Sunday, May 15, 2011

Weather and Retrieve for Cross Country Flight

Weather and Retrieve for Cross Country Flight

Recently a group of pilots got together to discuss flying, particularly cross country (XC) flying.  The first long flying days of the season are starting and everyone is itching to go far.  XC flights are some of the most rewarding and challenging in the world of flying.  Going XC can also be dangerous, and the risks should not be taken lightly.  With XC, the pilot is always flying into the unknown.  After leaving a comfortable home flying site, whether we choose to make the crossing, go deep, or simply glide out, we always arrive someplace new. 

Over the flats.  Photo by Chris Amonson

Before heading out for that next big XC, it’s good to think about lessons from earlier flights and procedures that go with flying distance and getting home again.

Conrad Kreick provided a window into his weather analysis methods for deciding where to fly.  His expertise and experience in choosing great weather has paid back in great flights this spring.

Meredyth Malocsay was able to summarize the conversations about how to make retrieves more efficient and organized. Her summary is in the form of a list of equipment--from required items to ones that are handy to have.  She also distilled the lengthy conversation and experiences into “Standard Operating Proceedures” that provide a general guideline of priorities.


In the Northwest, we have access to three excellent forecast models. They are the Global Forecast System (GFS), the North American Model (NAM), and the Rapid Update Cycle (RUC). When trying to decide if a site will be flyable it is best to look at as many different models as possible. If they all indicate good flying weather, you can have a high level of confidence that you will be getting a good flight. On the other hand, if each model tells you something different, then your confidence in your forecast will be low.

I have seen days where one model forecasts a great day of flying while another showed the opposite, and the true weather matched one of those models. If you had only looked at one model that day you may have used up a day parawaiting or perhaps missed a good fly day mowing the lawn.

When there is disagreement in the models, the true forecast is often somewhere in the middle. If the one model shows winds that are just within your safe launch standards while another shows much stronger winds, then it’s probably not worth a drive across the state because the odds are launch will be blown out. If you’re looking for an excuse to spend some time outside though, it might be worth heading to launch just to see which model is closer to the truth.

To improve the accuracy of your forecast it helps to monitor the weather and the forecasts each day. The model that most accurately predicted today’s weather will usually be closer to predicting tomorrow’s weather. When the trend has been very accurate and the models all agree, then you can be very confident in the forecast. And if that forecast shows a record setting XC day, skip work, call your friends, and go fly.

Here are some questions I ask when looking at the weather forecasts:

1.      Will it be overcast? Some clouds are good. Too much and the sun’s energy isn’t able to warm the ground enough to produce good thermals.
2.      Will it rain? If there is a good chance of rain during the day I usually stop right here and decide what else to do for the day.
3.      Will there be lift? Am I up for a good hike and a sled ride or do I only want to commit a day to flying if I can stay up for an hour or more.
4.      Will I be able to launch? No point in going to launch if the wind will be too strong or over the back.
5.      What will the air be like once I’ve committed to aviation? Site-specific knowledge is helpful.
6.      If I’ve gotten this far, then I start looking at what I can make of the day. How high can I get? How far can I go? Will the chance for a good flight be worth the drive?
7.      And the most important question of all: Will I have fun?

Answers to all these questions can be found on If you don’t want to spend the $35 annual fee for XCSkies you can find the same information at the University of Washington, Department of Atmospheric Sciences web site ( Another source maintained by T. J. Olney can be found here:
For more advanced information I look at the pressure gradient for the day. Are the isobars close together indicating stronger winds or perhaps there is high-pressure overhead leading to stability? I might also look at surface temperature relative to air temperature to assess stability and I look to see how cold it will be at the top of lift. Will I need my warm gloves? Cold air is denser too, so lighter thermals on a cold spring day can give us a good flight while light thermals in August might not keep us off the ground. I also monitor any fronts moving through the area. Pre- and post-frontal conditions can produce some exciting flying. And it pays to watch the jet stream. It can affect the way the weather develops over the next few days. It can also change the air we fly, especially around some of our higher launches.

To summarize: I first look to see if the air will be flyable and whether I’ll be able to launch, or if I’d want to launch. Then I look to see if it would be fun to fly and what I could make of the day. It is important to check as many models as possible and to develop a pattern showing which models are the most reliable. When the trend is favorable and the models agree you can be very confident in your forecast.

The long empty road back. Photo by Chris Amonson

Be prepared
  1. Know you wing.  Fly equipment that is suitable for your skill or comfort level.
  2. Know how to use your vario, radio, GPS, and or Spot device.

