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 the good advice.”

By the time we finished our exchange I was there 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.

ANY PORT

It was the kind of day we fantasize about, up with a passenger on what was supposed to be an hour-long demo flight. One very good looking cumulus was growing so rapidly that before we could reach it virga began to appear, and then sparks too. Okay, we’ll shun that one and go where we’re welcome. It took a couple minutes to reach another cu nearby, and by then the thermal behind us was snarling.

Soon we were catching fat raindrops from our new cloud too, and moved on again. At that point I still wasn’t especially alarmed, assuming that what was now a minor storm would soon expend its energy and dry out, desert style. I planned to loiter upwind above sunny ground waiting for things to settle.

But the cloud that started all this just kept growing and began to engulf its neighbors, shading our whole local area while advancing straight toward Crystal. Thirty minutes in, I was still most concerned with finding ways to stay out of trouble while completing the obligatory hour aloft, but hard showers under several darkened cells made getting my passenger safely down the only thought.

We still had feasible options further away, but everywhere nearby the sky was exploding. A slot did remain, dark yet free of lightning, between us and Crystal, so I decided to run for it while we still could. We were maybe six miles out when lightning struck at the airport – then again directly ahead, closer to us.

Forget that.

Off to starboard and closer lay the crossing dirt strips of Brian Ranch, already wet but looking like the nicest place on earth… By now a gust front had developed also, pushing dusty fog toward our new objective, and landing straight into it was the textbook option. We dove with full spoilers, steep and fast onto that muddy haven with lightning suddenly everywhere and thunder rumbling in full surround sound.

Setting up that approach would consume most of another minute though. Did we have time? Instead I chose to land with a pulsing 40-knot crosswind just to be on the ground some few seconds sooner. As we lurched to a stop near the tie downs I worried we might be struck on the ground before securing our bird. (Needless to say, that didn’t happen; we got by with wind whipped sand in the eyes and a thorough soaking.)

Finally under shelter, we called the office to let them know we were okay and arrange for a retrieve tow once the violence subsided.

“Too late,” they said, “We’ll come and get you by car.”

“Too late?”

“Yeah, the runway’s washed out. We’re grounded.”

The storm did pass quickly as they usually do here, but not before leaving its mark. Sunlight was returning when we splashed up Crystal’s uneven driveway, the whole airport awash in an inch-deep sheet of white water whose cross-field flow roared like a waterfall. The deluge dug gullies out of our dirt strip, dumping blobs of mud on the pavement. It will take two days of hard work to restore both runways from the effects of a storm that lasted only minutes.

See you in the mornin’.

24 OURS

One endless day in May we flew 200 miles straight-out from Crystal after a 3:35 launch, despite cooler heads insisting it was already way too late. They weren’t entirely wrong, nor exactly right either, for this day had already shown itself to be one of that year’s very best. Twice, midmorning and again after noon, I had taken students southeast far beyond Baldy to where we ‘never’ go, then west along the 210 freeway between a cloud street and Pasadena, running hard at fourteen thousand to LAX’s Mode C veil, then diving twenty miles back to Crystal. That’s something I’ve been able to do only one other time in eighteen seasons here, so with still another four hours of daylight left I had a sense of what we might get away with.

Rather than starting in the mountains as usual for a high climb, we towed northwest to a dust devil on course, cutting ten miles off the distance and saving most of an hour. Normally we’d make this departure so high and so early that thermals over the flat desert wouldn’t yet be of much use, but instead of descending several thousand feet on the long crossing to Rosamond, this time we actually gained height! Way too easy.

Even in ‘perfect’ conditions, the neighborhood around Mojave is often a puzzle to solve, but all we did there was shift into higher gear. My only worry now was that the lucky feeling I’d had all day might suddenly fizzle, though gradually it continued growing stronger… Gotta be a limit somewhere, right?

Out of curiosity I counted thermal climbs along the way, amazed at how few were needed. We stopped to climb only ten times on a four-hour run to Bishop, and arrived there so high we could have glided down another thirty miles further, and thirty back. But nah, happily we pulled full spoilers and started talking about dinner. Granted, the horizon around Bishop is a lofty one, but by the time we landed the sun had fallen behind it.

So that was plenty satisfying by itself, but the flight back would prove even more so.

Early next day we towed to the foothills west of town in order to climb sooner on sunlit slopes and skip having to cross the valley later on. Our initial climb came quick down low, but once we had snow under us the air was dead and each time we started to move the cold would pull us down again.

