Air Sailing Contest, Day Four

Bob Kuykendall, 3 July 2000

A tale in which I capture the cat and the hat

For the most part, my performances at the annual Air Sailing Sports Class contests have been uninspiring if competent. However, this day still stands out clearly in my memory.

Day 4 marked a drastic change in the general weather patterns. For the entirety of the contest up until then, the winds aloft hand been relatively light right up through 30,000 feet. For day 4, the upper air started picking up speed, washing out thermals to the north and west of Air Sailing, pushing the contestants into the southern and eastern quadrants, and threatening to pin them there with strong headwinds.

While circling to start, I saw that the southern part of the arena still looked good, while there were no cu in the northern or western quadrants. I resolved to go south, and to make my re-entry into the Palomino valley from a group of high cu that kept reforming in the hills just southeast of Nixon.

After the start, I made a 180 degree turn and went back to a good thermal that I had marked earlier over the Red Rocks. I agonized over this decision to make a two-mile retreat, but it paid off with a 6 - 8 knot climb right to 15,000. That altitude gave me a pre-paid, fully refundable ticket out of the valley into the Southern arena.

I drove south at 80-90 knots, circling a few times over the Virginias, but in general driving hard south to where I thought the best soaring would be. However, at and even beyond Pond Peak the soaring wasn't as strong as expected, and I soon found myself down to about 9000 feet at Tiger field. However, there were great looking cu beyond Tiger to the east, so I held little worry about ending up on the ground at Tiger.

One feature that colored the rest of the day was a wildfire in the hills west of Tiger. The fire sent up a smoke plume that I worried might suppress convection downwind. However, just after snapping the turnpoint photo at Tiger, I blundered into a strong (both lift-wise and smell-wise) thermal that was drawing smoke in at the bottom and lifting it and me up to cloudbase.

Up at cloudbase, I could tell by the shadows that there were good cloud out at least as far east as Fallon Turnoff, and so I decided to abandon the southern turns in favor of a sprint east. I knew that I would need an extra few turns in order to fill out a 3.5-hour day, but I figured that perhaps a return to Rabbit Dry Lake or Silver Springs or even Tracey Power would fill the day.

Also, while making my last turns in the smoky thermal, I saw Four Zulu (Chad Moore) well below, driving south towards the base of the thermal. And off to the east, I saw a four-engine firebomber driving towards Four Zulu and the fire beyond him. I radioed a quick "Check nine" to Four Zulu, and he confirmed he'd had the traffic in sight. Later, Chad said he'd spotted the bomber well before I'd called, and that he had originally wondered about the four black circles suspended in the air to his left. Those were the engine nacelles of the firebomber.

I found good lift over the somewhat forbidding terrain between Fernley and Fallon Turnoff, and generally stayed near cloundbase. There seemed to be a thermal under every second or third cloud, which was familiar behavior from my last venture into the area five days before.

At Fallon Turnoff, I worried briefly about whether or not to snap a photo or not. I wanted to continue east to Derby, and knew that I might find it convenient to claim Fallon Turnoff as a turnpoint on the return leg. However, I also thought I might find it convenient to shoot Fallon in the case of a retreat before achieving Derby. I knew that I could not claim Fallon - Derby - Fallon, since that repeated a turn without two intervening turns. I thought about shooting a photo at Fallon and then not claiming it if I later turned Derby and then shot Fallon again. But I didn't remember the rules well enough to know whether I was allowed to not claim a turn that appeared on the turnpoint film. I briefly toyed with the idea of radioing Nevada Fox for a clarification of the rules, but even as I thought of it I knew that the answer to such a question constituted outside assistance, and that the reply would be neither helpful nor friendly. I remained quiet, and proceeded east without shooting the Fallon Turnoff.

The lift remained strong and consistent, and in what seemed only a few minutes I found myself at Derby shooting the turn. Thereafter, I headed back towards Fallon Turnoff while wondering what else I would do to fill out the 3.5 hours. I could tell from radio chatter that some of the other players were in the vicinity, shooting turns in the south east quadrant of the arena.

Back at Fallon Turnoff, I shot the photo that had earlier caused me such grief, and started down the highway towards Fernley. However, almost immediately I started to observe a disturbing trend in the radio chatter. Six Juliet (Bob McKay) called from the east edge of Winnemucca lake, starting a close-run glide towards Air Sailing. Four Zulu was similarly starting a tight glide from somewhere else in the south east.

