BUT THIS IS MORE FUN

Jon was a National Guard F-4 pilot way back when, and claimed to have pulled a harp’s worth of strings to be among the first Air Guard soldiers to fly fighters in Viet Nam. Then, after more than eighty missions they brought him home one day short of a year so he’d be technically ineligible for certain benefits. That disgruntlement notwithstanding, Jon went on to career as an instructor with the Guard, and by the time we knew him his daily ride was a new F-16.

Quick and wiry, he was a very youthful forty-something, running five miles a day just to stay in shape for the job. He confessed that two dogfight sorties in one day would leave him physically exhausted, often with blood blisters on his butt and the back of his neck.

So Jon was a stud for real, yet not the kind of jock who needed horsepower to validate his mojo. On the road he drove an aging Celica, but his chosen vehicle for commuting to work, weather permitting, was a home-built autogyro. When I asked why not fly his whirlybird out to the gliderport he chuckled, and started counting, “First, fuel capacity. Power off, just a brick with feathers. She don’t like wind much, and in an open cockpit, I don’t like rain.” He pointed west with all four fingers, “Only a fool would take ‘er over those mountains.”

At that point, Jon had flown many different kinds of aircraft, military, civilian and experimental, but he’d never yet been in a glider. He arrived, as so many pros do, expecting to quick the formalities and punch his ticket like going through a line at DMV, but that presumption ‘evolved’ as we told of what planes with zero thrust can do — such as outrunning freeway traffic and crossing mountains much bigger than ours in comfort and safety. (You’d think he’d have researched that stuff already, right? This all happened before the google machine, and we were his initial inquiry.)

Some pilots spoiled by speed seem averse to ever flying slow for any reason, but Jon found all corners of the envelope equally fascinating and lapped up the primary stuff like a hungry pup. Remember that awkward period we all suffered through, learning to tow? Jon had it figured out in a couple minutes, even using a slip to correct for slack line before I had time to mention it. And yes, emergency sims were his favorite.

It took only that one morning to solo him, despite more crosswind than most newbies would like, but he still had everything to learn about soaring. All afternoon, I peeked over his shoulder as he explored the local ridge, collecting data. What a treat, watching a gifted technician leapfrog through the stages of learning in a medium new to him! Humbling, too. Nearly every suggestion I made, Jon would be executing before the words were out of my mouth.

The wind kept picking up, and eventually we could point our 2-33 straight into lift and slow to a hover, which Jon liked most of all. Starting from that fixed position, we could dive forward and pull up to an incipient stall, actually floating backward a second or two before dipping the nose again, to yield the flight profile of a very tight loop without ever going inverted. This had Jon giggling like a toddler, “Can’t believe I’m flying backwards!”

For some folks it doesn’t take much, does it? Yet even they are usually happy with more.

By then the crosswind at the airport had become prohibitive, and operations were down. Jon had seen his share of wild crosswinds, but never this much in a craft this light, and even he thought he might need help. I reviewed the brief as we glided home, assuring him I’d be ready if he dropped the leash, and warning that at the very end of our taxi, fully crossed controls would not be enough. Still, he was embarrassed by that ugly little half ground loop to a stop. Not his fault, but he took it personally anyway. Exactly what you love to see!

We made a promotional video later that season, in which Jon described smoking along near mach at ground level as, “glorious” — then ducked his head conspiratorially, “But this is more fun.”

He should know.