Diamonds may be a girl's best friend...
Written by Jim Kellett
I'm back!! And glad to be here. Someday when you have an hour to spare, ask me about my bike ride!!
And greeting me when I got back was one of the nicest soaring reports I've read in a LONG time, from Skyliner Bill Vickland. Hearty congratulations are due to Bill for his finally succeeding in getting his diamonds "the hard way"!!
Diamonds May be a Girl's Best Friend, But a 1-26 Pilot Can't Get One Without Friends
....Bill Vickland (1-26 No. -238)
My quest to get all three diamonds in my 1-26, and in my own backyard, has finally been fulfilled. What would seem to be the easiest leg, the Diamond Altitude, was in fact, the most elusive. But after several tries dating back to 1980, the accomplishment of the task seems too easy. The difficult part of the task turned out to be, not the altitude gain, but coping with the tow, the cold temperatures at altitude, and to a lesser extent, the final climb for the last 2000 feet.
Before we get into the detail, it is important to note that none of the accomplishments leading to the triple diamond award in a 1-26 can be accomplished without the support of people who are almost as dedicated as the pilot. Without this kind of support, it is doubtful that many pilots, especially 1-26 pilots could accomplish the tasks required to obtain the diamond badge. But more on this subject later.
During the past 16 years, I have traveled the 120 miles from Washington D.C. to Petersburg, West Virginia about ten times to attend the wave camps sponsored by Tom Knauff from Ridge Soaring Gliderport (now Keystone Gliderport, by Gerry Gaudet of Woodbine Gliderport, and for the last two years, the Skyline Soaring Club. Several years ago, when the two commercial operations discontinued the wave camps, Al Dresner (189), Robert Penn and I created the Appalachian Soaring Association in order to maintain the FAA waiver for the wave window at Petersburg. This year, as with many prior years, the scheduled Skyline Soaring Club wave camp week in early February produced only one soarable day which produced a maximum altitude of only 15,000 feet.
Each prior year, I had hoped to find a tow pilot/glider pilot who would also like to do the task as Al Dresner and I have done in the past. But each year, after the one week wave camp was over, it seems that my hopes were dashed. This year, John Ayers agreed to tow for me although he had no immediate plans for glider awards.
I had been watching the weather for several weeks, waiting for winds upwards of 25 kts, coming from 310 degrees, plus or minus 30 degrees. On Sunday, February 17, it was apparent that a very large air mass would be moving through the east within the next week that would place a low in the northeastern states and a high to the South. By Wednesday, the winds were 80 kts at 6000 feet going up to 110 kts at 18,000 feet. Not only were these too strong for a 1-26, but they were accompanied by cloud cover. Saturday looked like the right day. Clear weather was predicted and the high and low pressure systems were correctly placed. Winds aloft forecasts indicated that the winds would be about 47 kts all the way from 6,000 feet to 24,000 feet, and would be coming from 310 degrees.
John and I met at Grant County Airport at about 9:30, assembled the 1-26 and warmed up the Scout. John and I decided to take a trip around the area together in the Scout to determine the existence and location of the primary and secondary waves. We could not find a secondary wave at all, but we did experience the extreme turbulence of the primary rotor.
The geographic characteristics of the area west of Petersburg produce an ideal wave generator. The surface elevation increases gradually from 1000 feet msl in the Ohio valley 50 or 60 miles away, reaching 4000 feet msl at the Allegheny plateau eight miles west of Petersburg. At that point, the surface drops 3,000 feet to the base of a deep valley formed between the edge of the plateau and a 3000 ft mountain ridge only three miles east of the plateau. >From the ridge, the surface drops to about 1,000 feet in the large scenic valley in which Petersburg is located. The runway is perfectly aligned into the wind, making the airport an ideal location for wave flying activity.
The primary wave is generally either located directly over the valley on the edge of the Allegheny plateau, or just downwind of the first ridge line. The primary rotor is therefore located over the small deep valley, or between the ridge and the airport. Sometimes, a secondary wave is located at the eastern (takeoff) end of the airport. This secondary wave can often be entered at only 1,000 feet above the field, making it possible to make the diamond altitude gain without exceeding 19,000 feet. Wave activity is also augmented by two river valleys that cut the rising plateau perpendicular to the edge of the plateau that seem to increase the velocity and lift just downwind of the plateau. Down wind of these gullies, the lift is usually stronger, and is often the only lift that can be obtained at higher altitudes on week wave days.
At 12:30 we dragged the 1-26 by car out onto the grass surface next to the paved runway that would serve as our takeoff runway. John returned for the tow plane while I readied the 1-26. After performing his duties as the Official Observer, he hooked me up, restarted the Scout and took up the slack in the line. With a wave of the rudder, he was off. We circled the field to gain enough altitude to enter the rotor with some safety margin.
Several years ago, with Al Dresner towing, we went straight into the rotor after climbing out straight ahead from the runway. When the turbulence became too great to stay with him, I released. After one turn in the up side of the rotor, I was swept in to the downside, with a sink rate of about 2,000 fpm. With two thousand feet above the airport and only three miles from the end of the runway, I was forced to land in an open field. It took us the rest of the day to get the 1-26 out of the mud.
I did not want a repeat performance on this try so we did not leave the airport until we reached 2,000 feet agl. As soon as we moved toward the ridge, the turbulence level went from rough to extreme. The tow line was seldom taught, and I was seldom directly behind the tow plane. We frequently had roll inputs of 45 degrees and differences in altitude of 100 feet. The tow rope went seriously slack on four occasions, each time causing me to turn out to one side to prevent a dangerous loop from occurring. As we got into the rotor, my trace showed that at one point we lost more than 300 feet, only to shoot up again to our previous altitude. We had clearly crossed the down side of the rotor into the up side. Only this time the vertical acceleration was so great that the glider wanted to climb above the tow plane. I was unable to use spoilers because I had a death grip on the underside of my instrument panel. And as I put the nose down to keep from climbing over the tow plane, my airspeed increase to the point that I might have been flying formation with the Scout.
Needless to say, with the tow rope completely out of sight at 4,000 msl, I released, Only then, I assessed the choices of diving into the wind for the ridge or turning tail for the airport only three miles behind me. I went for the ridge with the option to break off if it did not look like I could reach the ridge and smooth lift with at least 3,500 feet msl. In 43 seconds that seemed like an hour, I broke through the rotor directly over the ridge and was suddenly floating in smooth air, rising at 1500 fpm. It took another three minutes to relax. The premature release and dive was fortunate however, because it resulted in a loss of 350 feet which was barely the margin that I needed to make the 5,000 meter climb.
I climbed to 15,000 feet at an average of about 700 fpm, and then did a very dumb thing. I left the strong lift to fly southwest about five miles to align myself with the river valleys that cut up through the Allegheny plateau, thinking that I would get stronger lift and complete the task in less than an hour. From that point on, I never saw an average lift better than 200 fpm even after I aligned myself with the river valley. What was worse, no matter which direction I moved, north, south or west, the lift did not improve. I climbed slowly reaching 19,400 which I thought to be the minimum I needed, but without a safety margin.
As I bathed in the warm sunlight, I watched the vario diminish to zero and then indicate down. In checking my position, I discovered that I had been blown downwind, behind the ridge line. "What gives," I thought, "I am flying at 50 kts in what was forecast as 47 kt winds and I am being blown backwards. And this did not account for the additional 20 kts in true airspeed that I should realise because of my altitude." I dove forward, now losing 2,000 hard gained feet, to reposition the ship in the best lift of about 150 fpm. Slowly I regained to and altitude of 19,000 feet, and again the lift quit again, and again I discovered that while flying now at 55 kts in a forecast 47 kts, I was blown backwards. Again, I lost 2,000 feet in diving forward, reestablished my position, this time cruising at 58 kts, but not gaining altitude as fast because of my higher speed and sink rate. This time I was careful to maintain my cruising speed and position, and when I reached my indicated minimum altitude, now freezing cold, I decided to slow to 48 kts to increase my lift while being blown backwards. It worked, I climbed another 400 feet in two minutes before I fell back into the downside of the wave.
