Long (and somewhat exciting) Final Glide

Recently I did a lot of work to update my Boulder 250 sm way point files, including the creation of this Boulder 250 Soaring Map with Final Glide calculations for typical second generation glass ships that would work for our club’s Discus and DG 505.

Screenshot of a portion of the Boulder 250 Soaring Map. The map is interactive. You can show/hide the various different features such as airports, land-out fields, waypoint, 14ers, transitions, unlandable terrain, typical summer soaring conditions, and Final Glide altitudes required for Boulder. Instructions for use and a link to the map are here.

This past Saturday, I had a chance to test my final glide assumptions in real life.

It was a fun but challenging day for flying.  A lenticular cloud shielded much of the area east of the Continental Divide from the sun all morning, causing the day to develop quite late, despite the unseasonally high surface temperatures.   A cold front was forecast for the following day.  In Colorado, pre-frontal weather is almost always associated with an unstable air mass and a risk of over-development once the sun starts to heat the ground.  I expected that the combination of late sunshine and early OD would likely make for a relatively narrow soaring window.  Skysight had projected this to be between approx. 1 PM and 4 PM (which turned out to be largely correct).

I launched at 1:20 PM after the first cumulus clouds appeared over the hills  behind the Flatirons.   For a long time the air was still on tow – the valley was still inverted.  I towed right to the edge of the 15 km ring around Boulder and released in the first weak lift over Sugarloaf.  (I later found out that I had released just a tiny bit too late to qualify for an OLC Speed League start so I should have “dipped back” into the 15km ring.) That lift disappeared quickly and so I headed further west to the nearest cloud, which was above the town of Nederland.  I scratched around for almost half an hour until I found the first decent climb above the windward side of Niwot Ridge (the wind in this area blew at 10kt from the SE – ideal for the ridge).

There I climbed to 16,500 and was able to connect with a convergence-induced cloud street heading NNE.  Finally I could switch to cruise mode.  The street took me more than 40 miles in straight flight past Lookout Mountain NE of Estes Park.   A wildfire north of the hamlet of Rustic generated a lot of smoke drifting east.

Wildfire with billowing smoke next to the hamlet of Rustic in Poudre Canyon 25 miles WNW of Fort Collins. The sky is already over-developed and rain is falling at the Wyoming border in the distance.  (I took this photo on my second approach to this area.  When I tried to pass the fire earlier, the convergence line ran right through the smoke and I could not find lift west of the fire.)

Unfortunately, the convergence line went right through the smoke.  I did not want to fly into poor visibility and sought to make my way around the fire on the west side.  The thermals in this area where weak and wind-blown with significant sink in the lee of Crown Point, one of the mountains along that stretch of the Continental Divide.

When I could not find a comfortable way to get past the fire without losing too much altitude, I reversed course and followed a cloud street back toward the Twin Sisters (S of Estes Park).  The sky to the south was now fully overdeveloped and virga curtains ahead stopped my progress.  I turned back again towards Poudre where the fire kept burning.

I made it all the way to Rustic on this second attempt, and was now finally able to get past the fire without risk of getting engulfed by smoke.  However, the sky was now fully overcast in all directions with many virga to the south and some virga and rain further north.  I wasn’t sure how long there would still be lift and so I prudently decided to head back to Boulder, 54 miles away.

Close-up of the fire. The hamlet of Rustic is at the bottom of the canyon, just above the winglet.  My flight computer did not show any other aircraft in the area and I figured that had a TFR been called, I would certainly be well above it.

I was at 17,000 ft MSL above Rustic.  From my work on the Boulder Soaring Map I knew that this was just the altitude I would need to get to Boulder airport and arrive there at 1,500 ft AGL, flying the Discus (without ballast) at 80 kts in still air (a glide ratio of 1:27).   My flight computer, which was set to MC 3, suggested that I would arrive at 3,000 ft AGL, flying at around 70-75 kts.

Discus Polar. The optimum speed to fly with a 3kt McCready setting is approx. 70-75kts.

There was a westerly cross wind of about 10 kts, which would negatively impact the glide performance, so I figured that 80 kts would be too fast.  I decided to fly just at a little over 70 kts, and see what would happen.   There were several airport landing options along the way (you can also see them on the map below at the eastern edge.)

Excerpt from the Colorado Soaring Map showing purple Final Glide Rings around Boulder. You can see Rustic on the top left next to the number “17”, indicating that 17,000 ft MSL is required to commence a final glide, flying a Discus @ 80 kts dry in calm conditions and arrive at Boulder 1,500 ft AGL.

Things were going very well for the first 25 miles of the final glide.  Instead of flying the most direct line I picked a path further east that connected several distinct clouds within the overcast layer.  Pulling up a little into the wind whenever I crossed an area of lift I kept gaining several hundred feet on my arrival altitude even though my path represented a slight detour.  When I crossed CO Rt 34 east of Drake, my flight computer predicted a very comfortable arrival at Boulder at 3,500 ft AGL.

Final Glide Part 1: from Rustic to past CO Rt 34: Distance 41.37km, altitude lost 1,082m, effective glide ratio 1:38 at average ground sped of 140 kph = 76 kts

But just as I started to be very happy with my performance and secure in my final glide altitude (I later calculated that my effective glide ratio on this first part of the final glide was a remarkable 1:38 flown at an average ground speed of 76 kts), I hit two patches of sink in quick succession.  The first one was relatively mild and lasted less than one minute.  The second one came two minutes later as I was flying past Carter Lake, and was quite severe.  The vario hit negative 10kts.  I pushed the stick forward and accelerated to 100kts to get out of the predicament as soon as possible. Within 1 minute and 16 seconds I lost 396 meters (1,300 feet).

Two sink patches cost me 1,900 feet of altitude and approx. 1,500 feet against my normal projected glide path of 1:27.

When the sink subsided and I had the airspeed dialed back, my flight computer showed a predicted arrival altitude of only 2,000 ft AGL.  Wow!  I had just lost 1,500 ft against my arrival altitude within about two minutes and my safety margin was getting thin.

I tried to make out what had caused the sink but no obvious explanation came to mind.  I was well clear of any virga lines, I had carefully avoided the lee of Blue Mountain (west of Carter Lake)  and the sky looked almost homogeneously gray.  For the first time I felt no longer 100% certain about arriving in Boulder at a safe altitude.  I took a good look at Longmont airport to my left,  which was definitely within easy glide range at this point.

I continued ahead and resolved that I would fly past Lyons and decide then whether or not to divert to Longmont.  Fortunately the next stretch of air was better with minimal sink and some small patches of weak lift.  I passed Lyons at 9,500 MSL and shortly thereafter my predicted arrival altitude in Boulder had climbed back up to 2,200 AGL.

Part 2 of my Final Glide between Carter Lake and Lyons. I covered 15km with a loss of 600m in altitude at an effective glide ratio of 1:25.  My average ground speed on this stretch was 123kph, i.e. 66 kts:  I was now trying to fly as close as possible to best glide speed to preserve every bit of altitude possible.

Just after I had decided that I had an adequate safety margin to continue on to Boulder, I hit another patch of sink near Altona with only 7 miles left to go.  It wan’t as bad as the prior one, but another 600 feet of altitude were gone and my flight computer showed an arrival at 1,600 AGL.

Sink Patch #3 near Altona. Another 600ft of altitude gone. After this patch, my safety margin had been reduced to 600 ft above pattern altitude with another 7 miles to go.

Turning back to Longmont was no longer a sensible option for Longmont was now equidistant to Boulder and my way back would lead me through the same sink I had just crossed.  I made some additional contingency plans:  if I would find lift I would stop to re-gain a few hundred feet.  If I were to lose another 800 ft against my flight path, I would enter the pattern from the north instead of the usual entry mid-field from the south.   In the worst case, I would land in a field west of Boulder Reservoir.  This final glide was definitely more exciting than I had expected!

Fortunately, the remaining part of the glide was uneventful without unexpected sink or lift and I did in fact arrive at 1,600 ft AGL; i.e. with plenty of altitude and time to examine the wind socks and traffic, and to fly a normal high pattern to glider Runway 26.

Final Glide from Rustic to Boulder.

Overall, the final glide was 54 miles long (this includes a 5 mile deviation from the straight course), flown in  35.5 minutes at an average ground speed of 79 kts and with an effective glide ratio of 1:28.   (Calculated over the most direct route the glide ratio was 1:26).  The three patches of sink made the last 10 miles quite a bit more exciting than I had expected even though I ultimately arrived at a safe height of 1,600 AGL.

The flight track is here.

Lessons Learned

  • The glide performance of the Discus seems to be right in line with the glide polar and the final glide rings on the Boulder Soaring Map work.  But: the caveat that glide calculations only work if if the air is still is definitely true.  It’s also good to remember that we only like to go soaring when the air is not still!
  • Even on final glide it is critical to continue to examine the clouds and the terrain and to somewhat deviate from the straight line if appropriate.  This way I achieved a glide ratio of 1:38 on the first half of my final glide.  This allowed me to build up a significant safety margin which ultimately turned out to be necessary to counter the patches of sink during the second half of the glide.
  • A patch of heavy sink can very quickly eat away a significant safety margin.  The glide path looks very different after losing 1,500 feet in two minutes.
  • Having acceptable landing options available as a contingency is absolutely critical on final glide.  Knowing that Longmont was always easily accessible made me perfectly comfortable until I hit the second patch of sink near Altona, when suddenly Longmont was no longer an option.  On any final glide the ultimate stretch after passing the last good land-out option will always be the most critical one.
  • If I’m not racing, I’ll revert back to planning to arrive higher and go past the airport before coming back to the pattern.  The extra excitement in the last few minutes is not necessary.  🙂
  • On OLC speed league days I need to pay closer attention to my release point on tow and dip back into the 15km ring if necessary to ensure my flight counts. (It ultimately did not matter this past Saturday because three other club members had qualifying flights with a better performance.)

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 (consider a small donation to the creator) 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 excellent 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. )

P.S.:  if you would like to learn more about how Condor can be formally used as a tool for flight training, I recommend you check out the series of articles by Scott Manley, CFI-G, that have appeared in Soaring magazine monthly since June 2018.  Scott provides flight instruction at a distance year-round using Condor and Skype to glider rating candidates across the United States.   He is also a frequent speaker on this topic at SSA conventions and in other forums. You can contact Scott at smanley@wisc.edu or via his website gliderCFI.com.  

