Down at the Crossroads

It has been wild times. My baby daughter, Anna, has just turned a year old. She is adorable and has rightfully consumed my attention. Additionally, I just defended and submitted my dissertation toward my PhD and have been on the job search. And with that comes the prospect of selling a house and moving on. It’s like you blink, and all of a sudden, each day, you’re staring down a list of 20 items, 10 of which are urgent and 10 that are important yet intractable. It’s easy to feel like you’re drowning, but step by step, day by day, everything seems to work out.

As far as my writing is concerned, writing professionally seems to suck the wind out of my sails. Research in a PhD is measured by publications, and I currently have three in the queue at various stages of submission and revision. Having taken the rest day to get ahead on my writing, I finally feel like I have cleared enough mental bandwidth to write for fun.

So here we are in Hobbs, New Mexico. I was here nine years ago at the Club Class Nationals, and the biggest thing I remember about the weather is that we flew almost every day and that none of the thermals ever made sense to me. The cores are often disorganized and volatile. There can be clouds, but none of them seem to work. It was one of the most frustrating, befuddling sites I had ever flown at. It’s an open question if I had learned anything in the past nine years to understand better how to approach flying at this place. I was definitively reminded about how befuddling it is for me when I landed out on the first practice day!

The site itself is tucked away on the border of New Mexico and Texas. The border is fairly apparent, as there are huge fields on the Texas side, and oil wells are mostly fading into the desert on the New Mexico side. One curiosity about flying near the border is that we are on the boundary of Mountain and Central Time. This throws off some of the intuitions about the timing of the day, not to mention your cellphone if you happen to be on one side of the line or the other.

The landscape here is a bit sad. North and south of the airport are littered with oil derricks. The oil pads on the desert are crisscrossed with random arrays of powerlines, oil tanks, and pipelines. The older derricks kind of look like a metallic, monstrous cow sucking up the oil from the Permian basin underneath. The newer derricks look like cleaner, vertical posts. The upward and downward action on these derricks seems to make the figurative action of raping the earth a bit literal.

Hobbs Airport (also known as Industrial) is a WWII B-17 bomber base. Over the years, the town has transformed the airport into an industrial park, drag strip, and even a prison. The north and west sections remain an airport, though there are only several hangars and little continuous activity. Most of the airport has deteriorated, though the huge ramp and sections of the paralleling runway remain in good shape. If you mind some potholes and rough sections, the cross runway is also landable. Nonetheless, the activity largely happens on the ramp, with the gliders parked along the perimeter and the gridding and launching happening down the middle.

Today was our first contest day. The weather was dicey, with cloud cover in the morning and a forecast for clouds that hardly rose much more than 4000ft above the ground. High cloud cover was forecasted to roll in from the west to east, suggesting that the day would shut down early. Today seemed like a day to be conservative, go early, and get home. Few contests are won on the first day, but many can be lost.

I was at the front of the grid and ready to launch at 12:30 am. Looking at the cumulus above, it was not too concerned with sticking. The main challenge after release was to push into the 15-20 knot headwind and get positioned relative to the start. I ended up driving low to catch a thermal, tucking into the airspace of the neighbouring airport. The controller was friendly enough, and I slowly worked my way up while drifting downwind, correcting back upwind, and repeating the process. Several iterations later, I was at cloudbase, vents open and going around in circles, waiting for the gate to open.

The sky on the courseline looked somewhat foreboding. It did not look like a day to linger. So when the gate opened, and Tim Taylor was nearby, I figured it was time to go. He looked willing to oblige, and we left on course together.

We had a great run, weaving along Cloud Street and making an excellent glide on Downwind Street. But then we got lower and lower, and the clouds ahead got darker and darker. The oil wells here turned into a sandy no-mans-land. Finally, we were down to 1300ft above the ground, and I felt my neck pivoting towards Tatum Airport. I’m rapidly running out of cards to play here.

Somewhere around this time, I realized that the turning point ahead was “Crossroads”, and I could not help hearing Eric Clapton singing, “Went down to the crossroads… fell on my knees! Asked the Lord above for mercy….Take me, if you please!”

We individually found our climbs, though mine was a weak 1.3 knots for five minutes. It was best to stick with it and console myself that at least I was drifting downwind toward the first turn point. Right as it organized into a round three knots, several other gliders joined me. Finally, back at Cloudbase, it was time to get back into the business of racing.

Shortly thereafter, I looked over and saw Noah Reitter pull in alongside me. The rascal mowed me down on the first leg, but boy, is it great to have a friend to play with! I eagerly got on station on his left wing, and we raced ahead.

We went fairly deep into Crossroads and worked the street back upwind. The idea was to nip the second sector and position ourselves to go as little as possible into the third. Pushing upwind with a buddy was very nice. We made quick work of the tricky bubbles and mostly stayed connected as we were bucking the headwind. Going into the third turn, the conditions got stronger than weaker to our surprise. We rolled into a 7-knot thermal and kept driving into the turning point.

I looked at my computer and realized that it was getting time to turn and get home at minimum time. So when I had a good bead on abandoned, I looked over at Noah and gave him a salute. Then, I banked the Duckhawk over hard to head toward Abandoned, the final steering turn. Figuring that the day was on, I drove hard, looking for my final climb.

Normally, taking a bit more sporting risk when the day is cooking and you’re looking for one more climb is a pretty reasonable bet. Not this time. I drove right out of the band and could not find a round thermal to save my life. I missed having a buddy to help me out here! Out of options again, I parked in two knots and drifted toward the back of the sector. When it petered out 1000ft below glide, I pushed upwind to slam into a 7 knotter. How frustrating! Having climbed up there, I drove toward the finish with a vengeance, having lost 8 minutes on my flight by stepping into that hole.

After beating myself up the whole way back home, I was happy to finish and be in a position to fight on another day. But the frustrations ceased as I entered the pattern to land. It’s a bit surreal flying in such an expansive concrete space. Once you turn final, it’s hard not to glance over your shoulder at all the neatly spaced gliders and the hubbub of activity as you’re whizzing by. But then you must look straight, hold the glider off, make a nice landing and then taxi off right to your spot. Pull open the canopy, pull the glider forward 10 feet, and you’re done for the day! Source: ‚Soaring Economist‚.

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