Imagine you’re loping along cross-country, high and dry, when ballast water suddenly begins flowing from one wing — into your cockpit. And that’s how you discover the cockpit doesn’t have a drain. From there to the nearest airport, twenty miles with a radically forward CG, you’re up to the waist in what amounts to ice water… Yes, that really happened, and the dude did land ‘safely’. Who wouldn’t love to have been a fly on the inside of his canopy?

Speaking of entomology, fire ants are best known for their reprehensible decorum, especially as stowaways. I know two soaring pilots who, after losing airborne skirmishes with the little demons, always tuck their pant legs into their socks before flying. To appreciate why the fuss, just ask yourself where you’d least wish to suffer an excruciating bite, and go from there.

I had a very young student who was, in my opinion, unduly scared of bugs. No big deal, but I felt obliged on occasion to contend that it’s the bugs who should be afraid of us. One morning we were set for takeoff and I was making a last comment when he spoke up out of turn, obviously trying to sound calm.

“There’s a spider between my pedals.”
“Oh, just those little white ones that live in all the planes. They’re harmless.”
“This one’s not white. It’s black.”

One angel said blow it off. The other said not so fast. I weighed the merits for a nanosecond, then climbed back out, feeling certain it was a waste of effort… But sure as down follows up, actual scrutiny confirmed a live black widow suspended in its web right between the student’s feet. You can guess the rest.

Which inevitably evokes the mythic rattlesnake-under-your-seat scenario we’ve all heard variants of. In most tellings the snake becomes sluggish at altitude, but even so, it’s still gotta suck! Say you’ve summoned whatever kind of fortitude is necessary, plus more feral quickness than you ever knew you had, and adroitly SNATCH your opponent so close behind the head it can’t possibly bite you. Nice play! (Worry about your underwear later.) Now hit pause and think through what the next few seconds will bring. With one hand holding the canopy open and one knee more or less guiding the stick, you reach outboard for the drop, but by then the snake is double wrapped around your arm and you dare not let go! It, meanwhile, is thinking a reptilian version of the very same thing, and with equal fervor, you may as well suppose… This kind of sequence has to end somehow, and fairly soon. Any ideas? Me too.

You may notice that these tribulations were all visited on persons other than myself. I often confess profess to being preternaturally lucky; is this proof? No, there are limits to even the preternatural, and I too have eaten my share of offal waffles in the cockpit. One sample, a kind old fellow with unusually long legs asked me to fly his modified Duster, and temporarily installed 4X4 blocks on the rudder pedals so I could reach them. Foolishly, I took no interest in how he attached those blocks, so had no idea what to do when one came to rest under the pedal instead of on it. In homage to Murphy’s law of battlefield repair, that’s all it took to conger a sporty crosswind for the landing.

Then there was a seat pan that collapsed into the bilge, dropping my eye level to below the gunnel. This occurred in mountain turbulence, naturally, which also caused my student to squeal, “You got it!” I had to crane my neck to see out and aim us away from the nearest high ground, then insisted the student take over again so I could unbuckle, squirm around backwards, and begin researching the problem.

“Whatever you do, don’t go inverted for a while, okay?”

All these unsettling embarrassments have something in common. Know what it is? Each one (with the possible exception of our first example) could have been averted by more thorough preflight inspection! … … What more is there to say?


Good news for the Crystal Squadron! Last Saturday’s character building should be rewarded this time with the best day of the period — unless Sunday turns out even better. (If more character building is preferred, Friday’s your best bet.) Remember, we’re entering the annual period of longest days, so there’s time for almost anything to happen.



Last Saturday, Bradley Baum soared a couple hundred miles to Boulder City, NV, and Peter Kovari and Carl Sommers landed thirty miles short of that, at Jean. Then Sunday, Mike Koerner made his first cross-country flight of the season, but we haven’t heard yet how it went. Who knows, he may still be up there running further downwind…

Recently we’ve lamented how below average our conditions at Crystal have been this spring. Is it time to take it all back? We’ve now seen nearly two weeks of essentially perfect thermal soaring every single day — kinda like the old normal. The coming period? Maybe not as consistent, but blustery and frigid no more! Look for light winds and afternoon temps between eighty and ninety into the foreseeable future.




There you are flying along, trying to keep up, and suddenly something tumbles by, gone so fast you didn’t see what it was. A desiccated leaf, a paper cup. If it sparkles, a shred of cellophane or foil. Usually small and harmless… Whatever the ambient air’s doing, most stuff will sink through it faster than we do in our glider, so anything not visibly rising is surely falling. No reason to go back and chase it, but maybe worth wondering where it’s fallen from…

Diverse logics weave together here. Many kinds of detritus take longer to hoist than descend, but fine dust or ash can climb quicker than we do in a booming thermal and then stay aloft for weeks. (Fully ten percent of the earth’s land surface is topsoil deposited by wind since the last ice age, one flake at a time.) Sand, however, even flowing through an air vent two miles above the desert, amounts to very small rocks that hurry straight down when the lift quits. Between these extremes of density, airborne flotsam, natural and manufactured, comes in a spectrum of sizes. The innocuous you don’t need to see ahead of time, but think of anything visible from distance as an unpredictable hazard!

Balloons occupy their own category, whether drifting alone or bound together in fat clusters. If they were sealed truly airtight, they’d expand as they rose until bursting in reduced pressure aloft, and we’d likely never see them. Those we encounter seem to be maintaining altitude, but not so. They’ve been leaking from the moment they were inflated. After rapid ascent to neutral buoyancy, their long fall continues until all that helium has escaped. Balloons so thoroughly outwaft their heavier-than-air competition, you find them caught in brush or fumbling along the ground, still gussied with ribbons and retaining their spheric shape, far deeper into the wilderness than scraps of styrofoam or tissue ever go. Given all this, balloons tell us nothing about the presence of lift — unless they’re out of gas. When you see a flaccid one lofting, do try to follow it!

Pretty much anything else that’s going up by itself marks rising air, obviously, and multiple items near each other expose the richest veins. While you’re at it, also look below them for even more, as evidence of additional lift on its way up… And of course any objects actually circling imply a sure thing, whether lifeless litter or some fellow creature defying gravity. (But oh, beware that angry pie tin at the turn from downwind to base!)

Most debris doesn’t mark lift, it just gets in the way, especially if there’s a lot of it. I’ll admit having tried on occasion to foolishly, spike those ubiquitous shopping bags, just because — and at least once, ‘succeeded’… Should I tell? Oh alright.

We could see the thing was empty, so I aimed straight at it, then glimpsed a streak of logo as it swerved over our canopy, and felt a faint tug at the tail. Turning back, we saw two smaller bags tumbling near each other, each bearing half of that logo. A real bonehead stunt if you think about it, which I hadn’t done, surprise surprise.

The heaviest junk I’ve seen much above pattern height has been an assortment of tree branches; not to say whole limbs, but when a branch’s branches wave gnarly branches, they’re saying go find your own playground! I also thermaled awhile, one smokey evening, with more than a foot of prairie grass growing from a clump of sod big as a football. Yes it was circling, so I ignored right of way and flew against the conspicuous rotation. That poor sod had to know I was flouting etiquette, but didn’t seem to mind.

The biggest non-sentient rubbish I’ve found up there has its own story to tell, but we’ll never get to hear it. Way out in the middle of wide open blue at ten thousand feet, what looked like a huge bundle of laundry hove into sight ahead. It was luffing and furling like a gaudy flag with no pole to hang onto, and we couldn’t resist stopping by for a look. Turned out it was a paraglider, 300 square feet of lightweight fabric, miles from any high ground whence it might have come… and no body in sight! Despite knowing better, I impulsively searched hard and long, all the way down below, as if there’d be anything to see. (Later, asked an expert if someone might have actually fallen from the rig, and he had to laugh. Its pilot was probably seconds from hooking up, he said, when a rogue gust ripped it away.) Now why do you suppose that still gives me the willies?

And then here comes a full sheet of plywood… Well maybe, but the pilot who made this claim is a known exaggerator, so keep your boulder of salt handy. Four feet by eight of quarter-inch ply weighs over twenty pounds, which on impact could deliver a lethal wallop to any aircraft. If you choose to circle with one of those, be sure to go the same direction!

So anyway, just think how fortunate we are that our sky can’t collect indissoluble garbage like the ocean does nowadays, corralling it into vast perpetual whorls. Imagine a gargantuan trashulonimbus of our ‘economic’ excrement stuck up there forever, blotting out the sun. And always growing!

Say what you want about gravity, it has advantages.