Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Super thermals, badge flights and more!


What an absolutely amazing weekend! The weather over here in WA put on some of the best soaring conditions in years over the past week. On Friday, my mate Swain put in a huge effort and notched up a 1,000km FAI Triangle XC flight - the first ever in WA - and then capped it off with a second 1,000km on Monday! Three other pilots from other clubs in WA also completed 1,000km flights on Saturday and Sunday. It was very, very hot over here with only mild winds, and although we usually soar in the blue here we were spoiled by thermals topped with Cu's by noon every day. Thermals were very strong and were maxing out at well over 16,000ft, sometimes as high as 18,000ft.

So, what did this mean for me? A novice XC pilot with only a single solo XC flight under my belt? I went up and hammered it of course!

I was going up to the club on the weekend anyway, as we had our Christmas Party on Saturday night, and I was rostered on as Duty Pilot for the day. When I arrived at 07:30, several pilots were already rigging up and planning an early start to put in some serious distances. They informed me that the previous two days had been amazing and that it was forecast to get even better.

At the morning briefing, we went over the met forecast and saw that the conditions were indeed going to be good, so everyone was busy planning tasks. Being Duty Pilot, I didn't envision being able to do more than a little bit of local soaring for the day - but it turned out that we had no AEF's booked, only one student to pair up with the instructor, and everyone else heading out cross country. The instructor told me to go prep the Jantar for an XC flight myself, he would handle the ground operations as long as I saw everyone else off the ground first. A couple of the other guys said they were going to fly a 300km FAI triangle, and that I should come along. I was a bit dubious about flying that far on my second XC flight, but eventually agreed.

The morning got busy. I DI'd the Jantar and loaded in my water and other stuff (maps, food, camera, etc) and gave the glider a really good clean and polish with the chamois. I went easy on the canopy - it had just been repaired after my earlier mishap with it. You can see the extensive cracks and scratches in the pic below. Oddly enough, I didn't even notice them in flight. Once out at the lineup, there was an endless run of launches to do with about a dozen gliders heading out and the two-seater doing circuits in amongst them. 12:00 rolled around before I was even able to get seated in the cockpit, then I had to delay launching as a Baron came in to do touch and go's - he was a bit of a prick. Everytime I got lined up on the runway to launch and the tug got started, he would call late downwind for landing. So, the guys had to push me back off the runway and reposition the tug. Four times he did this, and three of them he flew missed approaches anyway.

12:30 came and I was finally hooked up and ready for launch. The tow was very challenging, the strong conditions made for very turbulent air and I had a novice tow pilot. Releasing at 2,000ft straight into lift I began my first climb of the day. One of the pilots I was going to fly with reported 10,000ft and that he was starting the task. Just as I became established in the thermal the other pilot reported electrical problems in his glider and that he was landing. So it looked like I would be flying alone after all. Oh well, I thought, such is life.

That first climb took me to 9,000ft, and so I flew over the start line to head on task - immediately finding another thermal and taking it to 11,000ft. The first cruise I went nearly 50km and lost only 2,500ft - the air was very buoyant indeed. The task was planned as Cunderdin - Kununoppin - Burakin - Cunderdin, some 307km. The sky was blue over Cunderdin but I could see Cu's popping much further to the north. On the second leg I made contact with my first Cu of the day, just to the east of Koorda, and would remain under Cu's for most of the remaining flight - they were nicely aligned down my third leg and I streeted down them for much of the way. Shortly after turning the second turnpoint at Burakin XCSoar on my phone told me I had final glide, but I was still 100km out and didn't trust it. I should have. I ended up taking a few thermals for a couple of thousand feet each on the return leg and arrived at Cunderdin at over 6,000ft, so I wasted a fair amount of time playing around with thermals I didn't need - something I'll need to watch on cross country flights in the future. I ended up flying the 300km course at a cross country speed of around 92km/h. I'm told that is an excellent result for a novice pilot, but knew I'd spent too much time messing around and could do better. Other pilots managed 500km flights, 750km flights and one poor guy notched up a 970km flight in a standard class glider - it would have been 1,000km, and the first 1k ever done in a Standard class glider in Australia, except he entered one turnpoint incorrectly into his computer and had it 15km out of place! Bugger.

The Christmas Party was a huge hit with everyone, lots of people there for the big BBQ and much consumption of beer and wine. I dreaded the hangover I was going to have the next morning...

Except it never materialised. I woke up early on Sunday morning and got the coffee on, and one by one the other members rolled into the clubhouse. There was a surprising lack of sore heads. Anyway, on with the day's activity. The forecast was again exceptional, and during the briefing the instructor announced that he was sending me out to do my Silver C certification - he had every confidence that I could repeat Saturday's performance. The Silver C requires the passing of three tests - completion of a minimum 50km leg on a declared flight, a gain of height during the flight of 1,000m (3,282ft) and a minimum time aloft of 5 hours. These can be done in any combination of flights, but given the conditions it was anticipated that I should be able to do all in one flight. He gave me the use of an authorised logger for the day, so that a proper record could be kept (the trace from my Samsung S4 is very good, but it is not an authorised device...) and asked me to declare the task that I would fly. I opted to repeat Saturday's flight, and also set myself a personal goal of attacking the time and getting around as fast as I could. Some of the other guys said I could easily get a 500km flight in, but I didn't want to challenge myself too much!

One of the things I had to be careful of was that I didn't repeat the previous day's mistake of arriving back too high. The other thing I had to watch is that I didn't start too high. I had started my task at 9,000ft on Saturday, but the rules for the distance flight test say that you must finish within 1,000m of your departure altitude. So my plan was to tow up to 2,000ft, locate a thermal beyond the start line and test it for strength, then descend to a maximum of 4,500ft before crossing the start line and heading straight back to the first thermal. This way I could safely arrive back at the airfield at circuit height if necessary and my flight would still be valid. I launched at 12:00 and hit lift almost immediately, I could easily have pulled the release at 800ft and climbed out but (*stupidly - I'll tell you why later...) I climbed on tow to about 1,800ft AGL. We passed through a good surge, and I waited until just after it had passed before I pulled the release, as I wanted a short period of descent on my trace to mark the low point of my free flight, then turned back into the thermal and climbed away. At 7,000ft I was satisfied that the lift was nice and strong, so flew around for a bit to lose height before crossing the start line. As I said, I'd planned to go back and return to the same thermal, but almost immediately after crossing the line I found a better one and climbed out all the way to 10,000ft. Heading off on the first leg I concentrated on flying faster, with my MacCready set at 8kts lift I was cruising at around 90-100kts IAS. I was flying in the blue - I found a couple of Cu's just short of Kununoppin, but it looked blue all the way along the second leg as well, and I managed a speed of 85kmh for the first leg. The second leg was NW into the 15kt headwind, but I stumbled across what could only have been some organised thermal street activity, where I was able to run for long periods at high speed without losing height; in fact in a few runs I gained height while in cruise. I only had to stop in two thermals to top up a couple of thousand feet. Approaching the turnpoint looked much like this...

Beautiful Cumulus clouds lined up along the third leg, cloudbase around 19,000ft.  Astute readers will note the cracks in the canopy - from when I lost it on takeoff last month.
Streets of Cu's lined up roughly NNW-SSE and pretty much along my intended track. This would make for a great final glide back to Cunderdin. The second leg I managed to fly at 119kmh thanks to that awesome street. I hit Final Glide not long after turning Burakin, but wanted to arrive back at the airfield at about 4,000ft so stopped in a couple of average thermals under the Cu's for some lift. Halfway down the 120km leg I pushed the nose forward and ran at 110kts all the way back to Cunderdin, and crossed the finish line at 3,500ft with a speed for the leg a blistering 156kmh, giving me the 307km triangle at 117kmh average. Much better than the previous day.

It wasn't all over at that point however - I still needed to notch up another 2 1/2 hours of flight for my 5 hour duration. I briefly considered running the triangle again, but saw some good Cu's to the south of Cunderdin and decided to go explore some more of the wheatbelt. I set myself an additional task of Cunderdin - Quairading - Bruce Rock - Yorkrakine - Cunderdin, about 270km and started out. The thermals started getting stronger as I headed south but further apart - even so I rarely got below 9,000ft on the task until I got to around Doodlakine, to the north of Bruce Rock, when the day started to die. I still had ample time and height to make it back to the airfield so I continued on. Before Yorkrakine I started to hit heavy sink, and had to find a couple of moderate thermals to stay up. Turning Yorkrakine I easily had Final Glide back to the airfield, so pushed it hard again, and crossed the finish line at 1,500ft and straight into the circuit. My landing was a little sloppy, the glider just wanted to stay up and I landed long.

I finished the flight with 5hrs 21min of free flight, more than enough for the Silver Duration. The 300km FAI Triangle declared task I'd flown put me well past the 50km leg requirement for the Silver Distance, and the difference between my lowest point and highest point during free flight was 9,751ft... way past the 3,282ft I needed. In fact, this is where I'm absolutely kicking myself. While I easily got the SILVER badge, the requirements for the GOLD badge are a 5hr duration, a declared distance flight of 300km and a climb of 9,843ft. I had passed the duration and task requirements for the Gold badge, but missed out on the height by a measly 92ft!!! One more turn in my highest thermal would have made it. Releasing at 1,500ft instead of 1,800ft would have done it. Kicking myself! Oh well, next time. I still get credits for the duration and task, so all I need to do is the climb. I also passed the requirements for my first Diamond, the diamond goal, so when I get my Gold badge, it'll come with it's first diamond already fitted.

Stay tuned for more in the real near future!

If you want to see the flight tracks I flew, you can find them here:
Saturday - https://www.skylines.../flights/25537/
Sunday - https://www.skylines.../flights/25580/