Tonopah Reports
A diary from the 2002 US 15m Nationals
 

 
Today (Monday) was the second and last practice day. I arrived about 1
pm yesterday, a little late and tired to go flying. Looked pretty good,
And all the reports I heard confirmed it.
 
Today was a pretty good day, even by Nevada standards. The practice
course was a 184 mile triangle to the north. The winner so far looks to
be Gary Ittner at 122 mph! I made 99 mph and was 24th.
 
The lift I saw was 6-10+ knots with some incredible streeting. I chose
the wrong mountain range for the run up the first leg. Lift was good,
but no better than the range lined up more directly with the first turn.
I met a bunch of gliders that started behind me there at the turnpoint
after flying alone for the first 80 miles. After a very fast 65 mile
final glide I still finished at 3,000 ft and climbed out again to tour
more of the contest area.
 
The terrain here is pretty desolate. Miles and miles of desert. It looks
like roads are one of the primary outlanding options. Fortunately, most
of the little used dirt roads are straight, flat, and wide. 50 mile long
runways. I hope I don't get any firsthand experience.
 
If this weather holds, we'll probably fly some really long tasks. The
only moderating factor is the runway isn't closed for us to use until
noon, and the launch line has been pretty slow without enough towplanes.
 
Practice Day Scores 
 

 
Tonopah Day 1
 
Another strong day, a little wetter to the north and east. Primary task
was 308 miles, never more than about 70 miles from the airport.
Unfortunately there was an accident during the launch today. I think
Charlie Spratt has put something on the SSA web site about it. The short
version is with heavily ballasted gliders and high density altitudes its
critical to abort a bad launch early, and its surprising how far off the
runway is not far enough. This accident had the cars and people back
from the runway about as far as our taxiways at Kelly.
 
The task was shortened to about 205 miles after the lengthy delay in the
launch. Northeast to MacCann Station, then west across several mountain
ranges to the Mina VOR, then south east to Goldfield and home to
Tonopah. Lift was about the same as the practice day with cloudbases
well above our 17,500 ft limit for the contest. I was rejecting lift
less than 7 kts average. The speeds turned in were pretty impressive.
The unofficial scoresheet had the winner, Doug Jacobs, at 112 mph. I
made 103 mph, good for my first 100+ speed and 25th for the day. The top
40 all broke 100 mph. The day was devalued significantly since the
winner was way under 3 hours. The original task probably would have
worked, too, even with the 3 pm start opening. 
 
The moonscape here isn't nearly as terrifying when you can stay above
7000 ft AGL all day. I hope the monsoon moves a little farther east,
although the current position seems just about perfect for us. But any
more moisture and things could get interesting.
 
Day 1 Flight Log, Day 1 Scores
 

 
Tonopah Wed 7-17
 
Today the task was scrubbed after the fleet was launched before the
start was opened. Thunderstorms were in all quadrants with no hope of a
safe, fair task. I flew around for an hour or so and landed when I saw a
gust front approaching the field over the hills just to the west. I had
been watching the wall of dust approaching for an hour or more. The wind
switched 90 degrees while I was in the pattern, but the real wind waited
another hour to reach the field. I had the glider in the trailer before
the dust and 40 mph winds arrived. 
 
The sky in the morning was completely overcast overhead and to the east.
That cut off the morning sun and made the weather guessers think we
would have a late trigger so they scheduled a fairly late grid time. As
it turned out the whole sky was full of big cumulus by 11 am with
extensive over development in the favored quadrant to the north. But
there was no way to move the launch time up, so only the sniffers got
very far from home today.
 
The Tonopah Chamber of Commerce put on a barbeque at the mining museum
tonight.  All the clouds and rain showers make for a pleasant evening
and a pretty sunset, if nothing else.
 

 
Another Rain Day at Tonopah
 
Three down, seven more to go. Today we gridded on the runway early,
hoping to get in a short task before the sky blew up. Didn't make it.
The blowoff from the first storms arrived just as the lift started. The
weather folks convinced the CD there was no chance, and  that we should
really put all the gliders away before the weather turned ugly. The rain
and wind started just as the last of the 60 gliders were tucked into
their trailers. I don't think it ever got very violent at the field, but
we did get some wind, rain, and lightning. Reminded me a lot of a July
monsoon afternoon in Colorado.
 
Its supposed to start slowly drying out tomorrow. I hope they are right.
 

 
Tonopah Day 2
 
There were large water puddles all over the ramp this morning. And it
was cool. Many broke out the jackets. But the sky was clear and the
forecast was for a dryer day.
 
The task handed out at the 10 am meeting was the one we flew today. ~310
miles around 4 turnpoints, keeping us relatively close to home just in
case it did overdevelop again.
 
There turned out to be no overdevelopment anywhere in the task area
today. Cloudbases were much lower, starting around 12,000 and slowly
rising to about 14,500 by late afternoon. There were some large blue
holes to negotiate today, but there was lift in the blue if you had the
guts to drive on looking for it. I didn't until later in the day. I made
some detours and worked some weaker lift than I wanted to just to stay
comfortably above the desert.
 
The winner today went 99 mph. I made a more leisurely 83 mph. I never
really got stuck, but never got going real well either. I used the
"leave early and pray for rain" strategy. Didn't work today. Very few of
the faster guys passed me though. I was the third finisher, but last I 
saw, my speed was good for 37th for the day. There were still a dozen or 
so flights left to evaluate then.
 
Its interesting flying over such desolate terrain. Fortunately the GPS
is loaded with a database of numerous landing sites, many of which have
been checked from the ground. So even flying what seems to be very low
(<4000 ft AGL) over really rough looking desert, the computer often
shows multiple safe landing sites in easy range. I've been flying fairly 
conservatively, trying mostly to avoid a landout early in the contest. The 
faster guys are starting later and exploiting the marker gliders in front 
of them to pick their way more quickly through the difficult spots. But then 
a good number of the early favorites started late and were as slow as I was 
today, so it must not be that simple.
 
Weather looks to be drying more the next few days. We'll probably get
some more tasks into the northern part of the contest area where some of 
the taller mountain ranges are. Should be fun. 
 
Day 2 Flight Log, Day 2 Scores
 

 
Tonopah Day 3
 
We flew the "A" task handed out at the morning pilots meeting again.
About 318 miles around a triangle. Turns were Bald Mountain, 150 miles
NE, south 70 miles to Duckwater then 95 miles home. The weather looked
very good when we started the launch 12:30. All blue in the Tonopah
Valley with great looking cloudstreets to the north.
 
The start didn't open until 2:00. Almost everyone was on course by 2:30.
I started about 2:15 towards the front of the pack. The run north to
Bald Mountain was spectacular. I averaged 104 mph on the first leg, then
the wheels came off. The turn was 20 miles out in the blue, with only a
few wisps. There was also a wind shift and the air was pretty smoky near
the turn. The first lift I hit was very weak, about 2.5 kts, some 25
miles down the second leg. I got low enough that I turned back towards
the last landable spot, a big dry lake. Found a little lift and slowly
struggled south to the better looking clouds on course. I found my self
in the middle of a big gaggle there and flew with a bunch of them on
down to Duckwater.
 
I got separated from the pack by milking a seven knot thermal to the top
rather than pressing on. The choice after Duckwater was to follow the
clouds about 45 degrees off course or head straight back through the
blue. The clouds didn't look too great but I followed them anyway. I
found one weak thermal good for 1500 ft in the middle of a 60 mile glide
before I found a good 6 kt thermal to get up enough to glide home.
 
The faster route appears to have been to go through the blue. The guys I
had been flying with finished 15-20 minutes before I did. Although 3 or
4 pilots ended up landing out at the Warm Springs airport on that last
leg when they missed the one more thermal needed to get home.
 
I was a shade faster than yesterday, but then the winner was, too.
Winning speed was just over 100 mph (Dick Butler, who got 0 yesterday
for an airspace violation). Everyone else that finished was also faster
than yesterday which left me near the bottom of the scoresheet. Another
5 days left. 
 
Day 3 Flight Log, Day 3 Scores
 
Tonopah Day 4
 
Another 100 mph day. The CD shortened the task today to about 250 miles.
A moderately thick band of cirrus moved across the airport at about
launch time then moved into the task area. Between the cirrus softening
conditions a bit, a little unforecast moisture that made the clouds in
the task area look like they could overdevelop and a brisk southerly
wind, the task advisors convinced the CD to back off from the "A" task
which would have been another 320 miler.
 