"Required" Equipment
  1. Working radio able to receive and transmit on the USHPA frequencies.
  2. Mobile phone
  3. GPS

"Good to Have" equipment
  1. Spot/Inreach device
  2. Big thick lawn/leaf garbage bag in your pack for shade or rain.
  3. Water and food.
  4. A sign for hitching reading “Pilot needs ride” or something similar.
  5. Something to read.

"Really nice to have" (in retrieve vehicles)
  1. Nuvi or something capable of “goto” coordinates.
  2. 50 watt radio able to receive and transmit on USHPA frequencies.
  3. Cooler with drinks.
  4. Charger for phones and electronics.
  5. Straps of some sort in your car for bags on top.

(Every situation is different - so it is always dependent on the day, trucks, area, who you rode with, etc. That said, here are some general rules of thumb that seem to make sense based on our experience so far).
  1. Leave keys on rig and make sure group knows where (hitch, strut, gas cap, license plate).
  2. At Baldy, designate one person to leave their gate key under rock by locked gate on the way up (have your name on it).
  3. Coordinate frequency and radio check on launch.
  4. Make sure you have contact numbers on launch.
  5. Have your GPS (and Nuvi or car GPS) in dd.dddd format.
  6. Have a user field or way to look at "distance from takeoff" on your GPS for radio call including position.
  7. Periodically call out on radio = who, altitude, location, intention (ex: Arun, 9200, Bridgeport, heading north).
  8. Bring the trucks down from launch before retrieving bodies, if possible.
  9. Gather short dirters first and regroup to plan long haul (Baldy-truckstop, Saddle-Mattawa grocery store, Chelan-lz or subway).
  10. Wait for long guy to land to see what makes sense for retrieve, or send the guy/car that makes sense for really long haul, in case it turns into that.
  11. If you don’t have an smartphone, learn how to use twitter for spot texts.
  12. If you have a smartphone, load app to make spot locating easy (iPhone-Shared Pages, Windows-Spot Locator by Iain Frew, droid-Shared Pages)
  13. If you have a Spot device, have your shared page clear every 24 hours. Email your Spot url to Dave Wheeler, and have twitter account receiving ok messages.
  14. Land, send Spot "OK" message, then start packing up with Spot out and exposed to sky.
  15. Leave your radio on after landing, and make sure your cell phone is on and where you can hear it.
  16. Have your Spot message go to your own phone also, so you can tell it was sent successfully, and for handy cut/paste to others.
  17. Try to make your own way back first. Don’t assume you'll get picked up.
  18. When you start hitching/walking to make your own way back, start Spot tracking again
  19. If you get a ride, text that you did.
  20. Give and accept gas money for retrieve and launch rides. A trade system too hard to keep track of.
  21. If you've been retrieved or plan to be, expect to be doing some retrieving as well.

Courtesy to Retrieve Drivers

Think about how you would behave if a perfect stranger stopped to give you a ride. Then treat your friends the same way. Have a good attitude and be thankful that someone came to get you. Having happy pilots in the car makes retrieve go faster!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Israel – a paragliding destination?