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.

2018 – My Soaring Year in Review

At the beginning of 2018 I was little more than a beginner when it comes to soaring.  Although I had first learned to fly gliders all the way back in 1983, I had not flown at all for 30 years.  I had only recently started all over again when I regained my glider pilot’s license in Austria in June 2017, followed by a US glider certificate in August 2017. By the end of 2017 I had still less than 100 hours as pilot in command.

My goal for 2018 was to pull myself out of the beginner category, develop my skills, and advance to intermediate soaring pilot. Below are some of the highlights of my soaring year.

The first opportunity to learn came early in January when the combination of westerly winds flowing over the Continental Divide and a stable air mass conjured oscillating mountain waves, beautifully marked by long lines of rotor clouds, thanks to just the right level of moisture content. After releasing from tow at just 7,900 feet, I climbed through 17,000 feet 15 minutes later, and was able to practice transitioning between wave bars upwind and downwind. 

January 9 – first fight of the year on a nice wave day

The arrival of Spring promised longer days, more sunshine, and thermals. Ironically, my first thermal flight of the year was under mostly overcast skies.  But the day was characterized by a highly unstable air mass, which, although prone to early over-development, generated thermal updrafts very quickly and easily.  I kept heading for spots where the sun had just penetrated the clouds even if it was just for 10 to 15 minutes, and often this was enough to break another thermal off the ground. Although I couldn’t go very far, the rising air kept me up and interested for about three hours.

March 26 – first thermal day of the year under overcast skies

Spring time is fickle in Colorado and the winter can be difficult to shake off. And so April brought back the opportunity for another late-season wave flight, which turned out to become the flight with the highest average speed for the day on OLC worldwide. I had not even tried to go fast but flying in strong wave lift along a long mountain range basically forces you to maintain a straight course and you have to put the nose down and speed up simply to stay below Class A airspace.  The result was a 325 kilometer flight with an average speed of 152 kph (82kts).

April 4 – The sky was not be screaming “wave” but the lift was strong, inducing me to fly the fastest flight on OLC worldwide for the day.

The Soaring Society of Boulder is one of the most successful clubs in the annual OLC Speed League competition in the United States, and I felt compelled to test my skills on the first Speed League Weekend. It was a challenging day with weak thermal lift over the foothills and a strong inversion over the prairie. A convergence line sat almost on top of the Continental Divide, promising better lift further west but I was unable to reach it. I ended up scratching along in weak lift over the foothills between 500 and 1000 ft AGL, resulting in a 150km flight with an average speed of just 42.6 kph. Not good enough but a worthy attempt.

April 22 – first OLC Speed League weekend in weak thermals over the CO foothills

On May 20, I ventured for the first time beyond gliding range of any airport by flying into South Park and getting within 20 miles of Pike’s Peak.  It’s a strange sensation when you realize that you are truly dependent on the elements and your skills to interpret and use them to your advantage. There were also other great lessons for me in this flight such as speeding along under a cloud street for 30 miles at 220 kph, and really learning to understand the significance of the convergence line that so often characterizes the soaring conditions along the Continental Divide.

May 20 – For the first time beyond gliding range of any airport

Another strong convergence line day allowed me to plan and execute a speed run along the foothills and fly a pre-declared 300 km triangle, thus earning Diamond Goal in 2 hours and 34 minutes.  The flight was also the fastest from Boulder for the day, earning 118 points for the OLC Speed League.

June 25 – Diamond Goal in 2 hrs 34 min. The red line shows the flight track on task, following the convergence line.

One of the greatest soaring challenges for any pilot is to fly above Colorado’s 14ers – mountain peaks that are more than 14,000 feet tall.  There are 53 of them (58 if you also count adjacent peaks), and very few pilots have conquered them all – it’s a quest that can take an entire soaring career and still remain elusive.  In 2018 I started out on my own attempt. My flight on July 19 took me into the Mosquito Range enabling me to tick five 14ers off my list in one single flight bringing my total to eleven. (But that only means that I now have collected the easy ones – it’s going to get much harder from here on out…)

July 19 – Flying over Mt. Sherman and other 14ers in the Mosquito Range

August took us to Europe to visit family and friends. By this time of the year the local peak soaring season is usually coming to an end, and I knew I had to take the first opportunity if I wanted to do some cross-country flying. That chance came  on August 4 when I was able to fly my first pre-declared 300 km triangle in the Alps, taking me along the main spine of the Alps, soaring “from bone to bone”.

Aug 4 – Soaring along the Northern Limestone Range in the Austrian Alps after completing a 300 km triangle

As expected, soaring conditions deteriorated throughout August but that gave me the opportunity to add a self-starter endorsement to my Austrian glider pilot’s license. And, occasionally, I still found the opportunity for a nice soaring flight, even when conditions had become challenging.

Aug 22 – Dodging late summer thunderstorms in the Central European Alps

One of the great attractions of soaring is that the learning never ends. The weather phenomena that enable us to soar are extremely complex and forever changing. Reading the sun, the ground, and the sky and anticipating what will happen in the next 10 minutes, in the next hour, and in the next 3-5 hours is a constant challenge. Deciphering how it will affect the movement of air currents and the location of the best lines of lift is an even greater puzzle.

I have definitely made progress in 2018 but I am also well aware of how little I still know. Which only makes me look forward to the 2019 soaring season.

2018 Milestones:

  • Silver Badge
  • Gold Badge
  • Diamond Goal (3 times: twice in Colorado, once in Austria)
  • First flight over 500km
  • Flown Above 11 Colorado 14ers
  • Self-starter license, Austria
  • Fastest flight on one day on OLC, worldwide

2018 Basic Stats:

  • 59 Glider Flights
  • of which 48 as pilot in command
  • of which 11 as 2nd pilot
  • Total Soaring Time:  101 hours and 54 minutes
  • of which as Pilot in Command: 95 hrs and 48 minutes
  • of which as 2nd Pilot: 6 hrs and 6 minutes

Types of Gliders Flown:

  • Schweitzer SGS 1-34
  • Schleicher ASK 21
  • Schempp-Hirth Discus CS
  • DG Flugzeugbau DG 505
  • Rolladen Schneider LS4b
  • DG Flugzeugbau DG 1001
  • Falke SF 25c

Airports:

  • KBDU – Boulder, CO, USA
  • LOGO – Niederoeblarn, Austria

Dodging Storms in the Alps

Lift and rain are often found in close proximity to each other. Very pretty scenery north of the Enns Valley.

On August 21/22 I earned my Austrian add-on license to fly self-starting gliders (with the aid of a built-in propeller engine).  This took 14 takeoffs on day one and another 11 takeoffs on day 2 for the required minimum of 10 flights with an instructor and 15 solo flights.  All of these flights were in a Falke SF25c motor glider – with a glide ratio of less than 1:20 not exactly the most efficient machine…

Once in a while it is nice to fly a lot of patterns – you get really proficient at takeoffs and landings. Being able to confidently land a glider again and again on the same spot and at the absolute minimum speed is definitely a useful skill to have.  After completing 11 flights on day 2 in just one hour and a half I had the entire afternoon open to actually go soaring on what looked like perhaps one of the last good thermal days of the season.

Rain seems quicker to fall from cu’s in the Alps (compared to the Western US) – possibly a consequence of a higher moisture content. Also, virga are largely unheard of. If it rains, it rains.

I had no glider reserved and was lucky that the club’s DG 1001 was available.  The air mass looked quite unstable with a substantial risk of overdevelopment so I decided that I wouldn’t venture much beyond glide range of the airport and keep a good eye on the weather.

Once again I released above the trusted Karlspitz.  To my great surprise there was no lift to be had above its ridge lines.  After trying for several minutes I headed under the cloud above the next ridge.  Six minutes later I had climbed 3,000 feet and was just below cloud base, at 2,900m MSL.

A lot of blue sky to the south early in the flight while over-development appeared quickly to the north.

I headed west towards Schladming but could not find any lift above the next two ridges.  A towering thundercloud enveloped Dachstein, on the other side of the valley, approx.  15km away.  I suspected that it sucked all the available energy in its direction, leaving nothing for me to climb in.

Darkening skies to the north west

I decided to turn around and found the good lift just where I had left it 20 minutes earlier.  Back at cloud base I crossed the Enns Valley and found my next climb right above the summit of Grimming where I climbed to 3,100m.

The next line of clouds was 10km NNE.  It was already quite dark but I still found lift under the street as I headed east past the town of Liezen.  Rain began to fall and I continued further east where I found a weak climb above Dürrenschöberl.  Another dark cloud promised strong lift 12km further east above Admonter Reichenstein.

5 m/s (10kt) lift under a dark cloud street

It took me less than 5 minutes to get there and I could observe the cloud getting visibly darker as I approached.  Just when I thought that I was connecting with lift, the cloud’s development peaked and rain mixed with hail started to fall.  I turned the ship around in no time and headed back to where I just came from.

First rain is falling as I’m cruising under a cloud street.

I wasn’t sure whether Dürrenschöberl would continue to provide lift.  Technically I was still within glide range of Niederöblarn but the only route to get there from my altitude would lead through the military airspace around Aigen, which meant that I would have to ask for clearance to cross it.

Just as I was about to look up the radio frequency of Aigen, I connected with strong lift again.  Once again I climbed 3,000 feet within 6 minutes, gaining ample height to stay clear of the military airspace.

The towering cb cloud in the background (where heavy rain is falling) made me decide to land. The airport is in the valley in front of the mountain (Grimming) center-right. The storm cell was approx. 10-15 km away from the airport and slowly moving in its direction.

The skies were now rapidly overdeveloping almost everywhere.  I headed back towards my initial release point above Karlspitz where I could see a monster of a cumulonimbus cloud towering to my right, north of the airfield behind the Grimming.  Rain was also falling to my left.

The only area that still looked promising was further west on the south side of the Enns Valley.  I had to decide whether to continue my flight in that direction and wait for the storm to pass or to get down and land before the storm would reach the airport.

I radioed ground operations with my intention to return immediately and land within 3-5 minutes.  Two minutes later I entered the traffic pattern, having lost 3,500 feet.  At this point the wind had picked up and ground operations had asked all planes to return to the airfield immediately.  I waited for other traffic to clear the runway and managed to spot-land the DG 1001 in turbulent north-westerly winds less than three minutes later.

