We awoke this morning to a completely solid overcast, with very little chance of getting a practice day task in. However, CD Hank Nixon held our pilot’s meeting promptly at 10 am, and announced a grid time (12:30 later moved back to 1:30), and a practice task. I was actually heartened by the call, as under the legendary CD Charlie Spratt, you knew you were going to assemble and grid unless it was actively raining – way to go Hank!
Anyway, some of at least assembled and gridded, but the weather refused to cooperate. At 2 or 2:30 there was some lightening of the sky to the east, and about 6 or 8 of us took a tow to try our luck. Cloud bases were about 4500′ msl (i.e. about 3200′ above the airport and about 1000′ above the ridges). Most pilots stayed within gliding range of the airport, but a few brave souls ventured north along the valley. Tim Welles (W3) completed the task (a 2hr MAT) with about 60 miles, and I landed out on my way back from Oriskany. I wound up in a pretty nice field (see comments below) and was able to self-retrieve with the help of a timely ride from the former Craig County sheriff. I told anyone who would listen (not many, as it turns out) that I really didn’t need to land out, but I felt it was my duty to let the retrieve desk get some practice too! ;-).
Some side comments about the landout. The valley to the north of New Castle is very benign, with lots of good landing fields, and this valley is used as the ‘dump’ task area for marginal soaring days. However, the fields can exhibit some ups and downs that aren’t readily apparent from the air. When I saw that I wasn’t going to make it back to the home field, I started seriously considering field alternatives, and soon had what I thought was an excellent candidate in view. The area I was considering had three visibly different sections, two one one side of a paved lane and one on the other. From the air, they all three looked pretty equivalent in terms of roughness and flatness, and none of the three had any visible poles, wires, or color changes that might indicate a fence or ditch, so I picked the one in the middle because it appeared to offer the best approach and rollout. I had some time to look them over as I worked a very poor thermal for several minutes before giving up and concentrating on the approach and landing. As I turned final for the middle field, I discovered that it had quite a bit of upslope to it that I had not detected at all from the air. Still the approach and landing were uneventful, even though I had to adjust my flare and touchdown point to accommodate the slope. When I got out of the glider and looked around, I was able to assess the field I landed in and both the other options, noting to my dismay that both the other sections were much better choices than the one I ultimately picked.
I don’t know that there is any great moral to this story, other than that appearances can be deceiving, and to expect the unexpected when executing an outlanding. Maybe another one is that even though the other fields were, in hindsight, better choices, I did fine in the one I took, and changing my mind at the last second would probably have been much worse than continuing. Another lesson that I garnered from this experience was to think more seriously about doing more of a downwind-base-final pattern than I normally do, in order to have a better chance of picking up slopes a little earlier in the game. Had I done that this time, I may have been able to smoothly segue into one of the other, much flatter, sections. I have a fair number of off-field landings to my ‘credit’ now, and I thought I was pretty good at detecting field conditions and flatness/lumpiness, but this event has caused me to question my skills a bit. This in itself is probably a good thing, as complacency can lead to broken gliders and dinged egos, or maybe the other way around ;-).