Kempton & Alex fly 1002km

This story can be summed up in two ideas:

  • Unrelenting diligence
  • Uncompromising persistence

The Friday evening before our flight was following the standard “Kempton Schedule”. The airplane was rigged, our food was stashed, belts and ballast tested and placed, wings wiped down, and we were ready to go before the sun had set.

Saturday Morning

I hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet when I got a text from my paragliding friend Evan Cohen who was in Redding. Clearly we were already too late getting going!

As a total side note, this got me thinking about looking for some west facing web cams up in the far northern valley to look for development like this.

Our initial flight plan was an aggressive 1000km triangle from Williams. Start at Stonyford, turn Happy Camp, turn NE of Lake Abert (eastern Oregon), and finally return to Stonyford to close the triangle.

Given the very early start to the day and the impressively late end to the day forecast by the RASP (and mirrored on Skysight), our plan was to fly early, stay moving in the right direction all day, and make sure to catch the last train home at Yolla Peak before the sun got too low, giving us a long final glide back into Williams before sunset. Pretty straightforward…

We ended up rolling at 10:10am, and were en route to Stonyford, when we spied the first whispy cu over St John, the meadow plateau, and a few scattered northward along the ridge.

10:30am, crossing onto the first ridge. Cu visible ahead.

The first few thermals were in the usual spots… the north end of St John, Sheet Iron, and Black Butte. Bases were low, ~8500ft, cycling rapidly, but marked by puffs, so we kept pushing forward. We did not gain any altitude, nor did we lose any, but we were making great progress northward.

The further north we flew, the more encouraging the clouds became.

Making the transition onto the Trinity Alps was tough given the very low clouds. We had yet to climb above 9500ft, and had just come off a very long glide. This was an absolute textbook opportunity to watch a master scratch up from ridge top height:

The last time we were here we were a few thousand feet higher. So, seeing this point from different perspective was helpful to understand the different ways this transition could be completed.

The Trinity Alps are best flown with an absolute familiarity of the peaks and valley systems. When low, the deep valleys give the impression of being boxed in, and the peaks limit visibility in all directions. To my untrained eye, we were boxed in in all directions, and lacked an escape to a safe landout. However, Kempton’s understanding of the valley systems inspired the confidence that we needed to run through here at ridge top height. We had at least two airports well within glide, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking around. We were in a real life trench run on the Deathstar. Use the force, Kempton.

We continued onto the Marble Mountains with more of the same. Low, but consistently working cu, high peaks to fly around, and lofty goals.

We tagged our first turn point, we were ahead of schedule, and things were looking more promising!

Some widely scattered cirrus had started to shade the ground, so we had to be more deliberate with our line choices here. This was when Kempton’s steadfast diligence to holding our course line started to really become a priority.

Each deviation we made represented time lost at the tail end of the day. There was an imaginary train sitting in an imaginary station several hours from now. It waited for no man, and we were rushing to fly as far away as possible, only to rush back and catch it before it left… Why do we do this again?

By the time we crossed back into the Siskiyou Valley, the soaring conditions finally started to look like 1000km conditions. There were dust devils, dark flat bases, and puffy cu. The only caveat being they were 20 miles away, and we had a big blue hole to cross…

Racing across this gap at 110kts, gave Kempton plenty of time to explain to me that we did not want to tip toe across. Given the incredibly strong conditions ahead, we wanted to fly fast as we could to get there. This was somewhat counterintuitive to me. My position was, we have a very long glide before our next lift, we should conserve altitude as much as possible so that we do not get too low. Kempton’s position was: 60:1… we’re fine.

All joking aside, his position made sense, as we had a lot of ground to cover, and we needed to get to the stronger stuff as quickly as we possibly could.

And sure enough, we did connect to the other side, and it was good.

It was right about this point that we had to make a tough call. Looking northeast towards our turnpoint we saw lots of blue, and almost no cloud. The forecast moisture had shifted slightly more north and west, and while we were currently in the good stuff, it did not look great ahead. Despite being well ahead of schedule, and in great position, the notion of landing out in a blue hole 500 miles from home was not a good look. We discussed our motivations, weighed our pros and cons, and decided to scrap the task. Our original goal was to fly fast, fly far, and have as much fun as possible. Who cares about a “declared task”.

That was our real goal. This was a moment of clarity for me, and it was so rewarding to mutually agree that we just wanted to fly far. Even after all of these years of flying, Kempton still has that same feeling that I do now as a brand new pilot. There was a sensible relief in the cockpit, as we deviated “off course” and back onto one of the most textbook cloud streets I have ever seen in my life.

Dolphin flying is another new skill for me. We would gain 500ft in each pull up in lift, and would zoom along (without turning), gaining altitude as we continued to fly north. Had we committed to a straight out flight, we would have had no problem crossing the entirety of Oregon, and likely a good chunk of Washington State. If you googled cloud street, I’m pretty sure the sky we had in front of us was what you would see. It was only 3pm, and the day was booming.

We tried to calculate exactly how far we needed to fly out to hit 500km, so that we could still attempt 1000km, and decided that turning around at 3:45pm would get us about as far out as we needed, while still giving us time to catch that last train (if you haven’t picked up on the foreshadowing here, now would be a good time to do that).

