Soaring the Spine of the Cascades Range

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As this year is slowly coming to its usual soggy end, it is time again to reflect on this year’s soaring season.  On the west side we experienced unusually poor weather conditions with a very wet spring, a long extended warm but very stable summer season, and just a short window of good soaring conditions in early spring.  The 11 best flights for the WBC 2016 were all made between May 2 and 10.  Ron Clark confirmed his firm hold on first place (fourth in a row) with a flight of 661 OLC points on May 10, flying a large triangle from Arlington between Jack Mountain in the North and Rimrock Lake in the South as turn points.  This was by far the best flight on the west side ever and built on Ron’s flight to Hood River the year before which demonstrated the potential of soaring along the crest of the Cascades.

The Cascades - a mountain range extending from BC to Northern California and featuring a number of impressive volcanoes – have long intrigued XC soaring pilots starting with the first sailplane crossing by Bob Fisher in 1963 (in a Schweizer 1-23).  For a while there was an SGC mountain flying group that explored the Washington Cascades by moving from one mountain airfield to another with a tow plane after the main activity in Wenatchee and Ephrata slowed down, but it died down after mainstream XC soaring concentrated on long distance flying in the basin.

However, a small group of dedicated XC pilots continued to explore the XC soaring potential on the west side and began to explore the potential of the North Cascades.  As demonstrated by Ron Clark and others, the best distances achieved can be comparable to those flown in Eastern Washington.

Another, totally unexpected approach was made by California pilots Tom Bjork and Kemp Izuno.  They got intrigued by the idea of flying Tom’s ASH-30 all the way from Williams (north of Sacramento) to Arlington along the crest of the mountains.  They set out on May 13, 2016 and had a nice run until they crossed the Columbia near Hood River.  Things started to get soft and south of Mount Saint Helens they had to start the retractable engine and flew to North Plains/ Hillsboro (home of the WVSA).  Despite not making their goal it was an epic flight.


Comparing their flight with Ron’s flight 3 days earlier provides some insight into thermal XC soaring along the high mountains.


Flight statistics based on the OLC





Ron Clark

Tom B./ Kemp I.

sailplane/ HC

LS-3/ 107

ASH-30Mi/ 124

OLC points



distance/ w. HC - mi

375..9/ 351.3

491.4/ 396.3

speed/ w. HC - mph

58.2/ 54.4

74.8/ 60.3

max. altitude - ft



avg. climb rate - fpm












Tom and Kemp had some tailwind benefit and when taking the handicaps (HC) into account the data for both flights are fairly comparable for distance and speed and virtually identical for maximum altitudes and average climb rates. This is a nice validation for Ron’s pioneering flights (w/o using the latest super ship) and bodes well for further long distance soaring in the Cascades.

What about wave flying?  In 1967 Cecil Craig used wave lift behind some of the major Cascade volcanoes and made a spectacular flight from Mount Rainier to Crater Lake – in a low performance L-K (TG-4).  However it required exceptional weather conditions and nowadays would also require lengthy ATC preparations.  Wave lift can certainly be used when available, and can be very helpful especially early in the flight or towards the end to extend the flight outside of the thermalling window.  Soaring pilots are opportunists and any source of lift (whether anticipated or stumbled into) is gladly accepted.

So despite a generally disappointing XC season on the west side we have a new record and some new inspiring ideas about soaring the magnificent Cascades range.  Let’s see how this will develop in the coming year(s)!