My First 1000 km Flight – It Just So Happened …

Three of my goals for the year were:

  1. to reach one additional state by glider from Boulder, e.g. Nebraska, Utah, or New Mexico;
  2. to complete a 750km FAI triangle;
  3. to complete a 1000km flight per OLC rules (i.e., maximum of six legs).

Yesterday looked like a good day for soaring with cus, high cloud bases, and moderate winds.  There would be no smoke, no overdevelopment, and no thunderstorms.  Skysight suggested Nebraska would be doable (this isn’t often the case).  Maybe I could even complete a big FAI triangle.  750km seemed too far since there were no clouds projected to the south.  Based on the forecast and the projected clouds I thought a 600 km triangle might be feasible.  But I decided to remain flexible. Maybe it would work, maybe not.  And maybe, just maybe, I would even be able to extend it a bit further.

When I took off, I had no expectation, intention, or aspiration whatsoever to attempt to break 1000 km. That only came much later in the flight.

Here’s the task I declared: Start and Finish at 501 Bighorn Mountain (just west of Boulder);TP1 at 731 Tower half-way between Kimball and Scottsbluff (all in Nebraska); and TP2 at 527 Arlington, Wyoming.

This is the task I declared in the flight computer.

I launched at 10:42am – relatively early for Boulder – and the sky was already looking very nice. Surprisingly, there were even clouds to the south where it was forecast to remain blue all day.

Right after takeoff. The tow plane heads towards the iconic Flatirons. The beautiful city of Boulder is below.

Lift became noticeable as soon as we approached the foothills. There was no need for a big mountain tow despite the early start.  I release from tow south of Altona, just north of Boulder.

The Pawnee is turning back to Boulder to get the next glider while I’m rolling into a climb. The exit of Left Hand Canyon and Heil Ranch are visible below. (You can see the burn scars from the Calwood fire that destroyed 28 homes last year.)

It doesn’t take long to climb and connect with the clouds. At 11:15 am I cross the start line and head out on task.

Here I’m right above the start line at Bighorn Mountain heading north. My first turnpoint is 219 km to the northeast, towards the right edge of the image. It looks like there are already some clouds in that direction, towards Ft. Collins.

20 minutes later I am already past the clouds that you could see in the picture above.  The sky ahead looks less inviting than I had hoped.  I briefly wonder whether I should abandon the task and “just fly per the clouds” but then I decide that I like the challenge and declare to myself that “I’m going for it.”

Here I am just northwest of Fort Collins, heading NNE towards Cheyenne. There is a big gap before the next clouds. However, a look on the cloud shadows on the ground suggests that the distance should be easily manageable, even if there is no lift at all in-between.

As expected, the gap wasn’t a big deal for my glider. I only lost 2,500 ft during the transition and I am still at 8,500 ft above the ground.  And there is a beautiful street ahead, stretching far into the distance towards my turnpoint.

I’m southwest of Cheyenne – the line of clouds pass the city just to the south.

The next 100 km towards the turnpoint are quite uneventul.  The line of clouds is along a weak convergence zone where thermals are easily triggered.  The lift isn’t very strong (typically 4-6 kts) but fairly reliable.  I am also benefitting from a tailwind of 10-15 kts so I make quick progress.

The three things on my mind are: (1) Will the clouds go all the way to the turnpoint?  (2) How will I do going back into a headwind? and (3) Will clouds develop towards my second turnpoint – so far much of the sky to the north has been blue.

With respect to the expected headwind, I remind myself that it is still early in the day – before 1 pm – and that the thermal strength should considerably improve within the next hour.

The thermals did reach to the turnpoint. I am now south of Scottsbluff and about to turn TP1 just as the clouds are thinning out a bit.

I round TP just a few minutes past 1 pm.   During the first 30-40 km I backtrack to the southwest along the same path that I used on the first leg.  In the meantime a nice line of clouds has developed to the west.

Here I am about 50 km northeast of Cheyenne, changing my course from southwest to west to follow the line of clouds just ahead, heading towards Laramie, about 100 km ahead.

When I reach the end of the line I am greeted with another blue gap but cloud bases have lifted to well above 18,000 feet and the next clouds look to be in easy glide range.

I am now crossing I-25 north of Cheyenne, heading west. Looking at clouds it is often hard to tell which ones are closer and which ones are further away. A much better way to gauge distances and locations of clouds is to look at their shadows on the ground.

When the sky ahead looks like this it is time to step on the gas – I mean, push the stick forward and fly faster so I can make use of the great lift that is almost certain to come.

I am just north of the Horse Creek Valley (the green line below on the left), heading north-west to connect with this line of clouds to the west. The elevated area 30km ahead are the Laramie Mountains. The Laramie Valley is beyond. The faint-looking line of mountains in the distance on the left are the Medicine Bow Mountains. (They are still about 100 km away.)

The line of clouds in the last picture was good, but nowhere near as good as I thought it would be.  I kept pressing on expecting to find an 8-12kt climb but it never came.  As a result I dropped below 13,000 feet over the Laramie basin and now I have to climb, even if it’s only in 3-4 kts.  At least it’s beautiful down there 🙂

I’m circling 15 km north west of the Laramie airport.  I like the stark contrasts of the lush green near the Laramie River and the glistening white from the dry salt pans. Unfortunately the clouds in the Laramie basin have a reputation of being dishonest: they look great but rarely do they deliver what they promise. I’ve found this our the hard way earlier this year when I almost landed out in this area below clouds that looked just as good as these. The trick here is not to get low, and so I don’t want to take any chances even when I am still 5000 feet above ground.

After getting back up near cloud base, things are easy again.  I cruise from cloud to cloud and quickly reach my second turnpoint, Arlington, at the north-west side of the Laramie basin. There are good looking clouds between Medicine Bow Peak and Elk Mountain so I keep pushing west to lengthen my second leg and thereby increase my triangle distance. (The extra distance will reduce the average speed of my declared task but I haven’t been flying fast enough for a possible state record so I don’t mind.)

I keep going west as long as there is a line of good clouds, which is on the east side of the Saratoga Valley.  That’s where I decide to turn south again. (I briefly considered crossing the Saratoga Valley to the clouds ahead above the Sierra Madre (of Wyoming) but I was worried about the day possibly ending early and not making it back home.  It would also have reduced my task speed as there would likely be sink during the valley crossing.)

The town of Saratoga is 15km in front of the nose. I turn south below the little cloud just above.  The city of Rawlins is about 50km further to the northwest.

This is what the sky looked like after my turn south.  The clouds appear to be thinning out even though it is only just a little past 3pm in the afternoon.  Conditions should still be strong but you can never be sure…  What is the best line to take?

I am intrigued by the line of small clouds to the right of my nose and along the western (sunny) edge of the Medicine Bow Mountains.  In addition, that’s where Skysight is forecasting a convergence line right for this time.  I decide to head in that direction and observe the air as I go.  I can always make adjustments to my routing if it doesn’t work.

I am just west of Kennaday Peak, heading south-south east along the western edge of the Medicine Bow Mountains – a long mountain range that stretches all along the east side of the Saratoga Valley to my right and North Park (the flat basin area in the distance on the right). Medicine Bow Peak is the rocky mountain to the left of my nose – it is the tallest point in the Medicine Bow Range.

As I head south I can see to my delight that the small line of clouds is rapidly developing.  Just south of Medicine Bow Peak I stop to refuel my altitude tank under this pretty little cloud.

I am between Medicine Bow Peak and the private A-Bar-A Ranch Airfield – a long paved runway that is one of the best non-public landout fields in Colorado (you can see it at the right edge of the picture). Folklore has it that an airline executive landed a big passenger jet there for a private get-together and discovered after the fact that the runway wasn’t sufficiently long for the plane to take off again. It eventually had to be disassembled and transported elsewhere at a very high cost. I guess he should have arrived in a glider – those are much easier to trailer out 😉 (I can’t say for sure whether that story is true but if not it’s at least a good tale.)

As I leave the climb, the next clouds ahead on the right have developed nicely as well. So guess where I headed next 🙂

I am north of Kings Canyon – the mountain pass ahead on the right that connects the Laramie Valley in Wyoming to my left with Colorado’s North Park to my right. My heading is SSE. Boulder is directly ahead, about 140 km away.  There is a nice line of clouds in my direction so I should have no trouble making it back to Boulder.

After making it around the pretty cloud in the picture above I veer left to join the line of clouds that bends to the right towards Boulder.  This is a very common energy line, which is induced by convergence enhanced thermals on the lee side of the Continental Divide, can enable an easy and quick run along the mountains.

I am right above Kings Canyon turning east to join the line of clouds ahead, crossing the Laramie River Valley (in front below).

Unfortunately my timing is a bit off and the beautiful like of clouds in the picture above is in the process of falling apart as I am in the midst of a down-cycle.  Will thermals start up again?  It’s almost 4pm in late August and I am not sure.  Most recently we had several days ending shortly after 4pm already.

I am just below final glide to Boulder and decide to take a weakish climb above the Poudre Valley. There are better looking clouds ahead near Lookout Mountain but I need some additional altitude to get there safely without having to shift east (which could push me out of the energy line).

I am at 14,000 ft thermaling just north of the Poudre Canyon (below on the right).

I only took the weak climb as high as I needed to reach the good clouds near Lookout Mountain (north of Estes Park).

I now have enough altitude to finish my task at Bighorn Mountain and get back to Boulder.  But I wonder if I can extend my triangle by flying past Boulder to the south.  As I approach Estes Park the sky ahead becomes completely blue.

I still want to give it a go so I decide to tank all the way up under the last cloud and see if I can make it to the line of clouds that look to be 70 km further south over Thorodin Mountain.

I am now just to the west of Lookout Mountain over the Mummy Range. Estes Park is in front of the nose, 15 km ahead. The next clouds to the south seem to be near Thorodin Mountain, 70 km in the distance. Can I get there and connect with them? There’s only one way to find out.

As I head out towards Estes Park, the clouds continue to thin out further.  I dial my speed back to 80 kts and fly in flap setting 1 to conserve altitude.  Maybe it’ll work.  Maybe not.

Estes Park is in front and directly below. Longs Peak is the prominent peak to the right of the nose. Boulder is in easy glide range but my goal isn’t Boulder – now I want to connect to the clouds in the distance and see if I can continue the flight further south.

As I get closer I can see that my estimate was correct – the first clouds are indeed over Thorodin Mountain.  I managed my energy quite well and am still at 14,000 ft.  I am now quite confident that I can make it.  And the line looks very much like the typical convergence line.  If I can get up, I should be able to find lift along the west edge of the line of clouds ahead.

I just finished my declared task above Bighorn Mountain and continue to head towards Thorodin Mountain, which is indeed where the first clouds are. (The reason I estimated this correctly is not due to special capabilities 😉 but based on empirical evidence. Late in the day Thorodin Mountain is often one of the most reliable generators of thermals in the vicinity of Boulder.)

I am down to 13,000 feet as I reach Thorodin Mountain and the beautiful line of clouds that mark the convergence.  The line works even better than it looks.  One of the strongest climbs of the day (9+ kts average) takes me back to 17,000 ft and I can continue to surf the line.  As so often, it swerves a little to the SSW before veering left and stretching slightly to the SSE.  The trick is to follow this line just along the western edge of the clouds.

I am above Thorodin Mountain heading south. The line of clouds seems to stretch until about half-way between Boulder and Pikes Peak (west of Colorado Springs).

15 minutes after leaving Thorodin Mountain I am already past Mount Evans and heading towards Bailey.  And there are still several clouds ahead.  I am keenly aware at this point that the lift could end at any time.  But as long as I can maintain this altitude, I figure I can go to the last cloud in the distance and still keep Boulder in glide range.

I am getting exited about the size of my triangle.  It is getting close to 750 km (provided I can make it back) and with every kilometer that I move further south, it grows by almost two kilometers.  If I make it to the end of the clouds, it will most definitely be bigger than 800 km.

I have just passed Meridian Hill, south-east of Mount Evans. I am still heading south along the convergence. Bailey is in front on the right. I wonder if I can make it to the last cloud in the distance before having to turn.

I do indeed reach the end of the last cloud.  Only once the sky ahead is entirely blue do I decide to turn.  My flight computer shows that I still have Boulder in easy glide at MC 4 with an arrival altitude of approx. 2500 ft.

I turn near Buffalo Peak, on the east side of the Terryall Mountains. Pikes Peak is the mountain top on the horizon, 50 km away. My distance back to Boulder is 85 km.

I haven’t turned in quite some time and don’t really know what the sky behind looks like, but once I complete the turn, the convergence line is still well marked by the clouds. All I need to do is the same as before – stay on the western edge of the clouds and progress in lift 🙂

Just after my turn near Buffalo Peak, now heading north. The line of clouds that mark the convergence is still intact.

This is the first time in the flight that the number 1000 starts creeping in my head.  Could it be possible?

I have really only flown three major legs so far and I am about to start my fourth.  I have flown more than 700 km already and by the time I get back to Boulder I will reach a little over 800 km in total distance.  That means I would have to pass Boulder and fly an even greater distance away from Boulder to the north, i.e. in the opposite direction, and then still have enough altitude to make it back.

No.  I conclude it is not possible.

Then I check my watch.  It says the sun sets at 7:45 pm and it is only 5:10 pm.  I have 2 hour and 35 minutes to fly close to 300 km.  If I can maintain my average speed that would work quite easily.  But how could I maintain my average speed as the lift is dying?  And how could I even get past Boulder to the north?  It was already difficult to get to the south.

No, it is not possible.

But my longest flight so far is just over 900km.  Can I beat that?

Near Mount Evans the convergence line has moved further west.  If the clouds move, the best thing to do is move as well…  I’m still maintaining 17,000 ft!

I am passing Mount Evans on, heading north-west towards the cloud ahead with the distinct curtain marking the location of the convergence. Echo Lake sparkles below on the left. The twin 14ers of Torreys and Grays are center left.

But, just as before, the line of clouds ends.  Near Rollinsville I can top up my altitude to 16,500 ft under the last whisps.  Then the sky to the north ahead is completely blue.  However, on the horizon there are still some clouds in the distance.

These clouds are at least 70 km away.  It seems to be the same problem as before, just in reverse.  However, this time it is much harder.  Previously, as I was on my way to the south I could easily keep the airport in Boulder in glide.  Now this seems impossible.

But who knows.  Maybe I get lucky and find lift in the blue.  I resolve to move ahead and turn before Boulder drops out of glide range.

I am right above Rollinsville. Boulder is at the base of the hills on the right edge of the picture. Longs Peak is visible just to the left of the nose, 35 km ahead. From there it’s about the same distance to get to the first cloud on the horizon.

I don’t find a climb in the blue.  But I get extremely lucky otherwise.  There is just slightly lifting air everywhere above the hills.  My computer gives me a glide ratio of somewhere between 50:1 to 70:1.  That means I don’t lose all that much altitude as I move forward.

55 km into the 70 km glide, the view is as shown in the image below.  I am now down to 13,700 ft.  The clouds looked a lot better 5 minutes ago and seem to be falling apart.  I still have Boulder in glide but if I push to the clouds ahead I am likely to get out of glide range.

Should I try it?  What are the odds that it works?  Given the levity of the air that I’ve been feeling I feel optimistic and think it’s clearly better than 50%.  And I have a backup plan. If it doesn’t work I will have to divert to Christman. And on the way there I can still sample a few other clouds.

I am north of Estes Park and approaching Signal Mountain. The first cloud is a few kilometers beyond Signal Mountain. Will it still work?

I reach the clouds at 13,000 ft.  Yay, there is still lift!  It starts with a weak bubble at 1-2 kts but as I correct into the wind I find another bubble and soon I find myself in a solid 4-5 kts all the way to 17,000 ft!  Who would have thought?

Climbing again 🙂 just north of Signal Mountain (northwest of Lookout Mountain).

Back up near cloud base, looking north-west the sky looks still surprisingly promising.  And now that I have several thousand feet of altitude to work with I want to at least see if I can move ahead and maintain altitude.

North of Lookout Mountain heading northwest. To the left is Comanche Peak and two glittering reservoirs (Comanche Reservoir and Hourglass Reservoir). Cameron Peak is in the distance. The Poudre Canyon cuts through the landscape on the right.

As I get to the western edge of the clouds, the look of the street actually keeps improving.  This is truly as good as it gets at this time of the day!

Now the magic 1000 number is back in my head. How far do I have to go north before I can turn back and make it.  I look at my flight computer to work it out but it just went blank!  I have been flying for 7 1/2 hours and the battery is depleted.  It gave me some warnings a while ago but there is nothing I can do.

I try to remember what the last kilometer count was but I am not sure.  It must have been above 850 km, so it’s now probably a little more.  It’s maybe another 30 km to Red Feather Lakes and I know from there is around 90 km to Boulder.

I have to accept the fact that I can’t know for sure.  So I’ll just have to keep going and turn before I lose Boulder from glide.

Shoot! How will I know if Boulder is in glide when I don’t have a computer? And I don’t have a computer.  But I have thought about this often enough to know that as long as I am close to 17,000 ft I should be able to go close to the Wyoming border.

What’s the wind?  That could impact the final glide.  It kept changing.  South of My Evans it was out of the southwest.  But as I look the street ahead it looks more like it is out of the northwest.  But I’m not sure.  Ultimately I decide it is light enough that it won’t make a big difference.

