A few weeks ago I had a scary situation when towing fully ballasted behind a Piper Pawnee. I had my camera running and published a short instructional video about the incident. I hope that it helps others avoid similar situations in the future. Here is the video:
The comments indicate that these incidents are relatively common and occur most frequently when the tow pilot is used to pulling very light gliders that only require a low tow speed. A clear and deliberate briefing of the tow pilot before the flight is essential. You can also find a similar incident in one of Bruno Vassel’s videos.
Moreover, Dave Nadler gave a safety briefing on this very topic a few years ago at a US Soaring contest. In it he explains that the glider’s stall speed on tow is actually higher than it is in free flight. And why the problem is exacerbated behind short-winged tow planes such as Pawnees. Please take a few minutes to also watch Dave’s video. You can find it here.
A few good questions came up in this context, which I would like to address here.
Why did you not release immediately? Would you release if a similar situation were to happen again?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. At the moment I was too afraid that the glider might stall and drop hard to the ground if I pulled the release.
However, perhaps the safest response for everyone involved would have been the following:
Rather than trying to climb with the tow plane, I should have stayed in ground effect while communicating the request for a greater airspeed. Staying in ground effect protects the glider from a stall because of lower induced drag. It also reduces the consequences of a possible drop to the ground because of the very low altitude.
Hopefully the tow pilot would react before the glider reaches the “low tow” position. (We don’t practice low tow in the US except when practicing “boxing the wake”. In some countries the low tow position is used more routinely for towing because it protects the tow pilot from a glider pulling the tow plane’s tail up and forcing the tow plane into the ground.)
Once the glider has reached the low tow position, and the tow plane continues to climb at an insufficient air speed, pull the release. (Hanging on for longer would put the tow plane in danger.) Immediately release stick pressure and simultaneously move the flaps into landing configuration. Land straight ahead and only extend the spoilers once the glider is on the ground.
This plan only works if there is enough runway left for landing straight ahead. In Boulder we definitely have enough space available.
My main concern with this strategy is whether staying in ground effect until the low tow position is reached could be pulling the tow plane’s tail down to the point where it becomes difficult for the tow plane to get its nose down and pick up speed. However, considering that low tow is a normal tow position in some countries, I assume it should not be a problem, at least unless the tow plane itself is close to stall speed.
If you have additional thoughts on this subject, please add them in the comments below. I am especially interested to hear from glider pilots who normally fly in low tow position.
PS: Dave Nadler’s explanation is very compelling and illustrates that a glider’s stall speed is actually higher on tow than it is in free flight. This gives me more confidence to release immediately in the future because releasing is unlikely to lead to an immediate stall because the stall speed comes back down. So my plan is to release, release stick pressure while simultaneously moving the flaps into landing configuration, then land straight ahead with the spoilers closed (and only open them as soon as the glider is on the ground.)
“Faster, Faster, Faster” is not clear communication. It would be better to say “Up 5” or “Up 10” or “Up 15” or “Up 20” (which is what I needed).
Maybe. The thing with urgent communications is that the best one to use is the one that is instantly understood. I readily admit that “Faster!” is not precise and may sound unprofessional but I think it conveyed a sense of urgency that “Up 20” may not have. I am also not certain that the tow pilot would have instantly understood and responded to “Up 20”. The lesson here, at least in my mind, is that tow pilot and glider pilot should make communications part of the briefing so both parties are in synch on what language to use. I’m curious what you think the best protocol should be when you need an instant reaction.
The communication should have included the call sign of the tow plane.
Yes. In principle this is certainly true. A clear and non-ambiguous communication would be something like “X-Ray Yankee Zulu, 10 more knots.” (And then ask for another 5-10 knots if necessary.) However, in the stress of the situation I did not remember the call sign even though I had said it myself only two minutes earlier. (We have 5 different tow planes at the field. I’ll definitely try to remember it better the next time.)
Also, if you watch the video you’ll notice that I had to communicate in a fraction of a second while also considering all the other choices such as whether or not to release. What mattered more than anything was a prompt ]reaction by the tow pilot. (Basically to level off or push the nose down and pick up speed). Just saying the abbreviated three digit call sign takes an entire second and saying “X-Ray Yankee Zulu, 10 more knots” would have taken about two seconds which I didn’t really think I had.
What will you do differently going forward?
The main thing is to adjust my briefing to avoid such situations in the first place. I don’t always know what the air speed units are in the specific tow plane ahead of me. Therefore, I am now requesting a minimum tow speed in knots AND MPH. E.g., I’m now saying “Towplane XYZ, behind you is glider Victor One, Fully Ballasted, Minimum Tow Speed 70 knots or 80 MPH.”
There’s been a lot of interest in my recent accident analysis “Invisible Trap Kills Glider Pilot – How To Avoid Microbursts.” Within days it has been read by more than 5000 people, a significant number for our relatively small community. I also received a lot of feedback and questions, some public, some private. Most were quite insightful and thought provoking and I’d like to thank everyone for the engaging discussion. It certainly helps to internalize the lessons we can learn from this.
In this post I would like to emphasize and respond to some of the comments and questions.
Be observant, patient, and wait! Cold downdrafts created by virga displace warmer air near the surface creating updrafts glider pilots can, and should, use to avoid landing in downburst conditions. The very existence of virga indicates a soarable sky. Most western pilots have patiently worked such lift for an hour or more while waiting for conditions to improve near their destination airport. They made the decision to loiter long before descending to pattern altitude and sometimes miles away from the airport. The secret is to always be observant, patient and to take action to avoid dangerous conditions as early as possible.
Very well said! If we can wait for the threat to pass this is clearly the best approach; especially when the virga is fairly isolated and the clouds are cycling.
The only caveat I would add is that waiting may not not always be the best strategy. I have tried to wait out a storm only to watch a bigger and badder one to move in and the overall weather situation getting worse. Through careful observation we must learn to anticipate what is likely to happen and make the best decision given the uncertainties involved.
Are dry microbursts really invisible? They occur below virga and generate dust rings. Both of these are readily visible to an observant pilot.
I completely agree that we must be observant and look for all possible warning signs. However, I would not count on microbursts always being readily visible ahead of time.
While microbursts probably occur mainly below virga there have been reported cases even when no virga was visible before the microburst occurred. Also, while virga is visible, it is not readily apparent if there is a downdraft below. In fact, having flown below virga many times, in most cases there was no major downdraft, or no downdraft at all. Sometimes the air was even rising. Unfortunately, such experiences can lead to complacency such that we underestimate the risk.
Dust rings only appear once the microburst has reached the ground. Unfortunately, we can be unlucky with the timing and fly into a microburst in the landing pattern before any dust is visible. This exact situation may have happened to Shmulik. The preliminary NTSB report states that at “about the time the glider [was] descending” [as filmed by the surveillance camera], “a dust cloud appears in the background travelling in the same direction as the glider.” The dust may not have been visible to Shmulik until he was on downwind and fully committed to landing.
A dust ring will also only be visible if the ground in the area is sufficiently dry. That may not always be the case.
Dust isn’t the only indicator of microburst outflows. We should also observe the ground for other markers such as the disturbed surface of lakes, wind rushing through crop fields, blowing smoke, etc.
Yes, great point! We need to watch out for all markers of high surface winds.
We should make more pro-active use of our radios to warn other aviators of threatening weather.
Absolutely! If you notice something, say something!
I don’t know when the pilots of the Challenger jet noticed the gust or whether they were even aware of the approaching glider (remember that Shmulik offered to delay his landing but did not get a response) but even if they were unaware it would have been prudent to immediately warn anyone who might be in the area of the gusting wind on the ground.
It’s impossible to say if such a warning would have alerted Shmulik in time to have the chance to take evasive action but we should all remember that we ought to warn other traffic immediately when we notice threatening conditions.
Considering the delay in the AWOS reporting, it may also be helpful to proactively use the radio to ask anyone on the ground for the current winds (e.g. the local FBO).
Microbursts are not the only source of severe wind-shear close to the ground.
Yes! This is another great point. Sudden and very powerful surface winds can have various other causes. They are also not limited to summer soaring weather. Possible causes include:
Rotor turbulence, e.g. on wave days. In Boulder, rotor, associated with wave aloft, is a frequent cause of severe ground level wind shear. Sometimes the wind socks at both ends of the runway point in opposite directions!
Rapidly approaching cold fronts (or other fronts, e.g. sea breeze fronts). Here is an article and video of a pilot landing in cross winds set off by a cold front that arrived minutes earlier. In certain conditions blowing dust (a “haboob“) can make an approaching front easily visible.
Shmulik was flying a motor-glider. Why didn’t he start the engine?
There are wide-spread misconceptions about the capabilities of self-launching motor-gliders. Once Shmulik was in the pattern the key thing that possibly could have helped him (besides a greater altitude) is a very high airspeed to get out of the sink and safeguard against the sudden tail wind. This is not possible with an extended engine. Extending the engine would have made the situation worse instead of better.
Here is why:
You actually have to slow down before you can extend the engine mast. I don’t have a handbook for the Shark MS but similar gliders need to be flown well below 70 kt before the engine mast may be extended. (e.g. ASG 31Mi: 59 kts, Ventus 3M: 59kts)
The process of extending the mast and starting the engine is typically a multi-step process, not just the “flick of a switch”. See the video below for an illustrative example.
With the engine running, the glider must be flown very slowly to generate a positive climb rate (usually around 55-65 kts). Also, if you fly much faster, the engine will overspeed and may shut down. If that happens, the propeller causes a lot of extra drag, comparable to half-extended airbrakes.
In still air, the climb rate under full power is likely in the range of 3-5 kts given the high density altitude environment at Rifle. That does very little when you’re in 10-20 knot sink.
The engine could have been of help to sustain altitude at a safe distance from the airfield to wait until threatening weather has left the area. However, had Shmulik wanted to wait 5-10 miles away he would not have needed the engine to do so because lift was readily available while he was on final glide. But once he was in the pattern and experiencing the heavy sink it was already too late to try to deploy it.
The following video is a good illustration of a typical in-air engine start with a self-launching motor glider. (The procedure in Shmulik’s glider would probably have been a little (but not much) simpler than the one shown here given that his was a more modern design.)
As an aside, for anyone considering a motor glider, I highly recommend you review this article by Dave Nadler before you get carried away by your imagination. If you’d rather watch a YouTube video, here is one of Dave’s excellent presentations on this subject.
Why didn’t Shmulik fly straight ahead to a controlled-crash landing away from the airport instead of trying to make the runway?
It is definitely true that a controlled crash is statistically much more survivable than a “stall and spin” accident from about 200 ft. That said, does anyone really think that this is the choice they would have made? Here are some things to consider:
This option was only available before Shmulik attempted the turn to final, stalled, and spun in. Once the glider stalled there was absolutely nothing he could have done to affect a different outcome.
Making such a radical decision would have required the foresight and conviction that reaching the runway is no longer possible and that a controlled crash is the only available option.
The possibility of a stall may not even have been on his mind: the ground speed of the glider before the stall was much higher than one normally experiences in the landing pattern – ADSB shows 92 knots. This makes it unlikely that Shmulik even anticipated the possibility of a stall – let alone its imminent certainty – until it occurred.
Also consider the psychology: how do you rationally weigh – under extreme stress and within very few seconds – the diminishing probability of a safe landing on a perfect runway against the probability of a certain crash with an uncertain outcome for your own survival?
Are you still confident that you would have instantly made the decision to fly a semi-controlled crash instead of trying to execute a safe landing on a 7000 ft runway?
Our energy is comprised of not just airspeed but airspeed and altitude together. We need to manage both.
Yes, that is a critical insight. That’s why I tried to lay out mitigation strategies for myself that account for both components if I must land in similar conditions (i.e., if I am unable to delay or divert).
Altitude: I will enter the pattern high enough that I can be confident that I can complete the turn to final at about 1000 AGL even if I hit enormous sink. (In some situations this may require a pattern entry at 2000-3000 ft AGL).
Airspeed: My baseline pattern speed in these situations will be 80 kt (20 kt above the yellow triangle speed) plus I will immediately add extra airspeed equivalent to any sink that I may encounter in the pattern.
However, we also know that it does not have to be so dangerous. About 90% of accidents could have been prevented by the pilot. Most can be avoided by diligent pre-flight preparations; by paying attention to what’s happening around us; by staying disciplined and flying within one’s margins; and by avoiding basic piloting mistakes through regular practice. The 10% of unavoidable accidents tend to be the result of particular mid-air collisions, medical problems, or – very rarely – equipment failure.
So when a pilot you personally knew to be all of these things – experienced, disciplined, diligent, observant, careful, as well as current – becomes the victim of a fatal crash while landing at their home airfield after a successful flight in typical summer soaring conditions, it gets your attention.
And when all signs point to a “stall and spin” during the final turn to land it really makes you wonder what happened. “Stall and spin” accidents in the pattern, although quite common and often deadly, are usually easy to avoid. Pilots just have to enter the pattern at a safe altitude and fly at a safe speed. We all know about the yellow triangle and adding an extra margin for wind and gusts. Could Shmulik have made such a basic mistake? Having flown with Shmulik myself, I immediately found that implausible.
It turns out my instinct was right. This accident was not the consequence of a simple mistake. If you or I would have been in Shmulik’s position, I doubt we would have done anything different. If you find that disturbing you’re not alone.
As you will see, Shmulik was supremely unlucky. He literally flew – or fell – into a microburst, an invisible, deadly, trap. Which made me wonder: must we simply rely on luck to avoid the same outcome?
Well, after giving this a lot of thought, I don’t think so. Nor should we. There are things we can and should do differently if we face similar conditions in the future. As we probably will.
I will present them after a detailed analysis of what I believe happened to Shmulik.
A First Hand Account by Rick Roelke
I’d like to start by re-printing a very insightful write-up of the accident by Rick Roelke who was one of four glider pilots flying that day from Rifle. John Good published Rick’s report on RAS. I will come back to Rick’s account throughout my analysis as it is essential to understanding what happened.
“Four gliders flew out of Rifle on June 9th 2022. We all launched around 11:00 and moved to the north side of the valley. It was tough to find that first good climb, but Shmulik found one, leaving the rest of us floundering low. Eventually we did get away. Long story short we all ended up going in different directions, all having great flights. They were not without challenges but nothing spooky, just enough work to be rewarding. In a flight of about 600 km, Shmulik made his goal of Duchesne UT, and was happy about that. We made plans to be on the ground at 6:00 and all converged on the Rifle area in time for that.
There was virga in the area, and it got my attention as Shmulik had warned me on a previous trip to be careful with local virga. I was listening intently to the ASOS for wind or gusts, letting it repeat 5 or 6 times with the exact same report: 9 kts straight down the runway; no gusts. Later, as we got ready to land, the same benign report. OK I thought – the virga is clearly a non-issue. As we will learn, it was the whole issue.
There was virga over the airport (elevation 5537 ft) and to the north of the valley, and northeast as well. None of the wisps extended below 11,000 ft (cloud base was approximately 19,000). Cloud cover was scattered. The clouds producing virga were not towering – they were perhaps a bit bigger than non-producing clouds, but not much. It was a point of interest to me as we don’t see a lot of it in the eastern US – I was wondering what drove the difference.
Shmulik and I discussed the landing order: as he was a bit lower we agreed he would go first. After we decided this, we heard a Challenger jet announce “Taxiing to 26 for takeoff”. That was the runway we would use to land.
Rifle has a moderate amount of bizjet traffic; not constant but present. We always try to accommodate and be polite citizens. Shmulik called the Challenger and offered to delay but got no reply. I was still high so it was no problem for me. He tried again, with no reply. It’s worth noting that Shmulik had a close call in the past: a jet pulled onto the runway in front of him with no radio call. This near miss was avoided only by the jet taking off immediately in front of him. I am sure he did not want to repeat that. I speculate that the Challenger was on a different frequency temporarily, perhaps the ASOS.
As he descended, he called that he was in heavy sink and was going to make left traffic for Runway 26 (for which the normal traffic pattern is right). Shortly after this a call came from the Challenger that there was a glider crash.
I was not sure I’d heard it correctly so I asked for clarification. “There has been a glider crash and we see no movement.” They truly had a front-row seat, as moments before they were hit by a gust so strong that they had rotated their jet to avoid a compressor stall.
I then asked if the runway was clear, was told yes, then landed uneventfully into the 9 mph headwinds. I am not sure of the time between our landings – I would guess it was 5 min. The other glider pilots landed without problems, though all could see the wreckage of our friend’s aircraft which left no doubt as to the outcome.
The last moments of the crash were recorded by an airport security camera. We were allowed to view the footage (but not record it). It showed Shmulik in a moderately steep turn, apparently carrying a lot of speed. In the background you can see dust and gravel being blown by the gust. Then at 90 deg to the runway and 150 to 200 ft you can see the inside wing start to drop and the nose go down. There was no opportunity to recover and it hit the ground hard, thankfully just out of camera view.
The Rifle ASOS recorded a gust of 43 mph from the south: a 100-degree shift in direction, putting it right on his tail.
My analysis and proposed scenario are as follows:
The virga produced a microburst directly over Shmulik as he was waiting for the jet. He expedited his landing trying to fly out of what was likely epic sink. While his base leg was low it looked high enough to make the runway with plenty of energy to flare and roll out. But he then got hit from behind or descended into winds in excess of 40 kts and perhaps as much as 50, stalling the aircraft and removing any opportunity for control.
One of the most difficult aspects of this accident is that, given the information available to the pilot, it is hard to picture what anyone would have done differently. This truly seems like the hand of God. There is discussion in another thread about the yellow triangle. Here is a case that would require 60 over stall speed to maintain even a narrow margin. How many people do you know that would plan to come over the numbers at 100+ on a day that is blowing steady 9 straight down the runway?
As has been noted, Shmulik was a very experienced and skilled pilot. He had more flights and time in gliders from Rifle than anyone. We all want to learn from accidents, especially what were the pilot errors we might avoid. This is a hard one to gain insight from other than this: Some atmospheric events are bigger than our plastic airplanes.
As Rick pointed out, Shmuel Dimentstein was one of the most experienced, competent, current, and safety conscious pilots anywhere. In the 2021 soaring season he flew more than 35,000 cross-country kilometers, a distance almost equivalent to the circumference of the earth. That year, according to OLC, only six pilots worldwide had done more cross-country flying than Shmulik. Even in the current season he had already flown more than 100 hours.
Rifle, the location of the accident, was Shmulik’s home airport. He was intimately familiar with it and the surrounding terrain. He frequently hosted visiting pilots, providing them with detailed briefings of the area and the weather. He had owned his HpH 304MS Shark for several years and was completely accustomed to the aircraft. Shmulik was also a very safety-minded pilot: if you examine his flight traces you will see many long cross-country flights but you will be hard pressed to find any signs of inappropriate risk taking.
June 9, 2022
By all indications and consistent with Rick’s report, June 9, the day of the accident, was a good and typical early summer soaring day in western Colorado and eastern Utah, the main task area around Rifle.
Skysight forecasted abundant cumulus clouds with bases rising from 16,000 to about 19,000 ft. There was a modest chance for some overdevelopment and isolated showers in the afternoon but nothing that looked concerning. The CAPE index, a measure of convective energy and instability, was below 100 joules, indicating a very low probability of severe weather or thunderstorms.
Boundary layer winds were moderate at 10-20 kt out of the WNW. Surface winds were forecasted to be even lighter. The surface temperature in the afternoon was likely to reach 100 degrees F over the western desert generating strong thermals in the 6-10 kt range as is typical for the area at this time of year. Moderate wind shear in some areas could make some thermals somewhat difficult to work but that, too, is typical. Some passing high clouds were unlikely to be a factor. 500 km flights were easily doable with a good chance for even longer flights.
As Rick reported, four glider pilots launched from Rifle that morning. The flight traces of Shmulik’s three visitors, including that of Rick Roelke, were uploaded to OLC here, here, and here. These traces show good soaring conditions consistent with the forecast with pilots repeatedly climbing above 17,000 ft and achieving flight distances in the 400-600 km range.
Shmulik’s flight was recorded via his ADSB-out system and can be viewed on Flightaware.
The trace shows that Shmulik launched exactly at noon. 44 minutes later he had climbed to an altitude of 16,000 ft and began heading west on a cross-country flight. His flight path took him deep into Utah.
At about 3:30pm he was about 10 miles NNE of Carbon County Airport near the town of Price, UT. That put him at about 160 miles to the WNW of Rifle, and he decided to turn back east. Most of his flight was at altitudes between 12,000 and 17,500 ft – a typical and safe altitude range when flying in this area.
At 5:12 pm, 5 hours and 12 minutes into the flight, Shmulik was 10 miles north of the airport of Meeker, CO at an altitude of 14,300 ft, when he decided to turn south, back towards Rifle, ~45 miles away.
Less than 20 minutes later he was about 9 miles north of Rifle at an altitude of 10,000 ft, continuing south and preparing to land.
The last six minutes of Shmulik’s flight are plotted on the following map. The data is from the publicly available ADSB tracklog. For each data point you can see the time stamp, the altitude MSL, the Ground Speed in kt, and the Vertical Velocity in feet per minute (fpm).
The ground elevation at Rifle airport is 5536 ft MSL. The first datapoint of the trace is at the top left. At 5:31:34 pm, Shmulik had 9.4 miles to go. He was at an elevation of 10,025 ft MSL, i.e. 4,489 ft above the airport. He only needed a glide ratio of 14:1 to reach the airfield to arrive at a typical pattern altitude of 1,000 ft AGL.
The next few miles towards the airfield show nothing unusual. There were some patches of moderate lift and sink as would be expected on a normal summer soaring day. Shmulik flew quite fast at ground speeds between 100 and 130 kt, carrying a lot of extra energy. Unsurprisingly, the actual glide ratio of his 49:1 glider was much better than the required 14:1 and he approached the airport relatively high.
At 5:34:04 pm, Shmulik was over the town of Rifle, just 2.1 miles ENE from the center of the runway, getting ready to land. At this point he still had an altitude of 8,275 ft MSL, i.e. 2,739 ft AGL. This is much higher than what most pilots would consider an adequate safety margin.
Reported Winds on the Ground
Shmulik likely checked the winds on the ground by tuning to the frequency of the local AWOS (Automatic Weather Observing Service). Between 5:10 and 5:34 PM, Rifle’s AWOS system reported light winds out of the west in the range of 4 to 9 kts (see chart below) with no wind gusts. This is consistent with Rick’s report, which referenced 9 knots of wind.
With light westerly winds, Shmulik was likely planning to land on Runway 26, directly into the wind. He may have expected an easy and uneventful landing.
Pattern Entry and the Challenger Complication
The normal landing pattern for Runway 26 at Rifle is north of the airport with right turns to base and final. At 5:35:22 Shmulik could have immediately entered the downwind leg of the pattern. At this point he was just NW of the runway at an altitude of 8000 ft MSL (2464 AGL).
However, we see from his trace that he continued south past the west end of the runway to the southwest side of the airfield. It is possible that he still considered himself to be too high for an immediate pattern entry. After all, a pattern entry altitude of approx. 1000 AGL is customary and Shmulik was still more than twice as high at this point. He may have planned to remain on the south side until mid-field, cross the runway to the north, and then enter the normal right traffic pattern to runway 26. This would have slightly extended the flight path, helping him fly off the extra altitude.
However, Rick’s report suggests that there is likely a different – or at least an additional – explanation for why he continued to the south side of the airport.
“Shmulik and I discussed the landing order: as he was a bit lower we agreed he would go first. After we decided this, we heard a Challenger jet announce “Taxiing to 26 for takeoff”. That was the runway we would use to land.
Rifle has a moderate amount of bizjet traffic; not constant but present. We always try to accommodate and be polite citizens. Shmulik called the Challenger and offered to delay but got no reply. I was still high so it was no problem for me. He tried again, with no reply. It’s worth noting that Shmulik had a close call in the past: a jet pulled onto the runway in front of him with no radio call. This near miss was avoided only by the jet taking off immediately in front of him. I am sure he did not want to repeat that. I speculate that the Challenger was on a different frequency temporarily, perhaps the ASOS.”
Based on this account it is likely that Shmulik continued to the south side of the airport to get a better look at the runway and observe the Challenger jet taking off – or at least to establish two-way radio contact to rule out the risk of a conflict.
Under normal circumstances Shmulik would have had sufficient altitude to delay the landing by several minutes: his glider’s minimum descent rate in still air was just 100 fpm. Even a more typical descent rate of 200 fpm would have allowed Shmulik to hold for about 5-7 minutes before he would have had to proceed with the landing.
Downwind Leg and Turn To Final
If Shmulik’s plan was to delay the landing this soon turned out to be impossible because he was not in still air at all. As he continued to the south side of the runway he found himself in very strong sink of 700 – 1200 fpm and rapidly lost his altitude reserves. Within one minute he lost a full 1000 feet.
However, at 5:36:23 he still had an altitude of 7025 ft MSL, i.e. a normally very “safe” pattern altitude of almost 1500 ft, and prudently began to head toward the east end of the runway. At this point his ground speed was 81 kts, which – in still air – would reflect a normal pattern speed of approx. 65 kts IAS given the high density altitude.
16 seconds later, at 5:36:39 the sink rate diminished to 273 fpm. Shmulik was now directly south of the west end of the runway. The reduced sink rate must have been a relief.
However, 17 seconds later, at 5:36:56, Shmulik found himself once again in very strong sink of almost 1000 fpm. Roughly at this time he must have decided to stay on the south side of the runway and fly a left hand pattern instead of crossing back to the north. This would have shortened his approach, a seemingly prudent decision. His altitude was 1339 AGL and his ground speed was 92 kts. Had it not been for the strong sink he would have still been in a very conservative position for a normal landing. Here is Rick’s report:
“As he descended, he called that he was in heavy sink and was going to make left traffic for Runway 26 (for which the normal traffic pattern is right).”
Another 18 seconds later, at 5:37:14, the sink rate doubled yet again, becoming extreme. Shmulik was directly south of midfield. The ground came rushing closer at a rate of 1900 fpm. Shmulik’s altitude had dropped by 625 ft in less than 20 seconds and he was now down at 714 ft AGL. All of a sudden this had become an emergency situation. His ground speed had dropped to 75 kt so he also had less kinetic energy reserve. (Without knowing the horizontal wind direction and speed at this point it is impossible to say what his indicated airspeed was. It is quite likely that the air at that specific point was only streaming downwards with very little horizontal component.)
16 seconds later, at 5:37:30, he was still in very heavy sink of more than 1200 fpm and his altitude had dropped to only 264 ft AGL. His ground speed was back up to 92 kts. Seconds thereafter he attempted to make a 180 degree turn to the left to line up with Runway 26. Tragically, he only made it half-way through this final turn. The last datapoint was recorded at 5:37:48 at an altitude of 14 ft, probably just a split second before impact. Rick’s report describes it as follows:
“Shortly after this a call came from the Challenger that there was a glider crash.
I was not sure I’d heard it correctly so I asked for clarification. “There has been a glider crash and we see no movement.” They truly had a front-row seat, as moments before they were hit by a gust so strong that they had rotated their jet to avoid a compressor stall.
The last moments of the crash were recorded by an airport security camera. We were allowed to view the footage (but not record it). It showed Shmulik in a moderately steep turn, apparently carrying a lot of speed. In the background you can see dust and gravel being blown by the gust. Then at 90 deg to the runway and 150 to 200 ft you can see the inside wing start to drop and the nose go down. There was no opportunity to recover and it hit the ground hard, thankfully just out of camera view.
The Rifle ASOS recorded a gust of 43 kt from the south: a 100-degree shift in direction, putting it right on his tail.”
The wind gust could of course only be reported after it had been measured. However, reporting it took longer than one might expect. It wasn’t until 5:53 PM, 16 minutes after the crash, that AWOS reported that a 43 kt gust had occurred at 5:39 PM (one minute after the crash; 14 minutes earlier than it was reported).
What Caused the Crash?
I believe Rick’s analysis is spot on. The deadly trap was a microburst.
“The virga produced a microburst directly over Shmulik as he was waiting for the jet. He expedited his landing trying to fly out of what was likely epic sink. While his base leg was low it looked high enough to make the runway with plenty of energy to flare and roll out. But he then got hit from behind or descended into winds in excess of 40 kts and perhaps as much as 50, stalling the aircraft and removing any opportunity for control.”
As Shmulik began his final turn he faced two closely related problems that became impossible to overcome:
Extreme sink of close to 2000 fpm, which had very quickly eroded his altitude reserves during the last part of his downwind leg.
A sudden and very powerful wind gust from behind, which caused the airplane to stall and spin in just as he was in the midst of his final turn.
Just how quickly he lost altitude may be hard to imagine; especially for pilots from regions where 2000 fpm sink is very unusual. Some basic math illustrates the magnitude: a typical safe altitude at the end of the downwind leg (before turning base) is 500-600 ft AGL. The typical time that it takes to turn from downwind to final is about 20-40 seconds (depending on how close the pilot flew the downwind leg parallel to the runway). At a sink rate of 2000 fpm it only takes 15 seconds for the plane to lose 500 ft and reach the ground. In other words: if you’re at 500 ft AGL and 20-30 seconds away from reaching the runway and you are in 2000 fpm sink it is mathematically and physically impossible to get there.
Now, you might say that the sink rate is likely to diminish as you get close to the ground. This is of course true because the air cannot sink into the earth. But that is where the second problem arises: the sudden tailwind.
Near the ground the rapidly down-streaming air is necessarily diverted into a very strong horizontal flow along the surface. At the worst possible moment Shmulik descended into that strong horizontal outflow, which came directly from behind, at speeds exceeding 40 knots, maybe more. The stall speed of Shmulik’s glider was approx. 40-43 kts in straight flight and 44-52 kts in the turn (depending on his bank angle). A sudden gust of 50 knots would have caused a stall unless he had been flying at about 100 knots indicated.
The ADSB trace shows Shmulik’s ground speed of 92 kt as he began his final turn. At the high density altitude at Rifle a ground speed of 92 kt would have been equivalent to an indicated airspeed of less than 80 kt. If this included a wind component of 50 kt from behind, his true airspeed would have suddenly dropped to 30 kt, i.e. well below stall speed.
Once the glider stalled (at an altitude of only 100-200 feet) there was nothing that Shmulik could have done to avert the crash.
As Rick pointed out, the root cause of the sink and of the subsequent tailwind was almost certainly a (dry) microburst. To understand exactly what likely happened and what we may be able to do differently, we first have to learn more about microbursts.
What is a Microburst?
A microburst is defined as “a pattern of intense winds that descends from rain clouds, hits the ground, and fans out horizontally. Microbursts are short-lived, usually lasting from about 5 to 15 minutes, and they are relatively compact, usually affecting an area of 1 to 3 km (about 0.5 to 2 miles) in diameter. They are often but not always associated with thunderstorms or strong rains. By causing a sudden change in wind direction or speed—a condition known as wind shear—microbursts create a particular hazard for airplanes at takeoff and landing because the pilot is confronted with a rapid and unexpected shift from headwind to tailwind.”
Unlike tornadoes and other twisters, microbursts are straight-line winds. The air is streaming straight towards the earth. Near the ground, it is deflected sideways in all directions. The following streamline diagram is from the November 2020 edition of Soaring Magazine which describes the Mayhem at Minden, NV when a powerful 56 kt microburst destroyed several gliders on the ground.
Wet vs Dry Microbursts
Meteorologists distinguish between wet and dry microbursts depending on whether they are associated with precipitation hitting the ground. Wet microbursts can look very spectacular but this also makes them easy to see and avoid. Dry microbursts are much more insidious because they tend to be invisible until the downburst reaches the ground. And even then, the only visible sign may be blowing dust on the surface. This time-lapse video from the National Weather Service in Reno, NV captured a dry microburst with surface winds of 71 mph. Note that you can’t see the downburst itself. Only the blowing dust on the ground is visible.
The atmospheric conditions favoring dry microbursts are illustrated in the Skew-T chart below from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Note the very dry airmass near the surface and a more moist, sometimes saturated mid-level. Cloud bases are high and precipitation evaporates in the dryer layer below. This is visible as virga – streaks of rain or snow below the clouds. This evaporation causes evaporative cooling, which accelerates the downward motion of the falling air.
Once the downdraft reaches the surface it spreads horizontally in all directions. The downdraft itself is invisible. Only a ring of dust on the ground below the virga may signify the presence of a dry microburst.
The Skew-T chart at Rifle at 5:30 pm on June 9 greatly resembles the Skew-T above. Here, too, one can see the “inverted-V” shape at the bottom, signifying the very dry air near the surface and a more moist layer above. Such conditions are of course very common during the summer soaring season in the western United States.
As mentioned, a key factor in the development of microbursts is evaporative cooling.
What is it and how does it contribute to a microburst? Everyone’s familiar with evaporative cooling: dip your hands into water on a hot dry day and feel how cool they become as the water evaporates. Evaporative cooling systems work according to the same principle.
As glider pilots we know that cool air is heavier than warmer air. So if falling rain evaporates (or falling snow sublimates), the air becomes cooler and heavier, thereby accelerating its downward momentum.
This is the exact opposite of the “cloud suck” effect that we enjoy when latent heat energy is released below cloud base, making air warmer, lighter, and more buoyant.
Virga Is a Warning Indicator
Evaporative cooling is happening by definition when virga can be observed: Virga is the visible indicator that rain evaporates (or snow sublimates).
From experience we know that sometimes there is massive sink below virga and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes you fly through virga and you can even find yourself in lift. I cannot explain why this is the case; I can only speculate that sometimes the lifting motion is so strong that even rain and evaporative cooling cannot overcome it: in these cases the evaporative cooling may slow down the rate of ascent but it is not causing a downburst. However, if air is already sinking, evaporative cooling will accelerate the decent.
None of the pilots I asked about these phenomena claimed that they are able to reliably predict when there will be strong sink under virga and when there won’t be. And since we don’t know, I think we must take away from this accident that we have to be extremely careful when we fly below virga; especially so when we are relatively close to the ground.
Airflow Near the Surface
The following graph illustrates the airflow near the surface once the downdraft has reached the ground. You can see the air spreading out sideways in all directions.
Size of Affected Area and Duration
Microbursts are usually short-lived events, lasting for only a few minutes. They also tend to be confined to a relatively small area between 0.4 and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) in diameter.
The following graph depicts a vertical cross-section of a microburst over time. Note the scale in kilometers. The microburst event begins a few minutes before the burst hits the ground and can last for about 10 minutes after the initial divergence begins at the surface.
Much more details about the structure, shape, and duration of microbursts can be found in this article by Mark R. Hjelmfelt from the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO.
How Common Are Microbursts?
On summer days with strong convection, microbursts are a frequent phenomenon, especially in the dry climate of the Western United States.
99 of these microbursts were just within 10 nm of Stapleton International Airport. We can probably conclude from this that in the arid climate of the western United States microbursts are par for the course: They likely occur on almost every good summer soaring day.
How Does It Feel in the Cockpit When We Encounter A Microburst?
What we experience in the cockpit differs greatly depending on our altitude (and on the stage of the microburst’s development when we encounter it).
Microburst Encounters at Altitude
Imagine that you fly through the descending shaft of the microburst as illustrated below.
In this case, the only indication of a microburst may be very strong sink. The onset of the sink could be quite sudden such that you bump your head on the canopy, or it can come about more gradually over a period of a few seconds. In the western US, where we often fly 10,000 feet or more above the terrain we might not notice anything particularly unusual. We have all have flown through patches of very strong sink lasting for about 30 to 90 seconds. We might have been slightly annoyed that we just lost one or two thousand feet of altitude but that is likely all we noticed. Cruising at 80-100 kts we cover almost two miles per minute. Normally, this is more than enough time to traverse through the confined area of most microbursts.
If we encounter the microburst a little earlier in its development, i.e. just when the air is beginning to drop past our flying altitude, we may also experience more turbulence and wind shear when entering and exiting the burst. However, even then it seems rather unlikely that we would get in real trouble (provided that we are still at a safe altitude once we exit the sink).
Microburst Encounters Closer to the Ground
The encounter is quite different when we fly closer to the ground because we are now confronted with the horizontal outflows. The lower we are, the more dangerous the situation. The above referenced study by Wilson, Roberts, Kessinger, and McCarthy suggest that the greatest danger is at altitudes below 1000 ft AGL. The reason is that we first encounter a headwind followed by a tailwind as we fly through the outflow area near the surface. The difference in speed between the headwind and the tailwind tends to be greatest at an altitude of about 200 ft AGL. Consider the illustration below.
In this case we are likely to encounter a sudden headwind and therefore a surge in kinetic energy causing the glider to rise and accelerate, soon to be followed by a sudden tailwind and a rapid drop in airspeed that could force our glider to stall unless we were able to maintain a sufficient airspeed margin.
The Greatest Danger is Below 1000 ft
The lefthand side of the following chart illustrates the differential in wind speed between the headwind and the tailwind at different altitudes for 12 different microbursts. The solid line is the average.
You can readily see that the greatest wind speed differential, i.e. the greatest wind-shear is at altitudes below 0.2 km (i.e. ~600 ft) with the peak of the average at less than 0.1 km (about 200 ft). With increasing altitude the wind speed differential (and therefore the danger) decreases. In some cases it can be measured up to about 0.6 km (~2000 ft).
Reports in Soaring Magazine
Over the years, Soaring Magazine has reported on a number of such harrowing microburst encounters at low altitudes. These were from pilots who were not quite as unlucky as Shmulik and lived to tell the tale.
Trish Durbin quotes Joe Carter in the September 1987 edition as he tells about his microburst encounter during a Region 9 contest in El Tiro near Tucson, AZ.
“There was an opening between [two storm cells]. I was doing about 80 knots and all of a sudden I hit this tremendous sink. I put the nose down 45 degrees to speed up and I was still doing about 80 knots. The controls became very sloppy, I just couldn’t figure out what was going on. The ship wasn’t behaving the way it normally would. It was very sloppy as if it were ready to stall, but with 80 knots indicated air speed. The varios were pegged down; I finally got it to about 120 knots by putting it almost vertical and then started pulling out of the dive slowly because the ground was coming up fast. I was probably about 200 feet above the terrain.” Joe got very lucky and landed safely in a field several miles away.
Bill Gawthrop writes about his crash in Truckee, CA in the September 2015 edition.
“I checked AWOS to get conditions prior to my landing approach, and heard winds 220 at 7 gusting to 15 knots. This was nearly straight down runway 20, the normal glider runway. I knew to be cautious because just north of runway 20 we often experience downdrafts as the runway drops off steeply, at about a 40-50% slope. I made a short pattern to minimize the time I spend in the down air. I turned final about 400 feet north of the runway about 180 feet above the runway.
Suddenly, I was dropping like a stone, being pushed into a left turn by the wind. I immediately pushed in the spoilers, hit hard right rudder, and hard right stick. The glider, after what felt like a freefall, started to respond to my inputs about the time I dropped below the runway. I could see I was too low to make it back up to the runway elevation. … Witnesses said I had cartwheeled over the runway lip onto the taxiway, landing backwards but right side up.
According to the weather records the winds had shifted suddenly to 260 gusting to over 20 knots about the time I arrived, lasting only a minute or two. The downdraft … struck at a much higher altitude than would be expected for a rotor off the trees and the descent was very rapid. I suspect that a small microburst that lasted only a short time forced the apparent downdraft that I experienced.
The strong gust of wind was 60 degrees from my flight path. My forward speed relative to the wind would have dropped significantly when I passed through the wind shear of this oncoming gust causing the wings to significantly lose lift. So rather than a down draft causing the violent drop it could have been caused by the wind shear. “
More insightful stories about powerful downdrafts as well as sudden updrafts can be found in the excellent article “Rogue Air Currents” by Bob Thompson in the October 2014 edition of Soaring.
Now that we understand a lot more about microbursts we can readily see how all indicators fit together.
Shmulik was supremely unlucky because he flew directly through the center of the downdraft when he was on his downwind leg. And then, just as he started to make the turn from base to final he was hit by the microburst outflow coming directly from behind. At that point he had descended to an altitude of approx. 200 ft where the strength of the outflow is typically the strongest.
The following charts show radar images for 5:30 pm, 5:35 pm, and 5:40 pm. The purple circle shows the small cell from where the downburst most likely came from.
AWOS reported the strength of the gust on the ground at 43 kts. Based on the data from the research study referenced earlier it is likely that at 200 ft AGL the outflow speed was about 10-20% greater than near the ground. I.e., 50 kt or slightly higher. Shmulik would have needed to fly at an IAS of around 100 kt to avert a stall and have a chance of maintaining control.
The time duration of the event was very limited, just as would be expected. After the gust had come through, AWOS went back to reporting light winds out of the west.
That’s when the other three glider pilots returned to the airport, just minutes later. Based on their flight traces, all three landings appear completely normal and uneventful.
Rick Roelke followed Shmulik, touching down at 5:45:36, i.e. less than 8 minutes after Shmulik’s crash. Bill Feiges was next, landing at 5:47:38, followed by Sean Franke who landed at 5:50:51.
It is worth noting that Shmulik had started his landing pattern significantly higher (!) than any of these three pilots: the altitudes of these three pilots on downwind at midfield were between 875 and 1148 ft AGL, i.e. typical and normal pattern altitudes. Shmulik had been at 1339 ft AGL at an equivalent position in his pattern. This means Shmulik had the greatest safety margin of all of them. Also, none of these three pilots flew at a higher speed in the pattern than Shmulik did.
Could The Accident Have Been Averted?
This is very hard to say. Perhaps the most important questions is whether the amount and location of the virga should have been so concerning as to prompt a reasonable pilot to delay their landing and wait at a safe distance for the virga to dissolve or move away.
Should the Landing Have Been Delayed?
Without being able to see the sky like Shmulik did, this is of course impossible to say. However, by all accounts none of the pilots operating at Rifle at this time were overly concerned about the extent of the virga. Everyone’s behavior suggests that many if not most pilots would have proceeded with the landing just like Shmulik did.
Rick’s report stated, “There was virga over the airport (elevation 5537 ft) and to the north of the valley, and northeast as well. None of the wisps extended below 11,000 ft (cloud base was approximately 19,000). Cloud cover was scattered. The clouds producing virga were not towering – they were perhaps a bit bigger than non-producing clouds, but not much. It was a point of interest to me as we don’t see a lot of it in the eastern US – I was wondering what drove the difference.
Bill Feiges, one of the other pilots flying that day, wrote, “I did not think there was enough virga in the area to catch my immediate attention.” Bill is quite familiar with the weather in this area as he normally flies out of Steamboat Springs, CO, just 80 miles to the NW of Rifle.
