ALMOST IN TIME FOR DINNER

The best soaring day one year came on a weekend, so all our regulars were there plus most of the fair weather sailors seen only a few times each season. It was like an impromptu Passover, Ramadan or Easter, drawing even the not-so-devout to temple, except in this case they’d come for more than showing their best clothes. They were there to really WORSHIP. The assembly area was scattered with trailers and crews and the usual chaotic activity. Not exactly joyous, yet. Call it taut anticipation with anxious undercurrents of I-dotting, T-crossing caution. Say that three times fast when you’re hypoxic!

Of course even the finest day has its blemish like the rarest diamonds have their flaw. The defect that made this jewel unique was not just having only one tow pilot available, that happens all to frequently. This also happened to be that pilot’s very first exposure to soaring in any capacity after a quick and dirty checkout (one mandatory glider flight and three ‘simulated’ tows) the day before. Translation, it’s going to be a long day on the ground.

As often happens the day’s first launch is mine, a training flight with line personnel. Those who notice how fast we climb from a short tow recognize they should hurry and grab an early launch themselves. Pervasive lift is caused by especially early formation of a shearline with breezes from east and west meeting all around the airport and rising. Minutes later, looking further down, we see several ships already staging behind the start line and more moving that way. For us this means two things: our glider will not be launching again for hours, so it could as well stay up – but we’re both needed on the ground. Ten A.M. on the best day of the year with conditions improving rapidly, and we’re obliged to land. How horrible is that?

Student checks wind direction, sees it’s still the same. Then as we watch, the sock swings decisively one hundred eighty degrees. We close spoilers and slow up to reevaluate. Brisk winds from each end meeting midfield on the airport equals a tailwind landing either way – into swelling lift. Perfect excuse to call time out.

Immediately the queue of staged gliders begins to disintegrate like time lapse of a decomposing creature. They could have simply turned each plane around and rolled the whole line backward up the runway, but that would stick pilots who staged first at the back of the line and give laggards an undeserved advantage. Instead, the one who was third has to get around the second and first, and so on. With no room left, number four goes to the other side. Five waits, confused, and six grumbles. Meanwhile numbers seven through X have no choice but to wait and continue blocking the early start that number one had so coveted.

From the moment this breakup begins, seeing chaos certain, we loiter overhead. It becomes a huge cluster of wings and tailfeathers jackstrawed in every direction, each obstructing others like the old game of pick-up-stix. With all those long wings maneuvering independently around the long wings of others nearby and no one directing traffic, a strong dust devil could toss unweighted birds in all directions, inflicting untold heartache and cost. Help is needed to untangle the logjam and soothe tempers, but if we land now our wings would only add to the confusion. Slowly meandering nets unwanted gains of altitude, so we practice lazy eights and big ugly slips to stay down around pattern height while the mess below balloons to comic (not quite cosmic) proportion.

When number one eventually takes off we land moments later on a parallel strip, taxiing across in front of number two to our tiedown. Soon the last of the mess is neatly back in order, and we enter the next level of torment: waiting. Noon passes with pilots and crews sitting on hot pavement in the scant shade of their wings trying not to scream. The rookie tow pilot is altogether clueless. Every hookup and tow takes longer than it should, evading lift the way only non-glider-guiders can. Despite having no other traffic anywhere near the airport, he insists on flying an enormous landing pattern every single time (try saying that slowly when you’re hypoxic), and his back taxis are like swimming in mud too. Time only adds up, frustration multiplies. Those victims with uncommon patience suffer less than the majority but, stoic or no, the last launch from this first group will not lift off before 2:00 P.M.

Local wizard Marcus was not among the patient ones. When his turn came near the front of the line he released tow a smidge too soon and promptly fell out. Knowing that if he landed now his day was shot, he stole toward the nearest tiny hill to make a stand. He was flying his big heavy ASW-12, the first-generation supership he bought as a wreck and rebuilt. Magnificent in cruise but a beast down low, it was a major challenge to land short. A visiting pilot questioned what there was to land in near that knoll. No one answered. Options there were tight and very rough, but it was all downhill to the airport and Marcus’ bird had the legs to stretch a brushtop glide straight in if he didn’t get much lower… In any event he would never risk dinging his precious Twelve.

The restive crowd, with nothing else to do, watched like discriminating fans at a pitchers’ duel. Goose eggs into the middle innings. All eyes were on that hill when Marcus found sink and dropped out of sight. From up and down the launch line came a collective sigh as he reappeared – momentarily – and groans when it didn’t last. Murmured encouragement, worried suspense, anxious silence. Then cheers when a wingtip showed and vanished, and showed again in cyclic fashion. He’d found the bottom of a thermal in the little valley beyond. Long moments later the whole sailplane remained visible around an entire circle, to applause fit for a leadoff triple. Marcus hadn’t won yet, but hadn’t lost yet either. He’d seized a foothold he would not relinquish even as yet another launch towed over him to an eye-popping climb.

Twenty minutes later Marcus too was gone.

That morning he’d declared an audacious turnpoint more than 300 miles away, believing he could reach it in time to roar all the way back for not his first, but his first official 1,000 kilometer flight. The purgatorial delays had poxed that notion. Yet undeterred after digging out from behind the little hill, Marcus tore off a sparkling 500-mile circuit and made it back almost in time for dinner. (They eat late at his house, sometimes.)

In the movie TIN CUP gritty iconoclast Roy McAvoy, willfully forgoing a legitimate shot at bigtime glory for a matter of personal principle, avers, “When the defining moment comes along, you define the moment or it defines you.”