Over the Poudre, heading north towards Wyoming. The cloud street looks amazing.

The street works its magic and I can maintain altitude in straight flight at just around 17,000 feet.  I take it all the way until the clouds thin out so much that I lose confidence and turn around.

I turn near Black Mountain, about halfway between Red Feather Lakes and the Wyoming Border.

After the turn, the street to the south looks just as good as it did going north.  It is now 6:30pm.  1:15 until sunset and about 100 km to go.  This really is my lucky day 🙂

Just after the turn near Black Mountain, looking south over the Poudre. 100km to go to Boulder.

As I race south, not much has changed except that the clouds end soon after I cross the Poudre Canyon.  But I am still at close to 17,000 feet which is far more altitude than I need to get to Boulder.

Just south of the Poudre Canyon heading south. The yaw string points at Longs Peak, 45 km away. 75 km to go to Boulder.

The sun is getting low as I pass Longs Peak.

Beautiful evening view of Long Peak and Mount Meeker in front of the Continental Divide, looking west into the setting sun.

As I fly further south I still wonder if I have have made enough distance to make it over the magic 1000 km mark.

One complication is the fact that the flight computer always calculates the distance flown based on the six longest legs up to the current point.  This means that the more legs I add, prior legs get straightened out.  This de facto reduces the amount of kilometers officially flown because a maximum of six straight legs is used to calculate the total distance.  Without a working computer there is no way to estimate my official distance flown with any kind of precision.

I still have plenty of altitude as I fly above the foothills west of Boulder and decide that I will extend this last leg further towards Golden, just to make sure that I don’t end up short.  I also still have more than 30 minutes left until sunset.

This decision to extend the flight further is a bit of a struggle against my personal comfort.  I have now been in the cockpit for 8 1/2 hours and I actually really want to be back on the ground and stretch my legs.  But I know I would regret it if I end up short.

I keep going until I am more than half way between Boulder and Golden and then my growing discomfort outweighs my diminishing concerns about potentially coming short.  I still have almost 11,000 ft (almost 5000 ft more than pattern altitude) when I make my final turn back towards Boulder.

Over the foothills northwest of Golden, just before making the final turn back to Boulder.

Even before I get back to the Flarirons, I dump the water, complete my landing check, and extend the gear.  I also crack open the spoilers to descend more quickly. Now I really want to get back on the ground.

Approaching Boulder from the south. The Flatirons are on the left.

But as I approach Boulder the beauty of a landing at sunset outweighs any discomfort once again and I really enjoy the views.  The air is completely still.  Except for one airplane practicing touch and gos there is no traffic or radio chatter and the world looks serenely peaceful below.

Boulder airport is just in front of the nose.

The sun sets behind the Continental Divide just as I make my final turn to glider runway 26.

Final turn to land on G26 at KBDU.

The airport is already completely deserted as I roll up towards my tie down spot and the sun disappears behind the horizon.

Rolling up to my tie down spot at Boulder Municipal Airport.

While I secure the glider I still wonder what goals I actually accomplished.  I only know for sure that I was in Nebraska and that I completed the 600 km declared FAI triangle.  But how big is the extended triangle and what is the overall length of the flight based on the six-leg rule?  I won’t know until I upload the file from my Flarm to my computer at home.

Once the flight is uploaded I am delighted to see that my total distance is 1034.6 kilometers.  I did in fact exceed the magic 1000 km mark!  I probably had enough altitude to add at least 30-40 km at the end and I would have been mad at myself if I had let the opportunity go by.

I also made it to Nebraska so I can add another state reached from Boulder to my list.  New Mexico, Utah, South Dakota, and Kansas are still outstanding.  (Texas, Arizona, and Idaho seem to be reachable too, but it would have to take highly unusual conditions to make it back from there on the same day.  I suspect I will never try…)

But to my dismay I realize that did not reach one goal that I had felt certain about – the >750km FAI triangle.  And I instantly know why:  I must not have properly closed the triangle after my leg to the south.  What a shame!  It would have been so easy! All I would have needed to do is fly a tiny bit further east when I passed Boulder on the way to Golden so that I would have crossed the initial glide path when I headed out towards my first turn point.  I was so focused on the 1000 km goal that I simply did not think about it.  A close look at the glide path shows that my miss is only just a tiny bit more than one single kilometer.  That’s a real shame because my triangle was just a few kilometers short of 800km.  Oh well, I have to keep that on my bucket list.

Flight trace on WeGlide:

Flight trace on OLC:

Lessons Learned

Here are some lessons learned in no particular order:

  • No Smoke – Better Soaring.  Skysight isn’t always overly optimistic.  The declared 600km goal seemed appropriate for and well aligned with the forecast but the day obviously had a lot more potential.  I believe that the absence of smoke made a huge difference.  Over the last month we have seen one over-optimistic forecast after another. Wildfire smoke caused days to start developing late and ending early.  Neither of these things was a problem on the day of this flight and as a result a really long task was possible.
  • There is Still Lift Late in the Evening.  Especially the convergence doesn’t end just because the thermals end.  It can last long into the evening.  I recently took a picture of the convergence line from our home well past sunset.  This is a real opportunity to extend flights late in the day.
  • Use the Full Day.  Up until now I have not really attempted to exploit the full potential of Boulder days until the end.  Most often I run out of my six legs early and then I lack the motivation to keep going when additional distance simply doesn’t count.  To make full use of a day it is best to use the first leg to fly as far away from Boulder as the day confidently allows.  This will leave the possibility of several legs at the end to extend the flight until the lift is really gone.
  • Be More Creative.  We often default to our north-south routes along the Front Range because the lift lines are reliable and we know them well.  There are probably more opportunities for interesting flights to other areas – including east – than we tend to pursue.
  • Close the Damn Triangle! This is not the first time I made this mistake. This time I missed it because as I was going back and forth past Boulder several times, always crossing prior flight paths, I did not remember that my first leg started at the base of the foothills and went eastwards.  (Often we tow deep into the mountains and then it can be hard to reach the tow release location when coming back low on final glide. This time I was too far west late and did not come back east enough when that would have been supremely easy to do.  Very unusual!  But key to remember!)
  • Food for long flights.  I didn’t bring anything to eat on this flight and I believe that this negatively impacted my motivation at the end.  8 1/2 hours is a long time in the cockpit and it would have been smarter to eat something.



