With the day essentially over, ground speed is no longer important. Now it’s all about altitude. Time for the numbers.

Still forty miles out, we can count on five miles for every thousand feet of height lost. Forty divided by five, that’s 8000. Add to that at least 5000 for a normal arrival, can we get to 13K? Not likely, so late. Good reason to assume this is all she wrote and hang in till it’s gone.

Nice idea, but the day’s weakened drastically and gravity seems to be holding about normal. At 10,000 feet the lift weakens. Hmm. At 11,000 it quits. Bad angel says fudge the safety margin and she’s almost in the bag. Good angel stares him down. Already I’m wishing I’d saved that last dram of backwash.

We need to clarify options and decide. The only remaining alternate between here and home is a wide dirt strip called Harmon, thirteen miles short. Either that or have the tow plane meet us at whichever airport’s most convenient near hear.

We call to ask about a relight from Harmon just as the tow pilot’s securing for the night, and he says he’s willing to wait… a few minutes. Alright, we do it! The wait won’t be long either way.

Once committed to a go-for-broke glide all dilemmas fall away except the central one: what flight path is best? Even this single choice may be torturously convoluted, but not tonight. As it happens, Harmon lies right on a course line between our position and Crystal. While shy of height for a proper final glide we still have maybe twenty minutes to stumble across a stray evening thermal, and for the first time we’ll have a tailwind. Outrun it, and that’s where we might find this puzzle’s final piece.

Miles and minutes pass.

Horizons all around are turning pastel, our chance for any more ups sunken with the sun. Three thousand AGL crossing over Harmon, still another thousand feet of height to bleed before turning back. We have Crystal in sight, but it’s staying way too high in the canopy. So exactly when do we bail and retreat? Good angel says now.

A sag in our glide means we’ve almost overtaken the original shearline after all. It’s not that we’re too low to reach almost certain lift less than a mile ahead, but if we miss it again we’ll be crash landing in brush moments later. Bad angel shrugs.

We have to turn back. Now everything is focused on successful retreat. Head directly for the new objective, hold speed-to-fly plus at least five knots for what’s again a headwind, and think. And LOOK. Only one option left, and one is never enough. THINK!

Scanning to visualize the best approach, we spot a tiny puff of dust disappearing a quarter mile from the strip… Fleck of gold in the gutter? Gem in a cow pie? Enormous haystack with one silver needle poking out? As that first whirl fades another sprouts just beyond. Eyes widen, chins drop, and bad angel (oddly) growls, ‘NOOO, it couldn’t be.’

Miracles are called that precisely because they seem impossible, yet somehow happen anyway. And weirdly this means there’s always time for more. Do we deserve another miracle? Of course not. Didn’t deserve all those others today either, but I’ll keep ‘em. And not too proud to accept one more if that’s okay, thanks.

But will it help us, or get us into even more trouble?

Good angel says let’s see.


Forty miles from home the August afternoon is pure Mojave, vacuous, shimmering, and HOT. We’re stuck again at Silver Queen, where we first fell behind Tango Whiskey weeks earlier. Since then, even bloody-kneed low in the mountains we’d been high enough to enjoy comfy cockpit temps, but now 1500 feet above the desert we’re sweltering.

As before, we got here first, but low, and Tango Whiskey had the juice to sail overhead and leave us behind one more time. Now the day’s subsiding noticeably. Are we outta luck or is there time? Doesn’t look good, but there’s no reason not to try.

Halfway along their final glide TW radios they flew through heavy sink, then found milk and honey just beyond, and are turning that into a high speed finish.

Apparently the shearline passed through ahead of schedule like it did at Little Lake. Both sorties missed the bus, but our longer-winged sister caught it further down the road. We might have caught it ourselves if we’d borne on, and gotten home first after all, but we couldn’t know it was there and had to stop at this last high ground near an airstrip. After failing to find what’s already gone we’re too low to go on.

“Tango Whiskey, do us a favor. After you land go check the tires on our trailer.”

“Wilco, Roger. Good luck. Tango Whiskey out.”

Time for another miracle, but every passing moment withers the chance of one. We have two options: choose from several nearby airstrips and land, sooner the better for an aero retrieve, or go for broke with nothing short of home except a certain dirt strip halfway there. The only reason to delay this decision is to leave the door open for that miracle.

When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius;
lift up thy head!

William Blake

We probe everywhere around our little hill, never getting high enough to go far before scurrying back to stay aloft. The whole time we see two eagles perched on a boulder watching us. Their electing to sit while we slog round and round confirms no hope of getting away until something changes. But hey, that doesn’t mean give up and land — yet! Did I mention it was HOT?

Half an hour later there’s different color in the air a few miles west. Could another shearline be coming? The first one was an interface between morning’s southeast and the mild westerly of afternoon. It’s still marching deeper into the desert even now, somewhere. And further strengthening of the west wind could produce a second shear essentially like the first. If so, driven by strengthening wind, it would be moving faster… and who knows, our next miracle?

The wedge of hazy air pushing that second shear toward us grows increasingly visible as it nears. Lift, if there is any, will be in the clear air this side of it, closer to us. We’re tempted to glide out and meet it, but if we fail we might be too low to get back on the hill. We have to wait.

Now those eagles vault off the summit, dive into the wind and begin to circle up less than a quarter mile away. Some got it, some don’t, and these guys do! A couple minutes later we begin to climb as well and I quaff the tepid last dram of my water. It may as well be iced champagne.

Premature celebration anyone? Yes naiveté, always my main suit.



