This article is all about how I approach flying at new soaring sites and describes what I put into practice during recent visits to the Blue Ridge Soaring Society in New Castle, Virginia and to the Skylark North gliderport in Tehachapi, California. New Castle and Tehachapi are my last stops before heading to Szeged, Hungary for the 2019 Junior World Gliding Championships (JWGC). I’m flying a Discus-2a in Standard Class at the JWGC, and up until my visit to New Castle, I had never flown any model Discus, let alone a Discus-2a. Fortunately, Jim Frantz and Walt Rogers intervened. Jim arranged for me to fly his Discus-2b, “2H,” at New Castle over Memorial Day Weekend. Walt Rogers then took over and arranged for me to fly his Discus-2a, “WX,” in the last few weeks before my departure for Hungary.
Before flying at any new soaring site, you’ll obviously want to familiarize yourself with the basics: where to rig and de-rig, how to tow your glider to the grid, launch and landing procedures, traffic patterns, etc. Some local procedures are less obvious – for example, not all soaring sites use the standard SSA tow signals (if in doubt, ask!). Then consider the local airspace – are there towered airports or military training routes nearby? Can you expect a high volume of IFR or jet traffic? Talking with an experienced local pilot or CFIG goes a long way towards answering these questions. Plus, these pilots can get your directions to the nearest house thermal.
What about rope breaks? Do you brief your emergency plan before each takeoff? I do. Every soaring site is different, so here’s where talking with that experienced local pilot or CFIG really goes a long way towards improving your situational awareness and safety. At New Castle, for example, you typically takeoff downhill (good), but the short runway and terrain surrounding the airfield (not so good) meant that even in a lightly loaded Discus-2b, I was only at 100-150 ft AGL at the end of the runway. If the rope breaks, you better instinctively know where you’re landing; there won’t be time to think about it. And better yet, go drive to the fields surrounding the airport. In early June in the Tehachapi valley, you’ll find irrigation systems in many of the fields surrounding the airport. While you’ll probably walk away from a forced landing, chances are you’ll also damage the glider. However, what about the 80 ft x 500 ft stretch of dirt road perpendicular to the runway? Now you’re good-to-go.
Finally, there are additional considerations if you’re planning on flying cross-country. New Castle and Tehachapi, for instance, are both technical mountain soaring sites with difficult transitions and limited landout options. As an example, consider how you transition back into the New Castle or Tehachapi valleys after a long cross-country flight (where can you expect to find your last thermal?), and more importantly, consider where you can safely land if something doesn’t work according to plan. Hints: at New Castle, you can land at the high school (I’m not kidding), and at Tehachapi, keep California City in glide. All of this adds an extra dimension to preflight planning.
Flying at new soaring sites can be challenging and may come with a steep learning curve, especially if you want to fly cross-country or are learning to fly in the mountains. However, you’ll sharpen your skills, meet new people, and most importantly, you’ll have fun! So go out and fly somewhere new this season!
Many thanks to Jim Frantz and Walt Rogers for sharing their ships to help me prepare for the JWGC and for hosting visits to New Castle and Tehachapi, respectively. Now I’m off to the JWGC – see you in Hungary!
Figure 1. New Castle International Airport, aka soaring paradise! Photo courtesy of Michael Marshall.
Figure 2. Soaring with Al Tyler (“8H”) over New Castle. Photo courtesy of Jim Frantz.
Figure 3. Thermaling with Dustin Mosher (aka “Red and White Cessna”) over the Tehachapi Valley. Photo courtesy of Michael Marshall.