Thursday, August 13, 2009

An Experience to Remember

“Four knots thermal, we do not need to take it, we know there are better ones ahead so we keep flying straight”. The pilot in command kept talking, explaining his strategy, while I was preoccupied with two thoughts: “wow, he makes this cross country stuff look so easy“ and “I can’t believe we just ignored the four knot thermal”!

The place was southern Ontario (where 4 kt thermal would be considered above average) and the time was July 9, the second last day of the Canadian National Soaring competition. I was a passenger in the back seat of DG 505, our club’s high-end two-seater that was flying in the contest. The pilot in command of the 505 was an experienced club member who decided to introduce the less experienced club pilots to cross county flying by taking us with him as passengers, a different person each day.

As we made fast progress towards our first turn point, the pilot in command calculated our speed and claimed that he was having one of the best soaring days in his multi-decade soaring career! In the back seat, I was starting to clue in that what I was experiencing was not your typical soaring day in the southern Ontario. In the other words, it looked so easy because the conditions were exceptionally good. Good for a time being, as it turned out.

Being so fast over the first turn point, we calculated that we’d be well under time to complete the task, so we went deeper into the 20 miles turn circle and then proceeded towards second turn point. The thermals were still plentiful and flying was easy and we were making good progress, but as we approached the second turn point, the pilot in command pointed out to the blue spreading out to our left (east). We would have to fly due east to our third turn point (and towards our home field as well). At first I was not worried about the blue thinking that it was just a different (drier) air mass and there would be some lift in it. But as we turned towards the last turn point and flew into the blue, the we realized what it was. An easterly wind brought stable lake air from over Lake Ontario. There was not a lot of sink, but there was no lift anywhere either. And we still had close to 40 km to go so the day suddenly became a lot harder.

Flying on wisps of dying clouds we made it a bit closer to the last turn point only to find ourselves low over the ground in the middle of the blue air with headwind towards our destination and no airport within gliding distance. Or at least no airport that could accommodate the size of our wingspan as 505 has a rather large wingspan. For a bit, we were circling in zero sink over the small farmers grass strip, but as tempting as it was to land there, it did not look wide enough to accommodate the 505.

Once we realized we were not going anywhere, our attention switched to looking for good landing fields which were scarce in that area. Luckily, at that point we were almost right over the field that looked acceptable. The pilot in command started the landing circuit as I was looking for last minute obstacles. We were in the circuit when we heard some other planes in our class announcing that they were landing at the 3rd turn point (which was the airport).

The actual landing was uneventful and we were soon joined by the farmer. One tractor, three broken ropes and four aching arms later we pulled the heavy 505 to the edge of the field with road access, so the trailer could come right in. Our support crew showed up in a short period of time. Getting 505 in a trailer took a few hours and more aching arms and backs, but eventually she was all packed in and we all enjoyed a well deserved (and much needed) dinner.

We drove to the club under the moonlight. Back at the club, we were told that the lake air got almost everyone and only one glider in our class made it back and only four gliders came back in FAI class.

The 505 was put together in the morning and ready to fly again, but the bad weather returned and the last day was officially cancelled. Out of 10 contest days total, there were five flying days and 505 landed out only one day. As luck (or Mr. Murphy) had it, that was the day I was flying as a passenger. And what an experience that turned out to be!

No comments: