Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sightseeing Yosemite National Park - The Unconventional Way!

I made my third trip of the 2012 soaring season to Minden, NV and flew on Sunday, August 5, 2012 with Devin Bargainnier in SoaringNV's Schempp-Hirth Duo Discus X.

We didn't set a specific objective for this flight, except that it would be to the south. We decided to let the conditions of the day dictate where we would go. When we got past Mt. Patterson we decided that a flight into the Sierras was preferable to a flight on the Whites, as we could already see overdevelopment near Boundary Peak.

We passed Mono Lake on the west side as we approached the Sierras near Lee Vining. I never get tired of taking pictures of Mono Lake as its appearance is different every time I fly past it. On this day the wind was relatively calm on the lake, giving its surface a mirror like quality which reflected the cumulus clouds above.

We entered the Sierras at Tioga Pass below mountain top level. We would have to find a gas station soon if we wanted to continue any further.

Fortunately for us, we found a thermal in the Tioga Pass which got us back up to cloud base and allowed us to continue to the south.

As we made our way south, we noticed several lines of clouds extending west. One of them reached out almost to the Yosemite Valley. We decided to follow it out and see if we could catch a glimpse of Yosemite's famous landmarks.

Flying west into the Sierras poses additional risks in a plane with no engine. First, you may not be able to get back to the east side (the correct side), and be forced to land on the west side (the wrong side). A very expensive and time consuming retrieve operation, either by air or land, would ensue. Second, and even worse, would be having to land somewhere in the Sierras. So attempting a west-bound excursion is reserved for those days when there is clear evidence of good sources of lift.

This is looking to the north as we headed west.

And this is looking to the south. Obviously, there are no good places to land out there.

We could see Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley in the distance as we proceeded west.

The large granite formation nearest to us and on the left side of the valley is the back side of Half Dome. The granite formation on the right side of the valley and nearest to us is North Dome. The granite formation on the right side of the valley and farther away is El Capitan. The floor of the Yosemite Valley can also be seen in this photo.

This is about as close as we could get before our line of clouds ended. We proceeded just a little further before returning to the east.

We spotted this nice looking gas station as we made our way back to the east and headed for it. The pointed peaks just beyond the cloud are called the Minarets. It is where the wreckage of Steve Fossett's plane was found a little more than a year after his disappearance.

Looking to the north as we proceeded back to the east.

Tuolumne Meadows can be seen at the bottom of this photo. The road that meanders through it leads to Tioga Pass.

In about an hour we had seen all of Yosemite's major attractions. Sure, it's not the same as seeing them in all their splendor from ground level. Heck, we didn't even see the iconic front side of Half Dome! But there is still something special about visiting Yosemite in a glider.

Thanks to SoaringNV and Devin for another fantastic flight!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

To Mount Whitney and Back - With Six Pit Stops!

I made my second trip of the 2012 soaring season to Minden, NV and flew on Sunday, July 8, 2012 with Devin Bargainnier. Once again, we flew in SoaringNV's Schempp-Hirth Duo Discus X.

The conditions were forecast to be good enough for us to set our goal to fly to Mount Whitney and back. There are only a few dozen days a year when the conditions are good enough to do so. And the day delivered as promised.

I had only been to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet, two other times. The first time was with Gavin Wills in July, 2009 (see First Mount Whitney Flight), and the second time was with Devin in July, 2010 when we couldn't get enough height to actually reach the summit and didn't quite get back to Minden (see Second Mount Whitney Flight).
We needed just two thermals after getting off tow to be high enough to get out of the Carson Valley and get on course. We flew southwest to the Sierras where we found a line of convergence lift that was clearly marked by clouds and off we went. Convergence lift is great because it allows you to fly straight without circling, and still climb! The clouds extended all the way to Mammoth Lakes, but the airmass was dry the rest of the way to Mount Whitney. So while the convergence lift was working all the way down, it was more difficult to locate without the benefit of clouds. We only made three pit stops to get down to Mount Whitney, and three more to get back to Minden. We stopped to thermal in only the very best lift. Why can't every day be this good?

Here we are heading south at Mono Lake.

This is looking east from the Sierras into the Owens Valley, just south of Bishop. I always love the varied colors of the terrain on the mountains.

Mount Whitney is the highest point off in the distance in this photo. It is still 40-50 miles away. We flew straight to it in the convergence line from here. Did I mention that convergence lift is great? It is. That is if you can find it and stay in it out in the blue!

About 20-25 miles away now.

We've arrived! The summit of Mount Whitney is in the middle of the photo. The Smithsonian Hut is the little speck at the top. It was built in 1909 to house an astronomical observatory. The hope was to be able to detect water on Mars with the telescopes placed there. Today it serves as a refuge for the weary climbers who make the two-day trek to the top.

