Two Hundred Forty Minutes to Go!

By Bill Rakozy

LSF Level III
8/5/2006

August 5, 2006 will be remembered as a special day for Augie McKibben and Bill Rakozy as they completed their 4 Hour slope requirement for LSF Level IV. The flight was made at a MRCSS slope with Paul Johnson, Kevin Kavaney, Ib Jensen, Ken Savage and Emil Weiler being on hand to witness and add support for Augie McKibben and Bill Rakozy’s 4-hour attempt. Bill Rakozy is the first RC sailplane pilot in the history of MRCSS to fly this long on the slope!

I want to say right at the get-go, the team spirit, support and advice from these five individuals was absolutely crucial to the completion of this effort. Their coaching, helping to get things (food & water) for Augie and me, timing and landing experience played an important role in our eventual success in completing this huge flying task.

Preparation:

We learned from other LSF pilots who had completed their 4 and 8 hour slope flights, the best battery system are not your usual soaring battery packs, but a Radio Shack battery holder/with four ordinary store bought AA batteries for your Rx.

The reason being that dry cell batteries lose their power at a steady, predictable rate and won’t suddenly die without warning. So we followed their advice for both our RX and I made up a special booster pack with a quick plug in for my Tx as well. Both worked as expected. I had 4.6 volts of Rx battery at the end of the flight. Augie had something like 5.4 volts.

The winds at the slope were forecast to reach 17 mph by mid day out of the south (180 degrees). However, I was greeted by light rain and VERY calm winds (140-160) which produced almost no lift at that angle and velocity. My longest flight was only 20 minutes at 11 AM. The revised forecast called for much better winds later in the day (2 PM), so we waited it out for a couple of hours.

The Launch:

Sure enough, the winds began to build and by 1:30 pm I launched my fully ballasted Soprano, determined to be successful on this try. Augie arrived and launched about 25 minutes after I did. So for the next four hours we battled heavy sink, strong gusty winds approaching 20 mph at times, choppy air. There would be no relaxing today just lolling around the sky, sipping a Coke. No-sir’ree, this was two fisted, bronco busting slope flying at its best!

The most difficult part of a 4 hour flight for me was the first two hours. Once you are over the half-way point, time seems to lose its meaning. (Or your brain quickly goes numb for the last half!) This is a potential problem. Besides finding rising thermals or slope generated lift, one of the most difficult things is maintaining your focused level of concentration on your airplane.

After a short while, I found my gaze wondering off in other directions or day dreaming. Trying to always stay ahead of the plane is important and you constantly need to be watching for signs that it was either rising or falling out of the sky!

Close Call @ 3 hours & 58 minutes:

The plane started flying funny. I was in full sink and it was wallowing around on the verge of a stall. By this time it was 50 feel below the ridge where I was standing and things were beginning to happen very quickly.

Like a bad dream, my mind flashed backed to recall those moments just before other monumental sailplane crashes in my life. Kind of a sick feeling… Not a good thing.

I was sure my battery pack had run low and my servos were not working. I managed to gain enough altitude to be slightly above eye level once again and I flew the plane back behind me over the LZ. However, I still had a 1 minute to go and not ready to land yet! I reversed direction and started flying into the wind again. My plane was only 4-5 feet off the ground when it flew right past Kevin, Emil and Paul, over the edge of the slope. *


When I needed it most, one of the guys (Emil & Kevin) calmly said, “You’re
OK Bill. You have enough battery power for 2-3 minutes. Put the nose down
and let the plane fly into the wind.”


Somehow, the Soprano barely cleared the end of the drop-off and momentarily sunk out of my line of sight, only to emerge straight and level as it cruised over the valley below. I was now looking down at my airplane, but I was out of danger. Clearly, this was the hand of God! The plane slowly began to climb in some slope lift and I was able to gain enough altitude to make a safe landing behind me in the alfalfa LZ with a time of 4:02:22.

I had completed the four hour slope challenge to become the FIRST person in MRCSS history to slope fly for this length of time without landing!

For the moment, I held the endurance record for this slope as well. All this time, Augie is doing his best not to pay any attention to the potential disaster which was developing behind him. He still needed to fly another 25 minutes after I landed. He continued to fly flawlessly and landed without incident. Augie flew a minute or two beyond my flying time and he is now the hill endurance record holder! Way to go my friend!

Looking Back:

* So, what was going on with my plane with 2 minutes to go? Kevin said when my Soprano flew past him at eye level, all my control surfaces were moving fine. My battery pack was not the problem.

The problem was my fatigue and anxiety of being so near the end. I was unconsciously pulling back on the stick, slowing the plane down and stalling it. This was a rookie mistake to be sure. But after four hours, your brain can go to mush and evidently, mine did! Augie confessed to me privately that at one time during the flight, he was dizzy and felt like he was going to pass-out. But he kept going for the full 4 hour time.

Once again, my thanks to Kevin Kavaney and Emil Weiler’s coaching and assistance during the critical final minutes of my flight. Without their coaching, this story might have ended much differently.

To complete LSF Level IV:

Bill needs: 2 KM (1.24 mile) goal and return cross country flight; 60 minute thermal ride.
Augie only needs the XC task.