When summer comes this column will again feature reports from individuals in the Crystal Squadron on their weekly straight-out cross-country flights, but that probably won’t be happening for another month or so. Meanwhile we welcome any of you, our readers, to contribute stories or other useful information that the rest of us might enjoy. Bottom line, it’s all about learning.

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Ground effect, huh? Well if you’ve read this far you asked for it.

We hear of ground effect most often as the excuse for pilots landing long. That’s their problem; it is predictable after all. Yet beyond this aspect there seems an unofficial a taboo against even discussing ground effect. One reason, zero margin. Another, in gliders it leads to an immediate dead end and we can’t have that kind of dynamite around sensible traffic. Bottom line, fooling with ground effect is something responsible pilots just don’t do.

In our predicament however, nothing else in all the world will work, so we get to bite the silver bullet.

And who’da thunk it, more of my young adulthood was misspent in ground effect than anyone but a crop duster should ever experience. Countless times in the early years I ‘experimented’, always over quiet runways or somewhere off the downwind end. Time was, I got away with monkey business like dipping out of sight beyond a neighbor’s pasture, reappearing to zoom up over an abandoned barn, then down below runway level again before pulling full spoilers to dump speed at the numbers.

I choreographed those hot dog approaches because people were watching — and ultimately STOPPED for that very same reason. The door slammed when some rambunctious power jockey tried to mimic my stunt and bricked his pull up… No more for me please.

Point is though, in all the hijinks I never did max out my credit. How much more was really in reserve? Here at last a reason to pull that string and see.

As many lines close in the dial’s center;
so may a thousand actions end in one purpose,
and be all well borne without defeat.


For best results you gotta get really LOW, and it helps to be FAST. Diving from a few hundred feet to as close as we dare accomplishes both in seconds while consuming much of the distance. Mile and a half to go. Everything’s blurred at two hundred feet a second, but hugging brush after hopping Joshuas grows easier as speed bleeds away…

Turns out the nearest corner of our airport is where the little crosswind strip begins so we’re already lined up on it! No power line to worry about, but as a gesture to Homeland Security (no seriously!) one stupid strand of rusty barbed wire does wait unseen to decapitate anyone sneaking in too low.

Under eighty now, we’re almost there. Glance around and both angels are cheering like proud parents in the bleachers — until they both begin to cringe… WTF?

Oh yes, gear down FOOL!

The live or die threshold rises to meet us but no need to pull up, clearing one last Joshua took care of that. Our problem here is excess speed. Once over the airport we raise only our left wing, crack spoilers and turn onto the main runway… eventually touching down well beyond where I normally do.

After decades begging everyone to land at the numbers, now I can’t eventually do it myself! Ah well.

“Here, take over,” I sigh, “I got sump’n to do.” Accomplice is still rolling off the runway as I open the aft canopy and begin creaking out. Our wheel hasn’t been stopped two seconds before I’m kneeling to kiss the Fat Lady’s dusty face, because on this day only now can she begin to sing.

Burnt lips are a price gladly paid for blessings such as these. And guess what, we got our trailer tires aired up in the bargain! Securing the bird, we look northwest where we came from and see our great glowing source settle itself into the darkened skyline just above where trusty Silver Queen lies hidden in deepening dusk.



This shear has carried us east instead of south, now within range of a new alternate, Brian Ranch. It’s the same kind of tentative final glide we had over Harmon, only a third as far. Lift where we are is feeble at best and the glide angle to Crystal has stopped improving, so again we have to swallow hard and GO.

The endgame’s on us, ready or not. Fly at zero MacCready plus a knot or two for the headwind, settle in and try to keep both eyes open. Early in the flight this spending of altitude between miracles was joyous, like a shopping spree, but lately it’s all become a chore. Even these last couple climbs have felt more like something to endure. Been a wonderful day, but I could use a nap. If there were any backwash left I’d pour it on my head.

From fifteen hundred AGL at Brian Ranch the smart thing to do is accept a gracious defeat and land. What relief! Four miles short shouldn’t be hard to live with. Even so (force of habit) I have to wonder…

Gliding from Silver Queen we bet five miles for every thousand feet of altitude and almost made it. Here we are with basically the same glide slope and just four miles to go. If only we can…

Sure, I know better than to think like this, but these pesky miracles keep popping up every few minutes and truth is we’re learning to expect ‘em. “We’ve got Brian cold,” I say out loud. “Let’s sneak one mile further to see what’s there and then hurry back.” One angel says that’s pointless if we intend to retreat anyway, and the other says it’s harmless enough so long as we promise to…

Uh huh, so which angel’s which?

Well, now Brian’s been behind us for a while, we’ve lost barely a hundred feet, and Crystal’s creeping lower in the canopy! We have this glide darn it, even into the wind — but fall short and we’re toast. Which gets the angels bickering so fiercely neither’s intelligible. Flaky spirit guides, right when you need ‘em!

We’re honestly at the very cusp of returning to Brian when sink grabs us, and after nosing over it feels too late to turn. In a fillip the decision’s been made. We’re committed to Crystal, heck or high wire.

Dropping through pattern altitude three miles out we aim straight for the nearest corner with speed-to-fly now triply important. Don’t forget to breathe. After most of another minute the glide’s still improving!

And that inaudible echo? Sound of the other shoe dropping. Yes more sink, deceptively smooth, and suddenly we’re down to five hundred feet still more than two miles out. Screwed. Every muscle screams slow up and postpone certain disaster, every one but this lazy muscle inside the skull. It says shove over and grasp the rest of your life.

Too late to wait for more miracles, this last one we must perform for ourselves. Time for the errant pilot’s ace up a sleeve, GROUND EFFECT.



Way too late for a stand alone thermal to be kicking up dust like that in the middle of big flat nowhere. And one after another after another, has to mean shearline. Shears are typically linear, but they’re not obliged to run straight any more than we are. They meander wherever they please like a towrope dropped in high grass. Has a segment of ours somehow buttonhooked back around to within a stone’s throw of where we glided by ten minutes ago? Or is this the second one catching up with us? Neither seems likely, but as always in the sky, anything’s possible. Whatever this is, it feels like something about to happen.

The interface of a shear often slants vertically where stable air undercuts the live stuff. If that’s happening here, there should be lift below our level between us and those little dustups — as confirmed by ravens celebrating there. Two hours earlier when things were booming this would have fed a mondo dust devil, an hour from now it’ll no longer exist.

Good angel, for once, coos, ‘YESSS!’ (I start to wonder why the spirits are switching roles but NOW’s no time for that.) We’re this close and the shear’s still rolling on, slowly deflating like a leaky tire. How many times can we miss the same bus? Or abuse the same set of similes for that matter.

Ah anyway… Pinnacle moment; you forget to doubt your intuition and LEAP head first, transcendent clarity at once motivation, means and reward. Plenty of time later to learn if you trusted the right angel.

The plan is marginal but doable: Fly downwind away from the strip, far as we dare before turning back. Either lift there saves our day or we settle for a long base leg to Harmon.
Meanwhile we’re down to a few hundred feet above ground and wading through more sink. Time’s still running out. Whatever we do, it’ll be NOW, like always. Draw one sober lungfull to assure we really have the height for this, and the moment’s on us.

Just as we reach that tentative turnpoint sink fades to zero and smoothly broadens. It’s weak at first, but rarely can lift be strong this near the surface, and the sensation is unmistakable as a lover’s breath. We turn right above where that first puff vanished exactly as the noise level spikes, nosing gently into what we hope will be the day’s last climb.

One tentative circle leads to more and a minute later Harmon’s forgotten. Luxuriating again in the scent of good fortune, we inch along whichever shearline this is after all, not exactly toward home anymore but gaining a little height as we go. Having caught the much abused simile with not a clock tick to spare, we grin like bank robbers on the lam, accomplice driving the getaway car and me in back counting our loot. None left to chase us but the mad dogs of future memory!

Soon though, changing perspective reveals that ahead the shear meanders away from Crystal…

So in the end we face one of soaring’s more excruciating dilemmas, barely climbing in weak lift while wind drifts us further from home late in the day. It’s not like we have time to follow this wherever it takes us and eventually climb high enough for an entirely different homeward leg. No, this is the two-minute warning. Refs have swallowed their whistles.