Getting High – part 1

I give the thumbs up, my wing man levels my wings and the rope tightens as the tow-plane takes up slack. After a second thumbs up the Super-Cub ahead of me revs it’s engine, and connected by a 200 foot rope we both start accelerating down the runway. As my speed climbs to about 40 mph I ease back on the stick, break free of the ground, then after climbing to about 10’ I settle back to about 5’ off the grass. When the tow plane and I reach 60 mph it too climbs briefly, then settles back a few feet to gain more airspeed. Then we both pull nose-up and start to climb into a cloudless sky.

I am the only pilot in a Schleicher Ka8b sailplane known to our club by the call sign Yankee Lima. I’m the only one in it on this solo flight, it only has one seat. The 54’ wings are much the same as a model airplane, wood sticks but with a fabric covering, not unlike Dacron.

Carefully I stay in place behind the tow-plane, keeping it aligned with the horizon as we bank to the left, then circle once to an altitude of about 1000’. It’s still early, about 9:30 and the sun hasn’t started heating the ground yet, no thermal activity has started yet, this part of the flight will be smooth and easy.

Turning our backs on Frederick, Md we head north to Fairfield, Pa about 30 miles away, this leg of the flight should take about half an hour. The route means that we will be keeping the Catoctin Mountain to our left and US-Route 15 under us all the way. As the altitude creeps up to about 1500’ we pass Walkersville on the right, then about 20 minutes later we pass over Thurmont and can begin to see Mount Saint Mary’s College and the town of Emmittsburg ahead. Here an eastern spur of the Catoctin Mountain, known locally as College Mountain serve as a marker for us to make a course adjustment a bit more to the left. We are now about 2500’ above the ground and I see the Fairfield Gliderport about 4 miles ahead and know it’s time for me to do all the flying.

I pull the tow release, hear the reassuring bang as the rope releases, then pull up and start a climbing right turn to stay clear of the free end of the tow-rope. I spot the tow-plane making his descending left turn, as sign that the pilot knows I am now ‘off tow’.

“Fairfield Ground, Yankee Lima is about 3 miles out.” I make the first radio call to let the ground crew know that I am in the area.

From my altitude of 2500’ I know I have about 15 minutes to either find a some rising air, or be in the pattern and land. So I take advantage of the time I have. By now the sun has started to warm the ground, which then warms the air just above it. Warm air rises through cool air producing what sailplane pilots, and soaring birds need to stay aloft – thermals. I begin to feel small bumps that tell me that it won’t be long before good strong thermals will be forming. For the next 10 minutes or so I explore the country side, I had driven to this airport once before, but till now I have not flown into or out of it. When I have lost a little altitude and am down to about 1500’ I feel a strong bump and start turning into it. Soon I am watching the vario (very sensitive rate of climb) pointing up, and the altimeter is beginning to creep up. Finding lift in a sailplane takes some instrumentation, and ‘Flying By The Seat Of Ones Pants’, feeling the small bumps in the air currents.

“Fairfield Ground, Yankee Lima will continue flying for a while, I have lift.”
“Roger that. have a good flight”

As warm air rises it cools and when it cools sufficiently the moisture in the air condenses to form a cloud. During the warmer months you can see small ‘fair weather’ cumulus clouds most afternoons. It is only when the weather conditions are just right that these cumulus clouds develop into Towering Cumulus and form thunderstorms. Today was not one of those days. With a bit of science, mixed with luck and magic, weather forecasters can predict what any day’s weather will be like, sometimes they are right. And today the forecast was for great soaring weather and no possibility of rain.

When this rising column of air nears the altitude where it cools enough to condense into a cloud the humidity goes up and the temperature drops. I was back at an altitude of about 2500’ when I started to see the first traces of a cloud forming about above me. I guessed it was about 1200’ higher, and the fresh air coming in the vent started was noticeably cooler, almost downright chilly.

I continued to circle until I was about 1000’ below the cloud, and thought, it’s now time to get out from under this cloud. I leveled the wings, headed west out from under the cloud. There as not much wind that day, but what there was, from the west needed to get over the thermal and cloud. As I flew right into that rising air current it gently lifted me up beside the growing cumulus cloud. Very few people get to see clouds this close up. This day I was privileged to see clouds from the bottom, and from on top, but seeing the cloud just a few hundred feet off my wingtip was one of the rare sights I will never forget. As the words to the old song goes “I’ve clouds from both sides now,” Make that from all sides.

Once above the cloud I continued to climb, this time in air that was lots dryer than the air below the cloud, Finally the rising air chilled to the same temperature as the surrounding air and there was no upward force left. I had reached the top of the thermal at about 4500′.

Where to go was the next question. I didn’t want to fly over the mountains to the west, so I headed east in a flat glide. And listened to other pilots reporting that Cloud-Base was 3000′ and they could go no higher. In a while I realized I had not flown through any thermals in a while and that I was about 1600′ above the ground and 10 miles from the airport, I had two things I needed to do, either find lift, or find a suitable landing spot. Finding the landing spot was the highest priority, so I picked a field, close to a road and a short walk to a farm-house where I could make a phone call to get someone to retrieve me and the plane. Ok, that done I still have 1000′ of altitude before I needed to commit to a landing. That meant I had about 5 minutes. I could have just circled over the field but the likelihood of a thermal forming right where there was unlikely, so I started a wide circle, keeping my airport in the middle.

At about 1200′ I felt a small bump, this is really flying by the seat of one’s pants as the vario didn’t register any up . “This could be the beginning of a thermal” is my first thought. The second thought is “This may not be a thermal and I’ll land here.”

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About Mike

I'm an avid bicyclist, that also enjoys Kayaking, Nature Photography, Cross Country Skiing and Geocaching. There's nothing more boring than sitting indoors in "good" weather.
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