Posted by: cokenias | February 12, 2012

Welcome to Santa Barbara

The Alternator (3780′), Santa Barbara, 7 mph W 1:00pm.

25 minutes

Last day of a three day thermalling clinic in Santa Barbara. Having missed my only other opportunity on day one, I was eager to get in at least one flight before the weekend was over. This is a new site for me. I walked the LZ in the morning and looked at it from the side of the road on the drive up the mountain. From launch the LZ is invisible, blocked by a peak (West Bowl). Flight plan is to fly to West Bowl, arriving as high as possible, and play in the thermals rising off the mountain. Once low, head off to the LZ (visible from the front of West Bowl).

The first two gliders to launch were tandems. First takeoff was clean and casual. The second was much rougher; pilot and passenger crashed through a small tree and bounced off a boulder. That was the second scary launch I’d seen in as many days.

I reminded myself not to rush my launch, but since there was not enough wind for kiting, I needed to be in continuous motion. With plenty of hill behind me, I brought the wing up in a reverse launch. It was solid, I turned and ran, lifted off for a step, continued running with a bit more brake and took off. Wasn’t able to slip into seating position, too much friction. I was concerned that I might get in that situation I’ve found myself in a few times where I am forced to hang by my groin the whole time, but was able to get in by grabbing the risers and wiggling. (Thankfully I will soon have a footrest which connects to the carribeeners which I can use instead.) The riser grab and wiggling definitely affected my speed and course.

Following the general flight plan, with coaching by radio, I crossed over the West Bowl ridge with about 250 feet of clearance. I was a little surprised by the terrain on the other side, I had expected a sharp rocky face, but there was actually a bit more mountain before the sky opened up. I chose a route which (to my mind) split the difference between remaining high over the ground and staying high on the mountain. My goal was to cross one more ridge and come out one the front side of the mountain.

Suddenly I was very concerned about my altitude. The terrain I was flying over was very generic: shrub-like trees, tree-like shrubs, rocks and boulders, no man-made objects. It had been hard for me to get a sense of scale and distance. Then I saw my shadow, huge and crisp zipping along the ground and I got scared. The slope I was aiming to crest was rising under me quickly and I had been flying through sink to get there. I had an escape to the left, though I wasn’t sure what to do next if I went that way. My next thought was to wonder what landing on the peak would be like if it came to that. As I was about to peel left down a valley towards the open air, I hit a sunny patch and was yanked upward. I was lifted up the slope to the spine, which I followed to the sunny, rocky face of West Bowl. My track log says I was 150 feet over the terrain at my lowest, it seemed lower at the time.

Finally above the face of the mountain, and in lots of lift, I did a few 360s. My piloting was tense and jerky; I over-banked my turns, losing height. The thermal air was rougher than I have experienced before, but the turbulence was not as bad as I feared it might be. I still found it unnerving being jerked about. The bumps were coming quickly and from all sides. I tried to keep up with the air, moving my hands to maintain constant wing pressure, but for all I know I was making it worse with mistimed inputs.

I focused on the rocky face of West Bowl, turning sharply in areas of strong lift. My heart was racing, and I was looking for the LZ between maneuvers. From my vantage point, I wasn’t 100% sure I knew where it was. And I definitely wasn’t confident about where the preferred bailout LZs were. What seemed to be the LZ (it was) was a long way off (it was). I very much wanted to climb up but if that wasn’t going to happen I wanted to be sure I could make the landing. I wasn’t so sure.

My piloting was twitchy. I think I didn’t make much of the available lift because my turns were so frequent and aggressive. In my mind was the image of me spiraling upward in a small thermal with my wing severely banked– we’d talked about this in ground school. My attempts at making at happen just lost me height overall, I think I would have been better off with more patience and efficiency. Smoother inputs, fewer course changes. I would have had more time in front of the cliff face, and perhaps would have gotten a better sense of how large the thermals were. Also fresh in my mind was the advice that thermals tend to push the glider away and that strong weight shift and a committed turn was important to get in a thermal. I added a lot of weight shift to my turns, one leg lifted and my torso leaning deep to the inside.

At one point (07:00) I turned sharply to my right, probably near the boundary of a thermal. My vario reports 4500ft/min up. 180 degrees into my turn, with lots of brake and weight shift, I felt the right side go soft (like a stall) and heard a rustle, I immediately let up on the right and looked to the wing. It was diving in front of me with the right side depressurized. There was a moment of weightlessness which I reacted poorly to. With the brakes around my wrists I grabbed on to the risers to “keep from falling”. My body swung under the diving wing, which had recovered on the right but was getting soft on the left. At the bottom of my pendulum under the wing I mentally yelled at myself to HANDS UP!. I let go of the risers like they were on fire, let my hands rise all the way up and then pulled down, looking for some pressure.

Thankfully, it was there, the glider had straightened itself out and I was flying in a straight line away from the cliff. Some strong brake pulls to compensate for the post-collapse swooping and I was back to normal flight. The whole event was about 5 seconds, I lost about 100 feet and turned a bit more than 90 degrees. All-in-all, a mild collapse, but it was my first and I was frightened. After landing, I spoke with one of the tandem pilots who saw me from the air. She was concerned to see a collapse so low. As well she thought I could have handled the oscillation afterward much better. No doubt.

I continued flying in front of the cliff, but further from the face and with a lot less gusto. This would have been an ideal time to turn and head for home, I was flying scared and there was plenty more to do before the flight would be over. While low and facing the cliff, static from the radio sounded like rustling paraglider cloth and I thought I was having another collapse. (9:00)

My vario started making sad sinky sounds as I realized I was flying over a valley. I found lift again by returning to the ridges, but wasn’t able to exploit it beyond just barely maintaining altitude. I was still very stressed, though there was enough to keep me busy that I didn’t start panicking. A few thoughts like “what the hell am I doing here?” and “do I know how to do this?” and “am I going to land safely?” tried to take over my mind, I chased them off with “Shush! I am piloting!”

I half-heard a message to me over the radio, key words being “Damon” and “low”, so I headed off for home, my heel ready at the speed bar, as I was finding lots of sink. Reviewing my track log and video, I would have probably had a much better glide a bit more to my right, over a long ridge (in retrospect, I think that was the instruction I was getting on the radio). Instead I flew a bee line for the LZ, riding the bar over several valleys and braking for the few lifty bits. There was some amount of headwind, which I tried to compensate for with bar, but I think my overall glide angle ended up too steep. Probably too much bar combined with a route over sinking air.

Arrived over the LZ about 500 feet above the ground. I would have preferred twice that height. I couldn’t see the windsock (far end of the LZ) or any other indicators. I chose a straight in approach on the same heading as the glider that landed a minute before me. Because the ground gently slopes away I flared a bit early; but backed off and flared again for a clean landing. Happy to be down.


  • Research: I could have reviewed track logs and maps before arriving in SB, but instead relied on the geography lessons I got during the site intros.
  • Mental: 10 minutes of relaxation before takeoff would have helped a lot.
  • Preflight: right brake line routed between B and C riser.
  • Riser grab and wiggling wiggling into harness just after take off.
  • External radio: Never again with the speaker mics. I want in-helmet audio and radio within reach.
  • Aggressive piloting, scratching. I was at or below reserve-throw height at West Bowl, I should have been much more conservative.
  • Didn’t weight shift to the flying side during collapse, just swung like scared meat.
  • Riser grab during collapse.
  • Flew straight lines through sink instead of following the lift.

Next Time:

  • No more brakes on wrists. Even with thin gloves, it takes an extra moment to get my hands off the brakes. I need that time to grab the reserve. From now on, I only put my palms through.
  • No more grabbing. I almost never grab. Almost isn’t good enough.
  • SIV. Time to take a maneuvers clinic and practice collapses and other scary things over water. I’m overdue, really.
  • Practice active piloting and surge control.

25 minutes.




  1. That was a pretty intense thermal day, and given it was your first day at Alternator and maybe your first day in strong thermals, I think you should give yourself a *lot* more credit. You just need to do it again a few times in mellower conditions, maybe even a sled ride or two just to get to know the place. It’s not often like it was that day there – you should go back!

  2. Thanks, Robin. :) I’m not scared off, but definitely humbled. My brain got too full, too many firsts in one day. A simple sled ride would have been a good goal. Next time I do a new site, though, I’ll spend a lot more time with maps beforehand. That was some anxiety I didn’t need.

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