Solstice Skies

A pilot in front of the Timberline launch at Hull

A pilot climbing out in front of Timberline launch at Hull

We left the South Bay that afternoon, following the well-worn path to Hull – through the City, across the Golden Gate, up the long road to Ukiah. Until we reached Santa Rosa, the traffic was heavy, but after that, every mile took us farther away from the hustle and turmoil of the mundane world. A pause in Ukiah for fuel and provisions, then we were winding our way east into Coastal Range, along the ever-dwindling succession of roads that lead to Lake Pilsbury. By the time we reached the campsite, night had fallen – time for fiddling with tents, shuffling gear, and some hopeful speculation about what the morrow might bring.

The next morning was gorgeous, but the sky was strange. To the north, Hull was the same as ever, looming above the valley like the lord of some forgotten kingdom, but to the west, an unexpected wall of clouds peered above Sanhedrin – invaders, perhaps, or bearers of some disturbing message. Their meaning was subject of some speculation as we drove around the valley, decided on a landing site, and loaded our gear for the trip up the hill. Whatever this sky meant, it did not seem like an ordinary day.

Unfortunately, it also didn’t seem like I’d be able to fly. I had just recovered from a cold, and by the time we’d reached launch, it was clear I was in no shape for a struggle. If conditions had been mild, I might have given it a go, but they were an thing but mild. With gusts blowing up the hill, clouds boiling with turbulence, and every sign that the air might be stalked by invisible dragons, I decided, reluctantly, to stay on the ground.

One makes these decisions with a mixture of smugness at one’s wisdom and regret for lost opportunities. That evening, as I listened to my friends describe their flights, I felt quite a bit of the latter, for it was clear I’d missed an interesting day. Still, the wine was good, the mountains were beautiful, and the odor of sage was a welcome change from the dust of the city. Also, my lungs seemed to be healing, so I had some hope of flying tomorrow.

The second morning was even more unsettling than the first. Clouds were sweeping in from the north – the wrong side of the mountain – promising conditions that might range from nasty to unfliable. By the time we reached launch, a particularly ominous one had formed directly above the peak: an ugly roll of mist, tattered by the wind, that it was impossible to watch without feelings of concern. I still wasn’t 100%, but I’d come here to fly, darn it, so I unloaded my gear. On the ground, I was a victim, passively accepting my fate. In the air, I might still get hammered, but at least I’d have a chance to fight.

Conversation was more subdued than normal as we set up our wings, and several people elected not to fly. When the first pilot launched, we watched him like penguins watching the first bird into the water, looking for signs of that shark. The air did not look like a terrific amount of fun, but we’d seen and faced, so we followed him, one after another, until it was my turn. My flight plan was simple: I’d get a good strong launch, sniff around in front of the hill, and if I wasn’t entirely happy with what I felt, turn left and flee for the LZ with my tail between my legs.

Conditions were not was bad as I’d expected: a few jolts of adrenaline, perhaps, but no real Sacred Excrement moments. My vario beeped, so I tried a few circles and found that I was going up. But I wasn’t going up very fast. There was a lot of sink mixed in with the lift, which was hardly surprising with the wind at altitude spilling over the top of the mountain to funnel down the canyon. Worse, that wind was drifting me east, over Rattlesnake Canyon. As its name suggests, this is a place of evil legend, to which I had no desire to contribute.

It was time for the part of my plan that involved tails and legs, so I turned left slammed through a few bumps, and scurried down the spine that lead to the airfield. I’d have measured myself against the day and found myself wanting, but hey, at least I’d measured myself. My cowardice might have caused me to miss some excitement, but I don’t fly to have excitement, I fly for the mental challenge, the physical sensation, the glorious view, and to have fun. I reached the strip with 1200’ of altitude to spare, and wouldn’t you know it: my vario was beeping!

With a safe landing zone just a short glide away, there seemed no reason not to work this lift, hang out, and get a bit more airtime. Besides, I was curious where this thermal might lead. A few minutes later, I was 1000’ higher, curiosity unsatisfied. The lift seemed to be building and the sink diminishing. Would this trend continue? With wind blowing from the north on top of the mountain but from the south on the lake, there was every chance that a ‘convergence band’ might form, with air going up over a broad area.

Soon, other people noticed. “Paul, is that a convergence?” called Robert over the radio.

“Yes!” I replied. “It’s great! I’m climbing through 5700’! Get over here!”

An hour later, three of us were above the level of the mountains, flying broad easy laps up and down the east side of the valley. It wasn’t a very good convergence, as such things go, with a top at 6500’, and some spiteful bits of turbulence to remind us to pay attention. But ambiguous though it might be, this was an unexpected gift on what had seemed an unpromising day, and I was determined to enjoy it. I stayed up until I grew tired – this didn’t take very long, given my recent cold – then headed down.

Landing can be food for thought, particularly when a convergence is nearby. There’s always that nagging concern that the bottom of the thing might push though the landing zone, bringing with it all manner of nastiness. So thinking, I planned an approach that left me with several options if the wind started switching or dust devils started cooking off when I arrived. Would this plan have worked? I’ll never know, for the wind stayed smooth, straight, and forgiving from 500’ all the way down to the ground. Landing, was a pleasure, and the air was sweet with the scent of sage.

We forget the details of these flights. Indeed, on mediocre days such this, there may not be many details to begin with. But we remember our feelings of expectation at the beginning of the flight, the hopes, the curiosity, the delight after each minor success. And years later, when everything else is forgotten, we still remember the sage.

One Response to “Solstice Skies”

  1. Kona says:

    Awesome, Paul! You have a great gift for colorful description. I’m always glad you have the opportunity to make these flights, and just as glad you make it home.

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