Thursday, January 19, 2017

My Ass on a Plate

In one of my first chances to fly in 'benign' Kyushu after successfully negotiating the topographical and aerial wilds of full-on New Zealand, I got my ass handed to me on a plate at the Kanemi-dake flight area in southern Kyushu.  Mind you, the terrain around Kanemi is not the easiest place to do XC, which is part of the reason I like it.  First of all, the altitude difference between the launch and LZ is only 290m in a distance of 1.5 km, making for a minimum glide-slope of 5.2, giving one no second-chances: if you can't catch a thermal where you are, you simply must move forward or you won't make the LZ.  A sprawling range extends eastward from the launch, but consists of a maze of similar low-angle ridges spreading spider-like out from a series of indistinct summits.  In between these are steep-sided, narrow, unlandable valleys so that there is not only no place to catch ridge lift, but in fact, the whole zone is a zoo of rotors.  Woe will befall the pilot who descends to ridge height anywhere but well upwind where the ridges meet the Miyakonojo plain, where he may at least land out.  Yet, to fly XC, one must stay well inside this mess where there is higher ground and a chance of reliable thermals.  With only a few pilots challenging this landscape, the area's potential remains largely unexplored.

The ranges east of Kanemi-dake, from an earlier flight...
On takeoff at Kanemi, the first challenge is just not to do a sledder.  It took me about half-a-dozen trips here to figure out how to do that:  one must feel out and hover in pockets of ephemeral, weak lift, waiting for the occasional proper thermal.  This day, a local pilot pointed out the thermal for me and soon we were both at 1500m, well clear and above the low hills.  Time to make a move.

Topping out and eyeing the XC route to the east.

There was some amount of wind expected, and indeed felt, but the forecast said it should weaken as one goes east (deeper into the range).  Most local pilots avoid the range and just head downwind (roughly south) into some friendly flats but unfortunately this route is one-way only and dead-ends after about 25 km.  I wanted a little more adventure, and it did not seem unreasonable.

GFS forecast clearly shows wind weaker on the east side (Kanemi is circled; for scale, the arrows are about 25km apart, and wind speed is in m/s for this forecast for winds at 1000m height).
Looking at my track in retrospect too, nothing too unusual can be seen.  I am moving across the wind, finding lift, maintaining height, and the thermaling slinkies do not indicate the wind getting stronger.  The terrain gradually rises ahead and no obvious venturis or such are expected; on the contrary I was only expecting things to improve.  I am making about 15 km/h into the wind on trim and  should I need to get out, I have enough height to make it to the plains if I push a little bar.

And then suddenly, I find myself in severe sink, and so much wind that I am making very little forward progress even on full bar.  Convinced it's a local thing, I press on, and a few minutes later I'm hitting roughage and still not making progress.  Another minute and I'm having trouble keeping the glider open over my head.  Obviously no more bar!  But I still think I might make it out if I follow the ridge slope.  Another minute and a cravat later, that's out of the question.  I spy a tiny clearing in the slope, turn tail and actually nail it - a minor miracle and dangerous too in that washing-machine air.  I land on an old forest road, a space just beg enough to lay out a wing.  But the wing keeps going and gets caught in a scrubby mess of vines overhead.  Happy to be alive, I'm not too upset to call it a day and spend the next three hours cutting down small trees and branches with a handsaw, then picking a mess of twisted vines out of my lines.  Too bad I was not in a mood to take some pictures, though, to give an idea of what a mess it really was. At least it was a good upper-body workout!

Crash and burn in the wilds of Miyazaki.  You can see my struggles in the rotor zone, including getting blown backwards while sorting out the cravat.  The clearing is too small to be clearly seen on the imagery.  The puzzling thing is seeing the comfortable thermals less than a kilometer away, and no obvious cause for the sink or venturi I experienced!
.  I am still puzzled about how this debacle could have been expected and/or avoided.  Every time I fail at something, particularly when it's dangerous, I spend hours analyzing what I might have done better.  This is perhaps the first time where such analysis has not revealed anything besides 20/20 hindsight and some local knowledge gained.  Flying XC, I regularly take much greater calculated risks than this one.  This line is committing but does not seem suicidal.  Besides, I've flown it before.  The topography seems benign compared to, say, New Zealand.  Unless someone can convince me otherwise, I am left thinking this is just one of those things that shows us we can't have complete control of nature, even if we don't make any mistakes.  There is always an inherent risk in this sport, which we cannot control, and this time it just caught up to me.  Luckily, this time my gear and I both escaped unharmed.

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