DON’T MAKE ME GAULPH

 

There are similarities between soaring and golf that reveal as much about us as the activities themselves. (Full disclosure, I don’t golf a bit, but know some folks who do, whatever that’s worth.) Among the more maddening parallels, whether out on there on the course or up here a mile, on course, the sporting day begins and ends knowing however well you do, you could have done better. Time and again your deficiencies are exposed for all to see, as others of apparently the same species make it look so easy! Always short of some high ideal, you involuntarily torture yourself every time you think of it while waiting another week. Drives ya nuts, don’t it?

Here’s guessing it wasn’t always so easy for those you envy, either. No doubt they tortured themselves plenty in the past. Maybe that helps and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe they still torture themselves. Either way, none of it’s worth getting out of bed for unless you truly enjoy the process. If not, why bother? When the game becomes a source of anguish, you’re torturing yourself for the wrong reasons.

I’m glad we don’t have to play in the shade.

Bobby Jones, on being told it was 105 in the shade

As a kid I lived to play ball. Not to win anything, just to play. In high school sports I preferred practice over the official games, because we got to play more. When a coach started teaching us how to hurt opponents without being caught I decided to quit and take up romance instead. To play more, without being caught.

In soaring, when the ‘big boys’ are chasing each other through the sky hoping to reach some arbitrary goal before their friends do, I’m inclined to probe my limits somewhere near the ground (higher ground the better) looking to learn the heretofore unimagined. That for me is the point of going in the first place. If score is kept I’m sure to be the loser, but who’s keeping score, and why? It’s me who’s s’posed to be enjoying this after all, and finishing last means I get to play longer, more time in the gym. So there.

This is why you don’t want me in your foursome on the links. Where ‘serious’ players start by launching straight down a fairway to get as close to the flag as possible, I’m apt to try for that sand trap almost out of range on the long side, even if it takes an extra stroke or two. And if I wind up in the woods over there, better yet. Why? Keeps things interesting, and sets up more hard shots instead of fewer easy ones. If hitting that ball is integral to the fun, and challenge makes everything more fun, why swing as few times as possible? I’d rather hazard the wrong end of a driving range and tee peoples’ shots accurately back to them, like shagging flies in the outfield. Honestly, how could that not be more fun? Consider dodging the incoming a bonus (helmets for wimps only). Goethe would understand.

Do you? If floating in heaven is something you really do enjoy, why hurry through it as if you’re running from the cops? Wherever you are, in the air or on the ground, this moment here and now is the only one you get. The sages say slow down and savor it while you still can.

ACCELERATED STALL (PRIOR ARRANGEMENT ONLY)

 

We’ve all heard many times that you can stall in any attitude and at any speed. What’s seldom mentioned, however, you can recover from a stall in any attitude too — given sufficient speed. If this seems either immaterial or outright dubious, read on.

I was up once with a video camera on the instrument panel pointed forward, looking for action. Suddenly here came another glider, crossing paths some hundreds of feet below, near enough for an interesting shot if I could reposition in time. I swung away in a sharp spilt-S, intentionally falling behind and below the bogey, then zoomed up on its six with energy to burn.

Though fully capable of this maneuver, I had never practiced with a ‘live’ target. Turned out I dove a bit too far and gathered more speed than necessary, so had to pull up hard to not pass under it. And that’s a textbook prescription for an accelerated stall.

We all know what ordinary stalls feel like, and don’t normally associate them with heavy Gs, but the camera doesn’t lie. Video shows the bogey coming into view from above, appearing to shudder as it falls off the bottom of the screen during the stall, then smoothly back to center screen during recovery.

Keep in mind, the other aircraft was straight and level the whole time; it’s my ship that shuddered. When the stall began I was pitched up 35 degrees or more at about a hundred knots, and remained well above level (still climbing) afterward. Stalling scrubbed just the right amount of excess energy, enabling a momentary pause to paint the rapidly growing target with imaginary tracers before lofting above it again. Kaboom.

 

Now think what might have happened if I had not recovered from the stall. Impossible to know with any precision, but the glider would have continued upward toward the victim for several seconds, slowing but effectively out of control. And…

The ugly truth is, that other pilot was oblivious of peril in which further misjudgment on my part, or a botched recovery, could have risked collision… There’s no stenciling a kill on your nose cone if your nose cone is what makes the kill.

And THIS is exactly why the FARs require PRIOR ARRANGEMENT!!

SAY CHEEZE

I learned to fly as many have, with money from an insurance settlement. That same windfall also paid for a used camera and three lenses. The two arts seemed made for each other and I was eager to combine them, but it didn’t take long to find that being unskilled at both disciplines and barely familiar with either kind of equipment guaranteed poor results all around. My first flight with the camera was embarrassingly short and not especially safe, the few pictures I took amounting to blurry fuzz. Both flight and film cost more than I could frugally afford, illustrating the need to develop these skills separately, at least a little, before trying to combine them.

Results did improve as years passed until neither passion interfered terribly with the other, but of course there’s always more to learn. Then that first camera died weirdly, as so many things do, and I could only afford to replace it with what was then called an instamatic. Surprisingly, this technical step ‘down’ brought unexpected breakthroughs! The simpler device enabled more consistent, if lower resolution images, and strapping it to my wrist while holding it outside the canopy window eliminated those pesky reflections that spoil so many otherwise wonderful aerial photos. More importantly, ease of handling saved brain space, always a limited commodity, and led to more artful flying, thus more and better pics.

 

The most challenging subject for aerial photography might be other aircraft, and not for technical reasons alone. Catching moving targets from a moving platform has its difficulties, but often the worst problem is psychological. It’s impossible to get a good picture of a plane that’s always running away, which is what amateur air-to-air becomes in many cases. All pilots should understand that formation flight must be by prior arrangement, but briefing beforehand won’t help much if the pilot you’re trying to shoot won’t let you come within a half mile. It’s even more frustrating when, for whatever reason, the glider you’re in sinks below and the other pilot climbs unthinkingly away. Sad truth is, some of my best air-to-air trophies have come by way of subterfuge, sneaking up on the ‘victim’ before they knew it.

 

Then I got lost and ended up in California where bigger, more spectacular landscapes provided richer visuals, and outcomes improved proportionally. Costs, however, also continued to rise. During one season of collecting panoramic mosaics, I joked that I was single-handedly supporting the Kodak Corporation. (Didn’t help; they were about to go belly up anyway.)

Eventually my trusty little SureShot got so full of desert dust it was beyond repair — just as digital cameras came available at a comparable price. This though, exposed the awkward fact that I did not have or even want a computer, without which digital photos hide forever in the camera. But it was the nineties, and things were changing fast. Not even a luddite can evade the neutering allure of technological advancement, Lord knows I’ve tried.

So I gritted my teeth and bought a low-end PC that I scarcely knew how to operate. (Two things to say about that travail: curse whoever invented the invisible WRONG button, and thank Heaven for CONTROL ALT DELETE! The rest remains an ongoing ordeal.) Good news? Profligate shooting sprees cost nothing, plus it’s now possible to quickly crop, enlarge, enhance or otherwise alter images, and never regret the wasted ones.

Nowadays everybody has a camera in their pocket whether they know how to use it or not. Stills, video, and practically infinite rolls of ‘film’, so it’s a very different game. But from my vantage in the rear seat, I still see people doing all sorts of things to sabotage their own work. So here’s the simplest of advice for anyone shooting digital in the air. Unless you really know your stuff, don’t bother trying to compose a perfect frame, don’t even use the viewing screen. Just square your camera with the horizon and take twice as many shots as necessary. You can shamelessly dump the skeezy ones later.

Also, if someone else is trying to capture you for posterity, stay within radar range!

