How to Catch a Wave: From BUFKIT to Scorer

How to Catch a Wave: From BUFKIT to Scorer

Following my article on Riding a Lucky Wave, I’ll go into a bit more detail on how you can create your own Wave analysis in a few simple steps. You’ll need two pieces of software: BUFKIT, available for free here, and Excel. If you don’t already own Excel you can download a free alternative here.

After installing BUFKIT, you need to tell it which weather models to download. You can do this by clicking “Get Data” in the top-right corner. This will bring up a window with a couple of sample download links in the top section of the window. You’ll want to replace these with the files for your station of interest. For Arlington, you’ll want to download the models for KPAE. You can copy and paste the links below in the top part of the window and remove what’s listed there by default. Those who are reading this from a different neck of the woods, can head to The Bufkit Warehouse to find a location close to their favorite soaring site.

You can save this list for future use by click the red “A” button under “Save Profile List.”

Note that 5 different weather models will be downloaded. They are roughly ranked from lowest resolution to highest resolution. Models with a lower resolution will extend further in time but contain less information. For example, the GFS provides a 180 hour view into the future at a 28 km resolution, whereas the HRRR provides an 18 hour window at a much higher 3 km resolution. As you get closer to the day of interest, you’ll want to compare models, and give more weight to those with the higher resolution.

With the list of models added, you can go ahead and download the data by clicking the “Get Profiles” button. If everything goes well, you’ll see the following output:


Close the window with the “Exit” button. Now on to reviewing the data you just downloaded…

First, you need to select the model and location of interest from the top-left options. Click “GFS3”, then “KPAE.” The sounding will load in the main window. On the left side, under “Overlays”, you want to check the “Clouds” checkbox. Depending on current conditions, you may notice light gray to white horizontal lines across the sounding to indicate areas of cloud. Check the screenshot below to check your setup against mine.


The sounding window is interesting, but to get a quick overview of things to come, I prefer switching to BUFKIT’s meteogram view. Go ahead, and click the big “Overview” button in the top-right corner. Before diving into the details of the overview window, I want you to synchronize your settings with what I have. Check the screenshots below to set the settings useful for soaring flight.

Relative Humidity: make sure this checkbox is checked. It will help you identify layers of cloud. The legend below the checkbox tells you what level of humidity to expect based on the different colors. Anything green will indicate a cloud layer. Purple often coincides with rain or other unsoarable conditions.

Check “Relative Humidity”

Next, move on to “Precip” and make sure the “Precipitation” and “Snow” boxes are checked. Your meteogram will now get enhanced with impressive green, gray, and blue bars to indicate times when it’s inappropriate to fly.


Now, let’s move on to my favorite tab: “Wind.” Here you want to check “VWP”, “Color”, press the button to the left until you get to “A2” and click the “5” radio button. This will change the wind barb color by 5 kts increments.


Click the “Fire Wx” tab to check the “Mixing Layer Height” checkbox. This last one is not relevant to wave forecasting but will help determine the top of lift on thermalling days.


Finally, click on the “Controls” button and make sure the “Cursor” box is checked.


Everything said and done, your meteogram should look similar to something like this:


On first sight, this looks like a messy bunch. There is however a ton of information packed into this screen. You can expect rain on the day this model was loaded, while the rest of the week (Monday through Friday morning), the area is covered with low clouds. On Friday, the sky opens up while winds increase to ~12 knots. The next day, conditions get interesting as wind speeds to 16 knots at 5,000 ft AGL (BUFKIT heights are AGL); there is no wind shear above mountain height; plenty of headroom left between the rocks and the clouds, and; the wind is perpendicular with the mountain ridge. The illustration below highlights the key elements you’ll want to review.

BUFKIT Meteogram Overview

(A) Vertical wind profile: The wind looks good as it’s strong enough, coming from the right angle, with no sudden changes in direction or reduced speed at altitude. (You can also notice some humidity around 15,000 ft. Expect lenticular clouds or light overcast under these conditions.)

(B) Humidity: On Tuesday through Thursday there is high humidity throughout the lower layers, which means cloudy days. (Times are shown on the bottom brown bar.)

(C) Precipitation: Light rain is expected on Wednesday (green bars) and possibly a little bit of snow on Wednesday morning (blue bars).  

(D) Altitude: The altitude is shown in feet above the ground. Match this to your wave trigger’s altitude AGL.

You get the point, BUFKIT’s meteogram is a great tool to get a quick idea of things to come.

Once you’ve identified a time that looks interesting, you can click the meteogram to move the cursor (a vertical white line) to the point of interest.  When you close the window, you get back to the sounding view with the selected time loaded. If needed, you can further adjust the time with the scrollbar at the top.  With the right time selected, you are ready to move on to the next step: calculating the Scorer Parameter.

The Scorer Parameter

The Scorer Parameter provides a mathematical evaluation of the wind profile and air mass’ stability. Mountain waves tend to occur when the value of the parameter reduces with altitude (trapped wave) or when it remains constant with altitude (vertically propagating wave). I’ve created a spreadsheet which takes away the complexity of running the following formula:

The Scorer Parameter from “Dancing with the wind” (ISBN 978-88-903432-4-7)

In the next part of this tutorial, I am going to show you how to import data from BUFKIT to Excel to calculate the Scorer parameter. First, you need to verify your BUFKIT settings and set the location for data exports from BUFKIT. Click the “Set Up” button in the top-right corner and set the “Directory to save exported profiles.” In the screenshot below I am exporting profiles to my Windows desktop. Click “Save” and restart BUFKIT for this change to take effect.

BUFKIT Set Up Screen

Next, navigate back to the sounding of interest and click the “Controls” button on the left. Then click “Export” to write the sounding profile to the location you previously defined in the set up window. This action will produces two files; one ending with a “bsp”extension, the other with “nsp” (e.g. HRRR_kpae_170128_11z_F07.bsp and HRRR_kpae_170128_11z_F07.nsp). Next, you’ll import the “bsp” file in Excel.

Download the Wave Forecast spreadsheet and navigate to the “Import” sheet in Excel. Complete the following steps to load and review the data.

  1. With the “Import” tab highlighted and the first cell (A:1) highlighted, click the “From Text” button under the “Data” menu.  02-import-from-text
  2. Select the “BSP  File” from the folder where you’ve exported the BUFKIT profile. Note that you may have to select “All Files (*.*)” from the drop down to list the BSP file. Click “Import”
  3. The “Text Import Wizard” will now guide you through the import steps. In the first step, you need to select the “Delimited” radio button and change the “Start import at row” value from “1” to “7.” Click “Next”
  4. In step 2 you need to check the “Comma” checkbox. You can close the wizard by pressing “Finish.” (There’s nothing to do in Step 3).
  5. The following dialog pops up. You can leave everything as is and press “OK”.
  6. You will now copy the data from the “Import” sheet to the “Data” sheet. Copy the data from A:1 through F:50. Note that you’re excluding the “%END%” line at the bottom.
  7. Select the first cell (A:1) of the Data sheet and paste the data. This will update the data used to calculate the Scorer parameter.
  8. Finally you may need to adjust the data range for the chart shown on the “Wave Forecast” sheet to reflect the altitude of interest. You can do this by clicking on the chart line and adjusting the range of the data.

That’s it! You now have a view of the Scorer parameter. Happy hunting and safe flying 😉

Have feedback or ideas for improvement? Please use the comments section below to share your thoughts. Thanks!

Riding a Lucky Wave

Riding a Lucky Wave

On Saturday January 28th 2017, I was fortunate to enjoy almost 6 hours of soaring at a maximum altitude of 13,600 ft. I started the day with low expectations as the conditions were not in line with what we’d typically expect from a Pilchuck ridge soaring day. The wind was coming from the west, which – as I already learned from previous experiments – does not align well with Pilchuck’s south-facing ridge line. While ridge soaring was unlikely to work, I was encouraged by the favorable wave conditions so I bet $100 on another science experiment. The bet paid off!

About a week prior to my lucky day, I noticed a strong jet stream at 300 hPa moving towards our area. The jetstream shown on was shaped like a horseshoe – a shape favorable for wave formation in our area as it provides strong airflow along the south/north axis. This jetstream is caused by the polar vortex, an area of low pressure around the North Pole, and rotates around the pole, passing through our region every once in awhile to produce good wave soaring conditions – assuming the timing is right (daylight hours, clear sky, etc).

A Polar Vortex crosses our area.

