For many pilots, a leisurely flight up to the Lake Tahoe area would sound like the beginnings of a pleasant weekend getaway, but few would ever think to try to make the flight without a motor in their plane, like some of the participants of Saturday's Dust Devil Dash cross-country glider race set out to do.
The 28th annual running of the race saw 14 glider pilots competing to see who could coax the most distance out of their machines. The rules were rather simple, the pilot who manages to travel the farthest distance from the starting point of Tehachapi's Mountain Valley Airport, and land before sunset wins. What may surprise the layperson, is just how far away they typically manage to travel.
"In a good year, the winner will frequently land in southern Oregon, southern Idaho or northern Nevada," said event coordinator Ian Cant. "The longest distance that I can recall, was just beyond Twin Falls, Idaho."
The Dust Devil Dash harkens back to the soaring competitions of the 1950s, when the competition was based on distance."Since then the sport has evolved to where people fly courses like a race track and compete for speed, which is a different type of game," said Cant. "So this is traditional type contest."
After a safety and weather briefing in the morning, the pilots were allowed to take off at their leisure, and while a few chose to line up immediately, others chose to wait for the air to get a little warmer in hopes of finding more lift once airborne.
As the first pilot was towed aloft to a altitude of 3,500 feet over the airport and released, the other pilots waited by their radios, listening to his progress. "Mountain Valley Ground, One Delta Golf, 9,200 over Monolith, climbing," came the first pilot's report. He had found an area of rising air near the Lehigh Southwest Cement Plant at Monolith and was gaining altitude.
With word of the first pilot's success, the others began to line up for their tows, and by noon, most of the competitors were airborne, and on their way to wherever the wind and the thermals might take them.
When soaring, pilots rely on finding rising air, either in the form of warm-air thermals, or wind blowing over mountain ridges to remain aloft. A cross-country flight typically requires a pilot to glide between sources of lift, hoping that each one will give them enough altitude to make it to the next.
"Some people call it three-dimensional chess," explained local pilot Mark Grubb. "You plan for what you want to be doing, but you always have to be thinking 'If that doesn't work out I can do this, and then if that doesn't work out, I can do this,' you're always thinking a couple of moves ahead."
Grubb, who is also a licensed powered-aircraft pilot, is quick to point out that soaring is a whole different kind of flying. "Compared to this, flying powered planes is about as interesting as watching paint dry," he said. "If the engine doesn't quit, there's nothing to do."
"It's a lot like driving the family truckster," added fellow pilot Jim Staniforth. "This is a lot more interesting. There's a challenge there, and you're always thinking, 'OK, I'm as high as I can get right here, and I have to make it over there, how am I going to get there."
Determining a winner of the Dash usually takes a few days. In the early days of the race, pilots would have to mail a post card or photo from wherever they landed back to Tehachapi, but now they simply email their GPS tracks back to Cant, who compiles the data and announces the winner.
"But it's really not about the competition," said Don Buman, who traveled from Colorado for the event. "This is more of a fun event, I think the winner gets a t-shirt."
Skylark North sponsored the Dust Devil Dash, and provided the tow planes that got the gliders airborne. Skylark is also a full-service glider flight school, and offers both glider rides, and instruction.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Results from Saturday's competition were not available at presstime on Monday; they will be reported as soon as possible.