Back from the Dead at the 2013 Mifflin Sports Class Nationals

I've been hiding out and sulking these last few days at Mifflin, and haven't been able to face my Soaring Cafe keyboard.  I haven't done as well here as I had hoped, but I guess that's just 'life in the fast lane' ;-).

I had a bit of a close call on Day 5 (the day where most of the field landed out in the Tussey valley).  I was stuck on the Tussey ridge at just below ridge top, working back and forth along the ridge trying to get away.  While doing this, I went past several areas where buzzards and hawks were circling, but never found anything I could work.  Finally I found something that I thought I could maybe climb in, and started working it.  The Tussey ridge in this section has a definite shoulder, with the main ridge set back maybe 100-200 yards from the shoulder.  At one point I was over the shoulder, and had gained a couple hundred feet, when I decided to move back toward the main ridge, thinking I might find a better core there.  As I moved toward the main ridge, all of a sudden I was struck by the recognition of a familiar sight picture from my Condor flying - I was at a very dangerous pre-stall airspeed, heading toward higher ground!  I had fallen victim (again) to a very common optical illusion associated with ridge flying; as I neared the ridge I had instinctively raised the glider's nose to keep the sight picture the same with respect to the gently rising terrain, without realizing that the airspeed was dropping.  As I had learned to do from countless ridge flying hours in Condor, I immediately rolled away from the ridge and pushed the nose down to regain flying speed, and was quickly out of trouble again.  Total time from recognition to recovery - maybe 5-10 seconds!

When I first started flying Condor mountain tasks, I was amazed at how many times I crashed while trying to thermal close to the ridges, for no apparent reason.  One second I was doing fine, and the next I was stalled out and irretrievably doomed.  It took me a long time to figure out what was happening - how the crash scenario was developing without me recognizing it.  Once I understood the sequence, I was able to develop techniques for recognizing the situation while there was still time to do something about it.  I still crashed, but much less often, as the recognition/recovery actions became more ingrained and instinctive.  So, when the same situation developed in real life on Day 5, instead of falling victim to the almost insurmountable urge to keep the glider's nose UP (which, of course, would have caused me to stall right into the trees), I reverted to my Condor training to first roll the glider away from the ridge and then push the nose DOWN.  Once the glider was headed downhill, the optical illusion was broken and I had plenty of altitude in which to regain flying speed.

Over the last several years I have been using Condor as a way of accelerating my journey up the learning curve for glider racing, and as a way of familiarizing myself with unfamiliar soaring areas prior to a real-life contest.  I also knew on a gut level that Condor flying was making me a safer pilot, due to the wider exposure I was getting to different risk areas.  What I didn't really appreciate until my little Day 5 encounter was how much Condor flying was going to help my real-life ability to recognize and respond to a rapidly developing stall/spin scenario.  I think I can safely say at this point that if it weren't for my Condor time, I would probably have been picking myself and what was left of my glider out of the trees on Tussey ridge a couple of days ago.

Today (Monday) looks like another rain day, and while Tuesday doesn't look entirely hopeless, it doesn't look all that good either.   Stay tuned!

Frank (TA)

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  7 comments for “Back from the Dead at the 2013 Mifflin Sports Class Nationals

  1. Matt McKrell
    May 20, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Wow, great story Frank! Every time I circle in front of a rock face in Condor I tell myself “Never try this in Real Life because you’ll kill yourself.” But, in Condor the thermals don’t anchor on the ridge very well and you’ll lose them if you use the proper technique of flying figure-8’s below the ridge top.

  2. Herb Kilian
    May 20, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Flying the French Alps with a German friend he showed me how to work lift above the tree-line doing figure-8’s while a couple thousand feet below the peak. He made me consciously push the nose down every time we finished our turn and headed back toward the rock face. Just like Frank said, the instinct is overwhelming to bring the nose up as you head toward the rocks trying to judge your distance (another subject). By learning to pick up speed heading toward that narrow zone where lift is present, you stay away from a stall. It is not a natural thing to do.

  3. Roger Druce
    May 21, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Sorry Frank but I just don’t get it. You have a problem with approaching the stall and you fix it first by manouevring then lower the nose. This seems to me to be the way to achieve what you are seeking to avoid namely spinning in. Surely you fix the problem by first lowering the nose somewhat to reduce the angle of attack so that you then create the opportunity to conduct a safe rolling action without spinning.

    The good thing you have done is prepare for the event, which can sneak up on you very subtly, by pre-progamming yourself with a response so that your response is more automatic (=quicker) and less depending on thinking through the actions. But the sequence you propose as the response doesn’t add up in my view.
    Roger Druce, 4000 hrs (non-instructor rated) Australia

  4. May 21, 2013 at 9:40 am


    Unfortunately, in this case you *can’t* lower the nose, as there is no room between you and the trees. The roll has to take place first in order to get pointed downhill, which then gives you the room to get the nose down to regain airspeed.

    I’m here typing this response because I did the roll first, and the push second, not the other way around. And, I did it that way because my Condor experience taught me *why* it has to be done in that order, at the price of a number of ‘virtual deaths’. Try it a hundred times or so in Condor and see which way works best for you. ;-)

    Let me emphasize this point again; Thermalling near gently sloping surfaces can create a powerful subconscious optical illusion that often leads to an inadvertent stall-spin. By the time the pilot realizes the problem, it is generally too late to do anything about it; there is insufficient clearance to lower the nose without first turning downhill, and most pilots when first faced with this situation don’t realize that rolling away from the mountain is the ONLY effective maneuver available (and in real-life they often don’t get a second chance to try it again!). The good news is that if the pilot does the roll maneuver in time, then everything starts working for the pilot instead of against him/her.

  5. Roger druce
    May 22, 2013 at 2:21 am

    Thanks for the additional and informative input. You are talking about that extreme where you can’t lower the nose. As I fly command from the back seat of two-seaters with forward and forward-downward visibility issues I have the alarm bells ringing well before that extreme is encountered.

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