A Memorable Memorial Day: A First 2009 Downwind Adventure

5/24/09, Sunday


I dedicate this flight to a deer. On the drive to the airport in the morning, between Stacy and Lindstrom, a juvenile deer jumped out in front of my car. I had no chance to stop. The deer had no chance. I think he or she was immediately dead. I am an animal lover and was filled with sadness and remorse to have killed this fellow mammal. I went back to the road side where the deer lay. There was no life. I'm sorry. With this death on my mind, I completed my drive from Duluth, shaken. The car was damaged, but drivable. Insurance would take care of it later.

The day was blue, with some high cloud in evidence. Here is a picture on the drive from Duluth. I was excited about the fact that there was fog on the road.

Walt Johnson was to be my crew, and we were hoping for a downwind flight. I had set up a cat sitter to feed my cats so we could do an overnight trip. We hadn't yet done a downwind flight this season, and the winds were predicted to be out of the East. Plus, I was getting a little bored with the local geography. So far in my flights this season, I'd not seen very much really new. I did some planning and was thinking about Hoven, SD as a possible goal. At the airfield, the measured and forecasted winds were all over the place. We had some general plans, but I told Walt we'd have to wait until I got into the air to see what the winds were doing before I made my decision about the flight path. My Colibri measures wind direction when I'm thermaling, so that would give me a better idea of which way to go to follow the wind.

Kelsey and Pete launched in a L-13 around 11:20am. The NOAA forecast indicated the predicted start of soaring at 1pm, and a 64 degree trigger temperature. At 11:30am it was definitely past trigger temperature, and when I saw that the L-13 was circling and staying up, I decided to launch. I took an extra jacket with me (in addition to a sweater I was already wearing), on my lap, but it turned out that wasn't necessary for the flight. I didn't use it. My toes and other body parts stayed warm for the entire flight (my maximum altitude for the day was 7,000' MSL and memory serving, the air temperature didn't get lower than 50° F.

I got into the air (pulling off tow before 2,000' AGL and climbing the rest of the way) at 11:41am and found that the wind direction was indeed as had been forecasted days before-- it was out of the East. I got in touch with Walt on the radio, and asked him to get on the road heading West.

I made for Cambridge as my first goal. Thinking back, I had set a first GPS turnpoint a little south of Princeton. Also, I could have just headed nearly due West from OEO (Osceola, WI) and avoided the TCA (if I stayed below 7,000' MSL). However, I was not fully sure of the day yet. It was predicted to be blue and stayed blue for the full day. I don't mind landing in farmer's fields, but I'd rather not land in one just a few miles away from the airport! I made Cambridge and Princeton then headed South West to avoid St. Cloud. Near St. Cloud, I learned something odd. It turns out that the 123.5 MHz radio frequency is the St. Cloud Unicom frequency. Huh? Yes. I was politely asked by St. Cloud to switch to another frequency. If you check your sectional for St. Cloud, you should see this too. Walt and I switched to 123.3, but we need to investigate this further.

Past Princeton my route took me over Maple Lake, Litchfield, between Wilmar and Olivia, over Montevideo, over Madison. At Litchfield, the winds shifted from NE to East, and so I continued East. At Madison, the winds had clearly shifted, and now they were out of the SE. After Madison, I made for Milbank, and then on to Sisseton. Walt stopped hearing my radio calls at about Milbank. I had stopped hearing him much earlier.

Between Princeton and Litchfield, I had four climbs from near 2,500' MSL or lower. My low point for the flight was about 2,200' MSL near Litchfield. After Litchfield I didn't drop much below 3,000' MSL until the day stopped and I had to land.

At one point, I think it was just past Clara City, MN, I was gaggling with a bald eagle for a few minutes. The bird held a position directly opposite me in the thermal, and while its climb rate was a little better than mine, we flew together. The bird helped me center the thermal too-- I was able to change my position to take better advange of the thermal seeing where he or she was climbing better than me. What a treat!!

Here's a picture from the air at 5:42pm, taken at about five miles SE of Wilmot, SD, from an altitude of around 6,600' MSL:

I made Sisseton and had about 4,000' MSL. It was probably a good thing that the winds were out of the SE. There is a significant hill formation due West of Sisseton, with many many lakes. It didn't look hospitable for glider flight, and I would instantly loose about 1,000' of hard won altitude. I momentarily considered landing at the Sisseton airport. However, I wasn't fully convinced the day was over yet. It was around 6:00pm, and perhaps the day could go on for another hour or so. However, I didn't get much in the way of further lift after that point, and started looking for farmer's fields. I saw a nice large green field to the NE, and headed in that direction. I was still hoping some of the dark fields or buildings would have lift (I tried a turn over what I later learned to be a large dairy, but it didn't have any lift). (I should make a note at this point that I had good reason to think that this nice green field wouldn't have a high crop. While I was hoping it was a relatively short hayfield, it seemed clear that this early in the season any crop would be relatively low. It turned out that this was a wheat field with about a 6" crop.)