A Challenging Finish to an Amazing Contest

Everyone can follow cloud streets that perfectly set up along the major mountain ranges. Today, Day 8 of the 18m Nationals, was not like that. We were given an Assigned Area Task (AAT) with turn areas at Huntington Muni (20km), Cricket Mountains (30km), and Table Mountain (30km), then back to Nephi.
The task required us to cross the mountains and valleys back and forth. There were a lot of decisions to make and a number of traps to avoid. Thermal conditions were very strong, and cloud bases were well above the legal maximum of 17,500 ft, but there was much more wind to contend with than in the past few days. We saw west-south westerly winds of close to 30 kts today in some parts of the task area.
The launch was once again a problem. This time it was the changing wind on the ground. I was among the early starters launching at 13:21 and had no problem climbing up to 16,000 feet right off tow. Then the winds picked up and the launch had to be paused. Then the wind direction changed and the remaining gliders had to be moved to the other end of the runway. This is lovingly called the elephant walk. I’m not sure whether the elephants are the pilots or the gliders but you should know that there is no walking involved because everyone can just tow their glider with their air conditioned vehicle.
But the delay was substantial nonetheless.
The start gate eventually opened at 15:33. I had already been in the air by more than two hours and had flown well over 200 km by that time. But now the race was on and the task distance was another 432-718 km, to be flown in no less than three hours.
Everyone quickly tried to climb up to the legal maximum before crossing the start gate. I went out as soon as I could, which was at 15:53. Kind of late to start a task with a nominal distance of 573 km. But there we were. The forecast predicted an abrupt end to soaring conditions around 7pm, so getting around the course as fast as possible was imperative.
I had a pretty good start with quick climbs on on back side of Mt Nebo and the edge of the Wasatch Plateau and quickly made it to the edge of the first turn area. I watched the gaggle continue to go deeper into the cylinder and decided to turn early. Time was of the essence. In the miraculous event of being undertime, I would have plenty of opportunity to go deeper in turn areas two or three.
I headed for a great looking cloud to get high enough to cross the plateau against a 20 kt headwind. Unfortunately, the cloud dissolved in front of my eyes and I had to look for a climb in the blue. As I got lower the lee-side effect of the plateau became more and more pronounced and I literally got washed out while I was looking for a climb in the blue. Fortunately I found an eight knotter in a wind protected bowl that took me back up to 16,000 feet – enough to safely cross the rising terrain of the plateau, even against the stiff head wind.
Once back on the west side, it was just a question of picking the right lines to get to the second turn area. There were valleys and ridges to cross into the wind and I wanted to stay high to be protected against further lee-side sink.
The clouds weren’t perfectly aligned with the course but 30-40 degree course deviations are an easy tradeoff if you can fly in lift. I tanked up on the luv side of the Pavani range in an 11 knot climb before heading out over the desert.
There were some good big clouds ahead and I have become much better at figuring out exactly where under these clouds the best lift is to be found.
Another 8 knot climb got me to the turn area. Tactically it would have been smarter to push all the way to the turn area and take the climb on the downwind leg but I was too chicken to risk getting low over the desert and took the climb while going into the wind.
I just nicked the turn area because my computer showed about 1 hour of over time and back-tracked to a nice looking cloud line that went to the west side of Mt Delano, the western edge of the last turn area.
It was already past 6pm and I noticed that the cloud cover was already diminishing suggesting a weakening of the soaring conditions. Late in the day it is often best to stay high, so I down-shifted and flew 90 kts instead of 105. Good thing because I did not find any good climb southwest of Mt Delano. I took a 4 knotter to get back to 16,000 and nicked the third turn area on the west side.
It was 18:30. I had another 150 km to go to the finish and was in need of at least two more climbs. I looked at the Flarm screen and noticed some gliders going up at 9 kts some 10 km ahead. Fortunately I got there early enough to join then and climbed right back to 17,300 feet.
I was still about 2500 feet low on Final Glide at MC 4 and the clouds ahead were quickly disappearing. But somewhere along the western edge of the Pavani Range ought to be another climb… I downshifted further to about 80-85 knots and tested the air along the upwind side of the mountains. Once or twice I stopped for a 2-3 kt climb that quickly disappeared.
A glider ahead of me got into sink and I diverted upwind and found much better air, allowing me to cruise at a glide ratio of 50:1. Gradually I made it above Final Glide Altitude and just felt my way towards the finish, increasing my speed as the glide ratio improved.
I crossed the finish line at 19:23 with a few hundred feet to spare for an average task speed of 139 kph, which put me in 18th place for the day, earning 887 contest points.
Overall, I moved up to 22nd place in the contest. This sounds far back but it’s still ahead of some excellent pilots, even some who have won National Championship titles before. This has been a very high-caliber contest with most if not all the very best US pilots attending and I am quite pleased with my overall performance.
Today’s winner was Gary Ittner (157 kph) ahead of David Coggins (156 kph) and Thomas Greenhill (153 kph). The new US National Champion in 18m is Sean Fidler (despite having a challenging day and flying the same speed as myself) with John Seaborn (the defending National Champion) in second, and Andy Blackburn in third. John Seaborn won the trophy for the fastest contest flight for yesterday’s performance at 190 kph!
These were amazing Championships with blazingly fast flight. On six of the eight contest days the winner’s speed exceeded 100 mph.
I have learned a lot and am pleased to have safely made it around all contest tasks without taking undue risks.
Flight Trace on WeGlide:
Contest Results:
The overall contest results for all eight contest days are here:

Insanely Fast: 105 miles per hour was good for what place?

Today, Day 7 of the 18m Nationals, was unbelievably fast. The task was once again an Assigned FAI Racing Task with with small 500m turn cylinders at Browns Peak, Bryce Woodlands, and Burnt Peak – then back to Nephi. Task distance 568 km.
At launch time, much of the start area was in shade and we were down to four tow planes, which led to a late start gate opening. I was worried that it would once again be a race against the end of the day and was determined to get going as soon as possible.
Fortunately the cloud cover moved east, and at 14:33 the gate opened, and everyone had to descend below 12,000 feet. Since we fly based on FAI rules we can then climb up to 17,500 feet before crossing the start line and going on course. Cloud bases were considerably higher than that so everyone had to watch their altimeters to avoid airspace penalties.
I found a good climb a bit removed from the mad hustle near the gate and was up above 17,000 within minutes and at 14:45 I was on my way.
The conditions out on course were exceptionally strong. We had good cumulus clouds throughout the entire task area, there was only minimal overdevelopment near the second turnpoint, winds were generally light, and thermal strength often exceeded 10 kts. Cloud depth was fairly modest which meant no risk of thunderstorms. Not even virga. Thermally induced convergence lines formed above the spine of practically all mountain ranges.
If you could design perfect weather conditions for soaring, you would be hard pressed to make any improvements over what we were handed today.
When conditions are this good, the focus must be on pushing forward at all times. Selecting the best lift lines along the clouds and stopping only for the strongest of thermals is what makes the winners stand out at the end of the day. Equipment is also important, especially glide performance at very high speeds. I found myself flying with A8, John Seaborn, on the first leg but my attempt to keep up with him quickly became futile when his dot disappeared in the distance on my Flarm screen not long after the first turnpoint.
There were some decisions to make as to which cloud street would provide the better line but the streets were all fairly well aligned with the task. It was a bit akin to deciding which interstate highway to pick when Google predicts similar arrival times for each option. I payed attention to the shapes of the clouds as well as to the shape of the terrain and the wind and the decisions came relatively easy. But the alternatives might have worked just as well in many cases.
I reached the southern-most turnpoint at 4:45PM with 250 km to go to the finish. After yesterday’s experience with the power switch (someone seemed to have turned off all lift at exactly 6pm) I was a bit worried about a repeat occurrence. I had had a good run south but I needed an equally good run north if I wanted to be on final glide by 6pm.
Fortunately we did not see much if any weakening of the conditions for the next hour. I got some good climbs south and north of the Tushar Mountains and then picked a line of still newly building clouds over the Pavani Range where I found a 9 knot climb at 5:50pm which took me to Final Glide altitude.
From there I flew all out at 130 kts toward the finish line. There was still strong lift even over the valley. Very different from yesterday. I attribute the difference mainly to the wind direction. Today we had south-westerly winds and temperatures on the ground were exceptionally hot at 103 degrees Fahrenheit. (Yesterday the northerly wind from Utah Lake brought early cooling and shut down all thermal activity.)
I finished with an average speed of 105 mph (170 kph). I was quite proud of myself until I found out that it was still only good for 24th place. John Seaborn won the day with a blistering performance at 118 mph (190 kph!). Almost the entire field flew faster than 100 mph today. There may have been equally fast soaring races before but I am not aware of any where such speeds have been achieved by so many. These were truly outstanding conditions.
Sean Fidler was 4th today and still leads overall with Andy Blackburn in 2nd (today 3rd), and John Seaborn in 3rd. Tomorrow is the last contest day and the top 5 pilots are within 200 points from one another.
My flight trace on WeGlide:
Contest Results:

Sudden Power Outage in Southern Utah

Yesterday late afternoon, on our rest day, someone must have flipped a switch because suddenly the power was out. Not just in Nephi but in the whole area. It stayed out all night and only came back after the sun had come out and was warming the ground.
Today, Day 6 of the 18m Nationals, was just like that. We were given a big assigned racing task to fly. More than 600 kilometers with small 500m FAI turn cylinders at Monroe Peak, Bryce Woodlands, Griffin Top, Browns Peak, and Big Baldy. Then back to Nephi.
Conditions were forecast to be strong. However, a northerly wind was blowing even in the morning bringing relatively cool air from Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake to the launch area. (I say relatively because it was still quite hot.) This depressed thermal activity at the start and it took quite a while to get the fleet launched. And even then, thermals near the start were weak and topped out at about 13,000 feet.
When the gate opened everyone had to descend to 12,000 feet and then almost the entire fleet was flying in a single gaggle near the start line trying to get up but it wasn’t really working. We were just going in circles without gaining much altitude. It was already very late for our big task – almost 3PM – and I got impatient and went out on course. Since I am not one of the fast guys no-one gets on my heels which is just fine with me…
Three weeks of contest flying haven’t made me a gaggle person and I enjoy making my own decisions even though I know it’s usually not the fastest way to get around the course.
I crossed the valley to the east to join the clouds over the San Pitch Mountains, found a good climb at the south end, and then back west to the Pavani Range. Some others had gone direct through the blue – I don’t know if that made them faster. There was great lift just east of the Fire TFR, and from there I crossed to Monroe Peak, which worked well as usual. From there I followed the western edge of the Sevier Plateau in good air to the southern-most turnpoint.
The next leg took us over the Bryce Canyon area where I blundered by taking a too far northerly line which led into a heavy sink street. I deviated back to the south, more than 90 degrees off course to get into better air at the southern tip of the Escalante Mountains. The sink street and deviation cost me at least 10-15 minutes, which I really came to regret later. The entire area is quite spectacular. I previously knew it only at level ground from hiking and trail running trips to the National Parks at Bryce Canyon and Grand Staircase Escalante.
The western drop off of the Escalante Mountains produced an extremely powerful lift line and soon I was running again at 120 kts to the north. The Griffin Top turnpoint was perfectly aligned with the lift line and no stopping was needed anywhere. There was a blue hole to cross west of Wayne Wonderland but the convergence line extended through the blue, marked by some whispies along the way. Near Whiskey Knoll I got onto the Wasatch Plateau and the usual convergence on the plateau worked very well. Some pilots flew a bit further east and I was able to pass them along the western edge of the clouds. The convergence training in Boulder served me well locating the line of lift along the clouds.
Near Knob Mountain the convergence line curved strongly to the east and I had to get to Browns Peak, on the northwest side of the plateau. I decided to leave the wonderful line of clouds and fly the remaining 50km to the turnpoint in the blue along the western edge of the plateau. The air was reasonably good such that I achieved about a 50:1 glide ratio at about 80 kts. But as soon as I had left the clouds the convection shut down and thermal activity became minimal.
I turned Browns Peak about 2000 feet below final glide with another 100km to go to the finish. My flight computer showed some predicted convergence zones over the high terrain southwest of Mount Nebo and along the western edge of the San Pitch Mountains. I decided to detour to their western side and I was quite confident that I would be able to pick up the remaining 2000 feet along the way.
However, just like the day before, it was late afternoon and someone must have switched off the power. I followed the best looking terrain that had been in the sun all day long but there was simply no climb to be found. I worked my way south along the ridges towards the last turnpoint at Mount Baldy. Eyeballing it I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get there above the peak. It would be close.
I carefully examined the slope of the canyons to the west to ensure that I had a safe escape route into the valley and decided it was ok to give it a try. Fortunately the 500m turn radius was big enough to allow me to turn before the actual mountain for I did not have enough altitude to fly over the top.
Now back to Nephi. I was now 200 feet below final glide at MC0 and needed to find just one climb to make it back above minimum finish altitude.
The closer I got to Nephi the stronger the headwind became and the gap gradually became bigger. The north facing ridge lines worked just a little bit and I followed them religiously wherever I could to eke out a few feet of altitude gain. There was absolutely nothing to circle in and I don’t think that ridge soaring figure eights would have worked either. The little bit of lift was too close to the rocks and just too weak.
I knew there were some good hay fields south of the airport in case I did not make it back home so I kept going. 10km out it was evident that I would make the airport but that there was no way to finish above the 6500 ft minimum arrival altitude.
I monitored the radio for quite some time and fortunately no-one else was coming back at the same time. I eventually crossed the finish line at 5600 feet and decided to land straight in from the south on Runway 35. The landing was nice and smooth but I was clearly too low for a valid finish.
The 10-15 minutes that I wasted near Bryce Canyon airport made all the difference because the lift had ended just as abruptly as the power outage arrived the day before.
I’m a bit puzzled why the lift can end so abruptly. In Boulder it is almost always possible to find lift late in the day and I also had some great evening runs in lift along the San Pitch Mountains where the air was just dead today. I suspect it may have to do with the northerly wind that also messed up our start. Once the sun starts to go down, the north wind strengthens and brings more and more cool air into the valley. This then results in a fairly abrupt end of thermal activity. The problem on final glide from the south is compounded by the fact that the strengthening headwind is not anticipated by the flight computer which therefore delivers overly optimistic readings. That’s worth considering for the remaining two days.
What could I have done differently? Well, those who stuck together as a group had a better chance to find the last climb of the day in the blue. They may also have had a better chance of avoiding the sink street that cost me the crucial 10-15 minutes at the end. Maybe I need to learn to love gaggle flying and become a part of the herd… I don’t know. Something to contemplate.
Andy Blackburn won the day today ahead of Rick Indrebo and John Seaborn. Sean Fidler leads overall ahead of Rick Indrebo, Andy Blackburn, Jim Lee, and John Seaborn. The top 5 are less than 200 points apart.
Flight Trace on WeGlide:
Contest Results:

Every Conceivable Excitement

Day 5 at the 18m Nationals in Nephi had it all: 15 kt lift and 15 kt sink. Long glides across big blue holes over unlandable terrain with totally still air. We had heat, storms, rain, snow, and graupel showers. We were fighting against being pulled up into the clouds and minutes later we were fighting to stay airborne. We worked with dust devils and massive gust fronts. We were flying in huge gaggles and alone in the wilderness. We also had to avoid a wildfire TFR and a Restricted Area that occupied about a third of the second turn cylinder. The flight was spectacular and exhausting. Calling the day dynamic would be a total understatement. We had two landouts but everyone is safe and accounted for.
Our task was an Assigned Area Task (AAT) with turn areas at Whiskey Knoll (40km radius), Drum Mountains (20 km), and GB Intersection (40 km). Nominal distance was 540 km. Minimum task time was 3:30.
Getting up from tow was a challenge and some pilots had to come back for a relight. I was second on the grid and stayed in my weak climb off tow and saw its strength gradually improve until I was up at cloud base. Getting the entire fleet up took a long time and the start gate opening time had to be pushed back several times.
The weather forecast was for overdevelopment in several parts of the task area and when the gate opened there was already ample evidence of that to the south.
When the gate eventually opened everyone was keen to get going. I left as part of a large group that crossed the valley immediately after crossing the start line to get under a dark cloud line line that curved from the San Pitch Mountains into the first turn cylinder. The bulk when straight for the darkest clouds but by the looks of the line I was pretty sure that the strongest part would be on the western edge. I resisted the temptation to follow the crowd and was well rewarded with 5-10 kt climb rates in straight flight. By the time we reached the southern tip of the San Pitch Mountains I was up at 17,000 feet and looked down on a conga line of gliders a few miles further east and many thousand feet below. Now that felt good!
I upped my speed to 110 kts and kept racing along the convergence towards a dark wall that had built up further south: a massive, impenetrable storm front was moving in opposite direction, directly towards us. A look at the map suggested that the front was just about at the northern edge of the turn cylinder. It was a race against time and I hoped that I would get there before I would get into rain.
There was a big drop in cloud bases as I got near the front and I had to take out the spoilers to destroy several thousand feet of altitude to stay well below the clouds. But I figured whoever came after me would have an even harder time because the front was moving fast.
I got into the cylinder and turned just before the rain. A look at my Flarm screen showed that I was now well below the conga line that was coming towards me. The vertical separation eliminated any safety concerns and I rushed back towards the lift line that had carried me south. Once the bulk of gliders had passed I took a 10 kt climb to regain the altitude I had destroyed with the air brakes and I was back up and running, turning northwest towards the Drum Mountains.
The last clouds were just west of the Canyon Mountains, then came a gaping blue hole that stretched about 60 kilometers all the way to the Drum Mountains. I downshifted info flap position 1 and trimmed my Ventus to 80 kts to fly across the desert. The contrast was stark: minutes ago I was racing all out along a strong lift line, now I had to cross a big area of completely still air.
On the other side of the gap, a big black cloud was building over the Drum Mountains. It promised good lift but only if I got there before it would also overdevelop. I was wondering if I should speed up to get there faster but that would lower my arrival altitude and diminish my safety margin in case I had to turn back towards the airport of Delta. I decided the time gain from flying 90 kts instead of 80 wasn’t worth it and I stayed with the plan that would preserve altitude. Altitude always provides the most options and that’s what I like to have.
I reached the Drum Mountains and was surprised not to immediately find the strong lift that I had anticipated. I assumed it was probably on the west side, considering the light westerly wind and hoped that I would get there before the edge of the Restricted Airspace. Gosh, everything on this task is a close call! Fortunately the western edge of the clouds was about 2 miles away from the forbidden area and even better: there was the lift I had hoped for. I moved south along the edge of the clouds when I spotted a glider going up rapidly on the southern side of the cloud. I joined a 7-8 kt climb that got me back up to cloud base.
Off towards the third turn area further south! The sky ahead looked very complicated. To the left was a rapidly overdeveloping shelf that was off from the course line to the east. To my right was a dark line of clouds with heavy rain showers. Dust from a massive gust front on the ground marked the outflow from that storm. Don’t cross that gust front!
The Cricket Mountains directly to the south had a little bit of sun on them. The clouds overhead were dissipating, probably remnants of earlier overdevelopment in this area. I was hoping that the sun might start a new cycle of thermal development along the mountains and picked a line directly along the spine that would lead to the eastern edge of the third turn area.
I tuned my flight computer to Delta Muni, directly behind me, as this is the only safe place to land in this area. My flight computer showed that I was 4000 feet above arrival altitude at Delta at MC4. Would I be able to get into the turn cylinder before that number was down to 0?
There was only one way to find out. Once again I flew very conservatively at 80 kts to conserve altitude. There were some little bumps along the ridge that stretched my glide a bit, but I found absolutely nothing that I could have circled in.
When I got to the edge of the turn cylinder my arrival altitude at Delta had shrunk to 200 ft. Nick and turn! As soon as I heard the beep that I made it to the edge I changed course and headed back up to the north.
What difference 15 minutes can make! The cloud shelf to the east that I had hoped to fly along was now gone except that virga and rain was still falling in places. A line of dark clouds was now further north but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to reach it in time before it would blow up as well.
At least I was gaining on my arrival altitude at Delta so I had a safe place to go to if needed.
I made it around a rain shaft and saw a glider circling further east along a dark shelf, climbing at 6 kt,  7 km away. I had to cross some sink to get there and when I arrived 2000 ft below the lift was gone. But the shelf looked good and there had to be lift somewhere. Another gust front on the ground marked the way. I flew to the upwind side of the front and as expected the air was shooting up! 14 kt of lift in straight flight!
Soon I was up at 14,000 feet and had Nephi in glide. At the same time rain started to fall so I had to get out of there. I pushed northeast towards the Canyon Mountains which were in the sun with beautiful clouds on top. It looked like I could get there about 2000-3000 feet above, connect with the clouds and have an easy glide home.
Not so fast. As soon as this plan had formed in my mind I hit 12 kt of sustained sink and my altitude washed away in no time. What goes up must come down… When I reached the Canyon Mountains I was below the level of the highest peaks and in desperate need of a climb. Otherwise I would be landing out. Fortunately I had driven through this area two years ago and I knew that some of the fields below were landable. (Bruno Vassel ended up landing in one of these fields minutes later.)
But I wasn’t willing to give up so easily. There had to be some lift over the rocks. The air was quite turbulent but I found a 3 knot climb that improved with altitude. I was still far below minimum time so the strength of the lift was of no importance. As long as the air went up towards Final Glide I was willing to take it.
As I climbed I observed s new gust front rushing north from Gregs Beach towards Nephi. This could mean strong and gusty winds on the ground and I was eager to out-speed the gust front on the way home. When I was high enough to get even through heavy sink I was on my way and rushed back to the finish.
The wind on the ground was about 20 kts but blowing directly down the runway and the landing was easy and uneventful. I finished the task with more than 30 minutes undertime, which took my nominal task speed of 139 kph down to 117 kph.
It turns out that most of the fleet had to finish early today. In hindsight, one possibility would have been to continue further south in the last turn cylinder and focus my landing option on Milford instead of Delta. But I don’t know if this would have worked and how I would have come back from there. I’m happy with my decisions as they have kept me in safe gliding distance of good airports at all times.
Today’s winner was Joe Bostik (who like me also flies a Ventus 2), only 1 point ahead of Jim Lee (JS1) with Robin Clark (ASG 29) in third. Sean Fidler now leads overall ahead of Rick Indrebo and Jim Lee. John Seaborn did not have a good day and dropped down to 6th, but less than 200 points behind Sean.
My flight was good for 19th place today with 872 points which moved me up to 22nd or 23rd overall. I’m quite happy with this result, especially considering the caliber of pilots at this contest.
Contest Results:

The Race Against The End of the Day

Day 4 at the 18m Nationals in Nephi and Region 9 Sports Class in Nephi. The 18m pilots are not even half-way into the contest and it feels like we’ve already been here a long time.
Maybe that’s because today involved a lot of waiting – either on the ground or in the air. The Sports Class went up first and was sent on their merry way. They had a big 3 hour task to complete.
The plan for 18m was a 524 km Assigned Racing Task with fixed turnpoints at Table Mountain, Star Point, and Indian Ranch. After two thirds of the fleet was launched on Runway 17 the wind switched from south to north and that meant that those left on the ground had to move their gliders to the other end of the runway. Launching fully ballasted gliders with a tail wind at a mountain airport in the summer with density altitudes of 8000 feet or more is definitely not a good idea.
I was among those already up and flying. I escaped the gaggling crowds by taking a convergence line to the northeast where I could float along on my own. I knew the wait would be substantial and my plan was to conserve mental energy.
Eventually everyone was in the air but by then it was past 3pm and it was evident that starting out on a more than 500km task was likely to get pilots in trouble. Table Mountain was switched out for Monroe Peak, which shortened the task to about 440km. Still an ambitious plan, especially given that the cumulus clouds were projected to dissipate and give way to blue skies by about 5 to 5:30pm. Pilots had to confirm their understanding of the new task in a roll call and reprogram their flight computers in the air. I parked myself in a weak lonesome thermal so I could do the data entry without attracting the crowds.
The gate eventually opened at 15:27 and by 15:32 I had climbed back from our tag altitude of 12,000 to 17,000 feet in a 12 knot boomer and was out on course ahead of anybody else. I had had ample time to check the conditions out on course and knew where to fly. The first leg was blazing fast. I cruised at 100 kts and only stopped twice to climb back towards the clouds, being very careful to stay below 17,500 feet to avoid airspace penalties. The lift can get so strong in the west that keeping the glider down can be a real challenge. I even briefly opened my airbrakes as I was cruising through exceptionally strong lift to avoid getting sucked up to forbidden heights.
Getting in and out of turnpoint one was easy in soaring terms but a big challenge with respect to traffic. The best lift line in and out was the same and since I had started out ahead I had to avoid a lot of conflicting traffic. I deliberately flew a line that was far from ideal to stay clear of the gliders that were streaming towards Monroe Peak.
Leg two started out quite well also. My average task speed up to this point was 162 kph and the day was at its peak. Looking ahead I had to make a choice between two possible lines to TP 2. One was on the western edge of the Wasatch Plateau, the other was to the east of the plateau over the eastern desert. For a while I thought I would take the easterly line because it seemed much better defined and Skysight had predicted strong convergence east of the plateau.
However, it soon became evident that the easterly line was too far east. When a few additional clouds popped on the western edge of the plateau I decided to stay there. This had the added advantage of easy access to safe landing areas in the Manti-Ephraim valley whereas the eastern side of the plateau is a lot less hospitable.
Unfortunately the climbs along the western edge of the plateau were nowhere near as good as those along the first leg and there was also considerable sink in-between which quickly destroyed any hard-earned gains. I struggled to find a good line and my average task speed dropped below 150kph. Except for the western edge, the plateau itself was largely blue and I had to get high to safely cross. A mediocre climb near Mt Baldy got me back up to 17,000 feet and that’s where I started the transition towards Star Point.
The plateau is super scenic but from a soaring standpoint it was somewhat disappointing. As I got near Start Point I spotted a big gaggle and rushed towards it only to find that the lift averaged only 1-2 kts. Nothing kills your task speed faster than remaining stationary in a weak climb. I left to round the turnpoint and kept looking for better air. The wind was from the west and I wanted to have more altitude for the transition into the wind.
I found a line of good air that allowed me to progress westwards without dropping out of the sky. Back on the west side of the plateau the clouds were disappearing fast. I followed the ridge lines and tested the bowls but could only find 2-3 kt climbs at first. Things got a bit better as I moved further south where I found a good climb east of Manti-Ephraim. I tanked up for the next transition via the southern tip of the San Pitch Mountains which have worked for me before late in the afternoon.
Today there was not much there there, and I moved on towards the Pavani Range. Fortunately I was high enough to cross the ridges and fly on the sun-facing west side towards the last turnpoint. I was several thousand feet short of final glide and had to find another climb. I joined another glider but the lift died after the first turn. Onwards. I was getting low and the lift was getting weak so I began to dump water ballast.
Two minutes later I hooked a 6-7 kt climb south of Scipio. I quickly closed the water dump valves again and was able to climb a few thousand feet to get to final glide altitude at MC4.
I noticed other gliders taking a direct line towards Nephi but felt more comfortable taking a small detour via the foothills of the San Pitch Mountains that had been baking in the afternoon sun. I have had good success in the past stretching my final glide along the rocks.
The ridges weren’t as strong as hoped but they did enough to get me home. Which means I did win the race against the end of the day…
Once again I am astonished at the winners’ speeds of more than 100 mph (162 kph). Sean Fidler won the day ahead of John Seaborn. That is also the current standing overall. My speed of 130 kph (again!) put me in 24th place for the day and 25th overall. The stragglers among us have a private competition going where there are some exclusive prizes to win such as Strudel and Krautfleckerl. Feel free to ask me about that…
Contest Results:
The Region 9 Sports Class ended today. Congratulations to all participants and in particular to the winners.

115+ Mile Final Glide at 214 kph!

