Glider flying above the desert

On September 9th, 2023, I was the winner of the Dust Devil Dash glider contest. This contest is unusual because it’s a single free-distance task. Contestants can fly in any direction they choose, and the one who flies the longest straight-line distance wins. The contest was held at Mountain Valley Airport in Tehachapi, California. What follows is my write-up that I originally emailed to the participants and organizers.

It’s my first contest win, and I’m very excited! The flight was really fun, but definitely challenging at times. The terrain was completely new to me, but I did do a fair amount of homework on Google Earth before the race. The choice of routes was a tough call. The northern route along the Sierras had low cloud bases, strong wind, and major OD. However, if one could break through, then the potential distance was excellent and a win would be likely. Air Sailing seemed possible. The southeastern route looked pretty straightforward with good lines of clouds, but the potential distance was limited by the border and vast nothingness around the Glamis Dunes. I figured the easiest endpoint would be Jacuma, Blythe or Quartzsite would be the mid-range options, and Yuma was the stretch goal. I chose the southeastern route, partly for the novelty of flying somewhere new.

It was a long, smooth glide over the Mojave desert to start. I began to get some short, weak climbs starting at Palmdale. Between Palmdale and Crystal, I got a decent climb for a gain of 1,700ft and had Crystal made. All of us that had crossed the Mojave were scratching around Crystal for a while, trying to figure out how to get to the clouds that were over the mountains. We were doing a lot of talking on the radio and sharing information, which was great. It was becoming clear that the weather was not matching the forecast. The continuous lines of clouds advertised by SkySight were nowhere to be seen. There were some large cumulus over the highest mountains, but lots of space between them. 

Ramy made a couple of attempts to get on the mountains, while I watched on Flarm. He ended up going northeast over the desert instead and found a good climb in the blue. Meanwhile, I gave it a shot and managed to connect with the clouds over the mountains. That got me to 11k, then I made a 60km dead glide across a blue gap to the east. I arrived at the foothills NW of Big Bear juuust a little too low to get under the clouds there. I was looking at Rabbit dry lake while I clawed my way up the face of a ridge in a 1 knot thermal. Finally, I got above the ridge a little and saw a peak that I guessed was the anchor of a good-looking cloud nearby. That turned out to be the ticket, and I rocketed up to cloud base at 12,000ft. That was the critical moment in the flight.

There were nice clouds around Big Bear, but the bases were not the expected 13,500 to 14,500 feet. It was decision time: South toward Jacumba or southeast to Joshua Tree and Blythe. There were clouds in both directions, but large blue gaps to cross as well. The clouds over Joshua Tree looked a bit lower, so I went south instead. Next, I had to cross the pass between San Gorgonio and San Jac. There were no clouds at San Jac, so it was a 90km glide in the blue toward Toro Peak. There’s no way it would have worked if it wasn’t for the buoyant air over the pass. It was netto positive the whole way over the pass, and I actually climbed a little on the way. There was no action around San Jac, and I was down to 7,500ft NW of Toro Peak when I got under the clouds there. I ran into a boomer and was quickly back at cloud base. There was a cell dumping rain at Toro Peak and major sink in the area, so I quickly moved on to the Borrego valley. A few small clouds there marked a good climb, then it was a 40km glide to the next clouds near Agua Caliente. 

My final climb took me to 11k and I had Jacumba made easily, but I started looking at the waypoints to the southeast to get a little more distance. I called Ramy and he generously shared that he had Calexico in mind. It was in glide already, and nothing further east looked reachable, so I set off on final glide. I took my time, since I was in no hurry to be on the ground, baking in the sun. I enjoyed the views into Mexico and took some photos.  I posted a few to my WeGlide trace:

Calexico International was deserted. My OAT read 99 degrees as I touched down. Ramy landed a little while later, and his crew arrived almost immediately. We checked out the gate, and it was locked. We started to get worried, but went into the terminal building and found two Customs and Border Patrol officers who opened the gate for us. My crew, the heroic David Krautter, arrived shortly after and we packed up the ships in the dark. Thanks David!

Thanks to Tom Coussens, Walt Rogers, and everyone else who made the Dust Devil Dash run smoothly. It was great fun and I’m looking forward to next year, possibly as crew.

Be sure to check out the video I made of this flight on YouTube: