Making the Jump into the Deep End

Making the Jump into the Deep End

Sunday didn’t look like much at first. Some folks who stopped by at the airport wondered why I was rigging the DG-300. I explained to the sceptics that I noticed a dry unstable air mass above 900mb in Sunday morning’s forecast and was hoping for blue thermals. Being the “glass-is-half-full” kinda guy when it comes to soaring weather, I decided to go for a long tow to Mt Ditney, which is well above the 3,000ft stable layer.

With 7,500ft off tow, I reached Ditney a little higher than needed but was able to use the excess altitude to glide to Goat Flats, where I was welcomed by a couple of vapor wisps. I had been here before earlier in the season, spending about an hour thermalling while never getting above 6,500ft. This time was different. I was able to maintain altitude at 7,500ft, giving me time to scout what lay behind Three Fingers. I noticed a line of puffy clouds, quickly cycling through their many lives, and decided to go for it, throwing myself behind Three Fingers into the valley where Fred once took me in the Grob. Last year’s discovery flight with Fred at the controls proved to be a big confidence builder. I knew about Darrington, and the escape routes to Green Valley and Arlington. While landing out was certainly not a preferred option for me on a Sunday, I felt comfortable enough to push forward and follow what looked like a thin convergence line stretching from Mt Baker to Stevens Pass.

From Three Fingers I hopped on the convergence train at Helena Peak, heading south towards Monte Christo, working my way between Sloan Peak and Del Campo Peak. As the energy line stopped working its magic before reaching Monte Christo, I decided to make a run for a small puffy cloud over Lake Isabel. By the time I got there, the puffs were gone, and so was the lift. While I enjoyed one more upwards boost just north of Mt Stickney, I quickly got to learn about the dissipating stage of cumulus clouds.

Heading towards the North end of Spada Lake, I reached a low point of 5,600ft, out of reach of Arlington, and barely within reach of Green Valley. Any further loss of altitude would surely result in a field landing near Lake Bosworth. I frantically tried to hold on to a dying CU, get +4kts on one side, while getting the same as a negative value on the other side. After 15m of hovering at the edge of despair, I finally caught a breath of new life under the cloud that once looked so promising.

With an extra 1,000ft to spare, I decided to take a shot at trying my luck at the other side of the Pilchuck valley. While Liberty Mtn didn’t produce anything, Big Bear Mtn produced a nice 3.5 kt average climb to 7,200ft, enough altitude to make one final flyby of Three Fingers’ lookout before heading back to Arlington.

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Mt Pilchuck Lee-side Thermal Challenge

Mt Pilchuck Lee-side Thermal Challenge

I managed to hang on to Mt Pilchuck for a couple of hours by thermalling in the sunny lee side of the mountain. It was fun and challenging with the SW side of the mountain receiving plenty of sunlight while being shielded from the 14kt NE wind that blew over the mountain top. The snow line was sufficiently low for thermals to separate from the ground at a safe distance from the ridge, allowing me to circle below mountain peak. Leaving this area on the lee side would throw me into 5 to 10 kt sink. I tried to connect a couple of times further east but unfortunately there was no chance to escape the mountain and explore the cumulus around Spada Lake.

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Shop to Soar with AmazonSmile

Shop to Soar with AmazonSmile


What if for every dollar you spend, you’d be contributing 5 cents to your favorite sport; soaring? For example, if you bought the new Glider Flying Handbook, you’d be contributing $0.85 to the SSA (while getting a $24.95 reduction off list price). Or let’s say you bought a new tablet for $300, you’d be contributing $15 to our great sport! just launched AmazonSmile, a new program that makes it easy for customers to support their favorite charitable organizations every time they shop. Customers who visit AmazonSmile ( will find the exact same Amazon they usually shop (same prices, same selection) but with the added bonus that Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price to their favorite charitable organization. There is no cap on the total donation amount and customers can choose from nearly one million organizations around the country; including a few soaring related associations such as the Soaring Society of America and the AOPA. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Navigate to Remember you have to shop through and not the regular for this to work! So please update your bookmarks.
  2. Enter your username and password in the Sign In form. You can also register for a new account if you’re a first time Amazon customer.
  3. Next you can select one of the featured charities or you can search for a different charity. E.g. enter “Soaring Society” or “AOPA” and hit search.
  4. Select the appropriate charity by hitting the “Select” button next to your charity’s name. The top of the page should now display your charity’s name. You’re now ready to make your dollars count towards flying.

And remember: Come back to if you want Amazon to donate 0.5% of your AmazonSmile purchase price to the Soaring Society of America.

Amazon Press Release: Amazon Launches AmazonSmile – A Simple, Automatic Way For Customers To Support Their Favorite Charitable Organizations

To VOR or not to VOR?

To VOR or not to VOR?

