BIG SKY THEORY REVISITED

It’s an awfully big sky we live in, but this breathable part is not exactly infinite. Every hour, lots of us are zipping around up there, and inevitably we cross paths. Many factors intensify this risk. The time you’re up is apt to be exactly when most everyone else is. Any airspace your glider prefers will attract others for the same reasons. Even creepier, the hardest place to see traffic is at the horizon, where most aircraft present their slimmest profiles — right where the one you’re about to hit will surely be. Coming in to land? Traffic density increases geometrically with proximity to any airport. The words ‘see and avoid’ have the same power as any other catechism: none or all. Depends on the user.

Like most living persons, I have not experienced an actual midair collision, but like most seasoned pilots I can tell of chillingly close calls. It is terrifying! It forces you to soberly visualize actually plummeting to the ground. A parachute is no guarantee. You may be injured by the collision, or otherwise unable to egress in time, or you may be too low for the chute to open. What if it operates perfectly but you come down in high trees or an electrical substation? Even a safe jump could itself be disastrous. Click on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHrTWih0rnE  and imagine yourself in the open desert.

When bogeys come head-on, even if you see them at the last moment, the solution is simple. Everybody turns right. Aircraft merging from your right have the right-of-way, just as on the water or the road. And of course always concede right of way any time you can, just to be safe.

Those on your six, however, remain unseen until too late! And if you’re in a glider, every other kind of vessel is always overtaking you. Did they ever see you? You may never know. I have been passed on final approach, with less than a hundred feet separation, twice, which is why I always teach look carefully the other way before turning final. (The one good thing about those buzzer-beater scenarios, they’re great opportunities for spirited discussion afterward, provided both offenders survive…)

Jets pose additional problems, most importantly their greater speed. Since gliders seldom land at big airports, we encounter jets more often at higher altitudes, where they move much quicker than the VFR seen every day below. Big jets are easy to spot if you’re looking the right direction — and if you can’t find a hundred ton behemoth in time to get out of its way, it is not the hazard, you are.

Unlike airliners though, military jets of all kinds routinely fly very low over some of the same landscapes soaring pilots also occupy. Fighters, being smallest and fastest, present a special hazard. While fighter pilots as a whole merit great respect for their abilities and courage, they are typically young, naturally aggressive individuals for whom the seduction of all that speed and power must be awesome indeed. Fact is, in some skies many are weekend warriors, from whom we may expect less than the ultimate military dedication and discipline. With all respect, this is not just loose talk. Personal experience demands it’s inclusion here.

I’ve been smoked by fighters several times, including from straight below and from straight above, and while it’s nice to think most of them saw me first and were merely feeling playful, that’s no justification for intentionally frightening those who pay their salary. I’ve also had an Air Guard helicopter descend and hover on the grass strip where we were in the process of landing, big white wing against a dark green background. More than once I’ve radioed to report such foolishness, and been stonewalled by the tower each time. (One did offer a phone number to call the next day, but my fingers were shaking too much and I dropped the pen.)

Lest it seem your scribe has a thing about the military, I should add that the most predictable and least excusable midair hazard at Crystal, in a prior era, was the Highway Patrol. Trolling along Route 138, monotonously watching vehicles below, officers flew through our approved landing pattern and very nearly nailed me… repeatedly. One day, after two scares in a week, I saw the fuzz coming head-on and raised him on the radio. Asked if he saw me, his response was, “I’m not looking.”

Wrong answer. That badge wouldn’t soften his fall to earth any more than captains’ bars. We had a little come-to-Jesus that time, over the radio for all to hear. And credit where its due, for years now there’s an occasional heads-up call on the Unicom, standard procedure, but no more incursions since then.  Truth to power.

Whatever your opinion on all this, here’s one more thing to think about. I’ve observed from nearly forty years in the aft cockpit that those most concerned about traffic tend to watch any they see like a suspenseful ball game, and stop looking for all the other junk floating everywhere else. Don’t expect the hazard you’re staring at to be the one that sneaks up on you…