The pilots of the Challenger jet were clearly not overly concerned either, otherwise they would not have been taxiing to the runway for takeoff.
Plus, none of the three glider pilots thought it necessary to delay their landing even after Shmulik had already crashed.
Unfortunately there was a tremendous amount of bad luck involved:
The occurrence of a microburst with extreme sink in the pattern just as Shmulik returned from his flight;
The delay caused by the intended Challenger launch, which likely prompted Shmulik to fly to the south side of the airport exposing him to more sink and the sudden tail wind (instead of a head wind) on the turn to final;
The lack of a radio response from the Challenger which may have hampered Shmulik in his decision making (e.g. preventing him from landing straight in on runway 08 when getting low); and
Encountering the tremendous tail wind just as Shmulik was making his turn to final, i.e. at the worst possible moment, and at the worst possible altitude.
If only one of these factors would have been different it is quite possible – perhaps likely – that the outcome would have been different as well.
It is hard to argue that Shmulik did not have sufficient altitude when he returned to the airport at almost 3000 ft AGL with only 2 miles to go. Or that he flew unusually slowly in the pattern. The three pilots returning after Shmulik were aware that there had been an accident. They would have been exceptionally careful. And yet, none of them returned to the airport with more safety margin than Shmulik did. None flew faster in the pattern.
I believe that any of us – if put in Shmulik’s position – may have done exactly the same thing he did. Any of us could have suffered the same outcome. Indeed, it is tempting to conclude that this was indeed Shmulik’s fate. That nothing could have been done differently; that none of us can do anything different. Even, that nothing can be learned from this.
I sincerely hope that this is not true. I am the first to admit that based on what I knew before doing this detailed analysis I would likely have acted just like Shmulik did. But that is not the same as to say that I won’t change anything in my flying going forward. I believe that there has to be, and that there is, something that I and others can learn from this.
Is There Anything To Learn?
I believe the answer is clearly “yes”. The following summarizes my personal takeaways. You may need to adjust these based on your flying environment, your experience and skills, and your glider.
Recognize the Potential for Microbursts
First, there are a few facts about microbursts that I will try to remember:
Microbursts are a common summer-day phenomenon. In the Western US they occur on practically any good summer soaring day.
Microbursts do not just develop below towering cumulonimbus cells. They can occur under any mature cumulus cloud that is starting to dissolve, especially if there are signs of precipitation below cloud base.
Dry microbursts are invisible. The only visible indicator may be a ring of dust on the ground emanating from the center of a downburst. However, dust can obviously only be noticed after the microburst has already reached the ground. You may not be able to see it in time!
Virga is an indicator that microbursts may be present because virga is a tell-tale sign of evaporative cooling, which accelerates any downward movement of the air.
Microbursts can be extremely powerful and the sink alone can be overwhelming.
Near the surface, strong sink from a microburst is typically followed by a sudden and powerful tailwind, no matter in which direction we’re heading. This is a consequence of the fact that the down-streaming air is deflected outwards in all directions as it hits the ground.
The greatest risk of sudden tailwinds exists below 1000 ft with a peak wind differential at around 200 ft AGL. That’s why microbursts are so dangerous in the landing pattern.
In addition, I will remember that AWOS reports are outdated. Microbursts occur suddenly and the reported wind speed necessarily reflects what happened in the past, not what is currently happening. There can also be a substantial time delay in the reporting.
Anticipate and Avoid
Second, the best strategy to minimize the risk of getting caught in a microburst at low altitude is to anticipate and avoid it. Practical strategies I will use going forward are:
If there is any indication of overdevelopment or virga I will adjust my final glide approach such that I plan to arrive at the target airport with a minimum altitude of at least 3000 ft AGL. This will give me more time to assess the conditions and make alternative plans.
If virga is present above or immediately next to my landing site I will attempt to delay my landing by staying in rising air at a safe distance and altitude and wait for the virga to move away or dissipate completely. This usually only takes a few minutes.
If this is not possible I will divert to a different airfield or landing site provided that the conditions look more favorable.
Modified Landing Pattern if Necessary
Third, as a last resort, if I must land despite the presence of virga above or next to the field I will modify my landing pattern as follows:
I will enter the landing pattern much higher than usual. This may be as high as 3000 ft AGL to allow for the possibility of massive sink on the downwind leg. (I will also announce this unusual pattern on the radio so other traffic is not taken by surprise.)
I will plan to maintain a substantial altitude safety margin throughout the pattern and complete my final turn while still at an altitude of approx. 1000 ft AGL, planning to fly a very steep final approach. Completing the final turn around 1000ft will significantly reduce the risk of a sudden gust from behind, especially while turning.
I will fly at a much higher pattern airspeed. This is especially important once I get below 1000 ft because that is where a gust from behind is most likely and also most dangerous. If there is any virga in the vicinity I will fly at a minimum IAS of 80 kts (20kts above the yellow triangle speed). If I encounter sink in the pattern I will immediately increase my airspeed further. As a rule of thumb I will add extra airspeed equivalent to my sink rate. E.g., if my sink rate is 10 kts (1000 fpm), I will add another 10 kts and fly at 90 kts IAS. If my sink rate is 20 kts, I will fly at 100 kts IAS. The stronger the downdraft, the stronger the potential tailwind once I get close to the ground. I think this airspeed adjustment will better protect me against sudden tail gusts or descending into a sudden tail wind.
Communication and Training
I realize that flying such an unusual pattern can in itself be a risk. There are two concerns in particular:
Other traffic may not anticipate it and be taken by surprise.
I could misjudge my altitude and overshoot the runway.
With respect to the first concern, I will mitigate it by clearly announcing my intentions. I would also hope that such a pattern is rarely necessary because I intend to avoid to land in such conditions whenever possible. This pattern is a last resort.
With respect to the second concern, it is something that I will deliberately practice when there is no other traffic in the vicinity. It is clearly helpful to get accustomed to the sight picture of finishing the turn to final at 1000 ft AGL and making a spot landing at the normal aim point. I am fortunate that my glider has very powerful airbrakes, which allow for a very steep descent if necessary. This approach may not work for gliders with less effective spoilers.
Learning From My Own Mistakes
I looked through my own inflight videos and found the following one from a flight on June 7, 2021 that illustrates a broadly similar weather situation to the one Shmulik was likely facing.
I’ve Been There Before
I recommend you begin to watch at 31:54. The similarities include:
Virga directly above and in the vicinity of the airport.
I was at a similar altitude as Shmulik when I had 10 miles to go.
I encountered extreme sink of 20 kts in the vicinity of the airport, directly below virga. In retrospect, this was also likely the result of a microburst. (I did not encounter a sudden tailwind when exiting the sink because I was still a few thousand feet above the ground where sudden tailwinds are not likely because the down-streaming air has not yet been deflected.)
There were signs on the ground of an approaching gust front suggesting strong wind shear in the area.
The flight was during dynamic summer soaring conditions in Colorado at the same time of year (June 9 vs June 7), albeit at different airports.
The field elevation at Boulder is 5288 ft which is similar to the elevation at Rifle at 5536ft.
Compared to Shmulik, I was simply more lucky at the end. Before I entered the pattern, the severe sink stopped. I also didn’t get hit by a gust from behind on my final turn. Plus, I wasn’t distracted by another aircraft trying to take off from the same runway. If it weren’t for these key differences, the outcome could have been the same.
Relying on Luck Is Not A Strategy
However, in the future I don’t want to leave the differences to luck. Based on what I learned from Shmulik’s crash there are several things I will do differently from what I did in the video:
I will maintain more altitude on days like this before approaching the airport. Note how – in the video – CX came back several thousand feet higher than I did. In conditions like these, altitude can be lost very fast! In the video you hear me joke at 32:52 that CX is too high. No, he wasn’t! He made a smarter decision by climbing up while on final glide. This put him into a safer position with a lot more options!
I will seek to avoid a landing while there is virga directly above or next to the airfield and a gust front is approaching. You can see in the video that I considered diverting to Longmont but then the extreme sink over Boulder forced my hand. CX had the additional altitude he needed to either wait the situation out (which he did) or divert to nearby airports. CX landed 12 minutes after me when the gust front had passed through and the winds had calmed down.
I will accelerate immediately when I hit extreme sink. You can see that my airspeed fluctuates between 70-80 kts as I hit 20 kt sink (starting around 37:00). I should have pushed the nose down immediately, accelerating to at least 100 kts, if only to fly out of the sink faster (I was at an altitude of about 3000 AGL and a sudden gust from behind is not likely until closer to the ground).
I was not much above 1000 ft AGL when crossing midfield to enter a right pattern to Runway 26. As explained above, in similar situations I will enter the pattern much higher in the future to guard against potential sink on the downwind leg. (And I will not waste time by flying in circles listening to AWOS which may be outdated anyway. I should just focus ob observing the wind socks and the surface of the lakes.)
My target airspeed in the pattern was 75 kts and my actual airspeed fluctuated between 70 and 80 kts. I believe this was too slow, especially during the turn to final that I started at an altitude of about 700 ft AGL. It would have been better to fly that last turn 300-500 ft higher and faster (and a little further east of the runway). I should have never been below 80 kts in the pattern. This also includes the last portion on short final. It is important to maintain the extra speed until I get into ground effect where the risk of descending into a sudden tail wind no longer exists.
Writing this article has been difficult. However, I sincerely hope that it was worth it. Unfortunately it won’t help Shmulik. But I know that it will help me and hope that you, too, find it valuable. I am not a fatalist and I like to avoid leaving things to chance. I know that our sport is objectively dangerous. But I also know that if we are willing to do the hard work that it takes to learn from the accidents of others it does not have to remain quite as dangerous. I hope this analysis is another step in that direction.
Disclaimer: this analysis is not intended to preempt or substitute the official NTSB accident investigation. It is solely based on information that I had ready access to. More information may come to light (e.g. by analyzing the more detailed igc trace rather than the ADSB trace). My analysis also includes interpretations that are necessarily subjective.
I often assert that Colorado is one of the best soaring locations in the world. Powerful mountain thermals, long convergence lines, and 20k ft cloud bases are common and quasi par for the course.
Why then is it that no one has ever completed a declared 1000 km FAI triangle?*
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there had never been any declared 1000 km flight in Colorado (with up to 3 turnpoints). While none were officially recorded as a state record, this is not true. Dave Leonard completed a declared 1000 km flight from Kelly Airpark in 2001 in an LS6. In 2005, he was followed by Tom Serkowski who flew a declared 1000 km out and return in his ASH26E also from Kelly. There have also been numerous free six-leg OLC flights over 1000km, from Boulder, Kelly, and Owl Canyon. But as far as I know there has not been a declared 1000km FAI Triangle.
This spreadsheet lists all 1000km flights per OLC rules (max of six legs) ever recorded in Colorado (37 flights by 11 pilots as of this writing, as far as I’m aware). The list is in chronological order from the first to the most recent. I also included a most remarkable downwind dash by Alvin Parker in 1964 who flew from Odessa, Texas in a straight line to Kimball, Nebraska in a Sisu 1A sailplane. Although the flight neither originated nor ended Colorado, it crossed Colorado from south to north and is more than worthy of being listed here. It was a new world distance record at the time as is reported in detail in the September 1964 edition of Soaring Magazine.
As of this writing, only three of the 1000 km flights in Colorado were declared 1000+ km flights that were also completed. 1000km declared FAI triangles had been attempted a few times, most notably by Tom Serkowski, but for a variety of reasons none had been successfully completed. Please email me if you see anything here that’s incorrect or if there is a flight that I may have have omitted.
An Exceptional Flight Requires Exceptional Conditions
As I explained in my recent article about the Colorado 14er Challenge, a key reason for why we have not seen any completed 1000km FAI triangles in Colorado before, is the complex soaring terrain: the many tall mountain ranges tend to divide the state into different air masses and weather systems. It is exceptionally rare to find a day that works all across Colorado. But that is what you need to plan and execute such a flight.
Another factor is the length of the available thermal day. If the air is unstable enough for the day to develop early, there’s often overdevelopment and thunderstorms by early afternoon. If the air is a bit more stable, the day doesn’t really get going until noon and by then it is likely too late to finish such a long flight. So what you need is a day that kicks off early but doesn’t blow up, at least not everywhere. Some localized overdevelopment is ok, provided that the clouds cycle and thermals start up again.
Wind is also an important consideration. E.g., if the jet stream dips south into Colorado, the wind often gets so strong that thermals are broken and it’s hard to achieve good speeds; especially if you must deviate from energy lines that the wind helps create (i.e., wave, convergence, and ridge lift). Really big flights, especially triangles, require relatively mellow wind conditions.
Forecast Conditions for June 4
The Skysight forecast for June 4 promised the potential for such an exceptional day.
The PFD Chart was dark red all across the Colorado Rocky Mountains. That’s a promising indicator that very long flights are attainable. However, Skysight can be a bit optimistic at times, e.g. when the cloud bases are too low to fly fast and safe, so it’s important to look at the specific parameters. You want to know what it is that makes the day so good, and what pitfalls, if any, may exist.
Cumulus clouds would start to pop as early as 10 am and bases would immediately be around 17,000 ft. That’s excellent to get an early start.
At the same time (around 10:30am) 5 to 7 kt thermals could already be expected.
By 3:30 PM, cumulus clouds with bases of 19,000 – 20,000 feet would extend across the entire task area.
The OD Chart suggested that the southern Front Range and South Park might overdevelop early. If this is the case, it can be tricky to come back to Boulder from the south late in the day.
This was also confirmed by the Significant Weather Chart for 4PM, which suggested that South Park would be overcast under spread-out cumulus by late afternoon. Fortunately, there was no indication of thunderstorms on this chart.
The CAPE (Convective Available Potential Energy) Chart did also not indicate a significant risk of thunderstorms, except for a few blue spots along the Front Range. In our mountainous area you want this chart to be completely blank as any CAPE index values above 100 Joule suggest a potential for storms. My interpretation from this chart was that there would be a likelihood of isolated storms that it would be possible to navigate around.
The winds in the boundary layer were forecast to be modest, especially on my second leg into the wind. They would increase a little later in the day but by then I hoped to be on my third leg and benefit from a tail wind.
Thermal strength would peak at 1PM and begin to weaken by 3:30PM. That seemed a bit early. and I did not give it too much thought. I should have examined the reasons for this more closely (we’ll get to that later). 3:30PM is often the very best part of the day.
My main conclusions from this forecast were:
An early start would be possible. I booked at tow for 10AM – about one hour earlier than usual for Boulder.
There would be nice cumulus clouds across the entire task area when I needed them. Cloud bases would start high and remain high, allowing climbs to the legal maximum below 18,000 ft.
There would likely be overdevelopment with virga and isolated storms in parts of the task area. The biggest concern was to the south of Boulder. It would therefore be good to go south first and then avoid that area later in the day.
Thermal strengths would be good, although diminishing somewhat early, which seemed a bit surprising. The day was forecast to remain soarable until 6PM. By then it would be good to be on final glide.
Task Planning Considerations
When I pre-declare a task I try to design a route that makes the best use of the forecast soaring weather.
Initially I considered declaring a 1000 km border-to-border task (from Boulder to New Mexico, then to Wyoming, and back to Boulder via a third turnpoint south of Boulder). However, the forecast early over-development to the south hinted at potential problems on the northbound leg.
I was particularly intrigued by the projected cumulus conditions to the west up to the Utah border. This area is often too dry for cumulus clouds to develop. I have never flown that far west and don’t like to fly in blue conditions so far from home, especially in an area where I have no experience. The forecast presence of cumulus in that area in early to mid afternoon made me consider a big triangle.
Having set my sights onto a 1000 km FAI triangle I had to make some key decisions.
First, I wanted my start and finish point to be on one of the legs of the triangle, and not on a corner. This makes it easier to return home if you run out of time before getting to the last turn point.
Second, I knew I wanted to go south first, because that area was projected to over-develop early. I expected soaring conditions there to be quite good before the over-development would set in.
Third, I wanted to select a western turnpoint in an area with reliable cumulus clouds. I also wanted to construct it so that my flight path could remain over high terrain as much as possible, minimizing any stretch over potentially blue areas (such as when crossing the Colorado River Valley). Furthermore, I wanted to ensure that my third leg would be as unproblematic as possible, e.g. avoiding areas of significant forecast overdevelopment.
Fourth, I wanted my last turnpoint to the north of Boulder in an area along the typical late-afternoon energy line over the Poudre. It would have to be in glide range of good landing places, and ideally within glide range of Boulder. Plus it needed to be selected such that there would be a more or less straight line between that last turnpoint and the first turnpoint (to make the task a nice triangle and minimize any unnecessary detours).
With these considerations in mind I declared a task with the following turnpoints:
Start/Finish: Lee Hill. Lee Hill was likely a little further east than the first morning thermals but I did not want to pick a finish deep into the foothills that I may have difficulty to reach on final glide. Finishing just at the top of Lee Hill gives me appropriate altitude for a save arrival and landing in Boulder.
TP1: Greenhorn Mountain. I picked this point at the southern tip of the Wet Mountains as my first turnpoint because it was the furthest point to the SSE that I thought could be reached below cumulus clouds early in the day. Often there is a big blue gap between South Park and the Wet Mountains and the forecast suggested that this area would not be an issue. Greenhorn Mountain is also ideal because a straight line drawn from there via Lee Hill is optimally aligned with the energy line over the Poudre late in the day – so the last turnpoint can be placed directly on that line.
TP3: Comanche Meadow. Next, I picked my third turnpoint (rather than the second turnpoint) and placed it near Red Feather Lakes on the line mentioned in the bullet above.
TP2: North of Grand Junction. Finally, I selected a western turnpoint as TP2 that would make my triangle just a bit bigger than 1000km. It was important to pick a point where cumulus clouds were forecast at my projected time of rounding it.
Skysight’s route planning tool has better pilots in mind than I am. I am almost always 15-25% slower than Skysight projects possible. E.g., for June 4, Skysight projected an average task speed of 157 kph (99 mph). There may be pilots that can fly that fast but I am not one of them. I thought an average speed of 125 kph would be more realistic for me. (My average speed on OLC for the current year to date is 122 kph).
I had booked my tow at 10:00AM and expected my start at 10:30AM. This would give me the following expected times at each of my turnpoints:
TP1 Greenhorn Mountain (KM 246) : approx. 12:30PM
TP2 North of Grand Junction (KM 616): approx. 3:30PM
TP3 Near Red Feather Lakes (KM915): approx. 5:50PM
Finish: Lee Hill (KM 1002): approx. 6:30PM
The exercise of estimating the average task speed and turn point times is important. It allows me to determine if my task is realistically achievable. It also enables me to compare my actual speed against the forecast and helps me decide during the flight if I should give up on the task early to reduce the risk of a land-out late in the day, possibly still far away from home.
Cut Off Time: I also resolved that I would turn back early if I would not be able to reach my westerns turn-point before 4:00PM.
Probabilities and Beliefs
When attempting these challenges you have to believe that it can be done. And I did. However, I am also realistic. No-one had ever completed a declared 1000 km FAI triangle. And I’m told it’s not for a lack of trying.
The evening before the flight I talked to one of Boulder’s most experienced XC pilots about my plans. He pointed to the recent rains in Colorado and thought the ground was too wet and Skysight was far too optimistic. His advice was, “wait until it has dried up.” “Skysight doesn’t take the recent rains into account.”
I wasn’t so sure. How could he know what Skysight does or doesn’t take into account? Of course Skysight isn’t always right. But if the day was as good as projected and I hadn’t tried, I would surely regret it. There are probably only a few days each year when such a flight can be achieved. So I made the calculated decision to ignore the advice I was given.
When fellow club members asked me in the morning what I thought the odds of completion were, I said, “about 20%”. “But that’s no reason not to try. If I don’t make the attempt, the odds are exactly zero.”
Reality never matches one’s plan exactly and at the end it all comes down to execution. In this, soaring is not very different from business or other aspect of life where the best laid plan fall by the wayside when the first curve ball is thrown your way. However, we can always learn from comparing plans and reality and figure out what we can do to improve; in planning as well as in execution. So here is my review.
I launched at 9:53am, a few minutes earlier than planned. It would have been better to take off even earlier, around 9:30am, perhaps even sooner.
The valley was inverted and I towed all the way to the first clouds. The tow was probably higher than necessary but I didn’t want to risk wasting time, or worse, falling out.
I crossed the Start Line at Lee Hill at 10:15AM, 15 minutes ahead of schedule, at an altitude of 11,400 ft. The start altitude was a strategic decision: Lee Hill is at about 7800 ft MSL. The FAI task rules say that the finish cannot be more than 1000m (3,280 ft) below the start altitude. A start at 11,400 meant I had to arrive above Lee Hill at a minimum altitude of ~8,100 MSL, i.e. ~300 AGL, for a valid finish.
Had I climbed up high before crossing the start, I would also have to finish higher and that can be a problem at the end of the day when the thermals are dying. It’s therefore best to start relatively low so this won’t be an issue later on. However, I also didn’t want to take any risk of falling out after crossing the start line. It’s a tricky equation but I think I got it about right.
First Leg to Greenhorn Mountain – 246 km
After crossing the start I was in search of a strong climb that could take me up toward cloud base.
I did not want to settle for 4-5 kts because it would take well over 10 minutes to climb up to cloud base. As a result, I stayed lower for much longer than I wanted as I struggled to connect.
I joined TR in a great 10kt climb over Black Mountain (ESE of Mt Evans). Finally I got up to 17,500 ft in no time.
A few minutes later I caught up with TR, a club Discus piloted by Jason Ely who was finding great lift lines. I was quite impressed by his route choices.
Convergence-enhanced thermals over the foothills of the southern Front Range. Good lift along the western edge of these clouds.
Reliable clouds make for fun, uneventful, flying.
I tanked up over the 39 Mile Volcanic Field west of Victor before heading out across a blue hole towards the Wet Mountains in the center ahead. It’s a significant gap but not a big deal for my 18m Ventus 2 cxT.
Nice clouds over the Wet Mountains propelled me towards my first turn point at Greenhorn Mountain.
I’m taking a powerful climb before turning Greenhorn Mountain.
I rounded Greenhorn Mountain at 12:22 PM. 246 km, about 1/4 of the total distance, is done. My average speed on the first leg was a little slower than the overall estimate of 125 kph but I was still 8 minutes ahead of my estimated schedule. I hoped the second leg would go a bit faster given that I was getting to the strongest part of the day.
Second Leg: Greenhorn Mountain to North of Grand Junction – 370 km
Soon after turning Greenhorn Mountain, and heading north-west, I crossed paths with BC and XR who were aiming for the Colorado – New Mexico border. (Unfortunately both got caught in OD on their return leg to the north. They made it back to Boulder but were not able to get to Wyoming.)
The clouds over the Wet Valley were not working nearly as well as those over the mountains .
I got much lower than I would have liked. These situations can become a big time drain unless one is able to find a good climb.
I had to take a little detour and finally found a reasonable climb in the lee of the Sangre de Cristos.
At 1:15 PM I am above Salida. I know this area well from SSB soaring camps.
There is a big blue hole west of Salida towards Monarch Pass. The wind has shifted and is now blowing pretty hard out of the north-west, directly where I need to go. This means I have to approach Monarch Pass from the lee side and the transition into the Gunnison Valley is likely to be tricky. I am taking a climb to 15,700 ft – as high as I get get – before pushing on.
The transition ahead is the trickiest part on the second leg. I anticipate significant sink before getting to Monarch Pass and will need to find another climb to get across. The sky is not overly promising.
I arrive below a rotor cloud on the flank of Mount Shavano at 12,600 ft, about 1,600 ft below the peak. I’m hoping the rotor works. If not, I have to turn back several miles where I should find a climb over the Arkansas Valley north of the Salida airport.
The rotor is quite rough. It wants to roll the glider this way and that way and I have to use full control deflections to keep myself centered. I work hard for 8 minutes to regain 3,500 ft, enough to press on.
Things look better at 16,000 feet. There are good looking clouds on the other side of these mountains.
It is 1:45PM when the first virga of the day appear. But there is no significant vertical development in any of the clouds and I am confident the clouds will just cycle. This likely means some virga dodging but hopefully continued good thermal conditions. Also, as I get further west, and closer to the Utah desert, the air should become dryer. And for now it’s too early to worry about the third leg. I still have more than 200 km to go before TP2…
It’s typical for overdevelopment and virga to concentrate over the mountains while the wider valleys – such as the Gunnison Valley to the left – remain much dryer. The lift is quite good here on the southern side of the clouds, often up to the edge of the virga.
In a few minutes I will get to an area where I have never flown before. I take out my map to better visualize my landing opportunities beyond Crested Butte. There are a number of good choices but it’s important to know where they are relative to the terrain. And it’s always good to visualize this while you’re so high that you’re relaxed and the stress level is very low.
Crested Butte is a magical place. A few years ago I ran one of the prettiest ultramarathons in this area. Seeing the valley from the cockpit is even more magnificent.
The West Elk Mountains will be the last big mountains for a while. The clouds ahead look quite promising. Also, as expected, the air does look a bit dryer as I continue northwest.
I make good progress in this area and continue to enjoy the scenery. The clouds work well and are reliable. There are also plenty of landing options in the valley to the left.
As I leave the tall peaks behind, mountains give way to rolling hills. The sky keeps getting dryer but there is no shortage of nice cumulus clouds. I continue my flight with confidence.
The clouds in this area are cycling and conditions are a little soft for a while. But there’s no doubt – for now – that there is good lift ahead. I have the airports of Glenwood Springs and Garfield County in glide.
The Colorado River Valley comes in sight as I approach Haystack Mountain. I am relieved to see that there are clouds on the north side of the valley. I will have to cross the valley and then continue to head west to get to TP2.
I am tanking up above Haystack Mountain before the Colorado River crossing.
It is now apparent that the clouds are much sparser on the north side of the Colorado River Valley. The air is also more hazy, indicative of a different and potentially weaker, airmass. I have 70 km to go to get to my second turnpoint straight ahead. Can it be done? I’m not sure but I’m definitely willing to try.
There are still clouds ahead as I get to the north of the Colorado River. But I also start to notice the cirrus layer in the distance and wonder if my turnpoint may be in the shade.
I am excited that my first climb after the valley crossing averages 8 knots to 17,500 ft. When you’re flying into a different airmass there is always some uncertainty how things will go. Well, this climb is promising.
It is 3:15 PM and I have another 36 km to go to my second turnpoint. The clouds don’t look great but I anticipate that they will work: when the air is so dry, even small wisps can indicate powerful climbs. In particular, I am on the lookout for any indication of new clouds that may be emerging. That’s where the best lift is usually found.
As I approach TP2 it has become obvious that the cirrus layer overhead is rapidly moving eastwards. The ground below is already shaded and I have not found a good climb in more than 10 minutes. I am now down to 14,000 feet and eager to get the turn behind me and back into the sun.
I turn TP2 at 3:27 PM, 3 minutes ahead of my schedule. I find that quite remarkable. My second leg of 370 km took me just 5 minutes longer than my estimate. If commercial airlines would deliver that level of precision, I would be quite pleased. 🙂
Third Leg: North of Grand Junction to Comanche Meadow (NE of Red Feather Lakes) – 299 km
Starting out on my third leg I have two goals: find a good climb to get back to altitude; and get back into the sun and out from the cirrus overcast.
There are beautiful clouds below a beautiful blue sky in the distance. Lets get there!
I found some mediocre climbs under some wisps below the cirrus layer and I’m now considering two routing alternatives. I had planned to follow the Colorado river along the north rim but there are good-looking clouds 20 degrees to the left in the direction of Meeker. Since I am not familiar with that area I review it again on the map to ensure I have good landing options along the way.
I decide to head for the promising looking clouds toward Meeker. The labyrinth of canyons below is fascinating. It would also be a sure way to get lost. So let’s stay high…
The problem: once I get to the promising clouds, the cirrus layer has moved east as well and the clouds are decaying – promising no more. I had expected an 8-10 kt climb. Instead I only find three knots. I only make three turns, then push on towards the sun.
There are more great looking clouds ahead under a pretty blue sky. The airport of Meeker is in the White River Valley to the left and in easy glide range.
As I approach the clouds, they have started to fall apart. The cirrus layer has advanced as well and is shading the ground below.
I spend 6 minutes in a mediocre climb. Not because I want to but because I have to. I gain only 1700 ft – a rate of less than 300 fpm – then I press on to outrace the cirrus!
After all: there are very appealing clouds ahead, under a gorgeous blue sky towards the Flat Tops.
But when I get there… same story: the cirrus layer has caught up once again. I am still determined to win this race though. I can feel that my entire task is hanging in the balance. If I can’t outrace the overcast I will be too slow. Or worse, the lift may die altogether and I may be forced to land – far away from home. It takes 4 1/2 hours to drive from Boulder to Meeker. I really don’t want to land here!
Aren’t there great looking clouds over the Flat Tops Mountains to the east? And the sky is blue!
But when I get there … oh my this is frustrating!
OK, I have to get to THAT cloud. It is very pretty indeed. And the sky is so blue!
But when I get there? You guessed it – the cirrus layer has just moved in. But: the cloud is still working!!! I climb 4,300 feet in 7 minutes, an average of 615 fpm, and I get back to 17,700 ft.
There is still hope! So let’s use the height and outrace that cirrus for good!
Doesn’t the sky look great! But I cannot allow myself to make any mistakes. The cirrus is moving fast. I have to stay ahead of it but I also can’t afford to get low. I can’t recall a glider race that felt so intense. In a glider race your opponent may overtake you but that is it. This opponent is different: if you don’t stay ahead you get taken out of the race altogether!
I made it across the Flat Tops and am heading towards Toponas. This was my most westerly turn point during my Diamond Distance flight three years ago. This is the point where the Continental Divide comes back into view on the horizon. And if the sky ahead looks like this then getting back to Boulder definitely seems doable. Maybe even the completion of the task? I briefly wonder but then decide to ignore this unhelpful thought. Don’t count the chicken until they hatch… I still have to focus on outracing the cirrus. I know it’s not far behind.
Here’s proof: as I circle below a dark cloud east of Toponas I can see how much the cirrus has advanced as well. The Flat Tops that had just been in the sun 10 minutes ago are already in shade and the clouds above look like they are falling apart. Every minute does still count! For now there is still sun on the ground directly below. Let’s concentrate on climbing well so I can keep it that way!
I stay north of Kremmling above the high ground and head towards the Rabbit Ears Range. There are some pretty clouds along the north side, most likely the result of a typical convergence line in this area, virga to the south.
As I arrive over the Rabbit Ears, the sky has become more complicated. The clouds ahead are dissolving, there is virga to my right, and I have to be careful not to be caught in a down-cycle. Plus, with the cirrus not far behind, I really can’t afford to get stuck!
There is a tricky decision to be made here. My third turnpoint is 85 km to the NE. The direct route to get there is to the left of the nose via North Park, flying under the dark clouds in-between the virga lines. It is works, that would be the shortest path. If it doesn’t work I would get stuck in North Park. I might be able to make it to Walden or have to land in a field. The alternative is to veer to the right and detour around the virga on the south side. This route is more familiar to me, gets me closer to Boulder, and probably makes it easier to cross the Continental Divide. If it doesn’t work I would land at the airport in Granby.
I opt for the detour and to go around the clouds on the sunny side. The probability of finding lift here seems higher to me and the risk of getting caught in virga and rain much lower. It’s also the closest route across the divide and I still worry about the cirrus catching up with me from behind.
Some snow falls outside as I work my way around the cloud into the sun. I quickly close my vents – otherwise snow makes it into the cockpit.
The Continental Divide is along the horizon, 40 km ahead. Getting over these mountains is my next challenge. If successful, I will have Boulder in glide and can assess the odds of making it to my last turn point. There are some clouds ahead, so I am hopeful that it will work.
The clouds that just looked so nice 3 minutes ago have started to fall apart. But there is still sun on the ground so there ought to be a climb somewhere. I will need to gain two or three thousand feet to make it safely across the Divide.
I try every climb I can find. The wind is favorable, drifting me in the direction I need to go. So even a slow climb is ok. I can’t be too choosey now. Provided that I stay ahead of the cirrus!
Looking back to the west where I came from it is apparent that my return from turn point 2 has truly been “just in time”. Had I turned TP2 only 10 minutes later I very much doubt that I would have made it.
I didn’t get much of a climb. 14,700 ft with 25 km to go to cross a 12,200 ft pass is not a recipe for success. I will need another climb. The clouds don’t look great but I still believe that it will work.
I am at 14,100 ft. The ridge ahead is at about 12,200 ft. Not a lot of margin, but I find myself in good air with a tailwind and I am pretty confident that I can make it safely across. Parallax is the best way to gauge the likelihood of success: if more terrain beyond the ridge becomes visible I should be high enough. If that isn’t the case I will have to find another climb first. The good thing here is that I can always turn around and have a save glide to the Granby airport if necessary.
I am directly over the divide and trying to find a climb. I now have Boulder in glide (although somewhat marginal) but I am looking for more altitude to see if I can make it to TP3.
Near Longs Peak I manage to climb to 14,000 ft and decide to start heading towards TP3, 62 km ahead. The sky is not looking great but I am not ready to give up. There is often an energy line in this direction and the western edge of the clouds should mark its location. There are also often good climbs late in the day above the ridges ahead. I definitely have to give it a try!
Indeed. I find a climb north of Estes Park above the ridge leading to Mt. Dickinson. As I climb through 15,000 feet I notice the absence of the familiar pulses from the oxygen system. I started the day with 1300 PSI in my oxygen tank but more than 8 hours at altitude must have depleted it. Oh no! This is really unfortunate because late in the day it is often critical to stay in close connection with the clouds. I am not one to risk hypoxia and decide to leave the climb early. It means I will have to bounce along well below cloud base and find evening climbs that still emanate from the ground.
The clouds ahead look pretty good and I’m hoping to find good air along the way as I continue towards TP3. There is often a convergence line in this area. A glance on my flight computer shows that Skysight is predicting such a line some 15km further east. But looking at the clouds I think it is more aligned with the course I’m following.
The line did work reasonably well. I am now approaching the final turnpoint. There is some virga ahead and I wonder if I have to fly into it to get my turn. There is always some uncertainty when approaching virga. Sometimes there can be strong sink but that is not a given. It’s even possible to find strong lift and rapidly climb while flying through rain or snow. As I look ahead it’s hard to tell what I will find. But even if I find strong sink, I have enough altitude to escape towards Christman Field at the base of the hills to my right. With a good plan B in place I head into the turn.
There’s neither lift nor significant sink as I turn TP3 at 6:07 PM, now 17 minutes behind schedule. The last leg took 20 minutes longer than I had anticipated, the consequence of weak thermals while I tried to outrace the overcast, plus the significant detour around the virga over the Rabbit Ears Range. But at this point the schedule is irrelevant. Getting to the finish and safely landing before sunset is all that matters.
Final Leg: Comanche Meadow to Lee Hill – 88 km
When I planned the flight I had hoped to be above 17,000 feet and within Final Glide upon my last turn. But as things stand, I still have some climbing to do.
Looking ahead after turning TP3 I have 88 km to go to the finish. There is still sun on the ground over the Poudre Canyon ahead to my left. However, I decide not to take the most direct line. Instead, I retrace my flight path to get back to the west side of the clouds ahead. I expect to find the best air along that line. It is quite beneficial for the last leg to be in an area that I know well.
I am delighted that there is still sun over the Poudre Canyon ahead. I have often found late afternoon thermals in this area. However, more often than not I am flying much higher in this area than today. I have 80 km to go to the Finish Line and my flight computer shows that I am about 3,500 ft below final glide for my task at MC4. Beyond the Poudre the sky looks completely overcast so I HAVE to find some lift in this area.
Lucky again! I find my last climb of the day directly over the Poudre Canyon with 59km to go. My flight computer shows that I just made Final Glide altitude! That’s a big moment!
The sky is completely overcast but I am now 900 ft above Final Glide at MC4 and I am confident that I have made it. Wow! I’d like to let that sink in, but I am also aware that I still have an airplane to fly to a finish and a safe landing. So let’s stay focused on that!
8 hours and 30 minutes after I flew across the Start Line above Lee Hill setting out on a flight across mountainous Colorado, I have returned to the same spot. It is hard to believe. I have completed my 1000 km FAI triangle. The first ever in Colorado. The time is 6:46PM, 16 minutes later than I had planned. My average task speed was 118 km per hour instead of my estimated 125. But all of that is largely irrelevant. What matters is that I got it done. Now all that’s left to do is a safe landing. I deliberately go through my checklist. Dump the water, put the gear down, check the spoilers, check the wind, look for traffic, flaps in position 2, and bring it home.
Winds are calm on the ground as I bring a successful flight to completion with a smooth landing a little over an hour before sunset.
Flight Trace and Key Stats
You can find the full .igc flight trace with all details on WeGlide and on OLC.
Declared FAI Triangle Distance: 1001.5 km
Declared Flight Distance: 1001.5 km
OLC Flight Distance (optimized for 6 legs): 1071 km
Average Ground Speed in Cruise Flight: 184 km per hour
Reflecting back on the flight there are a bunch of things that I got right and also several opportunities for improvement.
Let’s start with what worked well.
Relying on Skysight as my main forecasting tool worked well and the forecast was quite accurate with respect to thermal heights, presence of cumulus clouds, cloud bases, wind direction and strength, etc. There were a bit more virga cells than forecast and Boulder did see a local thunderstorm although none was predicted. I had also checked local weather forecasts for key locations along the route, largely to assess the risk of storms. But this was mostly helpful to boost my confidence. I did not learn anything that was new or different from Skysight.
I was well prepared for the geography of the flight. I even carried a list of all airports along each leg with local radio frequencies. Having my physical soaring map in the cockpit was also very helpful. I knew the overall terrain quite well but it was super useful to better visualize the location of airports within those sections of the task area that were new to me. There was no point during the entire flight when I did not have a suitable airport within easy glide range.
My estimated speed of 125 kph and the estimated times at each turn point were quite realistic even though I ended up flying a little bit slower. I did not trust Skysight’s attainable speed of over 150 kph and I don’t know if anyone could have flown this fast. I think 135-140 kph may have been possible for a better pilot than me but I doubt 150 or more was really achievable in an 18m glider.
Crew for a potential landout. I had talked to ABC, one of SSB’s flight instructors and my Official Observer, and he assured me that he would be prepared to come and get me if I were to land out. I also know there are many other great members at the SSB who would do the same. Having made such arrangements in advance was not only very comforting. It ultimately proved to be essential because it allowed me to take the sporting risk of a potential landout (not a safety risk!), especially when I had to push to my westernmost turnpoint even though I could see the cirrus layer moving in.
Things I would do differently if I could do it all over again:
I would launch even earlier. The first little clouds appeared by 9:15 am and I did not get off the ground until 9:53 am. Every minute counts if you have to be concerned about making it before the end of the soaring day. I left more than half an hour on the table at the beginning.
I missed the predicted Cirrus forecast. In fact, I did not look at the high clouds forecast at all. That was clearly a mistake. I even remember that I was puzzled about the declining lift strength by 3:30PM but did not think to examine the possible reasons for it. Next time I will look. However, somehow I am glad that I didn’t because the forecasted cirrus layer might have dissuaded me from attempting the western turnpoint. And in that case, a 1000 km FAI triangle task would probably not have been possible.
I need to add more oxygen for such long flights. I never ran out of oxygen before and I thought 1300 PSI would easily suffice. It is entirely possible that forcing myself to fly below 14,000 ft towards the end could have caused me to fall out of the working band and land out just before the end. Luckily I kept finding new climbs and eventually got on final glide. Next time I will look for a completely full bottle to fill my tank to the max.
Luck comes into play to!
I did not anticipate that the cirrus layer would move so fast. Ultimately it was sheer luck that I was able to outrace it. Only after the fact did it sink in how narrowly I won that race. Had I arrived at my second turn point only 10 minutes later I am fairly certain that I would not have made it back to the Front Range.
Finally, I would like to thank Armand Charbonneau, my official observer and potential retrieve crew. I could not have done it without you. In addition, I’d like to thank everyone at SSB, in Austria, and in France who has been instrumental in coaching and mentoring me over the years. There are too many to name. You know who you are. Your advice and counsel has played a key role helping me get to the point where I was able to complete such a flight. Thank you!
At the beginning of this article I explained that declared 1000 km triangle flights in Colorado might not have been done before because they require exceptional days. However, exceptional days have existed before and they will continue to exist. They are probably more frequent than we might think. I am convinced that there are several days each year when such flights can be achieved.
But one thing has changed over the years: in the past, it was usually impossible to know which days were truly exceptional. The weather forecasting just wasn’t good enough. Now we’re seeing many more record breaking soaring flights in Europe, in New Zealand, in Africa, and all over the world, and it’s not (primarily) because the sailplanes have gotten better. It is also not that the pilots have become better or more ambitious. What really has become better is the weather forecasting.
Historically you could not know which parts of a task area would OD first. You could not reliably predict whether there would be cumulus clouds hundreds of miles away from home at a specific time of day. It was practically impossible to forecast how the wind speed and wind direction would evolve in different parts of a task area at different times of the day. And the position of convergence lines somewhere in the blue? Only a few years ago there was no chance of knowing.
But now we can predict all these things. Don’t get me wrong. The forecast is still only a forecast. Reality can – and is – different. There still are inaccuracies. However, these inaccuracies have drastically diminished and they will continue to diminish.
We can now plan much better that we ever could. My flight will not be the longest flight in Colorado for long. I believe we will see many more. I wish everyone attempting them the best of success.
On May, 17, 2022, I became the sixth pilot to finish the Colorado Fourteener Challenge, which has been open to any soaring pilot since 2008. It took me four years and one day to get it done. The completion of this career goal is my most significant soaring achievement so far. But before I tell my own story, let’s first look at what it entails.
The Fourteener Challenge
The highest peaks of the Rocky Mountains have long captivated all types of adventurers. Intrepid explorers seeking to challenge themselves against the forces of nature. Individualists relishing solitude and self-reliance. And romantics questing for places of spectacular beauty.
The tallest peaks of the Rocky Mountains are all in Colorado. More than 50 of them are higher than 14,000 ft, making Colorado the state with the greatest number of “Fourteeners” in the United States. In 1923, Carl Blaurock and Bill Ervin became the first humans to summit all of them. Since then, some 2000 determined individuals have recorded their completion of this monumental achievement with the Colorado Mountain Club. Each year, approx. 50-75 climbers add their names to the list.
In 2008, inspired by this mountaineering challenge, soaring pilots Colin Barry and Doug Weibel, then-president of the Soaring Society of Boulder, had the idea to adapt it for soaring. “The concept was simple”, says Colin, “soar above each peak within a .25 sm radius of the summit.” The coordinates of each peak were gathered, and the list published on the World Wide Turnpoint Exchange. The Fourteener Challenge was born. “GPS navigation and data loggers were becoming ubiquitous, so not only could pilots locate each peak, but we could also validate their progress.”
Hostile Terrain, Capricious Weather, No Place To Land
The challenge is character building. The Rocky Mountains are comprised of a discontinuous series of mountain ranges with distinct geological origins. In Colorado, the orientation of the major ranges tends to be from north to south (e.g., the Front Range, the Sawatch Range, the Mosquito Range, and the Sangre de Cristo Range), but there are exceptions. Some of the mountain ranges, most notably the San Juan Mountains, are so big and wide that a specific orientation is barely recognizable. Between the mountain ranges are the high plateaus of South Park, Middle Park, and North Park, as well as deep valleys. Some of them can be too wide to cross; some are too narrow to land. For newcomers to Colorado, and perhaps even for some Coloradans, the topography can be confounding.
It took me a few soaring seasons and a lot of map research and Condor flying before I developed a reliable mental picture of the entire state.
The Fourteener Challenge is so demanding because the peaks are sprinkled across multiple mountain ranges throughout the entire state. The distance between the northernmost Fourteener, Longs Peak, and its southernmost counterpart, Culebra Peak, is 217 miles (350 km). The distance between El Diente to the west, and Pikes Peak to the east, is 175 miles (282 km).
Distinct Weather Systems
The mountain ranges are not just hurdles to cross on your way to the next Fourteener; they also tend to divide the state into different airmasses and weather systems. While soaring is often fantastic in some parts of the state, it can be impossible elsewhere. One sector may quickly overdevelop while the air in other sectors may be so stable that soaring is impossible. Winds, cloud bases, moisture levels, thermal strength, thunderstorm propensity, etc. often vary substantially. On some days you can only soar over the high ground while the valleys remain inverted. On other days you can fly over the plains while huge thunderstorms develop over the mountains. Powerful convergence lines may enable exceptional speeds if you follow them exactly; but try to deviate and the air can be as still as at sunrise. Wave aloft sometimes determines where thermals can and cannot form. Storm systems and rotors can cause 20 kt of lift but also 30 kt of sink. Days that work well across the entire state are rare. In-depth flight preparation is critical.
You Must Know Your Turf
As important as understanding the weather is knowing where one can safely put the glider down. Vast areas of the state are unlandable except for airports; and those can be more than 60 miles apart. To make things worse, airports can’t be taken for granted, either. Runways can be quite narrow; tall sagebrush may grow right up to their edges, making some airports completely useless if you’re flying a wide-wing-span glider.
Wildfires can throw another wrench into the best laid plans. They can pop up pretty much at any time of the year. Not only do they cause firefighting TFRs; dense smoke from fires as far away as California can impact thermal development, diminish visibility, and even bring about IFR conditions.
However, as harsh and as forbidding as the Rocky Mountains may be, their beauty is manifest in all directions. In the dry mountain air, the visibility is often 100 miles or more. At 17,500 feet, all of Colorado is spread out below.
For most of us, soaring is not just a science; it is also an art form. We don’t just fly because it is a technical challenge, we fly because there is no better way to see and experience the world. The more difficult the terrain, the more evident its allure. Nowhere is this more palpable than in Colorado.
A Career Goal
For most pilots, the 14er Challenge is best viewed as a long-term career objective. This is particularly true for pilots living in Colorado. Prominent peaks have always attracted glider pilots like magnets and most glider ports in the state have at least one Fourteeners within glide range. Thus, pilots may be able to conquer their first Fourteener within their first or second soaring season. And once a pilot has had a first taste of Colorado Mountain High, they often wonder what else is possible.
For Boulder and Owl Canyon pilots their first 14er is usually Longs Peak. From Boulder, it can be reached in glide range even with the club’s ASK 21 trainer or with a rental glider from Mile High Gliding. For Black Forest pilots the closest 14er is Pikes Peak, also within glide on a good soaring day.
After that, the challenge quickly gets harder. In fact, it involves all the steps of becoming an expert in cross-country mountain soaring: reading the sky; observing the wind; recognizing lift lines and avoiding sink; working the ridges, judging the glide across mountain passes; assessing the odds of finding lift ahead; climbing even in the most broken of thermals; learning to fly farther and faster; and always knowing your turf. It is a journey that cannot and must not be rushed. Ignorance, even one major mistake, can lead to disaster. Pilots must acquire a strong theoretical understanding and accumulate sufficient practical experience to apply it correctly. There are no shortcuts. A steady progression is the way to go.
This will also provide the experience needed to become mentally conditioned for long and strenuous days in the cockpit. “When you’re doing these flights, you’re a long way from home,” says Tom Zoellner, one of the first pilots to complete the 14er Challenge. “The solitary confinement in the cockpit can be overwhelming.”
For those who persevere, the achievement of such a career objective can be very rewarding. For Colin Barry it’s “flying to beautiful remote places,” and the “thrill of planning and completing each mission.” For my part, I think the reward comes from knowing that success is never certain. It’s not easy to put yourself in the right place at the right time, and it may be months or even years until the next opportunity presents itself. This is never more palpable than on a flight when the targeted peak is right in front of you but getting there may put you in a situation where you might have to land out a full day’s drive away from home. Will you give up or will you give it a go? For those who persevere, time and time again, the sense of accomplishment is very gratifying.
Current Trophy Holders
Bob Faris, aka CX, surprised Colin and Doug, the initiators of the Challenge, by completing the challenge on Sep 24, 2008 within its first season. Bob is the chief flight instructor at the Soaring Society of Boulder and holds dozens of state soaring records in Colorado and other states. He owned an LS3 at the time and flew his 14er flights from Boulder (KBDU), Salida (KANK), and Val Air (CD82). Bob considers the San Juan peaks around Silverton the most difficult to achieve. “You have to stay really high there because there are just very few places to land.”
Alfonso Ossorio, aka AO, finished the challenge on Sep 4, 2010 with his most memorable flight – an out and return from Boulder to San Luis Peak in the San Juan Mountains. Like Bob, Alfonso has many thousand hours in gliders. He flew all his 14ers in a Nimbus 2 but rounded many of them also in the club’s DG 505. Alfonso considers the San Juan peaks around Telluride the hardest ones. He reached them on a blue day from the now defunct Val Air airport north of Durango. Al’s advice to prospective pilots is to acquire deep mountain flying knowledge and to always pay attention to the wind. “Watch it, read it, use it.” He recommends Helmut Reichmann’s book ‘Cross-Country Soaring’. And most of all, “to have fun!”
Tom Zoellner, aka XR, became the third pilot to finish the challenge on June 5, 2018. Of all the finishes do date, Tom’s is the most remarkable achievement. Not only did he fly all his flights in an ASW20 without water ballast. He is the only one to achieve the entire challenge from Boulder! Reaching the farthest peaks in the San Juan’s required flights of more than 8 hours and 850 km across all the major Colorado mountain ranges while also tagging some of the most difficult turn points imaginable. Tom comes from the rock-climbing world and finds many analogies. “Like in climbing, skills are relatively easy to acquire. You can learn how to thermal; you can learn how to fly fast.” “But skills will only get you so far. This goes way beyond skills. You might be out there all alone and needing to land out.” “Do you know how you perform under severe stress?” “Ultimately, it is how you feel and your belief system that will give you the greatest success.”
Colin Barry, aka Yankee, the father of the 14er Challenge, finished his own quest on August 30, 2019 in his Discus 2 after starting as early as 2002. 17 years later he still had the most difficult San Juan peaks left to go when he travelled to Salida to get it done. “My last flight to bag the remaining peaks was the hardest,” says Colin. “I had planned it for years. On the day I thought the weather was going to make it impossible, but a cloud street guided my way.” “This is the most isolated place in the Continental United States,” he adds. “Man, it’s high and remote out there!” “But I had put a lot of time into planning safe landing places, and I was fairly relaxed because of that.”
Benjamin Pinnell, aka FE, became the second pilot to complete the entire challenge within a single season. In 2021, he bought a roof-top tent for his SUV and decided to devote the soaring season largely to the Fourteener Challenge. In addition to flying from Boulder, he travelled to Salida and North Fork Valley to get it done. Flying his DG400, he started on April 3 bagging Torreys and Grays on the Front Range. On August 17, only 5½ months later, he completed the challenge with a flight to Culebra Peak, the southernmost Fourteener in the Sangre de Cristo Range. Upon receiving his award, Ben kindly offered to sponsor the next five trophies so the challenge could stay alive.
Clemens Ceipek, aka V1, i.e. yours truly, became the sixth finisher on May 17, 2022. My own 14er journey is detailed below. A list of all 14ers with links to my flight traces for each can be found here.
My 14er Journey
Summits Within Glide Range: The Northern Front Range
A week later I added the remaining 14ers on the Northern Front Range: Mt. Evans and Mt. Bierstadt. In a 40:1 glider, each of these five peaks can be reached within glide range from Boulder if one is able to stay above 17,000 ft.
Going Cross Country: Pikes Peak
Shortly thereafter came my first big jump. Bagging any other 14er from Boulder necessitates a true cross-country flight, i.e., leaving glide range from the home airport. Pikes Peak, 83 miles south of Boulder, also known as “America’s Mountain,” was a compelling attraction. There are long stretches without any airport to cross and a lot of complex and unlandable terrain to fly over.
I was prepared. I had extensively researched land out fields over the winter. And I also visited many of them on the ground. In addition, I studied maps and terrain obstacles to determine how high I would need to be in all parts of my task area to safely reach the nearest landable field at a glide ratio of 21:1, half of the Discus’ best L/D. When the right day came, I felt ready. The forecast supported flying a triangle by first crossing South Park towards Buena Vista and then bagging Pikes Peak before heading back home. It worked; but taking the leap beyond glide range still required summoning all my courage.
Getting Comfortable with South Park: Tenmile Range and Mosquito Range
At an elevation of approx. 10,000 ft, South Park is a large high plateau flanked by the Kenosha and Terryall Mountains to the east, the 39-Mile Volcanic Field to the South, the Mosquito Range to the west, and the Continental Divide to the north. Five of Colorado’s Fourteeners are in the Mosquito Range and one, Quandary Peak, is just a little further north in the Tenmile Range.
To reach these six Fourteeners from Boulder I had to traverse the north side of South Park. Often, a convergence line sets up where the prevailing westerly winds at altitude meet the anabatic flow near the surface towards the Continental Divide. When it works, it can be a formidable highway in the sky towards the Mosquito Range and sometimes beyond.
On other days, South Park can be tricky. There are no public airports anywhere. Two of the three private airstrips, Lux and Antelope, are usually landable – except when they are not because a herd of buffalo or elk roams the runway just when you need it. (A third is too narrow for gliders).
But the area is largely flat and there are many hayfields that can be used to land – unless the hay happens to be too high, the field happens to be flooded, or you run into rocks or an irrigation ditch. At any rate, knowing where you can land is key.
This knowledge came quite handy on my flight on July 19, 2018. The convergence had worked until Fairplay but getting onto the Mosquito Range was very difficult. I spent a long-time ridge soaring the north side of Mt. Silverheels in a northwesterly wind, delaying what I thought would become an inevitable landout. But ultimately, I was able to climb back up to altitude and jump onto the ridges between South Park and Leadville where I got my Fourteeners. Four years later this flight is still firmly lodged in my memory as one of the more difficult challenges. Here’s the flight trace and a writeup.
Stretching Out Further: Sawatch Range, Elk Mountains, and Northern Sangre de Cristo Range
More than two years would pass before I was able to add new peaks to my list. It’s not that I didn’t fly in 2019. I just chased different goals, most notably Diamond Distance. One takeaway from my flight into the Mosquito Range had been that 14er summits don’t make the best turn points when you try to fly long pre-declared tasks: they can be nearly impossible to reach!
And one more thing had changed in 2020. At the start of the year, I bought my own glider, a Ventus 2cxT. With flaps and 18m wings it could go substantially further than the club Discuses. Having my own ship also meant that I could reliably fly on the best days of the year. After completing my 750 Diplome (which took me eight attempts over the course of the summer), I shifted my focus back to the 14ers.
The Sawatch Range and the Elk Mountains
The beginning of September brought dryer weather after a wet monsoon season. This meant high cloud bases, no overdevelopment, and no thunderstorms: ideal conditions to go after the tallest peaks. On back-to-back days, September 4 and 5, I flew two awe inspiring flights bagging 14 of the 15 Fourteeners in the Sawatch Range (flight trace, in-flight video) and all 7 in the Elk Mountainsaround Aspen (flight trace, in-flight video).
If your normal reference point is driving, these mountains are much closer than you’d think. By car, it takes almost 4 hours to get from Boulder to Aspen; in a glider, it can be done in a little over an hour when the conditions are right!
As far as the challenge is concerned, both flights were surprisingly easy. If conditions are right, these peaks can certainly be bagged in a Discus as well.
Mount of the Holy Cross – A Challenge In Itself
That left the northernmost peak in the Sawatch Range: Mount of the Holy Cross. I consider it the hardest peak in these mountains mainly because the landing options are particularly dire.
To get there from Boulder you must first cross the Blue River Valley where there is no place to land south of Dillon Reservoir – unless you want to make yourself the attraction of the Breckenridge Golf Club. From there you head over Vail Pass and the inhospitable upper Eagle River Valley. Here you must stay high enough to always be able to reach some small fields near the town of Edwards. On Sep 13, conditions were right for this adventure. After a difficult climb-out from Boulder near the Continental Divide I had an uncomplicated run to the summit and back. The first snow of the season had fallen in the mountains just days before and the views were extraordinary. (Flight trace.)
Northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains
The following day, Sep 14, was even better. My goal was to start collecting peaks in the Northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And I had company! Bob Caldwell, aka BC, one of Boulder’s most experienced XC pilots, joined me on a team flight. This turned out to be of great help as I had never been so far south. I also wasn’t familiar with some of the intricacies of the weather systems impacting the Sangres.
We took a westerly route across the Mosquito Range to the Sawatch Range, then crossed to the Sangres at Poncha Pass. I started to head south along the western edge of the clouds which had been working before. However, I only found sink. Fortunately, BC pointed out just in time that the wind had changed to an easterly direction. The clouds along the Sangres were the result of a convergence between an easterly flow spilling over the spine and a moister, more stable, airmass sitting over the San Luis Valley. That meant the lift was on the east side of the clouds despite the sun being to the west. Once I realized what was going on, flying became easy again. I was able to head south bagging Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Kit Carson, and Humboldt Peak.
At the end of 2020, I was still missing the five southernmost peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range and all the Fourteeners in the San Juan Mountains. Much of my spring and summer soaring was devoted to glider racing in other parts of the country. I decided I would refocus on the 14ers during a club soaring camp in Salida in the fall.
Sep 13, 2021, was my first day flying from Salida. It was very windy. I quickly got washed out trying to head towards the San Juans and decided to head south along the Sangres. I had imagined that I could make quick progress in ridge lift but found that the terrain isn’t all that suited for ridge running. There simply isn’t one continuous ridge line to fly along. Instead, the wind is channeled and diverted along the many spurs that protrude from the main spine in the center. However, I found rough thermals above the spurs and the more wind-protected bowls that were good enough to proceed.
Heading towards the Blanca Massif the clouds thinned out. But I had come too far to give up. In the worst case, I would land at Trichera, a big private airstrip south of Blanca Peak built for a private jet, from where I could call the tow plane to get back to Salida. Fortunately, that wasn’t required. I managed to bag the four Fourteeners in the Blanca Massif. From there I tentatively sought to fly south towards Culebra Peak in the Southern Sangres. However, hitting strong sink in the lee of the mountains, I didn’t get very far. Prudently, I decided to wait for a better day to tackle the last remaining 14er of the Sangres. Here’s the flight trace.
San Juans – Part 1
The next day, Sep 14, looked much better for going west towards the San Juans. My plan was to fly around the rim of the entire mountain range, bagging as many of its 14 Fourteeners as possible. The day was incredibly dynamic.
The fall colors were at their peak and the yellow aspen glistened in the sun against the backdrop of dark clouds, virga, and rain showers. Of all my 14er flights, this was hands-down the most beautiful. The flight trace is here.
On the following days the weather did not support distant excursions. This left the hardest 11 Fourteeners for another season: Culebra Peak, the southernmost peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range, as well as the central, southern, and westernmost peaks of the San Juan Mountains.
Culebra Peak – The Southernmost Fourteener
I thought the next opportunity would arise at the subsequent Salida camp in May of 2022. However, another window opened just two days before the camp when conditions to the south looked exceptionally promising. On May 15, I declared a border-to-border flight from Boulder that I hoped might take me to New Mexico, Wyoming, and back home. If all went well, I would collect Culebra Peak along the way.
I launched early but struggled mightily in rotor lift under a low cloud base until I was south of Highway 285 where conditions improved. Transitioning from the Wet Mountains to the Sangres represented the next big hurdle. I lost 4,500 ft and dropped to 12,500 ft before finding lift at the base of the Blanca Massif where I had to work hard to resist the urge to give up. Most convincing was the fact that I didn’t want to make the same transition again… Maybe things would improve while I pressed on.
The Southern Sangres worked splendidly. At 3pm I reached Culebra Peak and eight minutes later I was at the New Mexico border. No time to relax though – I had a long way to make it back home. I made good time on the return, averaging more than 100 miles per hour. However, once I was back on the Northern Front Range it quickly became obvious that the day would end early. The border-to-border goal would have to wait for another time. But Culebra was in the bag! The trace is here.
San Juans – Part 2
The following day I drove to Salida where I would take off early on May 17 in pursuit of my remaining 14ers in the San Juans. I could not have wished for a better day. The thermals were strong, the clouds plentiful, and the westerly winds light to moderate. The only concern was overdevelopment and virga.
The trick was to start early. Which was not a problem: the first clouds popped at 10 am with bases that were already at or near 19,000 feet. Cloud bases would later rise to about 23,000 ft! I launched at 10:40am, climbed to 17,500 ft right next to the airfield and was on course by 11am. Just an hour later I had covered 85 miles and rounded my first set of 14ers in the central San Juans: Redcloud Peak, Handies Peak, and Sunshine Peak.
From there came the dreaded 25-mile transition to the southern edge of the San Juans. This is the wildest and most forbidding area in Colorado. The terrain below consists of a sea of high mountain peaks, all about 13,000 feet or higher. The steep and narrow valleys are completely unlandable, and the most accessible airport is between 40 and 60 miles away. There were also some gaps in the clouds in this area. By taking every weak climb I could find I managed to stay high and always kept an out – first to the north, then to the south. Good clouds in either direction gave me confidence that even if I had to take an escape route, I would be able to climb back up. This was the slowest part of the flight. However, I stayed safe, and by 12:30 pm I bagged Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mt Eolus (as well as North Eolus). That left the three westernmost peaks to go. Fortunately, there were nice clouds along the way too, and 20 minutes later I had rounded them all: El Diente Peak, Mt. Wilson, and finally, Wilson Peak.
Four years and one day (and ~700 glider hours) after I had made it to the top of Longs Peak the Fourteener Challenge was complete!
Qualifying flights can be flown from any airport. However, Tom Zoellner has demonstrated that the challenge can be accomplished from one single airport (Boulder, KBDU) – a substantially more difficult achievement.
The most centrally located airport for all the 14ers is Salida (KANK). It’s the best choice for visiting motor-glider owners but there are no permanent tow operations and visitors have to bring their own oxygen. Salida is a great mountain town with excellent restaurants and many activities for families. Afternoon winds can be ferocious at times, but the soaring is amazing!
For those without self-launching gliders, Colorado has several airfields with regular tow operations:
The best months of the year for the Fourteener Challenge are May through September. Look for days with high cloud bases (18k and above) and light to moderate winds. Beware of afternoon thunderstorms, especially from July through mid-August (monsoon season). Wave conditions (frequent between October and April) are usually not well-suited for the 14ers.
Tackling the 14er Challenge requires substantial theoretical and practical experience in mountain soaring as well as diligent preparation (e.g., terrain and landout field research, in-depth weather briefings, retrieve arrangements, etc.). Oxygen is a must!
This goal remains unchanged. Flying safely is essential and the pre-requisite for anything else. Pilots often let their safety margins erode as they gain experience. I am now at about 800 hours and I know that I must not let that happen. Progress against this goal can be hard to measure. Here are the metrics I intend to use:
Zero accidents (no damage)
Zero near misses or other incidents (i.e., almost accidents)
Zero violations of personal minima and zero “99% safe” maneuvers (e.g. low safe attempt below personal minimum)
Zero flights where a safe outcome depends entirely on Plan A working as hoped (i.e. I must have a viable and safe Plan B/C at all times; the alternative plan must include a known safe place to land at all times)
Zero takeoffs without a clear pre-defined emergency plan specific to the airport and conditions of the day
These metrics may not be exactly right for you. If you want to set your own, I suggest you read this article and consider where you might be most vulnerable.
2. Continue to Improve My Soaring Skills
I will continue to focus on the metrics that matter most to performance soaring. I will seek to measure my performance by comparing it to other pilots flying on the same day in the same airmass. I will use the median and best performance of the day as benchmarks. However, my objective is to make gradual improvements against my own past performance rather than try to achieve specific absolute performance numbers or rankings.
Continuously improve netto in cruise flight relative to others (performance goal). To do this I will focus on the following process goals:
Develop habit of pro-active S-turn exploration along energy lines to find and follow the best lift lines; rely less on assumptions based on prior experience, and more on empirical evidence of the day. (This is to reset some assumptions which have proven incorrect.)
Increase ability of using the strongest lift by flying faster/lower below relatively weak segments of strong streets. The strongest indicator of flying too high is when the use of spoilers becomes necessary to prevent climbing into regulated airspace or getting sucked into clouds. Minimize these situations as much as possible.
Continuously improve my climb rates relative to others (performance goal). To do this I will focus on the following process goals:
Thermal at least 50% to the left until my performance gap versus right hand turns is closed.
Avoid excessive thermalling speeds to achieve average thermal orbit times of <30 seconds ballasted and <25 seconds dry.
Avoid weak climbs after the start of tasks whenever safely possible, especially during the strong hours of the day. Metric: less than ~25% of thermalling time (after task start) should be in climbs that are less than 50% of the average climb rate for the day. (E.g.: if the average climb rate for the day is 4 kts, and the total thermaling time after task start is 60 minutes, then fewer than 15 minutes (25% of 60 minutes) should be in thermals < 2 kts). Accomplish this by:
Deliberately choosing the best height band
Down-shifting when appropriate to reduce probability of having to take a weak climb ahead
Avoiding full circles in thermaling attempts when the probability of having found an acceptable climb is low. In this case, turn back on course after the first 90 degrees of turning.
Be more precise at thermal exits. In particular, complete the last turn in each thermal towards the desired heading at thermaling speed before beginning to accelerate towards cruise speed.
3. Flight Achievement Goals
I will apply these skills towards attaining a set of specific flight objectives. I am more interested in completing interesting and challenging flights than in competing in set competition tasks. Because specific flight objectives are necessarily subject to suitable weather conditions I will not limit myself to a few specific goals but continue to take a portfolio approach. I.e., I will aim to accomplish at least five of the following objectives:
Complete a 1000 km Diplome flight (a pre-declared 1000km flight with up to three turn-points).
Complete a return flight from Boulder to the border of one of the following states: New Mexico, Utah, Kansas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, or Arizona.
Achieve a border to border flight from Boulder to New Mexico and Wyoming, and back to Boulder. As a stretch goal, accomplish this as part of a pre-declared 1000 km flight.
Circumnavigate the Denver Class B airspace from Boulder.
Fly from Boulder to either Nephi, UT or Moriarty, NM and back to Boulder on the following day.
Bag some some of my eleven missing 14ers (Culebra Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; 10 southern-most peaks in the San Juan Mountains)
Break one or more Colorado Open Class Distance Records.
Finish the year among the 50 highest ranked pilots on OLC plus worldwide (and among the 10 highest ranked in the USA) for the 2022 season (In 2021 I was at #72 worldwide and at #12 for the USA).
Speed and Contest Objectives:
Break one or more Colorado Open Class Speed Records
When flying on Speed-League Weekends from Boulder, score among the top three Boulder pilots at least 75% of the time.
If flying in soaring contests, finish among the top 50% of a Nationals or among the top 33% of a Regional contest. (I am currently considering entries in the 18m Nationals in Lancaster, SC (5/8-5/18); Sports Class Nationals in Reedsville, PA (5/20-5/31), and Open Class Nationals in Hobbs, NM (6/21-7/2). However, I have yet to decide whether to enroll in any of them.)
Finish the year among the 50 highest ranked pilots in the OLC Speed League worldwide (and among the 25 highest ranked in the USA) for the 2022 season (In 2021 I was at #57 worldwide and at #29 for the USA).
4. Giving Back
Just like last year, I will continue to put energy towards inspiring others worldwide to join our sport, to develop, excel, and stay safe. I will do this through:
Serving for soaring organizations such as the Soaring Society of Boulder
The following flight analysis video has been pivotal in helping me set my 2022 objectives.
Do You Want to Set Your Own Soaring Goals?
I’ve found that setting good goals for soaring can be challenging. I have done some reading on the subject of goals for sports. Here are a few things for you to consider.
How To Set Good Objectives?
Sport psychology suggests that our goals should not just include outcome goals (e.g. setting a record, winning a contest, etc.), but also – and especially – measurable performance goals that are pre-requisites for attaining these outcomes (e.g. achieving specific performance metrics in climbs or in cruise). Finally, performance goals can be supported by process goals that will increase the likelihood of us achieving our performance goals (e.g. flying at least x times per month or doing certain maneuvers correctly).
Outcome goals depend not just on our own performance but also on the performance of others. They are great for long-term inspiration but are less useful when it comes to measuring our progress. Because success heavily depends on factors outside of our control, they can also lead to frustration.
Examples for outcome goals in soaring might be: setting a particular regional, national, or world record (distance or speed); finishing among the top x% in a particular contest; finishing among the top N pilots in a particular Online Contest (e.g. Speed League; OLC Plus; Rookie Champion League, etc.)
Performance goals should be entirely within our control, which makes them most motivating. This is particularly important for annual or nearer term goals, because they allow us to track our progress without being dependent on how others perform.
Examples for performance goals might be: not losing more than 30% or thermals you find; staying up for more than x hours; obtaining a Silver, Gold, or Diamond Badge; maintaining a bank angle in thermals of 40% or steeper; flying a particular distance in a particular time; completing a xxx km flight with a circling percentage of less than y%, etc.
Process goals can be useful because they specify what we actually must do to have a realistic chance of hitting our performance goals.
Examples for process goals might be: flying at least x times per month during the soaring season; circling in a particular direction at least 50% of the time; releasing from tow no higher than at x thousand feet; etc.
Obviously the goals you set for yourself should be appropriate for your ambition, skills, experience, currency, equipment, as well as the local soaring conditions. Completing a Silver Badge in a 1-26 in east coast conditions is probably harder than obtaining a Gold Badge from Boulder in one of SSB’s club Discus gliders. The most typical advice is to set goals that are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. But be careful to not make them too easy yo not limit yourself unnecessarily.
Your process goals should be set in a way that help you achieve your performance goals; and your performance goals should be set in a way to help you achieve any outcome goals that you may have for yourself.
Setting Good Performance Goals For Soaring Can Be Complicated
Many sport psychologists recommend that we should primarily focus on performance goals. This makes sense because they are most motivating, progress is easy to track, and we have a high degree of control whether we achieve them.
However, as soon as we start to work on specific performance goals for soaring we notice that setting such goals can be difficult. Our performance simply does just not solely depend on us. Unlike in many other sports, it relies very heavily on the environmental conditions that we are operating in.
E.g., it makes little sense to set a goal of achieving thermal climb rates of more than 4 kts on average, simply because there is no way of knowing whether 4 kts is a worthy goal. It totally depends on the day. If we were to set such a goal we might opt to only fly on very strong days when achieving it is relatively easy. That would obviously defeat the purpose of our training. The same is true for such goals as average speed, average flight distance, and many other potential metrics.
Because of these challenges, my performance goals include metrics that measure my performance in relation to others. This isn’t ideal but it’s the best I could come up with. However, I have tried hard to define them in ways that keep the results mostly within my control.
Performance soaring is not just a science but also an art. Past experience shapes our imagination and helps us anticipate what lies ahead. Sometimes we just know where to go even if we are hard-pressed to explain our thoughts.
This means performance improvements do not just come from our conscious focus on technique, but also from our subconscious intuition. The best performance can often be achieved when we reach a flow state where decisions become increasingly intuitive.
So, if you set your own goals, I believe that it is perfectly sufficient for our goals to be directionally correct rather than overly prescriptive. Be careful not to set goals that focus too much on the leaves of the trees rather than the forest. It’s more the holistic experience than specific techniques that allows you to develop your intuition and imagination. Both aspects are important!
Faster. Farther. Smarter. Most of us want to become better and safer glider pilots. But how? I made it a practice to set specific goals for the coming year so I can monitor and track my progress. As the year draws to a close it’s now time to review how I did against the Soaring Goals I had set myself for 2021. There’s a lot of ground to cover, literally and metaphorically.
Progress against this goal is hard to measure. But the goal is essential and success is a pre-requisite for anything else. So here’s my assessment. I was 291 hours in the air and flew a total cross-country distance of more than 26,540 km without accidents or incidents so I suppose this has to count for something. I also can’t recall any seriously scary moments. There were definitely a few sketchy situations, e.g. during this flight in Nephi at 58:30, and also during this flight at 11:30. However, I don’t think that I was ever in a truly dangerous spot without a realistic and safe Plan B. At the contests in Montague and Nephi there were two or three instances were other gliders got closer than I would have liked. I have a lot of respect for big gaggles and don’t really like them. However, I can’t recall any real near misses, hazardous takeoffs, or precarious landings. On several occasions, I got close to my personal limits (e.g. during this flight at 3:50 and 25:00, and 44:03) but I never crossed my own red line. Going forward it will be important to stick to my margins and not let them erode.
The following video shows a flight over the desert in highly dynamic weather conditions during the 18m Nationals in Nephi, UT. It was one of those flights where a lot of judgement is required to stay out of trouble.
2. Improve Specific Flying Skills
In particular: improve netto in cruise, use more of the available altitude band, and work on precision thermalling skills.
In 2021 I participated in the 18m U.S. Nationals Soaring Contest in Nephi. This means I now have some great data to benchmark myself again. Compared to the very best U.S. pilots I still have a lot of room for improvement in all these areas. The following data are based on a detailed analysis of all eight contest days. They only include data from pilots who finished each race, hence the average is inherently skewed towards the best pilots. (Note: I performed this analysis with the help of the excellent tool IGC Spy. I uploaded all contest flights to IGC Spy and then copied data from IGC Spy into a spreadsheet for more detailed analysis.)
Netto in cruise. My netto values were better than those of the average contest finisher on only two of the six contest days and worse on the other six days. In aggregate across all eight contest days, my netto value in cruise was 0.2 kts worse than that of the median score among all contest finishers. 0.2 kts doesn’t sound like much but when you fly straight 90% of the time, it is equivalent to underperforming in climbs by almost 2 kts. When conditions are strong, netto is the single biggest contributor to a race outcome. I believe that the following elements contributed to my relative underperformance.
(1) In Nephi I flew often too far on the upwind side of the clouds when it would have been better to stay directly below the darkest parts of the clouds.
Altitude Band. I am biased towards flying high because it has multiple important advantages. TAS > IAS at altitude, and more altitude also means more choices because of a greater glide range. However, staying high also comes at a cost. It means I am less picky in thermal selection and I have to center more thermals. The letter tends to result in sub-par average climb performance. I know of this bias and I am working to reduce it. At the Nephi contest my average height gains in thermals were less than those of the median finisher on six contest days and greater on only two contest days. The average difference per day was less than 200 ft per climb. This isn’t all that much when cloud bases are consistently more than 10,000 ft AGL but it still results in me taking more thermals than necessary.
Precision Thermaling. Next to netto, the average climb rate is the most important factor in competitive performance. It is itself affected by many different components. E.g., thermal selection; speed of centering; ability to remain centered throughout each climb; flying speed while orbiting; bank angle while orbiting; difference in precision for left turns vs right turns, etc. The data from Nephi show that I have a ways to go. My climb rates were worse than that of the median day finisher on six contest days, better on only one contest day, and at parity on one contest day. Across all contest days my climb rate was 0.5 kts worse than that of the median finisher. This is a big gap to close! I identified a few key opportunities for improvement:
Inconsistent and too high thermalling speeds. Remarkably, my orbiting speeds varied widely from contest day to contest day. On a few contest days they were far too high. Interestingly, bank angles don’t appear to be a big issue for me – in fact, my orbiting times were slightly shorter than those of other competitors despite my higher orbiting speeds – this implies tighter bank angles than average. I.o.w., reducing my thermalling speeds while maintaining bank angles should reduce my orbit times to about 25 seconds which is appropriately tight when flying with full water ballast.
Inconsistent loss percentage. On most days my altitude lost in thermals relative to the altitude gained was quite low and competitive: in the range of 3%-7%. However, on two contest days my loss percentage was greater than 10%. Compared to the average of all finishers my loss percentage was worse on six out of eight contest days.
Thermal selection. On some days I was more tempted than other competitors to accept sub-par thermals. This is likely a confidence issue that will improve with experience but it is something to be aware of and monitor.
Other factors played smaller roles. On average I performed better in right turns than in left turns but this was not consistent for all contest days. My loss percentage in thermals was noticeably greater in left turns than in right turns. There was no significant difference in flying speed and orbiting times between left and right turns.
The analysis above benchmarks my performance against the median finisher of each contest day. The magnitude of the improvement opportunity is of course even greater. It can be shown by using each day’s winner as the benchmark instead!
The following video shows a highly detailed race analysis of the 7th race day during the 18m Nationals in Nephi. I learned a lot just from creating this video.
Goal #3 – Speed Goals
I had no contest experience prior to 2021 so my speed goals were focused on local objectives flying from Boulder.
When flying on Speed League Weekends my goal was to score among the top 3 Boulder pilots 66% of the time (up from 50% in 2020). There were 15 Speed League Weekends in 2021. I was able to fly on 8 of them. The other ones were either unflyable or I was travelling to or from a contest and unable to participate. I finished among the top 3 Boulder pilots on six out of these eight weekends, i.e. 75% of the time. This means I exceeded my goal of 66%. (Twice I finished first, three times second and one time I finished third. Once I finished 4th out of 11 participants, and once I decided to cut my flight short due to thunderstorms and finished 6th out of 7 participants.)
One of my stretch goals for the year was to break one of the Open Class Colorado Speed Records. I made a few attempts but each was ultimately unsuccessful.
The following video shows one of my attempts to break the 500km Out and Back Colorado State Speed Record. I got very close but ultimately failed due to two major mistakes.
Goal #4 – Distance Goals
For 2021 I defined a portfolio of distance objectives and set myself the goal to achieve at least two of them. Here’s how I did:
I completed not just one but two >1000 km flights per OLC plus rules. They were on two consecutive soaring days in August and were the longest flights by any pilot flying from Boulder during the entire year, which is particularly gratifying. One was the same as the Nebraska flight, the other one is here.
I also completed a declared >750km FAI triangle. TP 1 was south of Salida, TP 2 at Yampa Valley Airport, and TP3 at near Cheyenne, Wyoming. This was also my second 750 km Diplome flight. In addition, the flight qualified as an Open Class Colorado State Soaring Record for Distance Up to Three TurnPoints with a distance of 468.7 miles (754 km).
I also added eight additional peaks to my Colorado 14er bag. Both flights were out of Salida. On Sep 13 I reached all the 14ers in the Blanca Massif (part of the Sangre de Cristo Range), and on Sep 14 I added four peaks in the northern San Juan Mountains (Uncompahgre Peak, Mt. Sneffels, Wetterhorn Peak, and San Louis Peak). That leaves another 11 peaks to complete the 14er challenge of flying over all 58 Colorado mountains higher than 14,000 feet.
The following video is a short and fun summary of one of my 14er flights from Salida along the Sangre de Cristo Range to the Blanca Massif.
Goal #5 – Contest Goals
I didn’t have a lot of specific objectives other than to compete in my first contests. My plan was to fly in three contests, a goal that I accomplished.
At the Region 7 contest in Albert Lea, MN we only had one valid flying day as the rest of the week was completely rained out. I thought this meant no official result but the SSA still sent me a nice medal confirming my 2nd place contest result.
At the 20m 2-seater Nationals in Montague, CA, I flew with my friend Bill Kaewert in his beautiful AS32 Mi. We finished the contest in fourth place out of eight contestants – a very respectable result. This also accomplished my stretch goal of finishing in the top 50% of a National Contest.
At the 18m Nationals in Nephi, UT, I finished 22nd out of 34 contestants. This was about as good as I could have hoped against a field that included a large proportion of the best US contest pilots. Several former national champions finished behind me.
Here’s another video from one of my contest flights in Nephi. This one depicts an ultra-fast final glide that caused me to come home well below minimum time – not a great way to achieve an optimal score!
Goal #6 – Giving Back
I continued to commit a lot of time and effort towards inspiring others worldwide to join our sport, to develop, excel, and stay safe. I did this through:
This year I flew my first three glider contests. The Region 7 contest in Albert Lea, MN. The 20m Multi-Seat Nationals in Montague, CA. And the 18m Nationals in Nephi, UT. While these contests are still fresh* on my mind, I want to share some things that I think every aspiring contest pilot will want to know well before they attach their glider trailer to head to their first contest site. I learned some of these things thanks to the generous advice and coaching from highly experienced contest pilots, others through personal experience.
(*I wrote this article right after the contests and just saw that it was still in the draft folder.)
This post is intended for anyone who’s thinking about flying their first contest. I hope it helps you have a great experience!
1) Are You Ready to Fly Contests?
That’s a big question. There’s no black and white answer and it depends in part on the type of contest, the site you’re choosing, and what you want to get out of the experience.
I thought of myself as ready only once I had completed my Diamond distance flight in 2019. By that time I had about 300 hours in gliders. But I don’t think that earning a particular badge (Silver, Gold, or Diamond) should be the deciding factor because it makes a huge difference whether you obtain these recognitions in a 1-26 in weak east coast conditions or in one of my club’s Disci flying in Colorado. In Boulder you can easily complete a Gold Distance flight without ever leaving the glide range of the airport, and even on my Diamond Goal flight I barely flew beyond glide range.
I think a better way to think about it is that you should be able to confidently complete pre-declared XC tasks without scaring or endangering yourself. The length of these tasks is less important than the fact that they take you outside of glide range of your home airport and that you’re accustomed to keeping landable fields in glide. Ideally, you should have practiced such flights even when the weather is less than perfect because at contests, tasks will be called on any flyable day.
Another thing you should be good at is decision making, particularly when it comes to landing decisions. A very high percentage of gliding accidents happen when pilots try to prolong a flight when the prudent decision is to call the flight over and land. To make this decision well you also need to have good landing skills. Practice this by treating every landing as a precision landing and take the opportunity to attend soaring camps at other sites or otherwise land away from your home airport whenever you can. Having the confidence that you can land in a short field in cross-wind conditions is critical to actually making the decision when it is the smart thing to do.
Gaggle Flying. That’s another thing you should practice whenever you can, even if it is just with one or two other gliders. You will be sharing the sky with more gliders than you’re used to and you must know how to thermal with others without endangering each other. The main thing is to always keep the nose pointed at the tail of the glider in front of you (or slightly to the outside) and never to cut inside their circle. The more gliders are in the gaggle the wider the circle gets. Yes, this is somewhat inefficient but it is safe and safety wins. You can always look for another thermal if it gets too crowded for comfort. Three contests have not made me a big gaggle person and I doubt that I will ever be one. But gaggles can be of great help especially in blue conditions where multiple gliders can sample a lot more of the sky than a single pilot.
Do you need a crew to fly contests? Having a crew used to be considered a pre-requisite for flying contests. This is no longer the case. Contest organizers will help pair crew-less pilots to help each other and there will be a retrieve office to check that everyone has made it back safely by the end of the day. However, you should recognize that flying without crew influences your decision making. Depending on how you think, it may hold you back (e.g., if you decide to always stay in glide range of airports from where you could obtain an aero-retrieve), or it may expose you to greater safety risks (e.g. if you try to avoid a land-out at all costs even when it is unsafe to attempt a low safe). I have flown without a dedicated crew at all my contests. Instead, I made arrangements with other pilots to retrieve each other should it be necessary.
So, are you ready? Only you can decide. If you can confidently fly beyond glide range, set realistic goals for yourself, choose a beginner-friendly site with plenty of landout options, and regard your first contests primarily as a learning experience you might be there already!
2) Preparing Your Glider
Long before you go on your adventure – about two months in advance is a good target – make sure all your equipment is ready and working reliably. The long lead time will allow you to fix things that need to be addressed without getting into a time crunch at the end. The list below isn’t intended to be comprehensive. However, it contains specific tips for things that may be easy to overlook, whether you fly your own glider or you bring a rented one or a club ship.
a) Flarm. Many contests require Flarm and if they don’t they should. I would think twice about attending a contest that doesn’t. You do have one, right? It can safe your life and that of others. Make sure it works! The firmware must be current and the Flarm antenna (or antennae) must be appropriately installed and positioned. Read the instructions! At least one antenna must be vertical and should be centered on top of your panel as high as possible without touching the closed canopy! A quality antenna makes a difference. There must not be any kinks in the antenna cable. Depending on the antenna, you may need a ground plane. Especially in gliders with a carbon fibre cockpit it is notoriously difficult to get good reception. Test your Flarm while flying with your buddies at home. The Flarm web site offers a range analyzer. Don’t trust it. The best way to know if your Flarm works is to make sure others can see you on their instruments and you can see them from at least a few kilometers away (the more the better).
b) Vario. Make sure your total energy compensation works. If you pull on the stick and your vario beeps happily in response then it doesn’t. You need a good vario to center thermals.
c) Oxygen. If you go to a site where you will fly above 10,000 feet you should have a working O2 system. You’re in a contest and you need your brain to be firing on all cylinders! You can test it at lower altitudes as well.
d) Relief system. Have one and use it regularly. Don’t make your first contest the place to figure it out. In general, try to minimize the number of things you’ll do for the first time when you fly a contest. Enough things will be new to you already.
e) Tow-out gear. You may be used to just pushing your glider onto the runway without a lot of extra equipment. That will not work at the contest site! You need a good tail dolly, a good wing dolly, and a tow-out bar that allows you to attach the glider to your vehicle to tow it out to the runway. All these things should be fully functional and reliable, and you should be proficient in using them.
f) Paperwork. Don’t forget all the necessary paperwork. Contest Registration (in the US you can register online at members.ssa.org), your Glider Registration, Airworthiness Certificate, your pilot’s license, proof of SSA membership, proof of insurance, plus your glider’s Operating Limitations and Program Letter (for “Experimental” gliders.)
g) Batteries. Make sure you have good batteries for your avionics (and everything else). You may need to turn on the flight computer and the radio while you’re on the grid a long time before your actual launch. Don’t run out of power before the end of your flight! I.e., your batteries should last a long time – it’s better to replace them before you leave from home than to scramble at the contest site to find a replacement after the first practice day. It may be hard to find one. Ask me how I know 😉
h) Contest ID. Ideally, your contest ID should be registered. (In the US with the SSA.) If it’s not and someone else shows up with the same ID you may have to add a character to distinguish your glider. That’s not the end of the world but a nuisance nonetheless.
i) Spare Parts and Tools. At home you probably know someone who might just have the right tool or the correct part when you need it. If you’re lucky, that may also be true at the contest site. However, try to avoid relying on luck as much as possible. That’s especially important for items that would ground your glider if they wear out, and especially if they are somewhat specific to your glider such as a correctly sized tire or tube. In the best case you never need them and maybe you can help someone else out of their predicament.
j) Water Ballast. If you’re going to a contest where flying ballasted is allowed, make sure your ballast system is fully functional. E.g., you need a hose and perhaps other equipment (tank? pump?) to fill the tanks; you need to be able to measure how much you put into each wing (e.g. with a flow meter). The dump valves must open and close correctly and must not leak profusely. You should also know when to mix in antifreeze – especially in the tail tank. And you need to bring enough antifreeze for the contest. Check those things many weeks before your contest because some things may take some time to fix – especially leaking dump valves! Also, practice flying ballasted as much as possible in advance. It’s not particularly difficult but it takes some getting used to (your glider will behave differently!) and the first contest day is not a good time to figure it out.
3) Preparing Your Trailer
You need a reliable and fully functioning trailer. Chances are your trailer is mostly parked at the field. Make sure it’s ready for a big road trip.
a) Tires. Trailer tires should be replaced when they are 5 year old even if they have only 50 miles on them. Old tires can still look great and yet they may be about to fall apart. Many glider pilots destroyed their glider on the way to or from a contest because the tires disintegrated. You may have to replace yours! Check the air pressure and make sure it holds. Also check the spare (you have one, don’t you?).
b) Tie downs. There may be more wind than you’re used to. Make sure you have what you need to tie down your trailer AND your glider. At least 3 tie down anchors are required for each. Plus the appropriate straps. Practice at home if you’re not used to leaving trailer or glider outside. Keep in mind that not every anchor system works in every terrain. What will the ground be like at the contest site? You also need a good canopy cover for the glider.
c) Rigging. You need to know how to rig and derig the glider with whatever rigging aids you are using. Practice at home if you don’t do this regularly. This way you’ll also notice if you’re missing some critical tools or equipment.
d) Paperwork. The trailer must be insured and your registration must be current.
e) Hook-ups. Test the connection between the trailer and the tow vehicle. Do you need a plug converter for the electrical connections? Are all lights working correctly? Is the hitch at the correct height? Can you connect the safety chains so that they are off the ground and not too tight? Can the trailer parking break be fully released?
f) Trailering check. Glider stowed for transport? Is the fuselage strap still in good condition? Is the tail boom tied down? Are the gust locks on the ailerons? Are all items in the storage compartment secured? Is the tongue weight appropriate? (An insufficient tongue weight will make the trailer fishtail and could lead to a disaster – consider adding some weight to the front of the trailer if necessary – e.g., a water canister)
4) Select and Study the Contest Site
An essential part of preparing for a contest is getting to know the contest site.
Unless you are quite skilled and have a lot of experience in advanced mountain soaring, then highly technical sites such as Minden or Logan are probably a poor choice for your first contest. Sites with plenty of landing options are definitely preferable for your first contests. I would include Nephi in that bucket provided that you have a decent amount of cross-country mountain flying experience. It has some demanding aspect (e.g. thunderstorms, dust devils, micro-bursts, gust fronts, and the risk of high cross-winds at landing) but the valleys are wide and there is a good number of airports in the contest area. (Here’s a little video featuring a flight in somewhat rowdy Nephi weather. But it’s definitely less intimidating than Boulder.)
In any event, you must study the contest site. This is particularly important for sites with mountains or other areas of unlandable terrain. The best time to do this is in the off-season during the winter. That’s also when you’re probably planning your travel for the following year anyway and when you have time to do some homework. Here are some examples of what I did to prepare for Albert Lea, Montague, and Nephi.
Things you can study well in advance:
a) What’s the typical soaring weather at the time of year at the site where you’re going? Look at the flight traces of past contests at the site at the same time of year. (You can find them on OLC or on the SSA members web site under Contest Results and Reports.) How many days were flyable? What was the thermal strength? What were the typical distances flown? What was the height of the lift? What was the lift band that contestants used? What was the strength and direction of the wind? What is typical?
b) What are the landout conditions at the site at the time of the contest? Where are the airports in the contest area? Are there farm fields that could be used? Is the terrain flat or hilly? What are the crops that farmers plant in this area? How tall will the crops be at the time of the contest? What’s the typical size of fields in the area? Roughly what percent of farmers’ fields will be landable?
c) Download the waypoint file that is provided by the organizers. Take a close look, especially to find out whether the airports marked in the waypoint file are truly landable with your glider and your experience. There’s nothing worse than relying on an airport as a landout location, only to find that the runway is 15m wide but you are flying an 18m ship and landing there will result in a certain wreckage. From studying waypoint files at several contest sites I can say that they must not be relied upon!
d) If the contest site is in challenging terrain, study it closely so you get to know your turf. Know which areas are truly unlandable and figure out how high you need to be in those areas to keep a safe landing site in glide, especially in adverse conditions. If there are terrain traps (e.g. high terrain that could get between you and a landable area), know where they are!
e) Study flight traces from past contests for typical lift lines (e.g. convergence, ridge lift, etc.) Are they aligned with the wind or do they follow particular terrain features? Are different air masses characteristic for the area (e.g. sea breeze, sheer lines, etc.) Try to learn about typical weather hazards and how to recognize them early. Pilot comments on OLC/WeGlide or blog posts of pilots at past contests can be extremely insightful. Here’s a great example from Dave Nadler at Montague. See if you can find something like it for the site you’re going to.
f) Study the airport and landing areas. At contests, multiple gliders are often landing at the same time. What are the landing options if the main runway is busy? Program all needed contest frequencies into your radio including CTAF, contest frequency, and AWOS. Bring a handheld radio if you have one. It’s nice to be able to monitor two different frequencies at once (e.g. listen to AWOS before landing while also monitoring air traffic).
g) Fly the task area in Condor if you have it. Condor is a great way to familiarize yourself with new terrain. I practiced extensively before flying in Nephi and Montague, both of which are technical mountain sites with several mountain ranges and long transitions over unlandable areas. When I finally travelled to the site in real life, the entire terrain was already familiar to me, which greatly facilitated navigation and allowed me to concentrate on other aspects of competing.
5) Be Familiar With Contest Tasks
OLC (or WeGlide) flying is fun and helps you find lift lines and fly faster. But it is not sufficient preparation for contests because you really need to be familiar with the types of tasks that are typically used at contests. The good thing is that you only need to learn this once and then make sure that you update your knowledge with any rule changes that may have come out since your last contest.
If you’re in the U.S. and your first contest is a regional event, chances are that (only) US rules apply. You can find them on the SSA website. US rules are quite a bit different from FAI rules that govern glider racing in all other parts of the world. At US Regionals, tasks can be one of the following types. (If you fly outside the US, familiarize yourself with the FAI rules and any modifications thereof that may apply specifically at your contest site. If you attend a US Nationals, this will not be your first contest. US Nationals use a hybrid of US and FAI rules and the exact rules may change from year to year so I won’t discuss them here.)
a) Turn Area Task – TAT. At US contests expect the majority of tasks to be Turn Area Tasks (also known as Assigned Area Tasks – AAT). TATs consist of a Start Cylinder (with a maximum start altitude and a radius of 5 statute mile), any number of given Turn Cylinders (which specifically defined radii for each one), and a Finish Cylinder (with a minimum finish altitude and a radius of usually 2 statute miles). TATs also always have a pre-defined minimum task time. The winner is the pilot who achieves the fastest average speed around the task.
This doesn’t sound too hard but there are a lot of things to consider when flying a TAT and practice is essential to figure it all out and achieve a good speed. E.g., pilots who just go to the edge of each turn cylinder are likely to finish well below the minimum time. In this case their average speed will be calculated as if they had flown the minimum time, and this will obviously hurt their score. Pilots who fly deep into each cylinder and finish with a lot of overtime also tend to be at a disadvantage because they are less effective in converting the altitude difference between start and finish into speed than a pilot who finishes just a little bit over minimum time. There are also a lot of other tactical decisions to make: which turn areas to go into deep, and which to only “nick”; how to align the course line to best coincide with energy lines (e.g. convergence, ridge lines or cloud streets); how to decide where to turn based on the wind direction in each turn cylinder; how to make use of the best time of the day to fly the task; how to get an optimal start; how to best manage the final glide; etc. If you’ve never flown a TAT before you might be overwhelmed by all the choices and how to make the right decisions.
My advice is to practice at least 3-5 TATs at home before you get to your first contest. And if you use Condor, practice TAT’s in the off-season on the simulator.
b) Assigned Task (aka Racing Task). This is the most straightforward task type because there is a set course with a number of pre-defined turnpoints, similar to a badge or record task. Whoever flies around the fastest wins the race. Contests Start and Finish are cylinders just like for TATs. Turnpoints are cylinders with a radius of 1 statute mile, and pilots will get credit for the actual distance that they fly into a turn cylinder (this is different from non-US contests where turn cylinders are smaller and no credit is given for flying into them). However, while Assigned Tasks are easy to understand and provide the sense of a “real race”, they are not all that often used at U.S. contests. In the U.S., they tend to be only used at Nationals where pilots have a similar skill level and everyone flies similarly performing gliders (e.g., 15m or 18m class). If glider performance and/or pilot skill varies significantly, Assigned Tasks tend not be used because either the task is so short that the fastest pilots will complete it very quickly leaving a lot of the soaring day unused, or, it is so long, that the slower pilots will inevitably land out. (In either case a number of participants are bound to be unhappy.)
c) Modified Assigned Tasks (MATs). This is a hybrid task form that is only used in the United States and has some similarities to free OLC flying. It is often used when the soaring conditions are weak and/or difficult to predict. Start and Finish are the same as for all types of tasks. Turnpoints are small cylinders with a radius of 1 statute mile just like in the case of Assigned Tasks. There is a minimum task time just like in the case of Turn Area Tasks. However, everything else can be defined by the Contest Director. E.g., in the minimalist case, the contest director may only define a Start and a Finish and leave it to each individual pilot to declare a sequence of turnpoints from the pre-defined list in the published waypoint file. These turnpoints don’t even have to be pre-declared. Instead, pilots may simply choose to fly to certain turnpoints during the race and then submit a declaration form (after the flight) where they note down which turnpoints they actually flew to. (This means, pilots must keep track of their turnpoints during the flight.) This is also called a “Pilot Selected Task”. It is similar to free OLC flying except that turnpoints have to be from a defined list (i.e. you can’t just turn anywhere you want). Also, unlike OLC Plus, which limits the flight to six legs (i.e. 4 turnpoints between start and finish), there is a very generous number of up to 11 turnpoints between start and finish that pilots are allowed to declare. The only limitation is that pilots must not go back and forth between the same two points: there has to be another point in-between. Going around the same triangle several times, however, is permissible. Note, however, that the contest director may make some of the turnpoints mandatory. E.g., a CD may require the first one, two, or three turnpoints to be achieved in order, and then leave the choice of additional turnpoints to each pilot.
If you have never flown a MAT, chances are that you will be confused at first. (I know I was.) However, once you figure it out it isn’t as bad as it sounds. However, you do need to practice this format before you show up at the contest site. You can do so on your next OLC flight. Personally, I am not a fan of MATs because they add randomness to the contest and require pilots to spend a lot of time during flight on their flight computer picking turnpoints. But when the weather is so weak that even a TAT may not be viable they can help ensure that a valid contest day can be achieved.
6) Know Your Flight Computer
Knowing the rules of the tasks is one thing but being able to apply them during a flight is a challenge in its own right. However, being familiar with your flight computer will come in handy on all your future flights so use your first contest as a catalyst to really become familiar with how your computer can help you.
Once you practice a little bit and know a few tricks it is much simpler than in seems at first. Here’s what I recommend:
a) Use the Right Default Settings! When I fly at home my default settings are tailored for badge and record flights. E.g., my default Start and Finish is a straight 0.5 km line perpendicular to the course, and the default for turn points is a 45 degree photo sector. And I use kilometers for distance calculations so I know instantly whether a specific task meets badge and record requirements.
These settings are great for badges and records but they are a big hindrance for racing because they don’t match the racing rules. Therefore, if you use the wrong default settings, there is a lot of manual work required to put the task into the flight computer and the chances of making a mistake are high. If you have to make edits to a task in flight this is even more of a problem: it causes a high workload and is detrimental to safety.
Fortunately there is a better way. Here’s how:
First, the Nav Boxes on your Flight Computer should be optimized for TAT (aka AAT) tasks since that is the most common form of task. And if they work for TATs they will work for other types of tasks as well. It is best to always use the same screen layout because once you’re familiar with it, finding the critical information becomes quite easy. Here is an excellent tutorial for how to do this on an Oudie. If you use a different flight computer, chances are there is a way to customize the screen as well.
Second, make sure that the default units are set to statute miles for distance and feet for altitude.
Third, make sure that the default settings for Tasks are tailored to the contest rules. For US contests the default for start should be a cylinder with a 5 statute mile radius; the default for turn point should be a cylinder with a 1 statute mile radius; and the default for finish should be a cylinder with a 2 statute mile radius (unless the specific contest mandates something else.). Most contests also use a specific minimum finish altitude. An easy way to make your flight computer do the appropriate final glide calculation is to create a duplicate Finish Cylinder where the altitude is set to the minimum finish height. This way the computer will do all the calculations correctly and you don’t have to do mental math during the flight.
Also, make sure you understand how your MC setting impacts the final glide calculations. Not understanding this will not only hurt your contest performance, it can quickly become a safety issue. Read this article if you’re not sure.
Setting the default for turnpoints to 1 statute mile is particularly critical for Modified Assigned Tasks (MATs). You will want to add turnpoints to your task while you’re flying with a minimum level of effort. If you use the wrong default, you will have to manually edit the observation zone setting for each turnpoint. Not good! However, if the default setting is correct, it only takes 2-3 seconds to enter another turnpoint.
b) Practice With Your Flight Computer Before The Contest! The things I just described aren’t very difficult but learning how to do them during your first contest is a very bad idea. There may be 20, 40, or even 60 other gliders in the air around you and your eyes must be outside the cockpit, not on your instruments!
By far the best way to practice is by connecting your flight computer to Condor (if possible) and to fly a few contest tasks on your computer. If there is a Condor scenery for your actual contest task area you can recreate a few tasks from past contests. This way you don’t just learn to use your glide computer, you also become familiar with the geography of the task area. This is particularly useful if the contest is in mountainous terrain. If you are not familiar with Condor you really should be. It is the best soaring simulator and a great practice tool, especially for racing! Check here for more information.
Many (but not all) glide computers will allow you to connect them to Condor. My Oudie IGC is among those that can’t be connected because the Oudie IGC does not accept an external GPS input signal. However, I simply got an old Oudie 1 and set the screen to look exactly like on my Oudie IGC. An Oudie 2 will work as well. You may need a special cable to connect your Oudie to Condor. You can buy one from Cumulus Soaring.
If you don’t use Condor, you must practice with your flight computer on the ground and in the air. Ground practice is difficult but essential to get to know the Nav boxes and what they tell you. Few pilots will have the mental bandwidth to figure it all out while flying. Once you have sufficient familiarity with what the computer is telling you, you must do a few practice tasks in the air – ideally for each of the types of tasks you expect at the contest (i.e., Turn Area Tasks, Assigned Tasks, Modified Assigned Tasks).
7) At the Contest Site
Once you get to the contest site, there isn’t all that much time to catch up on preparations that you omitted. Contests are run according to well-established processes and now you must fit in.
If you’re new to contest flying, you will likely be able to get a mentor assigned to you as this is part of the process as well. Experienced pilots are usually very willing to help. But time is limited and any shortcuts that you took in your preparations will become obvious and can lead to stupid mistakes.
Here are some of the things that are worth knowing in advance:
a) Arrive at the contest site before the first practice day. Look around the airfield. Find a good parking spot, rig your glider and tie everything down (weather permitting). Your vehicle and your tow-out equipment (wing dolly, tail dolly, tow out bar) should already be marked with your contest ID.
b) Each day starts with a mandatory pilot meeting. Be there on time. There will be a review of the weather, a safety briefing, and you may (or may not) learn about the task for the day. A grid time will be announced and you will get a grid sheet (on paper or electronically on your smart phone) that includes your location on the grid..
c) It is best if your glider is prepared and ready to go even before the pilots meeting. This way you won’t be in a rush after the meeting concludes. Work with another pilot to complete the daily “critical assembly check” and have that person sign their initials and the date on the wing tape to visually indicate to the contest personnel that your glider has been checked and is ready. At grid time your glider must be out next to the runway in the appropriate spot. Grid locations are marked with the grid numbers.
d) Once you’re out on the grid you should also know the task for the day. If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to program the task into the flight computer and make all final preparations. Instruments should be set, oxygen (if needed) should be turned on, GPS trackers should be on, etc. Your radio should be on and tuned to the right frequency so you can hear contest related announcements.
e) At grid time, gliders are pushed onto the runway in the appropriate order. Once your glider is on the runway, make sure to park your crew vehicle in the appropriate parking spot (usually behind the last glider on the grid). Your tow out equipment should be in your vehicle unless there are other arrangements (e.g. for contests that allow water ballast – in that case you will need your wing wheel until just before launch to keep the wings level).
f) Once the launch starts, speed and efficiency are imperative to ensure a quick launch. Contests usually use multiple tow planes. The goal is to launch the entire fleet in less than one hour. (But this does not always work so be prepared to be patient. Everyone’s trying to do their best.) This means you must be in the cockpit, have completed the takeoff checklist, and be ready to launch well before it is your turn to be hooked up to a tow plane.
g) When your time comes you are expected to be completely ready for launch. Contest staff will remove your wing dolly (if needed and still on), hook you up, the tow plane will take out slack and you will be launched immediately. You will just be assumed to be ready. There’s no rudder waggle or any other signal from you. (If you’re not ready for whatever reason, release immediately and you will be pushed off the runway so the next glider can launch. In this case you will be launched last after everyone else. )
h) Tow pilots follow a prescribed tow route towards the start cylinder and you are expected to release at a contest-specific altitude (usually around 2000 ft AGL). The tow pilot will probably wave you off if you don’t. The idea is that everyone has the same chance of finding lift from the same altitude.
i) If you don’t find lift you may return to land at the airport and request a “relight” (another tow). The relight will happen after the rest of the fleet is launched.
j) After all gliders are launched, the Contest Director (CD) will announce via radio at what time the start gate for your class will open. You will only get a valid contest start if you leave the start cylinder after that time.
k) Sometimes, when necessary due to changing weather conditions, the CD can change a task while pilots are already in the air (but before the start gate opens). Pilots must confirm that they have heard and understood the new task parameters in a roll call led by the CD. To affirm, pilots simply state their contest ID. This works more smoothly than one may think. The hardest part is that pilots must now also reprogram the task in flight. This is the time when your prior practice with the flight computer will truly pay off. If you know your computer and you have the correct default settings, reprogramming will only take a few seconds. If you don’t you will be a hazard to yourself and everyone around.
Once the gate is open there are no more changes. Now it’s up to you to fly the task.
All your preparations will be worth it. You know the task, you know what the computer is telling you. You know the task area and where you can land if you have to. You remember where the typical energy lines are and which areas tend to work better than others. You’re already somewhat familiar with the terrain and the landmarks. You know how high you have to be before transitioning over unlandable terrain.
Now you keep your eyes out of the cockpit and concentrate on what the sky, the sun, the wind, and the terrain are telling you. You keep track of other gliders – are they rising or sinking relative to you? What path are they choosing through the air? Is it better or worse than your’s and why? What adjustments should you make to your flight path? When and where do you want to climb high? When and where do you want to go fast? When is it time to switch gears (up or down)? Where should you deviate and where should you stay right on the course line? This is fun! In fact, this is why you came to fly the contest!
I hope this has been helpful.
Maybe I’ll see you at a contest in the year ahead. 🙂
to reach one additional state by glider from Boulder, e.g. Nebraska, Utah, or New Mexico;
to complete a 750km FAI triangle;
to complete a 1000km flight per OLC rules (i.e., maximum of six legs).
