The Owens Valley Wave

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Ever since Bob Symons was able to soar a P-38 fighter engine off for about an hours at up to 32,000 ft over Bishop on a very stormy day in 1950, the Owens Valley wave has been a magnet for daring soaring pilots willing to brave the power of this manifestation of natural power.

A look at the current OLC Champion list for 2016 shows an astonishing development – the three leading pilots are all US pilots who have achieved outstanding long distance flights along the Owens Valley in wave conditions.  The combination of the long north-south valley between the Sierra Nevada in the west and the White Mountains in the east in combination with strong westerly postfrontal conditions creates strong wave conditions several times a year that a small but dedicated group of long distance soaring pilots is using regularly to surprise everybody with amazing long flights, mostly out of Minden NV.  With the help of some very knowledgeable weathermen and of a very cooperative ATC they have made these flights seem almost routine even though they push human endurance to the limit by flying for most of the day in cold and turbulent conditions close to Vne.

Perlan chief pilot Jim Payne has been the outstanding wave pilot for quite a few years in exploring these conditions and pushing the records of long duration and long distance soaring in this wave system.  His best flight so far and the second longest ever was on 5/4/2015 with a 2907 km flight out of Minden flying an Arcus M.  Earlier this year he was leading the worldwide OLC 2016 championship (based on the 6 best flights).  But on June 15 Dennis Tito – fellow Perlan project member and late life soaring enthusiast – made a 1743 km flight in his DG 1001 and claimed the lead worldwide.  Three days later Jim regained the lead with a 1556 km flight, flying again an Arcus (sorry Dennis).  But even more noteworthy was the flight that Keith Essex made at the same time as Dennis – a 2674 km flight in an ASG-29 that positioned him in third place worldwide.  This flight took some 10.5 hours and is by far the best for this year.  Keith, who won the Open Class at the Region 8 contest last year, described the flight modestly as “ridiculously easy”; we may hear more about his soaring exploits.

With the exception of two wave flights by Keith in New Zeeland, all the flights by these three front runners were made in the Owens Valley wave system, which seems to have eclipsed the Andes or New Zeeland as the world’s foremost long distance record area. It brings up the question again (broached several years ago by Hans-Werner Grosse) whether there should be separate straight line distance and speed records for flights in wave as opposed to thermal  flying.  For comparison, the longest thermal flight for the OLC 2016 – flown in Namibia – is just half as long as Keith’s flight on June 15.  Separate records may sound fair but nobody has yet come up with a working concept on how to reliably categorize such flights.

While these awe-inspiring flights are the stuff to excite soaring pilots the world over, they are obviously very location dependent, not too mention the very real physical and possibly dangerous challenges involved.  But they also inspire new generations of soaring pilots to explore the amazing and sometimes overwhelming power hidden in the atmosphere.