Various Glider pilot exam databases and study guides include questions about VOR/ADF navigation (but not GPS). The predecessor of the Glider Flying Handbook, Soaring Flight Manual, has half a chapter dedicated to  the subject while ASA’s 2013 Private Pilot Test Prep, e.g., does not include VOR navigation in its glider rating test subjects. GPGS includes it in its commercial pilot book but not in its private pilot book. Dauntless Aviation software covers tens of VOR questions in its glider rating test database, only one, while a student at our club just took his written test and didn’t get a single VOR question. This made me wonder: Is this a required subject for a Private Pilot glider rating? I took the question to

” I remember very well that there were a few VOR questions [35 years ago].”

“It can be a mistake to believe the FAA’s decisions are based on sound logic. In any event, it doesn’t matter why.  If the questions are there you have to answer them.”

“While most glider pilots never opt to exercise [the] privileges [of sophisticated aircraft, like a Stemme motor glider], they are not absolved of the responsibility of knowing at least a little about what is expected of them if they do.”

“These aircraft preceded the FAA’s acceptance of GPS technology for navigation. FAA is always catching up.”

“Unfortunately, the FAA does still required glider pilots to know a little about VORs.”

“VORs are not obsolete.  Wait till the Chinese shut down some satellites and you will be happy there are VORs still in operation.”

“GPS systems do fail.  When they do, you need a backup.  If it is the satellites or the signal that failed, another GPS receiver is not the answer.”

With all of this said and done – and while  the Chinese are cooking up a plan to ground gliders in the US – I decided to take the question straight to the executive branch of the United States government. Here’s what Washington has to say:

“There is not a requirement for VOR/ADF knowledge in the Private Pilot Glider knowledge test.”

– Chip Peterson, Aviation Safety Inspector, Seattle Flight Standards.

Rest assured, dear soaring students, thy shalt not hone in on a radio beacon any time soon.

Do you think VOR/ADF navigation should still be required knowledge for glider pilots? Did you get a VOR/ADF question on a recent knowledge test? Leave a comment to let us know.

Learn to Fly with Condor!

Learn to Fly with Condor!

Not too long ago I discovered the world of flying with Condor. As a technologist, I immediately wondered whether Condor would be a good training tool for RL flight instruction. I’ve read quite a few beginner books on soaring but some of the written theory did not really connect until demonstrated by an instructor.  The difference between crabbing and side-slipping, recovery from a spin, take-off weather cocking recovery on crosswind, and various other flight maneuvers are in my opinion much better explained with flight experience than on paper. A brief demonstration video in Condor would have given me the “aha” experience I got when first demonstrated by an instructor. Boxing the wake is another one of those experiences you could practice a few times in a simulator before attempting in real-life. The list goes on.

With that said, I wonder whether current glider flight instruction is outdated. Big time airline and fighter pilots all spend hundreds of hours in a simulator, practicing various maneuvers. As student glider pilots we get to spend 20 to 30 flights with an instructor and never actually experience a rope break at less than 200 ft. In Condor world, one can try to push hard on the rudder to “turn faster” in an attempt to land on the strip, but the incipient spin and disastrous consequences will also be felt. This may all be a “video game” but that’s not how I experience Condor.

With sufficient time spent on Condor, one gets immersed in this virtual experience so that crashes end up feeling very real and uncomfortable. It’s an emotion I take with me on real-life flights and reminds me to think about my contingency plan when floating behind the tug – a couple hundred feet above the ground with no way to “turn faster”.

UPDATE 5/20/2013 wrote a great article about how his Condor simulated experience prepared him to get out of a tough ridge soaring position.

XCSoar for Android

XCSoar for Android

Recent Android mobile phones such as Samsung’s Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note 2, and Google’s Nexus 4 have built-in barometric pressure sensors, GPS, and compass capabilities. In other words, you have all the ingredients for a flight computer within the palm of your hand! Combined with XCSoar for Android, you can now turn your smartphone into a first-class glide computer.

For those readers who do not own one of these devices: Do not despair! There’s a good chance that your Android phone or tablet can still be used as a flight computer for Condor soaring simulation.

In this article I’ll show you how to prepare your device for glider flight. In a follow-up post I’ll show you how to get things set up in Condor so that you have everything to get started with cross-country flight simulation using the XCSoar flight computer.

As a Seattle resident, I am biased to use the Washington state area as the setup we’ll configure in this tutorial. You can obviously adjust the map and waypoints files to your preferred soaring location. Note that not all maps are available. Luckily you always have the option of building your own map. However, this is an advanced topic that I’ll keep for a future post.

Let’s get started!

Install XCSoar from Google Play

XCSoar is available through the Google Play App Store. You can find the app by searching for XCSoar on your phone’s Google Play app or by using the Web interface located here. When you search for XCSoar, you’ll find a few different editions of XCSoar. You want to install the standard edition with the blue icon.

XCSoar Logo

Launch XCSoar and bring up the main menu by double-tapping the screen or pressing the menu button on your phone; then navigate to: Config > Setup System (2/3) > Site Files > Site Files. At the top of the window, you’ll find the location of the site files directory at “/mnt/sdcard/XCSoarData” (Galaxy S3) or “/Internal storage/XCSoarData” (Nexus 4). This is the location on your device where you’ll copy the files we’ll download next. You can exit the menu by selecting “Close” until you’re back on the main screen. Note how the main screen is blank at this point. This is because we haven’t yet installed the maps. You’ll do this in the next step. But first; exit XCSoar by selecting “Quit” from the main menu. Again, you should double-tap the screen or press the menu button on your device to access the main menu.

Download Site Files

Download site files from the XCSoar’s Download – Data Page. There are three types of files we’ll be installing on our device: maps, waypoints, and airspace.

    1. Map database:
      • Under “Terrain/Topology”, select “Download Maps”
      • Select the “High Resolution Map” under “US_WA_STATE.” This will download a file named “US_WA_STATE_HighRes.xcm.”
    2. Waypoints:
      • Under “Waypoints”, select “Download Waypoints”
      • Right-click the “download” link under “United States” and save the target to the Downloads folder on your computer (or any other location, as long as you remember where you placed the file). This will download a file named “United States.cup”
    3. Airspaces:
      • Select “US Airspace” under “Airspaces.” This takes you to an external web site where you can find Airspace data under the second tab.
      • Download the “Tim Newport-Peace” file. This will download a file named “xallusa.v13.01-10.2.sua.”

At this point you’re ready to connect your Android device to your PC, using a USB cable, so you can copy the files you downloaded to the site files directory.

Make sure your device is connected as an external storage device. You should be able to navigate the device’s file system from Windows Explorer. Consult your owner’s manual if you have trouble accessing the file system or leave a comment here to ask for help. Copy the three files you downloaded to the Site Files location under “/mnt/sdcard/XCSoarData” On my computer, the result looks as follows:

Site Files Location

Now that we have all the necessary files available on our Android device, you can unplug the USB cable and configure the system to load these files. We’ll also configure the polar for our glider type to make sure the performance of our ship is taken into account.

Configure XCSoar

Navigate back to the Site Files configuration window (see first step in this guide for a refresher). From this window we will select the appropriate file by tapping on the blank fields, selecting the file listed in the window, and hitting the “select” button. When completed for all three fields, your screen should like the one shown below:
Site Files Dialogue

You can now close the Site Files window. Back in the “Configuration Menu” you need to select Setup > Polar and then press the “List” button to bring up a list of pre-loaded glide polars for various models. To keep things simple, I’ve selected “ASK-13 (PAS).” Feel free to select your preferred ship but note that not all models are available in Condor.

Go ahead and close all dialogues. Your main screen should show a colorful map (assuming you downloaded your local area). Your system is now ready for its first flight!

XCSoar Main Screen

In the next post I will show you how to connect XCSoar to Condor and we’ll make a first cross-country flight using our brand new flightphone.



Ever since I was a child I dreamed about flying. As a young boy, at the age of 14, I first learned about gliders through the Belgian Air Force’s air cadet program. I mailed the application form, completed the medical, physical, and written tests and was selected as one of 75 candidates out of a group of over 800 applicants. Free glider training for four years! In 1995 I was selected for the International Air Cadet Exchange program and spent the summer with the Israel Air Force. After 130 flights with the air cadets, I closed the first chapter in my career as a glider pilot. The next decade and a half would be dedicated to my professional and family life.

In 2010, my wife, whose parents live in France, offered me a birthday present that she may regret: a demo glider flight at the Pujaut Glider Club in France. What was supposed to be a 20 minute introductory flight turned into a two hour flight! Back home in the US, I reached out to Don Ingraham, a Minnesota soaring legend, and signed up for another flight. Don let me fly his beautiful Twin all the way from tow through landing. I was hooked again!

Following my flight with Don, I signed up for membership in the Red Wing Soaring Association. Paul C. took me under his wings, and not only scraped the rust away that built up of 15 years but also taught me to become a much better pilot.

After joining Evergreen Soaring near Seattle, I quickly took my check ride and obtained my Private Pilot license less than a year after my gliding relaunch. Since then I have obtained a French glider pilot license at St Auban, and can now be found flying the skies of the North West Cascades or French Alps.

I decided to start a blog so that I can share my journey with you as I embark on this amazing adventure of motor-less flight. My interests are in soaring and technology so expect to see a lot of content on the cross-roads of these topics.

Be safe,

Thomas Van de Velde

PS: This first blog is also the first draft of my about page.