SUMMER OF ’75

I learned to fly at Daniels Field, a gravel strip next to Interstate 5 north of Eugene, Oregon. The outfit was strictly mom and pop, two gliders and one tow plane, operating summers only from a small A-frame where their son Ben, who did half the towing, slept in the loft.

All through my ‘training’ that season, a forested ridge five miles downwind teased my imagination. It looked just barely too far, even from the tops of thermals, and my instructor, the ‘Mom’ in this organization, never took me there. Whenever I mentioned the idea she seemed to downplay it, which only spurred curiosity, so a couple weeks after my check ride I called for a tow to its nearest point, figuring if Ben thought badly of it he’d say so. (Ben was the kind of fellow who seldom thought badly of anything.)

So here we were, my first time near any high ground ever, and it looming bigger by the moment. I snapped a quick glance back, expecting the airport to be plainly visible, but having never seen it from that angle, I failed to find it. Looking forward again, GOD that hill was close! In a mild panic I pulled the release, then nothing happened except for that mountain continuing to grow at a geometric rate. One of the Blanik’s quirks I hadn’t yet learned was its tendency to maybe not release the first time you pull its T handle (hence the standard practice at some flight schools of always pulling it twice). Mild no more, my panic was now full blown. If the second try is all it took I didn’t notice, I was too busy yanking the handle again and again and again, rapid fire. What would I have done if it broke off in my hand? Don’t ask.

When Ben finally banked away in the usual manner he seemed horribly near those trees — until I saw both of our shadows many wingspans off to the side. His shadow was leaving now, but mine was rising and swelling with the very ground itself. No lift where I was and canopy forest at eye level, suddenly the whole world felt like one giant forbidding trap. I wanted no more of this monster without Ben ahead to show the way, and reversed course immediately. So concluded my first mountain soaring experience!

Time to relocate Ben and follow him home while I still had altitude. The Willamette valley is much like the San Joaquin in many respects, an immense patchwork of superflat farm fields with few landmarks but the freeway running its length like a great artery. Until then, I hadn’t realized how easy it is to find anything if it’s adjacent to a four-lane road. Absent that singular feature, our field could have hidden among hundreds of others and I might never have found it. Indeed, that’s how I spotted the towplane as well.

Later, debriefing Ben about the (mis)adventure, my report ended with, “…scared I was driving you right into the ridge!”

At which he laughed and shook his head, “Nah, the rope’s not that stiff. You won’t be drivin’ me into nothin’, pal. You need to take care of yourself.”

He was right of course. Would I learn to do that? I’ll let you know if I ever do.

 

I returned to Daniels Field on GoogleEarth recently, by following the interstate, naturally. The A-frame where Ben lived all summer is gone and a larger structure now occupies its spot, looking like it might be a maintenance shop. And yes that titillating, terrifying ridge still lurks there too, though not nearly as far from the runway on a computer screen.

…three, two, one, BLASTOFF

It was supposed to be your usual short double ride, five minutes towing up, ten gliding back down, and a few more in the pattern. Top priority, staying awake. Then maybe eight hundred feet up a dust devil erupted between us and the towplane, throwing it hard left and us hard right… No choice but immediate release.

My knee-jerk one-eighty kept us in the devil, which gave it time to nearly double our height — so now we had no need to land! Some things your mind doesn’t see coming but your brain knows what to do. Even after we were ejected by the devil’s violent core, leaning steeply toward it had our sticky altimeter jumping to register a 3000-foot gain in four quick circles! All just that much further to dive back down, passengers whooping both ways. The hard part was making myself open those spoilers.

How high might that gusher have carried us? Well, imagine releasing at four hundred feet for standard emergency training and stumbling into, not a devil per se, but the pillowy genesis of what would become a huge blue boomer. No wild action, simply everything swelling up and out like a swiftly inflating balloon. Here too doubling back doubles your height, so you have the student hold that attitude, and with a very few tweaks in the next five minutes, parlay your separation turn into an honest (if unverifiable) gold altitude climb straight up off the runway. That may never happen at many gliderports, but here at Crystal I’ve enjoyed more such rocket rides than I remember.

On a rare solo, the climb in departure was exceptional and felt uncannily solid, so I pulled off at… call it pattern height, and dug right in. Again, the harder I cranked the faster I rose. The tow pilot, meanwhile, was failing hilariously in his effort to land. He needed three tries to get wheels on the ground, by which time I was climbing through 11,500. That’s a seven thousand foot gain in the time it took to land a Pawnee!

You think I’m exaggerating? Consider pattern practice one spring with a genuine old-timer we’ll call Amos. He’d been a student pilot for three presidential administrations, so there was no rush. Pattern tows in dead air usually yield about a six or eight minute turn around (if you land short that is, and have a skookum ground crew), but the air this morning was far from dead. By the time Amos completed his landing checklist we were already hundreds of feet higher than release and drifting away from the entry point. “Better go full spoilers if you want to get down,” I warned.

He preferred to take his time, which was fine with me, but that got us back where we started even higher, and in even stronger lift. No landing anytime soon, so I switched back to critiquing his general airmanship, “Try not jerking the stick so much!” as if it would make a difference. Half an hour later, still meandering over the airport, we had fallen upward a vertical mile when I mentioned the spoilers again. This time Amos agreed.

Back down at pattern height, he closed them to resume standard procedure — and the whole process began again. Inadvertent climb number two seemed sure to waft us every bit as high, but by then, mercifully, my next student was waiting.

Landing practice? From a very short tow and more than an hour in the air, yes, Amos did manage to squeeze in one landing.

LOW SAVINGS, HIGH INTEREST

Like some other graybeards I’ve logged a devil’s share of implausible saves from below pattern height barely within range of some landable patch, where whomever sat up front was aghast, and then amazed, wondering how it could look so easy. It rarely is. On one season’s very first flight, I coaxed a shoebox 2-33 up from four hundred feet above wet pavement surrounded by snow. That one was easy, heralded by a certainty based on tactile data flowing from atmosphere through aircraft to brain. Without such augury, neither desire nor tenacity may suffice.

Another dig out I’m still thankful for was near an industrial strip in Nevada with crossroads five directions, each leading nowhere. Alluvial streaks from scars in the landscape bled toward leaching ponds that glistened in synthetic tints of turquoise and lime as toxic, I imagine, as any exposed surface on earth. Colors so vivid in such brilliant light, only industrial man could render hideous.

That save didn’t take long, fortunately, but dread of what we’d suffer if we landed made us feel we were nicking brush – and there was no brush. It was already hard to breathe down low on such a sweltering day, and thought of exotic poisons rising around us made me want to hold my breath. But a cloying, acrid stench is what disclosed the thermal that pried us out of there. Working it was like holding a votary candle in your teeth, to light with a welding torch. But having no choice, I embraced that nasty godsend until we could crawl onto a rocky outcrop and get moving again.

Some victories bestow such joy you can hardly wait to repeat them. Others you hope you never will.

7 NUNS + 8 BIGHORN = 2 OF A KIND

 

Spotting people as you approach a mountaintop is easy, just look for their brightly colored gear.  Parading by Baden Powell once, I scanned as usual and saw no one, until we turned away and something down there moved.  Glancing close before it slid behind the wing, negative.  Yet afterward a phantom image lingered, oddly colorless.  We swung back to fly by again slower, and concealed by the shade of the tallest pine stood seven nuns in full habit, waving like regular tourists.

When I think of them schlepping all the way up there in black robe and coif one question persists.  Do nuns hike in shiny black boots, or sneakers?  St. Andrew would know.

Another time, arriving at Baldy some hundreds of feet below the peak we could see heads silhouetted against the sky.  “You watch,” I said.  “They’ll all be waving as we climb by.”

A minute later we rose past them and not a single one waved – because none had arms.  They were eight bighorn sheep, stalwart namesake of our local wilderness (and the one-time St. Louis Rams), grazing on whatever grows between the naked rocks of that wind scoured 10-K summit.  Bighorn are bold creatures for sure, but ours here are reclusive.  In all my years soaring close around these mountains this was the only time I’ve seen them from the air, and they would never have been so exposed if they knew humans were within a mile of the place.

So what can we learn? Always look and then look closer, whether you’re a soaring pilot or a bighorn (nuns get a pass). And never assume that what you think you see is really what you’re looking at. It could be something more interesting than you expected.