I was at the back of the launch grid today, so I didn't have to fly
around for an hour and a half waiting to go. But I did have to try to
find a good thermal to get me to start altitude quickly. I missed all
the good thermals around the field and ended up working 2-3 knots all
the way up to the 7000 ft AGL max start altitude. That slow climb forced
me to start later than I might have otherwise. But that turned out to be
a good thing. It gave the cirrus time to clear most of the first 2 legs
and get the thermals cooking again.
 
I worked 2 thermals on the 65 mile first leg out to the turnpoint at
Lunar Dry Lake. I arrived there at near the bottom of my planned working
band, but found a nice thermal back up to 16,000 a few miles down the
second leg. There were lots of cu around, the trick being to find the
ones that were still working. I picked my way along the 80 mile second
leg up to Willows Ranch between about 12 and 17k, stopping to circle
only in the strongest cores. The best climb showed 13 kts average all
the way up.
 
There was some virga and quite a bit of over development from the second
turn to about 20 miles south on the homeward leg. Fortunately there
wasn't a lot of sink or rain in there and the course line ran right
between two virga shafts. On the far side of the rain I found a bunch of
other gliders had a nice thermal marked. We climbed up to around 15,000
where the lift weakened and we all headed out at about the same time.
The clouds looked good but weren't really working. Down to around 11,000
I deviated to chase some clouds in the middle of the Monitor valley
while the rest of the pack followed the ridgeline south. I found what I
was looking for in the middle of the valley and climbed up to 2500 ft
below a final glide altitude 65 miles from home. The cloudstreet ahead
looked good enough to bump my way home without stopping again. And in
fact it did work that way. The others that followed the ridgeline found
a nice strong thermal, too, climbed a little higher in it and flew fast
all the way home. They beat me home by about 5 minutes. The lesson is
that its not always faster to climb straight ahead, believe it or not,
when the lift is really strong.
 
I made 95 mph today, good for 22nd. The winners were about 104. This
place really is amazing. One of the guys that's been coming out here for
years to make long x-c flights said today probably rated a 6 out of 10.
 
Four days left. Maybe we'll hit on of those 10's yet.
 
Day 4 Flight Log, Day 4 Scores
 

 
Tonopah Day 5
 
Today was a desert rat day. Blue, blue, blue. And windy, too. There were
about 3 cumulus on course for me today. The task was 320 miles with the
start opening about 1:45.
 
I got a reasonable start climbing out the top of the start cylinder with
10-20 of my closest friends. The run up to the first turn at Snowball
Ranch was pretty easy. I avoided most of the "committee" thermals. The
second leg was mostly downhill from 17,000 ft to about 9,000 at the
Austin airport second turn. There was a nice thermal right over the
airport there, back to 15,000 ft.
 
The third about leg 120 miles SE to Mud Lake was brutal. The wind was
20-25 from the south. No clouds on this leg other than artificial
plastic ones. Those sometimes worked. At about the midpoint of the
second leg I started getting low, flying in lots of sink and turbulence
and had to decide whether to push on into the Fish Lake valley, which is
marginally landable, or fall back into the Monitor Valley which has a 60
mile long runway / road in it. I opted for the safe route.
Unfortunately, that pretty much ended any chance of finishing the task.
I carefully worked my way upwind to where I could finally reach Tonopah.
By the time I got back, the early finishers were calling in 4 miles out,
having flown 100 miles farther than I had. Fast speed for today was
about 87 mph. Slowest was about 71. About 1/3 did not complete today,
either landing in the desert or back at Tonopah.
 
Heading back toward Tonopah, there was a dark shelf moving in from the
SW. I couldn't tell at first if it was cirrus with an associated smog
front, or dust, or just what it was. Turns out a big fire started in the
western Sierra this afternoon. Its another big one that won't likely be
controlled tomorrow. We may get smoked out tomorrow according to our
weatherman. We'll see what it looks like in the morning.
 
