We often see pilots begin their downwind legs far higher than the standard thousand feet above ground level, or from some non-standard place, and we generally discourage that for several reasons.  First, more than half our flights at Crystal are for training, whether with an instructor or solo, and it’s tough to get predictable results, or evaluate them, if we begin the process from a different point each time.  Meanwhile other pilots may see us but simply not believe we’re really in the pattern, and commit to their own approach…  And obviously we need to avoid having multiple gliders on final!

True story: the student entered downwind indecisively and three hundred feet higher than standard. I called him on it, so while pulling spoilers he protested that it didn’t matter. By then though, someone else was gliding under us at the proper height and on a line more parallel with the runway. (Quite likely we stepped on each other’s radio calls, so neither could hear the other.)

It’s good to be flexible of course, and able to adapt when necessary.  But think of it like a hand of cards.  Entering the pattern, you have only so many options left and should not discard any before necessary. During the couple minutes of downwind, base leg and final, the air has plenty of time to complicate things, so you need to be able to adjust in unpredictable ways.  Consistency in landing pattern entry leaves all that other space available for improvisation in genuine emergencies.

Of course we encourage rated pilots to practice unusual approaches as well, when it doesn’t interfere with standard training, and only with appropriate communication beforehand.


It’s an awfully big sky we live in, but this breathable part is not exactly infinite. Every hour, lots of us are zipping around up there, and inevitably we cross paths. Many factors intensify this risk. The time you’re up is apt to be exactly when most everyone else is. Any airspace your glider prefers will attract others for the same reasons. Even creepier, the hardest place to see traffic is at the horizon, where most aircraft present their slimmest profiles — right where the one you’re about to hit will surely be. Coming in to land? Traffic density increases geometrically with proximity to any airport. The words ‘see and avoid’ have the same power as any other catechism: none or all. Depends on the user.

Like most living persons, I have not experienced an actual midair collision, but like most seasoned pilots I can tell of chillingly close calls. It is terrifying! It forces you to soberly visualize actually plummeting to the ground. A parachute is no guarantee. You may be injured by the collision, or otherwise unable to egress in time, or you may be too low for the chute to open. What if it operates perfectly but you come down in high trees or an electrical substation? Even a safe jump could itself be disastrous. Click on this:  and imagine yourself in the open desert.

When bogeys come head-on, even if you see them at the last moment, the solution is simple. Everybody turns right. Aircraft merging from your right have the right-of-way, just as on the water or the road. And of course always concede right of way any time you can, just to be safe.

Those on your six, however, remain unseen until too late! And if you’re in a glider, every other kind of vessel is always overtaking you. Did they ever see you? You may never know. I have been passed on final approach, with less than a hundred feet separation, twice, which is why I always teach look carefully the other way before turning final. (The one good thing about those buzzer-beater scenarios, they’re great opportunities for spirited discussion afterward, provided both offenders survive…)

Jets pose additional problems, most importantly their greater speed. Since gliders seldom land at big airports, we encounter jets more often at higher altitudes, where they move much quicker than the VFR seen every day below. Big jets are easy to spot if you’re looking the right direction — and if you can’t find a hundred ton behemoth in time to get out of its way, it is not the hazard, you are.

Unlike airliners though, military jets of all kinds routinely fly very low over some of the same landscapes soaring pilots also occupy. Fighters, being smallest and fastest, present a special hazard. While fighter pilots as a whole merit great respect for their abilities and courage, they are typically young, naturally aggressive individuals for whom the seduction of all that speed and power must be awesome indeed. Fact is, in some skies many are weekend warriors, from whom we may expect less than the ultimate military dedication and discipline. With all respect, this is not just loose talk. Personal experience demands it’s inclusion here.

I’ve been smoked by fighters several times, including from straight below and from straight above, and while it’s nice to think most of them saw me first and were merely feeling playful, that’s no justification for intentionally frightening those who pay their salary. I’ve also had an Air Guard helicopter descend and hover on the grass strip where we were in the process of landing, big white wing against a dark green background. More than once I’ve radioed to report such foolishness, and been stonewalled by the tower each time. (One did offer a phone number to call the next day, but my fingers were shaking too much and I dropped the pen.)

Lest it seem your scribe has a thing about the military, I should add that the most predictable and least excusable midair hazard at Crystal, in a prior era, was the Highway Patrol. Trolling along Route 138, monotonously watching vehicles below, officers flew through our approved landing pattern and very nearly nailed me… repeatedly. One day, after two scares in a week, I saw the fuzz coming head-on and raised him on the radio. Asked if he saw me, his response was, “I’m not looking.”

Wrong answer. That badge wouldn’t soften his fall to earth any more than captains’ bars. We had a little come-to-Jesus that time, over the radio for all to hear. And credit where its due, for years now there’s an occasional heads-up call on the Unicom, standard procedure, but no more incursions since then.  Truth to power.

Whatever your opinion on all this, here’s one more thing to think about. I’ve observed from nearly forty years in the aft cockpit that those most concerned about traffic tend to watch any they see like a suspenseful ball game, and stop looking for all the other junk floating everywhere else. Don’t expect the hazard you’re staring at to be the one that sneaks up on you…



On my very first flight lesson I got a half hour of solo time before receiving any dual, honest! It was too windy at first so my instructor settled me in the front seat and showed what the stick and pedals do, then said, “Don’t take off without me,” and walked away.

