Documentation IS the flight
Sunday, July 25, 1993 - Forecast: 775fpm, 14K max. altitude, weak front
passed on Saturday, the fourth day of increasing temp (max. 89F), moderate
At 7:45am on the second story of the Carson Valley Lodge, I'm shocked to
see scraggly cu at 9 - 10K over the Pine Nuts at the top of the haze
layer. Wow! This could be the day! At the airport, Pat Philbrick is
ready in his Discus "57". Pat declares a 1000K triangle, aiming for the
National Standard 1000K speed and distance around a triangle, plus the
Hilton Cup. He attempted this task earlier this season and missed
finishing by only one thermal. Genese and I wish him luck, and don't
mention our modest 388 mile task to the Bishop radio towers, Wine Glass
airport, and return. I follow Pat's launch at 10:40am. Genese heads out
to the Mono Lake Visitors Center, our regular holding point.
By now cu are forming right over the airport. I move steadily past the
Pine Nuts over to Mt. Patterson following the clouds. Bases are up to
13K. The "corridor" is working with a street forming straight to Basalt.
Time: 12noon. With the early cu, I expect over development, but so far
the cu are not very tall. I catch sight of Pat near Sweetwater. He
elects to fly down the Owens Valley while I go over to the cu bunched up
on the East side of the Whites. I'm nervous because this isn't the
"normal" way to fly the Whites, and the bases are a thousand feet below
the peaks. Ready to dive out to the East, I trudge to the radio towers.
The best thermal of the day hits right as I take my picture, giving a
choppy ride to 14K, the high of the day. Time: 2pm. It's clear now there
won't be any thunderstorms, just lots of evenly spaced cu everywhere. The
second leg is pure joy, with straight ahead flying to Wine Glass cruising
between 70 and 85 mph. This area is all brown and tan high desert, with
an occasional dry lake. Only the thin lines of roads etched into the
desert give any clue of civilization, and even then, most have very little
traffic. Cruising above it all, I'm not worried about the lack of
humanity in "my" desert. I'm feeling good!
Approaching the ridge SW of Wine Glass airport, I spot a beautiful little
oasis of a ranch next to a ribbon of green coming out of the mountains.
Some lucky rancher has a modest house right on a nice stream far away from
anyone. Probably good fishing there too. All that's missing is a runway.
The Wine Glass strip is marked "Restricted" on the map, so I have no idea
about the runway orientation. After several long stares at the ground, I
think I see it: an inverted "T" with the stem pointing North. I've
averaged 75mph on the second leg. Time: 3:30pm. I radio Genese that the
flight is going well and for her to start back to Minden.
Looking west, the cu are south of a line from Wine Glass to R-4811, with
blue sky in the Gabbs/Hawthorne area. Without hesitation, I head out
along the cu bordering the blue, knowing this will add at least 30 miles
to my last leg. My gut says a landout is certain if I head straight home
through the blue. At 5pm I'm at 2,000 AGL in the pass just SW of R-4811,
with the day fading faster than expected. None of the clouds in the past
25 miles had any lift. Fortunately, a golden eagle spots me a rough 5
knot thermal to 13K. What's he doing so high out here?
The west wind has picked up, blowing the few cu left into shreds. Worse
yet, I'm down low again just north of Sweetwater, needing just one more
thermal to make the 40 miles home. I take a few bites of Triscuits and
Cranberry Newtons and wash them down with water, anticipating some hard
work in the next few minutes. The only hope is one very lonely and
tattered cu hanging above the west base of Mt. Patterson. I need to come
around the north end of the west facing ridge that runs up to the peak.
Nervously, I approach from the back side waiting for the sink to hit, but
it never does.
Back & forth, I ridge soar up to 11K then head west to the cloud. The
westerly facing canyon funnels the wind, kicking off this rough, but
workable 3 knot thermal. I hope for 13,000 ft., but get only 12,700 ft.
By now, Genese is almost back to the airport. An extra 5 knot thermal in
the Highway 395 pass north of Topaz Lake and suddenly it's a 120 mph
cruise for the last 20 miles. I land at 6:45pm averaging 48.6 mph. Slow,
but I'm glad just to make it back. Our first Hilton Cup flight, or so we
The next day we're shocked to find that I've cut off the observer
signature in the declaration photo! Our hopes sink. My observer, Joe
Rasymas of Soar Minden, suggests we call Arleen Coleson (SSA Badge &
Records) and find out what to do. She says to send in everything,
including the declaration form and she'll figure it out. The next two
days pass by agonizingly slow. Back at work, my collegues ask why I'm so
Arleen calls Thursday with good news and bad news. The good news is that
the photo is OK since she sees part of the signature in the picture
matching the form. The bad news is that no one has ever used Wine Glass
Airport as a turnpoint, and I need to supply a supporting map or photo
confirming its appearance. I get a USGS map of the area, but there's no
airport and the contour lines and drainage paths don't match the photo.