The flight track is here.

Lessons Learned

  • Pattern practice pays off.   We all practice takeoffs and landings a lot during initial training.  After that we don’t do it nearly as often.  We might fly 50-100 hours in a season but if our average flight is 5 hours long this may only entail 10-20 takeoffs and landings.  Having practiced 25 landings in 2 days for my self-start license prepared me well for landing a completely different ship in challenging conditions.
  • There’s a fine line between strong lift and hail. The development of thunderclouds in the mountains can happen very quickly.  One minute a cloud is still fully developing and producing very strong lift, and one minute later heavy rains and even hail can fall from it.  Never count on a rapidly developing cloud to provide needed lift as you may be forced to fly away from it before getting a chance to climb.
  • Don’t dilly-dally when a storm is approaching the airfield.  When I spotted the towering cb 15 km northwest of the airfield I had to make a quick decision: land immediately or fly west and wait for the storm to pass. I believe either decision was acceptable under the circumstances. (I opted for the immediate landing because of the possibility of additional storms.) But making and executing a decision quickly was important so I could avoid a situation where I would have been forced to land in dangerous conditions.

Low And Slow – But These Views!

August 12 was my second day flying in the Alps this year.  The forecast conditions were rather poor, which surprised me because a cold front had passed through the day before, finally putting an end to the oppressive heat wave that had lasted for more than three weeks. Post-frontal weather often offers good soaring in the Austrian Alps.

Intimidating mountains in western Austria, south of Zell am See.  Note:  I did not take any pictures during the first 2 hours of the flight: I was way too busy trying to make progress while looking for weak lift just a few hundred feet above the ridges.  Conditions improved drastically after 2PM.

The local forecast from AlpTherm predicted weak (“schwach”) climb rates around 1 meter/second (2kts) with thermals up to 3,000m (10,000 feet).  SkySight was more encouraging, indicating a potential flight distance of 400-500km (in an 18m ship) supported by a long soaring day starting as early at 10am, 1.5 – 2 m/s thermals, nice cumulus clouds, no OD, no storms, and no significant high-cloud obstruction. Light southerly winds would contribute to dense clouds stacking up on the south side of the Alps’s main spine, but were likely too weak to be usable for ridge soaring. SkySight projected even lower cloud bases than AlpTherm at the east side of my soaring area – as low as 2,400m (8,000 feet) – yet gradually rising to 3,300m (11,000 feet) further west.

Potential flight distance of 400-500km within the soaring area along the Salzach and Enns Valleys.

My drive to the airport started at the southern side of the Alps under a layer of dense clouds. As I crossed to the north at Wald am Schoberpass, the clouds gave way to deep blue skies.  The air was also much clearer than in recent days: obviously the cold front had removed the inversion layer.  A few low-hanging clouds clang to the slopes of the mountains, remnants of the moisture that the heavy rains of the passing cold front had left behind. There was no doubt that the sun would quickly dissolve them.

Dark red colors show dense cloud coverage forecast south of the Alp’s main spine. Nice cumulus clouds were projected to mark the lift within my soaring area.

By 10:30am the first new wisps started to form above the hills, indicating that lift was already starting to form.  I moved the glider out onto the grid at Runway 04 while the air on the ground was perfectly still.  I was confident that it would not take long for the valley breeze to kick in.  At 11:30am the windsock finally came alive – a clear sign that it was time to launch because the thermals above the hills were sucking in air from the valley below.

Projected thermal strength of 1.5 m/s to 2 m/s (3 to 4 kts).

I was number three on the start list and airborne by 11:44AM.  Once again I asked to be towed to the trusted release point near Karlspitz at 1,800m MSL (6,000 feet), around 1,100m (3,300 feet) above the valley floor, where I released in the first lift above the ridge seven minutes later.

Thermal height projected at 2,400 – 3,000m (8,000 – 10,000 feet) within my soaring area – gradually improving from east to west.

Unable to climb from my release point at less than 300 feet above the ridge I thought I might have released a tad too early when a thermal above the nearby hill Zachenschöberl lifted me to cloud base at 2,400m MSL (8,000 feet).  My average climb rate was 1.5m/s (3kts) – not bad considering that the day had only just started.

The local Alptherm forecast projected weak (“schwach”) climb rates of only 1 – 1.5 m/s (2-3 kts) for most of my soaring area.

I had set a tentative turn point 126km further west above Pass Thurn.  To get there, I would have to first fly along a mountain chain called the “Schladminger Tauern”, followed by the “Radstädter Tauern”, and eventually the Hohe Tauern.

The first reasonably strong climb that allowed me to take out my camera came after two hours into my flight – above the peak of Bernkogel – west of the village Dorfgastein (in the valley below). Note the steep switchbacks of the hiking trail on the face of the mountain.  Climbing is so much easier in a glider!

The peaks of the Schladminger Tauern and the Radstädter Tauern top out at about 2,850m (9,500 feet).  The ridge lines along the foothills are typically about 1,800 to 2,400m high (6,000 – 8,000 feet).  Every 5-8 km or so I would have to cross one of these ridges.

A cloud base of 2,400m did not leave a lot of wiggle room: I would have to climb to cloud base above a ridge line, glide through sink to the next ridge, hopefully arrive there with a decent safety margin, find a climb that would take me back to cloud base, fly through sink to the next ridge, and so forth.  To make progress, pretty much every ridge line had to offer a climb and I would have to be able to locate it quickly once I got there.  Should a ridge not work upon arrival, I would have to follow it towards the main valley (perpendicular to my intended route) and look for climbs along the way.  Should I find myself unable to work my way back up, I would eventually have to land at one of the few land-out fields in the main valley.

The cloud bases lifted to 3,300m (11,000 feet) by mid-afternoon – still well below some of the highest peaks of the Austrian Alps.

Eventually I would get to the “Hohe Tauern”, which were much taller with peaks around 3,600m (12,000 feet).  Low hanging clouds, tall mountains, and soaring don’t mix very well; therefore, I planned to cross the Salzach Valley around Zell am See to the north side and then continue along the lower Kitzbühler Alpen, which top out around 2,500m (8,300 feet) until I would get to my turn point.  From there I would retrace my route back towards the east, continuing on to a second turn point at Admonterhütte near the town of Admont and then return back to Karlspitz for a total task distance of 325km.  That was the plan.

As I headed out on task I observed a seemingly endless line of clouds along the south side of the Alps, just as Skysight had predicted.  On the north side, where I was flying, small but pretty cumuli started to form right above almost every ridge line.

Circling in nice lift late afternoon when conditions were great and soaring was easy. You can see the dense line of clouds in the background on the far (i.e. southern) side of the mountain range. These clouds prohibited a crossing of the Alps to the south and did not dissolve until late in the day.

My first ridge to cross would be near the peak of Gumpeneck, 2,226m tall.   I had hoped to arrive just at the level of the peak, high enough to connect with the thermal breaking off the mountain.  However, when I got there I was down at 2,080 meters, just a little too low to get into lift.  That meant plan B: follow the ridge out towards the Enns Valley.  Only one kilometer later I found weak lift above the ridge, worked my way up to to 2,300m, flew back to the Gumpeneck, and climbed back to cloud base at 2,370m.  On to the next ridge!

I arrived 130m AGL (400 feet) above the next ridge and quickly found the next climb, which took me from 2,200 to 2,570m.  Great! The cloud bases were getting higher. Onwards!

The next ridge was 2,200m high.  I arrived there 300 feet above ground, following along the ridge for about 2 kilometers but did not find a climb.  Time for plan B again: change direction, and fly above the next lower ridge line out towards the Enns Valley.  50 meters AGL I found the next climb, taking me from 2,150m back to cloud base at 2,480m. Time to push west again!

Cockpit view of the LS4. Cruising at 150 kph only became an option by mid-afternoon when the cloud bases were well above the ridges. Earlier in the day I was scratching along from one ridge to the next at 110-120 kph.

The next two ridges were good enough to maintain altitude but provided no climb. I was only 1 kilometer north of a peak that was 2,450m tall – too high.  The lift was probably above the peak but I was down at 2,350m and couldn’t get there. So I continued on.

The next ridge was slightly lower at 2,150m.  I got there 100m AGL and found a nice climb back to cloud base at 2,580m.

This is how my flight towards Zell am See continued.   I found climbs to cloud base above each of the next three ridges, then skipped a ridge and had no choice but to take the next climb back to 2,500m even though the climb rate was dismal.  A fun way of soaring but mentally very demanding. And so slow!

The mountain chain in the center is Hochkönig. On the back side is the city of Berchtesgaden in Germany.

Then came the next ridge and finally some reprieve: my first 2 m/s (4kt) climb  of the day took me to a new high: I was at almost 2,900m!   The airport of Zell am See was now within easy glide range and I could relax a bit.  But I was already 90 minutes on task and had only covered just a bit over 50km!

I continued to push on and the flying finally got faster and easier.  Climb rates continued to improve and the cloud bases increased further.  The additional altitude gave me room to increase my inter-thermal cruise speed from 120 kph to 140 kph.  Above Bernkogel I averaged 2.5 m/s and climbed to 3,050m. Oh what luxury!

Finally I had time to look ahead towards TP1.  At least in theory there were two ways to get there: 1) continue on the south side of the Salzach Valley and cross to the north side near TP1; or, 2) cross to the north side near Zell am See (as I had initially planned) and then continue along the Kitzbuühler Alpen.

The southern route looked very challenging: the mountains to my left were intimidating: the peaks towered high above my glider and were well above cloud base.  The ridge lines ahead were short and provided few options to find good climbs. There was still some wind from the south and I dreaded the prospect of flying in the lee of these monsters.  Unfortunately, the northern route did not look very promising either.  The sky in that direction was mostly blue and the cloud bases were much lower.  Crossing over to the north looked straightforward but would I be successful in crossing back south?  I didn’t know.

The town of Zell am See is below in front of the lake (Zeller See). You can spot the runway of the local airport in the foreground on the right – like Niederöblarn one of the most popular and most scenic glider ports in the Austrian Alps.  The hills on the left side are part of the Kitzbühler Alpen – the cumuli on that side were few and far between and the cloud bases lower.

For a while I contemplated my options.  The airport of Zell am See – one of the premier soaring sites in Austria – was right below and provided an easy and safe landing option in case my adventure to the north side did not work out.  However, I could not see any other gliders around, which caused some doubt in my mind regarding the conditions on the south side.  Also, it had already taken me more than two hours to get here and I didn’t know how long it would take to get back.  It was 2:15PM and Skysight had predicted thermal activity to weaken considerably as early as 4PM.  Ultimately, the doubtful voices prevailed. I decided to abandon my task and turn around.

In hindsight, my concerns were probably overblown.  Conditions continued to improve.  I averaged almost 3 m/s on my next climb and reached 3,150m.  Finally I was able to skip some ridges if the attainable climb rates did not reach my expectations.  My average speed, which had only been 56 kph on my outbound leg, improved to 78 kph on my next leg.

Another amazing look into the steep and narrow valleys of the Hohe Tauern (High Tauern) – Austria’s tallest mountain range.

Once I was back within final glide range to my start airport in Niederöblarn I reversed course again to head back west to see if I could further improve my average speed.  Indeed: on my second westbound leg that took me back to Zell am See again I averaged 82 kph.

I briefly thought about continuing to TP1 now as the Kitzbühler Alpen looked considerably improved, but it was almost 4PM and prudent caution won again.

And another look at Zell am See at the foot of the high peaks on the opposite side of the Salzach Valley.

I had not anticipated that things would get better still until thermal strength peaked around 4:30PM.  On my second eastbound leg I averaged 105kph.  I started to wonder if I could even score for the OLC Speed League despite the excruciatingly slow start.

Around 5PM, however, it quickly became obvious that the day was coming to an end.  I crossed the Enns Valley, found another climb over the Grimming and added a sightseeing flight along the Northern Limestone Range.  I had hoped for a similar late-day “radiation-lift” effect from the steep south-facing cliffs as  I had noticed on my prior flight on August 4.  However, this time the air along the shaded cliffs just produced sink.

View of the Dachstein Massif from above Planai Peak (directly below). The world cup downhill ski racers start at the top of the mountain that can be seen in the bottom left corner of the picture. This downhill track was long the fastest in the world.

Near Dachstein I crossed the valley again and found the day’s last thermal over Planai Peak, famous for world-cup ski racing.   From there I followed the ridge lines, which had become completely still, back to the airport in Niederöblarn for one of my smoothest touch-downs ever in completely calm conditions just before 6PM.

View towards the west as the clouds started to dissolve in late afternoon.

Total flight distance 392km.  Average Speed, unsurprisingly slow, at 68.5 kph. The flight track is here.

Lessons Learned

  • Flying low is (mentally) demanding.  The work load is dramatically higher when you have no choice but to fly low.  Having a plan A (where to go for lift), a plan B (where to go if lift does not materialize), and a plan C (where to escape to – if necessary to land – if plan B does not work) is critical.  And what your plan A, B, and C ought to be changes constantly.  I.e., every few minutes you may need to formulate a new plan A, B, and C. That’s a lot of work.
  • Lift above the ridges can be very narrow.  I noticed that the lift close to the ridges can sometimes be just a thin band that may be impossible to circle in.  If it is wide enough to circle a steep bank angle (40-45 degrees) is often required to stay in lift – also and especially because you can’t afford to get close to minimum speed while in close proximity to the terrain.  Two or three times I found myself circling with other gliders who ended up dropping out of the lift because their circles were just to wide.
  • Always arrive above the ridges.  Hopping  from ridge to ridge only works if you can be sure of arriving above the next ridge line, ideally above the highest peak along the ridge for that’s where you will most likely find the next climb.  If you’re not 100% certain of that, than your plan B must include a path over another (lower) ridge line that you can reach for sure above the ridge (plan B) and from where you can escape to a landable area (plan C).
  • Always watch your airspeed as you approach a ridge. When you are approaching a ridge close to terrain you might intuitively pull back on the stick and inadvertently reduce your airspeed.  Never let that happen. Flying close to terrain is dangerous and flying too slow and too close to terrain can be a fatal combination.  I kept reminding myself of this throughout the flight.
  • The combination of low cloud bases and weak lift makes you SLOW.  The obvious part of this is due to the fact that you take a long time to circle in weak lift and that you have to maintain a modest airspeed even in cruise mode. Less obvious are the other delays: i) you have to take (almost) every climb simply because it is still better than plan B. ii) And if plan A does not work you may be forced to significantly detour from your intended flight route simply to find the next climb and stay aloft – as a result you end up flying many more unintended miles along the way and this is what really slows you down.
  • Skysight has been remarkably accurate.  Always read any forecast with some skepticism and never expect it to be 100% correct in every respect.  However, once again Skysight was very close to reality:  e.g., by mid-afternoon, climb rates were a little stronger than forecast and cloud bases a little bit higher.  The most clouds were almost exactly where Skysight had predicted them to be. The start and end of the soaring day were both perhaps 30-45 minutes later than forecast.  The southern side of the Enns Valley worked a bit better than forecast and the north side a little worse.  But overall, Skysight was remarkably on target.  Having worked with it now in different geographies and widely different conditions I believe it’s the best soaring forecast out there at the moment.

Along the Spine of The Alps – Soaring from “Bone to Bone”

Europe is enduring a pro-longed heat wave with near record high temperatures from Portugal to Austria.  That means the nicest place to be is right at cloud-base where the temps are much more comfortable.

At cloud base above the Central Alps in the middle of Austria. The Tappenkarsee is below. The peak to the left is called Faulkogel, 2,654m (8,700 feet) MSL. Where else would you rather be?

This past Saturday promised nice soaring conditions in Central Austria:

Moderate thermal strength of 2 m/s (4 kts)…

… cloud bases around 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) …

… high probability of cumulus clouds marking the lift …

… only modest risk of overdevelopment …

… a moderate risk of thunderstorms mainly confined to the area north of the northern limestone range …

… hardly any wind within the boundary layer …

… convergence lift of 1-2 kts along the spine of the mountains (as a result of the valley breeze that lifts air along the slopes of the mountains, converging and rising off the tops of the ridge lines) …

… no high clouds shielding the sun …

… culminating in a projected attainable flight distance of 500-600 km in an 18 meter glider.  (I was flying a club class ship with a projected attainable flight distance of approx. 400-500km).

Skysight’s predictions were also confirmed by the local soaring forecast from Austrocontrol, which projected:

“Good” thermal conditions in line with Skysight’s prediction of a thermal strength of 2 m/s (4 kts), …

… a trigger temperature of 24 degrees C, expected to be reached as early as 7 am (!), and a maximum thermal height of approx. 3,300m (11,000 feet) MSL.

Considering the consistency of both forecasts, I thought it appropriate to plan my first pre-declared 300km triangle in the Alps:

  • Start above Karlspitz, approx. 7 km south of my launch point at LOGO (Niederöblarn airport).  This is the location of one of the “house-thermals” and a frequent release point for gliders flying from LOGO.  From there I would head 85 km westward towards …
  • … TP1 near the village of Wörth in the province of Salzburg at the foot of Austria’s tallest mountain, the Grossglockner.  The peak of Grossglockner (3,798 m or 12,461 ft) was well above the projected thermal height and likely unattainable.  A second eastbound leg of 156 km would take me to …
  • … TP2 above the village of Vordernberg, in the province of Styria near the town of Leoben. And from there it would be 69 km to the …
  • … finish line, once again above Karlspitz.  Total task distance: 311 km.

Task as shown on Google maps.

I had reserved the LS4b of the fleet of Niederöblarn.  It’s a very comfortable club class ship with a performance slightly worse than that of the Discus that I’m usually flying from Boulder.  Since I had not flown in Austria in more than 12 months I had to take two brief check-rides in the DG 1000 with a local instructor.  This was a nice opportunity to refresh my spin training (a lot of fun!) but it meant that I wouldn’t be able to launch on my own before noon.  Given my relatively late start, the 300km task distance seemed appropriate.

I released near Karlspitz a few minutes past noon and rounded the start sector above the peak four minutes later at an altitude of 2,200m MSL.  I followed the ridge line to the SSW to further gain altitude.  One of the great phenomena of flying in the Alps is the amazing predictability of thermal lift directly above the ridge lines, especially in low-wind conditions and in the middle of the day when the sun heats both slopes equally: warm air rises up along either side of the ridge and when it reaches the top of the ridge line, both streams converge and the air has no place to go but up.

The lift is not necessarily consistent, but it often averages 1-3 kts, which is usually sufficient to maintain or even slightly gain altitude as long as one flies directly above the top of a ridge.  Thermals will then break off the ridge line as well, usually above distinctive peaks.

The flight track off tow shows how I’m following the ridge line. It’s often easy to maintain altitude when flying along the top of the ridge (up to about one or two thousand feet above the ridge) and it’s a great strategy to identify the best thermals – especially in blue conditions – as they tend to break off from spots directly along the ridge.

View from Mausgarkopf (below) to the north across the Salzach Valley towards Hochkönig in the distance (above the wing tip) – near TP1. The line of clouds in the background is approx. over the border between Austria and Germany and confirmed the higher Cape index forecast for that area. The ridge line below the wing is a good example of where to find lift: the sun heats the slopes on either side of the ridge. That means air ascends on both sides and then lifts off the ridge top. The best thermals tend to be above the peaks.

The main spine of the Alps resembles a giant fishbone.  The spine itself is the ridge line in the center, which is in the direction from west to east.  On either side of this main ridge are individual ridges (i.e. individual “bones”) protruding north and south with steep and narrow valleys in-between.   Soaring usually involves a series of valley crossings as you’re flying from one of these bones to the next.  More often than not, the valley crossings involve significant sink, while the lift is concentrated above the bones.

The fishbone structure of the Alps is easily visible in the Google Maps image.

Cloud-bases tend to be much lower than in the western United States and are often not far above the ridge line.  Arriving below a ridge line can mean trouble (because usable lift is sometimes only available above the ridge-tops), so the safest strategy is to ensure that you’re high enough before leaving a ridge and heading through the sink to the next.  Depending on the height of the cloud base and the performance of the glider it is often possible to skip one, two or several ridges before taking and centering another climb.

The village of Bad Hofgastein is below. In the distance is Austria’s tallest mountain, the Grossglockner.

In the western US my cross-country flight path is predominantly determined by the location of the clouds (and the terrain is often secondary – especially if it is many thousand feet below), whereas in the Alps, the terrain plays a much more prominent role in determining the optimal flight route.  Obviously, that doesn’t diminish the  importance of clouds as a marker of thermals. However, I have found that clouds that have formed directly above the ridges but have drifted away with the wind are often no longer marking usable lift. The ridge itself, on the other hand, is often still producing lift even if no cloud has yet formed to mark it.

Cloud shadows above another ridge. Compared to the Western US, the thermals in the Alps tend to be narrower and closer together.

Just before TP1 I found myself circling with three raptors – possibly small eagles – at an altitude close to 3,000m (10,000 ft).  One of the raptors must not have attended flight school as it changed the direction of turn and started to circle in the opposite direction. I saw the bird coming straight at me and remember watching it to see how it would react to my presence.  Fractions of a second later, just when I was surprised that it would dare come so close, I felt a bang as it collided directly with my left wing.  My Oudie flight computer, which was only attached to the canopy via suction cup, fell off on impact and landed in my lap.  My adrenaline rushed and my first reaction was a mix of empathy for the bird, which must have lost its life, and concern for the integrity of the glider and my own safety.  I looked out at the wing and saw to my relief that it was still in one piece and that there was no obvious damage.  I tested the controls and confirmed that the glider reacted just as I expected it to. Where the bird had struck, approx. 3m (10 feet) from the root of the wing, I saw a shiny spot on top of the leading edge of the wing. But there did not appear to be any dent or some other form of damage. Not knowing what else to do, I kept circling for another few turns, while I tried to decide whether to cut my flight short.  After inspecting the wing as best I could and confirming again that everything was working just fine, I ultimately decided that there was no reason to change my flight plan, and thus I continued on route.

Flight path to and from the first TP.  Flight from “bone to bone”: all climbs are directly above the ridge lines. I did not skip any of the “bones” to stay high and keep the airport in Zell am See within easy glide range as there are no viable land-out fields in this area.

I reached TP1 70 minutes after leaving the start line 85km earlier.  The average speed of 72 kph was not particularly high but – except for the bird strike – my flight had been stress-free despite the relative lack of land out opportunities.

View of the “Glocknermassif” at the intersection of the provinces Salzburg, Carinthia, and Tyrol. Cloud bases were higher in this direction but the tallest mountains were obscured and the peak of the Grossglockner appeared to be out of reach.

TP1 was only 25km northeast of Austria’s tallest peak, Grossglockner, 3,798 m (12,460 ft) high.  Cloud-bases at my location were around 10,000 feet. Even though the bottom of the cumuli was someone higher to the southwest, Grossglockner was obscured by clouds and appeared to be unattainable.  There was a chance that the cloud base would lift later in the day but I decided to turn around and continue on task.

The posh skiing village of Badgastein is below. To the left are the high peaks of the Ankogelgruppe. The mountains in the distance on the far right are in Northern Italy.

Looking at the sky ahead of me I had to make a decision: should I continue on the north side of the central spine of the Alps (essentially retracing my flight path), or should I follow an almost continuous line of clouds that were perhaps 15-20 km further to the south.  The southern route looked much faster and easier but I had not researched the land-out fields to the south (except for the airport of Mauterndorf where I obtained my winch training back in 1984).  There was also a military air space around Zeltweg that I suspected to be inactive on the weekend, but I did not know the proper radio frequency to verify this.  Looking at the clouds I could not tell for sure if I would be able to follow this line without encroaching on the military airspace. Thus I decided to fly on the north side.  The main challenge was that the cloud coverage in this area had become very scattered with large blue holes on course.  Well aware that my average speed would suffer, I decided to maintain my strategy of staying high and keeping known airfields and land out spots within glide range at all times.

 

En route to TP2 looking NW. Big sections of the sky were blue along this stretch. The town of Trieben is below in the Palten Valley at the foot of the Reichenstein. The mountain to the right is the Hochtor.  I crossed the valley approx. 15 km further southeast.

The execution of the plan worked as expected.  I found practically all the climbs directly above one of the ridges, usually above one of the mountain peaks. There was a major variability in climb rates.  Sometimes I would average 3-4 m/s (6-8 kts), sometimes as little as 1 m/s (2 kts) or even less. With mainly blue skies ahead of me there was no way of knowing how strong the next climb would turn out to be.  My conservative strategy worked but my progress was predictably slow.

Just after crossing the Palten-Liesing Valley, looking north. The two parallel mountain chains in the background are traversed by the river Enns in a deep and narrow gorge – the “Gesäuse”, one of Austria’s National Parks.

Another obstacle on course was the crossing of the Liesing-Palten Valley.  As I approached the valley I noticed a nice cloud right at the top of the divide at Wald am Schoberpass.  However, as I got closer, the cloud was dissolving and I decided to stay on the west side, gain additional altitude, and cross further to the south.

Stadelstein, Hochstein, and Schwarzenstein are below. The open iron ore mine called Erzberg (“ore-mountain”) is visible center right. In the background are the Wildalpen (“wild alps”).

The crossing was uneventful. I ended up loosing less altitude than I had expected.  But there was a lot of traffic in this area.  I encountered seven or eight other gliders as well as hang gliders and paragliders.  Most gliders in Europe are equipped with Flarm systems but  hang gliders and paragliders are not.  Traffic density in the Alps is orders of magnitude higher than in the American Rockies.  Paying close attention is paramount at all times.

The free-standing mountain in the center is called Gößeck. The Liesing Valley that I crossed earlier is right behind it.

TP2 turned out to be well-picked as the sky further east was significantly overdeveloped with some emerging storms. I rounded it just before 3PM in the afternoon.

The road over the Präbichl mountain pass is below. This is were I learned to ski at the age of three. In the background is the Hochschwabmassif. TP2, the village of Vordernberg is in the valley just to the right edge of the picture. I considered pushing further east to extend the flight but this area seemed to be rapidly overdeveloping and so I decided to stay on route after rounding my turnpoint (indeed there were heavy rains in this area less than one hour later).

Cloud bases on the east side of the Liesing valley were significantly lower and now I had to transition back to the west side.  Concerned about arriving too low I ended up wasting more time in weak lift before crossing the valley again.  Again, my hesitation turned out to be overly conservative.  After the crossing I quickly regained my altitude and was back at cloud base.  I was also on final glide even though I had almost 50km in front of me.

I got another good look at the open iron ore mine of Erzberg as I circled above the Eisenerzer Reichenstein to gain height in advance of my second crossing of the Palten-Liesing Valley.

With my goal already made, I finally started to fly less conservatively.  I flew 170 instead of 140 kph in-between thermals, skipped several ridges, and only took the strongest climbs.  This strategy would likely have worked for much of the entire flight and would have resulted in a significantly higher average speed.

I finally reached the finish line after 4 hours and 40 minutes with an average task speed of 67 kph.  Slow, but stress free, and happy to have completed my third pre-declared 300km goal flight and my first in the Alps.  🙂

After crossing the finish line I traversed the Enns Valley and continued to fly west above the tops of the Northern Limestone Range (Nördliche Kalkalpen). The Dachstein Massif is right in front.

After completing the task I took another climb and decided to add some sight seeing on the northern side of the Enns Valley.

The small remnants of the Hallstädter Glacier are on the right edge of the picture. When I was a little kid, the glacier was much thicker and wider flowing down into the valley below. Directly behind the peak in front I got a glimpse of the Hallstädter See (Lake Hallstatt), one of the most picturesque lakes in the entire Alps and a UNESCO world heritage site. Many of my American friends know it from their Sound of Music tours. 😉

I crossed to the Kammspitze, climbed again and headed west over the Scheichenspitze, the Hohe Dachstein (the highest peak of the day at 3,004m or 10,000 feet), and the picturesque Bischofsmütze.  From there I retraced my flight path below the level of the peaks.

The prominent Bischofsmütze (Bishop’s Mitre) is in the center. The valley behind it leads to the city of Salzburg.

This final section turned out to be the most scenic and enjoyable part of the flight.  I was flying along the steep south-facing cliffs of the Northern Limestone Range (Nördliche Kalkalpen).

The south face of the Dachsteinmassif was aglow in the early evening sun. The cliffs were still emitting heat and producing great upslope lift close to 6pm in the evening.

These cliffs had been exposed to the sun for the entire day and were radiating heat that caused the air to ascend along the slopes at 1-2 m/s allowing me to fly along the entire range at about 130-140 kph without loosing altitude.  I even ended up climbing above the top of the Grimming, all in straight flight for about 50 km.

Nice view across the back side of the Dachsteinmassif. This high plateau sits about 6,000 feet above the floor of the valleys. You do not want to get caught low above it in a glider as there is no way out.  The mountain hut below is the Guttenberghaus – you can see the very demanding hiking trail hewn into the cliffs at the bottom left of the picture.

Unfortunately, this last section did not count for the OLC Speed League because I omitted climbing back another 300-400 feet at the end (which had been my low point earlier).  There’s no doubt that the final 2 1/2 hours were easily the fastest of the entire flight (probably averaging more than 100 kph).

The upslope lift along the cliffs took me above the top of the Grimming, the beautiful and prominent mountain next to the airport of Niederöblarn.

Overall, I had a very nice and relaxed flight in good conditions.  I’m happy with the result especially considering my conservative tactics and the fact that my speed was right in line with that of others flying in this area on the same day.  My flight track is here.

Lessons Learned

  • Follow the ridge lines whenever possible.  When the sun heats the slopes on both sides of a ridge, warm air will ascend and converge right at the top.  The best thermals will also almost always break away from the top of the ridges, usually above prominent peaks rising above the ridge line.
  • Lower may actually be faster.  You may be able to fly directly along the top of a ridge line without losing altitude.  This type of lift works best in relative proximity to the terrain, i.e. a few hundred feet above the ridge, but not several thousand feet above.  This means you are likely to fly faster if you fly lower. This is at first counterintuitive because you can’t take advantage of the fact that the delta between IAS and True Airspeed increases the higher you fly.  (This is a big contributing factor to the high average speeds in the American West.) Obviously, flying low above the ridges is mentally demanding and implies a reduced glide range requiring great situational awareness with respect to land-out fields and any terrain obstacles that may get in the way.
  • Arrive well above the ridge top when flying from “bone to bone”.  The fishbone structure of the Alps makes constant crossings of narrow valleys inevitable if you want to get anywhere.  Thermals almost always break away from the ridge tops and it may be difficult to find lift if you drop below ridge-line. So don’t, especially if the wind is insufficient to produce usable ridge lift helping you work your way back up.
  • Terrain is at least as important as clouds. Sunny ridge lines are constantly generating lift and new thermals will periodically break off from the ridge tops.  These thermals can drift away with the wind and I have found that they often are no longer working once they have moved away from the ridge that spawned them.  You are more likely to find lift in the blue above a ridge line than under an aging cloud drifting away from a ridge.
  • Rocks store heat extremely well. The south facing cliffs along the northern limestone range stored a ton of heat energy throughout the day.  Flying in constant lift along the face of the cliffs at the end of the day was an amazing experience.  However, remember that whenever you get close to terrain it is paramount to fly at a safe speed and to know the locations of cable cars and similar obstructions as they are very difficult to see from the air.
  • Birds can be stupid.  I have always admired birds for their maneuverability and I never thought that a bird would be so stupid as to directly collide with a glider. But apparently that can happen. It’s a good thing that gliders are pretty sturdy.  However, I hate to imagine what would have happened if the bird had collided straight with the canopy or the horizontal stabilizer.
  • Traffic!  The air along the spine of the Alps is very busy – especially compared to the empty skies above the Rockies.  During my flight I encountered at least two or three dozen other gliders in addition to para gliders and hang gliders. Especially the latter are not equipped with Flarm systems and it’s critical to keep your eyes outside the cockpit at all times and pay close attention to other traffic.
  • Mind the altitude rule for the OLC Speed League.  The last 100 km of my flight were by far the fastest of my entire flight but they did not count for the OLC Speed League because I didn’t climb back to my previous low point during the flight.  I would have scored considerably better had I climbed back another few hundred feet towards the end before coming back down to land.  It is actually beneficial to have more altitude variability throughout the flight as this allows for more opportunities to calculate the fastest 2 1/2 hour segment of the flight. Something to remember.

 

 

Into the Mosquito Range – Three Tries Is The Charm…

The forecast had last Thursday pegged as another great soaring day in Colorado.  High cloud bases (around 19-20k feet), strong thermals (up to 10+ kts), no significant risk of over-development, and nice CU clouds to mark the lift.  What else could you want?  Well, maybe less wind aloft.  The forecast showed winds of > 20 kts from WNW – stronger to the north, a bit weaker to the south.

High cloud bases…

… strong thermals – especially along the lower foothills …

… no significant risk of overdevelopment …

 

… but windy, especially to the north (and along the Continental Divide).

Since it was a weekday there was no reason to go fast to earn OLC points for the Speed-League (only flights on weekends count). Conditions were projected to be best along the lower foothills on the east side of the Divide but fairly strong across most of Colorado.  With the winds being somewhat weaker to the south I felt it would be a good day to see of I could bag one or more 14ers in the Mosquito Range – a chain of mountains flanking the western edge of South Park, separating Fairplay from Leadville.

There are five 14ers in the Mosquito Range: Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Cameron, Mt. Bross, Mt. Democrat, and Mt. Sherman. I decided to pick Mt. Sherman, the one located furthest to the south and therefore farthest away from Boulder, as my targeted turn-point.  I thought that if I could round Mt. Sherman I might be able to also pick off one or more of the others further to the north.

I also decided that it would be fun to follow up my previous pre-declared 300+ kilometer triangle with another one, and so I picked Lookout Mountain to the west of Ft. Collins as my second turn-point.  Start and Finish would be at Bighorn Mountain, just east of the old mining village of Gold Hill. Bighorn Mountain is a great start location when towing to the NW from Boulder. It often produces good thermals early in the day coming off its charred south-east facing slope and it lies just within the 15km start cylinder for the Speed League. Total task distance: 325 kilometers.

My forecast had the day start around 10:30AM.  However, the westerly wind had produced a thin lenticular cloud on the east side of the divide and so I decided to wait until after noon to get going even though two other Boulder pilots took off (and stayed up) considerably earlier.

The tow into the foothills was very choppy and characterized by significant rotor turbulence.  I got a lot of slack line recovery practice. 🙂  I released at just under 10k feet MSL, higher than I had intended.  Even then it was hard work to get the first decent climb.  There was a lot of rotor mixed in with the thermals: my first two climbs were very rough and uneven with strong lift and strong sink mixed on every turn, requiring constant corrections.

My first good climb that allowed me to gain 4,000 feet in 7 minutes came after I had struggled in middling lift for about 20 minutes following my release from tow.  Funny enough it came directly off the south side of Bighorn Mountain just after I had passed through the Start Line.

From my new vantage point above 16,000 feet I could now see past Mount Evans into South Park.  The cumulus clouds were still few, thin and sparse but it seemed that they were developing quickly and so I felt good about getting underway towards my first turn-point.

Climbs near Rollinsville and Idaho Springs – there always seems be be a thermal right over Idaho Springs – brought me close to 18,000 feet, allowing me to fly past Mount Evans into South Park.  Thanks to decent climbs every 10-15 miles I continued to make good progress along the course and reached Fairplay less than an hour after leaving Bighorn Mountain.   Up until this point my average speed was around 100 kph despite a cross-wind of almost 20 kts.

The Mosquito Range looking south. Mt. Sherman is in the upper middle of the picture, straight above the winglet of the Discus.

Mount Sherman, my targeted turn-point was about twelve miles straight ahead.  But the question was: how do I get there.  Just before Fairplay I started to feel the effects of the lee-side sink from the mountains in front of me. I flew directly under the last remaining cloud near Alma Junction.  If I could climb back up to just under 18,000 feet I would likely be high enough to glide the last seven miles directly to the top of Mt. Sherman even if it meant pushing into sink.  However, there was no lift to be had under this cloud.  Despite trying to climb for about seven minutes I was only able to maintain my altitude of 15,400 feet – definitely too low to fly straight to Mt. Sherman and back.

As I circled in vain I was debating between two options: 1) there was a nice looking cloud eight miles to the SE over Reinecker Ridge but that would take me much further away from my target and my distance would further increase with the wind drift.  I might get back to 18,000 feet but then what?  2) there was a promising looking ridge on the NNW side of Silverheels Mountain, about five miles north.  The wind seemed to be blowing right onto the ridge and the entire mountain was in the sun.  If I could get a climb off that ridge I would have a much shorter distance to transition onto the top of the Mosquito Range, albeit several miles north of my target.

From the perspective of reaching my target the ridge was clearly the better option.  But what if it didn’t work?  There were other mountains further upwind so there was a considerable risk that the ridge would be in their lee and instead of lift I might only find turbulence and sink. What would I do then?

I glanced at my flight computer and confirmed what I knew anyway: my nearest decent land-out field was on the east side of Elkhorn Road, just east of Como.  If the Silverheels ridge didn’t work I would escape in that direction along Little Baldy Mountain with the wind in my back.  There was another cloud between Silverheels and Como. Chances were good that I would be able to find a climb there. And if not, Elkhorn Road was definitely within glide range.  If it became necessary I would be able to land parallel to the road and almost directly into the wind.  I estimated the risk of having to land out at less than 20% and I had a plan B and a plan C.  With those thoughts in mind I decided to go for the ridge.

The road between Leadville and Copper Mountain is below. The next valley behind connects Leadville with Minturn. Mount of the Holy Cross is in the distance.

As expected I had to cross more sink as I pushed into the wind to get to the northern ridge of Silverheels, and when I got there my altitude had dropped to 13,600 feet – right on the ridge and just below the level of the summit.  And voila, the ridge worked!  Not very well, but it did.  Phew! I flew a few turns in figure eight loops until I was well above the ridge line.  Given that I was fairly close to terrain I also made a conscious effort to maintain extra airspeed for added safety.  I was able to gain some altitude back but unfortunately the lift did not extend more than about 600 feet above the summit.

Just as I was contemplating my options again I noticed a new cloud forming two miles southeast next to the summit of Little Baldy Mountain.  It was in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go but it was clearly the best choice.  I headed straight to the cloud, losing all the altitude I had just gained on the ridge in the process and finally I found decent lift.  Eight minutes later I was back up at 17,500 feet and the world looked a lot friendlier.

To my delight there were two additional new clouds between my position and the Mosquito Range so it was time for a second attempt.  I pushed back into the wind and managed to get onto the Mosquito Range without losing much altitude. The route south towards Mt. Sherman did not look great but Quandary Peak, another 14er – though technically part of the Ten Mile Range and not the Mosquito Range, was just two miles to the north.  It was a peak I was definitely able to reach without taking any risks so I went for it.

One down. After rounding Quandary Peak I started to head back south along the ridge, glancing at my flight computer to locate the exact positions of the other 14ers between Quandary Peak and Mt. Sherman.  Unfortunately I hit a lot of sink and quickly dropped back down to 15,500 feet.  I wasn’t too keen on ridge soaring again so I made a quick decision to head back east under the cloud over Silverheels.

After “refueling” back to almost 18,000 feet, I decided to make my third and final attempt for the day to get to Mt. Sherman.  I headed straight back to the Mosquito Range and was able to pass directly over Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Cameron, and Mt. Democrat – three additional 14ers directly along the same ridge line.  (Unfortunately I missed Mt. Bross by less than a mile.)

The Mosquito Range and the Ten Mile Range behind looking north. Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Cameron, Mt. Democrat, and Mt. Bross are topping the two ridge lines in the upper middle right of in this picture. The road over Hoosier Pass between Fairplay and Breckenridge is visible in the upper right. Three tailings ponds from the mining industry north of Leadville are visible in the top left. Mt. Quandary is just to the right of these ponds.

From Mt. Democrat I still had 8 miles to go to get to Mt Sherman.  I followed the ridge line, hoping that the combination of northwesterly wind and sunshine hitting the western slope would carry me along.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and my altitude kept dropping again.  There was a nice looking cloud two miles west of the ridge (directly east of the town of Leadville) so I decided to seek another climb under that cloud before going to Mt. Sherman. That was plan A.

There’s always a risk that a cloud won’t work so having a plan B was important because I was now on the west side of the Mosquito Range and potentially unable to cross back to the east side.  Fortunately, coming up with plan B was simple.  With the wind from the northwest I would fly on the upwind side of the ridges to the south and eventually land at the airport in Buena Vista should I be unable to find a climb before then.  I considered this a very remote possibility but felt good about knowing exactly what to do if plan A did not work.

The town of Leadville is clearly visible as I circle on the west side of the Mosquito Range.

There was indeed no need for plan B.  The cloud east of Leadville offered a quick and easy climb to 17,800 feet.  The top of Mt. Sherman was now only three miles to the southeast and more than 3,500 feet below.   Rounding it felt almost anticlimactic after all the work that it took to get there:  the final seven miles to get from Alma Junction to Mt. Sherman had taken me more than one hour and ten minutes!

With the wind at my back and no mountain to climb in front I was back at Alma Junction in less than five minutes and on route towards Lookout Mountain, my second turn point, 100 miles NNE.

There were two reasonably looking ways to get there.  1) A more direct route following the spine of the Continental Divide; and 2) A longer and more easterly route along the lower foothills via Conifer, Golden, Jamestown and Estes Park.

The longer route looked a lot easier:  there were several nice looking clouds between Como and Conifer and then a continuous line of – likely convergence induced – clouds all along the lower foothills to the north.  I had already flown this route in similar conditions and have seen it work extremely well.

The direct route had fewer compelling clouds but I thought it would benefit from the afternoon sun hitting the westerly slopes of the mountains and the northwesterly winds blowing up along the divide.  And it was shorter.

I opted to go for the direct route.  Initially I made reasonable progress via Boreas Mountain, Geneva Peak, and Grays and Torreys Peak. But from there this choice of route turned out to be a big mistake.  The further north I got the stronger the wind became.  And as the wind got stronger the thermals became weaker, more turbulent, and less organized.  Weak climbs meant I had to spend a long time working my way up, and while I did that, I was subjected to major wind drift.  What I thought would be a shorter route, actually ended up being a longer one if you add up all the miles that I had to push back into the cross wind.

The worst section was north of Longs Peak when my turn-point  was no more than 20 miles away.  I was just one good climb away from making my final turn point and the good climb just never came.  I spent way too much time in weak wind-blown lift, hanging on to my poor route choice for no apparent reason.  In retrospect, I would have been much faster had I simply departed from the divide and flown along the convergence at the base of the foothills.   The last 20 miles to TP2 took me 45 minutes – a ridiculous amount of time given that I did not have a major peak to climb.

After I finally rounded TP2 it took me a while to understand how easy the line along the foothills would have been.  My brain was so conditioned to the poor conditions along the divide that I instinctively took the first climb I could find along the foothills, spending another 10 minutes in weak lift to work my way up to final glide altitude of 13,000 feet.

Only then did I realize how easy this line could have been.  I flew the next 20 miles to the Finish Line without another circle and without losing any altitude, finally reaching Bighorn Mountain five hours and three minutes after I had started my 325km task from there.

Since flying was now so easy I continued for another 20 miles straight to Golden before turning around to come back to Boulder where I landed after having been in the air for six hours total.

This was a difficult flight (which I made a lot more difficult than it should have been) but with some nice accomplishments: I bagged five additional Fouteeners (Quandary Peak, Mt Lincoln, Mt. Cameron, Mt. Democrat, and Mt. Sherman) and I completed my second pre-declared 300+ kilometer triangle flight (i.e. Diamond Goal).  My flight track is here.

If you take three attempts to round a TP and pick a poor line between two TPs something has to give: task speed only 35kts – almost twice as slow than during my first Diamond Goal flight.

However, it is truly humbling when I put these accomplishments next to the flight of another Boulder pilot, Pedja Bogdanovich, on the same day: Pedja covered 1,163 kilometers including a 916km FAI triangle.  His average speed: 131 kph!  Pedja’s flight track is here. So much to learn!

Lessons Learned

  • Don’t pick a high mountain top as a turn-point unless you really, really want it.  Rounding Mt. Sherman took me 1 hour and 10 minutes.  That is fine (and perhaps even necessary) if the primary objective of the flight is to reach that specific TP.  (Would I have tried so hard to get a Fourteener had I picked Fairplay as my TP?).  But if the primary goal is to complete a pre-set task, pick an easier TP and try to achieve a secondary goal (such as a nearby 14er) along the way.
  • Don’t expect to find good thermals on the upwind side of slopes if the wind is strong.  Strong wind wreaks havoc with thermals: a) the air cannot cling to the ground long enough to warm up sufficiently (hence the thermals are weaker); and b) rising thermals can be so wind-blown that it’s almost impossible to fly a full circle in lift.  On very windy days the best thermals may be further downwind of mountain ranges where they are protected from the wind; – especially if the wind is forced to slow down by another airmass and a convergence line forms (like on Thursday along the foothills).
  • If you pick a poor line, correct it (if you can).  Don’t stick to a decision if it can be easily corrected.  I had plenty of evidence that the line along the divide did not work and the amazing-looking cloud street along the foothills was in plain view and at all times easily reachable.  I should have course-corrected when I found out that my line was clearly sub-optimal.
  • Always have a plan B (and plan C if appropriate).  I felt I was appropriately disciplined on Thursday whenever there was a risk of getting low.  I did not decide to approach the Silverheels Ridge without a clear escape plan and a viable land-out spot picked. I did not cross into the Leadville Valley without having a clear plan of where to land and how to get there if needed.
  • Don’t base your expectations on your last experience if you transition to a different area.  On Thursday, I intuitively felt that the thermals along the Continental Divide would be as good as those that I had used on my outbound leg to TP1.  That was a mistake.  I should have anticipated that the strong wind would weaken and blow out those thermals.  Likewise, my experience with the poor lift along the divide clouded my judgement with respect to the conditions when I returned to the base of the foothills at the end of the day.  Different areas will likely mean different conditions – different thermal strength, different wind characteristics, etc.  I have to get better taking this into account when transitioning from one area to another.

Diamond Goal in 2 Hours 34 min

The soaring forecast for this past Saturday suggested strong thermals along the lower foothills but strong westerly winds – and therefore much more difficult conditions – on the west side of the Continental Divide.

Here are some of the key weather charts that I looked at the night before my flight:

Strong thermals of 3-4 m/s (6-8 kt) along the foothills from Colorado Springs in the south to the Colorado/Wyoming border in the north.

Thermal height at 2PM – quite high – to be expected for the mountains but higher than usual for the plains along the foothills. Cloud bases near the legal limit of 18,000 or even higher mean that much of the flight can be high above the terrain and therefore stress-free, with a wide glide radius and therefore a wide range of landing options as long as one can stay in contact with the clouds.

30+ knot winds to the west of the Continental Divide (at the top of the boundary layer)

Modest risk of overdevelopment north of Boulder but no risk of thunderstorms.

The net result presented in the PFD chart: strong thermals, a high base, and not much risk of over-development = strong attainable flight distances, especially along the lower foothills.

Plus, very important to look at, especially in Boulder, is the convergence forecast.

Projected convergence (and divergence) lines at 2:30PM.  The chart shows several convergence zones along the lower foothills. These are super helpful especially when they are marked by curtain clouds and/or different cloud bases. In blue conditions a situation like this can be confusing for the pilot as it is not possible to see why there is lift in some areas (where air masses are coming together, i.e. converging) and sink in others (where air masses are drifting apart, i.e. diverging).

Convergence forecast for 4PM. This shows a very pronounced line along the lower foothills. It is particularly useful to look at the projected development of convergence lines over the entire soaring day. (Just as it is important to look at the development of thermal height, depth, and strength). Skysight makes this easy to do by pressing on the triangle icon to the right of the time slider.  Note, however, that there are so many variables at play that it is impossible to predict precisely where the convergence zones will be at any given point in time.  Especially this part of the forecast can only be directional at best.  However, I have found it to be extremely useful in forming a mental picture of the potential movements of air masses throughout the day. By reading the clouds it is then much easier to understand what is going on and to adjust accordingly.

Given these conditions I decided I would stay on the east side of the divide and plan a pre-declared 300km triangle route that would take advantage of the strong thermal conditions along the lower foothills as well as the convergence lines.  If the convergence forecast would hold and if I did my planning right, I might even be able to fly relatively fast and get some points for the OLC speed league as well.

With these objectives in mind, I declared the following triangle that would meet the requirements for a Diamond Goal Flight according to the FAI.

Start at Gross Reservoir Dam.  I wanted the start to be within a 15 km radius around the Boulder airport since you have to fly through this cylinder after getting off tow to qualify for OLC speed league points.  Gross Reservoir is just within the 15 km mark.  It is also on the west side of the Flatirons, where thermals tend to start much sooner than on the east side where the inversion can be very persistent. Another advantage is the fact that the south-tow route from Boulder runs along Eldorado Canyon, just a little south-east of the reservoir.  (When towing north, a good alternative start point within the 15 km cylinder would be Bighorn Mountain.)

First TP at Halligan Reservoir, 103 km to the north of Gross Reservoir.  According to my forecast, the convergence line would likely be a few miles east of Halligan.  There were two reasons I wanted to stay on the west side: 1) the lift tends to be much weaker once you get into the more humid air mass that typically lies east of the convergence; and 2) the cloud bases on the east side are often much lower.  The last thing I wanted was to be forced to descend down low just to round a turn point and then have to work my way back up.  I also considered moving the TP further north but the mountains get lower the closer you get to the Wyoming border and this often means that the prevailing westerly winds tend to be stronger and therefore the thermals weaker and less organized.

Second TP at Conifer, 151 km to the south of Halligan Reservoir.  The projected location of the convergence was, once again, among my top reasons to pick Conifer.  It also has the advantage of being less than 60 km away from Boulder, which means that given the forecasted height of the cloud base around 18,000 feet, it would be well within final glide range of the Boulder airport. I therefore considered it a stress-free turn point even if the conditions would be less than ideal.

Finish back at Gross Reservoir Dam, 48 km to the north of Conifer, for a total triangle distance of 302 km (164 nautical miles).

Task as shown on Google Maps

I knew, of course, that reality never exactly matches the forecast.  To prove this point, as I drove to the airport in the morning, a long and wide lenticular cloud shielded the sun from reaching the ground along the foothills over a stretch of at least 100 miles.  The temperature at the airfield was pleasantly cool but this only meant that without direct sunshine, thermal activity would start much later than 10:30AM as projected in the forecast.

However, given that it was June 22 – just one day beyond the summer solstice – there was a lot of daytime left for the lennie to disappear and for the day to develop.

