I Learned About Flying From That: A Wave From Above

A new sailplane flier tests his limits.

ILAFFT Sailplane

ILAFFT Sailplane

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I had to land within 200 feet of the white mark to pass the last phase of the checkride. Easy, I thought, as I turned the Schweizer 2-33 sailplane onto final. I'll show this guy how good I am. I've got to hold 45 knots, 300 feet — that's a little fast; let's apply more dive brakes. Beautiful, I've got it. Shushhhh, down, and within 100 feet. Not bad! He's going to pass me.

John Machone, Warren-Sugarbush Airport's sailplane examiner, sat behind me. "Congratulations, Adam, you are a sailplane pilot."

"Fantastic!" I shouted. "Just what I wanted to hear."

John extricated himself from the back seat and several people came running from across the runway. My flight instructor, Mike Ball, approached yelling "You did it!" A small crowd assembled to rehash the flight and celebrate with the popping of champagne. I was feeling great. This was the culmination of a summer's hard practice and study.

As we walked back to the staging area, Mike noted that the ­afternoon's wave was building. The precisely shaped lenticular cloud above ­suggested rising air in the lee of Sugar­bush Mountain. If the sky's appearance was any indication, there would be a waiting elevator capable of lifting a properly positioned ship thousands of feet skyward.

On a good soaring day, Mike was always one to get his hands on an aircraft. Surveying the increasingly beckoning afternoon sky, it was no surprise when he suggested we forgo the champagne in favor of another flight.

"You take the club's 1-26 — I'll get the 1-34, and let's see if June will join us in her 1-26."

I hadn't thought about another flight. The euphoria of the late morning's activity had not worn off. But there's no better way to celebrate a new rating than to use it. Further, with 12 hours total time this would be my first wave experience. How exciting is that!

June Moon was an instructor and avid aviation enthusiast. I didn't think it would take much effort to convince her to join us. Actually, it didn't take any. She was already at the staging area with her beautiful white Schweizer ready for departure. "See you up there," she said as she strapped in.

Mike was preparing his 1-34. In its time, the single-place Schweizer 1-34 was considered very high performance. It had clean lines and was fully aerobatic. This was in stark contrast to the lower performance club 1-26 I was flying. And unlike June's ship, rebuilt from scratch and newly painted, my 1-26, 92U, while mechanically sound, showed the effects of time with its fading yellow paint and scratched canopy. But in wave flying it is more about minimum sink rate than cosmetics or gliding distance. When it came to getting the most climb rate out of the weather, the single-place club 1-26 was a star.

The tow planes lined up for connection to the cascade of waiting sailplanes. June had just taken off and Mike was next. The line person connected the tow rope to his ship and gave acknowledgment. Soon the 1-34 was rolling and off. Now it was my turn. I set the altimeter to zero, the custom for sailplanes restricted to the local airport, and completed the last phase of the checklist just in time to give the thumbs up to the wing runner, followed by a wag of the rudder to signal ready. With similar rudder acknowledgment from the tow plane I was on my way.

The 1-26 broke ground quickly and soon we were climbing at an incredible rate. Although the L-19 tow plane is powerful and the 1-26 light, the 2,000-foot-per-minute climb rate could only be explained by the weather, specifically, wave weather. Further, the climb rate was increasing, not typical with increasing altitude during the tow.

I'd arranged to be towed to 4,000 feet above ground level. Other pilots reported success entering the wave at lower altitudes, but I wanted more buffer. At 3,500 feet some puffy cumulus clouds appeared. No big deal, I mused as we passed 3,800, 3,900, finally reaching 4,000 feet. I pulled the release and peeled off to the right. The variometer was pinned at 1,000 feet per minute ascent rate. I must be right in it, I thought. It was indeed just like an elevator. The mountain fell away below as I floated seemingly motionless with an indicated airspeed no greater than 45 knots. What a way to celebrate!

Wave lift is perhaps the most interesting of the three forms of lift available to sailplanes. Unlike ridge and thermal lift, wave imparts its lifting energy via a harmonic referred to as a standing wave because the rising (and descending) air tends to stay in the same place relative to the ground and the triggering obstruction. Much like the ripples seen in a river downstream of a rock just below the surface, large undulating airwaves can be created by wind impacting a mountain ridge. But unlike ripples in water, a mountain triggered wave can build high into the atmosphere, producing lift on the rising side that often reaches altitudes many times greater than the enabling land form. There can also be secondary and tertiary waves. Similar to the primary wave located just to the lee of the mountain, secondary and beyond waves can also produce lift on their rising air sides many miles downwind.

In the afternoon sun, the thin layers of stratus to the west produced a brilliant yellow-orange hue. Similarly, there were colorful formations above, but unlike the clouds over the mountain, these took on the form of the wave itself. It was like viewing an upside-down ocean, motionless, with swells larger than any sea.

Mike was putting the 1-34 through its paces executing one inside loop after another, and June quickly joined in. I wanted to make it the three musketeers, but the combination of no parachute, no aerobatic training, and little sailplane experience in general caused prudence to prevail.

I decided instead to climb in an effort to gauge the wave's maximum amplitude. The variometer read 600 feet per minute, so, unlike the experience at the lower levels, the trip up was a bit slower. Still, Mike and June were soon left far behind as I climbed to 8,000 feet and beyond.

By the time I reached the wave's top, a little lower than 10,000 feet, I could barely see my friends below. Wisps of clouds had formed at all levels partially obstructing the view. It was also getting darker, especially to the west where the setting sun was almost entirely obscured by a horizon of gray hovering over the mountain.

There is that moment when an ominous sense of concern occurs, like experiencing a certain kind of shiver. Nothing bad has happened yet, but that feeling of impending doom quickly intensifies. Seeing the scattered layer below look more broken every second with the ground partially obscured was worrisome. Further, Mike and June's sailplanes, security blankets of a sort, had vanished. It was time to descend. But the deployment of full spoilers and dive brakes produced only a relatively slow descent rate of 500 feet per minute. This was far slower than the 800 to 1,000 feet per minute I'd expected. The wave was still working and, if anything, getting stronger. Further, there was a new problem. The number of holes in the broken layer was rapidly decreasing. If I couldn't reach the undercast in time, there would be no way to know the ship's orientation or location during the final descent to pattern altitude. Given I had no instrument training and the 1-26's instrument suite contained just a compass, altimeter, variometer and airspeed indicator, cloud penetration would be an improvisational act at best.

I pointed the nose for one of the larger holes and hoped it would stay open long enough to get through. Below and to the west stood a 4,000-foot mountain. There was also a 3,000-foot ridge close by to the east. The prospect of vertically traversing an opaque cloud deck to below mountain height was becoming both more likely and increasingly unappealing.

At 6,000 feet it became clear the hole would be very small or gone by the time I arrived. During school we never talked about flying in clouds, let alone the right technique to employ. Still, there seemed to be three options: 1) Remain aloft until the weather improved, 2) Descend through the clouds in a spiral dive trying not to overstress or overspeed the aircraft, or 3) Spin the sailplane through the clouds and hope that ceilings would be sufficiently high to allow for a recovery.

Although waiting for the weather to improve might have worked given enough time, it was late afternoon and soon the grayness would turn into blackness. I didn't want to add the challenge of night to what was already a serious emergency.

The small footprint of the spiral dive and spin maneuvers assured a better chance of avoiding the mountain and ridgeline. But both had their pitfalls. The spiral dive would have to be conducted precisely using the compass to gauge rate of turn, while monitoring airspeed to avoid overstressing the aircraft. Even with full spoilers and dive brakes deployed it wasn't clear a structural breakup couldn't occur. The spin would be relatively gentle in comparison, but for this maneuver to work there would have to be enough distance between the ground and the ceiling above to recover. Further, there was the possibility of suffering from vertigo while turning rapidly through the cloud deck.

Approaching the undercast at 4,000 feet I saw the last hole disappear. Given that the wave was still working I briefly thought about loitering in hope of finding another hole. But the undercast was getting thicker. Waiting was just going to make the descent without visual reference longer.

Using a vague sense of my position relative to the last clear opening, I committed to the descent. Using full spoilers and dive brakes I began the spiral dive setting a rate of turn of approximately one complete 360 every 20 seconds. I wanted everything stabilized before entering the cloud. Airspeed was increasing, but slowly. The combination drag from the spoiler dive brake system was inhibiting acceleration.

I went to 3,900, 3,800, 3,700, puff, then total gray as the ship entered the cloud layer. I froze the stick intending the static configuration to produce a constant rate of turn and an indicated airspeed just below redline. The altimeter read 3,500 feet. I was below the mountain. It was dark. At 3,000 feet it started to rain with large droplets covering the canopy.

While delighted that the dive had stabilized, there was no sign of the ground. Depressing! Now at 2,000 feet I wondered whether my flying might catastrophically end with only 13.5 hours total time.

Finally, at 1,800 agl, I broke out. Although disoriented, I was ecstatic that the ship was right side up, in one piece, and flying. I could see the ground too. Soon I got my bearings. And, amazingly, I was only a quarter mile from the airport. The emergency descent through clouds had worked!

My landing wasn't anything near perfect, but I was down. A small crowd approached 92U. Mike and June were there with disapproving looks. "You were very lucky," Mike scolded. "The examiner wants to talk to you."

At this point in my flying, I wasn't sure how licenses were revoked, but the end seemed inevitable. This will be some kind of record, I thought. How many people both obtain their private pilot's license and lose it in the same day?

Examiner Machone was, actually, quite generous in his assessment of my wave adventure. After complimenting me for not getting killed and warning me not to get caught on top again, he noted that seeing the weather go from good to bad so rapidly was an excellent lesson. And so it has been. Reflecting on the conditions that day, I learned that visible moisture, and the unsettled weather often associated with it, can form spontaneously in one place. Mountain waves are excellent laboratories for this because their inherent structure is relatively stable. This leaves the nature of the weather within to be determined by subtle changes in temperature, dew point and other factors like the angle and intensity of the sun.

Happily, both the pilot and his license survived to see another day. This was early education with many interesting opportunities for learning to come.

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