FINAL CLIMB

 

I’d worked a couple years with Pop and come to trust him like a father, but we were so busy there was never time to fly with each other. Then one day we both had the afternoon free and I said, “Let’s go up together, Pop. Just you and me.”

“Nah,” was all he said.

I wandered next door to neaten the clubhouse, something I’d never do if there were any excuse. Ten minutes later a knock came. No one ever knocks on that door. Folks barge in as if it’s their place, because it is. There stood Pop. Looking downcast, he said, “Let’s go.” I wanted to know what was troubling him, but if he didn’t mention it neither would I.

Finally to share a cockpit with the maestro! My anticipation was lifting his spirits before our wheel began to roll. Or was it simply being back in stride rather than moping on the ground?

Sweet timeless hours we soared around the local area, observing each other’s methods and comparing notes on how to teach. Each felt challenged to fly as precisely and creatively as the other. He had nothing to prove of course, but his easy smoothness bore a thin strain of self-conscious care to epitomize his highest personal standard. Same for me, and I was glad to see how similar our methods were. “Seems we fly more alike than different, Pop.”

“Uh huh.”

Even passive assent from someone I so admired felt like praise. The biggest difference was our choice of speed between climbs. He said I flew faster than necessary, and I thought he flew too slow.

“Don’t you agree it’s better to err on the fast side?”

“I guess. But if you’re too fast you shoot through lift before you can slow up and use it.”

“Not if you sense it and respond in time.” His silence said I’d too much so I fudged, “You cut your teeth in earlier, slower gliders and I learned in these with wider speed range.”

He thought awhile, then sighed, “Maybe.”

To change the subject I brought up the certification process, always sore point for me. The previous examiner in our region was Pop’s oldest and closest friend Race, whom Pop had given his first airplane ride decades earlier. In his place there were now two designated examiners and no one liked either of them. Our entire time together, Pop and I boycotted both, recommending our students drive hundreds of miles to other jurisdictions rather than submit to what we believed would be an unfair test.

“Race was the best examiner I’ve seen,” I said. “When I first moved to this area he did my CFI renewal, and we met in his kitchen of all places. What impressed me was his practicality. He threw a copy of the Test Standards on the table, slapped it with his hand and said, “Go through this and tell me everything that gives you heartburn.’”

Pop chuckled, “Sounds like Race, alright.”

“I confessed what I really thought, even about some things he could’ve held against me, and turned out we agreed on nearly everything. Kinda like you and me.”

“Yeah, Race got no time for BS. That’s why he was a good DE.”

“Why isn’t he still one?”

“Feds didn’t like the way he bent the test to common sense.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”

“And his health ain’t so good.” Pop sighed again. “Not feelin’ too chipper myself come to think of it.” I had the stick but he yanked spoilers full open and grunted, “That’s enough, let’s take ’er in.”

Was Pop okay? I quizzed him delicately on the way down but couldn’t tell. Either way, our flight had been therapeutic for him and I was honored to study at the master’s hand. Back on the ground, I thanked him formally and hugged him same as the second time we met. Eerie sadness in his eye, he thanked me.

The phone was ringing as we entered the office. Pop took it and listened, turning his back. Then without a word he hung up and slumped slowly into his chair.

“What is it?” I asked.

He cleared his throat and murmured, “Race is down. Half hour ago.”

Synchronicity? Of course. Of course! No one knows what’s really going on here, but those who don’t see that we’re all in it together must not be looking.

 

The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh.

Chief Seattle

 

Race’s funeral was attended by dozens of glider pilots, naturally. Concluding the service, pallbearers placed their boutonnières on his casket, and Pop’s was last. As he stood back to watch his lifelong best friend lowered into the ground, a sudden gust whirled around the assembly, raising dresses, mussing hairdos, and drawing all those flowers right up into the air. Spontaneous applause broke out, even sentimental laughter, and reverential shouts of, “There goes Race,” and “One last thermal!”

The end?

HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY !

Last week our weather swung around to high and hot in perfect time for the weekend…   And Peter Kovari made the season’s first cross-country soaring flight from Crystal, 200 miles to Bishop.

This time the cold front will arrive today (Thursday), after which temps will resume climbing again through Monday.  So we’ll probably see wave on Friday with thermal conditions starting to improve by Saturday, temps rising and wind toning down to lite northerly by Sunday and Monday.

SEE YOU SOON!

JACK CAME BACK

 

The sky attracts individuals of every kind, and not all are pilots. Take Jack, freshly retired from Great Britain’s Royal Marines and tough as a steel-toed boot. After live-fire experience as a paratrooper with UN ‘peacekeeping’ forces, Jack was now braving married life in yet another foreign country, California. So impatient was he to find gainful employment involving his specialty – leaping from planes with nearly his own weight in gear – that he asked the likes of me what one had to do to become a smoke jumper. I almost said, “First you gotta be nuts,” but for once the Great Spirit stayed my tongue.

Jack had come not to ask for a job, but to redeem a gift certificate. Unduly embarrassed, he opened the envelope and said, “Wife got me this.” Dismissively apologetic or apologetically dismissive? Hard to tell.

Usually wives are there shooting pictures when Dad takes his ride, but on this day Mrs. Jack was absent. “Should be her doing this,” he muttered as if to himself. “I’m used to a bit more excitement.”

“Well,” I said, “for us the point is staying up, not coming down.” Just when I thought I could trust the Great Spirit.
Joyless growl, “All I need’s a briefing, sir.”

“Briefing? Hmm, lessee… this is one of the few activities that have no purpose except pleasure. Your orders are to enjoy it and ask every question that comes to mind. There’s your briefing. Oh and we do have one rule. If you’re not having fun you’re fired.”

That line I use routinely with students when they need loosening up, because usually it works. Jack’s response, “Fun? Well I must have some then, mustn’t I?”

Yee ha!

Then seconds after liftoff Jack the intrepid suffered a full-on panic attack. Not ordinary anxiousness but a phobic petit mal, acute irrational and uncontrollable. It started with erratic movements, rapid breathing and…

“You alright Jack?”

“Gotta get out!”

If he bailed from the front we’d both be toast. Maybe two hundred feet up I snapped a diving about face (2 Gs pulling him into his seat) and we were down before he could get his canopy open.

Jack was shaken, and dreadfully chagrined. I wondered aloud if he’d been claustrophobic, stuffed into the nose cone of an aircraft strange to him – without a parachute. “No, no,” he said too quickly to sound convincing. But we’d breached a seal somewhere in his private mind and for half an hour he went on to spontaneously spill more beans than maybe even he knew were there. He told, among other things, of being haunted by “a bit of barbarity” in Bosnia, and more recently losing his mother in 9-11!

Divulgence apparently therapeutic, for Jack returned the very next day and this time brought his wife. We offered to comp a second hop but he fiercely threw down cash. His eyes were resolute, though without the boilerplate confidence he’d had before. That’s what he was here to reestablish. Determination? Jack had that to burn.

Of course he still manifested a coiled potency that I could never physically overpower in the cockpit, and I was pins and needles worrying what might trigger him. Attempts at delicacy were artless even for me and he grumbled, “I’m not a child sir. Just let’s bloody do this!”

Launch 2.0 went okay, and I had every intention of keeping it a granny ride. Soon though, his self-consciousness yielded to pleasing sensations and a lilt of ease crept into his voice. After a placid few minutes I asked if he might like a steeper turn.

“Why of course,” he nearly shouted.

Where many passengers would lean away, he looked boldly straight down inside the turn, that familiar view evoking a fond sigh. I asked if he’d like a steeper one the other way. “Oh yeah!” he laughed, and loved it. We finished that flight doing only steep maneuvers, dives, pull-ups and whoop-de-dos.

Back on the ground Jack was giddy with recovery, and his wife, nervous as I beforehand, trembled tearful relief. Such an honor to help the happy warrior heal.

That was the last we saw of Jack, in person. Then some weeks later we got a DVD in the mail, of wackiness that would seem normal today on Youtube, but back then was a chintwisting cipher. There were several sequences, all alike, featuring Jack in a number of sporty skydiving suits standing on the edge of one or another roof, dancing to screechy music and acting as if about to jump. Over and over. And that was it. No audio except the music, no accompanying note. The package was addressed by a female hand.

Supposing Jack made this video for the same reason we fly gliders (FUN), I wonder if it were shot many eventful years earlier, before the war when Jack may have been an altogether different person…

If he comes again will I have the courage to ask?

TIME TO CLIMB

Somehow we failed to announce Heinz Bringentoff’s successful private pilot checkride a couple weeks back.  Congratulations Heinz!

So far this spring, the natural cycles of weather have left us with cool and windy in time for weekend after weekend, but this time that will finally be reversed.  We’ll see warmer temps each day for a while, lighter winds and thermal potential going up and UP.

SEE YOU SOON!