AT LEAST IT HASN’T HAPPENED HERE

Sunday morning is often the best chance for line kids to fly. Randy was reaching that delicate breakthrough we’ve all had where towing goes from seemingly impossible to surprisingly easy. The whole point of our flight was to cement this progress.

Then after takeoff Bomber didn’t fly the usual wide 270 around the field to gather height, but went straight and… stopped climbing. (Yes the tow pilot was called Bomber because of how he used to ski, back before that awful limp.) We were already more than a mile out over rising ground, at no more than pattern height, and now… descending? No, this wasn’t loss of power, Bomber was accelerating!

“I got this!” I shouted, “But stay on it with me and watch close, whatever it is we do.” Wondering if Bomber was okay and what the response should be, I cracked spoilers on principle, then needed hefty pressure to hold them only half open. Suddenly this was a barnstorm pass down a small green vale by a farm between big elms up a road lined with parked cars toward a crowd beside a bell tower that never looked so tall before, before slowing at last into a proper climb. As they say in old New England, “Ahyup.”

Randy turned around to look back at me, speechless.

“No idea, sport. What would you have done?”  What would you have said?

After that she finished the tow normally, but was too distracted to accomplish much else and we soon landed. (Next lesson: dealing with distractions in flight.)

Not surprisingly, I had questions for Bomber. Turns out it was planned. We were the unwitting kickoff for a country wedding of a couple pilot friends. The whole airport gang was there, they say, bride’s father armed with his newfangled video cam. The only people who didn’t know about it were Randy, whose parents entrusted me with her life, and her hapless instuctor your humble scribe.

The video was crude and shaky but here we came, two airplanes one second apart, horrid blast of engine and prop tips, blurred streaks a hundred feet up, then whoops, cheering and applause. Of shrieked epithets or snarled profanities aboard the glider, no forensic evidence exists.

Later I got Bomber to agree, when he stopped laughing, that any such performances in the future should include also apprising the talent beforehand…

On a dusty stack of all holy books I avow this freakshow did in fact occur! Only once after all, but that’s enough. Many times though, I’ve had seasoned pilots who believed they knew what they were doing try to drag me and those in my care unto certain sink and grave danger when the single objective in every case was maximum rate of climb. Honestly, up narrowing canyons against the wind, or lee of high peaks in a gale, to reach what anyone should know could only be invisible Niagara.  And other horrors.  Strangest of all, the tow pilots’ chances after power failure in such a hellhole are vastly worse than ours in the glider. Which raises other issues, summoning other improbable little sagas.  Don’t get me started.  

Most glider pilots will never have a tow pilot stray off on some unspecified mission, much less one so potentially hazardous as buzzing a wedding beneath a church steeple. But tow pilots are human too, more or less, and even the very best are subject to the same, ahem, imperfections that beset us all. If you take enough tows, eventually you’ll get one where those at either end of your rope have entirely different views of what’s up. (Or what’s going down, depending on the decade.)

All should agree that Bomber’s stunt was bonehead, for scads of reasons. What could be dumber, right? Well, one thing we could have done to make everything worse is panic and release the tow. Glider pilots have been known to do exactly that, under normal conditions, only because an unfamiliar tug turned in an unusual place. The immediate and needless next step was demolishing their glider.

Of course we’re conditioned to release quickly in awkward situations – during takeoff. But this was not that. There may be no better time than screaming down the aisle of a wedding not your own (or slogging through nasty sink soon after departure) to preserve the only resource you’re sure of and stay on tow till you’re at least high enough to land.

Duh.