entire flight and the excellent wave conditions reached to the horizon to the north and the south as far as the eye could see.  I have no doubt that it would have been possible to continue the speed run north to the Wyoming border, and south all the way to Pikes Peak.

Unfortunately I wasn’t very well dressed for this altitude.  Once the sun was blocked by a lenticular cloud layer far above it got really cold very fast.  That’s when I decided to cut the flight short and come back down to land.

Before leaving the laminar layer on the descent I made sure to secure my camera and any other loose objects in the side pockets and I retightened all my belts.  I slowed down to below 80 kts to minimize getting knocked around too badly once I would re-enter the rotor zone, and I kept away from the proximity of rotor clouds where the most severe turbulence is usually found.

I don’t know if it was due to my precautions or if I simply got lucky but ultimately my re-entry into the rotor zone wasn’t nearly as bad as I experienced it before.

AWOS told me the wind on the ground had turned west as well and was blowing at 20 kts gusting to 28.  The wind sock suggested a slight northerly cross wind component.  I landed on Glider 26, making sure the touchdown was before the line of trees that could add some unpleasant turbulence.  The ship rolled nicely all the way to its tie down spot.

The flight track is here.

Lessons Learned

  • Don’t squeeze the cannula!  I need to make it a habit to put the cannula on before launching.  It’s easy to do in flight, but this will prevent me from closing the canopy and squeezing the cannula tube between the canopy and the fuselage.
  • Know the VnE at altitude. Our club’s Discus’s VnE at 18,000 MSL is 124 kts.  I could have flown a bit faster instead of opening the spoilers.  (As long as I’m well clear of any rotor turbulence and there is no rough air).
  • Dress more warmly for wave. Especially the feet and legs get cold in the shade below the glare shield.  And especially when flying fast.

 

Emerging From the Den

What do Colorado bears have in common with glider pilots?  As soon as the spring sun heats the ground, and the ground heats the air, both come out of their dens.

Except that for many of us glider pilots, our den this year was the hangar.  And we didn’t get to sleep in.  For the past 10 weeks several of us spent a lot of time redoing the panel on our club’s Discus CS under the tireless, thoughtful, and diligent guidance of Jack, our ship manager. Not even a broken leg would deter him…

Here’s what we started with: a new fiberglass panel

First, holes needed to be cut with a water jet to place the new instruments.

Then it had to be fitted into the ship. Clearly, it’s still too wide…

Mounting holes had to be drilled and the the instruments had to be fitted.

Then the real work began … all the invisible parts had to be mounted somewhere before any of the tubes or wires could be connected.

Wires to various sensors and new pneumatic tubing to the ports and probes had to be laid securely below the seat pan

Finally everything had to be mounted, hooked up, and tested. Faulty parts had to be replaced, and everything tested again.   (There’s a lot of steps and pics missing in this sequence before we could call it a success…)

It’s been a major team effort – unfortunately some key team members are not in this picture.

After 10 weeks of work, Jack drove the ship back to the airfield while the sky above beckoned.

Then, yesterday, finally,  I had the honor of test-flying the ship.  And voila, everything worked perfectly.  All the little issues that had plagued the ship from time to time in the past such as erratic vario displays due to leaky tubing, power failures due to old batteries, poor radio reception, an unreadable flarm display, stick thermal indications due to faulty compensation settings, etc… all those issues where gone.

The new S100 flight computer, which isn’t just your task planner and speed-to-fly calculator, but which integrates every available information into a central hub is a thing of functional beauty.  Other air-traffic, even commercial airliners, showed up on the display, color coded by height.  I spotted glider pilots with their call signs on the screen before I could see them for real.  The temperature sensor told me when I climbed to freezing altitudes, the gear warning was a friendly voice and not an obnoxious sound the meaning of which has yet to be deciphered.  The thermal assistant provided timely and accurate information.  The screen is super bright and easy to read at a brief glance even with my polarized sunglasses.  Climb and sink indications agreed with the fully-compensated mechanical vario.  I could just keep my eyes outside the cockpit, focus on the sky, the wind, and the sun and not worry about any of the little things that can become distractions.  That’s soaring as it should be!

As always, the Discus handled perfectly.  The coolest thing is that it basically thermals on autopilot.  Whenever I put it in a 45 degree bank it  just stayed there without further control inputs.  You can even take your hand off the stick, adjust your oxygen cannula, take pictures and just make small corrections with the rudder pedals while the ship basically climbs on its own. You can just look outside and watch the world become smaller and smaller.

I want to thank everyone who’s contributed to this major club project.  We have a fleet of  terrific club ships, which only very few clubs in the United States can offer their members.   Come out to the field and enjoy!

