Sierra distance flying: Part 1

Skip to first unread message


Nov 21, 1994, 12:45:15 AM11/21/94
As a Western US soaring pilot, I know that many of you have heard of
Minden and the Sierra Nevada as having some great soaring. However,
except for our local newsletter, there have been few detailed stories of
flights in this area. I wrote the following narrative of my 1992 flights
in the Sierra Nevada for our local newsletter. I thought other pilots
around the world might enjoy reading about what an average pilot might do
flying in the Sierra Nevada.

I realize most of what is posted on R.A.S. is conversational, rather than
a story, so this is an experiment. I've kept each part of the story to
about 2,800 words, so hopefully this won't jam up your machine. Ok, here
is part 1.....
A Standard Libelle Wins the Hilton Cup

You're a hard core cross country glider pilot when:

> Spreadsheet suddenly become important as you start figuring Great Circle
task distances. Co-workers marvel at your newly acquired number crunching

> A notebook-size CG-18 WAC is in your briefcase. Idle meeting time is
put to good use reviewing 750 km triangle topography.

> Commercial flight seating is dictated by which side has the view of
southern and central Nevada. Your travel agent dismisses you as

My wife of a few months, Genese, suspected this behavior may not be a one
time occurrence. We had known each other less than two years, but she and
Sally (her dog) had already logged thousands of highway miles chasing me
and 9J (our 201B Libelle) across the southern Sierra Nevada and Utah. We
had since moved to San Francisco from Santa Barbara, so the summer flying
would be out of either Truckee or Minden.

But it was mid-November 1992, and next summer seemed SO far away. We
needed a goal, something to give focus to the winter hours. Several
National Standard Class distance records? What about the Hilton Cup?
Surely someone must have already flown a 500+ miler. Much to our
surprise, NO ONE from the Western Area (West USA, Mexico, Central America,
South America) had sent in even one entry to date.

Not one to let opportunity slip by, I asked Genese if she was interested
in trying to win the Cup with me. I explained that each Area winner (and
guest!) is invited to Barron Hilton's Ranch for ten days in the summer,
all expenses paid, along with other winners from around the world, the
current World champs and a few celebrity pilots. Accounts of other Hilton
Cup winners told of "a pilot's crew lying around the pool eating
strawberries." Genese's response: "I like it!, I LIKE IT! And you know
John (her stepfather) would crew with us". We may or may not win the
"Cup", but we were in for a great time!

Free weekends over the next few months were spent working on 9J. The old
4 watt Genave needed replacing, and besides, some extra power would be
reassuring when I'm miles into central Nevada. The new ICOM A200 is a
half height size replacement for the Genave. I hadn't anticipated the
higher demand on my batteries, but I got around this by rigging up a solar
cell input and turning off the radio during the peak of the day. A minor
inconvenience, considering that the A200 is priced at less than half of
comparable "glider specific" radios. A PZL and Rico with audio, compass,
airspeed, altimeter, and voltmeter round out 9J's instrument panel.

Just as important is understanding the FAI rules. My last documented
flight was a Gold Badge 16 years earlier, so I knew there was much that I
didn't know. The quickest way to come up to speed was to buy and read
Jackie Payne's "Badge and Record Book". Highly recommended. Not only
does it cover rules and procedures, but also techniques, planning
considerations and sample checklists. Documentation is a chore, but
reading this book is a lot less painful than having a flight denied.

A big question was where should we fly from? Initially we chose Truckee
Airport (5900' MSL). Truckee is a biz jet quality airport with the glider
operations on the North end of the property. "Soar Truckee" also has great
staff and is closest to San Francisco. Surrounded by mountains, it's easy
to slip east into the Carson Valley, but difficult to get back late in the
day. Returning to Truckee from the southeast requires a route that could
put me three miles out over (cold) Lake Tahoe. Another choice is a low
tow from Truckee, hop over the ridge and make Carson City Airport the
start & finish point. Carson City Airport is 1200' lower and is easier to
reach late in the day. Later in the summer we would eventually be flying
out of world famous Douglas County Airport, next to the town of Minden.
Douglas County Airport is also easier to get into when returning from
southeasterly flights.

The other major issue was how far to fly? The expected Cup contenders
would be flying 15 meter class or newer Standard class ships. Past Hilton
Cup winners flew Ventus and ASW-20's, posting 500 - 640 mile triangle
flights. Accounting for the Standard Libelle's handicap, we figured we
needed a triangle of at least 430 miles. Considering that my furthest
flight to date was 315 miles, we thought it best not to tell anyone lest
we be laughed off the flight line. The strategy was to start with
reasonable distances and build up to a 400 - 450 mile flight. I knew I'd
have to make a number of attempts, but what a great way to spend a summer!

The Warm-up
Saturday, June 19, 1993 - Work and other events conspired against us, so
this is our first Truckee weekend. Although cool for this time of year,
it's a fabulous day. Four other pilots, one flying out of Truckee and
three from Minden, are to make 1000K flights today. For us, this is a
practice day. Get the systems checked out and get acclimated to mountain
flying again. My friend Marc Ramsay in his newly acquired DG-101G,
decides to fly locally too. Cloudbase is 15,000 ft., but on the Whites
people are squawking about 17,000+ ft. Marc and I chase each other from
Mt. Rose to the Carson Valley, then up north toward Sierravillle and back
to Mt. Rose. The cool air, 100 mile views and 10+ knot thermals again
become refreshingly familiar. Thunderstorms over the Pine Nut Mtns and
Pyramid Lake threaten, but never move in.

Marc and I circle near cloudbase at Mt. Rose when I think to practice a
final glide into Truckee from the Carson Valley. Meaning "how spooked
will I be when I'm way out over the Lake?". Also, where are the landing
spots? I cruise out from under my cloud into the blue and head south
toward Spooner's Summit on the east side of Lake Tahoe. Spooner's Summit
is 20 miles southeast of Truckee airport and is in line with Brockway pass
(7179 ft. MSL) a low point in the mountains immediately surrounding
Truckee. I've not often flown right over the Lake, but it's an impressive
sight. Deep blue overall, with a trace of blue-green in the shallow shore
waters. The Lake spreads out 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, but
visually, it seems much bigger.

Banking over Spooner's at 11,000 ft. I dial in a 75 mph cruise and enjoy
the view. I'm apprehensive going out over the Lake, but the winds seem
light and the sink hasn't been bad all day. The glide itself is
uneventful. Two golf courses look landable, and maybe the shoreline if
I'm desperate. I remind myself just to have plenty of altitude and leave
it at that. Later I'd be glad to have made this practice glide.

A Week in the Mountains
Friday, July 2, 1993 - Team Izuno arrives in Truckee for a week of
distance flying. Genese, John, Sally and I are ready for some adventure.
We figure early to mid-July to give us strong weather along with long
days. Unfortunately, a cool northerly flow keeps a lid on heating for the
first part of the week. This weather also dogs the opening of the Region
11 championships at Douglas County Airport. I expect most of the
Regional's tasks to be to the southeast; this is the same area I expect to
cover as well. We're not flying in the contest, but I'm hopeful to have
the other ships as lift markers.

Saturday's forecast reflects the cool north wind, with forecast heights
only to 13,000 ft. MSL and no cu. I fly locally for a few hours, but the
thermals are very turbulent and one-sided; very winter-like. Forty
minutes into the flight and I'm suddenly very motion sick from being
battered about. This has happened before and taking a Maalox tablet or
two sometimes helps. This episode is particularly bad, requiring extra
concentration to just maintain coordinated flight. The Maalox doesn't
help and I'm back on the ground in short order. My hands and feet are
very cold, not from the altitude, but from the nausea. At that moment,
the thought of more flying is very unappealing. Genese wisely suggests
that we take the next day off. The weather cooperates and stays poor. We
go and see Jurassic Park. I feel better.

Monday's forecast shows slight improvement, but no cu. I want to get some
miles in and so declare a Diamond Goal flight from Truckee to Hawthorne
and return. 18 gallons of water into 9J, take the pictures, and I tow off
at 11:30am. The first thermal is 3 - 4 knots over a rocky area east of
the airport. It's smooth as we go up to 10,000 ft. MSL. Relieved that
I'm not feeling ill, 9J and I head east over the ridge line defining the
Truckee valley, and along the north rim of Lake Tahoe. Across the Carson
Valley, I work 2 - 4 knot thermals, then head south along the Pine Nuts.
My plan is to stick with the high ground, hopping across valleys to Mt.
Grant, cruise out to Hawthorne, and repeat my path home. Simple, right?

Skimming over the sagebrush-covered mesa west of the Hilton (Flying "M")
Ranch, I'm worried that I haven't hit a bit of lift for the last 20 miles.
It's 1:30pm. For the next 1.5 hours I struggle to get out of the valley
that, ironically, we hope to visit next summer. The Ranch's jet quality
strip is clearly visible; I'll land there if I have to. I radio to a
pilot flying around Truckee to tell my crew to head this way. Up a
thousand, down a thousand. Finally I claw my way up Mt. Grant until I'm
even with the peak. I'm tired.

At this point I realize that I could make the turn, but I'd be stuck
there. So I head NW on a straight line to the Pine Nuts, departing Mt.
Grant at 11,000 ft. MSL. It's 4:00pm, hot and sunny, but there isn't a
gust as I end a dead flat glide at Farias Wheel airport, 35 miles from Mt.
Grant. It's 90F+ on the ground and the air is absolutely still. Lester
Farias graciously lets me use his phone. Lester's son remarks, "Is there
a contest or something? You're the third glider here in two days!" I
acknowledge his observation. In a few minutes, Genese, John and Sally
drive up. I feel lucky for having made it as far as I did. The Regionals
had several landouts that day too. Total distance: 140 miles.

