The 47-Minute Diamond


In soaring or gliding as it is called in many places, there are badges for achievement of certain levels of expertise. For many years there was only the A Badge for soloing a glider, the B Badge for a bit more training and the C Badge for those able to remain aloft for an hour.

As pilots become more proficient and the gliders more able to remain aloft longer, there was an even higher level in which a wreath was placed around the C badge and it became the Silver C. To acquire this coveted badge required more advanced levels of skill; including staying aloft for five hours, gaining a kilometer of altitude and flying to and landing at some point 50 kilometers away.

As in all sports, they keep raising the bar and soaring was no exception. The next level above the Silver C became the Gold Badge. Finally, for the most skilled pilots who could fly higher and further, they added three diamonds which could be placed on the Gold Badge. Each required its own level of performance. One was for flying to a designated landing point 300 kilometers away, another for flying the unheard of distance of 500 kilometers but the most difficult of all was the altitude diamond. This required that a pilot gain five kilometers or 16,404 feet of altitude in a glider. Until a WW-II fighter pilot discovered a phenomenon called the Standing Lee Wave caused by winds blowing over a mountain, about the only way to achieve this award was to fly up through a building thunderstorm. To gain just one diamond usually required vast skills, great personal fortitude, years of trying and in most cases, a lot of luck. When I started flying gliders in 1969, only a scant handful of people in the world held all three diamonds.

Even though I'd been flying for more than 25 years and had several hundred hours of flying time, I had never even sat in a glider much less flown one until I came across one at a local airport. I took four or five flights with their instructor and was sent off by myself to practice the maneuvers I would have to do in order to become a licensed glider pilot. All my flights consisted of being towed aloft, gliding around for a bit and landing. Finally the day came for me to ride with the FAA inspector who asked me a few questions out of a book, rode two flights with me and added "Glider" to my license. There just had to be more to it than that.

I found a dog-eared copy of Soaring Magazine at the airport and read of a place with the magical name of Black Forest Gliderport in Colorado. I just had to go there if for no other reason than to see what real glider pilots looked like.

I arrived one crisp January day and announced that I had come to fly gliders. To my surprise, they said that they were having a wave camp and all people and equipment was dedicated to that. However, if I could stay around for a while, they would try to work me in. That sounded like a great idea and they checked me into the bunk room which I shared with half a dozen people who were there for the camp. I was in hog heaven; rubbing shoulders with real glider pilots at a place where they had hangars full of gliders. In fact, the only airplanes on the field were the tow planes.

The radio was patched into the PA system and I kept hearing voices muffled by oxygen masks announcing things like, "going through twenty-four at five knots." It finally dawned on me that they were climbing through 24,000 feet and going up at around 500 feet per minute. Unbelievable!

After the gliders were all put away and the office closed, they had a meeting in the club house where they announced the achievements for the day and assigned ships to pilots for the next day. There had been three gold and two diamond altitudes flown that day. Just before we left for town to have a pizza party in celebration, a guy who looked about the age of my kids told me to come by his office the next morning. His name was Dick Sayer and he was the chief instructor.

I figured that he would be impressed with my flying hours and all the different aircraft I had flown but his remark was, "This is it?" as he looked at my dozen or so flights in a glider. Then he pointed out a small single place sailplane tied down on the ramp and told me to get in it, belt myself in and close the canopy. "Get used to how it looks from the inside and work all the controls. There's a pilot's handbook in the pocket on the side. Study it and everything you see in the ship. Come see me this afternoon and be able to answer any question I might ask." When I went by, all he said was to be at the meeting. After the meeting, he told me to see him the next morning for an oxygen checkout, find insulated clothing to fit me and that we would do an orientation flight if the wave was running.

The Schweizer 2-32 was the biggest glider I'd ever seen, seemed more like getting into a military airplane that a glider. It also flew like one, nothing like the trainer that I was accustomed to flying. We were first off on tow and shortly after the towplane turned toward Pikes Peak, the air began to get rougher and holding position on tow more difficult. Dick pattered away, pointing out landmarks and telling me the minimum altitudes at certain places in order to get back. I heard him call on the radio that we were finding light rotor and he could see a lennie forming so it looked like a good day.

Light Rotor! I'd hate to think what heavy rotor might be, and what's a lennie. I learned later that he was talking about a thin, lens shaped cloud called a lenticular. They usually mark the location of wave action. Suddenly, as we were about level with the top of Pikes Peak, the air turned smooth and the variometer swung upward showing 600 feet a minute climb. "OK, this is the wave, pull the release," Dick told me. "First thing after establishing your position is to notch the barograph. Lower the nose, open the dive brakes and dive off at least 200 feet of altitude so the barograph trace will indicate that you were off tow and establish a low point for the flight."

After about an hour in the wave, during which he pointed out how to identify landmarks and hold my position over the ground, we had climbed to about 25,000 feet where the lift dropped to less than 200 feet per minute. It was the most amazing flight I'd ever had. We turned back toward the gliderport and Dick pointed out a finger of trees sticking out of the forest as if beckoning us home. "It points at the north end of the runway," he told me. "From this altitude you can see into Kansas and it would be easy to fly right past the field."

As we wasted altitude on the way back, he had me do a few stalls and then a six turn spin. "You fly pretty well for such a low time pilot." Then he told me that the 2-32 was fully aerobatic and asked if I would like to do a loop. "Entry speed is 140 and keep pulling to tighten the loop because all you have working for you is inertia." He demonstrated the first one and then let me do a couple; they were fun. At the evening meeting I was assigned a ship and I was first on the takeoff list. Some time later I realized that they were using me as the guinea pig to see if the wave was working before they sent the regular camp members up.

I was sitting on the takeoff runway early the next morning, dressed in the down from a hundred geese, oxygen mask on my face and the regulator clacking away each time I took a breath. An instrument called a barograph was ticking on its mount behind my head. It would record my flight on a piece of smoked aluminum foil.

Dick helped me close the canopy, connected the towrope, wished me a good flight and lifted the wing for takeoff. Slack came out of the towrope, I waggled the rudder and was rolling down the runway. As we turned toward the mountain, I could see a strange wall of dust rising from the ground near the Air Force Academy. It didn't look like the usual cloud of dust blown up by the wind but more like a dirty, brown wall. Then we slammed into unbelievable rotor. I could see the controls on the towplane going lock to lock as he fought the churning air and I thrashed about trying to stay in position behind him. One second my head would hit the top of the canopy and the next I would be slammed into the seat. As I was trying to pull the belts tighter, the emergency oxygen bottle that had been stuffed in between my left leg and the side of the ship came flying out and I caught it like a shortstop as it flailed around inside the cockpit.

Then, as suddenly as the rotor had begun, the towplane shot upward and the air went creamy smooth. I pulled back on the stick to follow the towplane and shot right past him. I felt the nose of the glider being pulled downward so I grabbed for the release knob and pulled. There was no rewarding sound of the rope releasing and I found myself looking straight down the rope at the towplane pointed toward the ground. Then I realized that in my excitement, I was tugging on the spoiler handle instead of the release knob. The rope shot away with a loud twang.

"Now that was interesting," came the calm voice of Dave Johnson, the tow pilot. "You are in the wave and don't forget to notch the barograph."

"Release at ten-eight in strong wave two miles east of the interstate. The rotor is pretty severe, let's not put anyone else up here unless they know what they are doing." he said.

I heard the gliderport answered him. "Is he doing OK?"

I glanced at the variometer and found it pegged at the top of the 1000 feet per minute scale. The altimeter was rotating toward 13,000 feet. Notch the barograph! I had forgotten to do that! Just then I was slammed up and then down like a dog shaking a rabbit. I had drifted back into that awful rotor. I had to get back forward into the wave. I pushed the nose down to pick up speed. If the wind was blowing at 60 and I was flying at 60, that meant I was standing still over the ground. I had to move forward so I pushed the nose down some more.

The variometer swung to full down and the altimeter began to spin backward as I fought the pounding wave. The airspeed crept to 80 mph, then 85 but the beating continued. If I wasn't out of the rotor by the time I reached 10,500 feet, I would turn tail and race for the gliderport. Then as suddenly as it had happened before, I was in wave again and I felt the upward acceleration. I raised the nose to slow down but certainly wasn't going to be pushed back into the rotor. The variometer was pegged up and the altimeter spinning back toward 12,000 feet.

I heard the gliderport call a ship number a couple times but didn't realize that they were calling me until they said, "Jim, how are you doing?"

I pressed the microphone button and gave them a status report. A few seconds later the tow pilot called to report that I was in wave and climbing when he last saw me. Obviously my radio wasn't working, at least not the transmitter. During the two trips into the rotor, the microphone cord had become unplugged.

Going through 18,000 feet still in pegged out lift, I spotted something tumbling through the air toward me. I turned to avoid it and watched a green plastic garbage can as it spun by. It must have been sucked up from someplace in the Air Force Academy.

At 24,000 the variometer was still pegged and frost was forming on the inside of the canopy. I was looking down at snow capped Pikes Peak and beneath me, streaks of dust being blown across the ground.

Finally at 28,000 feet the variometer dropped off the peg but I was still climbing at 800 feet per minute. Then I started trying to remember my release point and tried to calculate how high they said I had to climb for a diamond altitude. Was it 14,400? No, that was the height of Pikes Peak. Dick had said something about 31,000 feet if I stated even with the top of the mountain, or was it 32,000, or was that how high the wave window was open.

I scratched the frost off the instruments with a gloved finger and found I still had 600 feet a minute climb and the altimeter stood at 32,000 feet. Frost covered everything except for about a six inch spot where the air vent was blowing frigid air on the inside of the canopy. This was bound to be high enough so I swung the nose to the east and opened the dive brakes.

At 14,000 feet the trees of Black Forest were visible through the clear spot and as I swung the nose back and forth looking for the telltale finger that pointed to the gliderport. I couldn't find it! Then I made a turn all the way around and could see that I had flown past the field. I shoved the nose down and started making slow progress against the wind back toward it. At 10,000 feet I was over the field and the frost had begun to evaporate so I removed the oxygen mask to get a breath of fresh air. "The radio crackled, "Winds at Black Forest are west at 25 gusting 35. Evidently Dick had spotted me because I heard him add, "Don't get downwind of the field, Jim, or you likely won't make it back."

I picked out my touchdown point, flew a short pattern and landed. Dick's voice came over the radio, "Keep the canopy shut, dive brakes open and stick forward. We will be right out to get you." Dirt, trash and weeds blew by as the Jeep pulled in front of me and a rope was attached. One person on each wingtip walked the ship to the tiedowns where it was secured before I opened the canopy.

I removed the ticking barograph from its mount and walked into the office. No one asked how my flight went or how high I had gotten. I was crushed. They seemed to be more concerned as to how long the winds would keep them shut down. I could stand it no longer so I blurted out, "I got to 32,000."

Everyone turned to look at me in disbelief. Dick said, "You weren't gone long enough. I figured you fell out and came back." Then he wiped the sweat off the glass of the barograph to see the trace but it was still clouded on the inside, so he clipped the seal. He rotated the smoked drum, "You have a trace and it looks pretty high."

No one, especially me, breathed as he carefully removed the foil and taped it to a piece of plywood used to hold it during the calibration process. He carefully checked various points on the trace with calipers and then verified them against his master chart. Finally he announced, "Low Point, ten six, high point, thirty-one eight, altitude gain, twenty-one two. Flight time, 47 minutes. He certainly has his diamond!"

"Does he have a notch?" someone asked.

"Does he ever," replied Dick. "About two thousand feet of notch. I also calibrated climb rates of over 3000 feet per minute in places."

I had an altitude diamond but nothing to put it on except a Rotary Club pin. I still hadn't even made a one-hour solo flight to earn a C Badge. I did go on to earn my other two diamonds but certainly neither was as easy or fast.

I had stumbled into one of those very rare situations in which a wave forms off the escarpment of the front range, rips 80 mph winds through the Air Force Academy then boils up in a vertical column of air with speeds as high as 40 mph. This wave condition seldom lasts for more than an hour at most. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I worked at Black Forest for about seven years after I retired but saw this condition only one time. While living just north of the gliderport, I did fly the wave more than a hundred times.

With a total flight time from takeoff to landing of 47 minute, it was the fastest diamond ever recorded. It was also the 200th earned at Black Forest where more than 500 were awarded before it closed due to urban encroachment and political pressure in 1985. No wonder it was known as the Diamond Mine.

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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman