|Oct 05, 2011, 12:53 PM|
My Cal Valley XC Experience
This year was my first trip to the Cal Valley Cross Country Soaring Event and as a newbie is seemed like a good opportunity to write about my experience there...
“Call me Ishmael.”
It isn’t often that a writer has an opportunity to repeat those immortal words, and even rarer to have an experience that in many ways seemed to parallel those of a young sailor on his first whale hunt in the 1800’s. So sit right down and a tale I’ll tell of men, Mother Nature and their struggles against her forces.
My journey probably started in the eighth grade when my English teacher had us select three different books covering conflict. One book had to be in the style of ‘Man vs. Man’ showing clashes between individuals. The next was ‘Man vs. Himself’, showing internal struggles, and the third was ‘Man vs. Nature’ where the book must demonstrate how man could combat the forces of the natural world. The protagonist might win or lose, but he would demonstrate the breadth of the human spirit against overwhelming odds.
For my report, my teacher suggested that I read Moby Dick. I grew up mostly without television, but still had visions of Gregory Peck roped to the side of the great white whale as it submerged, and this seemed pretty exciting. What I hadn’t realized was that most of the book is spent in anticipation of the encounter and is instead about life out on the ocean. The whale doesn’t even show up until page 494.
Now jump ahead 35 years while I was between rounds of a SVSS club contest and Dudley Dufort casually asks whether I was interested in flying cross-country. A few months earlier, I had seen teams leaving the field in the backs of pickups, like whalers in long boats, and this seemed way outside my flying ability, but it also harkened back to the John Wayne movie Hatari, where hunters drove across the African svelte in jeeps capturing wild animals for zoos, or that scene capturing dinosaurs from the second Jurassic Park movie, but instead of tracking them on the ground, the dinosaurs would be flying in the air like Pterodactyls.
I let Dudley know that I would think about it, but I might have been secretly hoping that I had some conflict on my calendar. Flying my own planes makes me nervous enough. Flying someone else’s that is 50% larger, twice as heavy, and many times more expensive without even factoring in the driving aspect would certainly push me well outside my comfort zone. Still, this would be far better than sitting comatose in front of a TV watching ball games over the weekend.
Less than two weeks later I found myself driving south in a car full of planes, repair equipment, camping gear, and plenty of bottled water. I was heading towards a desert valley where the two key points of interest are the Caliente Mountains and the Alkali lakebed. I spoke enough Spanish to know that Caliente translated as ‘Hot’, so along with the fresh chapstick, I also packed #50 sunblock.
I met my team, including Dudley, Scott Woodward, and Sheldon Smith on Highway 5 just south of Tracy, and we caravanned down to Cal Valley. After we turned west, the biggest sign of civilization was the Avenal State Prison, so things were looking a bit bleak. We stopped in a small diner for lunch, and the walls were covered with James Dean photos. I hadn’t seen the monument outside, but we had turned at the intersection where Dean and his Mechanic were hit by another car as they were on their way to a race in Salinas and Dean was killed. That was almost exactly 55 years to the day when we were there and as we waited for our chili and sandwiches, a local reporter came by our table and asked our thoughts about the crash. Scott retold the details as he remembered them and I had worked for George Lucas, who survived being thrown from a car crash as a youth back in Modesto, so I made that comparison, but later I thought about this place stuck in time where the most relevant event was one person’s tragic death. This seemed to parallel cities like Deadwood South Dakota, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back while playing cards. Time seems to stand still in these places, while the rest world moves forward.
As we pulled into the Cal Valley Lodge I found there were even more similarities with Deadwood. Instead of a Gold Rush, here there had been a land rush back when they thought that the California Aqueduct would be built there. Desert land was sub-divided and an airport was built in anticipation of a new Palm Springs. The water never came, but a hotel was built that now sits mostly empty except for a few workers that stay there while building a nearby solar power plant and a couple of bicyclists looking for a challenging course. Finally there are the ten teams of semi-fanatical sailplane pilots who show up for three days each year in order to test their flying skills.
Desert has a way of separating out the less hearty. One afternoon two ATV riders pulled up to the hotel. I thought they were wearing camo, but it turned out they were simply covered with layers of different colored dirt. In the mornings you could hear the few coyote calls, but the wildlife seemed to be mostly limited to snakes, carrion birds, and a few tarantulas that liked to hide in crevices. Still, the longer you are out here, the more you see signs of civilization. An old fence line that disappears into the edge of the alkali lakebed. A small ranch with a few rows of corn. Stakes that were set out to mark property borders, where construction was never started. Some items are remarkably preserved, glass soda and beer bottles shine brightly, while small farmhouses have collapsed in on themselves and will soon disintegrate into piles of rotted timbers.
While unpacking our gear, it was reassuring to see the teams that had already arrived with their planes set up in the open patio while they ran through their pre-flight checks. This was a reunion for many and an opportunity to catch up on the events since the previous contests. Rich Beardsley had been in Reno when the Galloping Ghost went down, and many were curious about his thoughts on what led up to the tragedy. After a while there was little else that could be said on the subject, so the conversation meandered off in new directions often touching on the oddly changing colors and lack of clarity of the hotel pool. Despite the 100-degree temperatures, nobody was quite crazy enough to test the waters that had already claimed one life, a large kangaroo rat that had been fished out earlier.
Friday morning started with a sliver of a moon and a gorgeous sunrise. Ron McElliott and the cooking crew put breakfast together while the pilots checked their trims and range-tested their planes with the same attention that a whaler might put into sharpening his harpoon or checking his lines before a hunt. The motel’s assorted cats would wander between the planes often rubbing against the outstretched wings and grateful when a hand would reach out and give them a rub.
At the morning’s pilots’ meeting, the final teams signed in and the daily course was presented. The first event would be a fairly straight run down the valley about 15 miles and a return to the launch point. This would give each team plenty of time to familiarize themselves with their surroundings as well as opportunities to re-launch and re-enter the course if their planes were to lose lift and drop out. There were two winches set up behind the restaurant where we had our morning and evening meals. The restaurant was closed to passersby’s, but the owner lets us use the facilities during contests. As the day warmed, lift became more common, and one by one, the team planes began to pick up altitude and moved onto the course.
When to enter the course is always a difficult decision since you might rise up on a thermal that is downwind from the start point, forcing you to race back upwind trading your altitude for speed and entering the course lower than you would like. While we were in the staging area, Dudley gave me an opportunity to fly our team plane, and familiarize myself both with the controls as well as with the ‘Vario’, the radio system used to tell the pilots whether they are flying in lift or sink. At low altitudes, you could often see when the plane would hit a bump and the vario would respond with a higher pitched tone. When at altitude, the visual signs are impossible to pick out, so you have to rely on listening to the tones in order to track your plane’s altitude. Dudley’s system would also notify you when you crossed through each 100-meter height, and at about 700 meters up we quickly moved ourselves into Dudley’s truck and drove onto the course.
Each vehicle reminded me of the long boats used by the whalers in Moby Dick. No two were alike and some teams preferred flying from the back seat of convertibles, while others, like Dudley, built a wooden frame in the back bed and attached seats scavenged from a motor home. As the truck turned corners, you would rotate the seats in an effort to balance the plane’s visibility against the location of the Sun, and all the time taking into account the truck’s speed and the winds blowing through. Losing your hat was always a risk, and I eventually fashioned a clip to keep mine from taking flight.
I quickly learned that one of the greatest challenges can be trying to work a thermal while traveling down a road. Even if you have a good sense for where the center of the thermal is, not only is the thermal moving with the wind, your orientation may be changing as the vehicle is moving, so you are constantly having to re-adjust your flight patterns as all of the dynamic forces continually change the equation. Another challenge is the necessity to develop a tremendous level of tunnel vision to keep your focus on the plane and the air around it, and to try to mostly ignore the environment that you are driving through.
I never had a complete view of the course until after the end of the second day of flying when we were returning to the starting point and I was finally able to look around as we drove back up the valley. After landing on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin described it as ‘Magnificent Desolation’. When arriving in Cal Valley I could see the desolation, but I would not have described it as magnificent. The longer you are here, the less desolate this valley feels. Maybe your senses become attuned to the bird chirps and the yipping’s of coyotes or the low whistle of a car driving on the far side of the valley. You begin to acclimate to being around fewer people, so much so that returning to ‘civilization’ can come as a bit of a shock.
One of the pilots described the relation between Thermal Duration and Cross-Country as being like the differences between fishing in a river and fishing in the ocean. The challenges are greater, and your reliance on others in your team is crucial. You can fly TD alone, but it takes a crew to fly XC. I was incredibly fortunate to fly with my team, and on the second day they put aside the contest for a few hours and instead took me out to make an attempt at a 25-kilometer solo flight. This was unexpected on my part and the first indication was when Dudley told Scott to skip one of the course turns and ‘head straight for 17 miles’. That was when I figured out his plan, but it didn’t seem like the time to argue with the team captain.
