Reflections on XC Flying

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Memorial Day saw the now traditional Dust Up fun contest at Ephrata which was also the begin of the Evergreen Soaring encampment this year.  This provided the opportunity for novice and experienced pilots alike to enjoy the thermal conditions and the wide open spaces of Eastern Washington.  Following are the observations and reflections of our youngest XC pilo, who is incidentally now also preparing for the Region 8 contest.

by Daniel Dyck

On the first day of the 2015 Dustup, all the pilots seemed apprehensive about the weather. So, while the majority of them started looking longingly skywards, the Evergreen pilots gathered to discuss who would be flying what gliders. Thomas and I wanted to use the DG-300 and the L-33 (respectively) but we could tell there would be some competition. It was at the moment we realized this that Movses came and told the group that the Twin Astir wouldn’t be used for mentor flights today. Thomas and I both got the same idea as we’d been discussing flying together for some time. Together we offered to take that ship up and it was settled. This is the beginning of how we got one of the best flights that day.

Once the pilots meeting had concluded, we split up the tasks required to get ready to fly. When we were in the clubhouse, checking out weather, filling out a land out sheet, and preparing our flight, Thomas asked if I had a relief system. While I tend to be much more sensible than the average self-centered "learn from mistakes" type of teenager, I replied, "Oh I’ll be fine." In my defense, I’ve had experience with long flights. My longest was a 6hr flight in the L-33, just staying near Ephrata. I didn’t have a relief system then, so I thought to myself, why would I need one now? It was from this flight that I revised my opinion.

Before I start telling you what I’ve learned about XC from this flight, I should share with you what I already knew. I’ve been flying since I was 13, and have about 160 flights, with a total of 65 hours. I soloed when I was 14, but because of club rules I was restricted to local flights until I got my license when I was 16. (The club does have an XC endorsement for students, which I got a month before I got my license - so it didn’t make much of a difference). With these restrictions and being based out of Arlington, I learned the art of thermalling - and was limited to that. I would take long flights and then climb high, but that was about it. There were many skills (mainly decision making ) needed for XC that I could not learn from these types of flights.

With this knowledge in hand, Thomas decided I would be the PIC this flight and he would be the passenger. We were near the front of the grid line and soon we were off. We took a full tow and released on the plateau when we got lift. This is one of the important things I learned. At least for me, no matter how good of a pilot I think I am, and no matter how strong the lift I just flew through was, I’m not going to release at 2000ft. This stance was formed because of this flight and the many others at Ephrata that weekend. By taking a 3000-4000ft agl tow, you have much more opportunity to find that lift. Say your height to return to the airport is 1000ft agl, by taking a 4000ft tow,you have 3000ft to find the lift. You get that many more "tries". Compared to a 2000ft tow, when you get off tow you’ve only got a 1000ft to search, and that’s only about 1-2 "chances" to find a thermal. The extra height of the tow also allows you to go further outward, where perhaps the only thermals are. It also gets you closer to the "height band" and you don’t have to spend time at low altitude scavenging for weak lift. Some may say it's not sportsmanlike, and while many contests don’t allow it this contest was an "enterprise" task, and we were going to take advantage of it. Many people that day released at 2000ft and spent 30 minutes to 3 hours just trying to get out of the plateau region.

We also had some troubles getting out.

Here’s the beginning part of our flight. I’ve labeled it so you can imagine the weather we were dealing with. Directly around the airport there were no clouds. The task called for people to go north, but the only solid lift we found was to the west. Because we wanted a good flight, we chose to go west. We went back and forth in the area I labeled as "weak". The lift wasn’t that strong. Maybe it was because the day was just starting to develop, or maybe we just got lucky and found a strong thermal, but just as we decided to head back we hit a boomer.

We had been waiting to get enough height so we had Pangborn in glide. We didn’t WANT to land at Pangborn, but there were cloud streets in that direction so we used Pangborn as a base of operation. What I’m about to say is probably the most important thing for new pilots who want to transition into XC. "It’s okay to land out!" Seriously - that’s almost one of the best parts of the sport! My first land out was caused by random massive sink out of Arlington. While it’s a story for another day, I can tell you when I realized I was starting to get low, I was scared. That’s normal for the first time. When I realized I wasn’t going to make it back to the airport, I was petrified. While it’s good to be nervous and a little bit anxious ( to keep you focused ), you should not fear landing out. For me, I think it was almost a stigma thing. Landing out felt to me like something I wasn’t supposed to do, like I was doing something wrong. This is entirely the wrong attitude. Landing out is just a normal part of gliding. It’s just like the aerotow, thermalling, or running wings. It’s something you need to be comfortable with.

With this attitude XC becomes possible. For this flight, because the Twin Astir is a beast to de-rig, we decided to always be in range of an airport. I will discuss fields further down, but this is probably the 2nd most important thing I have to tell you. This may be a personal trait for me, but a PDA, really, really, really, makes soaring a whole new sport. Being able to glance and see every airport on the map, landable fields, and then the altitude I will be at when I get there, makes it so much more comfortable. While it’s important to emphasize being able to do this mentally and with a sectional, using PDA software like XCSoar (which is what I use ) lets you focus on soaring your best. There is a lot of other information a PDA can give you, but in my opinion, all of it is secondary or unnecessary. For now, as a beginning XC pilot, I only want to focus on the basics. Having that visual image of the area I’m flying in allowed me to explore a whole new realm.

Returning to our flight, it was armed with these tools that we were able to do so well. While we were in weak lift searching for a boomer to take us to high altitude, we noticed some beautiful cloud streets. We knew that if we could make it to those cloud streets we would "have it made". We’d be in the height band and we would also have access to all the other good weather which was north. Going straight north from the airport seemed like a no-go because there was a blue hole. But following our cloud streets we could skirt around it, taking us into the promised land. Once we hit a boomer thermal we had to make that go or no go decision, committing to XC or not. As soon as we left this thermal, venturing west away from Ephrata, we wouldn’t be in glide to our home airport. But, we knew we could land at Pangborn if we had to, so we committed. We made it to the cloud street, and from there it was easy going. Without our acceptance that landing out was ok this would have been impossible.

From Pangborn we went to Watersville, from Watersville we went to Anderson, and from Anderson we went to Mansfield, and finally we landed out Coulee City from deteriorating conditions. This entire flight we stayed in the height band, always having final glide + safety margin to an airport. While this isn’t specifically about this flight, I think it’s worth mentioning. It’s ok to land in fields, too. For example, for my XC flight in the L-33, I was fully comfortable de-rigging it and I had crew on the ground (Thanks Dad!). Because of my lack of fear I was able to trudge onwards, making it to Mansfield, then Watersville, and back.

The flight was pretty easy up to Anderson. We had to dig for lift, get as high as we could, and then zoom in, get the turn point, and head back. We were getting lower than we ever got before (still high, 4500 agl), but we saw a billowing pyre of smoke, and climbed very high while smelling like smoked sausage. This is another important skill to have, and I didn’t really acknowledge it until this flight. At Arlington ground signs aren't that much of a factor. We don’t get dust devils, and there are rarely any smoke pillars that make it past a temperature inversion. In Ephrata though, ground signs are extremely important. If we ever had to find a thermal and didn’t see a cloud nearby, we would search for dust devils, as they were always sure signs of a thermal.

After using the smoke to get high, we headed towards Mansfield. Another skill I learned from this flight was pay attention to what’s going on above you. Past the great looking Cu you’re circling above, look at what the cirrus is doing. On that day, a blanket of cirrus was coming off the Cascades and heading east, killing the lift it covered. We chose to go east because of this, which bought us extra time, but once we got near Coulee City we were swamped, the day was over (at least for us ).

While we were searching for lift to no avail, I scanned for the airport. This was a skill that during the beginning of the flight I was very rusty in, and by the end I was okay. It’s also something you can only improve upon from experience. The first couple of airports we used as land out options took awhile to locate. Not much of a landout option if you can’t see it! It was nice with this flight having the two of us; one could navigate while the other flew. It was because of this that I got better at searching for airports. When high above the ground it’s tough to distinguish between road and runway. I’ve found that after a couple of times circling, looking for very straight "roads" that actually look shorter than the average road, you can find your airport. Also, you can go out days beforehand and drive to all the airports, or get a powered flight to tour the area.

It was surprisingly early on when I realized I had to go to the bathroom. Realizing this, and then thinking about it - didn’t help me either. When I was flying, it was ignorable - which probably explains why I was used to being able to hold it in - but when I was a passenger, it was all I could think about. While this may seem like an unpleasant topic to discuss, it’s an important one. I say this because, at some points, I felt I would have been too distracted even to fly ( One, I think that once I was actually focused on flying, it would have been fine, but Two, if I ever felt I was nearing this point, I would have landed at an airport ). I don’t know if I could have lasted much longer past Coulee City, but "lucky" for me - I can blame our landing on the weather. While that happened nicely for me, imagine if it was still a great day. This is why a relief system is important. By not having one you are limiting yourself and the potential you have for a XC flight. While I really didn’t want to think about this topic before this flight - feeling the discomfort and having that realization upon learning of my limitation - I am more than willing to broach the topic.

I hope you were able to learn a lot from this essay. Beginning to fly XC may seem like a scary thing, but once you get your foot in the door you’ll never want to turn back. The best way to learn is from doing and talking to those who have done it before you. Conquer your fears and step away from the airport - venture into the wild blue yonder.