BEGINNER’S LOOK

My first time soaring the Sierras, being a twenty-year instructor from down east meant nothing. I had a ton to learn. This was a few years before GoogleEarth, and for weeks I’d been memorizing a 3-D relief map of the run between Tehachapi and Lone Pine with a specific mission in mind: fly straight as possible to Cottonwood Lakes, a high wide bowl in the Golden Trout Wilderness beyond which lies a sea of fourteen thousand foot peaks. The plan was to snap a careful 360-degree panorama before rushing back, a modest first assault.

If completed, the round trip would total 300-K, but I of course had no barograph or data logger. The glider was a thirty-something all metal single-seat Lark with no oxygen system, clamping definite limits on higher ambition.

It was forecast to be an especially fine day, and several pilots were chasing each other north from three neighboring sailports, Tehachapi, Cal City and Crystal. I was first to launch from Tehachapi, so that put me in the lead, but the others were in hotter ships, and having oxygen would avail them access to greater altitudes and ground speed. Plus they’d been there before! I wondered if I could reach my turn point before all of them did.

Blame it on beginner’s luck, but the outbound leg went smoother than expected, with intimidating visuals the only difficulty. Maybe there’d be time to gawk on the way home, but for now it was petal to the medal (sic).

A line of cumulus marking even better lift sat miles west of the crest over deep wilderness but led well above fifteen thousand, so I stayed off to the east within easy reach of lower ground if necessary, pushing hard to stay down around twelve or thirteen. As Horseshoe Meadows slid below, a voice came on the air-to-air frequency speaking obviously to me. He was leading the charge along that line of superior lift, and warned that the path I was on would crunch up against solid rock dead ahead.

“That’s where I’ll turn back,” I answered, “and bless you for offering such good advice.”

By the time we finished our exchange I had reached that turn point and the first of those towering summits did fill the screen. Everything felt right though and lift was boiling up in gobs, so, habitually I dug in and started scaling the first giant hill just like those beloved tiny ones back home. Only different.

Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Until then I’d managed to avoid spending much time above fourteen, and at least thought I’d handled mild hypoxia fairly well. Also it must be said, proximity to naked granite has a way of heightening one’s alertness, whatever physiological state you’re in.

Yeah, so…

From behind every barren promontory came another, and soon I recognized the legendary stone shelter atop Mt. Whitney. I had gained another thousand feet quite unawares, and after loitering too long was by definition further impaired, whether it seemed so or not. Time to head home.

And still that panorama to shoot!

Anxious to be lower, I dove near the yellow arc back to Cottonwood Lakes, arriving at just the right level for intimate pics. One slow round led to another for good measure — before I realized I’d been circling in sink. No longer over a huge wide bowl, suddenly I was down in it.

With more than half the horizon now above eye level, three options remained. I could try to crawl back onto higher ground again, but that wouldn’t help with the hypoxia thing, and if it failed I might end up ‘landing’ in one of these lakes whose ripples sparkle so brightly at 11,000 feet. Brr! The smart choice would be to sneak through a narrow little notch and down into the valley, but leaving the mountains could take hours longer to get home, and with this dull headache, no thanks. Third choice, head south with the slimmest margin above descending high ground, straight toward home. If that didn’t work, worst case should be a desert lakebed I had seen once before, from two miles up an hour earlier. And yes, no crew.

By now I’d begun to doubt my judgement. Gaps in cognition felt like thorn bushes in the dark, but I had to do something right away. And that’s when I started to hyperventilate. Mm hmm, really.

This was another first for me, might it be the last? Thankfully I knew what to do and retained nominal control. By then those first two options looked unworkable anyway, so with some degree of dread I turned for home.

And?

The trip back was a hypoxic blur I honestly don’t remember. Landing mid-afternoon, I had that sick feeling you get late on a second day with no sleep. Trying to appear normal, I numbly secured my glider in the wrong spot, then nearly wept at having to untie it, move it again, and tie it down again. I was toast.

Celebrate the victorious first try? No I just wanted to lie down. Three miles home on a bicycle felt like another hundred, after which I promptly fell asleep.