ANOTHER MASS LANDING?

Our last discussion dealt with multiple gliders landing in tight sequence on what happened to be my first day instructing at an operation new to me. That donnybrook worked out okay despite a number of human flaws, including my own response. When another mass landing arose not many months later, more familiarity allowed sufficient bandwidth to concoct what even detractors might call a ‘creative’ solution.

That field offers three parallel strips, one for gliders, one for powered landings, plus another for back-taxi and emergencies. We had three tugs running that Saturday, with multiple students in training, but no radio in use. Prior to launch, I called for a simulated emergency wave-off – not knowing that the instructor ahead of us had done the same. Our tow pulled us further away than it should have before rocking wings, so when my student looked back, the ship that launched before us had already released and headed in, between us and the field.

Traffic also included the third tug, descending from an earlier tow and now well into its approach. So we had a total of five aircraft under 500 feet, three already on parallel finals before we could even enter the scrum. Assuming our tug would respect our right of way, we’d be number four, approaching from the opposite direction, low and in front of the others…

The student was visibly relieved when I pulled rank and took control.

We still had ample energy, but the clock was ticking fast. The first and most obvious option was to spiral down midfield and land into the wind ahead of all the others. Next option, stretch it around a steep one-eighty, roll out at ground level and land close behind them. Were there other choices?

I decided to loiter very briefly, letting all of them proceed, and then land the opposite direction (downwind), behind them, passing over the other glider moments before it touched down. That gave us half the airport ahead with all traffic retreating behind, which worked perfectly, but looked like madness. What the other pilots saw was us diving at them from twelve o’clock, barely too high to collide, while observers off to the side saw diametrical approaches narrowly miss each other a hundred feet up.

Crew who came to get us were fairly blubbering with outrage. “What the hell were you doing?” Yet when I asked how they might have made it safer… they clammed right up. This one at least, I may have gotten right.

I can always make up for that next time.

MEEP BEEP!

Ever been part of a mass landing? Not something we train for, but like every other unwelcome surprise, it could happen. Mine took place at the annual Vintage Sailplane Regatta in Tehachapi, the weekend when ordinary traffic mixes with a delightful array of rare gliders from earlier generations. It’s especially nice to see colored wings adorn the all-white uniformity of our modern soaring fleet, even while wondering about the proficiency of pilots older than their antique craft. I was quite current of course, but this also happened to be my very first day at that operation… Hence the mandatory attendance of Barrister Murphy, formidable aviation lawyer.

Birds of all feathers were languishing in one slow gaggle near the field, almost too many to count, when a deck of cirrus drifted over and the lift abruptly died. First to enter downwind was a venerable Slingsby T-31, whimsically suggestive from above and behind of a gaily decorated B-17. A Libelle went second, and me third in a Blanik with a student I’d never met before. From our downwind leg we watched the Libelle run under the Slingsby as they both turned base, moving ahead to land first. When my student asked why, the only reason I could think of was maybe the Libelle driver could not fly slow enough to stay behind. No doubt some announcement was made, but you can bet the open cockpit T-31, like our Blanik and who knows how many others, had no radio.

Number one stopped short on the right side of the runway and number two stopped close behind it on the left, effectively blocking the road for us. Though getting down even shorter was well within my capability, this student’s skill and confidence were unknown. Landing over the obstacles would be an easier and more practical option, but there’s a strong taboo about that because it’s so scary for everyone watching. If I had a student do it my first day on the job, I’d expect to get canned. Meanwhile several more ships were coming in behind us…
I politely took control with full spoilers and a huge slip, landing very short but intentionally a little fast. To make a point, I taxied off the runway around the obstructions, our inboard wing banked nearly to the ground, then back on the pavement and hundreds of feet further to the proper stopping place. So there. When we climbed out and looked back, there were three birds on the ground behind us and one on final — plus number six, a blisteringly slick ASW-12 approaching on a parallel runway. My student was awestruck, naturally, but that doesn’t mean much. Remember when you were a newbie? You were awestruck half the time because you didn’t know any better!

