One year a fellow pilot died and we all attended his funeral. Coming in to the service, we were given the usual small memento printed with the deceased’s birth and death dates and some comforting or inspirational verse. It’s intended as a keepsake, but after holding mine politely through the service I must have dropped it without a thought when I got in my car to leave.

That car was a sandblasted junker given me by an appreciative student who’d been reassigned at work and had to move away. I used it in ways never intended by the manufacturer, ramming it around the desert like a dune buggy, even hauling firewood in its seats.

A couple years later time came for another sad memorial when my father passed away. After roaring along the interstate for hours at 80 with all the windows down, traffic began to slow for the first time as we entered the outskirts of Phoenix. From some hidey hole in back, under the rusty tools, bark chips and trash, a small piece of paper shot up in the wind, zoomed around the cabin and fell like a wounded bird into my lap. It was that keepsake from the pilot’s funeral twenty months before – perfectly clean and uncreased.

After a long double take, the first thing that came to mind was, Dad never understood why soaring is so important to me and thought my career in it a silly waste of time. I believed that when he finally saw the point he’d have to approve, and always hoped for that day. But it never came. Now I had this image of him perched up there at the Pearly Gates, having met the pilot we buried earlier and who knows how many other disembodied aviators. Maybe they’ve explained things in a way I was unable to and Dad finally understood. Was this piece of paper, so pristine after long neglect, a kind of sign?

Easy to poo-poo such an idea, but as traffic wound through the city I could not stop thinking about it. Half an hour later, just before my exit, rush hour ground to a complete halt. I’d been listening to an Al Stewart album, sentimental vignettes of history and travel that somehow fit the mood, and the song right then was Lord Grenville, a wistful ballad about the early days of ocean sailing.

Precisely as traffic stopped, the lyric was:

Tell the ones we left home not to wait, we won’t be back again.

At that point, directly across the road ninety degrees out my window stood the hospital where Dad passed! Sitting in gridlock staring there and at the car ahead, I had time to ponder this.
When eventually traffic moved, that car ahead left the freeway at my exit. Entering the street grid it turned where I was going to, then did so again, and again. I began to wonder if whomever it was thought they were being tailed. Then they pulled over and parked exactly where I intended to, in front of my parents’ house.

It was a cousin I’d not seen in more than thirty years, far and away Dad’s favorite nephew. I drove four hundred miles, he came twice as far, and we arrived simultaneously — meeting up right where Dad left us.

You can dismiss all this as a goofy coincidence, but not me. We may never comprehend the unifying principle in this funhouse of a world, but that don’t mean there ain’t one.
The next verse of Lord Grenville begins,

Our time is just a point along a line that runs forever with no end.


Last week I was pre-flighting one of our ASK-21s, and from that single little pouch in the back cockpit spilled the following: 2 pens, 2 pitot covers (why have two pitot covers if you don’t use either one?), 2 dirty rags, plus NINE barf bags and of course some of the usual litter. None of which I’d be needing. If more than two barf bags were necessary I’d stay on the ground.
Anyway, the article below, which first flew here two years ago, is obviously overdue for a relight.

We were launching in normal conditions with newlyweds cuddled in the back. Ho hum. Then no more than a foot off the ground Bogie the tow pilot released us and zoomed radically up, hanging under the prop to a full-power stall. Our glider flew itself to a stop as we watched his recovery bottom out in a swale below runway level.

So what made Bogie do such a thing? After several minutes pacing the ramp hyperventilating and going to his knees twice, intensive post-flight inspection found a pencil stub fallen below deck into the worst possible space beneath the stick, jamming it full back upon rotation. Bogie saved his own life by remotely crushing that little scrap of wood.

Now wait. What if he’d not released us the instant he sensed trouble? Impossible to know for sure, but he would never have gotten high enough to complete the recovery. And who could guess how it might have worked for us, trying to land on whatever runway was left while Bogie tried to not crash there…

So cutting us loose at the get-go also saved his life!

And that snappy response, did it come from his year of flying low level combat or from crop dusting while in college? Or was it something genetic?

A sea of ‘factors’ refracts forever around each of us like an ocean of mirrors. But one unintended cause is all you need to turn an ordinary day into somebody’s final one. Whoever dropped that pencil stub made it potentially a lethal instrument.

Most pilots these days know what FOD stands for, and it’s not Fussy Old Dude. It’s FOREIGN OBJECT DEBRIS (or any of several other D words). Anything left floating around the cockpit is FOD, whether neglected trash or vital equipment, whether you put it there or have nary a clue. FOD doesn’t need your participation to kill you, only your acquiescence. And the smaller it is the easier it can hide.

Another year, I was finishing up with a one o’clock student when the three o’clock doing an obligatory preflight interrupted our debrief to ask why the stick made the rudder move.

“It doesn’t.”

“But it does,” he assured.

Alright, having landed the bird minutes earlier with no such incongruous behavior, we leaned in to look. Sure enough, when the stick moved the rudder responded. And there was a clunk.

We unscrewed an access panel near the sound and found the little assembly tool we called Lollipop that had long ago gone missing and been replaced. Somehow it found an ideal cranny to hide in through two annual inspections! How many wallops of turbulence, ‘imperfect’ landings and bouncing taxis had it withstood in that time?

Lollipop was still incognito as we rolled to a stop from the prior flight, so what happened while pushing off and parking that impelled it to jump between a bell crank and rudder cable with its business end stuck into a fairlead? Why didn’t that happen months earlier? Why didn’t it happen in flight where Murphy’s Law has fullest effect? Still gives me chills.

Oh there’s more. You familiar with that little hatch behind the aft seat of Grob 103s? It’s where all the important things connect, and is definitely not a storage compartment. Imagine my expression on finding a twenty-pound shot bag in there, lying spread across all the moving parts! Shot bag don’t care.

So here’s a plea for common sense. Clean up after yourself! And while you’re at it don’t stuff the cockpit pouch with everything you own but don’t wanna hold on to. That spawns a FOD nursery and eventually ruins the pouch to boot. If you really want lotsa krapola handy to distract you, consider a fishing vest festooned with pockets. No, seriously. Think of it as a FOD magnet if you like. Sure it looks goofy, so does your hat. Some things are more important.

A fishing vest is comfy enough when you finally wear one – same as a coffin we may suppose. But the vest is still cheaper.


Last Saturday, Sean Eckstein logged the first cross-country soaring flight from Crystal this season. Good on ya, Papa Vic! Somebody had to do it.
This story is one that many pilots could tell, but Sean’s sense of gastronomical irony shows through at the very end.

Sean’s report:
I made it to Olancha. Flying cross country on a marginal day might not earn you a Diamond, but it does challenge you.
The conditions north had the best chance for getting any distance, but cloud coverage would probably shut down sections of the route, so maintaining altitude would be important.
Because it’s still early in the season I launched a little after noon. The climb out in the mountains was not difficult and I climbed to 11.2 K. I wasted a little time trying to get more altitude before leaving the mountains, which cost me. Gliding to my first alternate, Rosamond, I found that there was some strong sink to deal with and arrived low. I had my next alternate Backus (Pontious airport) on glide but wanted a little more altitude because of the sink I had encountered.
I arrived at Backus and found lift that took me to 9 K, that allowed me to get into the mountains where lift was easier to locate and worked my way north to Boomer Ridge near Inyokern. From that point north the mountain range was all in shadow, but I was able to stay above the mountains until my next alternate Coso Dry Lake. That’s where I worked my last thermal before gliding to Olancha, to find only more sink.
I had a good landing at Olancha, treated my driver (6PK) to a fine dinner at one of the many fine desert restaurants, and headed back to Crystal.


For some people learning to fly turns out to be far easier than they imagined, their biggest impediment simply letting that be so. My favorite example was a PhD teaching at the Air Force Test Pilot School, who, unlikely as it sounds, had never taken flight instruction. In our first conversation he disavowed possessing anything like the natural talents of those Flash Gordon types he tutored on weekdays. He characterized his eye-to-hand prowess as “wooden,” apologizing that his only advantage would be, wait for it… technical. Oh well, good to know at the outset where my challenge would lie.

After several lessons he was doing fine on most skills, but not a single landing had been without problems, mostly due to lack of spatial awareness. He was so concerned with altitude and airspeed as numbers on the panel, he had no time to see where he was going and control pitch. He fully understood that being at some exact height may not help if you’re in the wrong place, and that chasing the airspeed indicator is no way to control velocity. But while dutifully espousing these truths in his own teaching, he had not yet learned to believe them.

As he entered downwind on our next flight I peeled my shirt off and handed it forward, telling him to drape it over the panel and cover the instruments. “Now look at the actual world all around, and straight ahead, and get your attitude right. Use your ears and your eyes.”

With his mind finally outside the cockpit and focused on what matters, his shoulders settled from ATTENTION to AT EASE, and the ship seemed palpably to relax as well.

“Once your attitude is stable, keep it there by holding the stick still while inspecting where you intend to touch down. Look close for some speck that might turn out to be a hazard, possibly a human one. Then follow your flight path backward, up the final approach and base leg to where you expect to turn.”

When his head moved his hand did too, involuntarily, so I snapped the stick back where he’d had it and nearly shouted, “Stick still!”

He muttered something to himself, self-defaming doubt.

“Nah, you’re okay,” I said. “This is how we get there. Notice that in the few seconds since that distraction with my shirt, you’ve double checked for traffic, confirmed where you need to be and enhanced your control of both the aircraft and the situation. How’s that for technical?”

“Got to admit,” he laughed, glancing again at the aim point.

“And keep looking straight ahead anytime you’re not looking somewhere else. If you hold that pitch steady on the horizon, you’re well on the way to your best landing yet!”

The hard part was remembering to keep his hands still, but by midway on base leg he’d accomplished that too, and gained so much confidence his head began to bob in recognition. A minute later he kissed his first spot landing with ease.

And the rest would soon become history. We both moved on to positions elsewhere, but I heard through friends that by the end of the next season he was himself a certified flight instructor. And, I’d be willing to wager, not a wooden one!