Monday, July 14, 2014

Task 5: A Very, Very, Very Long Day

Conditions on the fifth day were perfect: light wind and clear skies. They called a 206 km task. Some said it was the longest task ever called in the US, or maybe even the world. Everyone was excited. But I was a bit overwhelmed. I hate how competitions up the ante on their tasks each day, when I am so slow to dial in to the flying! But I was game to see how far I could go. And I was really hoping to put together a few more pieces of this flatland cross country puzzle. Up until now I hadn’t made a single turn point in this event. Maybe today I would finally tag one!

The smoke from the range fires nearby was drifting out over the flatlands, and it looked like we’d have to fly through it at some point on the course line. After getting a nice high start, I headed across the river with a small group, including Thom, who I hadn’t flown with at all yet. Awesome to see that crazy looking wing right next to me. We both arrived at the power lines together, and started working on getting established there to wait for the time to enter the start cylinder which was a ways out over the flats. I got up from the power lines nicely, and headed out to join a bigger group who was making it look good somewhere near the start cylinder. I struggled to join them, but I finally found a nice thermal and climbed out on my own. The smoke was starting to drift our way and we were flying on the edge of a huge wall of the stuff, trying to stay out of it.

When I was finally high enough to relax a bit, I looked at my clock and saw that the start gate had opened. But I hadn’t been paying attention to where I was when it happened, since I was distracted by just trying not to sink out! I didn’t know for sure if I’d been outside the cylinder before the start, so the conservative thing to do would have been to head back outside at this point and come back in to make sure. But the shortest distance to the outside was straight through the smoke. No way was I going that way. And any other direction would take forever, and I’d be stranded and forlorn, if I could even stay up that long. So I followed some pilots towards the first turn point. Even if I’d missed the start, it would be a good exercise to try and get as far down the official course line as I could. By this time I had lost track of Thom. But I was hoping he was still in the game. The first turn point was at the center of the huge start cylinder, and I was able to tag it. Yes! My first turn point of the week. It was smoky here but not too bad.

From there I turned toward the next point, a long way away at the edge of a huge lake over the lip of the first plateau of the flatlands. I was alone, but I caught some nice thermals and managed to stay pretty high, I think up to ten grand a couple times. I couldn’t believe I was making this work. And by myself too! It was smoky and hazy but I could see well enough. At one point I noticed Thom way below trying to stay up on the rim before the lake. It didn’t look good for him! There were some crazy remote badlands with no roads down there, just ancient lava fields, and I was worried he might have a long walk out ahead of him. Turns out he was able to surf some bubbles over the main road before sinking out on the rim.

Meanwhile I crossed the rim and headed for the turn point at the edge of the lake. A few pilots were visible higher than me, a lot higher, but I figured I at least had enough to tag the point and then figure out my options. There were also a few pilots visible lower than me, which always makes me feel warm and fuzzy. But as I approached the lake, I realized I had somehow made a miscalculation. There was some kind of crazy venturi effect below the rim and there was a fierce headwind blasting out from the lake. Suddenly I was sinking fast and not moving. I stomped on my speed bar, pressing it pulley to pulley, and I was barely inching forward. Crap. I hate this feeling.

Ahead was the town of Coulee City at the lake’s edge, but below and behind me were these crazy lava formations, many square miles of them, and no roads. I really really didn’t want to land down there. I crept forward and sank lower, but finally started to think I might make it to at least land in a field near a road just outside of town. I tagged the turn point, and I was looking for good fields to land in by this time. But then I got some beeps. Wow! Could I actually climb out of here? I turned in that thermal like my life depended on it, concentrating like a madman. I got high pretty quick, and felt like I’d been pardoned from a death sentence. Now what? Two turn points in the same flight and I was already way farther than I’d imagined coming. But I forced myself to keep my head in the game. And it seemed like the smoke was finally clearing in this direction, thank goodness.

The next turn point was the town of Odessa. I didn’t know how far away it was but I figured I'd follow my instruments in that direction and see how far I could get. There were nice big farm fields and roads in that direction, much nicer than badlands if you have to sink out. I started to get low at one point, and I saw a couple pilots in the distance benching up at the back of a huge dark field with several dust devils forming in it. I headed that way and tried to find the lift above those swirling vortices of silt, but couldn’t really connect. I was staring right down the barrels of those monsters but I got nothing. So much for that theory.

I drifted downwind a bit further and finally connected with a thermal out of the blue. Whew. Now I was climbing again, and I could see the little town of Odessa in the distance, with a few pilots visible climbing out of there. Wait for me! But of course no one did. I made it there with enough altitude to search for a while, and I found some nice bubbles, but nothing worth turning in. I would have been happy to sink out here. I figured there might be a local watering hole, and that sounded pretty awesome by now. I was super stoked to have just made a third turn point in a single flight! And it was the last one before goal!

Now I was entertaining some crazy fantasies of completing the entire 206 km task. I had visions of a parade and marching band, confetti, speeches, etc. I think I was just delirious from having been in the air for many hours and miles. The fact was, it was getting kind of late. The sun was lower than I’d ever seen it during a flight here. But I figured I had to try to keep going. I drifted downwind and met up with another straggler pilot, I think it was Rick Ray from Woodrat, and we tried to make sense of the weakening lift over the fields behind town. We didn’t really climb out of there, but we weren’t sinking either.

We continued downwind along a beautiful little green river canyon, a long skinny oasis in the desert, in the direction of goal, which was still over 50 km away. A couple of other pilots joined us and we spread out looking for lift. There really wasn’t much. We all drifted and turned in little bubbles as far as we could, but it was pretty clear we’d need to find landing spots soon. I landed very near another pilot at the crossroads of a couple of farm roads, barely missing a barbed wire fence to make that spot. The other pilot was Julie Spiegler from the Bay Area. We got a ride from the farmer to a Chevron in the nearest town, Ritzville, and waited there for retrieve.

Turns out we’d wait three hours, as more pilots arrived getting rides from various sources, including the local sheriff. Eventually eight of us rode home in the retrieve van, leaving just after sunset, around 10:00 pm, and arriving back in Chelan around 1:30 am. Now that was a long day. I think I flew very close to 150 km (over 90 miles), in about 6 hours, making every turn point in that crazy long task. I was whipped, and so amazed that I had pulled that off. By far my personal best flight ever. Same for Thom! In fact most pilots had their personal best distance on this day, including Jorge, who made it even farther, I think 178 km or so. Many pilots made goal, around 40. They didn’t get back until around 2 am! It was hard to imagine how we could even have a task the next day.

I fell asleep dreaming of parades and marching bands. I wasn’t even concerned about missing that start cylinder at the beginning, knowing that I’d flown so far and so well. But I would find out on the last day that I’d actually hit the cylinder at the right time, and I got scored for the day after all. That was a sweet belated bonus.


  1. What a most excellent flight that was! That'll bring you back - no doubt. Great write up. Thx!

  2. Thanks for the Recap Alex. It's was a difficult day and you killed it.

  3. Most excellent. I saw Thom at Coulee City that day and told him he landed at goal from the day before, hehe. Super big push for the Hawaii ridge soaring pilots. Jorge told me he wouldnt be doing tandems for a month he was so tired.
    I got home at 5:30 am from that day. Whew! I think I drove over 600km that day for the 204km task.