Imagine you’re well into downwind leg, things going about right, when you look down and see ground personnel moving another bird onto the runway for launch. But you already called in, and they should know to wait till after you’ve landed, right? A second call is surely in order, but before that, check your frequency, or power, or any number of other links in the chain. A flaw does lie somewhere, and there’s a fifty-fifty chance it lies at your end. Radio communication is useful and necessary, but quite worthless unless both parties to any dialogue are entirely functional. It’s at best a chain with lots of breakable links. Here’s a brief overview of what could go wrong the next time you key your mic.

In our game, everybody’s power source is a battery that’s subject to running down or getting old, either of which lead to unreadable transmissions — or untransmitted ones. Exceptions are base radios that can be inadvertently unplugged, or wired-up crew vehicles with their own idiosyncrasies… Oh, and make sure it’s turned on, too.

Teensy little wires in microphones, behind speakers, and under antennae, or who knows what inscrutable components inside the set itself, any of which can be disconnected, broken or fried. And there may be more than just one or two…

External antennae are subject to rust and corrosion where they’re connected, and portables commonly loosen over time. It’s a good idea to check and tighten the antenna before using any hand-held, and if you have a remote mic on a curly cord, better check that too.

Failure to be on the right frequency can spoil even a casual local flight, and make cross-country a logistical nightmare. Many newer radios are so lightly constructed, if you clumsily bump a button with the back of a knuckle it might easily change the setting, a little or a lot.

Electronics are amazing, but one thing they cannot do is heal. Weather, galvanic corrosion, and varmints can destroy components gradually, while myriad moments of inadvertent physical abuse do it quicker. (In commercial use this one issue may compound a hundredfold!)

Being ‘stepped on’ by someone else on the same frequency, whether nearby or far away. It happens often, but you’ll never know it… unless someone explains it to you later. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous stuck mic (yours or theirs). Happens all too often.

Not all communication breakdowns are electrical in nature. Some pilots hold microphones too close to their mouth, or not close enough, or too near an open air vent, any of which can make effective coms difficult or impossible. (In the ASK 21, keeping the vent closed can cause a squeal that obscures your voice over the radio.)

A common language only works if actual understanding takes place. I know fine pilots who speak fluid American, but talksofast youcanbarelyunderstand them. Even if it’s only me hearing slower, they’d still do well to trade speed for clarity. At the other extreme, those who key their mic before they know what to say… Just hope their battery does die.

One candidate for the dumbest mistake is having your volume turned down and never knowing it. Even dumber is being the open mic doofus, and blurting a distasteful bunch of %*$&?# that you can never, ever take back… I’ve been guilty of these, sure — but yeah, probly not you…

For the rest of us anyway, run of the mill stupidity often plays a part. Last week, once again someone staged for launch after I turned downwind, but insisted later they never heard me make a call. Thinking back, I realized that indeed I never made that call! So let’s put outright delinquency on the list as well, ‘cause you can bet I’m not the first to commit that particular sin, nor the last.

As these fubars multiply they tend to both obscure and reinforce each other. All may apply to anyone involved, while each party also cultivates their own different problems concurrently! Even in our low energy field of powerless flight, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where simple coms failure becomes… worse than inconvenient so to speak.
There’s plenty more to say on this topic, but these few lines should make the case that neither radio – nor those who use it – can ever be fully trusted. Copy?

Over and out.


It’s a recurring theme this time of year, more and more days of delicious autumn conditions as thermal intensity gradually declines.  We’ll have mostly light winds all week (except perhaps Saturday afternoon) and blue thermals up to around mountaintop height each day.  Not summer anymore, but still the finest weather you could ask for…



I see this over and over, and it still saddens me every time. Glider pilots who really hoped to stay up a bit longer are drawn by some sinister force inexorably back to the airport and resume their ground-lubber persona hundreds of feet higher than necessary. Having already mentally surrendered, they dismiss any thoughts of soaring and glumly force their bird down as if accepting punishment for their own incapacity.

Forgive me if you must, but I see it differently. Any game worth playing, or watching, is only more so when it goes into overtime or extra innings, right? Ever seen, even a bad team play to a tie at the end of regulation and then give up? Outfit like that wouldn’t have many fans. But that’s only my opinion.

Landing protocols vary from site to site. Here at Crystal the Standard Operating Procedures published on this website require one radio call of position at 5000 feet MSL (1,600 AGL), and then another when entering downwind. But there’s no mention of having to land immediately after that first call. The mystery is why so many pilots go right from there into a 45-degree entry leg, still nearly two thousand feet above ground. Often they end up pulling spoilers to hurry in before they’re even low enough to see a windsock. To me that’s like giving up the game before it’s over, at exactly the point where I’m apt to snug my laces and dig in.

Say we’re going by the book and call in at “the bridge”. That gives us at least five hundred feet, entire minutes of gliding time, (double if there’s zero sink) to glide about a mile to a conventional downwind leg. It’s a savory surplus which the rules do not require us to waste! Ample time to find the only thermal in the world you can use, providing it’s there. And honestly, south of that bridge it often is! In fact, many winter days, that’s where most of the fun gets had.

There’s also a very reasonable no-thermaling zone over the airport itself, however, amounting to a square two miles on each side. With the airport being one mile long, that puts the perimeter of the zone only half a mile off either end of the runway…

Now be realistic. When you look straight south from either IP you’re sighting along the west, or east, edge of that no-thermal zone, and everything on the side away from the airport is fair game! At the west end it’s a huge field of naked boulders, as favorable a thermal source as you could imagine, and the further you sniff along it the closer you come to a proper downwind leg. At the east end, no dry wash, but the principle is the same. Our house thermal there is those ripples we’ve spoken of, triggered by the very wind that makes runway 07 active, also outside the no-thermal zone and often workable at 4500 MSL.

Climbing away from pattern altitude is one of the most satisfying achievements in soaring, and having done so countless times outside the no-thermaling zone, I can vouch that averting premature capitulation gets easier the more you do it. (Also, aside from the obvious incentive it’s maybe the most fun you can have with your clothes on, but that’s a separate issue.)

Anyway, whether in timely fashion or otherwise, now let’s get into the pattern. Some glider students are taught to not just check spoilers beforehand, but always use them on downwind, and many others will habitually open them on base leg, no matter what… That usually works in the highly controlled training environment, but not always in real life. If you always open spoilers at any particular phase of flight, inevitably you’ll open them when it would be smarter not to, leaving you too low, which is one thing nobody wants while landing a glider.

I say use the spoilers like brakes in a car, when you need them. See a stop sign a quarter mile away? No need to stomp on the brakes immediately, or even start slowing down for a while. Wait till you get there. Use the energy you have now to facilitate your objective, rather than hastily dumping it and then wanting it back.

Or if you do need that much drag just to stay down on a proper approach, perhaps you’re still entering downwind unnecessarily high, i.e. too soon. Beginning the process a bit later can reclaim another small surplus of altitude/time good for other stuff, such as more thoroughly observing surface conditions, letting traffic or ground personnel expedite — or if you did come down sooner than you wished, finally finding a way back up in the game.

For me the endless obsession of searching for lift is like a green stained ball in high grass. Even if you’re done playing for now, only two reasons to stop looking: either you find the ball, or darkness.

Gravity will have its way soon enough, why rush it?


After a wind event Thursday, we’ll slip into a doldrum period of moderating easterlies and very flat temperature gradients. In other words, welcome back to soaring conditions of the “character building” variety. Like the prior week, it should be very pleasant, with light air and comfy temps. Perfect for flight training!