Bad Drought’s Bright Side

They say it’s an ill wind that blows no good.  Cold fronts like last week, bone dry with strong north winds blowing across drought-parched land, can be very ill indeed, sending the risk of wildfire sky high.  Strong north wind was what stoked the September wildfire that threatened the Texas Renaissance Festival grounds, the Episcopal church camp – Camp Allen – and my soaring club, while burning houses, fields and trees in three counties.

Wind like that is no fun to fly in, either.  The drought itself, though – soaring pilots around Houston found a bright side there.  None of us would WISH such a drought on ourselves or anyone else, but it created some of the best soaring conditions in memory.  One contest pilot made a set of outstanding triangular flights from our field to two turnpoints and back.  His longest triangle was 875 kilometers. That’s 544 miles in an aircraft without an engine across the Texas coastal plain.  Another pilot achieved a straight-out flight to land just this side of Amarillo.  And a third pilot reached an altitude of 9,000′, while several got so high they could see the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles away.   So yesterday the flavor of the “clubhouse flying”  was an unusual mixture of delight in great flights and dismay about scary wildfires, shrinking lakes, and dying trees.  Meanwhile takeoffs (as well as one flight-review downwind landing with hard braking action) unfolded in clouds of dust. Bright side and bad side both – it’s nowhere near over.

Chariots of the Air

Yesterday may have been the last day of summer: it was warm and sunny and I went to my soaring club and launched in a glider and actually soared – stayed up for 50 minutes the first flight, and gained 1000′ of altitude in a cooperative thermal on my second flight. For a nice nutshell of what it’s like to fly a glider, take a look at my club’s home page, www.scoh.org.

My glider was Blanik 5, one of three L-23’s in the club fleet, and the runway was mostly grassy in contrast to how it looked two weeks ago:  drought-burnt brown.  Last weekend the Field had five inches of blessed rain, and the grass came back, with little pink and white and purple wildflowers to boot.  I’m not sure hope springs eternal, but it does spring back.

No Joy

THE question for a soaring club on the weekend:  are we flyin’?   Is the weather OK and the tow plane in good repair?  A week ago, I was at the Field to fly and answered a phone call from a member who lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana.  “It’s pouring from the tropical storm here! Are we flying?  Is the contest on?”  Yes, yes, yes, even with winds of 15-20 mph from the north (thanks to that storm) we had a dozen gliders and sailplanes up in the air for training flights, local flights, and a contest with the other Houston soaring club. We even had a member test-flying his new self-launching sailplane.  He was taking advantage of the strong wind straight down the runway, like how Orville and Wilbur did their first flights.  It’s always easier to get an aircraft aloft with a strong headwind.

Unfortunately, the winds from the north further dried out the parched vegetation in our region.  Fires flared up and spread – like wildfire.  The Riley Road fire is so close that half of our pattern is in the Temporary Flight Restrictions area.  The club member who lives and hangars his power plane beside the Field was able to slip up into the air and see that the actively burning area isn’t moving our way.  But this week was a nail-biter and the weather people say this colossal risk of fire may persist through the Fall.  Today we are not flying – just hoping for the best.

Dances with Vultures

This weekend I soloed a glider for the first time in eight years and loved it.  For way too long, I’ve had to concentrate on other things, but now I can fly on my own again.  First I had two flights with the instructor for a review of airwork  – slack towline corrected with yaw or spoilers;  boxing the towplane wake; slow flight; stalls; side-slip left and right.  And a lot of steep turns in the form of thermalling at a 45-degree bank angle to cling to narrow thermals.  That technique worked great and the first flight lasted almost an hour and a half.   Part of the time we were in thermals with vultures.  They are lovely flyers, and they gravitate to thermals, and if a glider circles the same way as the vultures, they take it for a big white bird and don’t mind.  The species called black vulture has distinctive white patches at the end of their glossy black wings.  I could see individual flight feathers on some of the birds.  It was a very hot day but distinctly cooler under a nice cloud.  It was a fine day for thermals and vultures and glider pilots.  Other pilots in my club got up into the air and scattered.  One pilot radioed in from the vicinity of Giddings, Texas (75 or so miles away) as he made his cross-country-contest-practice rounds.   Another pilot had a unwanted but safe landout away south of  Highway 290.  A fellow club member hitched up his glider trailer and trundled off to retrieve him.  The day’s thermals were tricksy – narrow and quick to dissipate.   If soaring was predictable it wouldn’t be a sport.  And if the instructors were predictable they wouldn’t be worth their salt.  My second flight with the instructor was extremely brief with a simulated tow-rope break (i.e., he suddenly pulled the towline release at 500′) followed by me flying an abbreviated landing pattern on the side of the field opposite from the usual glider pattern.  In other words the instructor gave me a wringing workout after which a simple solo flight felt easy.  Independence Day!