Around 11:30AM the cirrus shield had become noticeably smaller and thinner and the temperature on the ground started to rise quickly.  The more impatient pilots decided to launch, unfortunately only to return to the airfield 20-30 minutes later.  Clearly, it was still too early.   I kept telling myself that there was no reason to rush.  Sunset was at 8:34PM and thermal activity would likely last until well past 6PM.   And my task should not require more than 4 hours,  maybe even considerably less.

I decided to remain on the ground until the first pilot would stay air born.  That was the case around 12:30PM.  I waited for one more pilot to launch and finally took off just before 1PM.

A beautiful cumulus cloud had formed right above the Flatirons – ideal for a south tow towards my start point.  I stayed on tow probably a little longer than necessary and released in the second good lift at just under 10k feet MSL.  My climb rate immediately improved once I was off tow – funny how that works – and within minutes I was up at 15k feet and ready to get on task.

There were some nice looking cumuli right along the task line interspersed with some blue gaps in between.  The first gap was perhaps the biggest at about 15 miles but I wasn’t bothered by it.   I had enough altitude and the cloud ahead looked very promising.  I was also within glide range of Boulder and knew that in the worst case I could try again.  I also saw some developing wisps along my path and slightly adjusted my route by a few degrees here and there to take advantage of any rising air, always staying slightly on the upwind side.

Beautiful skies on my first leg. The town of Estes Park is below. Longs Peak is on the left side of the picture just below the wing. I just left a very strong climb and am heading north towards Halligan Reservoir.

A very powerful climb near Estes Park (up to 15 kts average!) took me to 17,000 feet and another over Signal Mountain to 17,500.  The path forward to my first TP was along the convergence zone:  generally the air was just rising up by 1-2 kts and I was able to fly in a straight line while maintaining altitude as long as I wasn’t pushing for speed.

As I got closer to Halligan Reservoir the cloud base dropped a little so I flew a bit faster to come down as well, rounding the turn point at an altitude of 16,000 feet.

Rounding the first TP over Halligan Reservoir

Looking back to the south after my 180 turn, I noticed the convergence had continued to develop and the line was now better marked.

A few miles after rounding TP1, heading south. The convergence line is clearly visible and the cloud bases ahead are rising. Horsetooth Reservoir is visible 20 miles ahead in the distance, approx. 20 degrees left of the nose. There’s a long paved private airstrip (“Christman Field”) just east of the northern tip of the lake, probably the best land-out option in this area because you could just get a tow plane instead of having to trailer back. However, with skies like this in front I was not at all worried about having to land out.

West of Ft. Collins I stopped to get back to over 17,000 feet before continuing my convergence surfing:  the line wasn’t completely straight so I curved gently along its west side, flying faster in sink and slowing down in lift, for the most part able to avoid any thermaling.

Well-marked convergence line on my second leg, heading south. The low hanging curtain clouds mark the boundary between the different air masses. The air on the drier side (where the cloud base is significantly higher) is rising. When you see clouds like this just fly along the curtain clouds and stay on the side with the higher cloud bases. It works!

West of Golden, the convergence line made an obvious turn toward the west so I decided to make a little detour as well:

You can see my detour to the west on my second and third leg as I followed the convergence. The straight line between Gross Reservoir and Conifer is the task direction. My flight path curved west via Squaw Mountain as I flew along the west side of the curtain clouds that marked the convergence. If you look closely at the slight change in color of the flight trace, you can see that I gained altitude between Gross Reservoir and Squaw Mt. on the southbound leg. At Squaw Mt. I had to leave the convergence line to reach Conifer 20+ km further SE. You can also see my altitude drop (the trace line changes color from blue to turquoise) as I tug underneath the lower cloud base near Conifer. After rounding the turn point I first headed WNW instead of flying straight towards Gross Reservoir in order to follow the best available energy line. Although this meant a longer flight track it was likely still faster than going straight and stopping in (likely weaker) thermals along the way.

Conifer lay about 10 miles east of the convergence requiring me to temporarily leave the air mass that had carried me so well.  Once again I had to drop down to about 16,000 feet to make the turnpoint and stay clear of the clouds.

After rounding Conifer, I headed right back toward the convergence line, following along a ridge towards Mt Evans where the air was slightly ascending which meant I was also to get back to the convergence without losing much altitude.  Near Squaw Mountain I stopped in a thermal to top up to 17,700 ft and from there it was a straight glide to the finish line over Gross Reservoir.

Steep celebratory turn over Gross Reservoir just after crossing the finish line :-). You can see the dam straight below.

A glance at the flight computer told me I had completed my 302 km task in just 2 hours and 34 minutes.  That equated to a respectable average task speed of 118 km per hour.  I’m sure an experienced XC pilot could have shaved off another 20-30 minutes but I’m definitely happy with this result for my fist 300 km goal flight. (I even arrived 1000 feet higher than I had started out!)

My flight computer happily announced that the task was indeed finished. Average task speed 64 kts (118.5 kph)

The red line shows my route on task. The blue line is my flight trace before and after the task portion.

With my task completed, I wondered what I could add-on to enhance my OLC score.  I thought it would be great if I could turn my overall flight track into into a big FAI triangle.  To do that I would have to cross the Continental Divide and fly west to a point roughly perpendicular to the line between Halligan Reservoir and Conifer, and approx. in the middle of it.  Kremmling, I thought, would be an ideal turnpoint to shoot for.  If this worked I might be able to post a 400 km FAI triangle.

The first practical question was how to get to the Divide.  The straight line west from Gross Reservoir did not look promising as it meant pushing into a big blue hole against a 15-20kt headwind.  There were no clouds for 20 miles and I expected a lot of sink in the lee of the mountains.  Quick decision: I would return towards Mt. Evans where the convergence line had already proven to work – then I would fly north along the divide and look for a cloud street that could take me west.

In trying to execute this add-on plan, the first part worked well.  Within 20 minutes I was on the divide near Silver Plume Mountain.

Above the Continental Divide near James Peak, looking SW towards Vail. This cloud street looked very good but it wasn’t exactly in the direction I was most interested in taking. Also, the clouds were now developing very rapidly with the first virga are already visible on the horizon. Lastly, I am still not sufficiently familiar with the land-out options in this direction so I did not seriously consider taking this route.

As I continued to head north along the ridge I hit significant sink.  I stopped at Mt. Flora to get back to 17,500 before a blue gap to the next cloud near Mt. Jasper.  There I only found a very weak climb in turbulent conditions.

Unfortunately the clouds to the west of the divide were now rapidly over-developing.  As I circled around Mt. Jasper I could see more and more virga and rain showers developing in the direction I wanted to fly in and so I decided to shelf my FAI triangle plan for another day.

Continuing along the divide also seemed pointless as the thermals on the ridge were weak and extremely wind-blown. The convergence over the foothills still looked promising, however, and so I headed back towards Gold Lake.  With the wind from behind this was a quick transition but I still lost quite a bit of altitude flying through the lee side sink.  I had been right not pushing into the wind earlier.

Leaving the Continental Divide heading east. The wing points north along the Divide. Niwot Ridge, Left Hand Reservoir, and Brainard Lake are visible below. Longs Peak and Mount Meeker are clearly visible in the distance. The blue skies above are indicative of the lee side sink on this side of the mountains.

A mediocre climb near Jamestown (I wondered: would I have taken this had I been trying to get somewhere?) took me back to 17,000 and a vicious rotor over the Twin Sisters (i.e. in the lee of Longs Peak) brought me to 17,500 feet.  From there I tried to connect with the clouds on top of Trail Ridge Road to maybe push a little further west from there.  However, by now I should have known better than to approach the Divide from the lee side on such a windy day.  After hitting heavy sink I scrapped that plan as well and headed back to the tried and true convergence line north of Estes Park. By now overdevelopment set in almost everywhere around me and although the lift was still strong, the lack of sunshine in the cockpit meant I was getting cold.

Estes Park viewed from Triangle Mountain around 6PM. There’s still a nice cloud street to the west of Estes Park but it is too late for new adventures on the other side of the divide. Also, the amount of virga and rain showers is rapidly increasing at this time.

With 6pm approaching the next decision was simple: enough for the day.  I started my final glide north of Estes Park, flew straight to Golden and from there back to Boulder where I arrived with plenty of altitude to spare.

Flight stats.

My total flight distance ended up being 523km.  My bonus goal of earning OLC Speed League points for our club worked out too.  With 118 points I scored second for SSB this past weekend and first among those flying from Boulder. The flight track is here.

Evening scenery at the Boulder airfield after a great day of flying.

 

Lessons Learned

  • Careful task planning can pay off.  Usually a pre-declared route should mean a lower average speed than simply following the best visible lines.  However, by carefully planning my task in accordance with the thermal and convergence forecast I was able to pre-plan the flight in a way that took advantage of the best projected energy lines.  And since the reality was not very far off from the forecast, requiring only a deviation of about 20 miles or so, I was able to complete the task as quickly as I did.
  • Flying with a specific goal in mind greatly focuses in-flight decision making. On previous flights when I took off without a specific objective in mind, the choices were endless.  This meant I often took a while to make up my mind and I also found myself reversing decisions I had made simply because small changes in the sky momentarily made some other direction look more promising.  This Saturday I had a clear goal and all my decision were made to safely get to the goal as fast as possible.  The difference this makes to the thought process is amazing. At any given point there are much fewer choices available and I’ve found myself homing in on those choices much faster.
  • Flying with a specific goal makes soaring even more fun.  Sure, even without a goal it is fun to take advantage of the wind and the sun and enjoy the amazing sight-seeing that can be had high above the Rocky Mountains with all of Colorado spread-out below.  However, I’ve found that on days when staying up is super easy the level of fun increases to another level by adding some additional challenge and being able to measure progress against that challenge.  Try it out!
  • Convergence lines can be the key to flying fast – especially in this area where they are a very frequent phenomenon.  Even if the lift along the convergence is only 1-2 kts it basically means you can fly in a straight line (maybe with slight route deviations here and there) without having to stop to thermal.  You are much faster overall when floating along at 60 kts IAS at 17,000 feet than to push 80 – 90kts between thermals, then stopping to climb before putting the nose down again.
  • Always remember the power of lee side sink.   I made the right call when I decided to transition to the divide from Gross Reservoir via an established convergence line towards Mount Evans.  Flying there directly into the wind would have likely been impossible.  I should have remembered this lesson when I tried it again a bit later over Estes Park.  Although the distance to bridge was much shorter flying in heavy lee-side sink against the wind requires a lot of excess altitude.