Gold Badge and Diamonds in Western Washington?

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Now that Thomas Van de Velde has shown convincingly (i. e. in one flight) that one can gain a Silver Badge in Western Washington (and from Arlington), he has set himself (and everyone else) another challenge – getting the Gold Badge in Western Washington.  While the conditions for a Gold Badge – 300 km (186.5 miles) for distance and 3000 m (9843 ft) for altitude gain – have been accomplished in the past by various pilots in Western Washington, nobody has applied for the full Gold Badge on the west side.  Henry Rebbeck actually did both conditions last year in one flight from Arlington to and around Mount Rainier but he has already a Gold Badge. The next step up would be for the three Diamonds – a soaring distance of at least 500 km (310.8 miles), a goal distance of at least 300 km (out-and-return or triangle), and an altitude gain of at least 5000 m (16404 ft).  Getting all three Diamonds in Western Washington is quite a challenge and doing it from Arlington would raise the challenge to another level, mainly because of the altitude requirement.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was quite an enthusiastic effort by some adventurous SGC pilots to explore the Mount Rainier wave, culminating in Joe Robertson’s flight to 32, 250 ft in 1964, which still stands as the altitude record for Washington state.  Various pilots made their Diamond altitude behind Mount Rainier with the help of the altitude window agreed to with the Seattle Air Traffic Control Center.  Cecil Craig made a sensational 268 mile wave flight from Mount Rainier to Crater Lake in 1967.  However, the Wenatchee wave system (with its own wave window) has proven to be more accessible, and most local pilots seem to be more content to stay in Eastern Washington to pursue OLC flying rather than Badge flying.  Nonetheless, there are soaring pilots that believe that Arlington is undervalued as a cross-country (XC) base and that achieving a Gold Badge and even getting the three Diamonds on the west side is a worthwhile goal.

So what are the possibilities for serious XC flying and high altitude soaring from Arlington?  Analyzing past achievements – especially for the Willy Burhen Cup – gives some good indication of what can be done.  Most XC flying from Arlington is based on thermal soaring, sometimes along the Cascades foothills, sometimes in the Cascades, and sometimes across the Cascades.  The best achieved distances have increased steadily over the last few years and Gold Badge conditions are now regularly met.  On good days flights of over 200 miles with maximum altitudes of over 13,000 ft are possible. 

In 1985 Max Karst made the first 300 km out-and-return flight (from Issaquah) and in 2011 Noel Wade succeeded in making the first 500 km flight (from Arlington).

But the best distance flights from Arlington so far have been made by Ron Clark, who has made several flights of over 600 km.  However, these are OLC distances, based on a 6-leg definition.  Badge distances (and record distances) are for straight, out-and-return, and triangle flights and are thus inevitably shorter than the OLC distances.

Getting the altitude Diamond from Arlington appears to be the most difficult task.  The highest altitudes achievable in thermal flying seem to be close to 14,000 ft and the only possibilities to get higher appear to be getting into wave lift.  Barring the discovery of some new wave system, that means either behind Mount Rainier or behind Mission Ridge (by Wenatchee).  Conceivably one could reach these areas in thermal flying and then contact wave but it would require unusual weather conditions, timely opening of the wave windows with ATC, and of course oxygen.  Theoretically, one could even gain the required Diamond altitude by releasing no higher than 1,395 ft asl and climbing to 17,999 ft to get this done without opening the wave window or dealing with ATC.  Short of such outside possibilities, aero-towing or motoring there with a powered glider would be the only way to get the altitude Diamond from Arlington. 

It would make more sense (if there was enough interest) to organize a wave camp at Ranger airfield (close to the Mount Rainier National Park) as in the old days.  Such encampments were regularly held until the late 1980s and even without wave conditions, the soaring close to the big mountain is breathtaking.