Over the next couple of days, conditions remained consistent across model runs. Every morning I’d open up BUFKIT to download the latest GFS forecast for Everett and check the key conditions for a wave day: 1) wind coming from the south; 2) at least 15 knots at 5,000 ft; 3) wind increasing with altitude; 4) no wind shear, and; 5) no clouds within the first few thousand feet above Pilchuck. When I get closer to the day of interest, I run a script I wrote to assess the day’s vertical profile against the HRRR weather model, a high resolution weather model, and check the sixth ingredient required for wave formation: the vertical temperature profile.

BUFKIT GFS meteogram on January 22

The Scorer Parameter is used to predict the formation of gravity waves and takes into account the vertical profile of the horizontal wind AND the stability of the air. Trapped mountain waves typically occur when the value decreases with altitude. [There are other nuances like wave length, which I am ignoring for now.] The horizontal blue line in the chart below shows the maximum altitude reached (13,600 ft). The curving blue line shows the Scorer Parameter (Y2) with altitude. Almost exactly at my achieved maximum altitude, the value of Y2 curves to the right.

The Scorer Parameter with Altitude

While, in theory, everything looked great; there was one spoiler in the mix. The wind forecast was more westerly than what we’d typically expect to support ridge soaring on Mt Pilchuck. On past expeditions, I was unable to sustain flight against Pilchuck’s ridge without the wind blowing from the south. Textbooks will tell you that the wind needs to hit the ridge within a +/- 15° angle perpendicular to the ridge line. Saturday’s forecast predicted a wind direction between 220 and 240, far outside the usual range. To my surprise, this did not turn out to be an issue for catching wave straight off tow.

The figure below shows the areas of rising air as measured by my logger and the areas where the wind is expected to hit the mountain at its highest velocity. The wind vectors draw below are created with Windninja, free software produced by the USDA. I’ve plotted Saturday’s flight in orange and added two other wave flights in blue to provide an idea of the wave’s location with a south wind. All of the data below was stitched together with QGIS, another free piece of software used to create maps. Reviewing the diagram, it appears that a north-facing crest may have triggered the wave.

Wave conditions on 1/29/2017 (orange),  5/11/2013 (blue south), and 7/12/2014 (blue north)

It was fairly tricky to stay in the wave as the area of lift was small and the wind at altitude strong (up to ~40 knots). XCSoar proved to be of great help in identifying the area of best lift and positioning my glider in the wave’s core. The screenshot below shows how how my glider’s trail is colored green in rising air, with varying thickness based on lift strength. After locating the best part of the lift, I flew back and forth, always turning into the wind to avoid getting blown out of the wave. XCSoar will detect the straight line of rising air and automatically draws a thick blue line to indicate the path to follow. Additionally, with a strong cross-wind, XCSoar will draw a thin gray line to indicate my actual course. The wind direction and strength is shown as a dark gray arrow. Getting an initial wind reading is important as it helps position the wind relative to the terrain below. Getting off tow, I’d make three circles to get an initial reading. As you can see below, I had to crab into the wind to stay within the wave. You may also note that my flight path is not exactly perpendicular to the wind. This is because I am maximizing a limited area of lift triggered by a small mountain section below. If the wind was perpendicular to a longer straight ridge line, then the wave’s core should be expected parallel to the ridge line.

XCSoar Wave Assistant

With a good grasp on the wave’s location and an initial climb to 13,600 ft, I was ready to have some fun and explore the area. I first headed towards Big Four mountain, located downwind to the east. I got to the eastern edge of my detour in 10 minutes, losing 1,100 ft of altitude. I found a small area of weak zero-lift wave behind Big Four, but it wasn’t strong enough to comfortably hang out with a strong headwind waiting for me on my way back west.

Big Four Mountain

Getting back to the wave took 23 minutes, and cost 4,300 ft of altitude. All of a sudden my glider’s 1:70 L/D, heading east, turned into a mere 1:20 L/D (!), heading back west. One moment you feel king of the world, 10 minutes later you’re sweating to make it back home! [XCSoar did a good job setting expectations, telling me that Green valley remained in glide range despite a strong headwind. Also, wind speed drops with altitude so my performance would have improved as I got lower.]

Looking down on Mt Pilchuck

Back at Pilchuck, I worked my way back up to 13,000 ft and headed out south, crossing Spada Lake. From there I flew back to my elevator in the sky and took another ride up to then head out north towards Three Fingers.  Coming back to Pilchuck, I noticed a thin layer of condensation was getting thicker. Until then I was comfortably warm even at high altitude. With the sky closing in above me and the sun setting on the horizon, the greenhouse effect of my canopy stopped producing heat and I quickly turned cold. I took one last long glide towards Port Susan and touched down at Arlington 15 minutes before sunset.


Do you want to forecast wave on your own? Read my next blog post: How to Catch a Wave: From BUFKIT to Scorer


Transitioning from Ridge to Wave

Transitioning from Ridge to Wave

Here’s a recap of a 1/17/2017 entry into  newly discovery “Goat Wave”: Leaving Pilchuck wave at 7,700 ft, I reached Goat Flats at 6,100 ft (1). After half an hour of ridge soaring along the southern face of Three Fingers (2), I transitioned above ridge height by flying figure-8’s in the eastern bowl of the mountain (3). Reaching 6,700 ft, I had enough altitude to explore the air behind Goat Flats and make it back to the ridge in case nothing interesting was found (4). Mt Bullon (located 2 miles north) didn’t produce any usable lift. (It did however, give me a good beating in turbulent air.) Making my way back to Goat Flats, I ran into a smooth and strong wave system. I flew the wave for about 10 minutes to gain 2,000 ft (5). At 8,000 ft (1,500 ft over Three Fingers’ peak), I now had enough altitude to make it to White Horse mountain, where the ridge worked very well, boosting me up over its peak (7). A quick exploration over the town of Darrington didn’t result in the discovery of wave that might have been triggered by White Horse, so I turned back to Pilchuck to close out my flight and wrap up the day with a beer at Skookum Brewery.

Mental Preparation for a Water Landing

Translated from “Mentales Training

Mental Preparation for a Water Landing


Pre-flight preparation: I put my flight documents in a water-tight zipper bag. I add a sealed bag with a change of clothes and add a 30ft rope.

The Flight

After a long straight flight over inhospitable terrain without landable fields, I see the forest and several lakes. I see no fields nearby. I am still looking for a thermal, but if I find no lift, I decide to land safely in a lake nearby. I find myself at 900ft altitude. During a briefing I have learned that my glider can float for about 25m and thus I should have sufficient time to pull my glider out of the water.


I relax and focus. I am giving my exact position to my flying buddy. With a quick look at the flight computer, I determine the wind direction and speed. I will land into the wind. Very carefully I look for big boulders and other obstacles hidden under the water surface. To land, I approach the side of the lake near a road or town (not the side where there’s only forest).

I intend to land parallel to the shoreline or slightly converging (never facing the shoreline directly). The distance to the shoreline is about 60 to 90 ft. I avoid landing in the grass close to the water to avoid potentially hidden rocks.

I prepare for landing like usual.

I am on downwind and run through my checklist:

  • I tighten my seat belts
  • I lower the landing gear
  • I close the ballast
  • I close the ventilation
  • I shut off the electricity

I inhale deeply and continue downwind.

I mentally imagine my final approach, parallel to the shoreline. I check my altitude. I am approaching the water surface. My air speed is the one I am supposed to have, as low as possible (just above the yellow triangle).

I feel the wheel touching the water surface. I gently pull the stick back, at the same time, I slowly retract the air brakes. The glider brakes hard and water splashes over my canopy. Even though the cockpit has immersed in the water for a moment, I know it’ll come back up soon as it floats well. Water can get into the cockpit but it stops at wing level. All is quiet now, and everything went as expected. My glider is floating quietly on the water. I have 25 min. before me. I breathe slowly and deeply.

I check my exit:

  • I detach my seatbelt
  • I detach my parachute straps
  • I open the canopy
  • I take my documents, if I can do so now, as well as my dry clothes and 30ft rope.
  • I can sit on the back of the fuselage and prepare the rope to be attached to the winglets
  • If I can I take my clothes and document to the shore, if not I attach the rope to the winglets and pull the glider to the edge of the lake.
  • I contact my retrieve crew.

First Flight in My Discus b

After 23 years of flying club gliders, I finally got a chance to fly my very own glider! While the weather was smooth as glass, I felt the potential of what this Discus b can offer during the spring. For those interested in buying their own glider, here’s a list of things I had to take care of to make the purchase official:

  • Sign a bill of sale. This form is available for download from the FAA’s web site. A copy of the form needs to be submitted with the aircraft registration form.
  • Fill out the FAA aircraft registration form (AC Form 8050-1) and mail it in. You keep the pink copy as a temporary registration. This form is not available online but can be picked up at your local FSDO. You can also call them and they’ll mail you a copy.
  • Pay state use tax. WA residents can pay online.
  • Register the aircraft with the state. WA requires proof of use tax payment.
  • Register the trailer with the DMV and pay use tax on the trailer.

Cross-Country Soaring in the Cascades

Cross-Country Soaring in the Cascades

You don’t have to be a pilot to realize that the Cascades is one of the most marvelous spectacles Earth has to offer. Thousands of hikers climb its peaks, skiers race down its ski tracks, and millions of drivers enjoy the scenery of route 20, Stephens Pass, and Snoqualmie. With several volcanic peaks, glaciers, and deep blue mountain lakes within reach of an engineless aircraft, we are indeed very lucky to have all of this available to us for the price of a tow. Unfortunately, for many, the cost of admission is not the $50 tow, but rather overcoming fear, uncertainty and doubt about flying beyond the reach of our homebase in Arlington. While each individual is different, most of us see the North Cascades’ rugged terrain as an area inhospitable to the inexperienced pilot. But what if you’ve worked hard to get your FAA ticket and already spent hours circling around the airport, admiring the scenery from afar? How does one get to appreciate the beauty of what lays beyond Jordan Ridge? In this article, while memories are still fresh, I am sharing my personal experience graduating from aspirational mountain pilot to flying my first 250 km mountain flight from Arlington to Glacier Peak and Mount Baker. I hope that by sharing lessons learnt from the pros at the French Alps’ mountain soaring school in St Auban, time spent in the front seat of “TW” with Fred Hermanspann in the back, and my own experience (good and bad), others find inspiration to go explore beyond Jordan Ridge.

Human evolution has taught us the “Crawl, Walk, Run” methodology.  In soaring you finish crawling when you fly solo – a time when most of us say “thank you and goodbye” to our CFIG and move on to playing around the airport until time has come to pass the checkride. With a glider pilot’s license in hand, you have earned the right to walk: from buying your own glider to venturing out from the local airport with nothing but friendly terrain under the hull. While flying along cloud streets in 5kt thermals with a 12,000 ft cloud base may get you that first 300+ point flight on OLC, it does not necessarily mean you’ve met the bar for safe flight in the mountains. In the following sections I cover the fundamental skills I had to acquire to transition to the mountains.

Stick and Rudder Skills: The basics of coordinated flight need to be second nature. You don’t want to be thinking about hand/foot coordination while flying in the mountains. When close to terrain, there’s little margin for error. Too much rudder with a slow turn in a gust may throw you into the side of a mountain. You want to get really good at maintaining a steady attitude with the jaw string well aligned. You may be tempted to chase a constant airspeed but this is counterproductive in the turbulent air you’ll find along ridges and in the mountain’s narrow thermals. Instead of staring at the instrument panel, you need to practise keeping your eyes outside the cockpit, using the horizon and glider’s sound as your airspeed reference – briefly glimpsing at the ASI as you constantly observe your surroundings. Keeping your eyes outside the cockpit is not only important for safety, but also critical for situational awareness. You have to monitor the behavior of the wind, position of the sun in relation to the slopes, formation of clouds, and presence of birds and other gliders nearby, to make good decisions about where to fly next. Maintaining a steady attitude is also more challenging as the flatland horizon is replaced by uneven or close terrain, which obstructs the horizon as a reference point. Instead, you have to envision an artificial horizon as the mental model for fixing the glider’s position in the sky.

You can develop these skills by flying on the mediocre days when cloud base is low and at varying heights. Turn off the audio vario and try to fly the glider using your senses (ears, hands, seat-of-the-pants), completing nice even circles with only brief glances at the instrument panel. You also need to recognize the signs of an impeding stall to quickly initiate corrective actions. Before you take a new glider type to the mountains, you want to practice quick recovery for both straight and turning stalls at a safe altitude near the airport. Finally, use any landing as an opportunity to practice precision landings. You want to maintain a steady approach speed with half airbrakes out to come to a complete stop without the use of the wheel brake and the wing touching the ground after you have come to a complete stop.

Thermalling Skills: Mountain thermals can be more challenging than flat land thermals. They tend to be narrower, stronger, and more turbulent (especially on blue days). In a big fat thermal, you are taught to wait a second or two before turning into the thermal, with the vario indicating a positive climb by the time you turn. In the mountains, your body’s senses need to be ahead of the vario. You feel the thermal, turn into the thermal, and confirm with a positive vario (or quickly abandon if the seat-of-the-pants cheated you). You also want to refine your centering skills to fully explore the mountains’ potential. Given the strong and narrow core, you need to be comfortable banking steeply (35-55 degrees) while retaining the appropriate speed throughout the turn. You don’t want to be dancing in a thermal with your glider’s nose wobbling up and down. Instead, you’re aiming for a steady turn with a nice constant vario. On days with the wind blowing you need to correct for wind drift, or you’ll risk losing the thermal after the first turn.

To sharpen my thermaling skills, I’ve made it a point to come fly on the marginal days, when cloud base is at 3,000 to 4,000 ft. These days demand high concentration with little margin for error. While I have gotten pretty good at flying on marginal days, I was still surprised by how steeply Fred banked to recover from a thermal I lost near Sauk Mtn. Keep in mind that on a marginal day you won’t be banking as steeply, given the weaker updrafts. However, marginal days help perfect centering skills and teach you to concentrate on flying well coordinated regular turns. Without great thermalling skills, your journey into the mountains will quickly end with a landing.

Situational Awareness: Over flat land, with landable fields in sight, getting lost may be nothing more than an inconvenience. In a mountainous setting, a lost glider can end up in a tree (or lake at best). Therefore, it is important to always retain good situation awareness, even with a GPS onboard. A GPS can – and will – let you down. It happened to me on 4/19 near Spada Lake when my GPS lost signal for 15 minutes. At 6,000 ft this was not the time to start fiddling around with a device. Therefore it is critical to always know exactly where you are, what options are available for a safe landing, and how much altitude is required to reach a landable location. So before you get too comfortable with a GPS, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the area you’ll be flying in. The best way to do this is by pulling out a map and sitting down with an experienced mountain pilot, followed by an orientation flight. During your orientation flight, you should actively try to follow your flight path on the map, calling out key landmarks such as peaks, lakes, and landout fields.

Low_No_GPSKeep in mind that both FAA maps and GPS waypoint files can be out of date or erroneous. For example, some of the waypoint files in use in our area have landout fields marked on them which have never actually been used or should only be used as a last resort. For example, on May 1th I had the honors of baptising the “Horse Racetrack,” which was listed in my waypoint database as a landout field but had actually never been used. Therefore you should carefully read your waypoints’ description field, when available, as this may include important additional information. To avoid further surprises, I reviewed my waypoint database with several experienced pilots to get the most up-to-date insights. I also prefixed “regular” field names with “LO” and “emergency” fields with “LOE” to make it easy to identify the type of landout site without having to pull up the waypoint detailed description. Also, note that the FAA’s official Seattle Sectional chart may not be a reliable aid to navigation. Its low resolution is not ideal for glider pilots, obfuscating many important details. Charts may also contain outdated information so they require a scrub with an experienced pilot. During an area briefing you should note seasonal airfield conditions, retrieve options, and whether glider pilots are well received (e.g. Fall City is not glider friendly). Good supplements to your GPS database and FAA chart are Google Earth and DeLorme’s Washington Atlas & Gazetteer.

