Capturing the PASCO Egg

[ Editors' Note: Thanks to Morgan Hall of the Pacific Soaring Council, Inc. for sharing this story of an attempt to capture the PASCO egg over the 4th of July Weekend. The story was originally published in the PASCO newsletter. PASCO is a non-profit volunteer organization serving pilots in Northern California and Nevada. ]

Going after the Egg - A little background

If you're from region 11, you may know about the PASCO Egg regional capture trophy. A beautiful walnut (I think) egg that is occasionally captured from various glider operations mostly in Northern California and Nevada. It has been a goal of mine to try and capture the Egg for Avenal from what has practically become its permanent home at Air Sailing. Our neighbors to the north at Hollister also have their eye on that prize, but we have the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountains in between us and our trophy. That and nearly 300 miles. Once the Hollister crew and I realized we had the same secret goal, we began to share information on tactics and approaches. There are really only two options when it comes to the Sierra Nevada: go over or go around.

Going over the Sierra has all sorts of challenges and is intimidating, but the first problem is crossing the massive San Joaquin Valley. The typical summer weather pattern that would give high enough climbs and cloudbases on the Sierra also happens to produce a nasty inversion in the valley at 2,000 feet or so. Many an attempt at crossing to the Sierras has failed with pilots circling at pattern height over airports near the foothills in 100+ heat–Able to stay up, but unable to climb and proceed.

Going around the Sierra involves running south to the Tehachapi range and then transitioning into the Sierras along their trade routes. The same valley inversion can be a problem, though usually it is 4-5k above ground at Avenal. That and you are adding several hundred miles to your journey by heading south first, but given good convergence and high enough altitudes, a speed run is possible that makes the journey an option during the long days of summer.

Heading into the July 4th weekend, conditions were lining up for some long distances out of the Great Basin. Doug Armstrong was alerting pilots that booming conditions were to come. Matt Gillis out of Hollister and Darren Braun started piping up about the approaching weather pattern, a four corners high retrograding to the west. Kempton Izuno out of Williams Soaring was getting things lined up for long flights. It sounded like it was going to be a good weekend to make a strike. If you can't understand the complexities of the weather, at least find people you can count on and follow their lead.

Heading into the weekend, I needed three things: a tow pilot, cooperative weather and a crew. Weather forecasts were faltering a bit, but it looked like Sunday could be the day for an attempt. Monday was looking to have an issue with thunderstorms coming in from the south, but higher cloudbases. I coerced Steve into towing on Sunday by offering him a seat in the Duo on Saturday so he'd at least get to fly a glider. His glider is safely hangared in New Mexico for the summer. For crew, my old hang gliding buddy, Keith, had extended the offer that if I ever needed a crew for an adventure, he was in. A double and triple check of the offer confirmed that the weekend was a go.

One thing I've found with the Duo and especially when trying to fill a seat is that you need to cast a wide net and then disappoint a few people. Try to find a copilot in a serial fashion and you'll find yourself with an empty seat as your launch day approaches. So by Friday, I was giving Alex and Bart the bad news that Matt Gillis was going to be occupying the spare seat. He's been invaluable in thinking through the weather paradigms that are involved in this kind of attempt. It seemed like he'd be the perfect copilot on the adventure.

Saturday at Avenal was pretty blah. Hot and low, Steve and I managed to climb to 5k once, but generally were limited to about 4k at the most. Four thousand feet isn't really enough to even get comfortably over the mountains to the southwest and on to the next duster strip near Shandon. Not looking too good for Sunday's attempt.

The Attempt

Sunday morning, July 3rd, started hot at Avenal. A projected high of 104°F seemed realistic as the early sun beat down on the hangar while I did some maintenance on the tractor. Forecasts had held overnight and we were looking at good conditions from New Cuyama on and 16k in the Owens Valley. This could happen. Matt showed up around 10:30 and we discussed our options. It looked like we'd need 100+ temps on the ground to get to 6-7k near Shandon. We'd planned on launching around noon, but temps were a bit slow in coming on.
We finalized preparations in the glider. More backup GPS, cameras, video gear, stereo speakers (yes, stereo speakers), batteries, clothes, and lots more water. My concern was sinking out somewhere in the CA Valley and having a 3-4 hour wait in 105 heat, so we had lots of water on board. Just before 1:00 pm, we were off the ground. A little bit of a breeze helped the club's 150 hp Cessna 150 lug our heavy bird into the air. The air was well textured as we climbed through 4k heading SW behind the towplane. Our intention was a high tow towards Shandon to get us out of the Avenal valley and over into the higher temps forecast near Shandon. At about 6,500' north of Shandon, we hit a decent thermal and pinned off. It turned out to be a mystery bump, but we had good position to dive south into the air that was supposed to be working. Nearing Camatta, we hadn't hit anything but pretty much smooth air. Finally, a few miles South of Camatta we hit a little bump that I was able to work to 6,500. Game On! Driving into the La Panza range, the lift was there, though not super consistent but working to 7k+. We worked slowly along for the first 20 miles or so. Just making sure we were getting a sense of the day before dropping the nose and racing.

