The Flight of My Life – 25,000 feet

After a long break, 2001 gets me back into gliding in a big way and the chance to buy my own plane. Pestering friends results in a lot of conflicting advice about which glider to buy. The advice is well-meant but half of it is completely wrong, and of course, you never know which half is correct.

With your own glider, it is kept in a trailer and you rig or assemble it before each flight and vice versa. This creates a mutual help atmosphere as you cannot assemble your glider without assistance and your fellow club members, likewise. But some gliders are easier to put together than others. People I have known for years tell me “You want to buy a Nimbus? How many friends have you got, George?” meaning that the glider you want, is difficult to rig and will require lots of assistance. Finally, my heart sets on a 30 year old Slingsby Kestrel – a licence-built version of a German design with a slightly bigger 19 metre wingspan. The freedom to fly when I want without having to take pot luck in the morning lottery for club gliders is liberating.

Two months after 9/11 and after having flown the kestrel in the August Regional competition, I decide to go follow some other Lasham members to Minden and do some wave flying. The view of the ice floes in the north Atlantic on the flight over is sobering and snow covers much of the American landscape. Arriving at Reno in Nevada late at night, I go to the Avis car rental office and hire a 4×4. Ten minutes after setting off, a young guy in an even bigger Silverado 4×4 runs into the back of me. Fortunately, I am able to drive back to the rental office and get a replacement but it is too late to drive to Minden, so I spend the night in a large hotel there. Filing an accident report with the Police is optional, but I think I will be a good citizen and after 2 hours with a lady police offcer, I leave the local police station with a yellow form. The local FAA office is closed but when I explain I had come from England, they unlock the door and stamp my gliding logbook.

After a 35 mile drive, I book into the motel at Minden which is clean and warm but the anonymity of it makes it depressing. Minden with its Douglas County Airport lies to the east of the Sierra Nevada in a valley. The first day’s flying involves a check flight with a local pilot and an explanation of the areas where gliders are allowed to fly and where they are not – the airways into and out of Reno. We have a 3 hour flight north and then back south trying avoid going above 18,000 feet – the height at which Controlled Airspace starts in the US. As most of our flight is above 12,000 feet, we were both breathing oxygen and it is very cold. Ice starts forming on the inside of the canopy so I go to scrape some it off, but the guy in the back shouts telling me not to do this as such action actually increases it – too late! The flight is gorgeous, looking down on the ski slopes in the Sierra Nevada and what looks liked a big puddle next to itLake Tahoe.

After about 2 hours, the same voice from the back tells me that the oxygen is down to about 1/4 tank, so we had better fly back. By this time my feet are numb with cold, so it’s good to turn for home. I’m also thirsty, but the small water bottle that is in my pocket is nearly all ice! A later check of barograph trace shows that the maximum height in the special wave flying area is 50 feet short of 25,000 feet (above sea level) which would have given me a single Lennie Pin, an American gliding badge. You get the second pin for reaching 35,000 feet and the third one for 40,000 feet.

Next morning, the weather looks grey and dull, so back to bed and read a book. At 12 noon, I get a call from the Tony Sabino manager of my hosts Soar Minden, who says the wave is working asking me if I would like to fly?? I arrive 20 minutes later. A huge long wave cloud dominates the sky as if a huge white snake is going to rule the weather today. It is roughly aligned with the Sierra Nevada mountains which generate it.

Soar Minden is a commercial operation so one is pampered and many of the chores associated with club gliding are done by other people. Changing into a thick corduroy jump suit and wrapping myself up like a Michelin man, I am driven in a golf cart to my glider which is prepped and lined up for take off. After the basic control and cockpit checks, I waggle the rudder and we were taking off taking care to keep straight and avoid the wingtips touching the mounds of snow (berms) piled up along the sides of the runway.

Take off is fine but at 200 feet above the air gets rough – we are in the rotor. While wave lift is silky smooth, under the crests of the wave clouds, you get what can best be described as a tunnel or cylinder of turbulent air which is known as a “rotor”. These can be very rough but today is manageable. About 4,000 feet above launch height, I release and pull up off to one side while the tug dives way to the other side. Tug clear, I dive a couple of hundred feet to make a notch on the barograph trace from which any gain of height is calculated. The wave lift is smooth but only about 2 knots (200 feet a minute) the strength of an average thermal in the UK, but pathetic for this place. Flying west and into wind – away from the airport and towards the mountains, I hope the lift will get stronger. An hour later, I am 15,000 feet above sea level which gives me the Gold Badge which you get for a gain of height of 3,000 metres. But my goal is to get the Diamond Badge which is only given for 5,000 metres or around 16,000 feet gain of height. Wandering around the sky for bit I head back with the Gold Height as my reward for the day. Navigation is easy as the most notable landmarks visible from the air are 4 square sewage ponds to the south west of Minden and I have plenty of height to get back.

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But hang on a minute. I have not come to Minden for a consolation prize – I want the main one, the height diamond badge, so turning round I fly west – upwind again. For several minutes I lose height as there is no lift – I am burning up my height reserves but if I have to land out, then so be it. But then, the variometer needle shows neither sink nor lift – zero sink as glider pilots call it. The needle slowly creeps up and is soon showing 4 knots or 400 feet a minute lift. Flying further west the lift weakens so I turn round again finding myself back in the stronger lift. The higher I get, the stronger the lift. Around this point, I notice a huge tornado-like feature about 40 miles away in the direction of Reno. The funnel is very well defined which seems to start at the lowest layer of wave cloud and curve away at an angle into upper layers.

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By this time, I am flying along the west side of the lenticular wave cloud formation which has several layers with clear gaps in between but the lowest layer is much wider than the others and as I gain height, this cuts off sight of my landmark – the sewage ponds. As Lake Tahoe was always visible, I know roughly where I am but not exactly. Getting higher, the lift gets stronger with the variometer needle on its peg showing 1,000 feet a minute lift. Like the second hand on a clock, the altimeter needle is moving continuously and ice is starting to form on the inside of the canopy. After missing my Lennie Pin the day before, I had been given clearance to 27,000 feet.

In no time at all I am above 25,000 feet and open the airbrakes, but am nowhere near the top of the wave system which seems to go up beyond 40,000 feet. But opening the airbrakes only reduces the rate of climb to 800 feet a minute, so I have to do something. The wave cloud is aligned north-south and I am flying north in strong lift so there is no point in flying north or south. To the east, is the wave cloud formation with no clear gaps between layers, and as cloud flying is illegal in the US, flying east is out too. Cloud flying would also mean picking up ice on the wings, ruining the performance of the glider. Had the canopy had iced up, I would have been flying blind. The only alternative is to fly west into wind but I can’t find my map – it’s back in the motel room.

Am I inside or outside the permitted area for wave flying? I am between a rock and a hard place. Don’t fancy bring run down by an airliner while on the other hand, an airspace violation could have put the gliding operation out of business, since they operate on a simple waiver. With the airbrakes fully open and still climbing at 800 feet a minute, going west is the safest thing to do and after a couple of minutes the lift decreases and at last I am descending. Flying back south along the wave system I push the stick forward, flying as fast as is safe (110 knots) in the thin air. Ski lifts and chalets are thousands of feet below me. Losing height slowly, the sewage ponds become visible below the wide base layer of the wave system and I now know exactly where I am.

Nearer the airport I burn off some more height with some chandelles and tight turns and call the tower when I am in the circuit, landing after 2 hours. The golf cart picks me up and I am whisked back to the clubhouse. The barograph trace shows my maximum altitude as 25,450 feet – I have my first Lennie Pin and my Diamond Height. No one else is around so I drive back to my lonely motel room. In the evening, I decide to visit the cinema complex two minutes away from my room which is showing the first Harry Potter film with its game of quidditch. Reviews of the film say it is worth watching just for that. Interestingly HP’s broomstick is called a Nimbus – wonder where the name came from? The film and quidditch are good but nowhere near as good as the flight in my own broomstick, that flight still is the flight of my life. If you have not tried gliding yet, have a look at: The place I visited:

George Emsden
Now retired, George is busier than ever: working through an OU Maths & Physics degree, blogs, volunteering at Muswell Hill Soup Kitchen and Haringey Winter Shelter plus being a very proud granddad.
  1. Avatar


    I have always fancied flying so this did indeed make me smile and was a good read. I am always surprised you don’t make more of your hobby and change your tag line to something like “The Flying IFA” or “I can make your savings Soar…” etc.. etc…

    regards Julian

  2. Avatar
    Andy Howells

    Nice flight. I’ve been to Minden once and got to a similar height 21,000, but only on the check flight. I only had two days there and the second day was low wind so could only manage thermalling in the valley. Will get that diamond one day.

    Well done


  3. Avatar
    Gerhard Wesp

    Wow. 800fpm with the brakes out. The mother
    of all waves.

    It’s so sad that the wave window isn’t larger.
    Especially in that area where traffic isn’t really
    that heavy.

    Have more great flights!


  4. Avatar
    Martin Shupp

    Congratulations! thanks for a fun read.
    I am now in the process of returning to soaring after a 20 year break. Flying Airliners around the world has taken some time away from the hobby of soaring. I greatly appreciate you account of flying @ minden.

    I am also looking at a SLINGSBY KESTREL 19M ship for sale here in the USA. Can you tell me about the ship and possibly a good location on the internet to read some publications of this aircraft? I think the machine looks marvelous. I hope that you are having a good time of flying in the UK.

    Martin Shupp
    Houston, Texas

  5. Avatar
    Mike Sheehan

    Hi George,

    I am looking at a Kestrel at the moment. Are you still flying yours and have you any strong comments one way or the other. Nice description of the the Diamond Height gain by the way.


  6. Avatar

    Thanks for the comment. I sold the kestrel two years ago for financial reasons. It represents terrific value for money. I also founded a kestrel 401 newsgroup on yahoo which you would be welcome to join. This is for ALL kestrels and if you have any issues about buying or flying one, I suggest you post any questions there. HTH

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