Day 5 Flight Log, Day 5 Scores
 

 

Tonopah Day 6

 

Another 100+ mph day. Preliminary scoresheets had Dave Mockler the day
winner at 112 mph. I made 100.0 mph for 16th. There may be another
couple century club members today that didn't turn in their logs yet.
John Seaborn is the overall leader. 
 
Forecast this morning was for another windy, strong, blue day with the
potential for some problems with smoke from a southern Sierra wild fire.
With all that in mind, the CD layed out a task to the north and east to
keep us away from the smoke, and maybe get us into the fringes of the
moisture to the east. The task was a relatively short 248 miles to
Segura Ranch, Duckwater, Mud Lake, and back to Tonopah.
 
The launch was fairly quick today with the start opening around 1:35.
Climbing in the blue around the airport to get a good start was
difficult. The wind was 30-35 knots from the south during my initial
climb. I got up fairly high then started letting down to get in position
to start, hopefully with one of the fast gaggles. Cu were forming 35
miles to the north on course, but even from the 7000 AGL start height
that would not be a comfortable glide.
 
I found nothing but sink around the start point and was soon much lower
than the optimum start height. There were several large gaggles around
above me, but none of them were climbing. They were all milling around
near start height waiting for someone to go first. No one wants to be
the marker for everyone else. I wandered off to the hills northwest of
the airport to climb up high enough to start again. That got me a good
high start, but all by myself. Several gliders went 10-15 minutes
earlier and a bunch more were still milling around.
 
I wafted north on the 30 knot tailwind, trying to reach the cu to the
north. A bunch of sink got me uncomfortably low. I was nearing the
decision point to head to the middle of the valley for a potential road
landing when I found a weak thermal. Another glider started circling
just north of me in much better lift so I shifted there and quickly had
enough altitude to reach the clouds and headed out.
 
By this time the sky was developing very nicely. A nice street to within
2 or 3 miles of the first turn set up. I was able to use this street
down fairly low until I hit the boomer I was looking for, up to 17,000
ft. After the first turn we had to turn east and cross several ridge
lines. The cu looked beautiful, but not as nicely lined up with course
line. 
 
Approaching Duckwater it became obvious the north south ridge a few
miles west for the turn had a nearly perfect street set up pointing
right to Mud Lake. Streets like that make progress even directly into a
25-30 knot wind painless. The best part was that nearly every cloud had
strong lift under it.
 
At the last good looking cloud before the Mud Lake turnpoint I saw a
couple gliders circling high at the south edge. Coming under the center,
I hit strong lift, probably 9 knots, but I figured those gliders ahead
had seen this and had something even better. I really wanted to top off
before going into the turn. I was still high, but this cloud looked like
the best game in town. When I got under the other gliders, they took off
for the turn. And the lift I found was disorganized and not really even
worth stopping for. I didn't want to back track a mile to the good
stuff, so I pressed on hoping one of the clouds ahead would also have
good lift
 
I needed a couple thousand feet more to comfortably glide home into the
quartering headwind. The last leg had a few wispy cu then turned almost
entirely blue 40 miles from home. I found a nice 9 knot thermal on top
of a ridgeline under a weak looking cu that got me high enough to glide
home fast. Until I ran into 20 miles of light to moderate sink with no
lift to balance it out. I was dialing back the glide computer speed to
fly and watching the airport  (or where it should have been if I could
see it through the smoke and haze) go up in the canopy. Something about
the terrain out here makes every final glide uncomfortable until you are
inside the airport boundary.
 
About 15 miles out crossing the last row of hills before the airport, I
passed under a wispy cu that had a 6 knot thermal under it. I took a
couple turns for Julie, to make sure I would make the field, then ran
for the airport. Only a half dozen gliders were back, so I had my choice
of landing spots and was able to roll nearly into my tiedown, putting
the wing tip in Karen Serkowski's hand just I as I stopped.
 
Quite a contrast to yesterday's flying, with essentially the same
forecast. Several pilots opted not to fly today. The 30+ knot winds,
blue conditions, and tough to work weak turbulent thermals around the
airport convinced them it would be like yesterday, but worse. 
 
Two days left. Forecast is for slightly increasing moisture, and we may
be flirting with the edge of the smoke as well.
 