Climbing through 10k over Dead Man's Canyon

As we approached the Cuyama Valley near Branch Mountain, the first Cu popped down near McPherson Peak. I thought Matt was going to punch through the canopy as he raised his hands in the air with a "YES!"— an exclamation that the models were working and that we were on the right path. The convergence was working and we picked up the pace a bit, climbing higher with each successive thermal down the Cuyama Valley. Over Dead Man's Canyon we climbed through 10k and had nice markers popping along the convergence towards McPherson and on towards Santa Barbara Canyon. The only issue was that they weren't at 13k and there weren't any cu towards Mt. Piños or Tehachapi. On the radio, we could hear the Tehachapi pilots working ragged lift at 8-9k. Bummer! The model had fallen apart after such a great start. We pressed on.

Gliding in towards Mt. Piños, we'd left our last cloud near Santa Barbara Canyon. Mt. Piños loomed awfully high on the canopy. Approaching from the west we were seeing south winds picking up and no good signs for the next 50 miles. Even the high cu in the distance lacked the appearance of being ground based.

We passed directly over the top of the hill, swooping across the trees about 200 ft off the deck at most. We passed over a parking lot for hikers; I hope someone looked up at the right time as our graceful bird swooped into the Valley. We worked the spine up into Piños from the west in a little ridge and thermal lift.  A few turns in ratty lift got us over the peak.


Crossing the Cuyama River near Santa Barbara Canyon

Matt worked a bubble on the SE side of the mountain that just wouldn't break loose. We didn't have glide over the top of Frasier, but that was where I wanted to go. I knew we had An easy glide to Quail Lake and we knew that if we bailed over the back to the Valley, we'd probably be landing at El Tejon duster strip. The San Joaquin Valley is not where you want to be. I took over and worked out a spine to the south, eventually finding a climb that would get us over Frasier.  Frasier didn't offer much, but at least we could see Quail Lake and knew what our options were. We took the route deeper into the Tehachapis and after crossing I5, connected with what felt like a bit of wave. We stopped and I worked the weak lift for a bit more altitude. That gave us a reasonable glide to Rosamond, good enough that we could probably sneak into Tehachapi if needed, so we kept going. Matt worked us bit by bit to Tehachapi, bumping us higher with each successive climb in the SE winds. At the very least we knew we could get a tow from Tehachapi or Cal City the following day and see if we could make it back to Avenal.

Over the windmills, he climbed us up through 10k again and then as we headed to Cache Peak I took over. At Cache Peak we

Approaching Mt. Piños

climbed through 11k before I headed towards Walker Pass and Inyokern. We'd got confirmation from Dan and Walt out of Tehachapi that there were tows available in Inyokern and in Bishop, so we pressed on. Gliders were starting to come out of the Sierra now on their way home to Tehachapi. Matt climbed us through 14k at Walker Pass and Owens Peak so on we went.

I got a climb near Olancha peak that gave us room to get in behind Horseshoe Meadows to a nice looking cloud. A bit of pucker factor as we drove deep into the Sierra and were rewarded with a smooth 8 knot thermal to 16k.

That gave us a final glide to Bishop if things went well. We zoomed past Mt. Whitney at 100 knots and skirted some virga from the over development near Kings Canyon. Through the virga, the bottom started to fall out and our 4k over glide to Bishop disappeared quickly. Thankfully a valley thermal was there and put us well above glide again after a few turns in the southerly valley winds.

Slipping over the top of Mt. Piños. Hmm, this isn't 13k at cloudbase

Climbing back behind Horseshoe Meadows

We crossed over into the Whites and found trashy air to the northwest of Black Mountain. Matt struggled in each of the bowls he knows from his early days in hang gliders in the Owens. It was a nostalgic flight for me as well, as we passed some of the bowls and ridges I'd saved flights on in my hang glider. As it was now after 7:00 pm, it was clear that we weren't going to make it to Air Sailing to capture the egg. We had about 200 miles to go and 1:16 of daylight left. We were close, but not close enough.

Looking NW towards Whitney and Kings Canyon

Mt Whitney - hopefully no hikers still on top as it was after 6:00 PM

We headed into the valley to get away from the choppy air and found smooth lift over the Owens river that drifted slowly towards the Glass Mountains. We just turned lazy circles and enjoyed the moment and the beauty of the Owens Valley for the next 45 minutes. We pushed northwest towards the glass mountains and then raced back to get down before official sunset.

Matt at home in the Whites above Bishop

Looking SE towards Bishop from the valley in late evening

On landing, John and Karl came out to help us push back to the tie-down area.  A band was playing in the hangar, blasting Seven Bridges Road for us as we pushed 5H into position. Awesome!

We tied down the glider, took pictures of the blazing evening sky and marveled at what we'd just accomplished. No, we hadn't captured the egg, but we'd proven to ourselves that it was possible. We were a few hours too late, but only a few hours on a day that didn't work out as forecast.

Air Sailing, watch out, the Central California crew has an eye on the prize.

OLC Trace