Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lost & Found

I normally do not need a reason or destination to jump in the airplane and go flying. I am happy flying nowhere on a local flight and just enjoying the fact that I am above ground looking down at the scenery passing under my wings.

But for this winter, I actually had both the reasons and destinations, plural. I wanted to a) get to know my new local area better, and b) get myself familiar with the typical glider x-country routes so that when I actually fly them in the glider, I do not feel lost.
So on my next flight I was planing to fly over Milton, detour over Glen Eden ski hill and then head for the training area for this school, which happens to be right over my glider club. This would be the "get to know your area" type of flight.
The flight was booked for 4pm, but it took a while to get the plane ready and I did not take off till 4:30pm. As I circled over my subdivision in Milton and headed west, the sun was low on a horizon and shining straight into my eyes.

I was flying south of 401 in the direction that should have taken me somewhat near my glider field. One of the most easily identifiable landmarks that is used both by the flight school and my club is "the tanks" - a collection of while tanks that really stand out from the darker background and thus are visible from a great distance. Except in the winter when everything around the tanks is also white!
I did bring my GPS on that flight but it was sitting in my bag as i did not think i could possibly get lost so near my gliding club. And I was not really lost as I could see both Hamilton and Cambridge, so I knew my approximate location, but where I was exactly I could not tell. I decided to get my GPS to find out for sure. As i settled the unit on the panel, it told me I was right over Rockton.
I looked and sure enough, right under my left wing was the glider airfield! Having seen the familiar landmark, all the other landscape features fell into place in my brain as if by magic and I did a few circles over the field finding all the other landmarks that only a few minutes ago Iwas not seeing. I even saw the tanks. Funny how that happens.
I flew for a bit heading west of the field until weather started closing in with ceilings dropping North and West of me. I was also getting quite cold as the plane was quite drafty and temp outside was -15C. So I turned around and headed for Milton. I was pretty sure I knew where the field was, but dialed it on a GPS just in case. I was almost on top of the field when I finally saw it. My circuit and landing were uneventful. Next weekend it was -25C and I did not want to get out of the house...

The Quiet Day

After passing my rental check flight, my next task was to fly some circuits. As I was watching weather and available time slots, I discovered the downside of Burlington (compared to Buttonville). Having only one paved runway and with Wx being rather unstable, there was always strong x-wind on the days i could fly. While I would think nothing about x-wind while flying the glider, I was not yet confident enough to try it in the Cessna. All I needed was a quiet day to get my confidence back.

Waiting for such day, I cancelled two bookings and was optimistic for the 3rd one, but having arrived at the airport, I discovered the wind sock pointing straight across the runway. Since I took a day off from work hoping to fly, I decided to fly anyways - with an instructor. The next hour was a wild ride as we did circuit after circuit in x-wind that came close to capabilities of our aircraft. I am not sure that flight did anything to improve the finesse of my landing, but it certainly did miracles for my confidence.

Couple of weeks later, it was January 2011 when I finally got my quiet day and did an hour of circuits. My landings were alright according to an instructor that was watching. That day I drove home with a huge smile on my face.

One page, 3 years

2010 was a year of too much unwelcome stress, too many changes and not enough flying. But some changes were good. As much hassle as it was moving from one suburb north of Toronto to another suburb west of it, several months after being in the new house, I discovered it was 10 mins drive from Burlington airpark. How that fact escaped my attention prior to moving to Milton I would not know, but I was ecstatic to make that discovery.

Burlington airpark is the best of both worlds: it is small enough to still have the nice relaxed feel of my previous little airport on the hill (Holland Landing), but it has a large and active flight school with the fleet of rental Cessna's.

Living that close to an airport with Cessnas available for rent, I wanted to resurrect my power flying for the winter season. Once glider season wound down and the glider was packed for the winter, I made a checkout booking for Dec 4.

Before the checkout, I spent a day reviewing Cessna manual, my old training notes and relevant checklists. My power flying logbook had 3 years worth of entries on one page - I expected to be rusty and was fully prepared to have to come back for another checkout flight as I did not think I'd be flying good enough after such a long break.

The school impressed me to no end with the details of their ground knowledge check and detailed checklist explained to me by instructor. It was more full some than any check flights I have experienced before. Looking at the checklist for the in-flight portion, I had no expectations of doing them all satisfactory as it was almost 2 years since my last flight in a Cessna. One part of the checklist was flight into controlled airport and communications with controllers there - THAT I knew I would do well. Having trained at the controlled airport, radio work is natural to me and all the procedures come back instantly. The landing part I was not so sure about..

To my complete and utter surprise, I did very well on most of the items in the test, including landing at Hamilton (my first ever visit there) and satisfactory enough on the remaining few (lfull load check) that my instructor signed me off for full rental privileges. He did suggest that I fly some circuits by myself to polish off my landings before flying with passengers again, so my next task was to fly some circuits.

I was driving home after that flight feeling very happy but I did resolve to try my best to never ever have 3 yrs worth of flying on one page in my logbook...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Ridge

Since the early days of joining the glider club, I kept hearing about this magical experience called "ridge soaring". The description of flying long distances over Allegheny Mountains without needing to thermal seemed so different from the type of flying i was used to, i knew I would have to experience it one day.

The day came this fall and a lot more days came after that as I got addicted to the experience but, more importantly, was fascinated by people that I met there. It was an incredible cast of real characters with years of flying experiences and i am very lucky to have made acquaintance with them.

The place we went to is called Ridge Soaring Glideport and it even has its own Wiki page. It is a 6 hour drive that is so beautiful in the fall, it is breathtaking. My pictures from the car do not do it justice.

The owners of the Glideport, Tom and Doris, run a smooth operation with an emphasis on safety. They also do ridge checkout in their twin Astir, which was of great benefit for ridge newbie like me. As part of the checkout, they explain and show the difference between taking off and landing at the ridge Vs your typical flatland gliding airfield.

The differences were not trivial. The one that is immediately obvious on takeoff takes a while to get used to: while at my home field, we take off and fly into a great blue (or grey) yonder, at the Ridge you takeoff and head straight for the solid mass of trees... i.e. the ridge itself. The feeling that you are going to fly straight into the trees is overwhelming for the first few flights.

Eventually, you begin to accept that the trees are a lot farther away that they seem and tows are getting a lot less stressful. But just as you begin to feel comfortable, you get to take off on a day the ridge is working and have to deal with an incredible turbulence.

And then you get to reverse this experience for the landing. You start your circuit below the trees and then get beat up by the turbulence on the base and final. High base and high speed circuits are the norm, which suited me just fine as those were very similar to circuits I got used to do for acro flights.

What you get between takeoff and landing is flying magic. When the wind hits the ridge at 90 degree angle (+/- 30 degrees) at the speed above 15 knots, it produces lift that allows experienced pilots to fly long distances (1,ooo km +) at low altitudes and without the need to thermal. When the ridge is "working", in addition to the ridge lift, there are also strong thermals and, occasionally, the wave. In the other words, it is nothing short of soaring paradise. And, if that was not enough, the best ridge times are in early spring and late fall which extends our flying season that otherwise would be woefully short.

When the ridge is working, the day starts early (as soon as the fog lifts that is). This allows for two people sharing glider to both have good flights.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Wx been really bad this summer and I had not yet managed a catch a good and easy soaring day with puffy clouds. All my soaring flights this far were in the muggy blue skies scratching around the club.

Soaring being almost non-existent, my aerobatics flying fared a lot better. I am at the point now where I am trying to fly sequences of figures, which are a lot of fun.

Last weekend, I had two firsts: I flew a perfect tailslide in my glider, which is hard to do as you have to hit a perfect vertical in order to slide backwards. Only a handful of glider models are approved for this and mine happens to be one of them.

My second first was of a funny negative kind - I had a soaring flight that was shorter than most of my acro flights. I did couple of acro flights in the morning and wanted to do some soaring in the afternoon. As I was taking a break to lunch and rest, the stable lake air moved in from the east and I had a sleigh ride down. Some of the other gliders managed to stay up though so I knew there was lift.

I went up again a few mins later and had another flight in the muggy blue scratching around the field. Only a few spots were producing usable lift and it I could not go anywhere far from those. I did it for a while and then decided I had enough and came down.

Later that evening, I put the flights in my logbook, added the times up and realized I had another first - I passed 100 hrs in the gliders!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Angry Skies

The weekend weather forecasts are starting to sound like a broken record. A bad broken record. We had low ceilings, rain, thunderstorms, winds and whatever else Mother Nature could throw the way of hapless glider pilot.

The weekend of June 5-6 was not supposed to be an exception. The front was supposed to come through and the forecast showed no chance of flying at all. But miraculously the skies cleared up some by about 10am and completely by mid-day on Saturday. This was a real blessing as that was the date of my club’s first open house in many years.

Seeing the weather improve rapidly on Saturday, I considered getting my own glider out of the hangar and practicing some short field landings, but decided against it as the lineup was very busy with intro flights for the open house. Instead, I decided to play with my newly acquired 18-200mm zoom lens and take pictures for the club’s and my own websites. I took pictures of people, tow planes, gliders in motion and of course the skies.

The afternoon sky had deep iridescent blue color that often accompanies weather changes and the occasional clouds had very interesting shapes that only unsettled sky can produce. At some point, there was a rainbow amidst the clouds, a sign of the warm front approaching.

As the day wound up, I had an urge to go up and look at that unsettled sky from above. But I did not want to fly myself; I wanted to be a spectator with the camera. In the luck of perfect timing, the moment I realized I wanted to go up, I was picking up a glider that just landed and pulling it back to flight line. And it was not the ordinary glider, it was privately owned LK-10, a WW2 vintage glider that has an open cockpit for the passenger. I asked the owner if he would take me up and he agreed.

By the time we were on a line waiting to take off, the approaching front line was visible from the ground. The take off with the open cockpit was noisy and exciting at the same time. Things got quieter after the release and the sensation of flight and moving through the air was beyond words. We did not expect to fund any lift that time of the day with a front approaching, but surprisingly we flew into rising air and circled in there for a while. We were joined in the thermal by a bird and another glider.

As we circled, I had a real good look at the skies. The skies to the east and north of us were blue with some feather clouds that created amazing patterns.


The upcoming front was now closer and the skies to the west and south of us were ominous with dark clouds pregnant with rain or thunder.

The settling sun was almost completely covered by clouds but a few remaining rays added some color to the spectacle that left me speechless and lost in time and space.

Eventually we ran out of lift and came down to earth. As I climbed out of the glider, I looked up and noticed that the clouds overhead formed into impressive mammatus formation. Very vague thought at the back of my mind briefly surfaced to remind me that mammatus clouds are often associated with very fierce storms, but in the routine hassles of stacking the gliders I completely forgot about it until the next morning when I read that the front we were watching resulted in tornado hitting a town southwest of us…

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A bit of Soaring

After several weekends of rain, I had officially opened my soaring season couple of weeks ago with a really interesting flight. It was a blue day, which means there was lift, but there were no clouds that usually mark the lift.

I had two acro flights that morning, then took my time to put the wingtips on my split personality glider, thus turning it into a capable cross country machine.

Last year, on a blue day, I would have just happily flew in circles around the club, however, I found that flying in circles was becoming a bit boring and I wanted to set some kind of a goal. Being first soaring flight of the season and a blue day, trying to fly somewhere and back was out of question, so I decided to fly what I called a “local cross-country”.

Looking at the map, I picked the landmarks that were within 10-15 miles away from the club at the North, East, South and West. I decided to fly between these landmarks turning back to the club each time I reached the minimum safe gliding distance.

Tow pilot dropped me in the lift and I worked that lift diligently gaining about a 1,000 ft. I then flew around the club for a bit trying to establish the strength of thermals and where the lift started and stopped in terms of height. Having a somewhat rough idea where the lift was, I set up towards my first landmark.

I flew through a whole lot of sink but as I approached my landmark I also found a ton of lift and realized the we have installed the overly sensitive altimeter in the glider that made finding the thermals on a blue day somewhat challenging. Eventually, I resolved not to look at the altimeter but instead pulling up and cranking into a turn as soon as I felt a surge of rising air. That worked a lot better.

I made it to my initial point North of the club and started making my way to the point East of the club. Flying between those two points, I had not encountered lift once, but there was a lot of sink so that when I reached my eastern turnpoint, I had about 100 ft of altitude left before reaching my “turn back” altitude. Miraculously, I found some lift and started climbing up again. Turning towards my western turnpoint, I tried to reach it twice, but got caught in too much sink and forced to turn back to club both times, so instead, I went back north.

By the time I completed that simple circle, I started to feel tired. The sun was bright and relentless and there were no clouds to hide under, so I was feeling too hot and earlier acro flights that i flew that day made me more tired to start with. There was still lots of lift left, but I decided to call it a day.

I was at 4’000 ft above ground and I decided to glide all the way back to club to see how much height I would lose. This was a way of testing my minimum safe gliding distance. I was over the club 1,200 ft of altitude later, so my 3,000 ft minimum altitude was quite conservative and I liked it this way.

Now I need to practice some short field landings in the cross country configuration and then I could try the real cross country.