Winter’s Thrill

Another picture from soaring in the Tetons.  This is the L-13’s yaw string pressed against the clean clear canopy. The yaw string is an amazing bit of low technology in high places.  Aircraft instrument panels can gauge safe, efficient, coordinated flight, but taking your eyes off  the scenery and situation (including possible traffic) is something to minimize when flying a glider.  Thus the yaw string:  this bit of yarn taped to the canopy tells you exactly what you need to know.  If the loose, tufty end isn’t centered, if it’s pointing right or left, then that foot is pressing the rudder too hard.  Take foot off tuft.  Here, with instructor Sam Lea flying, the yaw string was nicely centered while I did my photo shoot. Teton Aviation with its mountain glider operation offers a fantastic experience whether you’re a pilot or not.  If you’re a pilot you learn about mountain soaring.  If not the Husky tow plane takes you and Sam directly into the high Tetons and you glide back out again through the scenery. Take a look at the pictures on their Web site!

Right now this picture delights me for another reason too.  It was still winter in the Tetons – so nice and cool and snowy.  I came back to a Houston June with temperatures pushing 100 degrees, stuck between a devil of a drought and the hurricane-brewing deep blue sea.

Peak Experience

Glider wing, Grand Teton's peak and Jackson Hole in the distanceI’m just back from a trip where I put my hiking boots on the terrain in three Western states and soared in the Grand Tetons.  With an instructor in the glider’s back seat giving flight advice and mountain orientation, I flew much of the two-hour flight, but the instructor had the stick when I took photos.  Never before have I flown with a mountain snow-scape on the other side of the canopy! This is Grand Teton and over its shoulder is Jackson Hole.

real rapture

The Rapture didn’t happen –  not in the way notoriously predicted.  But on Friday at work we took a few minutes out to watch a hummingbird cam on the Internet where the live image showed a  bright-eyed baby hummer on the brink of fledging.  (My co-worker supplied a priceless voiceover:  “Oh, I gotta preen first – what happens if I wave my wings real hard? – I’m afwaid!! –  is that wind under my wings? – better preen some more – ooooh, is that a lawn mower I hear?  I better hang on to the edge of the nest harder – Mamaaaa!”) All of sudden the baby strongly waved his wings and flew, up and away.  Humans watching on the Internet all over the world cheered.   And yesterday at the Soaring Club of Houston,  seven Civil Air Patrol cadets got introductory rides, a couple of solo students took flights (can we say fledging?), a club pilot flew his beloved home-built Woodstock glider for the last time because it’s going to a soaring museum, and a Medical Center doctor joined the club, took his first flying lesson, and came back all smiles.  “When I fly in an airliner and there’s turbulence, everybody else gets nervous,” he said, “but I love it.”   He came to the right place for exulting in turbulent air.  Really, there’s rapture all the time, complete with the end of the old world and a new world beginning.

Intent to win

Top-tier sailplane contest pilots must have ice-cold salt water coursing in their veins.  They fly sleek long-winged engineless ships over courses hundred of miles long above brutally inhospitable terrain.  They race around downdrafts and cumulonimbus clouds and wind shear and everything else the immense engine named weather decides to throw at them.  These guys and gals are seriously intent on competing. That being the case, the Soaring Society of America has announced several contest rule changes in the interest of safety.  Changes include a “10-mile safety finish option” in the event that a really big storm lies over the contest airport.  That’s so pilots aren’t tempted to transit a thunderstorm to win more points toward winning the contest.  And this:  pilots in a midair collision will be scored contest points only to where they hit in order to eliminate the point temptation to keep going.  Yow! Most pilots if we ever had a midair and came away with an aircraft that still worked  would only want to find a place to land land and kiss the ground we landed on and thank our Deity.

Apocalypse Not Yet

I went for a walk on the Braes Bayou trail, and a big green military helicopter flew by overhead, reminding me of an incident at the Soaring Club last weekend. Two (2) of these big green machines thundered through at less than 1000′ of altitude right across our Field.  Club members looked out of hangar doors and up from mowing the grass and over from the sun shelter on the south end of the Field. Fortunately there were no gliders on tow or landing.  The rest of the afternoon people asked each other, “Did you see the Apocalypse Now moment?”

Legally gliders have right of way over powered aircraft. That isn’t much help after a helo or a bizjet turns a sailplane into confetti.  So the soaring community is avidly interested in new cockpit collision avoidance technologies, and especially those that don’t weigh much.  In Soaring Magazine this month it’s mentioned that some people are even developing an aviation collision avoidance app for smart phones!

Landout

It’s amazing how a long-winged sailplane gets tucked into a sleek trailer and ready to be towed away in less than an hour. Of course, the pilot/owner gets points for having a state of the art clamshell Cobra trailer with good tires ready to roll.  His spouse/crew/fellow club members appreciate that!

There’s quite a lot of trailering going on in the Northern hemisphere now – it’s the high summer season.  Pilots are rolling to contests; pilots are going cross-country for contests and contest practice; and landouts happen!  May they all be as uneventful as this one was.