Although I've been flying gliders for decades, I just started flying cross-country in 2006, but only in thermals. However, being based in Minden and surrounded by some of the world's best wave conditions and the amazing pilots that fly in them, I became intrigued with the possibilities. So when Gordon Boettger called me Wednesday evening saying the following day (March 6) looked good for my introduction to XC wave, I quickly re-arranged my schedule so I could go. Like everybody else, I knew Gordo was truly a wave flying virtuoso, but I didn't realize he was also very good at teaching this esoteric art. That's a rare combination and an opportunity I didn't want to miss.
We launched just before 10AM, released at 8,000 MSL and immediately ran north in steady lift as strong as 2000 FPM. There were good markers all the way to our first turnpoint at Susanville, which enabled smooth transitions over the soft spots. We covered the next leg south to Mojave (625KM) in 3 hours 11 minutes for an average speed of about 200 KPH. Again, similar conditions with good markers and relatively easy transitions. Starting about Mt. Whitney, we noticed the winds at 18K started dropping (down to 30 knots in places). To our mutual surprise the wave seemed unaffected and the strong lift continued. As we approached Mojave, we knew the next leg would have a headwind component, so Gordo started working his magic with ATC to get clearance into Class A. Sure enough, on the northbound leg winds swung around to the NW and at one point near Mono Lake we were flying directly into a 62 knot headwind. Occasionally while flying thermals out of Ely, I would feel that 18K was a little "low". However, I would never have guessed that I'd have the same feeling at 25K. But now I realize how fast all that altitude can disappear in wave conditions over tiger country. The extra altitude and a good energy line north of Mono got us back to Minden without too much trouble. We still had some time before sunset and only 1350K on the odometer. But Gordo was getting tired of the whining from the front seat about cold feet, so he decided to land. In fact, my feet were frozen solid and when I got out I could barely walk. He offered to amputate and I almost obliged, but we couldn't find anything sharp enough to get the job done.
Gordo taught me enough on this 7-1/2 hour flight to fill a book. It would take several chapters alone just to describe how he reads the markers. Big lennies are obvious; much more critical is the ability to analyze rotor clouds (which often appeared to me as little randomly scatted wisps) and select those which will provide the best energy line. Gordo let me do a great deal of the flying while providing a running dialogue on how to master this delicate art form. I cannot imagine a faster, better way for me to learn it. Trial and error would have taken me decades. I also saw how reading terrain is essential in transitions and blue areas. Other differences from normal thermal flying include the need for constant awareness of wind speed and direction, which is important for any XC flight, but absolutely critical in wave. Ditto with true airspeed (TAS). Smooth air and strong lift allow for speeds approaching VNE, so the high altitudes make it essential to always know your TAS. I found the best technique to keep everything in balance was to try and stay about 500 - 1000 feet below the maximum allowable altitude (normally 18K) by flying in and out of the leading edge of the lift band. I needed this margin when hitting areas of stronger lift so I could turn windward and get into weaker lift before busting the altitude limit. Flying faster was not an option. The margin was also needed when encountering turbulence (slowing down quickly increases altitude). I was uncomfortable cracking the spoilers at those speeds. In Class A we were assigned blocks (e.g. 22K to 24K), which meant that we also had to pay attention to the lower limit.
I even learned a few things that I already knew! For example, adequate preparation, which is essential for any soaring flight, is particularly critical in wave. Hugh Bennett, who usually flies the front seat, told me cold air comes in around your feet in the Duo. Before takeoff, Gordo offered me Hugh's electric socks. Since this was to be only a casual instructional flight below Class A, I figured I could tough it out with a pair of thin boots and light socks. In soaring, things often don't work out as planned. Lesson learned. Again.
Thanks to Hugh Bennett for letting me fly the front seat of his Duo and to Gordon Boettger for sharing his wealth of knowledge about this intricate art form. I owe you guys.