Diamond Goal Flight

There are three tasks one must accomplish in order to reach the zenith in soaring, a Gold badge with three diamonds. When I got into the sport in around 1970, you would occasionally hear whispered in hushed reverence, "He's a three diamond pilot." My first diamond was more an accident than anything else when I was thrashed through the rotor and spat into a wave that carried me to 32,000 feet and back to the ground in a total flying time of 47 minutes. A few months later I tried for my second diamond which required a flight of at least 300 km (187 miles) with a landing at a point you designate before takeoff. A thunderstorm parked over my declared airport forced me to land ten miles away and accept the consolation prize of Gold Distance to complete my Gold Badge. Ten years and five hundred glider hours later, I still hadn't made a concerted effort to get either of the two remaining diamonds.

Dave Allen, who owned a high performance two place Janus sailplane, invited me to go along as passenger as he attempted to set a new multiplace speed record around a 300km triangle. He had selected the towns of Como and Texas Creek, Colorado as his two turnpoints. He would concentrate on flying and I would take care of timing, navigation, turnpoint photos and any radio conversation that might be needed. While the two turnpoints might sound rather obscure, even to a Colorado resident, they were easy to spot from several miles away. The nearly ghost town of Como is situated in the middle of a wide valley on a highly visible paved road running southwest from Denver. A white gravel road, which is equally visible from the air, runs through Como and back in the direction from which we would be coming. The two roads cross to form a huge "X" which can be seen from all direction. Texas Creek, being located in a narrow canyon, is a bit less obvious but equally easy to find. It's on US 50, a four-lane divided highway half way between Canyon City and Salida. It's only three or four miles from where the highway takes an abrupt turn to follow the base of a long ridge of mountains known as the Sange de Cristos. A paved runway parallel to the highway and a large round silver water tank makes identification easy. The runway also offers a safe landing area if needed.

We would have to locate the turnpoints on the ground, fly to a point past them and take a photograph of the landmark so the person who would certify that the flight had been done would know we had been there. We charged around the 197 mile course in just under three hours at a speed of 68.03 mph which was enough to set a new Colorado state record, but was short of the national record by five miles an hour.

When I arrived at the gliderport on Saturday morning a week later, the place was a beehive of activity. Half a dozen glass ships were being prepared for flight. I hadn't paid much attention to weather conditions but the soaring index indicated that this would be a booming day for cross country flight into the mountains. "You need your diamond goal, so get a ship ready and come with us. It's going to be even better than last week," Dave urged.

Since I could fly any day I wished, I usually never flew on weekends except if the gliderport needed a tow pilot or instructor, leaving the club ships for members who could only fly then. The ASW-19 that was normally available during the week was already reserved as were both the club's higher performance ships, the 1-35 and the Astir CS. Both the 2-32s would be busy all day, so the only club ship left was the Schweizer 1-34, the lowest performance glider in the fleet. It had only the basic soaring instruments where the two high-performance ships had electronic glide computers and audio variometers so the pilot could concentrate on flying and not need to refer to the instruments or the Macready speed-to-fly ring. The 1-34 was used mostly as a transition trainer for pilots moving up to the higher performance ships. With a rather upright seating, it was far from comfortable, especially for someone my height and wearing a parachute. "Nothing but the club 1-34 to fly," I protested.

"So fly it," the said. "With conditions as strong as they will be, you could soar a brick around the course."

"I don't have a crew," I protested.

"Someone will come after you if you land out, but you won't on a day like this."

With no excuses left and since they had done all the planning and had an official who would supervise and certify all the flights, I copied their flight declarations, loaded cameras and smoked the barograph. I had to fill the oxygen tank and find a water bottle before I was ready to go. "You are the slowest ship so you go first," they said as they rolled me into position behind the towplane. They weren't fooling me; they wanted me out ahead like a bird dog to mark the thermals for them. Puffy little clouds were already forming overhead as the canopy was closed and the rope attached. I waggled the rudder as the slack came out and I felt the surge of the launch.