The idea was to ‘fly’ that wing into the wind and keep it level, which is surprisingly easy given sufficient air flow. At first I moved the stick too much naturally, and pedals too little, like everyone else in the known universe. Once I gave my feet a chance, the Blanik’s castering tailwheel allowed exploration of yaw as well as roll, but that really complicated things. I’d turn too far and immediately ‘crash’, after which the bird would weathervane into the next gust and we could start over.

Hauling a downed wing up off the ground was hardest, and quite by accident I discovered that opposite, or ‘bottom’ rudder helps — a trick that only works on the ground believe it or not. It’s so simple, I’m ashamed to admit some many seasons passed before I finally paused a moment and thought this through. Say you’re on the ground, parked into the wind with the left wing down. You’ll need right stick of course, but odd as it sounds, a secondary effect of left rudder imparts a torsional force that twists the fuselage clockwise and adds to the rolling force of the right-deflected ailerons. (In the air it’s a slip, as you know.)

Gradually I learned to avoid that crash by feathering the controls and swinging back the other way. My conceptual grasp was near zero, but I began to anticipate what would happen and articulate my influence on the result like a toddler learning to walk.

When my instructor returned I proudly rocked the wings, then froze them neat and level. Unimpressed, she stepped upwind of one wing and with a cynical smirk stretched out her arms along the leading edge, stalling it to the ground without touching it.

After that we went up and explored how different everything feels when the wheel is not on the ground…


I’ve done that same exercise, called windjamming, with many first-timers over the decades since, and it makes everyone smile. We all recommend it. There’s more to say however, before we put this topic to rest.

One thing, where possible, leave the tow hook secured to the ground, especially if your solo artist is light of weight! In a two-seater, start by demonstrating from the back seat, and have any first timer cycle spoilers, making sure they’re ready to use them if a rogue gust makes that necessary. (When the wind is strong, leave them out for the whole drill.)

What about the canopy? In hot sun you may need to keep it securely open, somehow, and if closed it’s gotta be locked. Any first timer alone in the cockpit should understand this. And it wouldn’t hurt to hover nearby just in case…

Now, for poops and piddles, consider this. In actual flight that secondary effect acts against the other forces generating a turn. It must be very minor but it’s there. So, what if the rudder were below the fuselage (like on boats, duh)? Wouldn’t that put the twisting force in service of the roll rather than against it, requiring less aileron and improving efficiency?

Perhaps, but then every landing would bust the rudder again, and that could get old. Maybe those original designers had it right after all.



The airport I flew from in Vermont lay silver distance up the road from Sugarbush, where Region One’s soaring competition was held every year. Beyond our end of that valley, Jay Peak near the Canadian border was a traditional turn point, putting us on the course line for at least one leg of many tasks. During contest week I liked to perch with students wherever we had dependable lift and watch the race flow through, seeing what worked and what didn’t. And as with field trips back in school, often the teacher learned the most.

One time it was so windy we assumed the contest day would be scrubbed, but our local ridge was roaring strong as ever. A run to the far end was rough as the proverbial dickens but quick and easy, then while turning back we spotted two sailplanes about to land in a field below. We watched one follow the other around into the wind, slo-mo, until they stopped eerily side by side. Like some kind of illusion.

Then eerier still, they both began to move again, almost in unison. Yes, eyes that lie can also tell the truth. The field they were over was shaded, so no gauging their height above ground, but its windward slope is what arrested their descent. If they did land there, could they keep their birds down?

We loitered to see what might happen next. Moments later one crept sideways across a fence line tacking up onto the foot of our ridge, and then the other followed. They nibbled further toward us, rising, while another bird sidled in low over the same field to commence its own save. We still had a big height advantage over all of them, but that would soon vanish. Could we hump our grizzled old ‘33 back to the north end before those race cats caught us?

Dream on.

Another year, the pack had already flown by, visible now as occasional glints of gaggle twenty miles north. We were over flattish country barely in range of home and looking to maximize any lift we found. Rolling into a serendipitous two-knotter, I looked straight down for position and drift plus maybe some idea of the thermal’s source (all along, one of my few good habits). What twirled the eyes this time was our shadow being rammed by another from behind!

Say what?

No really, that happened. Eyes that lie… Mine snapped straight ahead where a flesh and blood sailplane materialized scary close, rolling into our turn.

Stunned, I knew from many photographs the tail number of one of America’s great soaring champions. He had rounded Jay Peak miles ahead of the pack, running hard as always, but gotten low in our neighborhood, and when we marked this thermal he attacked. Shooting under us with double our speed, he pulled up and settled in on the opposite side for what was probably a lot less than he wanted. Welcome to the boonies Ace.

After three circles nobody’d gained much, so he left us the moment he had glide to the bottom of the nearest hill — which happened to be the very monadnock where I had come to think of myself as a makeshift empresario. We’d be going there too, I told my student, but not before climbing a sensible ‘nother minute or so.

Couple of circles later we followed. He looked way too low to dig this one out and I supposed he’d retreat to our airport where we’d finally get to shake the champion’s hand. Yeah, keep dreaming. He swept in lower at that hill than its ‘empresario’ ever dared, with juice aplenty to zoom upslope and turn south along the top, gone from sight before we got there. Boonies indeed.

On the phone with him years later I recalled the day, wondering what he might say of our shared moment that became for me a lifelong memory. He heard my version with what may have been feigned patience, then asked: “Where was this again?”

Yup, that’s the way it is.