All of the glider flying I have been doing lately has been done with use of orographic lifting which is lifting due to horizontally moving air being forced upwards by terrain. I’ve been training at Dillingham Airport on Oahu, Hawaii, a beautiful airport on the North Shore with the Waianae Mountains right next to the airfield. With the predominant tradewinds from the northeast, this is one of the best places to fly gliders in the world. A glider tow to 1,000 ft MSL is usually sufficient to start an all-day glider flight…if your bladder can withstand the pressure. Today, though, was as different day on Oahu.
Today the winds were strong (20+kts) and from the east, not the northeast. This effectively limited the orographic lifting near Dillingham and made “lift” (what glider pilots call air moving upwards) a challenge to find. I was flying with Brian, my CFI as I pursue my CFI-glider rating, and we almost did not fly today due to what we felt was going to be a lackluster day for lift. We ended up getting towed by Elmer Udd (see my story about him on another post) to 3,000 ft and started looking for lift. About an hour later we were at 1,200 ft next to Dillingham both tired from searching for the minimal lift available. About to give up and go home, we tried one last ridge on the mountain that didn’t look altogether promising, but did look interesting. As we approached the ridge, things got better quickly. We ended up climbing at over 3 knots vertical speed and were at 4,000 ft in just a few minutes. Then, something magical occurred.
The air got glassy smooth and our rate of climb increased dramatically, sustaining 8 knots vertical. We climbed past the clouds that were around the mountain range and ended up leveling off at 9,000 over Oahu. We had found wave lift! Oahu is not known for wave lift, but the east wind pressed against the Koolau Mountain Range on Eastern Oahu and created an oscillating wave the extended to Western Oahu and probably beyond.
For glider pilots, the ultimate is finding lift and gaining altitude, especially when lift is scarce. There is something innately satisfying about being a “good enough” pilot to consider the conditions and find the lift. Usually orographic lifting around Dillingham does not take you much higher than 4,000 ft, but today Brian and I found the magical area that took us up to the higher altitudes and into the wave lift.
What does this discussion have to do with Malibu flying? The answer is that the air we were flying affects a Malibu exactly the same as it affected the glider. The incredibly smooth, glassy air held incredibly strong updrafts and downdrafts that propelled us all the way up to 9,000 ft. Once we were up to altitude, we could see the rows of clouds that told us how the invisible portion of air was moving. This moving air affects all aircraft, but before the glider training, I’d have never given the clear, smooth air any thought at all. The engine in front becomes a crutch that stifles most pilots from really getting in tune with the air that holds us up. I’ve become more aware of the medium in which I fly as a function of glider training.