We’re lofting up from Olancha into the same great lift we rode outbound, now eager to hightail it home. Sure enough, this main shearline has continued migrating east all day and now sits almost exactly above the crest, easy to tap into from straight below. As we climb through 15K, clouds that mark lift every few miles ahead seem smaller each time we look. Does this mean the day’s already winding down, or simply that the air’s drying out? Maybe both. Either way, the lift is still terrific, and flying toward the sun reveals haze domes that mark sweet spots just as surely as cumulus.

Tango Whiskey, a few miles behind, witnessed our struggle and saw where we finally scored. They had the legs to follow suit, and rushing through sink got them here so quickly they’re joining the bottom of our thermal even before we leave it, same as at Boomer Ridge hours earlier only in reverse. Life’s a beach.

And living is eeezy along the Sierras’ tailbone, the only uncertainty being whether to cruise higher and slower or lower and faster. Having soured on digging around near the surface, we choose the high road and settle in averaging seventy knots indicated = true airspeed at this altitude 100 MPH. (Just think, it’s been booming like this up here the whole day! Amazing.)

Being ahead for the first time has its usual effect and I lapse into the old habit of leaving good lift early and running too fast between climbs. In racing terms, every second climbing unnecessarily is time wasted; once you’ve got a glide in the bag you’ll never get there sooner by climbing higher first and then diving faster. This, however, is not a race — except in regard to sundown…

As terrain gradually descends to the south, so do we. Now comes that gnarly stretch abeam Little Lake, and no clouds at all. The shearline seems to have disappeared. Did it snake away to the east or just plain quit? Before we can suss this out we’ve fallen through the floor into another desperation dash. Bouncing off one hill after another and diving to the next was fun for a few hours, but now it’s getting tedious.

Crawling over the rocky spine of Five Fingers below Owens Peak, I figure this is it. We only have juice for a three-mile glide to Boomer Ridge, and if we fail to reach the sunny side a retreat to Inyokern will put us on the ground eighty miles from home.

Like many pilots, I can honestly say that Boomer Ridge has never failed me — but I’d never had reason to work the north side… And? Like they say, seen one miracle, you’ve seen ‘em all. Dear ol’ Boomer comes through in typical fashion with a bailout far easier than we deserve and in a jiffy we’re back on top again. Now though, both mountains and sky flatten out ahead, demanding another decision.

Silver Queen, where this story started, is also where we expect to make our last climb before final glide. It waits forty-five miles away with mostly flat ground between. Following hills on our right would probably keep us higher, but how much farther would that be? Our brains say take the long way but our minds say not to bother. And those pesky angels? This time neither one seems to have an opinion — which is not the same as them agreeing, I now know. Anyway, having the leg made with a modest safety margin, we decide to just go straight.

Ten minutes later Tango Whiskey opts for the mountains, and manages to almost keep pace while indeed staying higher. When we arrive at Silver Queen, lower than we’d hoped for, they’re still ten miles back but several thousand feet higher.

…and closing fast, because at this point we’re treading water again. Nothing here but lots and lots if gravity surrounding this one lonely little nob. Fair enough, looks like they win.

If there were lift here doggone it, we’d be tanking up right now and likely beat Tango Whiskey home. Our mistake lay in assuming certain lift here, and treating it as a finish instead of a turn point. Well there isn’t and it ain’t, and now we’ve nowhere left to go…



Tango Whiskey had wisely made a point of always staying high, so far. Then after hours of full-on galloping they finally assumed too much and overran their advantage, dropping below the altitude band of optimum lift down where we’ve been most of the time. They may not know it yet, but now they have problems too.

Though still miles behind us, kinetically they’re in much better shape, within range of Inyokern airport ahead, which we can’t even see. They had no intention of gliding down to Inyokern, expecting to pass by it higher than they are now. And they still may… The question for them is morphing from how to if.

Soaring place to place weaves arrays of dilemmas to continually untangle as they appear. Moving always over new ground into evolving weather, problems can stack up, and the faster lift carries you the quicker even a shrewd pilot can be overwhelmed. When the aircraft outruns your brain it can become nature’s version of Wile E. Coyote off a cliff. And gravity, as shown, usually wins.

Our advantage from an afternoon of gritty contact is a feel for the air around these hills, something TW can only guess at. (Could have warned them to turn west sooner along the shearline, but we were too busy digging our own ditch to keep eyes on them.) Before they knew it, they passed through the shear’s interface into subsiding air beyond, and now must find a short route back out.

Meanwhile we face a big gray hole. Climbing the shaded edifice ahead looks impossible and we’re out of ideas. The sky’s always filled with little dilemmas, but this one’s not so small. Whatever we do will include circumnavigating the foot of mighty Olancha, whose toes themselves are full size mountains. The lower we get the further our flight path around them — and over the gulfs between them too.

Every ridge we tiptoe across buys a few degrees more sun exposure. Easy to imagine periodic nibbles as onramps to glory road, but all fade in turn and we barely maintain height. Oh well, if that’s all there is it’ll have to do. Nice knowing the shortest path around to the sun also draws toward our nearest lakebed.

And at the rate Tango Whiskey’s falling out it might soon be their prime alternate too…

Pinned again on a jagged spur below the main watershed, no progress other than crawling onto higher ground. Almost like back at Walt’s Point except his time thermals begin to strengthen the way they’re supposed to. Further up our ridge rejoins those others, lift combining above them as well, and for the first time since that breathsucking dive through Whitney Portal I feel glad about the future.

Ah relief! Eager to share the joy, I key the mic, “Tango Whiskey, how you doin’?”

After a short silence, “Don’t ask!”