Genese jumps in and calls Nevada "information" asking for Wine Glass
Ranch. In a minute she is talking with Del & Carl Haas who own the ranch.
Del verifies that the runway is indeed an inverted "T". She is very
helpful, even offering to fly over and take pictures for us. After more
thought, she refers us to the US Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation
Service (ASCS, 702-388-6311) office in Las Vegas. Among other duties,
ASCS performs aerial surveys mapping grazing boundaries and other
agricultural land uses. Del, as the local ASCS rep, knows they have
recent photos of her valley. ASCS' Pierre Laberry and Linda James send us
2 sets of Carvers area photos for $10. The turnpoint is confirmed and we
post the first Hilton Cup flight for the Western Area!
Flagrant Optimism vs. a Blue Sky
We don't return to Douglas County Airport until August 21. A high sits on
western Nevada pumping out hot and stable air. It's best the weather
isn't good, as I'm recovering from a cold anyway. We drive around the
Carson Valley window shopping real estate.
During one of many calls, Arleen says that several Texas pilots have made
progressively longer flights in pursuit of the Hilton Cup. While none has
posted a longer handicapped flight, I sense that our lone entry is in
jeopardy and that we must make a longer flight. Over two months past the
summer solstice, we need a weather miracle to overcome the ever shortening
days and get the 450+ mile flight that we feel will secure the Cup. The
mid-week weather report shows unstable, moist air moving up from Mexico
into southern Nevada by Saturday. John and Genese are optimistic, while
I'm reserved pending the Friday weather report.
Preparation Pays Off
Saturday, August 28 - Awake at 5:30am, I walk Sally (our dog) outside our
room at the new Best Western in Minden. She's unusually spunky, maybe she
knows the weather will be good. Heating is up over the past few days, and
the moist air is to be in central Nevada by mid-day. The previous night I
wrote up a 468 mile triangle task: Minden to Lone Pine Airport, to a ranch
north of Tonopah and return. We'll take our best shot today, yet I can't
help but feel a bit ridiculous declaring (for me) such a long flight.
Easily recognized landmarks are few and far between in Nevada, so I'm
forced to declare this 750km+ task to fit a 25% rule triangle.
By 9:30am 9J's out on the runway. Curiously, we're the only ship on the
line intending to go cross country. In fact, we're the only one besides
the training flights. 10:30am comes and goes with the sky blue and the
air feeling much like last weekend. Sitting under 9J's wing, the air
feels so flat that Genese jokes about where we'll eat lunch. She also
reminds me that if I'm to make it at all I need to be on course by
11:30am. Mulling that, I flick a rock at a big beetle, then decide it's
time to go. As he taxis for hookup, my tow pilot reports hearing over the
radio that cu are building on the Whites. Suddenly, I go from feeling
that I'm early to feeling like I'm late!
Off at 11:10am directly over the airport, I flat glide east to the Pine
Nuts. Pat Philbrick has told me about a small mesa directly East of the
airport where he reliably works lift early in the day. Sure enough, after
a 10 mile max glide I hit 1 - 2 knots at "Pat's Flat". Over the next 40
minutes I work slowly south on the Pine Nuts. By noon I round the south
end and see the soaring pilot's sky: High, firm cu spaced about 10 miles
apart all the way to my turnpoint. I take an 8 knot ride to 15K, and then
radio Genese and John that I'm blasting off. Now it's 100+ mph between
thermals. I run a direct line to Lone Pine, past Lee Vining and Mammoth
Lakes Airport and into the eastern Sierra when I realize that it's getting
too dark. Thunderstorms have begun over Mt. Whitney and are spreading
fast. Time: 1:45pm. The Whites are still in the sun, but I waste 15
minutes gaining little height before crossing. I give up, cross over
Owens Valley and am rewarded with a 12+ knot slammer above one of the west
facing gullies on the Whites.
It's a ballistic thermal, where I fight to just stay somewhere near the
core (forget an optimized circle), banking so steep the wingtip pivots
about the same point on the ground, and my face sags from 2Gs+. Suddenly
I'm thrown out, 6,000 ft. richer. Slightly disoriented, I adjust to the
different look of earth and clouds from when I started the climb and
savor, for a moment, the post-climb ecstasy.
Back to business. The Mt. Whitney storm anvil is quickly shadowing the
valley and straight ahead there's a rain shower on the east side of Owens
Lake. The entire eastern Sierra (where I was an hour ago) is blanketed
with storms. I feel like I'm running down a dark alley ending at Lone
Pine. Got to get to the turnpoint fast. I round Lone Pine Airport at
2:45pm and scoot back to the Inyos. Later I learn that Bill Bartell (OF)
had, a couple hours before, run a 100km triangle out of Lone Pine at over
Now the goal is to get North as fast as possible, away from the storm.