During flight training you learn about drawing circles around airports to quickly determine the altitude required to make it to the field. These circles are a great aid to navigation but are not sufficient when using a map as your primary (or backup) navigation aid. There are many fields around Arlington; drawing circles around all of those would quickly become a mess. Circles also don’t tell you what altitude is required to traverse a valley. In the French Alps, I was taught a neat trick to quickly perform calculations, using your fingers as a glide computer. A finger’s width is about 5 nautical miles on a sectional chart (adjust to your finger’s thickness). A nautical mile is about 6,000ft. The recommended safety L/D is for a modern glider is 1:20, so you’d divide 6,000 by 20 to get the required safe altitude of 3,000ft above arrival height.  So let’s assume you want to quickly calculate the required altitude to reach Arlington from Mt Pilchuck. I can place three fingers between Mt Pilchuck and Arlington. Assuming a 1/40 glider, flying at a 50% safety margin, I need (15*6)/2 = 45 *100ft = 4,500 ft. Adding 1,140 ft of pattern height (1,000ft + airfield elevation) gets us a minimal altitude of 5,600ft to make it back safely to the airport. Similarly, you can now quickly determine the altitude required at Three Fingers to arrive above Pugh Mtn’s peak. 2.5 fingers = 12.5 miles. 12.5*6 = 75. 75/2=37.5. 37.5*100=3,750ft. 3,750ft + 7,200ft (Pugh Mtn altitude) = 11,000ft.

hand measure

After you had a few orientation flights with an experienced mountain pilot, and you’ve decided to go explore on your own, you want to maintain radio contact with other pilots in the area. I would not recommend making your first solo exploration without the company of others in the air. In the Alps, the habit is to announce your location and intentions every 20 minutes, or whenever your intentions change. An example announcement for our area: “Glider niner-lima, 8,000ft over Goat Flats, heading east towards Mt Pugh.” Other pilots will not only be aware of your position, but will often also help you navigate the area. For example, on June 13, I fell off the ridge near Mt Higgins. Dan Housler directed me towards Gold Mtn, where I was able to hang on for a little while longer, but unfortunately the wind was weak, so I ended my flight at Darrington airport. All this time, Dan kept an eye on me, providing valuable advice, and also called the tow plane once I landed at Darrington.

Landing Out. In many parts of the world, you won’t be allowed to fly solo in the mountains without prior landout experience. The pilot’s workload is much higher in the complex terrain of a mountainous region: you’ve spent hours navigating complex terrain, made a last ditch effort to recover from low altitude, and finally committed to a landing. This is not the time to figure out where the land out field is located or which way the wind is blowing. In some cases you may be close to an airport, with a mountain standing in between. Turning around the mountain would put you right at pattern altitude of your destination airfield. You want to be in a tranquil and focused state-of-mind when you approach your landing. While an off-field landing (or any landing for that matter) never gets routine, you want to prepare yourself well for the inevitable outlanding. Whenever possible, you should participate in an encampment at nearby airfields (Darrington, Concrete, Green Valley). However, this is no equivalent for the actual landout experience at an unfamiliar field. So you can either wait for the day you’re put in a situation forcing you to land out, or – like I did in 2014 – you can decide ahead of time to land out. On May 30, 2014, after waiting until the late afternoon for a bad weather front to clear Ephrata, I decided to take a tow for some local soaring. Surprisingly, I was able to work my way up to 11,000 ft MSL after a save from 1,000 ft AGL. With Mansfield in reach but little chance of making it back with the sun lowering towards the horizon, I decided to get the most out of the day by getting my first outlanding experience. I pointed my nose towards Mansfield and flew as far north as I could. At 5pm, after a 3 hour flight, I squeezed the last out of the sky and put the L-33 on Mansfield’s runway.

With both feet on the ground, I learned about the importance of proper landout planning. While my phone was still charged, I did not have any reception. I also forgot to write down the Ephrata clubhouse’s phone number and had no cash on hand to pay for my phone call at the local grocery store. Luckily the owner was kind enough to tolerate a number of back-and-forth calls to let me sort out the retrieve. A couple of hours later, I was on my way back to Ephrata. This gentle landout experience was a great mental preparation for my first real landout experience, which took place under more challenging conditions.

