7/4/08

Soaring Independence

Walt Johnson and I had been trying to coordinate to find a pair of days when he was off from work, and when we had good weather for soaring. With two days, we could either do a downwind flight, and not be concerned about driving back the same day, or at the very least have a recovery day the next day. It turned out that the weather for July 4th was predicted to have a fat (dig the fancy meteorology term!) high pressure system, after the passage of a cold front. The winds were out the SSW, so a long downwind flight was not in the cards. However, the winds were to be light (they turned out to be between 6 and 10 mph aloft), and so a closed course flight might be possible. The sky on the morning of the 4th looked picture perfect. Blue blue blue, except for a few small areas of high cloud. Plus, there was a lot of low lying fog as I drove down to Osceola (OEO) from Duluth. I always take low lying fog to be a predictor of a good soaring day.

Arriving at OEO before 8am, and dragging my glider in its trailer over to RWSA operations from my hangar, the soaring forecast looked great. The Ford soaring forecast indicated lift up to about 8,000' (which turned out to be about right-- while cloud base was at about 6,500', in some cases lift was 4 kts at cloud base). The NOAA forecast also looked great, with a trigger temperature of 70 degrees F. Trigger temperature was expected at 1pm, but actually occurred much earlier-- by 9am I think, and while NOAA predicted a blue day, at around 10am, cumulus clouds were popping, and there were nice cumulus through the day. With Walt running my wing, and Mark Robotti towing, we launched Zulu Tango at 11:12am. I suspect I could have launched an hour earlier and stayed aloft.

My course plan was out and return, or optionally a pair of out and returns-- all along cross-wind legs to the NW or SE. When I launched, the cumulus development looked better to the NW, so I made my first out and return leg to the NW-- with a turnpoint chosen just SE of Lake Mille Lacs, and a little West of Mora, MN. The journey up to Mora, and back, took almost three hours. I was flying back near OEO again just after 2pm. My cruising speed between thermals was 70mph, and around 80mph in sink. I was flying faster than usual, trying to increase my average speed. On thinking about this now, I want to bump this up to 75mph, and go to 85 or 90mph in sink. On the Mora leg, my first low point was near Rush City, at 2800' MSL. Not really very low, but I'd been staying comfortably high-- averaging about 4,500'. My second low point was 2300' near Mora at 12:33pm. After completing my first leg and returning to OEO, I headed out to the SE. I ended up flying 105 miles from OEO along this course, and turning back again to OEO near Ettrick, WI (about 20 miles North of La Crosse). I made it about 25 miles on the return part of this leg before having to land.

Along the SE part of this flight, I had a couple of low points, the first about 15 miles SE of Baldwin, WI, and the second about 13 miles North of Winona. I could have made it to Winona to land. However, just after this last low point, I had my last climb-- to 4,500' in the blue. At around 5pm, the day had started to die to the North along my course line. There were still cumulus to the East, West, and South, but I wanted to continue to try to make it back to OEO. Wanting to make as much progress back to OEO as I could, I decided to continue Northward (and Westward-- in case I could make it to the cumulus that were on the West side of the Mississippi). I was having a bout of wishful thinking, wondering if the day had turned blue, with the thermals still working. But no, the blue was sincere, and meant a lack of lift! I found a nice hayfield to land the glider, a couple miles SE of Alma, WI. The field was freshly mown, and had already had the hay removed.

Walt and I had talked on the radio when I was near OEO, coming back from my first leg, and we decided to have him drive to about mid-way along my 2nd leg course line to wait in case I landed away from OEO. Walt drove to Menominie, and waited there. That also gave us better radio contact than if he had waited at OEO. When I landed, I had no cell phone reception, so I started walking to try to find reception or someone who would let me use their phone. Afew minutes into my walk along the road, I had some cell phone reception, and tried calling Walt. That call didn't go through, but seconds later I had an incoming phone call. It was Dr. Dan Johnson from Menominie. After landing his own glider at Menominie, Dan had taken the orphaned Walt into his home, and thought that I might be on the ground. Amongst bad cell phone reception, I managed to get my latitude/longitude to Walt. My crew has been using a road mapping GPS in my car for retrieves (based on me passing along the lat/long), and this has been working very well. Assured that my crew was on the way, I walked back to the glider, taking pictures, and starting the glider derigging process.

Within a few minutes of glider tinkering, a car was driving across my landing field. I had not yet made contact with the landowner (I had tried the closest house, but they were not home). It turned out the car's occupants were concerned passerbys that had seen the aircraft in the field, leaning over at an odd angle, and had drove over to make sure there was not an injury. This family stayed with me until Walt arrived, and also helped us derig the glider. As I often find, one of the most enjoyable parts of the day was talking to these people, after landing. They had seen some glider launches before, years ago (a few miles South of Durand-- I can no longer see the airfield they mentioned on my sectional). Getting their kids into the glider, and taking more pictures, we had alot of fun chatting. It was a small, impromptu July 4th party! Walt arrived shortly and joined in the fray! Before we were finished derigging, the land owners arrived, and were also very congenial. It turns out they ran a substantial dairy farm, and I learned that their cows each produced about 85 lbs of milk per day!! We pulled away from the hayfield at about 9pm.

The flight was some 251.67 statute miles (405.03 km; OLC Classic), with an average ground speed of 37.9 mph (61.01 km/h), and took 6:38:18 hours of soaring. The OLC link to my flight is here. From the shape of my flight, you'd swear we had a long ridge here in MN, and WI!! :). Walt and I got back to Osceola at about 1am, and I slept there in the clubhouse-- only Walt's presence in the car was keeping me awake. It was a great day, and just too bad the lift stopped when it did. I could have made it back to OEO given another 1 1/2 hrs of lift. Perhaps if I'd have launched the hour earlier!! I'm going to work with my crew to try to achieve that goal. This was a personal best distance for a non-downwind flight.

Safety Analysis

My landing was a good one. I didn't know what the ground wind direction was, but the last reading from my Colibri for winds was about out of the West, so I picked a field that enabled landing to the West. I made a full downwind, base, and final approach. I turned off my radio before preparing for landing-- a practice recommended for off-field landings to avoid distractions. I had to keep my attention focused on which field I was going to land on-- there were lots of them. I marked the start of the field by some buildings to the immediate NE of the field. Plus, my field had a slight curve at the Westward end. There were (power, phone?) wires along the road at the East edge of the field. I saw these in my initial appraisal of the field. It would have been slightly better to not have these, but it was really no problem to fly over these on final, coming in at my usual high forward pitched attitude in my 1-35. If I recall correctly, I had full flaps deployed on the last part of my final and when coming in over the wires. I might have been able to get closer to the wires on final, but I stayed comfortably above them. I'd rather not hit turbulence or sink coming in over wires!! From the air, I had been considering other nearby fields, but those fields looked greener. The field I selected looked freshly cut, from the air. I was fortunate in this field selection-- After I landed I observed that the two parallel fields by my field were knee high corn ("knee high on the 4th of July"!), and I suspect the other (greener) fields I was considering from the air were also corn. The dairy farmer later confirmed that the corn was for their cows. In part because of the approach over the wires, I stopped my rollout into the field about mid-way into the field. In general, my goal is to try to stop as short as possible in an off-field landing. One never knows the quality of the terrain. My landing felt a little bumpy on rolling out, but I think this was because I had a tire full of air. My 1-35 main wheel had been a little underpressured and Dan Johnson gave me an air fill on my last landing at Menominie.

I had more time than usual for my selection of my off-field landing field. With the lack of cumulus, there was not only little or no lift, but also little or no sink. I descended from about 3,000' MSL surveying the fields, looking for mine. It felt like a comparative luxury to have this much time! :). More often than not, when I'm needing to land off-field, I'm down at about 1000 AGL, and stressed. This happens because there is still lift (or at least still cumulus) in the vicinity, and I'm strongly engaged in trying to stay up and stay on my task. I was far less stressed on this landing as I'd made my decision much earlier. I did make one thermalling attempt, relatively low, about mid-way along my downwind leg, but it proved to not have enough lift to be worthwhile.

I stayed about 5-10 miles away from OEO when passing by around 2pm, enroute to my SE leg. In general, I'm trying to avoid over flying airports if I can. This should help avoid conflict with local traffic. As usual, I tried to stay on local airport radio frequencies when near those airports.

In my last few flights, I have not only been taking water with me, but also several granola bars, stuffed in a space behind my head. That has been useful on these longer flights. Having something to eat and drink 1/2 hour or so before landing gets me better prepared for landing.