Checking my watch, I saw that the day was just over two hours old. I was pretty sure from the forecast and from the general look of things that soaring in the central and western quadrants would not be very productive. Did the others know something that I didn't? Would they march around some blue turnpoints in the west that I might not reach? Had there been a task change back to 3 or even 2.5 hours?

After some thought, I decided that the others were just trying to get home while the getting was good, and that prudence dictated that I do the same. The game was fundamentally different now - the idea of actually going the whole 3.5 hours was out the window, and the real task was to accrue as much distance as possible and still have enough day left to return to Air Sailing. I abandoned all thought of returning to the southern turns, and set sail across the badlands between Fallon Turnoff and Nixon, driving 80 knots into what I knew would be a nearly direct 20-knot headwind.

Ten miles west of Fallon Turnoff, I reached the edge of the clouds under which I had spent the better part of the day.  I took one last climb under the edge of the clouds, working the lift to the bitter 1.5 knot end right to the 16000 ft cloudbase.  To the west, I could see through the smoke that the group of cu to the east of Nixon that I had been counting on was nothing but dissipating wisps.

Checking the range circles on my sectional, it looked like the glide home was doable, even with the headwind and accounting for a little sink. I drove homeward at 80 knots, worrying alternately that I was going too slow for the headwind condition, or that I was going too fast for the required glide angle.

Below me, the terrain was unfriendly. While flying along Highway 80 to Derby, there were many dry lakes and cleared areas where a safe landing could be made with relatively little damage. Between Fallon Turnoff and Nixon, however, there were no clearings and few roads. The land was generally a moonscape of spiky buttes separated by rolling sagebrush-covered hills. At Nixon there was a quite-landable dry lake from which I might even aero-retrieve, and on the east edge of Nixon there were two or three other small dry lakes where a safe landing could be made, with a trailer retrieve down dirt roads. Unless the glide went to worms in a hurry, I was pretty sure that I could plop safely onto the ground somewhere near Nixon, and that the most serious impediment to a convenient retrieve would be a run-in with the Tribal Police of the Paiute reservation that contains Nixon and its environs.

Coming up on Nixon, I started worrying about how to get beyond the ridge that separates Nixon from the Palomino Valley. There is a wide-open gap through which the Pyramid Highway runs, and I could clearly see Air Sailing through the gap. In a no-wind condition, I would have had no trouble getting through. However, on this day there was a 20-knot headwind, and getting to that gap meant running nearly parallel to the lee side of the ridge to the south of the gap. I thought there might be a lot of down wash in the vicinity that could put me on the ground inside the gap or in the sagebrush between the gap and the airport. I decided instead on a frontal approach to the ridge, and ran straight over the lee side at 100 knots.

Clearing the ridge top by a few hundred feet gave me a good glide into the agricultural fields in the southern Palomino Valley. And only a quarter mile beyond the crest of the ridge I drove straight into a five-knot thermal, and did a standard HP yank-crank-and-bank. After two turns I had a comfortable glide back to Air Sailing, but I took a third turn when I remembered that I was going to be well under the 3.5 hour task. Thereafter, the glide back to the airport was an easy jaunt.

On the ground, I learned that everyone else had pretty much given up at around 2.5 hours and limped home. Beyond Pond Peak, I could see the tops of the clouds at Tiger Field, and was pretty sure a Nimus or such could be coaxed into Air Sailing. But for the rest of us it would be a hard sell.

Papa Sierra (Key Dismukes) won the day with a flight somewhat similar to mine, with a long glide in from Fallon Turnoff. Eventually, Kilo Oscar (Pam Sutton) landed at Silver Springs, and Papa Echo (Occasionally fellow HP driver Rolf Peterson) landed at Tiger Field. Both of them were safely aeroretrieved. Nevada Fox (Steve C. Smith) ended his jaunt onto the whites with a safe landing at Silver Springs. His aero-retrieve was delayed as the towplane detoured to Carson City for fuel, and he returned to Air Sailing for a safe landing as the shadows of the Dogskins crept across the field, bringing sunset to another fine day of Nevada soaring at Air Sailing gliderport.