View of the Front Range from the Lower Foothills SE of Estes Park. Soaring was better than the sky suggests.

So here’s a bit about the flight itself:  I got a late launch at about 1:35pm when thermal conditions were almost  at their peak.  As soon as I was satisfied that everything was working and that I wouldn’t need to test the parachute as well ;-), I released at 1,700 AGL and immediately climbed a few thousand feet off tow.  The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds near Thorodin Mountain SW of the Flatirons.  So that’s where I headed first.   But all I could find was sink.  I hadn’t even reached Gross Reservoir when I decided to head back to the prairie.  The thermals were still there but the wind had started to shift to the west. That meant the climbs were less consistent and more wind blown with a somewhat “rotory” feel.

As a climbed, a line of small rotor clouds developed NW of the field to the west of Left Hand Canyon.  I gingerly headed towards that line, pulling a little in every gust and pushing through any sink.  I was able to connect with that line and then fly in cruise mode all the way to the ridge line NE of Estes Park.  This was a good stretch to spot commercial air traffic inbound into DIA on the Flarm screen of the S100.  It was very comforting not solely having to rely on ATC to see me, but to see the airliners myself on the screen before spotting them in the sky.

I found good lift on the ridge near Storm Mountain where I climbed above 14,500.  The sky to the north from there looked pretty bleak, so I decided to retrace my track while another rotor line formed further east.  I connected with that line between Carter Lake and Berthoud, climbed back up to over 14,000 and then imagined a straight line south from there with relatively good air.  Although there were no clouds the line worked in reducing my sink rate and supporting my glide.   I headed past Boulder and the Flatirons towards some rotor clouds north of Golden.  These did not work at all, however.

I turned towards the Flatirons, intent on soaring along the top of the ridge where I expected significant ridge lift since the wind speed had picked up considerably and was now 20-30 kts from the west.   Unfortunately the push through the lee and into the wind cost just a bit too much altitude and I was not comfortable with my height as I got toward the Flatirons.   I remember thinking, “if this were Condor, I would just go for it, and I’m sure it would work”.  But this wasn’t Condor, and in the real world I only have one life to live, so it was an easy decision to turn away.

I pushed through the heavy lee sink at about 100 kts and arrived at the field at a comfortable height of just under 2000 AGL.  The wind was blowing straight from the west at 20 kts gusting to 25.  A sporty pattern flown at about 80 knots brought me to a smooth landing after a flight of 2 hours and 15 minutes.  At 168km it wasn’t particularly long, and at 78 kph it wasn’t particularly fast, but I’m satisfied that it was about what was reasonably possible for me with such a late launch and the onset of strong west wind conditions.

Finally, here’s a look at the new panel in flight as I’m cruising in good lift along the rotor line heading north. The small clouds in the distance (right in front of the nose) were my northerly turnpoint near Storm Mountain.

The new Discus Panel. Everything worked perfectly!

Lessons Learned

  • It’s great to be in a club.  I have learned so much from all the talented fellow club members during this project.  Taking care of a glider felt intimidating to me and for many things I would not have even known where to start.  Compared to my club mates I still know very little but at least I have a basic understanding how everything works and I have a reasonable idea as to what I can do myself and where I still need help.  The whole thing is no longer a total mystery.  And that’s huge progress for me.
  • The flight controls of a glider are mechanical and quite simple; but the entire pneumatic, electric, and electronic systems are another matter.  While only very little of it is needed to fly safely, it does make flying easier and more enjoyable because – when everything works – you can focus on what’s outside the cockpit and not worry about glide calculations or the accuracy of any of the instruments.
  • The flight itself held some new lessons, too.  I experienced the transition from thermal to rotor conditions and the effect this had on the thermals in the prairie.  When I noticed what went on, I adjusted appropriately to the new situation and switched to “rotor flying”.
  • Intent on circling as little as possible, I consciously practiced “feeling the air” as I was cruising along the rotor line.  Whenever I felt some lift I would gently pull up into the rising air, and whenever I felt some sink I would try to gently push away from it with careful and limited control inputs.  It’s hard to know if I did it right – that would have required another glider to my side flying straight at a constant airspeed – but my subjective feeling is that it worked quite well.
  • When approaching the Flatirons with questionable altitude to get above the ridge I am glad I immediately made the right call without hesitation.  I always worry a little that flying on Condor might teach me to take undue risks (I actually always tell myself on Condor that I would not do XYZ in real life whenever I approach a risky transition) and I’m glad the same thought came to me in this real life situation with the very clear opposite outcome that favors safety above everything else.  I’m committed to keeping it that way.