Day 3 at the 18m Nationals in Nephi. The weather forecast promised strong lift, increasing thermal heights, especially to the south, light winds, and nice cumulus clouds throughout the entire task area. The only question mark was the possibility of overdevelopment. But no thunderstorms.
The task committee gave us a lot to work with by declaring an AAT with 3 hour minimum time and two big turn areas at Delano Peak in the Tushar Mountains and Lamersdorf Peak in the Wah Wah Range.
The Region 9 Sports Class launched first today so the tow planes would have less fuel on board for towing the heavy 18m ships which are all laden to the legal brim with water ballast. If conditions are this good, you want your glider to be as heavy as allowed so it will glide further at high speeds.
When our turn came the day was fully developed and I caught a 9 kt climb off tow that took me all the way to cloud base in no time. Then I went to explore the clouds to find out if there was a pattern for lift and sink distribution below our puffy friends. As expected, the best lift tended to be on the south-west side, which was upwind and facing the sun.
I was itching to get going and when the gate opened I was among the first to cross the start line. I figured the fast guys would catch up to me sooner or later and I would get plenty of company soon enough. The first clouds were lined up well and I knew where I wanted to go and was able to enjoy my glide out in solitude.
The start went quite well but after maybe 30-40 km the clouds were not working nearly as well as they had before. I noticed a convergence line on the east side of the Canyon Mountains that was to the west of the clouds and that helped me along until I found a good climb south of Williams Peak.
From there I tried to stay high as I saw some of the Sport Class gliders struggling low along the Pavani Range. A small wildfire had just started above one of the ridges north of the Kanosh Canyon and that was one more reason to stay very high in case a TFR would be declared (this did in fact happen later in the afternoon). Far below were a few paragliders directly above the fire getting smoked.
I tried to leave the area as quickly as possible and flew to the east of the Tushar Mountains to get a bit deeper into the first turn area. These mountains are absolutely spectacular. Several years ago I participated in a trail marathon that went all the way to the top of Mt. Delano – one of my most demanding foot races. I always marvel how easy it is to climb these mountains in a glider by comparison.
This was also the section were I was being passed by the fast guys who had started later than me. They kindly marked two good thermals for me that took me all the way to 17,000 feet. Thank you! The fastest pilots kept going further south and I decided once again to fly my own race and took a promising line to the west towards the second turn area. My flight computer predicted 30 minutes overtime even if I would only scratch the second turn area so I figured I had gone far enough to the south anyway.
I got some great views crossing the Tushars from east to west, heading past Beaver towards Lamersdorf Peak. I found a good climb over the Mineral Mountains just west of Beaver and the clouds continued after a modest blue hole to the west.
I got into the second turn area and my flight computer still showed 28 minutes of overtime. A great looking line of clouds curved directly into the direction to the finish. The computer said I would need to fly 202 kph average for the rest of the task – the remaining 188 kilometers or 115+ miles – to arrive on time.
That speed seemed inconceivable to me so I turned north towards the finish.
At MC4 I was about 6000 feet below final glide path but the line of clouds ahead looked excellent and I was sure to find some good climbs along the way.
Well, the clouds were even better than expected. I remembered that the line was the result of two convergent winds: a southerly wind to my right, and a more westerly wind to my left. These two wind streams were coming together, pushing the air up along the way. The result was a lift band that stretched all the way from the second turn area to the finish more than a hundred miles to the north.
All I had to do was stay relatively high along the west side of the clouds and the convergence propelled me forward while the tail wind pushed me along. It was a spectacular part of the flight because it was so easy. I just continued straight, slowing down in the strongest parts of the lift and flying faster in the weaker parts.
I continuously gained on the final glide path and the predicted overtime got shorted and shorter. My ground speed started to exceed 200 kph and soon I started to wonder if it was in fact possible that I might come back below minimum time if the line were to continue.
Well, continue it did. By the time I was abeam Filmore my flight computer showed that I had reached final glide altitude at MC4 and when I reached the Canyon Mountain it was obvious that I would arrive too early and too high. I put the Ventus in speed flaps and pushed the trim all the way forward to run 130 kts and I just kept the nose pointed at the finish.
I eventually reached the finish cylinder about 800 feet high and arrived with almost 5 minutes below minimum time. That’s unfortunate because it means my average speed for the flight was only 142kph instead of the actual 146 kph. (This is because the flown distance is divided by the minimum time and not the actual time if one finishes early.) (My average speed for the entire 188km final glide was 214 kph.)
But it was great fun nonetheless. For the future, I just have to take the possibility into account that a great looking line might work even better and allow for an even greater time cushion. It would not have been hard to go a little deeper into either of the two turn cylinders.
Today’s winner was Rick Indrebo with a speed of 163 kph, closely followed by Sean Fidler and Bif Huss. Rick and Sean also took the lead overall closely followed by John Seaborn who is in third overall.
My daily score today was 872 points, a good improvement over the first two contest days.
Flight Trace on WeGlide:
Race Results on SSA Website:

About Rainshafts and Blue Holes

Day 2 was a day of contrasts at the 18m Nationals and Region 9 Sports Class Contest. The 18m class was sent off on a three hour minimum Assigned Area Task (AAT) with three 30 kilometer turn cylinders at Crispy, Drum Mountains, and White Pine Peak.
Skysight predicted very strong conditions along the airmass boundary separating the western desert from the ridge lines of the Rocky Mountains. The task looked like a triangle but one could almost turn it into an out and back race to take full advantage of the lift line along the Pavani Range. To do that one would have to go deep into the first turn cylinder near Mt Delano in the Tushar Mountains, then backtrack north, head west and nick the second turn area, only to return to the mountains and go deep again in the third turn cylinder before heading back north again towards Nephi along the same line.
This would minimize the time in the blue and maximize the time spent flying straight under the cloud shelf marking the convergence.
I suspect that many pilots had similar ideas for the day and one of my pre-take off concerns was the back and forth traffic along the same cloud street. The sky is a big place but all soaring pilots look for the best lines of lift as marked by the clouds and that can lead to high-speed head-on traffic along the same routes and at similar altitudes.
John Seaborn, the defending 18m Champion and yesterday’s winner confirmed my thoughts but added that the best laid plans usually go the way of the waste bin as soon as one gets a look at the sky in flight. How right he would be.
After some start delay with the usual intense pre-start gaggles the first leg looked just as promised. But this only held until Filmore, about two thirds towards TP1. The further south we went the darker the skies became and my plan to get almost to the Tushars went by the wayside as soon as a pilot ahead reported lightning strikes near Mt. Delano. Storm clouds can produce amazing lift but they are not my cup of tea. I watched the leaders head into the dark overcast, flying between rain shafts and decided that this wasn’t for me.  I only nicked the turn cylinder and instantly new what this meant: I had to alter my strategy and go much deeper into the western desert than I had intended – otherwise I would finish well below under minimum time.
Fortunately there were some good clouds along the first part of that third leg until the Big Blue Hole appeared that Skysight had forecast. The next clouds were perhaps 40-50 kilometers away, over a line of hills in the distance. I tanked up under the last cloud and then went out into the desert, dialing my speed back to 80 kts. By now the leaders who had flown deep into TP1 caught up to me and so I had some company. At this point this was quite welcome for I knew the pilots in front would mark any good lift ahead.
However, the air across much of the blue hole turned out to be completely still. I could have let go of all controls and the glider would have flown on its own. There was even time for contemplation. Flying a glider usually involves rapid decision making, with decisions often taken every few seconds. But now I flew over flat, largely featureless desert. I had pointed the glider to the next clouds and all I could watch was the variometer for any indication of lift or sink to make small adjustments to my glide path. For some time there was neither. My altitude slowly trickled away but the task setters had done us a huge favor by setting a course that would allow us to keep Delta Muni in glide.
By the time I reached the next clouds I had only used up a bit more than 3000 feet of altitude. It’s amazing how efficient our machines are in the air. Fortunately the clouds on the other side worked reasonably well. In hind-sight I was a bit too conservative accepting mediocre lift at first before I gained enough confidence that the sky ahead was indeed working. I passed the center of the Drum Mountain turn area and carefully paid attention to the restricted airspace, which is used by the air force for fighter training. I got to know a former F16 pilot who had been stationed in Utah – you definitely want to stay well clear of that area even when there are no contest points on the line!
Once my flight computer showed a good amount of overtime even when I would only nick the last turn area, I turned and largely back-tracked the path I had just taken, heading back south-east. More clouds had developed and the blue hole had shrunk considerably, making the transition a lot easier.
Going deep into the second cylinder turned out to be a good decision because heavy rain started to fall in the third cylinder just as I go there. I had to cross a virga line to get into the turn area but then I found strong lift just to the west of a rain shaft that I flew around once I decided that it was time to turn back to Nephi. You could see the gust front from the rain driving up dust on the ground – often a great indication of where to find lift.
A line of clouds across the Canyon Mountains marked a good line towards Nephi and I went on final glide even though my flight computer predicted that I would be 500 ft too low at MC4. The lift over-delivered and I kept increasing my speed to 125 kts and still arrived almost 1000 ft too high.
That turned out to be a blessing because dozens of gliders arrived within minutes of one another. It was hard to find two to three seconds of free radio time to announce my arrival among all the finish announcements and sorting out of the landing sequence. Amazing how this works without air traffic control. However, instead of diving right into the traffic jam I climbed back up to cooler temperatures and waited until the commotion on the ground had settled down.
Oh, results. I guess I’m in a competition and these things should be reported. My average speed for the day was 130 kph just like on Day 1. Not fast but a modest improvement in relative terms because today’s winner, Robin Clark, averaged 161 kph, which means I scored just a little over 800 points. Not great but not terrible either. I have realistic expectations and am here to learn and not to win.

