Saturday, 5 January 2013

Higher and higher

Talk about missed opportunities!  I was supposed to head out to the club last Saturday, December 29th, but had my Dad come down from Karratha to stay with us for a couple of days.  I declined to head out gliding in favour of hanging out with him - I should have taken him out there with me!!  The day was shaping up very nicely in the morning and I was kicking myself that I wasn't up in the air, by lunchtime it looked like thermals would be heading upwards of 10,000'.  Oh well, I don't get to see my Dad much so I guess that's fair.  But just to rub it in, Vic called me late in the afternoon to report that I had missed a boomer of a day and that he had topped out at 12,500' in the Jantar.  Good thing that by that point I had a nice cold beer to cry into :,(

Anyway, back on track.  It's been hot here in the west.  Bloody Hot.  The past couple of weeks including Christmas and New Year has seen Perth in the grip of a heat wave, with most days going northwards of 36C, and many of them well over 40C.  Today was no different as I was driving out to Cunderdin, at 0800 it already felt well over 30.  Arriving at the airfield I was greeted by a hot and humid Nor'Easter that was ominously promising a hot day with potential thunderstorm activity.  The morning briefing met report confirmed this, with a forecast of isolated thunderstorms penetrating from the north by 1400 or so.  Good thermal activity though, with expected tops of 10 - 11,000' by the mid afternoon.  There were a lot of members at the club today, many of them still on holidays and taking every opportunity to fly.  Several of them decided on a task to fly and headed out to prepare their machines.  They're all practising for the State Championships, which the club is hosting next week.  More after the jump...

I had a new instructor today - Rob Hanbury.  I'd been helping Rob out with renovations in the clubhouse over the previous months, but this would be my first chance to fly with him.  He turned out to be a great instructor, very laid back and jovial, always with something positive or humorous to say.  He went through my logbook and noted that I was progressing extremely well, then asked me what I wanted to achieve today.  I told him I was still struggling with landings so I would like some help there, and also wanted to get some more thermalling practice in.  Rob suggested doing a couple of short flights to begin with to work solely on circuits and landing, then we would see how the day went.  Alis also wanted to get a couple of instructional flights in, so I couldn't monopolise the Peewee all day :)

Damian's ASK-21mi powering up for launch
Once all the usual inspections and tasks were complete we headed out to the runway to get the hut set up.  There was only one other glider ready to go by this point, the ASK-21mi self launcher I had flown with a couple of months ago.  Rob elected to get us in the air straight away, and get two circuits in before the other gliders began to arrive as it was going to get very busy on the lineup in the next half hour or so.  The first two flights were launched only to 1,000' with immediate entry into the circuit.  Both aerotows were nice and smooth, and I really feel I can handle tows confidently now.  Rob handed over an additional responsibility to me during the circuit - radio useage.  Up until this point, my instructors had been running communications, but Rob was confident in my ability to fly and communicate at the same time.  Radio isn't new to me anyway, I have a MROCP (Marine radio license) and the usage of radio in aviation is largely the same as at sea.  Both of my two circuits went well after making the call for downwind and to my enormous surprise, I managed two very good landings - with accurate speed control, good approach path (except for turning final a little late) and angle and appropriate spoiler use.  Rob was surprised that I thought I was struggling with landings, as these ones went very smoothly - something must have clicked in my head since I was out here last :)

Gliders arriving at the lineup and preparing for launch
After the second landing, gliders were beginning to arrive on the lineup to launch for their cross country flights, and I opted to take a break from flying in order to help handle ground operations.  It got busy quickly, Damian was launching in the ASK-21mi again while on the runway we had lined up - James Cooper in his SZD-55, Bob Bignell in his DG-200, Chris Runecker in his LS-4, Iain Russell in his Astir, Russell Brierley in his Nimbus, Swain Johnson in his very sexy ASG-29 and finally Ray Hoffman in a club Jantar Std2.  Poor Bob Milligan had his work as tow pilot cut out for him today... I don't think he had a break for a couple of hours there.

DG-200, LS4, Astir lined up with ASG-29E and Nimbus being towed in.
ASG-29E and Jantar Std2 ready for launch
Once all the solo pilots were up and away, it was time to hand over to Alis for a while so she could get some flying time in, so I took some time to relax on the ground and have some lunch.  By this time it was about 1300 and very hot... the breeze had weakened somewhat but was still from the NE and scorching.  Everything had a pre-storm feel to it, but there was no sign of cloud anywhere around.  Soon enough, Alis was back on the ground and it was time for me to get airborne again.  Alis had decided two flights were enough for her, so Rob said we could stay up for as long as we wanted this time.  Climbing into the cockpit was uncomfortable - everything was burning hot just from a few minutes stationary on the ground.  Closing the canopy before launch brought out an immediate sweat - it gets bloody hot in that little plastic bubble!  Once we were moving though, the air pouring through the open vent was enough to make the cockpit bearable.  At 1,500' we'd already hit a couple of thermals so I released on the next surge and we were away.

We had no real plan for the flight and I had just intended to potter around the local area, but after catching some decent thermals near the airfield Rob told me to pick a cross country target and go for it.  I decided to head off NE into the wind, and chose Yorkrakine as our destination, about 39km away.  Heading off on task, I flew through a few small bubbles, then 5km in I hooked into a really nice thermal of around 7kts.  Up until this point, the thermals had been a bit inconsistent down around 4,500' with some possible windshear breaking them up a bit.  Passing 5,000' however, this thermal widened out and became more manageable... not smooth exactly, but definitely easier to stay in.  Passing 6,500 things got really nice and the thermal began to smooth, with nice lift all the way around, and I let Rob know that I'd just passed my highest climb.  The thermal was still nice and strong so I stayed with it and eventually topped out at 8950'.  I could have taken it higher, but the lift was getting patchy and weak, and John Orton had previously encouraged me not to stick with thermals for absolute height, but rather exit them when lift dropped off to below average.  So, just shy of 9,000' I slid out of the thermal and headed NE.  Out of the thermal, sink was quite strong and I bumped up the speed to around 80kt, probably a little fast as it meant we were losing height faster than we had to.  I figured that lift was good today and that the next thermal would make up for it.  I was right - to an extent.  It took a long time to find the next thermal...  Heading off on track we went 10km... 15km... 20km... and still no lift.  We were down to a bit over half of our original altitude by this point, and there was still no sign of lift.  Sink had gotten very strong, down to -12kt in places.  30km on track I decided to pull the task, with only 9km to the turnpoint.  I'm glad I did, as it took another 5km along the return track before we found any lift.  At 4,000' we hit another nice thermal and picked up enough height to get safely back to the airfield, and ironically on the return trip found plenty of bubbles of lift to keep us up.

Watching out to the North, I could see the first Cu's going up, and they proceeded to build rapidly into quite large congestus clouds - it looked like the storms were forming up after all, albeit a long way north.  Radio calls from the cross country fliers indicated they'd all turned around their turnpoint at Koorda and were heading back one by one.  Swain reported topping out at 11,000' on the front edge of the cloud group North of Koorda with enough height to make the 92km final glide home in one shot.

Arriving back at the airfield, we were still a couple of thousand feet above circuit height, so I toured around the town and saltlakes for a while before finally calling entry to the circuit.  The circuit was going pretty well, then Rob asked me to cut downwind short and make base and final earlier than usual.  This resulted in a really steep approach, which needed spoilers out on base and fully out all the way down the glideslope.  Nearing flare height I eased back as usual for a landing and was taken by surprise when the round out didn't fully slow our descent.  We hit the ground pretty hard on the main wheel and promptly lurched forward onto the nose wheel before slowing the ground roll and bring the glider to a full stop.  Exiting the cockpit, we checked the glider for damage (yes - I had hit that hard, and no - there was no damage) before pulling the glider off the runway.  James was making a high speed low pass over the runway as we moved, dumping water as he finished his task and rounded to enter the pattern.  Rob explained what I had done wrong - I had forgotten that I had the spoilers fully out and hadn't retracted them to half as I should have over the threshold.  I was pretty upset at myself over this as I should have known this, but Rob pointed out that it's a pretty common mistake, and I was unlikely to make it again now.

Once James had landed I asked to go up for one more circuit - I wanted to make up for that bad landing and end the day on a positive note.  So, a quick tow to 1,000' and we released.  As we were making the clearing turn, Rob told me he wanted me to fly a right hand circuit - this was not standard, as the circuit pattern is left hand, and Rob complicated it further by telling me he wanted me to turn base very early, in line with the runway threshold and land appropriately down the runway.  I managed to do as requested without a problem and even pulled off a good landing this time, even though we were a long way down from the normal touchdown point.

Reading my notes later I realised what Rob was checking - one of the requirements is that the pilot makes accurate circuits without falling into the habit of using ground references or landmarks as cues during the circuit.  By forcing me to turn early and also make a R/H circuit, Rob was ensuring that I was making my circuit and landing based on situational awareness and not a habit.  Even though the activity puzzled me at the time, it makes sense now that I've had a chance to think it through.

All in all, it had been a good day.  Rob said that despite my one heavy landing, he was confident I could land safely on my own.  He has asked me to concentrate on launch emergencies and hopefully crosswind operations next time I'm out.  If I can get these done and get a final couple of safe landings to get signed off then I can expect to go solo!