By George Sturtevant
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” if you ask the Israelis in our flying community and the local pilots who have made the trip with APCO distributor Bob Hannah.  
In a country the size of New Jersey, there are at least ten flying sites, mostly in the northern, non-desert half.  Given the prevailing weather while C.J. and I were there, we got to visit only half of the sites.  Netanya, a ridge-soaring site 35 km north of Tel Aviv, right on the Mediterranean coast and our base at the APCO condo, has two launches both in grassy parks above steep cliffs. Great for ridge soaring. The remainder of our first day was pretty much blown out but on the next day Bob and Mark demonstrated how to launch and gracefully clear the fence that keeps hapless park-goers from falling down the side of the bluff.
To make full use of the week and a half we spent in Israel, we headed out in heavy rain on the third day to tour the Negev desert to the south – just past Beer Sheba that rain quit and the desert began.  Although the wind was too strong to fly we made a quick stop at the Mitspe Ramon site overlooking Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon.  Continuing south to Eilat we drove along the Sinai border with Egypt, which was impressive for its concertina wire and tank traps.  The next day, after a pre-sunrise climb of Masada, we drove along the Dead Sea and climbed to the east-facing Dragot site, but the winds were not cooperating.  However, west winds meant that it was ON at the Mediterranean Coast so we drove over the Mount of Olives and through part of Jerusalem to reach the Arsuf site, a stretch of sandy ridges that rewarded us with perfect ridge soaring conditions.  The resort hotels of Netanya were visible just 10 km or so to the north but no one was trying for XC that day. 
We hit three sites on our fifth day, the first of them a multi-use airstrip.  Yariv Ben-Tovim had invited us to join him for a flight in his powered parachute.  It was interesting to fly with a local guide (low, since PPC are restricted to 500 ft over the ground) over Jewish and Arab communities and the associated fields full of shade structures for vegetables and flowers.  We left the airfield under a cu-filled sky and drove to the area around the Sea of Galilee to Mt. Tabor, the site, in Christian tradition, of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  While conditions were thermally soarable we did not get high enough to look down at the monastery perched on top of this isolated hill.  After landing it was still early enough to head farther east and try Mevo-Hama on the southern end of the Golan Heights directly above the Sea of Galilee.  It was a pretty good bet that Mevo-Hama would be working because Bob had called Moshe, a pilot living across the “sea” from the site, and he could scope out people soaring.  A mix of ridge and thermal kept us cruising above the long, high ridge for as long as we had time for.  Toplanding would have been easy but our vehicle met us in the huge, grassy LZ and whisked us off to dinner with Yariv and his family.
Monday the winds turned north, which is the one direction that does not seem to be covered by the sites in Israel.  We went out to Mevo-Hama anyway and Bob got in a short flight before the rest of us looked at the windlines on the Sea of Galilee and, heeding the advice of locals, decided to find something else to do.  C.J. and I hopped out of the van at the entrance to Susita/Hippos National Park, an excavated settlement from Biblical times, while Bob and Mark went to have coffee with Moshe.  Reaching the summit of the hill after checking out all the ruins, we found a trail down the back side all the way to the Sea of Galilee.  Although this area is still riddled with unexploded land mines (signs all along the roads warn against wandering out into the fields), we figured an official parks trail would be safe, and it made a scenic alternative to retracing our steps and walking down the road.  Shortly after we reached the seaside town of Ein-Gev, Moshe proved the rule about how hospitable Israelis are by inviting us all to dinner with his family.
Since the weather did not look to be improving C.J. and I booked an all-day tour of Jerusalem for Tuesday.  We spent several hours in the Old City seeing the major sights such as the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, then went to the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum for the rest of the day.  We returned to Netanya knowing that we would have to return to Jerusalem for several days if we really wanted to experience more than a fraction of the city.
Time was running out but we made the most of our last flying day by returning to Mt Tabor and getting high over the summit.  Nazareth was visible to the west, the Sea of Galilee to the northeast and the Basilica of the Transfiguration was below us.  Mark surfed the cloudstreet all the way to the far side of the Sea at Ma’agan and we followed, but in the van, for another great Middle-eastern lunch with Moshe and his children.
Speaking of lunch, food in Israel was really tasty.  We ate a lot of the national fast food, falafel, but there were plenty of standard international foods on the menus as well.  The Middle-eastern lunches with many small plates of pickled this-and-that, hummus and other sauces and, maybe, a skewer of chicken or beef kebab were particularly delicious.  It was a surprise to find such excellent food in cafes attached to gas stations.  There were no Starbucks; but there were plenty of other coffeehouses, and if you were really desperate, McDonalds.
Our last day was blown out from the north again so C.J. and I spent much of the day at Caesarea, a sea port built by King Herod and taken over by succeeding conquerors – the Romans, Muslims, and Crusaders, among others.  In the afternoon we drove down to Arsuf just in case the wind might have turned more west, but, alas, it was not to be.  Nevertheless, the spring wildflowers were out in red and yellow profusion and we all wandered through the fields, cameras in hand, in a quest for the perfect flower photo.
Our flight from Seattle to Israel on British Airways left at the civilized time of 7:30 p.m.; but we had to crawl out of bed at 2:30 a.m. for our return flight from Tel Aviv.  Security did not seem as onerous as I expected although we did have to put all of our bags, not just carry-ons, through a scanner before we got to check-in.  Maybe the letter from APCO that said we had been their guests kept us from any serious grilling about what we had been doing in Israel, but, in any case, we sailed right through all the checks and boarded our plane in what seemed like record time.
Security and safety were concerns before we went to Israel, especially as the Mideast started to heat up with the ouster of Egypt’s president.  However, I felt safer in Israel than I had in Ecuador and Brazil – where C.J. and I had both lost beltpacks to thieves.  It did take some change in attitude to get used to seeing IDF soldiers, men and women, carrying their weapons on the street, or in the store, or walking with their friends.  It’s just how they do things in Israel.
Would we go back?  For sure.  There are still sites to be flown and cities and history to be explored.

Personal Best- 6hr 40min, 81miles

Here is an excerpt from Dave Norwood's blog.

The doldrums and frozen winds of winter have abated and the flowers and thermals of spring are rising from the desert floor. For those of us fortunate enough to fly this month we have found amazing clouds at the top of most of our climbs.

Read the full story at: