Owens Valley’s World-Class Soaring

Finding Their Bliss– Fresh on the heels of Gordon Boettger’s recent, record-setting soaring adventures, more than 50 glider pilots converged on the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in recent weeks to similarly take advantage of the Owens Valley’s world-class soaring conditions.

gliderWith the aid of a tow plane, a glider begins to be lifted from the runway of the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop, where two separate groups of air sailing enthusiasts recently wrapped up annual encampments. Together, the events drew more than 50 pilots to the airport for roughly 17 days of flights. Photo by Sterling Schat PhotographyNo new records have been set locally since Boettger and copilot Hugh Bennett rode a Sierra wave cloud for 2,200 kilometers – approximately 1,367 miles – in 13 hours back in April, claiming the Northern Hemisphere record for distance around three turn-points.

But that doesn’t mean the four dozen-plus glider enthusiasts gathered in Bishop in late June and again over the Fourth of July weekend didn’t have such feats on their minds.
For many of the glider pilots attending the Ninth Annual Nevada Soaring Association Bishop Encampment, at least, going the distance was top priority.

“The biggest challenge in soaring is being able to fly far away,” said John Boyce of San Jose, one of 39 pilots attending the encampment and a 45-year soaring veteran. “For most of the soaring community, distance is regarded as an achievement, absolutely … believe it or not, altitude is usually less sought after than distance.”

Not Without Risks
It is a generally accepted truth that certain levels of safety most take for granted are removed once we leave the relative comfort of terra firma – whether it’s boarding a 757 to New York, hopping on a fishing vessel for an angling adventure at sea, scaling a granite wall in Yosemite or, like the dozens of seasoned pilots who have dedicated years of their free time and finances in the Eastern Sierra, soaring the skies in engine-less aircraft.

That’s not to say any of these activities or modes of travel are dangerous, per se, but each comes with inherent risks that are not only carefully weighed by their most passionate advocates, but also taken in stride.

Glider pilots, in particular, will be the first to point out that soaring – at least when done by experienced aviators in appropriate conditions – is no more dangerous than riding a motorcycle.
But they’re not capricious, either, taking unnecessary risks for thrills or glory; the unadulterated exhilaration of soaring, whether for leisure or record-breaking attempts, is quite enough.
These flyers, not unlike veteran mountaineers or climbers or extreme sports athletes, understand that disaster cannot be predicted – only prepared for – and accidents can happen within the blink of an eye.

It’s one of the reasons they cherish each and every moment among the clouds.

Back in Bishop
The Nevada Soaring Association Encampment drew 39 men and women from air sailing clubs in both Nevada and California for a week of flights out of the local airport. The first session of the encampment, which began June 22, saw 21 participating pilots; 18 fliers rounded out the encampment’s second session that ended June 29.

In addition to the NSA, Air Sailing, Inc. (which operates a not-for-profit gliding facility in Palomino Valley northeast of Reno), the Northern California Soaring Association, the Hollister Gliding Club, Silverado Soaring Association and the Bay Area Soaring Association also participated.

For seven days, for approximately six hours a day, the pilots took turns being towed by plane into the Owens Valley sky to glide and soar for as long and as far as nature and their own stamina would allow.

Takeoff times were drawn by lottery the night before, determining the order of the 5-6 flights per hour from about mid-morning to sunset (night-flying is a no-no for gliders).

“They start launching aircraft around 11:30 a.m. and it is the smoothest glider operation we have had at Bishop in the 10 years that I’ve been here,” Lead Airport Technician Ken Babione said. “It is sort of like watching the Navy launch planes off an aircraft carrier, but in slow motion.”

Participants ranged in age from their mid-20s to 69, their occupations running the gamut from flight instructors, airline pilots and corporate pilots, to teachers, electrical engineers, software engineers, physicists, Realtors, doctors.

There was one tow plane for all of them; its job to literally haul the gliders off the runway via a rope that’s detached mid-air once the glider pilot has found a sweet spot.
Such was the case – and general makeup – during the Soarfari’s annual Fourth of July encampment.

A tradition now more than 12 years old, the July 4 event brought 20 gliders and 30 pilots and crew members from the Costa Mesa, Orange County areas to the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport for a holiday weekend of soaring.

Because the only pilot in the Bishop area who used to offer tow plane services is now retired, the Soarfari group brought their own from Inyokern. (The NSA Encampment similarly brought along an old crop duster from Nevada.)

According to Larry Tuohino, regional governor for the Soaring Society of America and a member of Soarfari, lack of local tow plane services is about the only drawback to soaring out of Bishop – “one of the greatest places to fly sail planes in the world.”

It’s more of an inconvenience, Tuohino said, than anything that would deter glider pilots from taking advantage of the area’s prime soaring conditions.
Babione noted that a single tow plane didn’t seem to handicap the NSA Encampment participants much. “They managed to launch a glider every 15 minutes using only one tow plane,” he said.

The Conditions
If anything was a handicap this year, it was the weather: cooler than normal temperatures and high winds. “We started out a little slower than usual because temperatures are lower than usual,” said Neita Montague, member of Air Sailing, Inc., president of the Women Soaring Pilots Association and an air sailing instructor.

Staying airborne in a glider requires some kind of “lift,” essentially rising air to keep the motor-less craft aloft.

There are three main types of rising air: thermals (basically invisible “heat tornadoes” created by the heating of the earth’s surface); ridge lift (winds blowing against mountains or ridges); and wave lift (strong winds passing over mountains, pushed upward by warm air from below).

Because thermals are invisible, pilots have to look for certain tell-tale signs:  cumulus clouds – those large, puffy numbers with the dark, flat bases; dark-colored rocks or recently plowed fields; or even circling, soaring birds of prey, which can indicate they’re riding a thermal themselves.

Glider pilots can usually direct their tow plane pilot to a thermal with relative ease, then detach and ride the thermal, circling the rings of the “heat tornado” to the top in order gain the altitude necessary for cross-country flight.

Pilots can then ride what they call “cloud streets” (a trail of those puffy clouds with the dark, flat bases) to gain additional lift. This is known as “porpoising,” an act that feels and looks like it sounds, as the glider rises under the base of one cloud, loses altitude as it soars to the next and so on.
A good cloud street has been known to take a pilot 750 miles in one trip.

Some glider pilots consider thermals the easiest – or at least most convenient – form of maintaining altitude and increasing flight times.

“You don’t always need a slope to soar, you don’t always need wind. Sometimes the best soaring is over flat country with a gentle wind blowing,” said Boyce, who operates an indoor sky diving facility in the Bay Area when he’s not soaring. “Even over flat terrain, air begins to move vertically, and that’s the kind of lift we use most frequently,”

But unfortunately for Boyce and the other 38 pilots attending the NSA Bishop Encampment, those thermals just weren’t there much of the time.
Several days during the encampment, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and high winds only served to blow apart any heat columns rising from the valley floor.
“On weak days, just staying up is a challenge,” Boyce said.

It’s times like these, according to Ed Lord,  a Reno area Realtor and veteran glider pilot also attending the NSA Bishop Encampment, when soaring feels like work.
On cloudless days, “instead of looking up, we’re looking down,” he said. “We’re looking for dark-colored rocks, or even a recently plowed field, any ground that’s been soaking up the heat that can generate lift.”

Pilots also rely more on ridge lift, which “is more like surfing – a lot more challenging,” Lord said.
Nary a famous Sierra Wave were to be seen during the encampment, either.

These are the gigantic, ethereal-looking clouds that seemingly stretch from one horizon to the other – the weather phenomena that pack the most lift, allowing glider pilots to soar very high, very far.

“Waves give great height,” said Boyce, however, “conditions that give you the best altitude are less common than those that give distance.” While ample lift can take a glider as high as 35,000 feet, Federal Aviation Administration guidelines prohibit soaring above 17,999 feet.

Pilots can apply for and be granted window clearances to go higher – as some elevation record-setters do – but anything above 18,000 feet requires oxygen masks and pulse oximeters, not to mention special clothing, in the thin, frigid air.

In August 2006, the late Steve Fossett and copilot Einar Enevoldson set an elevation record for soaring above the Andes in South America at 50,699 feet.

But again, Boyce said, most glider pilots have their sights – and hearts – set on distance, not height.

Despite a rash of bad weather, there were several days of excellent soaring to be had for the NSA Encampment group.

Flights logged about 16,000 feet in altitude, Montague said, with trips on average between 200 and 600 km (125 and 373 miles). Eric Rupp of Santa Cruz, who said he has been gliding since 1999 and soaring since 2001, was able to soar from Bishop, past Glass Mountain and down to Mina and back one day, and then to Mt. Grant and Mt. Patterson, down the Sierra to Manzanar and then back to Bishop the next.

Other members made day trips to Mt. Whitney and back, soaking up the various sights along the way. Following the 2010 encampment, Montague and her husband, Mark, who organized the 2011 event with fellow pilot Wolf Weber of Bay Area Soaring, flew home in their gliders from Bishop to the Air Sailing facility in three hours and 34 minutes for a cost of $45 – what they spent on fuel for the tow plane.

Montague said several pilots planned to simply soar home at the conclusion of this year’s encampment, some to Truckee, some to Minden, some all the way to Palomino Valley.
Ease of travel, and having essentially zero fuel costs, she noted, are but two of the reasons glider pilots are so enthusiastic about their sport.

A Feeling Like No Other
Of course, coming as close to floating among the clouds as is humanly possible is another. Tuolino finds himself almost at a loss for words to describe the experience to someone who has never soared the sky in a glider plane, other than to say it is deeply spiritual and awe-inspiring.

According to Tuolino, soaring is part science, part intuition, part skill and all exhilaration. He explained there is a rare satisfaction in being able to travel – silently, mostly gently, without the rumble and pollution and gasoline consumption of an engine – because you’ve learned how the elements work, have trained to deal with weather and variance and can put your faith in a power greater than yourself. The way Tuolino describes soaring is not unlike the way surfers often talk about riding waves, and he is far from alone in what attracts him to soaring.

Montague finds bliss in the cockpit of a glider by “seeing how beautiful the earth is, understanding how the earth breathes, how the earth creates energy,” she said. “Basically I’m using the energy of the sun to travel.”

And traveling by glider, she noted, offers rare views of stunning places and the time to truly take in their beauty. “We’ve seen things you’ll never see,” Montague said, explaining that, even in a small plane, the sights go by too fast. “In a glider, we dawdle, and we go places other people don’t go.”

Montague was introduced to soaring by her husband, Mark, who’d taken up the sport when he was just 12. Mark was a pilot for United Airlines (and still is) living in Seattle, and Neita was a private pilot, having gotten her license in 1986. She bought her first single-engine airplane for $6,000; seven years later she became the proud owner of a Grumman Tiger, making several solo flights from her home in Connecticut to California.

It was their shared interest in aviation that brought them together over an Internet chat room (in those days they were university-based CompuServe forums). “We were one of the early couples to meet on the Internet,” Montague said.

At first, Montague was skeptical about soaring. “I thought, ‘It doesn’t even have an engine, I don’t know about this,’” she said. But, like most glider pilots, she was hooked after her first flight.
Today, the Montagues each own a Libelle glider, famous for being the very first fiberglass model, released in 1967.

The gliders found at the airport were as diverse as the pilots themselves. On the other end of the spectrum from the Libelles was a Schleicher ASW27B, a high-performance, racing class featuring the latest technology in gliding: carbon wings as opposed to fiber-glass.

Another pilot brought his “hybrid” glider, which contains a retractable motor that allows the glider to take off without the assistance of a tow plane, and then soar and glide in the traditional manner.
Lord owns a $200,000 high-performance DG-1000 manufactured in Germany by DG Flugzeugbau. Because it has two seats, and Lord is a stereotypical glider pilot eager to introduce the uninitiated to the sport, it gets a lot of flight time during the encampment.

And for Lord, even when soaring feels like work, there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. Especially in a place like the Eastern Sierra, where the people are friendly (“People are absolutely wonderful wherever we go,” Montague said), the airport staff are extremely helpful (“Steve Ivey and Ken Babione have provided terrific support,” she said) and, of course, the conditions are almost second to none.

“This is one of the top three places in the world for soaring,” Lord said. That’s why Boettger, a Minden, Nev. resident who flies for FedEx out of Bishop, plans to continue record-breaking glider flight attempts along the local mountain range.

It’s why the NSA Encampment and Soarfari groups gladly spend their money in Bishop, staying at local motels, patronizing area restaurants and shops, filling up their vehicles’ gas tanks at Main Street service stations and buying all their groceries, ice and other supplies at the supermarket or grocery store. And it’s why they’ll be back next year.

(Readers can take their own “virtual” soaring adventure by logging onto the Internet and going to www.Rocznik.de/temp/Bishop_2011.wmv. The link takes readers to a real-time, full-length video taken by Dr. Marko Rocznik from the cockpit of his glider as he made a 512 km flight from the Bishop airport on June 26.)