A VERY FINE WEEKEND
by Tony Burton
The weekend of 5-6 June  was a dandy. Thursday and Friday was sunny and clear with Friday showing the odd very high cu in the afternoon, so thermals were cooking up there. In what seems to be a rarer and rarer event, the public forecast continued fine right into the weekend, so Ursula [my wife] and I headed off to the club early Saturday and arrived at 9:30 to find very little activity on a promising morning! Dick Mamini had his [ASW-12] fuselage out, and I was mostly rigged by 10 when Jay Poscente raced in to get himself ready too.
We were already missing part of the day as the cu were building nicely over the [Rocky] mountains [15 nm to the west], which is a signpost of things to come on the flat, and very soon the first cumulus popped to the east. Dick was thinking of an FAI 500 kilometre triangle with Vauxhall and Hanna airport as turnpoints. At first I was going to try the same, but the weather looked like it was developing nicely to the southeast, so I told Ursula that I would try a 500 out and return to Milk River. While climbing in the first thermal after release, I realized that the task would not give me 500, I had been thinking of the Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park turnpoint east of Milk River. With some fast map reading, I reckoned that adding Milo as a second turnpoint would easily add the required extra 38 kilometres to make up the shortfall, and I radioed the new task down to Ursula before getting my start timed at 11:13.
I was slow the first hour, but the day developed beautifully with 10,000 foot cloudbases [6000 agl] and no need to stop except to feed on 5-7 knot thermals. However, Dick and Jay somehow found a couple of big blue holes on their courseline which was more to the northeast than mine, and the radio conversations moaned about being low and what do you think we should do now, etc.
I was around the railroad bridge at Milk River just before 2 pm and had a no-sweat run up to Milo, arriving at 3:46. There I met Dick who was coming home from Brooks. There were great cu on track for the 94 kilometres back to Black Diamond and it was a hoot dolphining along with no cares - we only stopped to circle once in a thermal that was so good it would have been a sin to pass up.
I finished the flight in 5:12 hours at 1625, completing one of the fastest flights I have made in Echo Echo (well up into the 90s), and the sky still looked good two hours later. However, after all the congratulations on the field, I did a careful measurement of the task length and found out I had only gone 493.3! There was lots of hilarity over that. For you youngsters out there, this is a perfect example of what happens if you are not properly ready in the morning and rush your flight preparations.
I was somewhat annoyed about my screwup and planned a for-sure good one on Sunday as the forecast was holding. I had a few options depending on the weather and lots of time in the morning to get organized as EE was tied down and I stayed at the field. I considered a 605 kilometre Medicine Hat/Warner triangle [basically SE] - if the day died early on me on the way back I could cut short by landing at Claresholm and still have 520 made. Then Ursula remarked that if you are going to attempt that course and distance, why not try and break the Out and Return record (currently 615 kilometres). OK, but Maple Creek [past Madicine Hat] is 685, that's overkill on the required 625 kilometres and the extra 60 may be two or three thermals more than what may be available at the end of the day. However Walsh, the next town west, was too close, so I had to look at a different course direction. Because the Suffield [military] airspace closes off any long flights passing north of Medicine Hat, straight east was the next option, and Leader, Saskatchewan was in the right range at about 650 km. So if the first cu popped early enough, I was going for the Canadian O&R record set jointly by Mike Apps and Dave Marsden in 1983.
I was all dressed up and ready to fly at 10, cumulus were popping on the mountains again, then the first cu to the east (probably the Carseland plant house thermal), Maurie reported the air getting active on some Blanik tows, then the cu appeared overhead at 10:30. I launched at 10:43 west of the airfield and found 4 knots to 9000 feet and was off for Leader, 326 kilometres straight east. I didn't bother to do a timed start since I didn't want to waste the height of the good climb achieved so quickly.
I made it around of course (or I wouldn't be writing this), but it sure was in considerable doubt for a long time. The flight took 8 hours and 5 minutes. The outbound trip to Leader was into a decent quartering headwind from the southeast caused by a low south of the border, so the time was slow. I kept the cruise speed up to 75-80 knots as much as possible to make progress into the wind, and pushed straight upwind south of track whenever a few cumulus lined up to present a little dolphin flying. Cloudbase was about 10,000 feet most of the day, and once I got to almost 11,000 south of Empress.
Boy, the country is desolate when you get east of Bassano! This was new territory for me, just featureless scrubland and a solitary east-west gravel road passing through the occasional mostly-abandoned hamlets south of the dinosaur bone country of the Red Deer River badlands.
Half way out, I could see the southern sky was becoming blocked by cirrus which was drifting north. Other pilots had declared 500s with turnpoints to the southeast of Cu Nim and they had to break off their flights. A couple of times I considered abandoning the task but I couldn't resist pushing ahead in the present good conditions; anyway, I was determined to get 500 after yesterday's embarassment. Soon I was so far out I thought, "to hell with it, I'll keep going just to see how much I can get done."
The cirrus didn't reach my courseline until after I turned Leader (the outbound trip took 4:44 hours for 69 km/h). It was literally a pretty dim view looking homewards. By now, the cumulus west of Empress had also overdeveloped and spread out somewhat, giving even more shade to the ground, so I was convinced that all I was going to accomplish was shorten up a long retrieve for Ursula.
However, there were some thin spots in the cirrus and the cumulus did retain some definition, and there were occasional smooth 2-3 knotters to be found under all the clag. Right over Dinosaur Provincial Park, a 5 knot thermal came up from the old bones! Although the lift was softer, so was the sink, and that helped. I stayed high (6-8000 feet agl), flew at 60 knots, and loved every minute the tail-wind was helping me home. Ursula and I had driven east along the road underneath a few years back, so she knew the country too and was happy to get relayed reports of my westerly progress.
I had good radio reception with gliders back in home territory, and I was quite surprised to be able to talk to Rod Crutcher in "26" when we were 250 kilometres apart. Eventually, only Terry Southwood was airborne near the field, and I asked him to stay up as long as possible to relay my progress to the ground. After he had to land, I was out of contact over uncivilized country for a short while until I got to about Duchess, east of Bassano.
Off at the limit of visibility I could see the McGregor reservoir glinting in the west so I knew there must be some sunshine to come. Finally at Bassano, the cirrus began clearing right along track and soon I had a field of beautiful cu to soar home on. A solid cirrus shadow and dead sky stopped north of Milo, just south of my track. Under all that cu spreadout and cirrus, I had been to able to soar for over 200 kilometres with no direct sunshine on the ground.
Although the prospect of getting back was bleak for a long time, the return trip turned out to be faster (at 97 km/h), higher, and easier than the flight out. However, if my whole flight had been much faster, I would have beaten the sunshine to the ground. I couldn't have been more fortunate if I had prayed all the gliding prayers uttered through decades past. Terry, Ursula, and Dick were the only persons left at the field at 7 pm to welcome me home and it was good to have had them as my cheering section.
It will remain a memorable flight for me (later, Dick called me "the Energizer", because I kept going, and going, and going ...). Persistence paid off.