My cute taxiing exhibition may have made an impression, but was not the smartest choice, if for no other reason than its unpredictability. Had someone behind us already committed to where we swerved, or tried to over-fly and land long, my action could have deepened the complications for them — and those next in line. But more to the point of this confession is that parallel runway.

Mountain Valley Airport has not one adjacent strip, but two available for exactly this scenario. That very morning, I’d been briefed to divert to either of them any time things got tight. It’s something I’d normally do anyway without being told, but the press of unfamiliarity and first day jitters got to me. Not that I quit thinking, I simply narrowed my focus too much and quit thinking big.

Only when number six landed on its own strip beside us did I realize we could/should have sidled over there ourselves, safe and easy. But watching numbers two and one swap places at their base turn flipped the stoopid switch in my brain, snapping into tunnel vision, blanking out awareness of alternatives and ignoring vital info that was obvious with or without a brief. So we’re back again to the issue of cognitive bandwidth, a finite capacity in which that particular mass landing found me deficient. Mea culpa.

Regarding my ageist skepticism of visiting geezers’ proficiency: looking up from the flight line, among those still there scratching at that same gray thermal we’d fallen from were a TG-4 (WWII trainer) and another antique some grizzled aficionado claimed was the last flying Schweizer 1-19. Something more than local knowledge was keeping them aloft in that zero sink; wonder what it was.

OBSCURATION: WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?

Visibility on a typical hazy day in New England is, well, some fraction of twenty miles. When it’s really muggy, at 2500 AGL you might see clouds or sun but no horizon, and little else except a few square miles below. If that’s all you got, you learn to like it.

Haze tends to be most dense high up in the convective layer where, combined with the glare of full sun, it’s possible to get fair weather whiteout. I’ve actually flown straight into clouds I didn’t see coming… Or did they form around me? Makes ya think!

On one such a day I was gliding home with little more than altitude to reach the pattern when sensory deprivation rocked me half to sleep. We’d seen nothing but featureless forest and shapeless pastures for several miles and began to wonder if we were still pointed the right direction. I’d carelessly neglected to note a sun angle or compass heading early in the glide, and now it was too late for that. The altimeter said we’d be on the ground in less than ten minutes. Then I saw a familiar roof that wasn’t supposed to be there and realized we we’d wandered perilously off course. If I happened to look the other way as we passed that house, a snoozy glide home might have become an embarrassingly short retrieve.

The only forest fire in all my years there was burning right below us and we never knew it! No, I didn’t believe it either when they told us later, but turned out it was so. The convective potential that day was even flatter than usual, unmarked half-knot thermals lined along the local ridge. We smelled smoke in one area but thought little of it, then found a spot with nearly double the lift, and loitered. The smoke was obscured in haze and held down by the flat temperature gradient. There wasn’t even any turbulence. In dense foliage fed by almost daily rains, the fire smoldered and went out before a fire crew (on foot) arrived.

That kind of schmutz doesn’t occur much here in the desert, but seasonal smoke or blowing dust can make up for it. When visibility gradually deteriorates as the day progresses it’s good to have a strategy… or really more of an escape plan.

Landing is an obvious first choice, but that simple objective can be complicated (postponed) by an uncertain array of variables we needn’t go into. The question here is, how to conduct those last elastic minutes between being forced down by obscuration and actually getting on the ground?

You got me. For the heck of it though, here’s… not expert advice, just a few suggestions.

Fly down-sun if you can, for triple the visibility, and to shield your eyes from direct sunlight. And whichever way you’re looking, you’ll see better from under shade than in direct sunlight.

Fly upwind if you can, for more time to study whatever’s ahead. Like driving in fog, the slower your ground speed the safer. (It also prolongs the anxiety, but that’s a separate issue.)

Avoid unnecessary turns to limit confusion about direction over the ground — and avoid rapid turning of the head to keep your inner ears quiet. Take an occasional deep breath too, if you think about it, but be careful not to hyperventilate.

We’re talking here about flying when you shouldn’t be, even if only to reach a safe landing, and though such tactics cannot guarantee any kind of success, they might improve your chances…

Surely there are more and better ideas, but luckily I’m out of time.

SAY AGAIN?

Imagine you’re well into downwind leg, things going about right, when you look down and see ground personnel moving another bird onto the runway for launch. But you already called in, and they should know to wait till after you’ve landed, right? A second call is surely in order, but before that, check your frequency, or power, or any number of other links in the chain. A flaw does lie somewhere, and there’s a fifty-fifty chance it lies at your end. Radio communication is useful and necessary, but quite worthless unless both parties to any dialogue are entirely functional. It’s at best a chain with lots of breakable links. Here’s a brief overview of what could go wrong the next time you key your mic.

POWER
In our game, everybody’s power source is a battery that’s subject to running down or getting old, either of which lead to unreadable transmissions — or untransmitted ones. Exceptions are base radios that can be inadvertently unplugged, or wired-up crew vehicles with their own idiosyncrasies… Oh, and make sure it’s turned on, too.

ELECTRICAL
Teensy little wires in microphones, behind speakers, and under antennae, or who knows what inscrutable components inside the set itself, any of which can be disconnected, broken or fried. And there may be more than just one or two…

ANTENNA
External antennae are subject to rust and corrosion where they’re connected, and portables commonly loosen over time. It’s a good idea to check and tighten the antenna before using any hand-held, and if you have a remote mic on a curly cord, better check that too.

TUNING
Failure to be on the right frequency can spoil even a casual local flight, and make cross-country a logistical nightmare. Many newer radios are so lightly constructed, if you clumsily bump a button with the back of a knuckle it might easily change the setting, a little or a lot.

TIME
Electronics are amazing, but one thing they cannot do is heal. Weather, galvanic corrosion, and varmints can destroy components gradually, while myriad moments of inadvertent physical abuse do it quicker. (In commercial use this one issue may compound a hundredfold!)

TIMING
Being ‘stepped on’ by someone else on the same frequency, whether nearby or far away. It happens often, but you’ll never know it… unless someone explains it to you later. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous stuck mic (yours or theirs). Happens all too often.

POSITION OF MIC
Not all communication breakdowns are electrical in nature. Some pilots hold microphones too close to their mouth, or not close enough, or too near an open air vent, any of which can make effective coms difficult or impossible. (In the ASK 21, keeping the vent closed can cause a squeal that obscures your voice over the radio.)

SPEECH ITSELF
A common language only works if actual understanding takes place. I know fine pilots who speak fluid American, but talksofast youcanbarelyunderstand them. Even if it’s only me hearing slower, they’d still do well to trade speed for clarity. At the other extreme, those who key their mic before they know what to say… Just hope their battery does die.

DUMB AND DEAF
One candidate for the dumbest mistake is having your volume turned down and never knowing it. Even dumber is being the open mic doofus, and blurting a distasteful bunch of %*$&?# that you can never, ever take back… I’ve been guilty of these, sure — but yeah, probly not you…

For the rest of us anyway, run of the mill stupidity often plays a part. Last week, once again someone staged for launch after I turned downwind, but insisted later they never heard me make a call. Thinking back, I realized that indeed I never made that call! So let’s put outright delinquency on the list as well, ‘cause you can bet I’m not the first to commit that particular sin, nor the last.

As these fubars multiply they tend to both obscure and reinforce each other. All may apply to anyone involved, while each party also cultivates their own different problems concurrently! Even in our low energy field of powerless flight, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where simple coms failure becomes… worse than inconvenient so to speak.
There’s plenty more to say on this topic, but these few lines should make the case that neither radio – nor those who use it – can ever be fully trusted. Copy?

Over and out.