06-07-22 | Where Are the Thermals?

The first day of the Nationals was a doozy. In the morning, we were greeted with large puddles on the runway and gray skies. A couple raindrops even fell while we were assembling the Duo. So it was all the more surprising when I joined the task advisor meeting to hear that Mitch was thinking about a 300km assigned task. He was very excited about the day and figured it should kick off very nicely. I was a bit more pessimistic, so I carefully suggested to have some shorter alternatives planned out in case it failed to cook.

When we gridded the 14 Standard Class gliders and 9 20M gliders, we were surprised that a strong northerly wind had set up down the runway. This was no bueno because launching with a tailwind is a bad idea. So we proceeded to do our first elephant walk of the contest, with everyone scrambling to haul their white beasts down the runway. Noah insisted he wanted to push the glider on his own, with the Duo looking like a German Shephard being forced to move off the couch. After the puppy dog eyes wistfully looked up and away, it slowly moved down the length of the runway.

Much to Mitch’s frustration, cumulus clouds set up north and south of the airport, but just out of reach for a contest launch. Stuck in the middle of the blue hole, the moderately strong wind brought cool air, which was appreciated by the ground crew, but not by the pilots who wanted to get up and away. Sylvia and Dave McMaster went up to sniff and struggled mightily to stay up. They clawed at or slightly below release altitude for a good hour before the ground moisture finally evaporated enough for the local temperatures to rise. Mitch finally relented to a Task B and ultimately even to a two hour minimum time class C. Noah and I were toward the back of the grid and we only got airborne around 2:45pm or so.

With few cumulus clouds in the area, several gaggles formed to be in fighting distance of the start. We merged in with the main start gaggle and waited patiently through around 3:40pm to start. The gamble today was that later resulted in drier ground, though at risk of the day bluing out. The thermals on course were heterogeneous. While they were marked by cumulus clouds, they were bubbly and the clouds did not reveal the positioning of the lift underneath all that well. We struggled across the Arkansas River going into the first turn, though climbed out of that one in a solid 4-5 knotter through 6000ft. Going into the second leg, we were hoping that the conditions had finally kicked off, so I advised pressing a bit harder toward a forest fire ahead.

That was a mistake and ultimately a very bad read on the tactical situation. For the day was drying out rapidly and after passing two 2-3 knot thermals, the fire thermal failed to materialize and we were getting into trouble. As we got into the second sector, we found ourselves flailing near the dirt, trying mightily to find a climb, any climb. We fled downwind, and then went even deeper into the sector, well above minimum time, all trying to find a way to finally get reconnected. Around this time, we saw Piet Barber in QQ (affectionately referred to as Quack Quack) landed out in a field below us.

We finally connected with a solid three knot thermal, though now the southern wind had picked up and the conditions back toward home were totally blue. We patiently milked all the lift up to around 6,500ft and ventured into the blue.

The air was smooth. The Duo silently settled lower and lower. We looked ahead and saw a small lake and figured that it might trigger a decent thermal. As we reached around 1,500ft AGL, sure enough we connected with a long, and slow climb. I sat silently as Noah was grinding around each turn, looking ahead and trying to judge where we could find the next climb

On the next glide, we settled on trying to find some lift at the edge of a more forested section. We connected with a wind line and struggled to climb. After some finagling in one knot that petered out, we held our breath as we went straight into the wind and hoping to find another bubble. Sure enough, another 1.5 knots and we were climbing up, up and away.

The thermal gave out once we had a MC 1.5 final glide with 50ft margin. We slowed down to 65 knots, figuring our polar degraded due to all the bugs. The Duo stretched and stretched across the horizon and we just barely floated on home to the finish. We crossed the line at 6:30pm, a good hour later than we had planned.

In our class, half of the folks landed out or started their engines. We were the last of the finishers, though we weren’t punished too severely for our foibles earlier on task. Noah and I noted that the feel of the last leg was very much like a Worlds, where you milk out every last bit of lift toward the end of the day. It felt good to make it home!

We thank the Harris Hill club for supporting us at this contest by letting us use their Duo Discus. This glider is an absolute marvel of performance and it has made it possible for us to compete at the highest level among the best pilots in the United States. We really appreciate all the work it takes for clubs to make these opportunities happen.

See race results here.

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