Lance, Brett, and I volunteered to become guinea pigs for the "Panoche Checkout" program that Drew and Russell have been cooking up. They'll say a lot more about it in the coming days and weeks, but the idea is to provide a stepping stone between local flying at Hollister and cross country flying. To do so, they'll take pilots down to Panoche to get familiar with flying (and landing) in the area. Once completed, you can then tow to Panoche for local soaring--meaning that it's being done with the intent of landing at Panoche and getting a tow retrieve back to Hollister. This way it eliminates the risk and more advanced decision making associated with cross country flying while providing the opportunity to fly at a site with much better lift in the summer soaring season.
We gathered at Hollister between 11am and noon yesterday (Wendesday, July 30th) to give it a shot. Since there were three of us, Lance and Brett each took one of the ASK-21s and I took the BASA Grob. Flying with each of us was an instructor, of course: Drew with Lance in 63JJ, Russell with Brett in 9KS, and Johnathon Hughes with me in 15M.
We spent quite a bit of time going over our glide slop rulers, discussing the route to Panoche, marking up our sectionals, and trying to determine a reasonable decision point and altitude. We eventually decided that 18nm out from Hollister or 12nm from Panoche (just over the ranch), we should be at 7,500 feet. This provides a safe return to Hollister or a glide to Panoche even with a 20kt headwind in either direction.
We also needed to work out the logistics of getting all three gliders down there and one towplane (Alan in the Pawnee) to stay there with us. Alan was there so we could practice landings in Panoche. Given how bad the BLIPMAP looked (1kt thermals to 3,000 feet), we assumed we'd be doing a lot of landing practice.
It took a while to get everyone in the air and to Panoche. Drew and Lance launched first, likely releasing just past the decision point and flying toward the first elevator (EL1) . Johnathon and I launched second, at roughly 2:30pm. The tow was uneventful and Johnathon did a good job of pointing out useful landmarks along the way. I played with my GPS on tow enough to verify that some of the landmarks were already in my database and used it to know how far from Panoche we were. Before I knew it, I looked off the left wing and saw the ranch down below. We were at roughly 7,300 feet. Johnathon said it was my call, so I held on for another minute and released at 7,500 as planned.
We glided toward EL1 and Johnathon described the area in a bit more detail. Drew and radioed that there was lift there, so we went in search of it. Before long we were finding 2-4kt lift in a few spots. It was going terribly high--maybe 4,000 feet, but it was a cloudy day and more than I expected to find.
After a bit, Johnathon said that he could see the landing strip and asked me if I could find it. By using the sectional, a rough idea of where it should be, and a couple of roads, I was able to spot it in a minute or two. I was surprised that it was relatively easy to find. I expected it to be much harder to pick out from the surrounding terrain.
A bit later, while still thermalling around EL1, Johnathon asked me for the altitude at which I'd give up and head to the strip to land. I guessed that we were 5 miles from the landing strip (the GPS said 4.6), and from the glide ruler and our pre-flight discussions, I knew the Grob would fly roughly 4 miles per 1,000 feet of altitude with a 33% safety margin and assuming no headwind. Since the Panoche strip is at roughly 1,340 feet, that meant 1,000 feet for pattern altitude and 1,000 feet to get there, which is 3,300. So my answer was something like "between 4,000 and 3,500 I'd decided to head toward the strip, hoping to find lift or land." He agreed that my numbers were more than reasonable.
Not long after that, the Grob's electric vario died (low battery?), so I had to actually look inside the cockpit a bit more often to glance at the mechanical vario. No big deal, but it was sort of annoying.
Eventually we decided to fly elsewhere, so we flew over the livestock farm that's a couple miles west of the strip. We found some good lift there and circled for quite a while. From that vantage point we could see 63JJ practicing takeoffs (and rope breaks) while listening to the radio and just hanging out. I was surprised that there was sufficient lift to keep us up indefinitely on even a cloudy day.
My thermalling wasn't anything special, but I managed to keep us in the air with a bit of help now and then. The two real problems I had were speed control and forgetting about turn directions. The speed issue was me not controlling the speed as much as I should have. I often flew too fast (55kts vs. something closer to 40kts) in the lift. As for the second problem, a couple times I tried to reverse directions (turn left when thermalling right). Johnathon explained why that's a really bad idea, and after a couple reminders I got it through my think skull and was no longer tempted to do that.
Eventually 63JJ they finished up, launched, and found lift. So it was our turn to land. My first pattern was a bit unusual. Johnathon suggested I get close to the strip and have a good look at it. So I flew a very close downwind that was a bit high. By the time I got on base I suspected we were high, so I opened the spoilers quite a bit and tried to remember that the ground was really at 1,300 feet there so the mental math was a bit different. I was too high. Way to high. After a forward slip, Johnathon suggested a 360 with spoilers on final to burn off altitude. It worked well.
I flew my final approach, did a low-energy landing roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of the way down the strip and rolled most of the way to the end. Johnathon told me the landing was perfect, which obviously made me very happy. I was concerned about landing on a dirt strip without a centerline and obstacles on either side (grass that can cause a ground loop if you're not careful).
I then got the chance to fly my first takeoff from Panoche. Alan warned us about the dust cloud that the Pawnee would kick up. We'd be flying in the dust cloud behind him (*not* above it), so we just had to follow the rope and watch out wing tips to make sure we didn't end up too far to one side. This was, of course, with no wing runner.So I flew two takeoffs to 2,600 feet and two more landings. The landings were, again, very good.
My third takeoff was a rope break at 300 feet AGL. When the rope popped, I turned us onto final (we were basically flying a base leg on tow already) opened the spoilers, and just did what I'd been doing--landed slow and gentle.
After the successful rope break, we took off with the intent of finding lift and staying up long enough for Brett and Russell to practice their takeoffs and landings. We flew around a bit off tow but didn't find much. Lance and Drew in 63JJ managed to find very good lift just south of the strip, so we headed to their position and ended up quite close to pattern altitude with 9KS following us on their first pattern.
We found a bit of lift and Johnathon took the controls for a while to work it up a few thousand feet. This game me a good chance to really look around and try to get a feel for the area, terrain features, and to think about what the winds might be doing to influence the lift we found. Of course, being a moron, I didn't think to take any pictures from the air.
After a while, I took the controls with the intent of gliding around for while until we got low enough to land. 9KS launched to head back to Hollister. We landed a bit after they launched and after 63JJ landed. We were on the ground with 63JJ for a bit and got them set to launch for the second tow back to Hollister. Before long they were gone.
While on the ground waiting for Alan to return for us, I took a few pictures of the strip and surroundings. When Lance and Drew reached their decision point, they released for Hollister and Alan came back for us.
Before long, Johnathon was hooking up our tow rope and Alan was towing us back home.
The ride back was odd. For quite a while I could not see Hollister at all. The high terrain, haze, and sun glare all conspired against me. I just had to trust that we had enough altitude (we did) and that the airport hadn't moved in the few hours we were gone (it hadn't).
My main landmark on the way back was Santa Anna peak. We passed it and the Three Sisters while just below 5,000 feet. At that point, I knew we had lots of altitude to spare. So I flew around the airport, entered the pattern for 24 when we got low enough, and landed a bit before 7:30pm.
We put the glider to bed, talked about how the day went, paid for the day, and made the necessary log book entries.
I had a great time despite the less than optimal weather. Johnathon was excellent to fly with. He taught me a lot about flying and flying in that area both by what he said and what he did when he had the controls. Landing several times at Panoche really helped my confidence a lot. I now feel like the door is opening a bit more.
I'm glad that Drew and Russell are putting this program together. It's going to give a lot of low-time or newly licensed pilots the opportunity to really expand their soaring--especially during the summer season when the sea breeze is destroying all the local Hollister thermals.
I recommend this to anyone who's interesting in flying a bit outside the local area as well as anyone who's trying to figure out how to get from "I got my license" to "How can I start on the path to cross country soaring?"
There's a lot more I could say, but I've probably rambled enough as it is. If you do go... make sure to bring lots of cold water to drink. Even on a a cloudy day it's really warm in the Panoche area.
I want to get back down to Panoche to fly some more.
I took Adam up for a flight in the Grob yesterday. We released at 6,000 feet near Fremont Peak and glided around west of Hollister. We flew north/northwest of the field, looped around Frazier Lake airport, and headed toward the foothills before heading back toward the airport. Roughly 1.5 miles north of the field we found a broken thermal over a field that was being plowed by a farmer. I provided 2-4kt lift between 1,500 and 2,000 feet.
Today I headed down with Lance and Joyce. Lance now has his license, so we flew together twice. The first time we took up a 2-32 (N7531) so Lance could try flying from the back. I flew the takeoff to 3,000 feet and he flew the rest of the tow to 5,000. Then he practiced turns, speed control (which was excellent), and a few stalls. He gave me the controls back at 2,000 feet so that I could fly the pattern and landing. It was a bit odd flying a 2-32 again, but the landing was decent.
Then, after Joyce managed to ground 64E after a hard landing, we took up an ASK-21 (N63JJ) and flew out west of the field. Lance was just along for the ride on this flight. I had wanted to fly the Grob again, but Charles had booked it so I ended up in the 21. The flight was uneventful except for a bounce on landing. I landed well, tail wheel first and then main wheel. But when I went to put a bit more back pressure on the stick to keep the tail wheel down, I accidently closed the brakes a bit and the stiff headwind meant that we hadn't lost much airspeed. So we ended up back in the air. We climbed about 8 feet and then I leveled out and landed a bit more slowly the second time.
I didn't feel so bad after watching Charles land the Grob and do nearly the same thing.