As you are flying, it is like the hunt on the ocean. You have to stay focused on your plane, while also paying attention to the lift conditions as you fly. If your altitude is sufficient, you may decide to pass through a thermal and keep traveling. If you are losing lift, you may decide to ‘fill up’ by stopping in the next thermal and gaining as much altitude as possible for the next stretch. I found that the concentration was so demanding, that I was often traveling with my mouth open since it took extra effort to think about keeping it closed.
One of the highlights for me was the final run towards the finish line. On the first day, we were passed by Rich Beardsley and his crew, but then later we passed him by. We found a nice thermal and were recharging when Rich appeared on the road behind us. We debated about leaving the thermal and heading out so Rich wouldn’t know where we had found rising air, and as a result we were another mile or two down the road recharging again when Rich and his team went blasting by. After we gained enough altitude to make it to the finish line, we began what the whalers would call a ‘Nantucket Sleigh ride’, where we aimed the plane towards the finish and traded as much altitude for speed to allow ourselves to cross the finish line with little room to spare. During this final run, we were approaching speeds that might have gotten us pulled over elsewhere, and with the wind streaming by, and our eyes watering, we crossed the finish line with just a few hundred meters altitude remaining.
That night we were treated to a magnificent lightning storm. During the day, we could see the storm coming up the valley, and as we gathered to discuss the day’s events, the storm moved our direction and as we ate popcorn and peanuts we were treated to a display of lightning flashes that eventually moved overhead and we scrambled to move our planes and equipment under shelter. This again reminded me of Moby Dick where the masts and the harpoon Ahab holds glows green from St. Elmo’s fire. Fortunately, in our case it only foreshadowed the next few days of clear skies and a light cooling off.
I could run through the event scores, but what I learned was that to many, the rankings were less important than the experience itself. The chance to spend time with like-minded individuals working together to challenge nature was paramount. How you placed was truly secondary.
|Oct 05, 2011, 06:24 PM|
Joined May 2005
Cal Valley 11
Very fun perspective Aric!!! Well Done !!!!
Having flown X/C for some time now I was impressed with Aric's ability to stay focused and deal with the unexpected. Kind of the X/Cer's creed. While we were working down the course Aric started gaining altitude in a strong thermal and suddenly we were both having a bit of of trouble seeing the plane. Saturday was a bit hazy and visibility was poor sometimes. As the vario squawked 850 meters we were both whispering to each other, can you see it? Figuring there is no need to panic the planes owner (Dudley) we collaborated and got the plane down 100 meters to 750 and moved directly overhead for a bigger visual signature. We cruised along nicely making good time utilizing a helping breeze of 5-7 MPH. Aric was quick to size up the difference of the vario outputs between "teaser" thermals and the "bigguns" we were after. Aric was very fast on the learning curve to making minimal stick inputs to reduce drag and reduce the tendancy to overcontrol. The trick sometimes is to add some small corrections and allow time for the plane to react. As the flight progresses, so does some anxiety in the anticipation of getting to the goal, in this case 15.6 miles. Conditions were very good and as we closed in on the goal, we decided to keep going a couple miles to make sure. It seemed by then Aric was making smooth co-ordinated turns feeding in rudder and getting adept at subtle stick inputs. My first X/C flight was a memorable one and having the observer seat for Aric's first X/C run was also a kick. Time will tell how deep the hook is set..........Scott
|Oct 05, 2011, 08:34 PM|
Joined Jan 2005
I really enjoyed reading your account of Cal Valley. What a fantastic parallel to the whalers in Moby Dick. You captured some of the feelings I think all of us have as we set off on an XC flight.
I hope you make out again to future events, we need more people who can describe what we do so eloquently!
|Oct 05, 2011, 10:17 PM|
The comparison to an adventure like Moby Dick is an apt one. I've always felt it was similar to some of my fly fishing adventures on wild rivers. XC soaring is very much like a hunt combined with a competitive race and the Man Vs. Man Vs. Nature adventure really is true. Aric is right that the experience trumps the actual placing in the race (though we are all VERY competitive and dont like losing). Things happen on these flights that mean much more than actually winning.
|Oct 06, 2011, 06:48 PM|
Joined May 2005
Yep , you might fly like never before , low saves, doggedly work against a headwind, fight a malfunction and enjoy the satisfaction of getting the most out of what you had to work with, but not finnish the course and come in last. Oh well , gotta enjoy the journey , not just the result.
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