Yesterday looked like a good day for soaring with cus, high cloud bases, and moderate winds. There would be no smoke, no overdevelopment, and no thunderstorms. Skysight suggested Nebraska would be doable (this isn’t often the case). Maybe I could even complete a big FAI triangle. 750km seemed too far since there were no clouds projected to the south. Based on the forecast and the projected clouds I thought a 600 km triangle might be feasible. But I decided to remain flexible. Maybe it would work, maybe not. And maybe, just maybe, I would even be able to extend it a bit further.
When I took off, I had no expectation, intention, or aspiration whatsoever to attempt to break 1000 km. That only came much later in the flight.
Here’s the task I declared: Start and Finish at 501 Bighorn Mountain (just west of Boulder);TP1 at 731 Tower half-way between Kimball and Scottsbluff (all in Nebraska); and TP2 at 527 Arlington, Wyoming.
I launched at 10:42am – relatively early for Boulder – and the sky was already looking very nice. Surprisingly, there were even clouds to the south where it was forecast to remain blue all day.
Lift became noticeable as soon as we approached the foothills. There was no need for a big mountain tow despite the early start. I release from tow south of Altona, just north of Boulder.
It doesn’t take long to climb and connect with the clouds. At 11:15 am I cross the start line and head out on task.
20 minutes later I am already past the clouds that you could see in the picture above. The sky ahead looks less inviting than I had hoped. I briefly wonder whether I should abandon the task and “just fly per the clouds” but then I decide that I like the challenge and declare to myself that “I’m going for it.”
As expected, the gap wasn’t a big deal for my glider. I only lost 2,500 ft during the transition and I am still at 8,500 ft above the ground. And there is a beautiful street ahead, stretching far into the distance towards my turnpoint.
The next 100 km towards the turnpoint are quite uneventul. The line of clouds is along a weak convergence zone where thermals are easily triggered. The lift isn’t very strong (typically 4-6 kts) but fairly reliable. I am also benefitting from a tailwind of 10-15 kts so I make quick progress.
The three things on my mind are: (1) Will the clouds go all the way to the turnpoint? (2) How will I do going back into a headwind? and (3) Will clouds develop towards my second turnpoint – so far much of the sky to the north has been blue.
With respect to the expected headwind, I remind myself that it is still early in the day – before 1 pm – and that the thermal strength should considerably improve within the next hour.
I round TP just a few minutes past 1 pm. During the first 30-40 km I backtrack to the southwest along the same path that I used on the first leg. In the meantime a nice line of clouds has developed to the west.
When I reach the end of the line I am greeted with another blue gap but cloud bases have lifted to well above 18,000 feet and the next clouds look to be in easy glide range.
When the sky ahead looks like this it is time to step on the gas – I mean, push the stick forward and fly faster so I can make use of the great lift that is almost certain to come.
The line of clouds in the last picture was good, but nowhere near as good as I thought it would be. I kept pressing on expecting to find an 8-12kt climb but it never came. As a result I dropped below 13,000 feet over the Laramie basin and now I have to climb, even if it’s only in 3-4 kts. At least it’s beautiful down there 🙂
After getting back up near cloud base, things are easy again. I cruise from cloud to cloud and quickly reach my second turnpoint, Arlington, at the north-west side of the Laramie basin. There are good looking clouds between Medicine Bow Peak and Elk Mountain so I keep pushing west to lengthen my second leg and thereby increase my triangle distance. (The extra distance will reduce the average speed of my declared task but I haven’t been flying fast enough for a possible state record so I don’t mind.)
I keep going west as long as there is a line of good clouds, which is on the east side of the Saratoga Valley. That’s where I decide to turn south again. (I briefly considered crossing the Saratoga Valley to the clouds ahead above the Sierra Madre (of Wyoming) but I was worried about the day possibly ending early and not making it back home. It would also have reduced my task speed as there would likely be sink during the valley crossing.)
This is what the sky looked like after my turn south. The clouds appear to be thinning out even though it is only just a little past 3pm in the afternoon. Conditions should still be strong but you can never be sure… What is the best line to take?
I am intrigued by the line of small clouds to the right of my nose and along the western (sunny) edge of the Medicine Bow Mountains. In addition, that’s where Skysight is forecasting a convergence line right for this time. I decide to head in that direction and observe the air as I go. I can always make adjustments to my routing if it doesn’t work.
As I head south I can see to my delight that the small line of clouds is rapidly developing. Just south of Medicine Bow Peak I stop to refuel my altitude tank under this pretty little cloud.
As I leave the climb, the next clouds ahead on the right have developed nicely as well. So guess where I headed next 🙂
After making it around the pretty cloud in the picture above I veer left to join the line of clouds that bends to the right towards Boulder. This is a very common energy line, which is induced by convergence enhanced thermals on the lee side of the Continental Divide, can enable an easy and quick run along the mountains.
Unfortunately my timing is a bit off and the beautiful like of clouds in the picture above is in the process of falling apart as I am in the midst of a down-cycle. Will thermals start up again? It’s almost 4pm in late August and I am not sure. Most recently we had several days ending shortly after 4pm already.
I am just below final glide to Boulder and decide to take a weakish climb above the Poudre Valley. There are better looking clouds ahead near Lookout Mountain but I need some additional altitude to get there safely without having to shift east (which could push me out of the energy line).
I only took the weak climb as high as I needed to reach the good clouds near Lookout Mountain (north of Estes Park).
I now have enough altitude to finish my task at Bighorn Mountain and get back to Boulder. But I wonder if I can extend my triangle by flying past Boulder to the south. As I approach Estes Park the sky ahead becomes completely blue.
I still want to give it a go so I decide to tank all the way up under the last cloud and see if I can make it to the line of clouds that look to be 70 km further south over Thorodin Mountain.
As I head out towards Estes Park, the clouds continue to thin out further. I dial my speed back to 80 kts and fly in flap setting 1 to conserve altitude. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe not.
As I get closer I can see that my estimate was correct – the first clouds are indeed over Thorodin Mountain. I managed my energy quite well and am still at 14,000 ft. I am now quite confident that I can make it. And the line looks very much like the typical convergence line. If I can get up, I should be able to find lift along the west edge of the line of clouds ahead.
I am down to 13,000 feet as I reach Thorodin Mountain and the beautiful line of clouds that mark the convergence. The line works even better than it looks. One of the strongest climbs of the day (9+ kts average) takes me back to 17,000 ft and I can continue to surf the line. As so often, it swerves a little to the SSW before veering left and stretching slightly to the SSE. The trick is to follow this line just along the western edge of the clouds.
15 minutes after leaving Thorodin Mountain I am already past Mount Evans and heading towards Bailey. And there are still several clouds ahead. I am keenly aware at this point that the lift could end at any time. But as long as I can maintain this altitude, I figure I can go to the last cloud in the distance and still keep Boulder in glide range.
I am getting exited about the size of my triangle. It is getting close to 750 km (provided I can make it back) and with every kilometer that I move further south, it grows by almost two kilometers. If I make it to the end of the clouds, it will most definitely be bigger than 800 km.
I do indeed reach the end of the last cloud. Only once the sky ahead is entirely blue do I decide to turn. My flight computer shows that I still have Boulder in easy glide at MC 4 with an arrival altitude of approx. 2500 ft.
I haven’t turned in quite some time and don’t really know what the sky behind looks like, but once I complete the turn, the convergence line is still well marked by the clouds. All I need to do is the same as before – stay on the western edge of the clouds and progress in lift 🙂
This is the first time in the flight that the number 1000 starts creeping in my head. Could it be possible?
I have really only flown three major legs so far and I am about to start my fourth. I have flown more than 700 km already and by the time I get back to Boulder I will reach a little over 800 km in total distance. That means I would have to pass Boulder and fly an even greater distance away from Boulder to the north, i.e. in the opposite direction, and then still have enough altitude to make it back.
No. I conclude it is not possible.
Then I check my watch. It says the sun sets at 7:45 pm and it is only 5:10 pm. I have 2 hour and 35 minutes to fly close to 300 km. If I can maintain my average speed that would work quite easily. But how could I maintain my average speed as the lift is dying? And how could I even get past Boulder to the north? It was already difficult to get to the south.
No, it is not possible.
But my longest flight so far is just over 900km. Can I beat that?
Near Mount Evans the convergence line has moved further west. If the clouds move, the best thing to do is move as well… I’m still maintaining 17,000 ft!
But, just as before, the line of clouds ends. Near Rollinsville I can top up my altitude to 16,500 ft under the last whisps. Then the sky to the north ahead is completely blue. However, on the horizon there are still some clouds in the distance.
These clouds are at least 70 km away. It seems to be the same problem as before, just in reverse. However, this time it is much harder. Previously, as I was on my way to the south I could easily keep the airport in Boulder in glide. Now this seems impossible.
But who knows. Maybe I get lucky and find lift in the blue. I resolve to move ahead and turn before Boulder drops out of glide range.
I don’t find a climb in the blue. But I get extremely lucky otherwise. There is just slightly lifting air everywhere above the hills. My computer gives me a glide ratio of somewhere between 50:1 to 70:1. That means I don’t lose all that much altitude as I move forward.
55 km into the 70 km glide, the view is as shown in the image below. I am now down to 13,700 ft. The clouds looked a lot better 5 minutes ago and seem to be falling apart. I still have Boulder in glide but if I push to the clouds ahead I am likely to get out of glide range.
Should I try it? What are the odds that it works? Given the levity of the air that I’ve been feeling I feel optimistic and think it’s clearly better than 50%. And I have a backup plan. If it doesn’t work I will have to divert to Christman. And on the way there I can still sample a few other clouds.
I reach the clouds at 13,000 ft. Yay, there is still lift! It starts with a weak bubble at 1-2 kts but as I correct into the wind I find another bubble and soon I find myself in a solid 4-5 kts all the way to 17,000 ft! Who would have thought?
Back up near cloud base, looking north-west the sky looks still surprisingly promising. And now that I have several thousand feet of altitude to work with I want to at least see if I can move ahead and maintain altitude.
As I get to the western edge of the clouds, the look of the street actually keeps improving. This is truly as good as it gets at this time of the day!
Now the magic 1000 number is back in my head. How far do I have to go north before I can turn back and make it. I look at my flight computer to work it out but it just went blank! I have been flying for 7 1/2 hours and the battery is depleted. It gave me some warnings a while ago but there is nothing I can do.
I try to remember what the last kilometer count was but I am not sure. It must have been above 850 km, so it’s now probably a little more. It’s maybe another 30 km to Red Feather Lakes and I know from there is around 90 km to Boulder.
I have to accept the fact that I can’t know for sure. So I’ll just have to keep going and turn before I lose Boulder from glide.
Shoot! How will I know if Boulder is in glide when I don’t have a computer? And I don’t have a computer. But I have thought about this often enough to know that as long as I am close to 17,000 ft I should be able to go close to the Wyoming border.
What’s the wind? That could impact the final glide. It kept changing. South of My Evans it was out of the southwest. But as I look the street ahead it looks more like it is out of the northwest. But I’m not sure. Ultimately I decide it is light enough that it won’t make a big difference.
The street works its magic and I can maintain altitude in straight flight at just around 17,000 feet. I take it all the way until the clouds thin out so much that I lose confidence and turn around.
After the turn, the street to the south looks just as good as it did going north. It is now 6:30pm. 1:15 until sunset and about 100 km to go. This really is my lucky day 🙂
As I race south, not much has changed except that the clouds end soon after I cross the Poudre Canyon. But I am still at close to 17,000 feet which is far more altitude than I need to get to Boulder.
The sun is getting low as I pass Longs Peak.
As I fly further south I still wonder if I have have made enough distance to make it over the magic 1000 km mark.
One complication is the fact that the flight computer always calculates the distance flown based on the six longest legs up to the current point. This means that the more legs I add, prior legs get straightened out. This de facto reduces the amount of kilometers officially flown because a maximum of six straight legs is used to calculate the total distance. Without a working computer there is no way to estimate my official distance flown with any kind of precision.
I still have plenty of altitude as I fly above the foothills west of Boulder and decide that I will extend this last leg further towards Golden, just to make sure that I don’t end up short. I also still have more than 30 minutes left until sunset.
This decision to extend the flight further is a bit of a struggle against my personal comfort. I have now been in the cockpit for 8 1/2 hours and I actually really want to be back on the ground and stretch my legs. But I know I would regret it if I end up short.
I keep going until I am more than half way between Boulder and Golden and then my growing discomfort outweighs my diminishing concerns about potentially coming short. I still have almost 11,000 ft (almost 5000 ft more than pattern altitude) when I make my final turn back towards Boulder.
Even before I get back to the Flarirons, I dump the water, complete my landing check, and extend the gear. I also crack open the spoilers to descend more quickly. Now I really want to get back on the ground.
But as I approach Boulder the beauty of a landing at sunset outweighs any discomfort once again and I really enjoy the views. The air is completely still. Except for one airplane practicing touch and gos there is no traffic or radio chatter and the world looks serenely peaceful below.
The sun sets behind the Continental Divide just as I make my final turn to glider runway 26.
The airport is already completely deserted as I roll up towards my tie down spot and the sun disappears behind the horizon.
While I secure the glider I still wonder what goals I actually accomplished. I only know for sure that I was in Nebraska and that I completed the 600 km declared FAI triangle. But how big is the extended triangle and what is the overall length of the flight based on the six-leg rule? I won’t know until I upload the file from my Flarm to my computer at home.
Once the flight is uploaded I am delighted to see that my total distance is 1034.6 kilometers. I did in fact exceed the magic 1000 km mark! I probably had enough altitude to add at least 30-40 km at the end and I would have been mad at myself if I had let the opportunity go by.
I also made it to Nebraska so I can add another state reached from Boulder to my list. New Mexico, Utah, South Dakota, and Kansas are still outstanding. (Texas, Arizona, and Idaho seem to be reachable too, but it would have to take highly unusual conditions to make it back from there on the same day. I suspect I will never try…)
But to my dismay I realize that did not reach one goal that I had felt certain about – the >750km FAI triangle. And I instantly know why: I must not have properly closed the triangle after my leg to the south. What a shame! It would have been so easy! All I would have needed to do is fly a tiny bit further east when I passed Boulder on the way to Golden so that I would have crossed the initial glide path when I headed out towards my first turn point. I was so focused on the 1000 km goal that I simply did not think about it. A close look at the glide path shows that my miss is only just a tiny bit more than one single kilometer. That’s a real shame because my triangle was just a few kilometers short of 800km. Oh well, I have to keep that on my bucket list.
Flight trace on WeGlide: https://www.weglide.org/flight/99368
Flight trace on OLC: https://www.onlinecontest.org/olc-3.0/gliding/flightinfo.html?dsId=8609209
Here are some lessons learned in no particular order:
No Smoke – Better Soaring. Skysight isn’t always overly optimistic. The declared 600km goal seemed appropriate for and well aligned with the forecast but the day obviously had a lot more potential. I believe that the absence of smoke made a huge difference. Over the last month we have seen one over-optimistic forecast after another. Wildfire smoke caused days to start developing late and ending early. Neither of these things was a problem on the day of this flight and as a result a really long task was possible.
There is Still Lift Late in the Evening. Especially the convergence doesn’t end just because the thermals end. It can last long into the evening. I recently took a picture of the convergence line from our home well past sunset. This is a real opportunity to extend flights late in the day.
Use the Full Day. Up until now I have not really attempted to exploit the full potential of Boulder days until the end. Most often I run out of my six legs early and then I lack the motivation to keep going when additional distance simply doesn’t count. To make full use of a day it is best to use the first leg to fly as far away from Boulder as the day confidently allows. This will leave the possibility of several legs at the end to extend the flight until the lift is really gone.
Be More Creative. We often default to our north-south routes along the Front Range because the lift lines are reliable and we know them well. There are probably more opportunities for interesting flights to other areas – including east – than we tend to pursue.
Close the Damn Triangle! This is not the first time I made this mistake. This time I missed it because as I was going back and forth past Boulder several times, always crossing prior flight paths, I did not remember that my first leg started at the base of the foothills and went eastwards. (Often we tow deep into the mountains and then it can be hard to reach the tow release location when coming back low on final glide. This time I was too far west late and did not come back east enough when that would have been supremely easy to do. Very unusual! But key to remember!)
Food for long flights. I didn’t bring anything to eat on this flight and I believe that this negatively impacted my motivation at the end. 8 1/2 hours is a long time in the cockpit and it would have been smarter to eat something.
Everyone can follow cloud streets that perfectly set up along the major mountain ranges. Today, Day 8 of the 18m Nationals, was not like that. We were given an Assigned Area Task (AAT) with turn areas at Huntington Muni (20km), Cricket Mountains (30km), and Table Mountain (30km), then back to Nephi.
The task required us to cross the mountains and valleys back and forth. There were a lot of decisions to make and a number of traps to avoid. Thermal conditions were very strong, and cloud bases were well above the legal maximum of 17,500 ft, but there was much more wind to contend with than in the past few days. We saw west-south westerly winds of close to 30 kts today in some parts of the task area.
The launch was once again a problem. This time it was the changing wind on the ground. I was among the early starters launching at 13:21 and had no problem climbing up to 16,000 feet right off tow. Then the winds picked up and the launch had to be paused. Then the wind direction changed and the remaining gliders had to be moved to the other end of the runway. This is lovingly called the elephant walk. I’m not sure whether the elephants are the pilots or the gliders but you should know that there is no walking involved because everyone can just tow their glider with their air conditioned vehicle.
But the delay was substantial nonetheless.
The start gate eventually opened at 15:33. I had already been in the air by more than two hours and had flown well over 200 km by that time. But now the race was on and the task distance was another 432-718 km, to be flown in no less than three hours.
Everyone quickly tried to climb up to the legal maximum before crossing the start gate. I went out as soon as I could, which was at 15:53. Kind of late to start a task with a nominal distance of 573 km. But there we were. The forecast predicted an abrupt end to soaring conditions around 7pm, so getting around the course as fast as possible was imperative.
I had a pretty good start with quick climbs on on back side of Mt Nebo and the edge of the Wasatch Plateau and quickly made it to the edge of the first turn area. I watched the gaggle continue to go deeper into the cylinder and decided to turn early. Time was of the essence. In the miraculous event of being undertime, I would have plenty of opportunity to go deeper in turn areas two or three.
I headed for a great looking cloud to get high enough to cross the plateau against a 20 kt headwind. Unfortunately, the cloud dissolved in front of my eyes and I had to look for a climb in the blue. As I got lower the lee-side effect of the plateau became more and more pronounced and I literally got washed out while I was looking for a climb in the blue. Fortunately I found an eight knotter in a wind protected bowl that took me back up to 16,000 feet – enough to safely cross the rising terrain of the plateau, even against the stiff head wind.
Once back on the west side, it was just a question of picking the right lines to get to the second turn area. There were valleys and ridges to cross into the wind and I wanted to stay high to be protected against further lee-side sink.
The clouds weren’t perfectly aligned with the course but 30-40 degree course deviations are an easy tradeoff if you can fly in lift. I tanked up on the luv side of the Pavani range in an 11 knot climb before heading out over the desert.
There were some good big clouds ahead and I have become much better at figuring out exactly where under these clouds the best lift is to be found.
Another 8 knot climb got me to the turn area. Tactically it would have been smarter to push all the way to the turn area and take the climb on the downwind leg but I was too chicken to risk getting low over the desert and took the climb while going into the wind.
I just nicked the turn area because my computer showed about 1 hour of over time and back-tracked to a nice looking cloud line that went to the west side of Mt Delano, the western edge of the last turn area.
It was already past 6pm and I noticed that the cloud cover was already diminishing suggesting a weakening of the soaring conditions. Late in the day it is often best to stay high, so I down-shifted and flew 90 kts instead of 105. Good thing because I did not find any good climb southwest of Mt Delano. I took a 4 knotter to get back to 16,000 and nicked the third turn area on the west side.
It was 18:30. I had another 150 km to go to the finish and was in need of at least two more climbs. I looked at the Flarm screen and noticed some gliders going up at 9 kts some 10 km ahead. Fortunately I got there early enough to join then and climbed right back to 17,300 feet.
I was still about 2500 feet low on Final Glide at MC 4 and the clouds ahead were quickly disappearing. But somewhere along the western edge of the Pavani Range ought to be another climb… I downshifted further to about 80-85 knots and tested the air along the upwind side of the mountains. Once or twice I stopped for a 2-3 kt climb that quickly disappeared.
A glider ahead of me got into sink and I diverted upwind and found much better air, allowing me to cruise at a glide ratio of 50:1. Gradually I made it above Final Glide Altitude and just felt my way towards the finish, increasing my speed as the glide ratio improved.
I crossed the finish line at 19:23 with a few hundred feet to spare for an average task speed of 139 kph, which put me in 18th place for the day, earning 887 contest points.
Overall, I moved up to 22nd place in the contest. This sounds far back but it’s still ahead of some excellent pilots, even some who have won National Championship titles before. This has been a very high-caliber contest with most if not all the very best US pilots attending and I am quite pleased with my overall performance.
Today’s winner was Gary Ittner (157 kph) ahead of David Coggins (156 kph) and Thomas Greenhill (153 kph). The new US National Champion in 18m is Sean Fidler (despite having a challenging day and flying the same speed as myself) with John Seaborn (the defending National Champion) in second, and Andy Blackburn in third. John Seaborn won the trophy for the fastest contest flight for yesterday’s performance at 190 kph!
These were amazing Championships with blazingly fast flight. On six of the eight contest days the winner’s speed exceeded 100 mph.
I have learned a lot and am pleased to have safely made it around all contest tasks without taking undue risks.