It had been quite a while since I'd flown the 1-34 and had forgotten just how noisy it was. It had all the usual creaks, squeaks and canning sounds of a metal ship. I had taped the wing roots to seal them but air still whanked and whonked through various other openings. Those sounds spells drag but after all, this was a club trainer so what else could I expect. I turned into a good thermal right off tow and was soon cranking through 11,000 feet.

I didn't need a start gate for a badge flight, but since they had set one up using the main runway as the start/finish line for the record attempts, I figured I'd use it so they could test their instruments. I called, "Over Easy, IP" shoved the nose down and the airspeed began to climb toward the red line as I streaked toward the start gate. The gliderport was at 7200 feet elevation, so I had to be down to 10,480 feet to be under the top of the start gate which was 1000 meters or 3280 feet high. I glanced at the instruments as I screamed across the runway at 10,400 on the altimeter and redline on the ASI, "Good start, Over Easy," came over the radio, so I let the nose come up to level and used the excess speed to race toward a cloud beginning to form about five miles west of the field and on course to the first turnpoint. I clicked the timer on my watch and congratulated myself on an outstanding contest start.

I pulled up and rolled into a turn as soon as I hit the lift under the building cloud and was soon going through 12,000 feet as I heard the others releasing off tow. I could see a solid row of clouds forming along the front range beginning at the Air Force Academy and running north toward Denver so I pushed straight west toward them. Rather than circle in the lift, I slowed to minimum sink speed and turned so I could fly straight ahead in the lift which soon pegged the variometer at 1000 fpm. I snapped on the oxygen mask, checked the flow meter, pressed the red button on the stick and said, "Over Easy going through fifteen running north in ten knots lift under the cloud street along the front range."

"Thanks, we're on the way," came from behind me as they set up to go through the start gate. Knowing of the good lift ahead, there was no need for them to stop shortly after going through the startgate to gain altitude. They could race directly on course to the strong lift. Such radio exchanges of information like that are not allowed in contests but were appreciated in situations like this.

There is an old adage in soaring that one always knows of a safe landing spot within gliding distance should they not find lift. If you are over farm land with an unlimited supply of suitable fields, you don't have to bother yourself with those details. When flying over the mountains, one should always know of a landing area they can reach before they leave the one behind. However, as in all other sports where speed is part of the game, many of the more experienced pilots who feel they can depend on finding lift and will push their luck. Once in a while such bravado will end in having to land out with the chance of a damaged glider. I had nothing to prove to myself or anyone else so I wasn't about to take any chances.

Snow began to swirl past me as I climbed into the verga hanging below the cloud street at almost 18,000 feet over my first safety point of Larkspur located on I-25 roughly half way between Colorado Springs and Denver and just barely outside the terminal control area around Denver. I could no longer see the horizon to the west as I swung the nose directly toward Como and dove to keep from being sucked into the cloud. A Forest Service strip at Deckers, the Tarryall Ranch and another ranch strip were lined up ahead and would be easily reachable should they be needed. I waited for a break in the radio chatter from the gliderport, pressed transmit button and reported my position and altitude.

Back came, "Hotel Lima (the contest letters on Mike's LS-4) coming up on the Tarryall Ranch at twelve-eight. The lift is fantastic down here in the valley." He was already ahead of me but following a valley well below the mountain peaks on either side. The light wind across a valley was triggering closely spaced thermals off the canyon walls, much like on-shore winds cause following waves used by sailboats. The upslope thermals can be worked for high speeds and he was going for a national record. As for myself, I was being very conservative and going to stay high.

The 1-34 is advertised as having a 34 to 1 glide angle but that's in ideal conditions and at about 45 mph. That means that it will glide 34 miles for each mile of altitude is loses. Just like coasting down a hill, the steeper the hill, the faster you go. In a glider, the faster you fly, the faster you lose altitude. For many years, the theory of soaring was to climb as high as possible in each thermal then fly at the speed which would produce the least loss per mile. In that case with the ship I was flying, my glide speed would be 45 mph. Based on it taking half as long to regain altitude as you use it, the time required to fly the 190 mile course would be over six hours.

Paul Macready, an aeronautical engineer who designed the first human powered airplane, tested a number of gliders at various speeds and found that speed versus altitude loss was not linear but formed a curve called a polar. Then he did a time/motion study based on these figures to come up with a speed one should fly based on how quickly they could regain the lost altitude. The faster they can recover the altitude, the faster they should fly, even if they were using it up much more rapidly. The second part of the equation was that since air is not stable, to be most efficient, one should slow down to remain in rising air longer and fly faster to get through areas of sinking air sooner. This is called "Dolphin flying" because it looks much like what dolphins do in the ocean to take advantage of the motion of waves.

He won the 1954 world soaring championship in France using his theory then gave his discovery to the soaring world by published it in magazines. He also gave the method of calculating the speeds to fly for any sailplane and transferring them to a circular sliderule that fits around the variometer (a sensitive rate of climb used in sailplanes) That ring is now known as the Macready ring and is a standard item in just about every sailplane. Of course, there are a now computers which refine the data on a second by second basis and present it in both audio and visual form. It still comes back to the fact that one cannot buy skill and the best pilots are the ones who usually win. No matter the price of the club, a duffer will never hit the ball like Tiger Woods.

Most soaring pilots would consider 18,000 feet as being really high but with mountain peaks only four thousand feet below you, it's not all that high. I set the Macready Ring on my last climb and it said I should be flying at 90 but there was no way I was going to blow away altitude flying that fast so I set my base speed for 70 mph and headed for my first turnpoint.

"Hi Jim, Double Alpha below and to your left." came over the radio a mile or so before I reached Como. Most gliders are white but the 1-34 was cherry red and easy to spot in the air. Dave had taken off several minutes behind me but had already caught me in the first sixty miles. I was perhaps a quarter mile behind him as he flew past Como, stood the big Janus on it's left wingtip, held it for a second then he was gone on the second leg. I followed his track, pointed my wingtip at the town using the roads as markers, touched the top rudder to stop the turn, clicked the shutter and rolled out on course. I had learned the trick of getting the turnpoint photo on the first try when I rode with Dave the week before. I checked my watch and was surprised to find that only one hour had elapsed since going through the gate.

I could tell from the cloud patterns that the lift was more consistent and stronger over the mountains along a direct route than out over the valley known as South Park so I stuck with the high ground. I set 13,000 feet as the altitude at which I would take any lift because with the mountain peaks around 12,000, it looked awfully low. If I couldn't find lift when I was down to that level, I would turn away from the mountains toward the lower valley and known landing spots.

That proved not to be necessary as lift was strong and consistent. Still I tried to maintain a soaring band between 14 and 17 thousand feet. As I was circling in a thermal, I saw a white sailplane come streaking in below me, pull up in the thermal I had marked, then lower the nose and shoot out the other side on course. He had grabbed a quick five hundred feet without losing more than a few seconds of time. I figured what the heck so I shoved the nose down until the airspeed was nudging the 100 mph mark but he was still flying away from me. Water ballast does great things for cruise speed but the only water ballast I was carrying was in me because I had forgotten to bring along any pee bags.

Black and Waugh Mountains were to my left and slightly ahead to the right was Burned Timber Mountain, all over 11,000 feet high. They made perfect landmarks and even though I could not see Texas Creek, I knew it was in the valley just past them. I watched the shadow of the white sailplane that was perhaps a mile ahead as it flicked across the treetops and climbed toward him until they almost touched then it dropped away. He had raced through the pass barely above the trees but I wasn't that brave so I pulled up a bit to conserve altitude.

The river, highway and railroad crowded shoulder to shoulder as they wiggled through the narrow canyon. There was the big silver tank and the runway, Texas Creek! As I pulled up in a climbing turn to the left and snapped the photo, I saw a flash of wings a couple miles ahead and above me. It was the first time today anyone had marked a thermal I could use. As I pulled in below him, I felt the surge of strong lift and the audio screamed. The thermal was so young that the cumulus cloud that marks them hadn't even formed. I adjusted my circle to match that of the other glider which was at least two thousand feet above me and the variometer pegged out in the strong lift. As with all young thermals, it was strong and very rough. The skins of the 1-34 banged away in protest as I slammed around in a tight circle to stay in the core of the lift. "Hi Jim," came Tony's voice from the glider above me.

"Thanks for the thermal," I said. Back came two radio clicks in reply. It wasn't long until I was cranking through 16,000 feet and the lift was still pegged out at 1000 feet per minute. Whispy little flecks of cloud were beginning to form at the top of the thermal and I searched the sky under them for Tony's white ship. "Where are you, Tony, I'm going through sixteen."

"Coming up on Cripple Creek." He was already twenty miles ahead. "Man, you are moving," I said.

"You don't cover ground flying in circles."

"You don't leave lift like this, or at least I don't," I replied.

"Jim, this is Mike. Get all the altitude you can because I didn't find anything but sink as I came across. I'm ridge soaring on the back side of Pikes Peak trying to get over the saddle (referring to the low spot between Pikes Peak and the NORAD antenna farm on Baldy Mountain) I thought I was going to have to land on a frozen lake for a few minutes. If you get in trouble, go for Fremont County Airport."

"You must have hit a down cycle because it's pretty good right now," said Tony.

That's the beauty of having good pilots out ahead of you. They can not only spot thermals for you but also areas of sink that should be avoided. I could see clouds beginning to form along the final leg, indicating the formation of thermals.

The the maximum reading on the variometer was 1000 feet per minute and it had been pegged out ever since I pulled into that thermal. The lift was still pegged as I passed through 18,000 feet where Positive Control Airspace begins and no one should exceed that altitude without filing an instrument flight plan. But the lift was good, the cloud base was still well above me and there were no airways where jets might be climbing or descending in that area.... so I kept cranking. Just like when you find cheap gasoline, you fill your tank as full as you can get it.

When I rolled out at cloudbase, frost was forming on the canopy and most of the clouds ahead were below me. The radio was crackling with the pilots reporting one mile out and then getting, "Good Finish" as they flashed across the runway streaming twin jets of water as they dumped their ballast. I was still 60 miles away. I did a bit of mental math; I was now 15,000 feet or about three miles above the gliderport which was about sixty miles away. That means I'd need only a twenty to one glide angle which the Macready ring told me I should fly at 90 mph.

No way! I dialed it back to 75 mph and pointed the nose toward Pikes Peak which was filling the horizon 45 miles away. I wasn't dressed for this altitude and even though I could feel the warmth of the sun on the back of my hands, the outside air temperature was standing at zero Fahrenheit. With nothing to do other than sit there shivering while the minutes and miles slipped by, my thoughts were with the situation with my bladder. I considered everything from my water bottle to my hat, but finally decided that I would just suffer until I was on the ground.

The peak house slipped by six hundred feet below me as I crossed Pikes Peak at 14,110 feet. Eight thousand feet above Black Forest 24 miles away. Now was the time for 90 mph so I lowered the nose and watched the finger of trees marking the location of the field creeping toward me at a mile and a half a minute. Fifteen minutes to go -- my bladder was about to explode.

"Black Forest, Over Easy, one mile from the west. What's the traffic?"

"Pattern is clear, the field is all yours. Congratulations on a great flight,"

I could see people grouped around the sailplanes in front of the flight office as I flashed across the runway at better than a hundred miles an hour, pulled up into a sweeping turn to the right into downwind for a landing to the north. The main wheel touched down and I let it roll on the runway until it rocked up on the skid. I felt someone grab the wingtip and turn me off the runway where I stopped a hundred feet from the flight office and a bathroom.

People gathered around the nose of the ship, I opened the canopy and released the belts. I stepped out so stiff I could hardly stand, released the chute harness and handed it to someone. Then I heard a beer can open, felt the spray hit my face and.... wet my pants.

Four state and national speed records around a 300 km triangle were set that day, all of them at speeds in excess of 90 mph. I got my diamond goal at 67 mph in just over three hours from start to finish.


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Copyright 2003 by Jim Foreman