Eventually we abandoned that idea and retreated to the valley, having fiddled away more than an hour of precious game time. Oddly though, even low again near the airport, that lucky feeling from the day before persisted…

Finally, east of Bishop we stumbled into a nibbly shearline, began tiptoeing south, and soon one obscenely generous thermal gave us height to gobble fully a quarter of the distance home. After that, I’m almost ashamed to say, our luck just kept improving, even into a steady wind. Grand total, we needed only four thermal climbs – plus four very convenient shearlines – to complete that 200-mile return flight, arriving home about same the time we left the day before.

Ah, that lucky feeling! Too bad we can’t store some in a time-proof bag for October.

BETTER LUG NEXT TIME

 

Like most primary students I was in a hurry to get past the private pilot check ride ASAP. Summer was almost over, and after all the yakking I’d done at home a long winter without that paper in my pocket would have been unbearable.

Was I ready? Well, what I read on slips and skids left me confused, and when I asked about it the answer was, “Ah, the Blanik doesn’t slip well.” So much for that then. Other basics? I’ve already admitted, in these pages recently, to having zero emergency training. What does that tell ya? All I wanted was the sign-off, and that’s all I got.

On the big day, if there was an oral evaluation it was too short to remember. No mention of cross-country flight or a multitude of other essentials. It was 1975 you know.

In the air, when the DE called for a slip I glibly repeated, “The Blanik doesn’t slip well,” causing him to bark, “BS!” or words to that effect. And then, bless his eternal soul, quite contrary to PTS criteria he taught me slips so we could finish the check ride.

Back on the ground, he made an obvious point of deliberating whether to pass me or break my heart, and when he did hand over the white slip, said sternly, “Now I want you to get more instruction, soon!” Not exactly a backslapping attaboy.

In fact I had already planned to take a lesson from my instructor’s instructor that very afternoon, and it was he who instilled what I preach to this day. I was unconsciously moving the stick far more than necessary as if that had some positive effect on control. “Hold it still.” he pled, “and let the bird fly!” Bless his soul too.

Days later, first flight with a passenger (also confessed in these pages some time ago) I managed to both terrify and nauseate a personal friend. And next season scared even myself so badly, I outright quit for two full years. No really, it was that bad. Even so, first thing each morning I’d peek out a window to see what the soaring might be like. Daydreams continually fondled soaring’s unknown joys and possibilities, then increasingly night dreams too. There was no choice, I had to come back.

 

Then, typical fool, I fell into the same rush for a commercial rating before taking time to learn some things first. My excuse was no one around to learn from, meaning no one to tell me I was over my head. And boy was I!

Hook or crook, I wrangled an endorsement for the commercial written, then showed up after a 150-mile drive without proper ID. Somehow they let me take the test anyway, which I promptly flunked. The good thing, now I knew what to study! It is only high school level material after all.

On that check ride, still knowing next to zilch, I actually made the DE laugh at my ignorance and scream at my methods (also detailed previously in these pages), yet he passed me anyway because I was with his operation — and on the same day he failed a more capable candidate from our competing outfit. I sat in the shade and watched.

 

CFI? Oh sure.

Still no one around to learn from, so this check ride became a sweaty nightmare without ever leaving the ground. This DE, a nationally known contest pilot, saw right away that I was unprepared, and would spend the entire day indoors proving it.

He was also a contributing author of that era’s principle text, the SOARING FLIGHT MANUAL which of course I had never heard of. That evening he kindly lent his personal copy full of scrawled notations, and gave me five days to read it before we met again.

Take two started later and we still had to finish the oral. It wasn’t much easier but at least I knew some of what he was talking about, and by then he was every bit as eager to get this over with. Then the flight portion began with his grounding our glider because of a bad screw on the instrument panel, something I wouldn’t have noticed in a year of preflights. By the time we procured another ship and went through its paper work, evening had come again.

I had fifteen minutes to teach him towing and basic maneuvers plus the landing. That actually went smoother than expected, or seemed to, and I climbed from the cockpit feeling pretty good about myself.

But no. The DE said he’d made clear an hour beforehand that one thing he could not tolerate was any skidded turn, no excuses. I must have been distracted; maybe he should have said it twice. Anyway, while acting as student he intentionally skidded his turn to final and I didn’t call him on it, ordaining yet another bust.

Time wounds. ALL heals. Expect delays however. Who knows, that disappointment might have saved a life.

Ultimately, clearing the CFI hurdle was little more than hasty formality on a day embroiled by a conflux of frankly more pressing issues we needn’t go into (an altogether different bag of yarns). A battlefield commission you might say. One more bullet dodged, justly or otherwise.

And the rest is mystery.

 

If nothing else, I’m living proof of the ‘Peter Principle’, that we all rise one way or another to a level where we’re incompetent, and hang there until succeeded by someone even more so.