(Above: Andrew Corrigan, author)
This time of year - November and December - glider pilots are not thinking about planning soaring flights. For me, the main reason to check the weather is to determine the ski conditions ... not to plan my next flight.
However, on the last Saturday in November, I had an amazing 2 hour flight in SOSA's Puchacz with Vlada Dekina. During the flight I was forced to:
- think about cross country tactics
- practice debugging issues in the cockpit, and
- we had a lot of fun in the process!
This all happened at the end of November ... when there was snow on the ground.
On the Wednesday before the flight, I was checking the weather and I didn’t have my hopes up about flying on the weekend. The Pennsylvania Ridges - a few hours' drive south of SOSA and a favourite club hangout - weren’t going to be working and the local WX for SOSA was going to be just above zero. I assumed the runway would be too soft for a flight operation.
However, Mount St. Louis had 18 ski runs open.
Fortunately, Dave Springford sent out an e-mail just before the weekend saying there was going to be a flying operation on Saturday. I decided to head out to SOSA because there will be plenty of time to ski in the next few months. Dave’s e-mail prompted a lot of others to come out. So the club activity was vibrant for November.
When Pat O’Donnell landed, I got a briefing on the conditions. He was up for 45 minutes and reported lift, but heavy sink in the circuit. The sky was looking good when we took off and I was getting excited about the possibilities. While Al Grant was towing us, I noticed a cloud street from St. George towards Woodstock. My first thought was to recall who at the club would be able to act as a retrieve crew. The cloud street was looking great. In the 30 km I could see, four flat, dark spots looked like they were working. I was sure we could make it to Woodstock. (Remember - this is the end of November) We released before St George and Vlada took us to the cloud street.
At first, I had a really rough time assessing the lift. The audio vario in the front of the Puchacz was not in sync with my vario in the back seat. It showed the correct direction, but was wildly optimistic. Then I realized my vario was calibrated in metres per second; the audio vario infront was calibrated in knots. This wasn’t a problem because I did the conversion from m/s to knots. (multiply m/s x2) However, something was still wrong. It was good that Vlada was flying because I could spend time on this issue to figure out what was wrong. Eventually, I used the altimeter to determine the audio vario was not working correctly. It said we were going up and the altimeter said we were going down.
During this time I was still in Woodstock mode. So, I was also looking at the ground to see what the fields looked like to determine what the land out conditions would be like. Most of the fields were dark black and looked like they would be really muddy. The other fields still had corn in them. But, I was still in Woodstock mode because … “over there” was the wide highway of clouds with thermals working and I just couldn’t resist the urge to go for it. But I was still in the phase of assessing the conditions - so we did not head out on course yet. The next thing I realized was that the sun was in my eyes for half the thermal and the other half I was in the shade. That meant the sun was low in the sky. (The first time this happened to me – long ago - I didn’t pick up on the importance of this sign. As a result, I met a really nice farmer and I learned how to de-rig in the dark.)
Now it was time to change gears. Woodstock and back was not going to happen. So I settled in for a nice local soaring flight. Vlada was doing all the work and I sat back and enjoyed the flight. I might have felt guilty about making her do all the flying, but given the smile on her face I don’t think she minded.
At one point we spotted a flock of gulls and they weren’t flapping their wings. Vlada was able to get 6 knots, taking us from around 3000 feet to +4000 in no time.
At this point I was really amazed at the conditions. The cloud formation was nothing like I had seen before. Looking at the horizon, it appeared we were at cloud base, but the seagulls were much higher. I’m guessing one of the gulls was another 300-400’ above us, but I thought we were at base. Maybe the core was so strong that it pushed the cloud higher in the center and the edges were at a lower altitude?
Eventually, we had to stop thermaling because my stomach couldn’t handle boring holes into the sky anymore. We headed east to another street. Vlada was able to connect and we flew about 5km past the tanks (to the east of SOSA). Getting back was interesting. Vlada flew back in the same street flying slowly. With the head wind, it appeared we were hovering for the longest time. It was as if the tanks were a big magnet and they wouldn’t let go of us.
Finally, we made it back without the assistance of a ground crew. We travelled from SOSA to St. George, then travelled east past the tanks, and returned. The flight was a little over two hours and it was one of the 'funnest' flights I had this year.
After the aircraft were packed back into the hanger, everyone headed to the club house to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace and a beer while we listened to the flying stories of the day.