Where I flew in Vermont the mountains are smaller than these in our desert west, but plenty big enough for starters. A perfect little ridge lay three miles away, linked to another one only ten miles long reaching well beyond sight from the airport. In New England’s cool cloudy weather many summer days offer no thermals at all, but ample slope lift might be available if one hugs those hills close enough.
Having no one to learn from, I explored that new environment with obsessive passion, timid at first, yet eager to find my way. While subject to the same fears and missteps everyone should have when new to mountain soaring, I was determined to learn the game without killing myself — or anyone else. On the ground after flights my hands often shook from surging adrenaline, but each increment of progress felt more natural, and despite all kinds of personal shortcomings I knew I’d found my calling.
Tip-toeing near any hillside amplifies all of flying’s pleasures. Visual, physical and mental sensations are fused in vivid detail as your shadow leaps across trees and boulders, shrinking into hollows and JUMPing out between them. You scatter swallows and startle sunning squirrels, maybe even a hiker or two. But the combination of low airspeed and proximity to the surface also amplifies the hazards of flying. You must maintain a minimum of speed for safety, and when the earth is too close adding more becomes impossible.
A further peril occurs when you’re already on a ridge that has been working, but it weakens. A slackening of wind, a change in direction, or change in the slope itself, any of these can ambush the unwary – from below!

Have you ever tried to swim in water too shallow for stroking arms and kicking legs? Instead, you have to pull yourself along the bottom hand over hand. Well, one summer a period of calm, flat weather had gone on for weeks, and in trying to stay aloft when that wasn’t really possible I fell into a habit of crawling even slower and closer. Then one night I dreamt I was pulling myself by hand from tree to tree – and sat up in bed with clarion realization that the safety margin had been rubbed too thin. It was time to back away.
Every few years a similar wakeup call would come, another instinctive warning to recalibrate. Each was timely in its own way, and I believe that heeding them is why I’m still around. On my very first flight here at Crystal, after one close look at these mountains I vowed to quadruple my minimum safe distance from the surface until I grew more familiar. No way to prove it, but that might have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
And twenty-some years later? Such wakeup calls have become only more frequent, the way power poles squeeze together like fence posts as you accelerate up a highway. Now entering my final chapter, they’ve blurred into what I suppose they should have been in the beginning — a continuous dialogue with the silent voice inside. Yes it’s taken this long, but I may have finally reached something equivalent to what should have been in the first place: uninterrupted vigilance.
Really, you ask? Ah, time will tell.


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.

You don’t have to be a high time aviator for your thoughts and words to be of value; newbies and even first-timers may have something to offer that the rest of us should think about. Whether it’s cautionary, technical, critical, inspirational, if there’s something we’d all like to see, please email it to: office@soaringacademy.org

Of course we may not publish everything you send us, and we’ll retain the privilege of editing it as necessary, but if you’re a reader you’re a member of this forum. Again, send any comments about today’s e-mail and your future stories/articles to:



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.