On my way to Monroe, on May 1, I noted lots of power traffic while overflying the city’s airfield. I made a mental note and continued east towards the foothills to try to work my way back to Arlington. What looked like a nice cloudstreet, quickly deteriorated in a stream of sinking air. I was still within reach of Monroe and, at 2,000 ft, started looking at other landout options nearby. I noted a big stretch of grass in the middle of a horse racetrack and decided to take one more shot at circling my way out of the sinkhole. No luck. At this point I could technically scrape my way back to Monroe, but having never landed there before and with power traffic all around, I decided to go for the horse racetrack. I carefully observed the field again and noted a couple of horses on the west corner of the field, eating their dinner behind a cabin. In deciding which way to approach the field, I evaluated the wind direction, field slope, and obstacles, but also the position of the horses. Wind was not a factor, so I decided to approach the field facing the horses’ back, with the cabin in between myself and the horses. My plan was to sneak in like an invisible bird. When turning from downwind to base, I noted that I had come in too high and had to extend my baseleg with an S-turn to bleed off additional altitude. Apparently the terrain under my downwind leg was a good 150ft higher than the field I’d land in, something that didn’t become apparent until I turned to base. Clearing the wires on the south end, I safely touched down in the middle of the field, far away from the horses. The horses only saw me after I got out of my cockpit and welcomed me along with their friendly caretakers. That day I was happy to have good control of my glider, with my head outside the cockpit to observe the field, and mentally prepared for an unexpected landing. Ron kept an eye on me from above (almost getting sucked into the same hole), and radioed Fred, who, along with Kathleen, brought the trailer over for a retrieve.


While it’s important to have the logistics ready for an outlanding (retrieve option, tie-down gear, phone numbers, etc.), mental preparation is equally – if not more – important for a safe cross country flight. Before you even get in the cockpit, you want to accept that you may be landing elsewhere. It’s a fundamental part of serious soaring and it should not be a barrier for pushing farther. In the Alps, I was told to keep moving forward, switching my mind from the field behind me towards a new one on the path to our destination. I like the analogy (albeit a bit dramatic) of a Samurai’s mental preparation for battle: Dying before going to battle. Japanese Samurai imagined losing the battle before the start of the battle, which allowed them to unconditionally commit to success in battle without worrying about survival. Similarly, as a cross-country pilot you want to mentally prepare for the possibility of a land-out so that land-out anxiety doesn’t become a distraction to your decision making ability and safety.

The Theory of Mountain Safety. A lot has been written about mountain safety – advice I won’t repeat here. While I’ve read most books on the subject, I found that the theory doesn’t really sink in until you end up in one of the situations described in these books. It was not until I flew dozens of hours with an experienced mountain soaring instructor that I uncovered an unsafe habit, which snuck up on my unnoticed. I had a tendency to turn too close to the ridge. As my instructor warned me: “This will work a hundred times, but the 101th time …” I was taught how to turn safely near ridge height by first confirming a positive vario near the ridge, flying at a safe margin over approach speed, and only then complete a full turn near the ridge. If you’re new to this, you should follow the books’ advice and not turn anywhere near a ridge – unless you fly figure eights away from the ridge. The concept of the 101th time keeps me open to critical evaluation of my flights, peer feedback, and regular flights with an instructor or mentor. To remind myself of the principles of safe mountain soaring, I’ve made it a habit to read “Safety in mountain flying” before the start of every season. I also give myself a critical self-debriefing after each flight, imagining what an instructor might have told me if he’d flown with me.

Understanding Mountain Weather. This topic merits an article in its own right. Weather around Arlington is rather complex. We enjoy foothill soaring during the early part of the year, followed by booming conditions around May, to then shift towards stable conditions around the airport with great flights still possible by taking a long-tow further east. During fall and winter months we typically get to enjoy a couple of days of ridge or wave soaring near Mt Pilchuck. This variety is fertile learning ground for aspiring mountain pilots and meteorologists. It takes some experience to recognize the different weather patterns. A deeper study of meteorology is rewarded with better chances of hitting the good days while giving you a strategic advantage in flight planning. While developing this knowledge is not a prerequisite to mountain soaring, you should have a good grasp of the basics of local weather patterns. You need to understand the various heat sources and triggers for thermals. It is also important to know how local winds flow around valleys, mountains, and ridges. A good starting point for the study of mountain weather is “Understanding the Sky” by Dennis Pagen. At a minimum you should remember that you want to look for thermals on the sunny side of the hill, and fly along the top of the ridge to catch updrafts flowing up its side. The lee-side of the hill should be avoided. You also need to be on the lookout for overdevelopment, which can put you in a tight spot.

While I’ve only scratched the surface of mountain soaring, I hope you can apply some of my personal learnings to your own journey as an aspiring mountain pilot. I plan to post additional articles as I learn more. Until then, I welcome your feedback and comments below.