You're having trouble seeing it? Well, let's go in for a closer look! There were quite a few hikers up there this day.

I particularly like this shot looking south along the jagged precipice that leads up to the Whitney Summit. The hut is just out of the photo on the left.

Here we are just starting out on our return home and passing Tulainyo Lake. There was not nearly as much snow as there was when Gavin and I came down on my first trip in July, 2009. We made pit stop #1 of the return trip just past this lake.

There is so much to see on the journey to and from Mount Whitney that every time you go down you see things you haven't seen before. The dam on the lake caught our eye this day. It is called South Lake and it is due east of Big Pine.

The varied colors of the waters in the Sierra lakes are on par with the varied colors of the terrain on the mountains. I'm not sure which I like better.

Here we are approaching Mount Tom, which is northwest of Bishop and southeast of Mammoth Lakes.

We made pit stop #2 of the return trip on the northwest flank of Mount Tom.

Here we are at the volcanic flows near the Mono Craters just south of Mono Lake.

We arrived back at Mono Lake and started searching for another gas station. Notice our height relative to the airstrip, which is the Lee Vining airport.

We moved a little farther north and found the pump that was dispensing high octane gas and filled up. This was pit stop #3 on the return trip and the last fill-up we needed to fly the remaining 90 miles back to Minden without stopping again. Notice our height relative to Lee Vining airport now.

We passed this interesting cloud formation near Mount Patterson. The noticible step up on the right side indicates an area of strong lift. I wanted to go check it out, but it was pretty far off course and we didn't need any more gas to get home. Besides, Devin's butt was sore!

Here's our GPS trace in SeeYou.

Flight time: 5.3 hours. Distance Covered: 425 miles.

Another great flight out of Minden! Once again, a special thanks to SoaringNV and Mr. Sore Butt!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Into Thin Air - Soaring To FL 250!

I almost cancelled my first trip to Minden, NV this season! What a mistake that would have been!

I was scheduled to fly with Devin Bargainnier in SoaringNV's Schempp-Hirth Duo Discus X on Saturday and Sunday, May 26th and 27th, 2012 (Memorial Day weekend). I had made all the arrangements several weeks in advance and as the trip approached, it became apparent that it was going to coincide with a late-season winter storm. A few days before the trip I was seriously considering rescheduling, but I decided to go ahead as planned as the forecast was indicating that the storm would be moving out by Saturday and I was thinking that it could be good post-frontal conditions.

When I left my house Friday morning to begin the journey, the Sonora Pass (my primary route) was closed due to snow and chains were required over the Carson Pass (my alternate route). So I grabbed my bag which contains all my cold weather gear just in case I was to encounter trouble on the drive over. I had no troubles getting there, just a bit of a slog getting over the Carson Pass. Chain restrictions had been lifted, but it was still snowing. I was stunned by the view that greeted me as I entered the Carson Valley and Highway 88 turned to run parallel with the Sierras. The storm was still raging in the Sierras and its clouds were spilling over the eastern escarpment like a series of waterfalls!

I was extremely disappointed Saturday morning when I awoke and the storm was still firmly planted over the Carson Valley. Cloud bases were low and it was raining in the Pine Nut mountains to the east and snowing in the Sierras to the west. Devin and I revised our meeting time at the airport for noon in the hopes that the storm would clear a little and provide more flyable conditions.

Things had not improved much when we met at noon. We assessed the situation and discussed our options. We could fly and most likely we would have a soaring flight as there was obviously plenty of energy in the atmosphere. But we probably weren't going to be able to get out of the Carson Valley because of the low cloud bases and a TFR in place at the south end of the valley due to a fire by Topaz Lake. We hemmed and hawed and Devin tried to convince me that I would be better off going fishing on Saturday and coming back on Sunday. I was tending to agree with him, but I wasn't ready to throw in the towel. I convinced him to wait another half hour before we made the final decision.

At 2:15 we went out front of the SoaringNV hangar and looked towards the Sierras to the west. I was already thinking about where I was going to go buy my annual fishing licence. Devin immediately proclaimed "let's go up in the wave". I looked at him incredulously and asked "really, do you think it's working"? All I saw was the storm clouds hanging about the sky. I saw no evidence of the classic lenticular clouds that usually mark the wave. He assured me that it was and I told him I'd be ready to go in 10 minutes. I was really thankful that I had grabbed my cold weather bag at the last minute!

We took off shortly after 2:30 and towed to the west. We encountered the rotor as expected, which was a really good sign that the wave was indeed working. I struggled to maintain position behind the tow plane as we towed through the rotor. It's like trying to maintain formation flight in a clothes dryer! Soon the turbulence was replaced by the smooth laminar flow of the wave and we released at about 9,000' (all altitudes are given in MSL).

Here we are shortly after release at about 10,000' and just beginning our climb in the wave. Again, absent were the tell-tale smooth lenticular clouds that I have come to expect with the wave and in their place was just a patchwork of ragged cumulus clouds.

Lake Tahoe came into view as we climbed above the cumulus clouds.

At this point we are climbing through 13,000' and the lift was strong enough that Devin presented me with two options. We could climb to 18,000' and stay at or below that altitude and proceed north to Reno, or we could see if the wave window could be opened allowing us to climb higher than 18,000'. I told Devin that it had always been one of my goals to one day climb above 20,000' in the wave. Devin radioed down to the SoaringNV office and asked them to call Oakland Center, the ATC center responsible for the area, and inquire about the possibility of opening the wave window.

It was interesting that the wave system was working differently on two levels this day because of a shift in the wind direction with altitude. The lower level was marked by the storm clouds, and the upper level was marked by the classic lenticular cloud at an angle to the lower level. The upper level seemed so much higher than us here that I somewhat jokingly stated to Devin that we might be able to climb into the upper level of the wave. Little did I know at the time that we were about to do just that!

A few minutes later the office called us back and informed us that the wave window would be opened at 3:10 after an airliner that was passing above us was clear of the area. The window would be open to 28,000' until 6:00.

Here we are after the window was opened and we are climbing through 20,000'. At one point above 20,000' we looked down and saw a Southwest jet beneath us heading to Reno.

We set our preliminary goal altitude at 25,000'. We would monitor the strength of the lift as we proceeded in the climb to determine if we would reach our goal, or go even higher.

Here we are climbing through 24,000' on a northwesterly heading. We are almost at the same height of the top of the lenticular cloud to our right, and we are way above all the cumulus clouds to our left. It truly felt like being on top of the world!

We reached our goal height of 25,000' in just a little more than an hour after takeoff. We had averaged a climb rate of about 300-400 fpm until about 24,500'. The climb rate dropped off to about 100 fpm for the last 500' of the climb and we decided we would not try to go higher. Spending excessive time at such extreme altitudes is just asking for trouble if something should go wrong with the oxygen system.

Note that the mechanical altimeter shows just below 25,000' and the more accurate GPS altimeter is reading 25,029'. We actually reached a maximum altitude of 25,060' before we began our descent.

The outside air temperature at this altitude was -40 degrees. You might ask, was that Fahrenheit or Celsius? And my answer would be, yes. That is because -40 degrees Fahrenheit equals -40 degrees Celsius. It is the only temperature that is the same in both scales.

As we began our descent, Devin cautioned me that we would not want to come down too quickly and put the glider through thermal shock as we descended into warmer air. If we did, the canopy could break. So we set the airspeed at 60 knots and I opened the dive brakes half way. This gave us our desired descent rate of 400-500 fpm. After a while, I released my grip on the dive brake handle slowly to see what it would do. Would it stay put, slam shut, or open fully? The dive brakes stayed deployed half way.

Everything was going well as we descended through 23,000' when all of a sudden there was a loud BANG! Surprisingly, this did not cause me undue concern as I immediately concluded that the dive brakes had slammed shut. But a quick look out and they were just where they had been all along. That's when Devin asked, "What the hell was that?" NOW I was concerned! A few seconds later Devin spotted what had caused the explosive noise. The canopy had broke! The very thing we were carefully trying to avoid had happened. You can see the crack in this photo. It is about 2-3 inches long running from the rear bottom of the vent window all the way to the bottom of the canopy.

The rest of the descent was uneventful. Once we got below 18,000', we encountered another glider climbing up in the wave. Can you spot it in this photo? 

We decided to fly north and went as far as Carson City. We then returned to the Carson Valley and flew around the valley for a little while admiring the views that the storm system provided.

After two hours in the air we were both sufficiently cold that we decided to call it a day.

I often post the GPS flight traces from my flights showing our flight route. However, it seems more appropriate to include the altitude plot from this flight.

In hindsight, I'm really glad I didn't listen to Devin and go fishing this day. I would have missed out on one of the best flights of my soaring career to date. Besides, the rivers are running high, fast, and cold this time of year. That could have been dangerous!

A very special thanks to all of the staff at SoaringNV who made this flight possible. Brad and Spencer for preparing the oxygen system. Spencer for getting the glider to the line and getting us launched. Patrick for the tow. Elizabeth for contacting Oakland Center to open the wave window. And most importantly, Laurie for not being too mad at us for breaking her glider a little! It truly takes a team effort to make a flight like this possible!