Doing the Right Thing
By: Pete Rohrig - 04/14/10

September 2007:

I’m not a high time pilot, but I do have more than 230 flights behind me. I’ve flown in a number of places with different terrains including the high desert of California, the mountains of Greece, but most of my time and tows are in Santa Ynez. There is a variety of wind conditions but generally we get a westerly which usually makes for docile take offs and routine landings. Yesterday, we got our southern wind that usually means wave over our southern coastal mountains, something all us glider pilots look forward to.

I’ve been renting the Blanik L13 regularly for the past two years and I’m quite comfortable with it’s slow response, lazy flight characteristics and adequate thermalling ability. Yesterday I had my worst tow and a very forgettable landing. Earlier a private glider had taken off and reported being in wave and climbing thru 7100 feet with winds from the south. (Later in the day, after his flight, he reported that those winds were nearly 40 kts at less than 6,000 feet.) I was planning to take a high tow over the mountains and look for the wave. These were my plans…

The Windhaven glider operation was taking passengers, the ride pilot and the tow pilot both said it was bouncy and were looking for smoother air for their passengers. I’ve had rough tows before, where my head bounced off the canopy (no damage to head or canopy), forcing a tightening of the lap belt. During these bouncy tows you learn not to chase the tow plane because you’ll be in the same air and going in the same direction… momentarily. Yesterday’s tow was so erratic and unpredictable (because of the mountain rotor) that waiting or following always seemed to be the wrong action. The tow plane would sink and continue to sink and eventually I would follow, having to dive on it then yaw to take up the slack. I’d be back in proper position with no apparent anomalies and suddenly there was slack line again, I’d yaw the glider to take up the slack and all would seem well, and then it would start again. I’ve done the slack line procedure many times and feel adept and comfortable with this maneuver. The closer we got to the mountain the hairier things got; it wasn’t a matter of being scared just getting more and more uncomfortable and getting the feeling I wasn’t in control any longer… so, I pulled the yellow handle.

This of course left me lower than I wanted, in sink air with a slightly bruised ego. I didn’t find any lift and after a 3,500 foot tow I was back in the pattern after about 20 minutes. The sock was showing a steady SSW wind maybe 12kts as I entered the downwind for runway 26. At about the normal mid point of the downwind heavy sink was encountered so I abbreviated the pattern and turned base maintaining good control of airspeed. When I turned final at about 150 - 200 feet it felt like I got hit with a high speed quartering tailwind (ESE) that yawed the aircraft significantly and pushed the airspeed down (ground speed up). (Anyone that has seen or flown an L13 knows that the vertical stabilizer is about the size of the Boeing 747’s vertical.) So, I pushed the nose over and simultaneously seeing I was now high pulled the spoilers full out. At about 50 feet the wind direction changed back to the WSW and now my indicated speed was really ripping. At this point there is not much to do but hold the spoilers out, land long and come to a safe stop. Santa Ynez has about 1200’ of dirt, where the gliders normally land, before getting to the paved runway that is 2800 feet. Landing long here means using all the dirt, which I didn’t quite accomplish but came close.

Being back on the ground after 25 minutes on a wave day is nearly grounds for hanging up one’s wings and I did feel somewhat bruised and dejected by this. In retrospect though, I know I did the right thing by releasing before getting into the precious wave because “I” was getting uncomfortable. Soaring is about judgment, making the right decision for the current situation with safety in the back of your mind pushing those decisions. It was the right thing for me, flying the Blanik, to get off tow when I did. Maybe, if I had been flying a higher performance glider with crisper controls I wouldn’t have felt the same way, but on this day with this glider it was the right decision and I’m still here to write about it.

Pete Rohrig

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