This segment is a crash course in how to do ridge transitions. We start out with the Catfish Ridge transition as it is the first one that many pilots will encounter in their ridge training. This little offset has all the features of a transition and gives our pilots a great way to practice their transition technique.
Ridge transitions often require a lot of attention in a ridge flight. These are areas where we have to cross from one ridge section to another, often due to the shape or current conditions making a section not work well enough to support the glider. These crossings are “hinge points”, as you are more likely to find sink, or a non-working section of ridge while completing a transition. Many ridge-related landouts are due to transitions going wrong.
When a transition goes wrong, you have to execute a landing very quickly in sporty conditions. A couple seconds here or there could make a big difference in the outcome.
Having extra altitude and margin goes a long way to mitigating the risk.
While flying the ridge, you should be completely aware of all the transitions on the ridge you intend to fly. You should recognize that you are approaching a transition point as you are flying the ridge. Next, you should have scouted the landing options at the base of the ridge, should the transition go wrong. You should find them and plan out your approach before you begin the jump.
There are five steps a transition:
Gain altitude (Float up in the ridge band or thermal)
As you approach a transition, it usually pays to slow down early and gain altitude. By working your way up into the higher lift band, you can make the ridge do the work of giving you sufficient altitude, rather than struggling to climb later.
The amount of height you will need depends on the conditions, your experience, and your glider. We often give some numbers for pilots to start out with, such as ~2100ft MSL for the Catfish Ridge transition. When we provide these values, we are giving pilots “the highest common denominator” with respect to altitude. The height that you would make it across assuming you run a bad line with a less favorable wind direction. But with more experience, you can judge the conditions on a day-by-day basis.
Pick your line
A big decision is deciding where you are going to jump off from. The simplest way to do it is to simply find the shortest line; get as high and as close as you can to where you want to go and make a beeline across to the other side. However, this neglects the effect of the air in between. Often transitions will have thermals or energy lines that line up consistently due to local terrain features. It often pays to run “a good line” upwind and maintain higher altitude rather than simply taking the shortest path. Conversely, making a transition in strong sink into a strong headwind will make your altitude evaporate very quickly and you may not make it across.
Probe the air
When you start a transition, you are not immediately committed to going all the way across; you can test out the waters. If the transition is working out well and you are generally maintaining your altitude, that’s good. If you start hitting sink and dropping out, you can still turn around and try again.
Point of no return
There is a point when you can no longer get back to the ridge you started from. You must recognize and acknowledge this point as you do your transitions. Once you have gotten beyond the point of no return, you will either make it across, or land in a field that you have scouted out in case the transition does not work out.
If you have extra altitude and you are going upwind, your point of no return can be delayed quite a while. Downwind jumps will reach this point a lot earlier as you get blown too far downwind to make it back very quickly.
Commit to the transition
This is less the case in small jumps like to the Catfish ridge, but there are instances in large transitions that you get beyond the point of no return and may or may not be able to make it across. This is the case such as if you are trying to do big upwind transition and you are in the middle of the valley, considering whether you have enough energy to safely go over the top of the mountain. During this stage, you are considering your landing options along the way. As you get closer, you decide whether you will want to commit to the transition and continue over the top of the mountain.
Doing Transitions Low
In the videos, we explored how to do transitions by the book and what happens when you do them marginally. As you get lower, factors such as the wind direction can play a significant role as to whether you will make it across or not. If the wind angle is off and you have a significant headwind component, you may have to go a long way into lee sink, headwind and around a corner to find a working section of ridge. You will lose a lot of altitude along the way.
Next, we see how the stages shift based on your margins. If you’re low, you will reach the point of no return sooner. This commits you much earlier and you are taking a greater chance of coming up short and landing in a field.
In sum, a couple hundred feet here or there makes a BIG difference in ridge transitions. Stay ahead of the steps, know your outs, and maintain your margins.