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.

TRAVAILS OF HOTEL BRAVO

It’s been a popular ruse since the onset of vehicular transportation, gussy up a weary old vessel worthy of more and sell the paint job to someone who doesn’t know better. So it was with Hotel Bravo. She came to us with a fresh coat of red white and blue — whose nose cone peeled the first year. Brand new main tire — with a 3/4-inch chip out of the rim on one side. New skid too — softwood, which broke before we could replace it. Ah but to be fair, I had to admit she flew okay. Not as nice as Juliet, but then…

Days later I was up in HB, wing to wing with Juliet more or less and, just for effect, popped spoilers. No big deal — until they locked full open. And if you know anything about 2-32s, that’s a one-way ticket on the gravity express.

Hotel Bravo’s saving feature, no tidy partition behind the aft seat, leaving all those mechanical innards between the wings exposed. While setting up an off-field landing I flew the stick with my knees, right hand jiggling the spoiler handle, and reached back with my left hand to fumble around until… whatta ya know, something got the spoilers unstuck and I closed them without losing any fingers.

That evening with the two birds nose to nose and their turtle decks off, the problem was obvious. 2-32s’ brake assembly includes a strange triangular linkage that in HB had been installed backwards, allowing full extension to go over center and jam, unclosable. What I did in flight to trick it, no idea. Just so glad I happened to be in the back seat! (Imagine though, what it would have been like to land off-field with full spoilers, one-handed, while your other hand is caught in a metal pincer behind you!)

Some other year, again wing to wing, this time I was in Juliet and saw what looked like a big bundle of cellophane tumbling behind Hotel Bravo. It was her canopy. Presumably somebody in back let his fingers do the walking and the rest was… his story.

The pilot of HB, Tim knew to immediately turn straight for the airport, flying very slowly to limit parasite drag. Not much standard procedure involved, but they did make it.

Assured of that, I turned back to follow the canopy’s descent. It would be demolished of course, but maybe we could untwist the metal frame and use it as a pattern to make a new one. Wishful thinking? By the time I looked again the falling canopy had vanished. I knew only that it was on the side of a certain nameless hill.

Next morning the tow pilot took me there in back of the Bird Dog so I could pitch out a bag of flour somewhere near the place — but all we accomplished was having borrowed ear muffs blown off my head into the air. Over the next week, the Tim and I each made three trips into the woods searching, with no success. On one of my hunts (after I’d replaced those lost ear muffs with new ones) I found not the mangled canopy or any hint of flour, but the stupid muffs, hiding under a boulder. Was someone up there was just plain messing with us?

Finally, last try, we went back together, and what Tim found is still hard to believe twenty five years later. That big one-piece canopy flew open, snapped its little lanyard chain and rolled off the wing into space, tumbling three thousand feet down, through treetops to land upright in soft fiddlehead ferns… virtually intact! Delirious, we carried it over our heads like a canoe en portage, down through the woods, washed a little mud off the hinges and put it right back on the bird.

Ah Hotel Bravo, we knew ye well.
Editor’s note: Tim, my partner in crime for this adventure, was the first student I ever had who became an instructor. We hadn’t flown together, or even seen each other in about twenty years, regrettably, but after writing this piece I emailed him to see if his memory of events matched mine. His response was lengthy and lots of fun to read, though not 100% appropriate for this venue. Here’s some of the G-rated part.

“The left side canopy hinge was not safetied and it was wicked loose. I knew that, but would just push it forward before we flew and told passengers no to touch it. On this flight, either it was pulled or came loose on its own. The speed at which the canopy departed was pretty amazing. It swung up on the right, closed latches and just ripped off backwards. Glad it didn’t whack the tail anywhere.”

“And finding that Canopy! Like King Arthur’s Sword in the ferns with sun shining down on it through the trees, it had to have been set down there by the Angels. Couldn’t believe it, that was quite a sight.”