At the turnaround, the path home was clear. We would run the cloud street backwards, and connect with another line that appeared to be forming off Mt Shasta. Despite being so far away that we had fallen off the Williams turn point database, I felt confident in our ability to stay aloft, and was able to really focus on enjoying the dolphin flying, enjoying the scenery, and trying to wrap my head around how far we had flown.

We had no trouble at all reconnecting with the strong lift that had produced the dust devil earlier in the day, and continued happily southbound, this time deviating towards Mt Shasta.

Since we had been so efficient coming home, an obvious detour around the “upwind” side of Shasta was in the cards. I use quotes here, since we had felt nearly zero wind all day, and despite being a notoriously dangerous mountain, the lack of wind on this day allowed us to surf the rocks, and wave to the hikers.

Once we had finished playing tourist, we got back to work. We jumped back across I-5 it became clear that the day was falling off. The sun was getting low, and the clouds were dissipating. There were much bigger clouds on the Trinity Alps, but they were nearly 90 degrees off course line, and would have taken us way out of our way. We decided to stay east of Trinity Lake and follow a more direct line south. We were in the blue, but had friendly air, indicative of maybe a shear or a weak convergence

We took a strong climb to cloud base at Buckhorn peak as seen in the photo above, and made a big gear shift. We needed to slow down. A LOT. The sky ahead was quickly drying up, and we had a lot of distance yet to cover.

At this point Kempton went looking for data. We called up ASOS and AWOS data from both Redding and Red Bluff airports. Winds in the central valley were south and southeast, meaning that no sea breeze had pushed through the gaps from the coast, and that likely Yolla was still pulling up warm central valley. This was encouraging.

We found little lift en route to Yolla Peak, where the last cu on the Mendocino mountains currently lived, and arrived on the north side just slightly below ridge top height. We had discussed a theory of where the lift might be, had a mental model of why, and all we needed to do was prove it. Kempton dove the glider straight through the saddle along the crest. He made a sweeping left turn around the south side of the peak towards the east faces of the terrain. This side of the mountain was in shade from the golden, fuzzy cu that was well above us. There was lift, we just needed to find it. Carving along the east and then north east face of the peak, we found ourselves above the sunny north facing bowls, where a massive drainage fell off into the central valley. This was our mental model’s source of warm rising air. We found nothing.

As we got lower, my mind started to wander. Dang. are we going to have to bail and go land in Orland or something?

Just then we received a radio call from WSC asking where we were, and what we were up to. Kempton calmly voiced that we were at Yolla, working for our climb and would report back. How the heck he manages to stay so cool in such a tense moment, let alone after 9 hours of flying, blows my mind.

As we surfed the spines and bowls of the north side of the peak, it was clear that we were not in the right spot. We had just enough altitude for one more attempt, before we would need to turn tail and run.

It was exactly at this point that the audio vario died.

The silence was eerie, after a day full of beeps and whirrs, we sat in silence and felt the air.

The only spot on the mountain that we had yet to explore was the broad west face, which was getting full sunshine. Making sure to keep our wingtip clear of the trees, Kempton skillfully navigated us around the corner, decidedly away from our bailout direction. A strong surge greeted us as we banked away from the terrain. We did not have enough clearance for a full turn, so again we ran the face, making a gentle S-turn. Once we were able to turn around again, we felt the tail of the glider perk up, and a strong surge in the same place. This time we flew straight. Kempton made two quick 90 degree turns, and then pushed away from the terrain just enough to make a complete circle. We had been in lift for nearly all of it. One more push, slightly further west, and slightly further away from the terrain, and we had 5 knots up. Banking the glider steeper, and cranking back on the flaps, Kempton continued to core the lift, as I collected my jaw from the floor of the glider. Several turns later, we had reached cloud base, and I struggled to comprehend what had just happened. At approximately 10,000ft we had WSC on glide, IF we flew best L/D, and IF we had friendly air with no headwind. Kempton called Williams on the radio to update them on our now significantly improved situation, and we discussed a strategy for getting home. We were 62 nautical miles from home, and just over 10,000ft. It was going to be a while. We decided to not fly directly back to WSC, and instead, stay on the ridge where we would be protected from any southerly valley winds. I can only describe the air as “glass off” or “magic air”, as we found zero sink for a ways, and just cruised. The clearnav showed that we were in improving shape. It was now 7:33pm

We stuck to the ridge until Montgomery, where we fell off and headed out into they valley. No winds reported on the ground meant that we were in great shape.

As we got closer, I turned my phone off airplane mode, and was greeted with a near continuous string texts ranging from “Wow you’re far, are you turning soon?”, and “Hope you can make it back”, all the way to “ It looks like you have final glide! Woohoo” from pilot friends. It is so freaking amazing to have a community of pilots who are so engaged, and who cheer for one another. I smiled as I read the text from my mom saying: “Alex, it’s 7:30, I haven’t heard from you. Did you land yet? Are you okay?”.

We did land okay. 8:22pm happily back at Williams Soaring Center.

What would Leonardo Di Vinci say to Wilbur Wright?