January 28, 2010

Day One of the 2010 SSA Convention

The first day of the 2010 SSA convention was a resounding success. Thanks to everyone who was able to stop by my presentation. There were lots of great questions and I'll be spending the next few days tracking down the answers. If you have any questions or have comments please post them here.

For those who are looking, here are the links to the maps i showed during the presentation:
Evergreen Soaring
Tehachapi Soaring

Keep soaring,

January 24, 2010

Cross Country Planning Tool - Google Maps

This week's post is inspired by my upcoming visit to Little Rock, AR for the SSA Convention where I will be giving a presentation Thursday at 10:00 in Ballroom C on the topic of Using Google Maps for cross country planning.

I started flying cross country the weekend after I became a licensed glider pilot. It was always my goal, fly beyond glide of the airport. Luckily where I learned to fly cloud bases we always very low so I didn't need to go far to get out of glide. The issue was, as soon as I lost sight of the airport I lost sight of my confidence as well. I realized early on that to fly like the experienced pilots in my club I needed the knowledge of their experiences, but being wet behind the ears I didn't want to wait to gain it. At the time there was an old topo map in the clubhouse that provided some information - local airports, names of local mountains and ridges, etc - but it was in the club house and I couldn't study it every night. What I needed was an online map that contained all the local knowledge that I could gather from club members that could also support future soaring pilots looking to go cross country from our home field or the airports we visit throughout the year. What was developed is shown below; using Google's My Maps utility I employed all the members in my club to add a few bits of information to a map so that their knowledge would be available to all.

View Evergreen Soaring - Local Spots in a larger map

What I ended up with was a great repository for all the local knowledge that I gained on each flight along with what all the other pilots flying with me learned. Immediately we had a place to post pictures, information, and details about a new land out field; the same day someone lands out! It was easy to add markers for the local house thermals, the local ridge with the name that we call it - which doesn't appear on any map I have ever seen, land out fields were quickly populated, areas in the mountains where no glider pilot should willingly go, and hints on how to connect from one ridge to the next. When the winter wave season came around it became a great place to report wave entry points with wind directions to start a build a picture of the wave cross country possibilities. And for those who want to do more post flight analysis, the map can be exported along with any .klm file downloaded from the OLC to see if the pilot took advantage of any of the information presented on the map.

Here is my impression of why every club and airport should start a soaring map online -
  • A lot of people doing a little work creates something big
  • Search for mountain peaks, lakes, other geographic points of navigation
  • The map is available to everyone, everywhere, all the time (iPhone app)
  • Glider specific airport information, i.e. Landing patters, glider staging
  • Local and distant Landout options, where and where not to land
  • Ability to add photos to landout descriptions
  • Accurate terrain features, enough detail to recognize peaks and topo overlays are available
  • Each user input has a date and a link to the editor to verify currency of data
  • How to make crossings, how to connect lift, when and where to start
  • Publish dimensions and locations of wave windows and wave procedure
  • Location specific safety procedures; Procedure alpha, VOR locations for Reno ops, high traffic areas, etc.
  • Current weather overlays, links to webcams, Google webcams, other utilities
  • Local backup copy can be saved
  • Map the story of great flight – Alby’s Voyage
If you are attending the SSA convention and would like to learn more please stop by Convention Center Ballroom C at 10:00am on Thursday, January 28th. If you can't make it, I will be posting the presentation here next weekend.

Keep Soaring, but only if you know where you're going

January 10, 2010

Developing a Soaring Model in Flight

This post was inspired by an email from a local pilot that files out of Mountain Valley Airport here in Tehachapi, Ca. An excerpt is provide below.

Mark Grubb says:
You need to build a model of the airmass + wind +
terrain + sun angle and then test the model by putting your airplane
in the regions you define (based on your model) as good energy lines.
Based on the evidence you collect, you adjust the model and re-test.
Do this efficiently for 8 hours and you have flown 1000 km.

The most dangerous place to get into, IMO, is bumbling along, having
no idea of what is going on around you. Most of those "I flew into
massive sink / turbulence/Hand of God" are completely predictable if
one is acute enough to pick up on the many signals the world gives us.
Secondly, one must be skeptical and constantly testing the model.
Complacency is what has almost killed me twice. You must have
evidence that your model reflects reality or you are living in a

The concept is easy to describe but very difficult to master. I have been thinking about it more and more because I recently read this article by Gavin Wills on page 16 of Soaring-August 2002 (SSA membership required to access the article). The article wasn't written with the same intent as the quote from Mark, however the basic idea of building a picture of the sky ahead is at the crux of the article. Reading the article in this way has allowed me to extract a specific method for building a model accompanied by a very nice case study of it's implementation.

To build an atmospheric model you need to ask yourself a series of questions covering 3 basic topics: (I use the acronym ATE)

The state of the Airmass
The nature of the Terrain ahead
Where is the Energy going to be

To understand the airmass you are flying in you need to know the wind at all altitudes, and the height, stability and moisture content of the boundary layer. Here are some examples of questions you might be asking while determining the state of the air mass.

What indications do I have for wind?
What has been the height of my past 3 thermals?
Is the day building or dying?
Is it a pre-frontal or post-frontal day?
How long until the day dies?
Are there Cu's ahead?

Terrain is more critical in mountain flying than for a day of flying in the plains, but it is always important to search for order in the chaos of a cu riddled sky, or worse yet a blue sky, over a flat seaming featureless surface. Here are a few examples of questions you should be asking to understand the terrain (hopefully) far below you.

What is the general direction of the most predominate terrain features (along track/cross track)?
Are there tall peaks, low ridges or a mix?
What is the surface like (Read Reichmann pg 4 - different heating rates of cereal crops vs trees etc)?
Are there options on you route (high ground vs low ground)?
Are there wind shelters to collect warm air on windy days?

Knowing where the atmosphere will have more or less energy is really the end goal of developing our model. The following questions require some additional information gathering but more so synthesis of the data collected in the Airmass and Terrain sections. Here are the questions you should be asking when thinking about Energy.

Where has the sun been hitting the ground?
Are there obvious thermal triggers around (peaks, rocks, tractors, etc)?
is there Ridge lift, wave lift?
Can you stay up wind?
Can you stay to the high ground?
Are there large bodies of water near that such energy?
Is there smoke that will limit solar heating and energy reaching the atmosphere?

You should be able to get to the point where this process takes only 30 seconds and requires minimum effort and minimum additional information gathering; because presumably you should have been paying attention to these things all along. I use the term, "you" collectively because this is specifically something I need to work on. Once you have built your atmospheric model use the tricks (stay up wind, run ridge lift, etc) you have learned previously to exploit the energy available in the air. And continuously recheck you model to make sure things haven't changed.

The next post will be to support my presentation at the SSA convention in Little Rock, Arkansas. I will be presenting on using Google Maps as a tool for cross country prep and also how to share tribal knowledge with the My Map utility. Until then...

Keep soaring,

January 5, 2010

Soaring While Still on the Ground

Soaring is one of those activities where the anticipation is so great that it's hard not to spend your days daydreaming about it. On a recent trip from Harrisburgh, Pa to Binghamton, Ny I had an opportunity to do just that and I learn a lot in the process.

I left Harrisburgh at 11:15 on December 27th, had I been soaring it would have been a sled ride; but the air was crisp and clear and seasonably warm. I didn't think much about soaring until I saw the fist hints of convention around 12:15 near Pine Grove, Pa. This is where we introduce Weather Underground's historic data for the 27th in Scranton, Pa (the middle point of my journey). The data shows that the winds were between 6 and 16 mph, and the high was 43F with a dew point of 30F. At 12:15, when I spotted the first Cu, the temperature was about 39F. it was low, about 2500' agl appropriate for the temp-dew point spread. What was interesting was how fast the day developed. Here is a sequence of photos for the 1.5 hours following the first Cu spotting.

Pine Grove, Pa - looking north at 12:15

Minersville, Pa - Looking west at 12:45

Hazleton, Pa - Looking north at 1:30

Looking at the photos, it is interesting to see how quickly the day developed, and how much development there turned out the be. The south west wind formed streets on the predominately SW to NE running Appalachian mountains helped by the low sun angle all day. What is missing from the photo sequence is how quickly the day ended. The historical data shows the peak temperature of 42F at 1:00pm with a quick drop after that. By the time i arrived at my destination of Binghamton, Ny the day was well over.

While I was watching the clouds, I used the opportunity to run a number of different experiments. The results were obviously difficult to verify but by not having to worry about flying the airplane (only driving the car) I was able to spend to time thinking what I should be thinking while flying. Here is an example: in the second picture, how would you get from your current position to the best cloud, which is the best cloud, and what is the expected thermal strength under that cloud? These are all questions that the best pilots will know how to answer, using this light workload time to think about how to answer them is time on the ground that is time well spent.

If you are interested like me, there were only 7 flights in the US on December 27th, 6 were in California/Nevada and 1 in North Carolina.

Keep soaring - even if it's on the ground,