SPRINGTIME LITE

Finally we’ll have no high winds this coming week (if forecasts are right), while a recent warming trend will dip slightly through the next few days.  That’s a nutshell of the near future at Crystal, with mostly sunny days commensurate to the last week of April.  We’re still somewhat behind in terms of usual thermal conditions, but that will change eventually.

FOLKS BEING FOLKS

Now that it’s too late I realize I should have kept a journal all these years, on the nameless legion of ‘interesting’ individuals I’ve been blessed to fly with. Often such blessings are a cocktail mixed, if you know what I’m trying to not quite say, always worth any passing discomfiture if for educational value alone. Whether one-time passengers or serious students, people new to the soaring environment are in some sense patients, vulnerable and fragile, deserving our most empathetic bedside manner.

Nearly all companions in the cockpit are estimable fellow citizens, most more accomplished than myself, many quite rich and a few famous. But that’s not what this is about. I’ve found that special status by itself is not necessarily what makes people or their responses interesting. Those mentioned here emerge from the mass because, for whatever reason, they made my mind’s eye blink…

I always tell student pilots the only stupid question is the one they don’t ask, but first-time passengers frequently disprove that assertion. Even intelligent, successful beings who’ve gotten around without supervision for years sometimes utter things so stunningly thoughtless you struggle to not laugh. We’ve seen people ask, before their first glider flight, if they could have one of our staff come with them just in case — and others express surprise when they learn a pilot will be going along. I’ve had more than one passenger, midway through the tow, ask if the plane pulling us was a glider too. Or wonder, after the tow plane flew away, how we were supposed to get down without it. These were adults… eligible voters!

Not to imply everyone’s clueless. I had the honor of soaring with Sabrina Jackintell, who, some years after her passing still holds the women’s world altitude record set in 1979. She confessed that in her heyday, before she could join the guys swapping lies after a great day in the sky, she always needed to sneak off somewhere first, for a good cry. Sadly, few pilots of any persuasion are women and unaccompanied female passengers are the rarest category of all, but lately that seems to be changing. One stipulated beforehand that she was reluctant because in her prior career as a TV news reporter she’d spent a lot of time in helicopters and “seen too many close calls.” But she was still curious and had the guts to give us a try, so all I needed was one good thermal to vanquish her reluctance forever.

The con artist who always arrived in a Beemer driven by his stylish girlfriend was one of a kind, thank goodness. During our first conversation he claimed to have been a designated examiner for some type of biz jet, then unknowingly gave himself away. Said he already had the glider rating, but no recent experience, and just wanted to get current so could take his lady up with a nice bottle of wine for an afternoon in the mountains… Wine, huh? Said he forgot his logbook, but would be sure to bring it when he came back. And he did — come back. Driven each time by the fox in the gleaming Beemer… but always forgot to bring that logbook.

One balmy weekend two lovers came out hoping to go up together, but our operation had only Blaniks so they’d have to fly separately. Their thing was they really wanted to go in the nude… Okay, so while they donned their birthday suits we all stood around awkwardly looking at each other, to see who might get caught looking at them. Only has to happen once.

A couple of working class cockneys eloped from England and came straight from their wedding to the glider port, almost. The groom had already returned his rented his tux and wore shorts and a T-shirt, while she, expecting to own that dress for the rest of her life but never wear it again, was keeping it on till bedtime. Before we could get the canopy closed the whole aft cockpit was stuffed with yards and yards of white crepe taffeta, right up to their grinning chins.

Another brave fellow warned me in advance that he was going to propose during the flight, and proudly showed the ring. For the next half hour I lived in dread that she’d decline his offer. When the time came they were so quiet I wasn’t sure what happened, so I devised an excuse for a steep turn and nearly broke the corner of my eye appearing to clear for traffic. They were back there necking.

The following didn’t happen to me, but to my friend Rave (whom I taught to fly, so it was like having one of your favorite kids run over by the ice cream truck). His newlyweds had been married most of two days, and as a recent newlywed himself Rave could sense the honeymoon was going poorly. But the ride had already been paid for and they were determined to “go through with it”. The change of perspective put her back in a good mood, but he got sick, and before they landed she was muttering aloud about having married the wrong guy. Ouch! Sorry Rave, Papa should have told you there’d be days like this.

Most soaring pilots who’ve given thousands of rides have a collection of colorful anecdotes around the use of barf bags, or what can happen when none are available, and I’m no exception. We won’t go there just now, but I will say I’m convinced that women in general have stronger stomachs than men. Probably because they spend their whole lives putting up with men! That said, my nominee for the one species of human most impervious to motion sickness is anyone who’s survived horrible injury or illness. Those patients have seen real trouble, and something like a little turbulence is not apt to bother them.

The ‘interesting’ individuals described here are only the first that came to mind. The list could go on forever. And some are uniquely inspiring. More than once I’ve had a teenager fly the tow just fine, intuitively, after less than a minute — on their first ride! Ah, but I dare not say too much about individual students, bad or good, for thankfully, many are still around. They know who they are.

WARMING TREND

We’ve had lots of wind lately, and unseasonably cool temperatures too.  Feels like we’re a month behind in terms of thermal development, but the coming week might just bring our best so far this season.  Expect light breezes, balmy temps and thermal lift well up over the mountaintops right on through the weekend.

SEE YOU SOON!

HEART BEFORE THE COURSE

It was a typical gray day in New England, overcast with no thermals and ridge lift up the kazoo. Bomber towed us over to the hill, then rather than turning straight for home, took the long way back, apparently to sample some of the goods himself. Never seen him do that. Our first priority was topping out, so I loitered in a sweet spot and watched. Dragging two hundred feet of rope, he couldn’t bring himself to fly close enough for much benefit, inching along way shy of the ridge throttled back and giving up maybe twenty degrees to the crosswind.

The longer I watched the more it looked like we might be able to catch him. We’d have three small advantages, each enhancing the others. We’d fly a lot closer and absorb twice as much energy from the hill, plus higher speed would sacrifice less to the crab.

But time was short. Once Bomber came abeam the field he’d be leaving the ridge. In standard climb-and-glide strategy we should be after him now, exploiting our height in the time remaining. Yeah, but that’s if we were chasing another sailplane. He was already a mile ahead, but even as he trudged further away I could viscerally see the point where we’d overtake him nearing.

When our climb slowed I dove for the next wind-collecting bowl and squoze in tight as possible to make up ground before he turned away. Snaking along the ridge, changes in slope and wind angle are what matter. Different every run, and more fun each time because the harder you try the better you get.

It was close, but as we slid between Bomber and the ridge at half again his groundspeed, that freeze frame of eye contact was almost too satisfying to endure. When I waved like homecoming royalty he shook his fist, so I pulled up extra hard to rub his nose in it. Afterward, he cussed me with grudging admiration, not for overhauling him, but for the sassy pull up. Then also admitted that running ridge was kinda fun after all, and he might even like to try it in the glider some time.

‘Duh,’ I whispered, then for his sake laughed, “Et tu, Brute!”

Lots of other things have happened since then, good, bad, and so much more no one knows about. Bomber has matriculated to a higher level of learning, but the marvel on his face that day will live on as long as… well, me. Can’t help wondering if he’ll shake his fist again the next time I catch up with him, in that big blue finishing school on high.