Skip Navigation Links

Kowbell, 2001

By Steve Leonard

The 2001 soaring season provided many opportunities. With each opportunity, a decision had to be made. I have been getting more serious about attempting a long distance "Go South" flight each of the past few years. I have also been exploring soaring conditions in the higher, drier, western part of the state. To this end, I spent every weekend in April of 2001 in Ulysses. It gave me a chance to spend some time with some soaring friends, get away from Wichita and the things I have here, and to explore the weather in early spring in western Kansas. I was not able to attempt a Go South flight myself, but I did go out one weekday in May and chased Dennis Brown back to Sunflower. Dennis in his Mosquito, and me in his Ford Windstar. This was a near classic Go South day. But it got a late start, so the goal of this day was not entirely met.

The next decision to be made was to go to Moriarty, New Mexico for the Antique and Classic Sailplane Gathering, sponsored by The US Southwest Soaring Museum. The decision to attend this event was a no-brainer for me. Good soaring, and a free place to stay for the week (The Leonard Inn, just off 1-40 from Exit 187) had me there in a heartbeat. You can see some details of that trip in the previous issue of The Variometer.

The next decision was much more complicated. I love to fly in the Kowbell Klassic, but this year, it was just two days before a Regional Contest to be held at Hobbs, New Mexico. I also love to fly at Hobbs. I have had some of my longest and fastest flights at Hobbs. To fly in Kowbell and then go to Hobbs would require a bit of extra coordination. And I would hate to miss flying in the Kowbell this year, since I had won it last year. So I had to find a way to do both.

The first thing was to find a crew. I had hoped to have John Laffen, my crew from 2000, crew for me again this year. But he would not be able to go to Hobbs. My plan was to fly in the direction of Hobbs, unless the wind just absolutely would not permit it. Maybe I could have a second "crew", in their own vehicle, follow my "primary" crew. Primary and secondary crews could then head back after we loaded the Zuni in the trailer after the flight. This seemed to me to be more humane then buying my crew a bus ticket from where ever I landed and sending them back that way. But, after bit of asking and a bit of luck, Ray Sharp said he was available to not only crew on Kowbell, but also at the contest at Hobbs, and another contest at Lubbock, Texas, a week later. Thank you, Ray. And an even bigger Thank You to Gini. Without your support of me through Ray, I wouldn't be able to do the things I have been doing these past few years.

So. I will fly in the Kowbell, then off to Hobbs. Now, will the weather cooperate? Ahh, the weather. Never predictable, yet always predictable. It will establish a pattern and then change it when you can least afford the change. And so was the case for the 2001 Kowbell. The days leading up to the Kowbell had been good looking days, with little wind. Some of the days had been late starting, but the satellite photos showed great looking Cu off southwest towards Hobbs. I might just be able to make it if the pattern holds.

But it didn't. Kowbell dawned with a forecast of 15-20+ MPH winds from the southwest. It also looked less likely to have Cu than the previous days, as the dewpoint was down a bit and the Cu the previous days had been a bit thin around here. I decided to arrive relatively early (9:30) and get the Zuni put together as soon as possible. Always best to be in a position to go early. That way, you have the option of when to go.

Others were arriving and assembling when I had the Zuni ready to go. I could tell it would be a tough day. Several of the competitors assembled at the runway to try and get an advantage. Others took lows early to check ut instruments and hope to catch the earliest thermals. I decided to wait a while, as I knew that I could not just drift off downwind to be able to accomplish my goal. But I could not wait too long, either.

I was one of the last to launch into the clear blue sky. There had been a few Cu form in the area, but they were very short lived. They also should have been pretty high. It was still almost entirely blue and not looking like I would be able to get very far towards Hobbs, but I had waited this long to start the trip, so I decided I might as well give it a try. Also, it is a fairly well documented fact that very few flights from Sunflower have gone much over 220 miles going north into Nebraska. Most flights seem to end near the South Platte River. We call it the Splat River, as you get there and then go Splat! If I could fly for 6 hours and make 40 MPH, that would give me 240 miles, and a good shot at winning the Kowbell.

It took me 5 thermal to cover the 14 miles to Arlington. Not a very good start. Especially when I hear K.C. Alexander reporting in near Lindsborg, about 47 miles out. He will eventually slow down, I tell myself Just keep flying your flight and don't worry about him. My crew is heading west on US 50, as I am going to try and follow either that route, or the slightly more southerly, and almost directly into the wind, 61 to Pratt and then 54 on west.

By the time I am approaching Pratt, K.C. is passing Concordia. He is more than doubling my groundspeed! I keep trying to not think about it, and just fly my own flight. At this point, I conclude that I will have to abandon the original plan and will have to turn more nearly straight west if I want to have a chance at winning the Kowbell. After all, I am flying in it, so why not take every reasonable effort to win it? So, I change my flight path and go-from a straight headwind to 15 degrees off of a straight headwind. And the morale boost from this is indescribable. I can actually SEE progress over the ground during a glide!

By the time I get to Kinsley, I hear K.C. report in at Hebron, Nebraska. I am down to about I 800 feet AOL, and take whatever lift I can find. I have noticed, also, that K.C.'s progress has slowed considerably. Either that, or I am going faster. He is now at about 145 miles, and I am at about 8 miles. I am still a long way behind, but I feel the end of his flight is near, and the end of mine is nowhere in sight. I finally get up from Kinsley (after 5 separate climbs!), and decide to head slightly north of west. What the heck, I have already given up on making Hobbs. Might as well concentrate on the Kowbell.

The last reports I hear from K.C. are "head to Fairmont" and then "Do you see me? I am about 2 miles east of you." From the timing of these calls, I figured that he landed at Fairmont. If my memory served me correctly, this was about 200 miles. And since he was the first off and had been making good time, he would likely get the farthest into the Splat River Valley. Now, I had a goal. I had to break 200 miles. I had heard very little from Bob Park, other than that he seemed to be heading northwest. John Wells had been chasing K.C. downwind, so I was assuming they would land close together.

I passed north of Jetmore and kept going northwest. There had been a few clouds well to the north, but not enough to lure me that way. I decided to keep plodding on to the west. The farther I went, the higher the lift got. It also seemed like the wind was easing off a bit, but it was still 18-20 MPH at altitude. I reached a peak altitude for the flight of 12,000 MSL southeast of Scott City. I was keeping a close eye on the GPS, as it was showing the distance back to Sunflower. I could see some really nice looking Cu to the west of Scott City. From my high perch, they seemed to be well above my current height. If I could just get there, I knew I could go for quite a few more miles.

Things were starting to look better. But between me and the clouds was a band of cirrus. Could I cross the cirrus and get to the lift on the other side? There was only one way to find out! I started the glide and kept monitoring the progress. I was also keeping an eye on the distance back to Sunflower. It was clear as the glide progressed, that I would not make 200 miles unless I could get to the Cu. And it was looking like I would not get to the cu. In fact, I may not even get past the cirrus.

I could stop and try to work the weak, broken up lift. But if I did, I would be drifting a bit closer to home. If I pressed on, I doubted I could make it to the sunshine on the other side. Since it was getting quite late, I decided to stretch the glide into the shade and hope I would contact something that blew in from the sunny, upwind side. I was gliding towards Leoti, and the map showed a nice little airport on the close side of town. Progress into the wind was very slow, and I was now sure I could not make the light on the far side.

I hit a couple of bumps, but every time I tried to turn, the vario would fall sharply. And with every circle, I would drift back some of what I had glided forward. No more circling. Just slow down, unless it is a sure enough good thermal. And there were no more good thermals. I had spotted the airport at Leoti, and it looked like I could just glide to it. No pattern, but I was already pointed more or less into the wind, so it should be no problem.

The problem showed up at about 800 feet AGL, when I realized that what I was aiming for was not the airport at all! Thank God for flying over Kansas. I had been keeping an eye on fields ever since I was down to 3000 AGL, and was not too worried. There was a very good looking field just ahead of me and on my flight path. All I had to do was fly another half mile, put the gear down, turn into the wind, and land. I had made it to a nice field on the north side of K-96, about 2 miles east of Leoti, KS. My GPS said Sunflower was 188.86 miles away. I had been in the air 4:45. My average speed had been 39.76 MPH. The speed was about what I figured I could make, but the duration was way short. Would it be enough? Only time would tell.

Ray and I drove on to Ulysses and spent the night there. Sunday morning, we had breakfast and got a tour of the Neidert's new home. Then we were off to Hobbs for the Region 9 Soaring Championships. After a few phone calls and a few days, it became apparent that K.C. had landed at Fairmont, NE for a distance of 184.5 miles. John Wells had landed near Daykin, NE for a distance of about 170 miles. Bob Park had landed at WaKeeney with a flight of 129 miles. I had done it! I had won the Kowbell!


© 2017 KSA - All rights reserved
Published and maintained by Jerry Boone, Hutchinson, KS