Back to Truckee, we try again Wednesday. This time the weather looks
good, with strong thermals forecast and cloudbase at 16,000+ ft. On a
good weekend, the Truckee flight line can be a dozen ships deep before
11am, but on this weekday, there are only two other ships. The blue air
has the right amount of haze and warmth; it "feels" like a good day. We
declare a 338 mile Diamond distance flight to the Bishop radio towers and
return. Launching at 12:15pm, I hustle over to the Pine Nuts where I can
see cu far to the south on the Whites. I never cease to be amazed that on
a good day you can see ahead for over 100 miles. It sure makes for easy

Abeam of Farias, cu start forming from Mt. Patterson to the Whites. I
tell Genese and John to hold at Minden. It looks so good, I'm confident
I'll make it down and back at least to Minden. Climbing in 8 knots east
of Mt. Patterson, I hear the "pack" from the Regionals moving south, too.
A well defined street has now formed directly on course. Cruising at 80 -
90 mph, I fly straight ahead under a 17,000 ft. street, pulling up in 6
knots or more, and otherwise just enjoying the sheer pleasure of cruising
under a strong street.

Halfway to the Whites, the whistling of the air is broken by a low
frequency, thunder-like rumble. The ship reverberates from one, then
another sharp report. My body tenses up. Thunder? Impossible. The
clouds aren't overdeveloping. Sonic boom? I'm not near an MOA. Another
sharp BLAST from my left side. I look east and not 5 miles way I see a
third, fourth, and fifth blast flash at the R-4811 ammunition testing
area. Enormous clouds of dense, boiling dust a thousand yards across rise
from the desert floor. A few seconds after each blast, a concussion wave
hits the ship like a fist whacking my wing. It's fascinating, seeing this
atmospheric amoebae grow and change shape while it blows skyward at 15 -
20 knots. Just like those 1950's A-bomb tests.

Coming up on the North end of the Whites the street continues, but more
broken once I'm on the ridge. Down to the radio towers, I take my picture
from 15,000 ft. Actually, five pictures, to be sure. Rolling out heading
North, I'm suddenly surrounded by what seem like a dozen hang gliders.
The Whites are very popular amongst the foot launch crowd and this week
there's a contest going on. As a Regional's pilot put it, "it was like
flying through a swarm of gnats". I escape with no "bug splats".

Off the North end at 18,000 ft., the cloud shadows indicate the street I
came in on is breaking up. It's 4:15pm and the day has peaked. So far
the flight has been very straightforward, but I've been flying too
comfortably. Have to be more aggressive if I'm to get back into Truckee.
Cruise speeds have been a conservative 80 - 90 mph, but now I run with the
speed ring and cruise at 105 - 115 mph. Soon I'm back in the Carson
Valley. I radio Genese and John to head back to Truckee, while I pin my
hopes on a lone cloud.

The only cloud left is a ragged, roll cloud look-alike directly over
downtown Minden. I've been watching this cloud for the past 30 minutes,
expecting it to disappear like the others, but it holds a constant shape
and size. A DG-400 circling underneath radios me that the cloud is indeed
acting like a roll cloud. Wave is not too unusual during the summer, but
I had not anticipated it. I slide in several thousand feet underneath the
cloud's leading edge and after a choppy climb, I'm level with the cloud at
12,000 ft. This must be wave. I steer north in 0 - 1 knot lift,
paralleling the ridge on Lake Tahoe's east side. Judging by the crab
angle to maintain my ground track, the wind is 25 - 35 mph at altitude.

At Spooner's Summit, with just under 13,000 ft. in hand, I head out over
the Lake. It's intimidating, but hey, I've done this before, right?
There are no clouds, only a setting sun ahead. I call Genese and announce
confidently that I've got Truckee made. Once again, I forgot Soaring
Voodoo Law #1: Radioed ambitions lead to opposite results. Not 5 seconds
later I suddenly lose 2,000 ft. in 10 knot sink about a mile offshore.
Ugh. My stomach knots up and I quickly fiddle with the final glide
calculator. The sink eases but the calculator says I'm only on a 30:1
slope. And I've got a 15 mph headwind. By now I'm almost over the north
shore. Genese calls again to check on me. Later she tells me she knew I
ran into sink; it was in my voice.

Intently searching for any hint of lift, I spot several glints of light
straight ahead along the mountainside. I strain to see.....yes.....I
can't believe it......a clutch of hang gliders tack back & forth abreast a
rocky spine running from North shore up towards Mt. Rose. Banking gently
towards them, I fly close over the highest one and soon, gain several
hundred feet. I accelerate and scoot over Brockway Summit. Whew. Of
course, once in the Truckee Valley, I hit a 8 knot thermal two miles from
the airport. I cruise around the valley for a few minutes while Genese
and John get to the airport, dump my water, and land at 6:45pm. Wow! Two
Diamonds in one flight. We celebrate that night with a big dinner at a
Tahoe City German restaurant.

Next, Part 2: Further and Further

Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages