Thursday, June 18, 2009

Almost Six Hours!

The progression past the glider pilot license is more or less up to the pilot with the recognition of milestones achieved via so-called badges. C barge is 1 hour flight; Bronze Badge is administered by club and serves as a preparation to a first cross country flight. Silver badge is administered by FAI and is recognized worldwide. There are three requirements to complete the badge: 5 hour duration local flight; a 1000 meters height gain and a 50 km cross country flight. I decided to start with 5 hours.

On the morning of my 5hr attempt the high cirrus clouds decided to park right over the club and it did not seem like the day would go anywhere. By 11am there was still no sigh on Cumulous clouds, but there were lots and lots of private gliders rigged and set aside on the flight line. I figured all those experienced x-country guys must have been onto something, so had an early lunch, prepared my water, snacks and relief system and made my way to the flight line. It was past noon and there were tiny Cu way too far away from the club, but moving in the right direction. Apparently, there was also lift in the blue and the “house thermal” was working, so after talking to some experienced guys, I decided to launch, find a good blue thermal and stick to it until Cu moved in. With some last minute encouragement, I took off into the blue.

I found lift right after takeoff, but also discovered than my audio vario was under reading by so much, it was useless and I had to shut it off and rely on mechanical. That meant I had to have my eyes in the cockpit more than usual initially, and as time went on, I actually just flew by feel more than the vario.

Fighting with the audio vario I lost the lift core and could not find it again. Then I decided to move to another thermal seeing a glider in it move up rapidly. I lost quite a bit of height getting there and got low, so had to work diligently on centering and getting my altimeter up. By the time I got to the decent height and could relax for the first time since release, it felt like an hour had passed. Imagine my surprise when the watch told me it was under 25 mins! I was really doubting that I would have endurance to do 5 hours flight that day.

Having spent some time topping up the thermal I was in, I made it back to the Safari thermal and either the lift got better or I found a core, but I was at 7,000 ft in no time. By that time, Cu that was previously too far appeared to be within reach on the downwind side. The winds were very light, so I figured being downwind was not that much of an issue and at 7,000 ft height I could afford to at least go in the direction of the Cu to see how far I get.

I picked a textbook perfect looking cloud and headed straight for it. I encountered more lift on a way and thermalled in it a bit, so by the time I got to Cu, I was still reasonably high. And that Cu was working and rather well. And there were a lot more clouds drifting in so flying got a lot easier and became a lot more fun from that point on.

At some point, I headed for a really solid looking cloud only to find it top heavy and completely dead by the time I got there. Other times I found massive lift in the blue. As I was circling in that lift I looked up saw a haze dome and realized I was under the young growing cloud. Eventually I got too far downwind for my comfort and decided to make my way upwind.

Jumping from cloud to cloud, I moved upwind. Ceilings got higher as the day went on, so at over 8,000 ft, I could go a long way and still stay within gliding distance. For a while, I was very tempted to go beyond the gliding distance and try a cross country flight, but I did not have my maps, my cell phone or rigged trailer, so I resisted that temptation and eventually turned back towards the club.

Looking back towards the club, I was rather unpleasantly surprised at the picture in front of me. The sun and Cu that were now behind me were replaced by a massive overdevelopment with some occasional rain showers falling down to the ground. Moreover, that dark and nasty stuff appeared to move towards me and I could not quite get away from it and still stay within gliding distance.

At that point, I checked my watch for the first time in a long time and was surprised that it showed I was up for over 4 hours. With less than an hour to go I was really motivated to stay up the whole 5 and that meant I had to find lift under the clouds.

I saw a sunny break half way towards the club and headed for it, going through some rain in the process. Being rained on in the glider was a very interesting experience – the rain was so extremely loud that at some point I thought it was hail.

I made it to the sunny break and gained as much height as I could. With less than 30 mins to go, the clouds drifted over and the sunny break closed. Curiously, the weak to zero lift continued even with no sun so I kept circling in it until I knew I made my five hours. With the goal achieved, I decided to head for another distant sunny break to warm up (I was quite cold as I spend the previous 30 mins under the clouds). On a way to the sun, I passed though another rain shower and discovered 4 kts lift in the rain!

As I flew into the sun again, I looked back at the club and saw shower columns heading to the field. I did not want to fly through yet another rain shower, so I decided to stay on a sunny side and play around some more. I had quite a bit of height to lose so I took some pictures of clouds and the rain, did some turns and had a grand time not looking at my vario or altimeter. Getting lower, I overflew the field to check the windsocks. Just as I was getting in the landing mode, I flew through a massive thermal that I just could not pass. Centering it quickly, I saw my altimeter go through from 3,000 ft to 5,000 ft and suddenly felt very tired. I opened full spoilers but was still going up until I flew out of the lift. I kept flying with open spoilers until I was at the circuit altitude and then did a circuit and had an uneventful landing. The total time for that flight was 5 hrs and 50 mins.

Packing my glider in the hangar, I knew two things that I did not know before that flight: first, I had endurance to do long flights and second, the next time I am having a 5 hour flight, I better be going somewhere. I can’t wait for my first cross country!

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