Alone in the Desert or: 1st Contest Day of the 18m Nationals in Nephi

The weather forecast projected early over-development and thunderstorms over the Wasatch Plateau but good soaring conditions over the western desert. And a big storm cell was projected over Mt. Nebo for mid afternoon. The task committee did a good job trying to keep us out of bad weather and declared an Assigned Area Task with two big 30km turn areas at Kanosh Canyon and Pine Peak, followed by two smaller 10km ones at Drum Mountains and Delta Muni. Then back to Nephi. 2:30 hours minimum time. Task distance anywhere from 267 km to 492 km. Yes, kilometers. They seem to be an alien measuring concept for some but I grew up in Europe and find them quite intuitive.
After a somewhat challenging climb-out I hung out at cloud base until task opening time, then everyone was forced to descend to 12,000 feet before climbing back up as high as possible before crossing the start line. This rule tries to make the start fair to those who are late on the grid but it creates a lot of traffic at just below 12,000 feet right before gate opening time.
I escaped the traffic by finding my own clouds further afield but this turned out to be a mistake. I hopped from cloud to cloud not finding anything useful to climb in until most of the field had already gone out on task. I finally was able to cross the start line at 14:45, dead-last and a whopping 25 minutes after the leading (and winning) pack. I was at first angry at myself for taking so long to climb but then I told myself that I just had to fly my own race without any distractions. I felt much better once I put a positive spin on my situation. Mind games. Amazing how this works.
The first leg went blazing fast under a cloud shelf that separated the dryer desert air from the thunderstorm-prone airmass over the mountains. For quite some time my task speed indicator was above 170 kph and my mood was up. Maybe starting late was an advantage.
But when I got to the first turn area, a rain cell just south of Filmore blocked further progress and I had to turn west earlier than I wanted. The cloud line was suboptimal too as it forced me into a detour to the north to stay below the clouds and then cross a big blue hole to get into the second turn area.
Up until that point I had kept in close contact with the clouds but now that I had dropped below 13,000 ft the clouds were no longer working. That’s when I remembered my struggles in the start area. Today was a “get high, stay high” kind of day. I went from “race mode” to “stay up mode” and began to search for lift among all the usual suspects. The ground was still far below but it looked positively alien. I suspect all the Mars movies are made in Utah.  I scanned the ground for roads or any sign of civilization but none was in sight. Just sand and rocks as far as the eye could see.
Well, I wasn’t very selective with my next thermal. This is no place to get low and I was all alone in the desert with all the other gliders well ahead of me. I centered the next 3kt climb and slowly worked my way back up to cloud base. Once there, the air was buoyant again and things were easy until the next blue hole when they were not.
Turnpoint three brought me into the proximity of the Restricted Area and of course the best looking cloud was over forbidden terrain. Oh well. I took another detour line towards Delta and decided to approach it from the very south as I still had some time to kill so I would not finish under minimum time.
Once I got close to Delta a great looking cloud was right on course towards Nephi but I fell victim to the recency bias and took the next 4kt climb to climb to Final Glide Altitude instead of switching gears back into race mode.
The cloud past Delta delivered the strongest climb of the day, catapulting me up to 2500 feet above Final Glide altitude and from there it was nose down and 125 kts to the finish line, still arriving high.
I thought my task speed of 130kph was respectable but that only lasted until I got a glimpse at the score sheet. John Seaborn finished first with 173 kph, closely followed by four other pilots who also beat the 170 kph mark. Racing against the best in the Nation is a humbling experience as I knew it would be. But it’s a great way to learn and I know I can do at least a little bit better.
I should also mention that the landing was rather sporty with significant cross winds gusting to above 20 kts. Half an hour later it was blowing even harder. I hope everyone had safe landings without any damage.
Contest Results:

Declared Tasks and Badges – From Beginner to Diamond

At my club, the Soaring Society of Boulder, we are trying to help freshly minted glider pilots who are eager to develop their skills but are unsure how to go about it.  Stats show that a large percentage of recently-trained pilots exit our sport long before they have experienced what’s possible.  However, those who reach for the challenge, often find a passion that lasts a lifetime.

I believe that one key tool that can help a new pilot’s development is a set of standardized soaring tasks.  In the case of Boulder, we carefully designed them for our demanding mountain soaring environment. It’s paramount that pilots stay safe as they progress. This article introduces these tasks – from Beginner to Diamond.

You can find much more detailed information about these tasks here.

From Beginner to Silver

The first four tasks are supported by Proving Grounds: from Beginner to Silver.


Our first task is called “Boulder Dash.”  It is a ~45 km flight around the city of Boulder and takes the pilot never further than 12km (7.5 miles) away from the airport.  It is suitable for any licensed pilot who is able to stay airborne on a good soaring day.  In addition,  the pilot must have the mental bandwidth to maintain situational awareness.  E.g., they must pay close attention at all times to other traffic and airspace constraints.

The tasks build on one another and are getting progressively harder.  “Hill Rambler” introduces pilots to mountain flying over the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  It also doubles the distance away from the airfield.  However, pilots can easily keep the takeoff airport within safe glide at all times.

Niwot’s Challenge” takes pilots close to the Continental Divide, the spine of the Rocky Mountains.  Pilots learn to carefully manage their altitude to ensure the safety of the flight at all times. The second turn point doubles again the distance away from Boulder. Pilots must consider other landing options should it become necessary.

Lookout for Silver” builds on everything pilots have learned in the prior three tasks.  Pilots can earn Silver Distance and Silver Altitude – two of the three components of the Silver Badge.  Total task distance is 170 km – a great preparation for earning their other badges.

Proving Grounds Support

These first four tasks will be supported by Proving Grounds.  Proving Grounds is a platform developed by a group of Canadian soaring pilots.  It is super easy to use and provides a low maintenance approach to member development. The Soaring Society of America supports its adoption in the US.  This may be a great opportunity for your club!

Pilots who complete any one of these four tasks can simply email the .igc trace to a “bot” which automatically scores their flight.  Pilots can then post their achievements on a stainless steel task board.  The board will be mounted at the airfield and lists the flights ranked by average speed achieved (adjusted for glider handicap).  The bot provides all the relevant information.

In addition to support by Proving Grounds, our club will provide individual task sheets.  These contain task-specific safety tips (e.g. suggested minimum altitudes, air traffic pointers, potential terrain traps) as well as tactical advice regarding weather, soaring conditions, and how to fly each task.  Pilots are also encouraged to become proficient in the use of a flight recorder – a key requirement for earning their badges.

Our support program does not end there.  The next step is for pilots to work on their Gold and Diamond flights.

Gold and Diamond

Gold in Glide” is aptly named because this task allows pilots to earn their Gold Distance requirement while staying in glide range of the home airport the entire time.  This is possible thanks to our topography, outstanding soaring conditions, and our club gliders.  During the summer, we can routinely soar to just below Class A airspace (which starts at 18,000 feet).  Our club’s two Discus CS gliders are ideally suited for accomplishing all badge tasks.

Front Range Diamond Goal” and “Front Range Diamond Distance” are task recommendations for pilots who have completed their Gold Badge and are ready to leave glide range for the first time.  However, other airports near the proposed routes help pilots stay safe.  These tasks are mere suggestions: pilots are encouraged to adjust their tasks based on the day’s specific weather conditions, e.g. taking advantage of particular energy lines (such as the typical Front Range Convergence).

Our club encourages flight instructors and experienced cross country pilots to support aspiring pilots with ground-based coaching.  Some may even fly some of the tasks with them in our club’s DG 505 or via lead-and-follow mentoring.

The goal is to give pilots a framework and support to embrace the challenge of developing from glider pilots to XC mountain soaring pilots without putting themselves in danger.  It may lead to more pilot engagement and long-term retention of valuable club members.

Here’s a link to download a presentation with detailed descriptions of all tasks.

If your club has also taken steps (similar or different) to help pilots cross the gap from freshly certificated glider pilot to safe cross-country pilot, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or via email at