FOLKS BEING FOLKS

Now that it’s too late I realize I should have kept a journal all these years, on the nameless legion of ‘interesting’ individuals I’ve been blessed to fly with. Often such blessings are a cocktail mixed, if you know what I’m trying to not quite say, always worth any passing discomfiture if for educational value alone. Whether one-time passengers or serious students, people new to the soaring environment are in some sense patients, vulnerable and fragile, deserving our most empathetic bedside manner.

Nearly all companions in the cockpit are estimable fellow citizens, most more accomplished than myself, many quite rich and a few famous. But that’s not what this is about. I’ve found that special status by itself is not necessarily what makes people or their responses interesting. Those mentioned here emerge from the mass because, for whatever reason, they made my mind’s eye blink…

I always tell student pilots the only stupid question is the one they don’t ask, but first-time passengers frequently disprove that assertion. Even intelligent, successful beings who’ve gotten around without supervision for years sometimes utter things so stunningly thoughtless you struggle to not laugh. We’ve seen people ask, before their first glider flight, if they could have one of our staff come with them just in case — and others express surprise when they learn a pilot will be going along. I’ve had more than one passenger, midway through the tow, ask if the plane pulling us was a glider too. Or wonder, after the tow plane flew away, how we were supposed to get down without it. These were adults… eligible voters!

Not to imply everyone’s clueless. I had the honor of soaring with Sabrina Jackintell, who, some years after her passing still holds the women’s world altitude record set in 1979. She confessed that in her heyday, before she could join the guys swapping lies after a great day in the sky, she always needed to sneak off somewhere first, for a good cry. Sadly, few pilots of any persuasion are women and unaccompanied female passengers are the rarest category of all, but lately that seems to be changing. One stipulated beforehand that she was reluctant because in her prior career as a TV news reporter she’d spent a lot of time in helicopters and “seen too many close calls.” But she was still curious and had the guts to give us a try, so all I needed was one good thermal to vanquish her reluctance forever.

The con artist who always arrived in a Beemer driven by his stylish girlfriend was one of a kind, thank goodness. During our first conversation he claimed to have been a designated examiner for some type of biz jet, then unknowingly gave himself away. Said he already had the glider rating, but no recent experience, and just wanted to get current so could take his lady up with a nice bottle of wine for an afternoon in the mountains… Wine, huh? Said he forgot his logbook, but would be sure to bring it when he came back. And he did — come back. Driven each time by the fox in the gleaming Beemer… but always forgot to bring that logbook.

One balmy weekend two lovers came out hoping to go up together, but our operation had only Blaniks so they’d have to fly separately. Their thing was they really wanted to go in the nude… Okay, so while they donned their birthday suits we all stood around awkwardly looking at each other, to see who might get caught looking at them. Only has to happen once.

A couple of working class cockneys eloped from England and came straight from their wedding to the glider port, almost. The groom had already returned his rented his tux and wore shorts and a T-shirt, while she, expecting to own that dress for the rest of her life but never wear it again, was keeping it on till bedtime. Before we could get the canopy closed the whole aft cockpit was stuffed with yards and yards of white crepe taffeta, right up to their grinning chins.

Another brave fellow warned me in advance that he was going to propose during the flight, and proudly showed the ring. For the next half hour I lived in dread that she’d decline his offer. When the time came they were so quiet I wasn’t sure what happened, so I devised an excuse for a steep turn and nearly broke the corner of my eye appearing to clear for traffic. They were back there necking.

The following didn’t happen to me, but to my friend Rave (whom I taught to fly, so it was like having one of your favorite kids run over by the ice cream truck). His newlyweds had been married most of two days, and as a recent newlywed himself Rave could sense the honeymoon was going poorly. But the ride had already been paid for and they were determined to “go through with it”. The change of perspective put her back in a good mood, but he got sick, and before they landed she was muttering aloud about having married the wrong guy. Ouch! Sorry Rave, Papa should have told you there’d be days like this.

Most soaring pilots who’ve given thousands of rides have a collection of colorful anecdotes around the use of barf bags, or what can happen when none are available, and I’m no exception. We won’t go there just now, but I will say I’m convinced that women in general have stronger stomachs than men. Probably because they spend their whole lives putting up with men! That said, my nominee for the one species of human most impervious to motion sickness is anyone who’s survived horrible injury or illness. Those patients have seen real trouble, and something like a little turbulence is not apt to bother them.

The ‘interesting’ individuals described here are only the first that came to mind. The list could go on forever. And some are uniquely inspiring. More than once I’ve had a teenager fly the tow just fine, intuitively, after less than a minute — on their first ride! Ah, but I dare not say too much about individual students, bad or good, for thankfully, many are still around. They know who they are.

HEART BEFORE THE COURSE

It was a typical gray day in New England, overcast with no thermals and ridge lift up the kazoo. Bomber towed us over to the hill, then rather than turning straight for home, took the long way back, apparently to sample some of the goods himself. Never seen him do that. Our first priority was topping out, so I loitered in a sweet spot and watched. Dragging two hundred feet of rope, he couldn’t bring himself to fly close enough for much benefit, inching along way shy of the ridge throttled back and giving up maybe twenty degrees to the crosswind.

The longer I watched the more it looked like we might be able to catch him. We’d have three small advantages, each enhancing the others. We’d fly a lot closer and absorb twice as much energy from the hill, plus higher speed would sacrifice less to the crab.

But time was short. Once Bomber came abeam the field he’d be leaving the ridge. In standard climb-and-glide strategy we should be after him now, exploiting our height in the time remaining. Yeah, but that’s if we were chasing another sailplane. He was already a mile ahead, but even as he trudged further away I could viscerally see the point where we’d overtake him nearing.

When our climb slowed I dove for the next wind-collecting bowl and squoze in tight as possible to make up ground before he turned away. Snaking along the ridge, changes in slope and wind angle are what matter. Different every run, and more fun each time because the harder you try the better you get.

It was close, but as we slid between Bomber and the ridge at half again his groundspeed, that freeze frame of eye contact was almost too satisfying to endure. When I waved like homecoming royalty he shook his fist, so I pulled up extra hard to rub his nose in it. Afterward, he cussed me with grudging admiration, not for overhauling him, but for the sassy pull up. Then also admitted that running ridge was kinda fun after all, and he might even like to try it in the glider some time.

‘Duh,’ I whispered, then for his sake laughed, “Et tu, Brute!”

Lots of other things have happened since then, good, bad, and so much more no one knows about. Bomber has matriculated to a higher level of learning, but the marvel on his face that day will live on as long as… well, me. Can’t help wondering if he’ll shake his fist again the next time I catch up with him, in that big blue finishing school on high.

FEATHERED AVATARS

Except for the mythic condor, pelicans are the largest birds in North America. Enormous flocks, properly referred to as squadrons, migrate seasonally through our western corner of the Mojave, NW in spring and SE in fall, across wide stretches of desert between waters where they feed. For reasons only they could know, they never utilize the tremendous lift in our local mountains. Every time we see them approaching or sailing away, it always seems more about course line than local geography. And right now the NW season is upon us.

When thermaling, pelicans form into huge silvery spheres like holograms of bubbles in the sky, slowly pulsing from light to dark to light as they circle. It’s wickedly tempting to fly near them, share in their lift and get a closer look, but we really shouldn’t. I wrote some time ago about feeling a pelican’s tail brush our wheel when I came too close, and how scared I was for the bird. Risk of collision, though, is not the only issue.

Could these creatures with brains the size of a walnut have reasoned responses to aircraft? Doesn’t seem likely. Yet their actions do display definite organization. We’ve all seen flocks of birds, schools of fish, or even clouds of insects sashaying in perfect unison, as with one mind. Enough to make even a drill sergeant smile.

And we mar this ineffable beauty every time we intrude.

Any time I’ve tried to join flocking birds they’ve broken formation and fled, some reversing course, to form up again only after I fell behind or below. Animals in migration operate on tight budgets of time and fuel, and can’t afford to consume either precious resource dodging fools like us. We must appreciate this and leave them to their far more serious business.

But what if they approach us? One unforgettable day we were already circling in a predictable manner and posing no threat when at least a hundred pelicans swirled up from below. For one long dreamlike minute, a fog of enormous white wings floated all around us, above and below, ahead and behind, wafting silently inside a feather pillow fallen dizzily upward. Borne aloft by avatars!

Soon they’d climbed high overhead and gone for the season, but talk about goosebumps! That may always remain my single most gratifying encounter in the sky, made possible simply because we let them initiate contact.

TERRIBLE TIBOR

Tibor arrived in North America penniless and unfamiliar with the language, but well before I met him he’d established a chain of studios specializing in child photography and become modestly wealthy. This despite the fact that he was a terrible photographer who tended to frighten children and even small dogs. He’s the best example I’ve ever met of someone you have to love, even while they fill you with dread of what might happen next.

He was an adolescent in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded, bless his heart. With hoards of others, he ran for his life into Russia and ended up a cadet flying Yaks. Before long, the way he told it, all the ‘real’ pilots from that base had either moved up to combat assignments or… when some general demanded a demonstration. Tibor, still in training, happened to be the most experienced pilot available, and was called on to exhibit skills the command wished he already possessed. He did okay until the landing part.

By way of remediation, he was given thirty days in the brig before climbing back in the cockpit. That, presumably, would teach him not to make any more bad landings!

Tibor was telling this story the day we met, while getting us stuck in traffic – sideways. In a town so small there was controversy about whether to install the county’s first traffic light, Tibor had accomplished the seemingly impossible, pulling out of a parking lot and somehow blocking both lanes of the main drag. Horns were honking from left and right and I was trying to crawl under the seat, as he finished his story with the triumphant words, “I should have been dead fifty years ago, I don’t give a s- -t.”

My dentist in that small town was Tibor’s back-to-back neighbor, and enjoyed regaling me with stories about him whenever I was in the chair. One winter morning the dentist looked out his bathroom window and saw Tibor in his undies, shoveling snow into a wheelbarrow and hauling it inside the house… Crazy? Oh sure, but even for guys like Tibor there’s always a reason. He could easily afford an indoor swimming pool, but was too cheap to buy a thermostat for the pool’s heater, and had inadvertently left it turned up while away for a couple weeks. When he returned the whole house was a steam bath, wallpaper peeling and all the rest.

Tibor flew from our field for several years, always displaying the most abysmal judgment. He took a friend up once, a power pilot who’d never been in a glider. Tibor got them out of range and was gliding back too slow in sink, when (really, I ain’t making this up) the guest realized they’d never make it and took over. Speeding way the heck up was all it took, and they did reach the field. He consistently landed his Cessna like a glider, but his glider like a Cessna. One day he stalled his glider so high and so short that pieces flew off from the impact before he coasted through those blue lights onto the end of the runway.

Then came the time Tibor wanted to see an airshow a few miles down the road and went there in his Cessna. He arrived a little late and the event had already begun, so of course the airport was officially closed, but he just flew in anyway. Representatives of the FAA were in attendance, no surprise, and that’s when Tibor was found to have never held an actual pilot certificate!

Just when we all were sighing relief that he’d not be terrorizing us anymore, we got a call — from Tibor. Seems he was ready now to throw down for some flight instruction, and I would have the honor of being his instructor. Oh joy.