Monday, September 27, 2010

Cloud Appreciation Society

I recently joined the Cloud Appreciation Society. I've often visited their site to look at photos of clouds (I could look at them for ages) and after a commercial flight where I watched an English documentary about the founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, I joined my 5 year old daughter. It was cheap - just £4 and they sent her a lovely certificate on heavy card/paper and a little badge to wear.
Cb by Frank Hiemstra

Clouds are important for aspiring glider pilots. My daughter and I love laying on our backs on the grass looking at clouds and imagining what shapes they remind us of and I have been teaching her how to identify cloud types. She can easily recognise Cumulus and Cirrus clouds now and understands (I think) how Cumulus clouds mark thermals. My wife of course can even look at a sky and state that it's "over-developed," though I suspect this is often a ploy to convince me a day was better spent at home than at the gliding strip.

Even my two-year-old can now call out "look, a Cumulus cloud!" and be right most of the time.

So after some encouragement from my daughter, I joined up last week. I'm still waiting on my certificate and badge to arrive from the UK, but I'm member 23 thousand and something. It's quite an organisation and I encourage people to browse the many wonderful cloud photos on the site.

So to the cloud photo that illustrates this posting. It's a lovely big Cumulonimbus taken by Dutch National Gliding Team Member Frank Hiemstra in the Slovak Republic, during the training days for the 2010 World Gliding Championships. I saw it while I was browsing his Flikr stream here and Frank kindly gave me permission to use it here.

He's clearly a cloud fan because most of his photo streams contain one or two dramatic cloud photos but he didn't let them distract him from tasks in the Club Class of the WGC, taking third place on Day 7. So thanks Frank and good luck in future, and I encourage everyone to check out the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Monday, September 20, 2010

My longest flight so far

After a long period of work and family committments, I found a Sunday when I could be entirely selfish and spend a day at the club. The day before had been a lovely warm Saturday, but with ominous cirrus indicating a cooler day to come. Our club's resident meteorologist had forecast reasonable days on the weekend, so in a gloomy overcast Sunday morning I fired the car up for the 55km trip to Camden.


The weather's often quite different at Camden compared with Sydney, so the local conditions near my house are no indication of what's happening at the strip.

It was clearer at the strip when I got there (and helped the duty pilot get the aircraft out and washed and DI'd), but there was a lot of high cirrus, with areas of cirrostratus to the north, so it looked like lift would be kept down.

I am now on check solo with the club, requiring a dual check with an instructor before each solo flight (5 in total before going to daily checks), so I had my first check flight, which the instructor considered as "a bit mechanical". He suggested a second check flight immediately, saying "you can be smoother Brian", and I was smoother on tow, doing coordinated turns this time and with a much smoother landing. He signed me off for solo and then the waiting started.

It wasn't too busy a day at the club - only one Air Experience Flight (AEF) booked for 12 noon and only three students including myself competing for two training aircraft (our ASK-21 and the ASK-13). The AEF didn't turn up, so it was not a long wait before I was able to go up.

The day had improved somewhat and the flight before mine had managed a 50 minute flight, with the instructor indicating that there was a little lift around (1-2 knots) but you needed to work for it. On my first and second check flights there were a few scattered Cu's, but not far above them, clear small lenticular clouds, indicative of wave. The two airmasses were crossing each other and making things bumpy underneath. By the time I lifted off for my solo flight (only my second at Camden) things had changed and there were larger dark Cu's in an overcast sky (higher cloud) with some blue patches.

Takeoff and tow were those wonderful sensations of lightness and bouyancy from being one person in a two-seater. Quickly got to 3,000 and bunged off and then started wandering about the sky. On this initial flight I had no more plans than making sure I did more than a circuit. I knew I could fly a circuit by myself, I now wanted to see if I could get around the sky and stay up by myself.

Over Camden
It helped that there was some lift about and I quickly found that I could find and centre (reasonably well at first and better later in the flight) lift under these Cu's and I worked up from 2,500 feet to a dizzying (for me) 3,800 feet, near cloudbase! This was wonderful - I circled and thermalled with the vario beeping at me, keeping a lookout for other aircraft (the glider I was in - NKC the club's ASK-21 - is fitted with a Flarm and it regularly told me about other gliders in the air with me, mostly west of me) and exploring. I flew south to the high ground of Razorback, pointed my nose towards the Oaks, (which I couldn't really see, it was hazy as anything up there), headed east back over Camden and well upwind of the strip and just generally flew the glider around. I saw jets and prop planes passing by overhead, spotted other gliders, looked down at birds below me and took lots of photos.

I was ecstatic and had to keep checking that I wasn't all tensed up. A couple of times I found myself with my legs and feet braced as though I was riding a horse and I had to remind mysefl to relax and enjoy things. It took me about 40 minutes before everything smoothed out and I really calmed down and actually enjoyed the sensation of flying about and seeing the sights. I ended up thermalling south of the downwind end of the runway, seeing a single-seater and the K-13 flying beneath me. Lovely.

After almost an hour I thought I should return the glider so others could enjoy the day. The problem now was to lose all the height I had built up. I flew upwind, finding lots of lift, but not pursuing it. Over Camden I circled to lose some height, but I was surprised how long it took me to get back down to joining height.

And as is usual with probably every gliding club in the world, downwind and base were a sea of lift. I had to extend downwind a lot more than I'm used to because I'd lost little height in downwind, so I had a nice long final down to a smooth and pleasant landing.

At one hour 8 minutes, it was my longest flight so far, and even more satisfying was starting to work out that I can do more than just fly a circuit - that I may actually be able to fly a glider successfully by myself!