A MEMORABLE FLIGHT AT PAROWAN

 

by George Powell

 

It was the final day of the 2006 1-26 Championships and great weather for flying

. . . if you were a duck.Normally, on an overcast day like this I would not have driven to the airport. I would have stayed in bed . . . or gone fishing.

 

Prior to the Champs, the weather at Parowan had been sunny with cloud streets lining up over the Wasatch Mountains and puffy cu’s drifting over the valleys. According to our gracious hostess, Jet Smith, it hadn’t rained at Parowan for months. The local farmers were enduring a drought. Then, consistent with a long-standing tradition of the 1-26 Association, on the morning the contest officially started, the rains came . . . and came . . . and kept coming.We spent the next seven days living up to our reputation as “The 1-26 Drought Busters.” The rain may have slightly dampened our spirits, but the farmers were delighted.

 

We had been dodging thunderstorms, flying into and around rain, hail, virga, and dust fronts every day for the past week. Today would be no exception.Skies were overcast above 12K with a 30% chance of thunderstorms. We had become so accustomed to afternoon showers that we adopted an official two-handed Drought-Buster salute designed to keep the rain out of our faces.  Each day Jet Smith would greet us with a cheery little ditty. My favorite was:

 

“It’s raining. It’s pouring.

The 1-26ers are soaring”

 

The funny thing was that there were several pilots at the contest, especially those from back east, who seemed to be enjoying the wet weather.

 

Cautiously staying above 10K, I tip-toed from cloud to cloud across what appeared to be un-land-able no-man’s-land below.
“Oh well,” I thought, “this is the final day of the contest and since it’s obviously going to rain again, they’ll surely assign an easy task.”Wrong!  Instead, our hard charging CD, Ralph Kolstad, called a 2.5 hour, 116 mile Turn Area Task to Milford (somewhere over the horizon), thence to Sun Valley (hopefully, not the one in Idaho) and return.Minimum distance was 66 miles; maximum: 178 miles . . .not an easy task for rain-soaked 1-26s. The good news was that my sectional indicated the presence of airports at both turnpoints.“Good,” I thought, “If I get into trouble, I’ll land on a nice paved runway.” I decided to send my trusty crew, Dan Bookwalter, around the course with me . . . just in case.

 

As I approached Minersville the cloud street ended.
After releasing near a ridge south of Parowan, I saw something I had never seen before: A flock of 1-26s zooming along the ridge popping up and down like fleas on a camel’s back.  Then I saw who it was. It was Almquist, Johnson, Johansen and Schwartz. It was those rain-loving ridge-runners from back east doing their thing.  Instead of making lazy “S” turns, they were hooking into tiny squirrel farts and leaping up like a school of hungry trout during the evening rise.  Soon they were making complete circles above the ridge and climbing to cloud base.I decided to try it . . .and it worked!About the time we reached 12K the gate opened, and we were on our way.   I radioed my trusty crew to hook up the trailer and proceed toward Milford .

 

Hoping for lift, I made a dive for a rocky ridge east of Milford
Cautiously staying above 10K, I tip-toed from cloud to cloud across what appeared to be un-land-able no-man’s-land below.  As I approached Minersville the cloud street ended.  Hoping for lift, I made a dive for a rocky ridge east of Milford.  Finding nothing, I turned west and started looking for the Milford airport.  Soon, I spotted a long black strip north of town.  Catching a weak thermal directly over the town, I watched a soccer game in progress in a school yard below.  Dan radioed that he was driving through Minersville.  I instructed him to proceed to the Milford airport.  I was getting low, but help was on its way.

 

The paved runway was beckoning me to land.
As I drifted slowly toward the airport I could see a huge black cloud approaching from the west.  The paved runway was beckoning me to land.  Just as I was about to enter the pattern, I saw a dust cloud rapidly rolling toward the airport.  I wondered if Dan and I would have time to put 009 on the trailer before the storm hit.

 

A long string of gnarly looking clouds stretched across the sky to the south . . . straight toward the next turnpoint.
As I weighed the pros and cons, my thermal increased in strength.   It became an 8 knotter.   Suddenly my vario was screaming. Without trying, I was climbing at 12 knots! Then 15!  I was being sucked up into the clouds just like Dorothy and Toto!  I looked up and saw the leading edge of the approaching storm.  It was directly above me.  A long string of gnarly looking clouds stretched across the sky to the south . . . straight toward the next turnpoint. “Was I going to leave a perfectly good runway and head into that stuff?”I looked down and saw a huge dust cloud rolling toward the runway. “O.K.” I thought, “Maybe I will be safer up here.” As I neared cloud base, rain started pouring onto my canopy. I heard the rattle of hail stones bouncing off my wings.   I had no choice. I rolled out, pulled full spoilers and pointed the nose south toward turnpoint #2. I radioed Dan to turn around and head for the Sun Valley airport.