Cold and frustrated that I could not gain more than a 400 foot margin, I allowed the ship to slip back into the downside of the wave, pulled on the spoilers and started a 30 minute descent, not really sure that my margin was sufficient. Immediately, on turning away from the sun, I began to shiver. I had placed catalytic hand warmers in my boots near my toes that seemed to work, although not as well as expected. I did not notice that any of the rest of me was frozen until I landed. On descending through 5,000 feet I encountered the sickening turbulence that was only slightly more tolerable than while on tow. However, below 3,000 feet MSL the turbulence subsided and the landing was uneventful.
John met me at the glider, took the barograph and helped me out of the glider. Only then did I realize that my heals had nearly frozen, and lacked enough feeling to permit me to walk normally. Looking like a ruptured duck, we walked to the pilot lounge to get a cup of coffee and warm up.
We returned to John's farm that evening, and after dinner examined the trace to determine if in fact I had made it. First we converted the release point from meters to feet and then the high point, and when we subtracted them, the calculations indicated that I had gained 16,350 feet. I was about to pull out my hair when John said, "Wait a minute, the FAI requirement is 5,000 meters. Your high point is 6190 meters and the low point is 1120 meters. That means you gained 5070 meters." On closer examination, we determined that the conversion factor we obtained from the Farmers Almanac was not accurate. That scare stayed with me until I received the barograph back from calibration indicating that it was accurate to within 32 feet in the altitude range of my flight. With 70 meters for a safety margin, it looked good for the diamond.
As I was driving home from John's farm, a distance of about 100 miles, I reflected on the day, and upon those other days involving both successful and unsuccessful flights in all of the attempts, spanning about 20 years, to obtain all three diamond legs. I each case there was always one or two people who dedicated their day to help me achieve my goal. The sparkplug for all of this activity was Dudley Mattson (074), who would call me at 4:00 in the morning and tell me that this was the day for the diamond distance flight and that he and Bob Collier (289) were ready to head out. He would then call Bob and tell him the same thing and the three of us would do a task. He was not there when I achieved the goal or distance flight, but he was responsible for getting me out there to try.
Bob and Tracy Collier dedicated an entire day to crew for me when I made the diamond goal flight, and as yet, I have not had the opportunity to reciprocate (Dudley where are you?). When I did the diamond distance flight, wife Joan crewed as she has done many, many times, and on that day, Bob Collier and Key Dismukes (193) were on hand to rescue me when they thought I had gone down somewhere on course. Bob and I were both attempting the task, with Bob about 30 minutes ahead of me. We were in radio communication for the first hour and then my battery went dead. I heard him tell my wife that I had probably gone down on the other side of the ridge. When I did not return eight hours later as dusk came, Key and Bob rented a Cessna 172 to search my course and see if they could find me. I returned to my starting point after eight and a half hours while they were still out searching.
Al Dresner was equally supportive in many diamond altitude attempts. He and I would spend two or three days at a time at Petersburg, taking turns towing and flying. And finally, this latest flight was supported by John Ayers who took a day out of a busy schedule from work and from building his own home, hangar and airstrip to serve as official observer and tow pilot.
It is very obvious that success is not attributable to the pilot alone, but comes from the support of best friends who seem to take satisfaction in supporting these attempts. Therefore, I wish to thank all of them for their support and to publicly notify them that I am available, with tow plane, to serve as observer, crew and tow pilot for any prospective diamond seekers, but especially Bob Collier and Al Dresner. However, I might call upon Dudley to do the 4:00 AM telephone calls.