The Inyo/White ridge is capped with big, bulging, flat bottom cu
stretching north to the horizon. Bases at or above 17K. Wow! Over the
next 30 minutes the Libelle and I bash along without circling for 65
miles, cruising between 14 - 17K blasting through hail, rain and snow.
Pull back to 70 mph in 10+ knot lift or push on at 110 mph. The
turbulence is strong enough to keep me below 120 mph. A glorious ride!
Abeam of Bishop, I'm safely beyond the storms, but the second turn is
almost 45 off my current heading. There's cu half way to Tonopah and blue
sky beyond. I hope the lift is strong in the blue. Actually, there MUST
be good lift in the blue, otherwise I'm not going to finish.
100 mph gets me to the last set of clouds over the low mountains east of
the Circle L ranch. I manage to reach the 17.5K cloudbase in 8 knots,
then with a deep breath, run at 90mph towards Tonopah. Two blue thermals
in the hills N of Tonopah and suddenly it's picture time. Two legs done.
I broadcast blind to Genese & John to head back to Minden. Time: 4:30pm.
Swinging West, the scene is not pretty: 60 mile of blue and then shallow,
tattered clouds. The right brain says "slow down," but the left brain
keeps the stick forward, maintaining 85 - 90mph. Two (slow) 5 knot climbs
and we're N of Basalt, under the clouds. However, I'm below 4,000 ft. AGL
and noticing more ground details than I care to. Desperate, I bank toward
Boundary Peak and smack right into 8 knots, good to 17.5K I let myself
think, "one more like that and I'm home!" Right.....
Cruise speed is down to 80 mph under the 50% cloud cover. The lift is
clearly weakening. Time: 6:15pm. The Crystal glider squadron is in the
area and is forecasting final glides, so I take note and lower my lift
expectations. The last cu is straight ahead, just S of the Hilton Ranch.
Lift is weak (2-4 knots) but I'm not complaining as we slowly reach 16.5K,
45 miles out. Genese and John are in Topaz Valley. I radio them I have
the airport made, and I'll wait for them to get there. Meantime, I relay
for the Crystal pilots who are aiming for Derby, Yerington or Silver
Springs landings. Henry Combs (01Q) inquires as to my task. I tell him,
and he congratulates me on the flight. From the foremost cross country
Libelle driver, I take it as quite a compliment. Mother Nature, however
overheard this conversation and prepared to keep my ego in check.
Ridge soaring the Pine Nuts to pass the time, I take in the evening
scenery. Genese and John radio they are passing through Minden, so I head
off to let down over the airport and land. At 4,000 ft. AGL over the
airport, I hit some sharp edged sink, then lift. Hmmm, must be rotor.
Have to remember to watch the winds I remind myself.
My crew is now on the tarmac, so I swing out south a couple miles in
preparation for a low "finish" pass at the airport. Genese reports winds
are calm, but I don't think it significant. During my dive it doesn't
register that I'm sinking fast, while my airspeed isn't picking up. In 2
minutes I lose over 4,000 ft. and am on the deck down Runway 34 doing only
100mph. I realize that I'm in big trouble when the pull up gains only 300
ft.! I nurse the ship around a right hand turn, alarmed that I might not
make the runway. Leveling out at less than 100 ft., I spot dust blowing
from the sides of the runway. Suddenly my airspeed jumps from 55mph to
75mph, but I get down and stop only after rolling through the runway
intersection. Time: 7:20pm.
Genese runs up and is ecstatic that I completed the task. I, on the other
hand, am in "near death" shock. I sit for a moment, making sure I am
indeed in one piece. John and Joe come to help us pull off. A minute
later, the air suddenly goes from totally calm to warm and 30mph+. It
clicks. I had caught the sink on the backside of the late afternoon
rotor. Right there Genese and I agree to no more low passes, to land
without waiting, and to remember that ground wind indications may not tell
the whole story. Whew, I'm completely exhausted.
Later that night, my spirits pick up and we celebrate the flight with a
big dinner. It's the longest flight of my life, both in time (8.2 hours)
and in distance. The same weekend, a Texas pilot completed a 420+ mile
flight in a Ventus, and earlier in the month an ASH-25 out of Uvalde did
508 miles. After handicapping, our August 28th flight was the winning
Hilton Cup flight for the Western Area.
For myself and my crew, the best part of this adventure was having the
months of planning, preparation and effort finally paying off (albeit on
virtually the last weekend of the season). Genese and John both worked
hard, and they both went with me to Barron's Ranch too.
The harder you work, the luckier you get!
As an "easterner and a novice pilot, I very much enjoyed reading your
article about your two flights. Well written and I learned. What else can
a author want a reader to gain.