 

Within minutes, I was scratching low over a pig farm looking for a place to land.
Below me I could see a set of railroad tracks heading south, but no paved road.  Strong lift quickly turned to heavy sink.  Within minutes, I was scratching low over a pig farm looking for a place to land (.  The dirt roads all looked too narrow for a safe landing.  My crew reported that the dirt road he was on was terrible.  “Full of deep ruts.”  Just as I was about to set up a landing pattern, I hooked what must have been a pig fart!  It was a lovely 2 knotter. Slowly, I easedback up to cloud base where I made a couple of extra turns for good measure, lined up with the railroad tracks rolled out and dove . . . full speed ahead!  “At last! Now I’m really racing!” I shouted.  “This is what it’s all about!”  I reminded myself, as the airspeed indicator moved toward red line.  Just then I looked out and saw another 1-26 going by.Bill Vickland was zooming past me . . . at the same altitude . . . but . . . in the wrong direction! “Why is Bill going back to Milford ?” I wondered. “Doesn’t he know it’s pouring rain back there?” I glanced at my GPS.  Then I figured it out. “OOPS!It’s me!”  I was the one who was racing back toward Milford , not Bill!  He was going in the right direction. Somehow, I had become disoriented in the pig-fart thermal and was flying north instead of south.Quickly reversing course, I tried to catch up with Bill . . . but to no avail.He was out of sight.

 

About this time, Dan called and reported that the road he was on had become completely impassable and that he would have to turn around.  I told him to reverse course and head for the Sun Valley airport the long way around (at least an 80 mile drive).  I was getting low again . . . too low to attempt a run to Parowan.  Before losing radio contact, Dan suggested that, if I landed at Sun Valley, I might think about arranging for an aero-retrieve.  “Good idea,” I replied.

 

The day was dying.My GPS said I was 15 miles from the Sun Valley airport.  I found small patches of sunshine which were producing weak lift or zero sink.  Drifting from puff to puff, I slowly staggered south.  At about 10 miles I caught a 5 knotter. “But where is that airport?” At 5 miles the GPS arrow pointed straight ahead.“I should be able to see it by now.” Below me I spotted the little railroad town of Lund , but, still no airport in sight.  At 2 miles my GPS insisted that it was directly ahead.  All I could see was a dirt road leading to an abandoned farm house.  The GPS started beeping happily to tell me that I had arrived at Sun ValleyI looked down and saw nothing but a dirt road bordered by wing-eating weeds. “It might be land-able, but . . .” I was remembering some landings I had made on unfamiliar roads with unfortunate consequences.

 

Having descended below 1,000’ agl, I set up a pattern and plopped 009 down in the middle of the hay field.
As I sank lower, I spotted a hay field next to the farm house.  A narrow swath had been mowed down the middle.  “Maybe that’s the runway.”  I thought.  “Well, it is now!”  Having descended below 1,000’ agl, I set up a pattern and plopped 009 down in the middle of the hay field.  My GPS indicated that I had landed exactly seven tenths of a mile from the Sun Valley Airport .The arrow was pointing at the dirt road leading to the farm house.

 

After radioing my coordinates to Bob Hurni for relay to the retrieve desk, I surveyed the situation.  It was 5pm. It would take at least two hours for Dan to back-track and find me.  The farm was totally abandoned.  No people.  No dogs.  No cats.  No cows.  Just rabbits . . . Jack rabbits by the dozen.  As I walked toward the road, they would jump out, freeze, grin at me and trot away.  Chunks of broken pavement indicated that, in the not-too-distant past, the road had indeed been paved. It was wide enough that high-wing aircraft could land safely.  However, tall weeds were growing along the sides.  It would not have been a “glider friendly” environment. Satisfied with my decision to land in the hay field, I began the five mile walk to Lund .

 

As I reached the outskirts of town, I saw a plume of dust approaching from the east.  It was Dan with the trailer.  It was 7 p.m. and another thunderstorm was rapidly approaching from the west. We raced back to the hay field, wasted no time putting 009 on the trailer, and were out of the field and on the road before the rain struck. We radioed a passing aircraft and asked him to relay to the retrieve desk that 009, pilot and crew were together and heading home.

 

Arriving back at the Parowan airport at about 9pm, we found that seven talented (Lucky ?) pilots: Ron Schwartz, Bob Von Hellens, Bob Hurni, Charles Shaw, Tom Barkow, Vern Hutchinson and Del Blomquist had completed the task.

 

I was not the only land-out.Bill Vickland, Gus Johnson, Milt Moos, Bill Bentley, Neil Palmquist, Marvin Willis, Tom Mc Mullen, Bob Quas and Ron Almquist also landed out.

 

Although they could not possibly have had as much fun as Dan and I did on the final day of the contest, you can be sure that each one of these venerable “Cloud Busters” will have some wild tales to tell about their memorable flights at Parowan.

 

For instance, if you want to hear a really ‘Hairy’ story about keeping cool in an emergency, followed by some amazing airmanship, ask Harry Baldwin to tell you about how he set yet another world record by setting Del Blomquist’s 1-26 down at 10,140’ m.s.l. at the Brian Head ski resort.

 

But that’s another story.