Day 6 Flight Log, Day 6 Scores

 

 

 

Tonopah Day 7

 

Today was a very difficult day. The forecast was not very certain since
a lot of the weather data was unavailable due to a server problem. The
morning sky indicated a lot more moisture. Cu started forming over the
mountains to the east and north by 8:30 am.
 
The morning task was 290 miles to the north then east and home. On the
grid the task was stretched out to 330 miles with turnpoints at Walti,
130 miles north, then Moorman 75 miles southeast from there and back to
Tonopah. The sky at noon waiting on the launch grid looked like a
Chamber of Commerce Photo. Gorgeous cu from northwest around to
southeast. There were some large thunderstorms down toward Las Vegas,
but those weren't a threat. The troublesome part was that a lot of the
cu in the task area were towering a bit.
 
I decided to leave as soon as the task opened to try to beat the storms.
I got a little out of position when the start opened, 1000 ft below max
altitude, and could find nothing to climb in nearby. I decided to go
anyway, figuring the early start would be worth more than the time to
climb that 1000 ft on course. Those towering cu were starting to drop
rain, particularly to the east. Halfway up the first leg, the storms
were starting to anvil at the top, heavier rain was falling, and
occasional cloud to ground lightning was visible. There was a clear path
to the first turn between storms, but the second leg looked really
bleak.
 

 
There was lots of radio traffic with pilots vocally abandoning the task.
Some were not pleased at all with having an assigned task into such
conditions. I carefully stayed high and followed the west edge of the
storm shelf all the way up to the first turnpoint. From there the second
leg was completely blocked by heavy rain and frequent lightning. I
watched two gliders make the turn at about my altitude and head off into
the abyss. I started retracing my path into the turn watching for any
gaps in the rain to the left. There were some gaps and some sun was
visible on the ground probably 30 miles to the east.
 
I didn't think the task looked possible, but kept heading south, 90
degrees to the second leg looking for a gap. I actually started through
twice. The first time I got two little clinks of hail and quickly
retreated. The second I could see some sun on the ground and a clear
path through. But from what little of the sky beyond I could see, I
figured it would be a one-way trip with a landout on some lonely desert
road. While I was prepared for that, I couldn't accept it as "Plan A".
It seems less intimidating as Plan B or C.
 
Anyway, I turned around and slowly flew back towards Tonopah. I was
intentionally staying high in a position where I could still make a run
for the turnpoint if the sky miraculously dried out. I found A8, John
Seaborn, the contest leader this morning doing the same thing about 60
miles from home. We milled around cloudbase for probably 30 minutes
wiating to see what would happen.
 

 
I gave up and flew off towards home first. He arrived back only a few
minutes, so he must not have hung around much longer either. The route
home was along another incredible cloudstreet. I stopped once for a 10
kt thermal to way too high to get down.
 
I saw something interesting after I arrived overhead at Tonopah. I got
there at about 4000 ft and started dropping my water ballast. Then put
down the gear, pulled the flaps and spoilers and started spiralling
down. Pretty soon, the canopy and wings were all wet. There were no
rainshowers for 40 miles and only the tiniest of wispy cu overhead. I
was flying through my water ballast trail! First time I've seen that.
 

 
After all that flying I scored about 141 miles of the 330. The
preliminary scores this evening showed that as good for 14 th. There are
several that flew further and landed out in the desert and have not been
scored yet. About 7 pilots actually made it around. The fastest at a bit
over 90 mph. Some pretty gutsy flying and good storm reading. Its
obvious that not everyone makes the same risk management decisions.
 
One more day to go.

 

Day 7 Flight Log , Day 7 Scores

 

 

Tonopah Day 8 (Last Day)

 

The smoke from the southern Sierra fires was finally over us this
morning. And there was quite a lot of moisture with morning dewpoint of
54 deg F. The forecast was for drying through the day with t-storms only
to the distant northeast. Cu started forming over the airport around
11:30 and there was a sky full by launch time at 12:30. Well, as far as
we could see which was about 20 miles.
 
I was at the front of the grid today, so had to kill an hour before the
start opened. The task was 240 miles, northeast to Warm Springs then
west to Mina VOR then southeast to Goldfield and return to Tonopah.
Several pilots started just as soon as the gate opened. I waited about
10 minutes then headed out. Others waited up to an hour before leaving
around 3:00 pm.
 
Cloudbase by start time was up to about 13,500, but the best lift was
typically stopping short of that. The first leg was pretty uneventful.
Good, but not great lift, no low spots. The turnpoint was right at the
end of the clouds. Further east was a huge blue hole with big
thunderstorms another ridge farther. Recrossing the ridge to get out of
the valley was tricky for some. I saw several gliders dive into the
hills low in front of me and start grinding around on the ridges without
gaining much altitude. I stopped and worked some relatively weak, 4 kt
lift to make sure I didn't get stuck.
 
>From there to about 30 miles out of the second turn things went pretty
well. Then crossing a wide valley, the clouds seemed to stop working. I
made a long glide down to about 8,500 ft, about 1000 ft lower than my
intended working band before I found a 5 kt thermal to get me back up
again.
 
Up until then I had seen very few gliders above and ahead of me. After
recovering from the low spot, I saw quite a few gliders around, mostly
above and ahead. The rest of the trip into the turn was uneventful. I
was on the edge of the thick smoke for a few miles there with normal
excellent visibility but totally blue sky to the north and smoke with
embedded cu to the south. But there didn't seem to be any helpful shear
associated with this line.
 
I joined up with a couple other gliders for the third leg. We found
several good but widely spaced thermals. About 20 miles out from the
turn, it became obvious there was a big storm in the way. It extended as
far as I could see both east and west (only 10 miles or so by now). The
limited visibility made it look like a black wall below a large white
anvil. I had to duck under the ledge to get a look through to the other
side. Once in the shade I could see sun on the ground and cu at the
turnpoint, and no visible rain in the gap straight ahead.
 
I was high and decided to press on through. About 2/3 of the way through
the rain and sink started. I lost about 2,000 ft crossing a mile or two
of rain. Fortunately the clouds and sun on the hills beyond worked. I
worked up a bit then decided to run in and get the turnpoint before rain
shut it down. It was looking darker by the minute. Right over the turn a
half dozen gliders were working a turbulent thermal.
 
I joined them and climbed high enough to handle the same amount of sink
I experienced coming south. I deviated west to a thin looking spot in
the rain curtain. I thought I was just about through without any sink or
rain when the first drops hit the canopy. The vario's hit the down peg
and I tried to keep the speed up to bust through to the other side. By
the time the rain stopped and the vario came back up to normal sink I
had lost 1000 ft on the glide home. Fortunately that still left me with
plenty for a fast glide home. But then none of the clouds worked and
there was lots of gentle sink. The margin I had was going away fast. I
was down to 70 kts 15 miles out when the sink pretty much quit and a
strong 25 kt tailwind kicked in. When I was 5 miles out it was finally
obvious I was going to make it.
 
My speed was about 73 mph, 28th for the day. The day winner went 94.
Dave Mockler came from behind to win the contest with a 93 mph flight.
While I was pushing my glider back to the trailer I heard Dave (9U) call
the finish gate and ask if they knew of any good landing spots in the
last few miles as he was getting low. He must have hit some lift as he
finished high and fast a few minutes later. Dave lost a national contest
at Uvalde a few years ago on the last day when he landed out a few miles
short.
 
Day 8 Flight Log, Day 8 Scores
 
Tonight at the awards barbeque the CD read off a few stats on the
contest. I didn't catch all of them but a few were pretty impressive.
There were 69 100 mph+ flights during the contest. The average winning
speed for the 8 days of flying was 100.0 mph.
 
The contest area, while it is visually quite intimidating, is
surprisingly safe for outlandings. There were probably 20 landouts
during the contest, mostly on roads or in the desert next to a road,
with little or no damage. But some of the retrieves were late enough
that the pilot was not ready or willing to go again the next day. But
personally, I'm glad I didn't have to try any of those landings. The
Tonopah ramp was fine with me.
 
Other Interesting Tonopah Stuff:
 
Tom Serkowski's Tonopah Page, Chris Ashburn's (LAK-17 Pilot) Tonopah Page
 
Winscore - Tonopah Logs this has all the flight logs and the Winscore viewer – fun way to watch the races
 
1000 km @ TPH – Kempton Izuno’s report on a 1000 km flight in a Std Libelle from TPH