After flying over my intended landing field, I made a few turns at around 1,000' MSL over a dark patch, and managed zero sink. I reminded myself though, "You are tired. It has been a long flight. You are making steep banked turns at low altitude to just avoid landing for a minute or two more." With this in mind, I extended my gear, made a downwind, and a looooong base leg and carried out my final to put myself near to some farm buildings. I landed at 6:33pm. Here's an image of my landing pattern and the field from Google Earth. (The .kml file from OLC that I'm rendering this blue line from for some reason doesn't quite give the position of my final roll out, which I've marked in with a lat/long).

It turned out that I rolled to a stop just a few minutes walk from the farmer's house, located at Veblen, SD. Veblen is just a few miles South of North Dakota. This was my first time to South Dakota! Ron, the landowner and farmer had seen me flying low over his field and appeared just a few minutes after I landed. Talking to Ron about the rather strange habit we soaring folks sometimes make of landing on people's farms (and I confessed that this was my 21st such landing), I started my attempts to make contact with Walt. My cell phone coverage was limited, and while I managed to leave a message on the crew vehicle phone, Walt and I never did talk on the phone that evening. Talking with Ron about how to get in touch with Walt, I called Lee, Walt's wife (on Ron's phone), and gave her my landing latitude/longitude, directions, and Ron's phone number. My hope was that Walt would call Lee given the problems we were having with cell phone communication. Later, talking to Walt, he had either had no cell phone reception or the crew cell phone had indicated "Emergency calls only". Odd.

At about 8:30pm, Ron and I decided to tie down the aircraft. It was clear we would not be derigging that evening. There were some predicted strong winds, and I'd rather not leave the aircraft completely unprotected. Ron had some exellent ground stakes, and we used my emergency tie downs and his stakes to secure the aircraft in the field. Here are some pictures of the aircraft tied down (the next morning):

Pretty field, huh? :).

Ron and I kept talking (that evening) about strategy to get in touch with Walt, and I called the local Sheriff and Steve Kennedy. It seemed possible that the local authorities could be of help (I was starting to get concerned that Walt might have been in a car accident), and it was at least comforting to know that someone else at RWSA knew what was going on (I also asked Steve to call Lee to let her know he was in on the situation, and to call Jim Hard-- I had listed Jim as an emergency contact on my crew clipboard).

Continuing in his amazing hospitality, Ron fed me a meal, and let me crash on his couch for the evening. It took me a while to get to sleep. I was still decompressing from my flight, and I was concerned about Walt. At around 2am, I woke up hearing a sound. I sat there on the couch, not quite sure what was going on. I heard it again. It was the doorbell. I headed to the door, and indeed there was a very weary Walt! It was very good to see him. My fears of a road accident were dispelled. It just turned out Walt had been very tired and had difficulty getting through to his wife. Ron had woken up with the commotion, and I told him I thought it was best that Walt and I head to Sisseton (just 1/2 an hour or so South) to find a hotel room. With me at the wheel (Walt had driven enough!), we got our hotel room, and some sleep.

We came back at about 8am in the morning, and asked Ron for one more favor. The wind was relatively strong, and it would be much easier to derig the aircraft with three people as opposed to just Walt and I. Ron was OK with us backing the trailer into his field, and so, the three of us proceeded to put the glider back into the trailer. Here are Walt and Ron as we were derigging:

In not too much longer, we had said our goodbyes to Ron, and got on the road back to OEO. It had been one heck of a memorial weekend adventure!

From Mike Finegan:
"Although you may not have noticed it in the middle of the night, you were actually extremely close to the continental divide (North/South). The lake / river at the town of Browns Valley (IIRC) is the point where the Red River starts flow ing north, and the Minnesota River starts flowing south. So you can say that on a flight out of Wisconsin you flew across the Continental Divide! How's that for bragging rights?"

The landing location was: N 45° 53.17; W 97° 12.48

Here's a link to the flight trace on the OLC. From launch to landing, the total duration of the flight was 6 hrs 51 minutes. As the crow flies, the distance from OEO to my landing field was 222 miles. Along the path of the flight, it was 268.56 miles (432.21 km; OLC classic) at 39.33 mph (63.29 km/h), with a soaring duration of 6:49:45. This was my longest duration flight to date, and my longest distance flight on a blue day. Other images from the flight and retrieve are here.

Other Notes

Walt and I can stand to improve our procedures when we lose phone contact. One possiblity are text messages with the landing lat/long sent from the pilot phone to the crew phone. Another possiblity is picking up the voice mail messages left on the crew phone, using a pay phone.