After flying gliders for a few years now, I finally got around to completing my first cross-country flight this summer.
For those who are unfamiliar with soaring, a good day where I’m from includes puffy cumulus clouds marking the tops of thermals up to 6,000-9,000 feet MSL. This day, thermals were forecast to barely go up to 4,000 feet, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight to give visual cues as to where they might be.
I pick a point about 50 nautical miles to the north-west (flying into the wind over terrain I was familiar with), got my equipment ready and took off. I landed 20 minutes later and decided to try again. This time, I was lucky to find a thermal over the airfield and climb to about 4,000 feet before it topped out. This is only a little more than 2,000 feet above my airport, and about 3,000 above the floors of most of the surrounding valleys, but I know I’m not gonna get higher so I set out.
With no clouds, I have to rely on ground references and luck, and I manage to stumble into enough thermals to make it to my turnpoint (and was very lucky to avoid landing in a field on at least one occasion). This is the completion of my goal, but if I want to avoid a long wait for a retrieval and being the butt of some jokes, I have to get back. If getting to my turnpoint was tough, getting back was brutal. On the way out, I had flown by climbing a thermal, picking a field I knew I could make it to, and flying towards it until I got another climb. The way back was characterized by being tricked into thinking I found lift, and then turning only to be lucky to maintain altitude, followed by a harrowing glide until I scraped together 400 feet in the next thermal. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Eventually, I made it to a small GA airport about 3/4 of the way home. Ahead of me was a town with no landing options, some fields, and then my home airport. To go ahead, or play it safe at this GA strip? Luckily, I found the strongest, highest thermal of the day just before I had to choose, taking my up to my high-point of 4,200 feet MSL and, more importantly, within gliding range of a safe pattern at my home airport. I managed to bump through some more lift on this last glide before making a safe landing, but that moment when I knew I didn’t have to fight for any more altitude and that I could get home safely is one that will be enshrined in my memory forever.