Sunday, November 13, 2016

Test Flying the Skywalk Poison X-Alps!

Trail to the Kuratake Takeoff
The day started with a trail run to the Kuratake TO, and I scored a new record of 22 minutes 50 seconds.  Getting stronger every day!  The trail is about 1.8 km long and has a vertical gain of 410 meters.  It is therefore quite steep and particularly the second half has an average grade of about 30%, so it's not really a 'run', but rather an awkward struggle uphill.  This trail also forms a grueling finish to the trail run section of the Amaxa X-Athlon, a multi-sport race we organize in Kuratake every summer.

But the day's main excitement was test-flying the Skywalk Poison X-Alps glider for the first time!  I used to fly a Poison 3 a few years ago and really liked it, mostly because it was fast and very agile for a glider with such a high aspect ratio.  So when Canadian pilot Alex Raymont recommended the Poison X-Alps, saying it packs up smaller than the Ozone LM6, I contacted Tetsuya Sato, the Japanese Skywalk distributor and a good friend. He immediately got on the case and sent me this XS-sized test glider (thank you!).  The glider was mailed to a flyer friend who runs a drug store, and when he handed me the package, I thought he was pulling my leg and giving me a box of toilet paper instead!  At about 4 kg, it's the lightest glider I've ever flown - by far.

And in the air too, the Poison X-Alps did not disappoint: just like its predecessor it is very quick and nimble!  Also, the brakes feel smooth and very responsive, and there is excellent feedback to the pilot both independently through each riser and through the brake controls.  Just as advertised, brake travel is short but resistance increases smoothly and distinctly, so there is absolutely no danger in accidentally stalling; at least not for an experienced pilot who can feel his brakes.  Anyhow I much prefer short brake travel because it saves on the effort of controlling the glider--I don't want to be waving my arms all over the place and even just holding inside brake far down during thermalling does result in arm fatigue over a long flight.

As predicted, today was a high-pressure day with a very strong inversion at about 900m, which one could punch through, if only briefly, right above the summit of Kuratake and get a peak at the distant Mt. Unzen volcano, whose 1483m summit was poking out well above the inversion.  This also meant that in spite of the weak November sun, the squeezed-down boundary layer was roiling and seething, making for some bumpy thermals, though nothing that required any intense active piloting.

At this level of turbulence, the Poison X-Alps performed great, riding out the bumps nicely even when I half-neglected the brakes.  Leanne and I rode out several tight thermals close together from low down on the mountain, and with the Poison's agility it was easy to direct it exactly where I wanted it to go in the very uneven cores.  I also got the feeling that the inner wingtip did dig into the lift more than most gliders, helpfully self-steering itself into the thermal, which, I recalled, the old Poison 3 used to do as well.  I feel that the Ozone M4, M6, and Delta 2, which I fly a lot, are more or less neutral here, whereas some other gliders I have actually tend to turn away from lift, making it quite a bit of effort for the pilot to stay near the core.  The Poison is also distinctly more agile than the Ozone Mantras, and nearly as nimble as the Delta 2, which I think stands out among C-graded gliders for its maneuverability (intermediate-level pilots seldom fly it well).   How does Skywalk make its high-aspect gliders so nimble, and thermal-seeking to boot, is a secret I would like to know.

Alas, all too soon it was time to turn west and begin my (nearly) daily aerial commute to work.  Today, with the low ceiling, I did not expect to make it past Sumoto (the large valley about half-way), but with SSW wind aloft, the Domeizan thermal was easy to find and took me back up nearly to the inversion.  Normally less than 1000m is not enough to continue westward over the powerline-infested hills but expecting some more squeezed-boundary-layer thermals, I pressed on.  Incidentally, I was flying the XS-size glider (rated to 90kg max) with an all-up weight of 88.5 kg, so glides were rather brisk, and I found myself doing over 40 km/h ground-speed even against the wind, where I would expect low 30's on my over-size (ML) M6.  The feeling of speed was quite refreshing, and in spite of this L/D was still good and thermalling with Leanne, who is very light on her BGD Tala (usually flying 5 kg ballast but not today), I did not notice any disadvantage.  Well, anyhow, it's a good sign that I made it all the way to Hondo on my very first flight with the Poison X-Alps.  The expected thermals were there, and helped a little, for sure!

Coming up just short of my usual LZ (the large open area on the right), I aimed for the tidal flats which were in places nice and dry.  (Had it not been low tide, I would have had to land a few km back.)  Almost always the wind in Hondo is onshore from the NE, even when it's southerly in Kuratake, so the last section is more or less upwind and one needs to leave some margin flying over the sea and urbanization, if the tide is in.

The light fabric of the glider floated down to the gravel like gossamer.  I like this glider very much!  But I have to fly it in some rough conditions, to see how it behaves compared to the M6, which I am very used to, before I decide whether to fly it in the X-Alps.  Other makers have been approaching me as well, so it's going to be an interesting choice!  In a way I am lucky I am not professionally sponsored, because I can decide what I will fly based on what I like and what is good and safe for me.  I am looking forward to this process quite a bit.  Now, for further testing, I'm hoping for some rough conditions during the two most benign months of the year here in Japan!

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