I learned to fly at Daniels Field, a gravel strip next to Interstate 5 north of Eugene, Oregon. The outfit was strictly mom and pop, two gliders and one tow plane, operating summers only from a small A-frame where their son Ben, who did half the towing, slept in the loft.
All through my ‘training’ that season, a forested ridge five miles downwind teased my imagination. It looked just barely too far, even from the tops of thermals, and my instructor, the ‘Mom’ in this organization, never took me there. Whenever I mentioned the idea she seemed to downplay it, which only spurred curiosity, so a couple weeks after my check ride I called for a tow to its nearest point, figuring if Ben thought badly of it he’d say so. (Ben was the kind of fellow who seldom thought badly of anything.)
So here we were, my first time near any high ground ever, and it looming bigger by the moment. I snapped a quick glance back, expecting the airport to be plainly visible, but having never seen it from that angle, I failed to find it. Looking forward again, GOD that hill was close! In a mild panic I pulled the release, then nothing happened except for that mountain continuing to grow at a geometric rate. One of the Blanik’s quirks I hadn’t yet learned was its tendency to maybe not release the first time you pull its T handle (hence the standard practice at some flight schools of always pulling it twice). Mild no more, my panic was now full blown. If the second try is all it took I didn’t notice, I was too busy yanking the handle again and again and again, rapid fire. What would I have done if it broke off in my hand? Don’t ask.
When Ben finally banked away in the usual manner he seemed horribly near those trees — until I saw both of our shadows many wingspans off to the side. His shadow was leaving now, but mine was rising and swelling with the very ground itself. No lift where I was and canopy forest at eye level, suddenly the whole world felt like one giant forbidding trap. I wanted no more of this monster without Ben ahead to show the way, and reversed course immediately. So concluded my first mountain soaring experience!
Time to relocate Ben and follow him home while I still had altitude. The Willamette valley is much like the San Joaquin in many respects, an immense patchwork of superflat farm fields with few landmarks but the freeway running its length like a great artery. Until then, I hadn’t realized how easy it is to find anything if it’s adjacent to a four-lane road. Absent that singular feature, our field could have hidden among hundreds of others and I might never have found it. Indeed, that’s how I spotted the towplane as well.
Later, debriefing Ben about the (mis)adventure, my report ended with, “…scared I was driving you right into the ridge!”
At which he laughed and shook his head, “Nah, the rope’s not that stiff. You won’t be drivin’ me into nothin’, pal. You need to take care of yourself.”
He was right of course. Would I learn to do that? I’ll let you know if I ever do.
I returned to Daniels Field on GoogleEarth recently, by following the interstate, naturally. The A-frame where Ben lived all summer is gone and a larger structure now occupies its spot, looking like it might be a maintenance shop. And yes that titillating, terrifying ridge still lurks there too, though not nearly as far from the runway on a computer screen.