On my very first flight lesson I got a half hour of solo time before receiving any dual, honest! It was too windy at first so my instructor settled me in the front seat and showed what the stick and pedals do, then said, “Don’t take off without me,” and walked away.

The idea was to ‘fly’ that wing into the wind and keep it level, which is surprisingly easy given sufficient air flow. At first I moved the stick too much naturally, and pedals too little, like everyone else in the known universe. Once I gave my feet a chance, the Blanik’s castering tailwheel allowed exploration of yaw as well as roll, but that really complicated things. I’d turn too far and immediately ‘crash’, after which the bird would weathervane into the next gust and we could start over.

Hauling a downed wing up off the ground was hardest, and quite by accident I discovered that opposite, or ‘bottom’ rudder helps — a trick that only works on the ground believe it or not. It’s so simple, I’m ashamed to admit some many seasons passed before I finally paused a moment and thought this through. Say you’re on the ground, parked into the wind with the left wing down. You’ll need right stick of course, but odd as it sounds, a secondary effect of left rudder imparts a torsional force that twists the fuselage clockwise and adds to the rolling force of the right-deflected ailerons. (In the air it’s a slip, as you know.)

Gradually I learned to avoid that crash by feathering the controls and swinging back the other way. My conceptual grasp was near zero, but I began to anticipate what would happen and articulate my influence on the result like a toddler learning to walk.

When my instructor returned I proudly rocked the wings, then froze them neat and level. Unimpressed, she stepped upwind of one wing and with a cynical smirk stretched out her arms along the leading edge, stalling it to the ground without touching it.

After that we went up and explored how different everything feels when the wheel is not on the ground…


I’ve done that same exercise, called windjamming, with many first-timers over the decades since, and it makes everyone smile. We all recommend it. There’s more to say however, before we put this topic to rest.

One thing, where possible, leave the tow hook secured to the ground, especially if your solo artist is light of weight! In a two-seater, start by demonstrating from the back seat, and have any first timer cycle spoilers, making sure they’re ready to use them if a rogue gust makes that necessary. (When the wind is strong, leave them out for the whole drill.)

What about the canopy? In hot sun you may need to keep it securely open, somehow, and if closed it’s gotta be locked. Any first timer alone in the cockpit should understand this. And it wouldn’t hurt to hover nearby just in case…

Now, for poops and piddles, consider this. In actual flight that secondary effect acts against the other forces generating a turn. It must be very minor but it’s there. So, what if the rudder were below the fuselage (like on boats, duh)? Wouldn’t that put the twisting force in service of the roll rather than against it, requiring less aileron and improving efficiency?

Perhaps, but then every landing would bust the rudder again, and that could get old. Maybe those original designers had it right after all.


Middle of January already!  Days growing noticeably longer!  And now we see that beautiful first snow on the mountaintops, too.  Wave season started last week and will continue until spring, but with no frontal activity to bring more wind in the next few days we’ll have to get back to that.  Through the coming weekend, our patron saint Doctor Jack is offering two-knot thermals up to about ground level (woo Hoo!), so it’ll be the kind of party where you bring your own lift plus whatever sense of humor you have left after the holidays, and like the president says, we’ll see what happens…



The airport I flew from in Vermont lay silver distance up the road from Sugarbush, where Region One’s soaring competition was held every year. Beyond our end of that valley, Jay Peak near the Canadian border was a traditional turn point, putting us on the course line for at least one leg of many tasks. During contest week I liked to perch with students wherever we had dependable lift and watch the race flow through, seeing what worked and what didn’t. And as with field trips back in school, often the teacher learned the most.

One time it was so windy we assumed the contest day would be scrubbed, but our local ridge was roaring strong as ever. A run to the far end was rough as the proverbial dickens but quick and easy, then while turning back we spotted two sailplanes about to land in a field below. We watched one follow the other around into the wind, slo-mo, until they stopped eerily side by side. Like some kind of illusion.

Then eerier still, they both began to move again, almost in unison. Yes, eyes that lie can also tell the truth. The field they were over was shaded, so no gauging their height above ground, but its windward slope is what arrested their descent. If they did land there, could they keep their birds down?

We loitered to see what might happen next. Moments later one crept sideways across a fence line tacking up onto the foot of our ridge, and then the other followed. They nibbled further toward us, rising, while another bird sidled in low over the same field to commence its own save. We still had a big height advantage over all of them, but that would soon vanish. Could we hump our grizzled old ‘33 back to the north end before those race cats caught us?

Dream on.

Another year, the pack had already flown by, visible now as occasional glints of gaggle twenty miles north. We were over flattish country barely in range of home and looking to maximize any lift we found. Rolling into a serendipitous two-knotter, I looked straight down for position and drift plus maybe some idea of the thermal’s source (all along, one of my few good habits). What twirled the eyes this time was our shadow being rammed by another from behind!

Say what?

No really, that happened. Eyes that lie… Mine snapped straight ahead where a flesh and blood sailplane materialized scary close, rolling into our turn.

Stunned, I knew from many photographs the tail number of one of America’s great soaring champions. He had rounded Jay Peak miles ahead of the pack, running hard as always, but gotten low in our neighborhood, and when we marked this thermal he attacked. Shooting under us with double our speed, he pulled up and settled in on the opposite side for what was probably a lot less than he wanted. Welcome to the boonies Ace.

After three circles nobody’d gained much, so he left us the moment he had glide to the bottom of the nearest hill — which happened to be the very monadnock where I had come to think of myself as a makeshift empresario. We’d be going there too, I told my student, but not before climbing a sensible ‘nother minute or so.

Couple of circles later we followed. He looked way too low to dig this one out and I supposed he’d retreat to our airport where we’d finally get to shake the champion’s hand. Yeah, keep dreaming. He swept in lower at that hill than its ‘empresario’ ever dared, with juice aplenty to zoom upslope and turn south along the top, gone from sight before we got there. Boonies indeed.

On the phone with him years later I recalled the day, wondering what he might say of our shared moment that became for me a lifelong memory. He heard my version with what may have been feigned patience, then asked: “Where was this again?”

Yup, that’s the way it is.


Remember us?  We’ll be back at it again on Saturday the 6th, all rested up and ready to go.  Here’s hoping everyone had a rewarding holiday season.  If you were up here in the Antelope Valley you’ll have to agree the weather has been as sweet as it gets for this time of year, balmy and calm ever since well before Christmas day, though we may not have missed much in the way of soarable lift.  The coming week be more of the same, with some degree of partly to mostly.  The days are getting noticeably longer though, so the year’s first thermals won’t be too far away…