It may stand forever atop my dishonorable mention list, never stupid enough to contend for absolute dumbest (no one died, after all), but always bad enough for second worst. Best thing about this debacle, the only damage was to me, thank goodness.
The scene was Sunriver, Oregon, a year-round resort of more than 4000 bungalows, condos and luxury palaces with five golf courses threaded by miles of meandering river run, all beneath the forever crown of ponderosa pines. Hard on the north, a lava flow only a few hundred thousand years old surrounds aptly named Pilot Butte. A volcanic cone amid ten square miles of lumpy dark brown rock, absolutely naked. How’s that for a thermal source?
I glided there eagerly off the tow, wondering only how high we might climb before required to hurry down. Uh huh… Back of mind the whole time lurked a specter: moving straight away from the airport meant we’d have to wade through every foot of sink twice if I failed. Which I did, naturally.
One of my mottos has always been, ‘plan for the worst, play for the best’, but this time I planned for the best and just got played. Almost instantly our angle back to the runway was flat as the air. Stretching, stretching, at ?00 AGL still way too far… and here ground effect was not an option. Hundred-foot pines thinned by developers and supplanted by rooftops made it impossible to get within half a wingspan of either the surface or a less efficient and even creepier forest canopy. One grassy little wetland lay a quarter mile short, but I’d rather almost anything than scar that lovely meadow with wheel marks. No, this golf course below suddenly looked like the finest landing site on earth, offering a wide, if weird choice of strips from which to quickly (and pray wisely) choose.
I’ve put myself in pecks of pickles before and since, but this was the only time I’ve eyed an 18-hole golf course knowing I would land on one of those fairways in mere seconds, without time to pick the right one. While all were inviting, each offered reasons to choose another. None quite straight, nor flat, several with people in the way — fancy that. And what about access? Assuming an aero retrieve was off the table, from where could the trailer pull in?
Every question a good one, all too late to ask. Rarely in these decades of unforced errors have I felt less lucky, and had to pull that danged lever anyway. With most of a minute to fill while extemporizing an approach, I scrabbled through my bag of verbal acrobatics (BS) to delay these folks’ turning on me until afterward. One nugget of good luck, they were in such a yee-haw mood, an unscheduled landing came as some kind of bonus and the fools were back there yukking it up!
Down over an elliptical green, between amoebic sand traps and by a small duck pond, I eased soft as possible onto the turf, aerobraking with the skid up while taxiing tippy toe across the rough, to stop gently in a shaded wide spot as far as could be from action behind us. While the victims celebrated I got busy on my newfangled cellphone and walked our path back to the touchdown point, finding no divot and only a faint track that would disappear after the next morning’s dew. Mad as I was at myself, I had to be happy with that.
As embarrassments go this could have turned out much much worse, so why might such a comparatively innocuous screwup rise sink to the level of my second dumbest ever?
Well, only that week had I hauled myself and all my stuff 800 miles north to join a new friend in a glider ride outfit he was starting from scratch. It would be the two of us, him in the tow plane and me in the 2-32. I’d been flying mostly Grobs and DG-500s recently, and not a ’32 for several years, but knew well to account for the difference in performance — and then failed to actually do so. Can’t deny it, I screwed the epigrammatic pooch. And here’s what’ll raise a brow for anyone who doesn’t know me. Not only was this our first day of operation ending on the tenth fairway, it was in fact our inaugural flight! Numero uno. Shoot, I was so new there I couldn’t even say which golf course we were on the tenth fairway of!
My new friend was furious before he hung up the phone, fuming dread of costly repairs or even reparations, plus having to cancel the rest of our debut, while he hooked up his glider’s trailer and wound slowly through the maze of residential roads to find us. What may have saved me from public strangulation was the relief he felt when he rounded a turn and saw his new investment parked sexily in the shade, center of attention, with folks partying beside it like in a TV ad.
And yes, as already confessed, there was damage… In haste to secure the bird and get us out of there, I managed to pinch my forearm between a wing root and some very sharp part of the trailer, drawing enough blood to ruin my brand new company shirt. As it should be, don’t you think?
During this very wet week on the coast we even got some rain up here in the desert, believe it or not. Now things will change again, with sun predicted for Friday and well-marked thermals on Saturday. Sunday may be noticeably cooler again, but don’t be surprised by more thermals. And after that, serious springtime conditions should kick in for good.
SEE YOU SOON!
Dumbest thing I’ve ever done? From dozens of dishonorable mentions from over the years, it’s hard to choose. Here’s a sample. See, a few days earlier I had landed off-field on a commercial glider ride, which was no crime, just another opportunity to recalibrate my limits. But being me, I turned the dial the wrong way, which seldom seems to work.
In most of a decade of daily rides and lessons over that New England valley, I had messed up and landed out only twice, both times surrounded by so many farm fields the hard part was choosing which one to grace with our presence. Embarrassing and rightfully so, but good experience nevertheless. Then this most recent time, the best available spot was the driving range at a local golf course, where I’d long pined for an excuse to land, ‘cause it would be so easy — and looked like a tow out would be too.
Of course a line of geezers stood down there hitting drives, and we’d be landing into their teeth, so first I did a low pass from behind to capture everyone’s attention. From there a teensy pull up and zestful one-eighty over some two-story condos bled the speed and put us on late final for a long taxi all the way up to that line of applauding geezers. (Last thing I wanted was to stop short where they might be tempted to resume launching drives over us!)
A good time was soon had by all, hands shaken, backs slapped, and get this: when I apologized to my passenger that for safety reasons he’d have to wait for a car back to the airport, he laughed, “No sweat,” pointing at the condos, “there’s where we’re staying.” How’s that for convenience? His wife though, was still at the airport and kinda miffed, ‘cause my friend here had the keys in his pocket. So I would deliver the keys to her so she could return them here and let them both into their vacation paradise.
When the tow plane maneuvered into position, some fellows even lined up on my trailing edge to boost a faster start down that not-very-long slope toward the condos… The end.
Now this, you might agree, is by itself hardly worthy of dishonorable mention. No, it’s only an appetizer. For the entree, I let that episode’s relative ease and ironic humor lure me into a fresh round of idiotic overconfidence. After too many trouble-free seasons I re-calibrated the wrong way, and to say it was unintentional also suggests it was that much more dangerous.
Three days later I had two airline flight attendants up on a twenty minute slide ride, knowing there would be zero lift and I should stay near home. Got towed straight out, through sink the whole way, thoughtlessly released at the prescribed altitude and knew immediately there was no way back.
These passengers knew a lot more than nothing about aviation, and about professionalism as well. They were distinctly unimpressed watching me pace that pasture to find a landing run for the tow plane. Imagine what they thought when one wheel hit a gopher hole and blew a brake line. And imagine what the tow pilot had to say.
So yeah, a second boner like that in less than one week merits dishonorable mention for sure. Best thing I can say for myself, that was thirty years ago and hasn’t happened again.
Coming out of winter, our recent windy period will continue through the weekend. Chance of wave is dependent on wind direction, and best bet for now will be Friday. Meanwhile, thermal season is officially here! Early spring thermals can be boisterous and even deceitful, but well worth the price of admission. Get ’em while they last!