WHAT MISTAKES?

Math teachers always reminded us, “Be sure to check your work.”  I never thought it necessary but usually obeyed just to say so, and was surprised anew each time by my countless careless oversights.  Rarely did I bother with a second check – that would only expose even more dumbbooboos…  Yes I was not a star in school, but only because I didn’t try.  There were so many other things to think about!

I spent whole weeks of teenage class time contemplating one question that still seems, in any context, more worthy than all others:  ‘What matters most ?’  (You must admit it carries a lot of freight.)  These days, beyond pondering the question, we negotiate it, like traffic.  Like traffic it’s nearly everywhere.  Ultimately of course there’s no unifying answer, but that does nothing to diminish the question’s pervading relevancy.

When time came to settle on a line of work, nothing mattered more to me than showing folks how to float in the sky.  It’s easy and fun, so being lazy as a buzzard I sank right into it.  This is also where I finally learned that sometimes you really do have to try.  Okay that’s fair, some things are worth it.

Knowing far from enough about too much of everything, I cooked ‘What matters most?’ into all the paltry foods I fed my poor dear students through year after year of learning more and more how to soar and teach.  Turns out the answer (r)evolves like all else from one stage to the next.  In soaring as in life, for there is no difference, a big part of the answer at every stage is to never abandon your hallowed status of Pupil.

Now well across a fourth decade of learning to correct, critique, cajole and eventually cheer student pilots toward our shared desire, what matters most seems not so much operations done properly or well – those are mostly prescribed and allow scant uncertainty regarding standards.  What it shakes out to is two kinds of mistakes:  those few we resolve and the unknown legions we don’t.  My own flying and instructing have amounted to hardly more than bundles of mistakes like clumps of prickly sand grass ever woven by time into grounded cables of error.  Unraveling these, like all God’s work, is a truly endless process. That’s much of why soaring compels such deep fascination.  So many ways to do the wrong thing and so few ways not to!

Students signal collaborative success when they correct mistakes on their own before I tire of biting my tongue and plead for relief.  I have only one tongue, you know.

So here’s the point.  Anytime you’re up there, alone or otherwise, imagine every pilot you admire is with you and try to fly so they won’t need to bite their tongues…  After all, if you’d like them to admire you too, that’s part of what matters most.

AIRVALANCHE

We were gliding toward a big mountain in strong crosswind, expecting dependable ridge lift when we got there. A smaller hill lay a couple miles upwind, certain to undercut lift somewhere below, but we intended to remain safely above any of that.

Well below the crest we watched loaves of newly fallen snow tumble from pine boughs in random gusts and wander up-slope. Up on top, spindrift was wafting off the ridge in giant banners that diffused in the wind. Then … I did a blink-your-eyes double take. Exactly where we were headed, acres of wind-borne snow were going the wrong way, an airborne avalanche flowing rapidly down into a narrowing defile!

Whaa?

Entirely unseen but quickly becoming obvious, something was dumping big sink onto the windward flank of our mountain… We could actually see a descending curve bottom out in the flowing snow.  Not what we were looking for, so we pulled a quick one-eighty and vamoosed.

What happened later I don’t remember, lots of normal stuff probably. But the question lingered, if that was rotor sink hundreds of feet higher than its source terrain far upwind, how’d it get there?

Recognition came ten years later via the ‘radical symbol’ for square root:  .  No mathematical significance mind you, just the figure itself as if a prehistoric hieroglyph.  Keep this shape in mind (only a whole lot bigger) as a geographical profile.

For those familiar with Crystal’s locale, we’re looking east through Vincent Gap. The little spike at left is Blue Ridge and Baden Powell is on the right, 1800 feet higher. Wind is 20+ from stage left, tumbling over the low peak, across the gap and up the bigger slope like a tide of lottery balls.

Here’s the thing. Each ball is an individual rotor tripped into motion by Blue Ridge, so from this perspective they’re all rolling clockwise, left to right. Therefore, even as all the rotors are pushed upslope, every one that contacts the hill does so with its down side first… Hence the airvalanche.

Without that flocking of loose snow on the pines we’d have flown straight into nasty sink and nowhere to go but down…  One more reason, if you’re counting, to look out the front when you fly.

THIS REALLY HAPPENED

Jay, a savvy pre-solo student, completed his standard launch protocols by stiff-arming the brake handle exactly as he was taught. Then, when the rudder didn’t wag I supposed he was just over eager and did that for him.

Several times in those next few seconds I could have added a touch of something, but never quite needed to as we veered one way and gradually back, wings almost level, bird finally lifting off by itself the way it should. I remember thinking, ‘He’s usually sharper than this.’

Then fifty feet up, one wing dropped and we swung out to that side. I cringed as remaining runway neared zero, watching for Jay’s response. All he did was tilt his head square with the horizon. Only as I intervened did he blurt, “Uh, you’re flying it, right?”

“I wasn’t, but I am now,” we both said at once… and arm wrestling didn’t work much better.

Jay thought my pedal wag indicated exchange of control and dutifully let go the moment we began. From there on, each deferred to the other and both went along for the ride — a thousand feet forward and a full wingspan into the air with no one in command!

Easy on the kid, I told myself. Not his fault, it’s mine for butting in with the rudder wag.

Someone watching said even our wing drop looked fairly normal, given the context, and wondered only why my correction was so awkward. No harm in the end, and everyone got a smile out of it…

But it’s really not funny, is it?

As the CFIG solely accountable for whatever might happen, I’d like to think my response was at least timely enough. But imagine the same scenario for two casual pilots, each trusting the other with both their lives. How long might either wait to question what neither is doing, and how deft the recovery when both get a grip at the same time? Could get sticky!

The tandem configuration of glider cockpits naturally invites such confusion, but it’s still preventable, and in more than one way. The gold standard is “I have control” or “You have control”, or some verbal equivalent. Also common, a quick jiggle of the stick when control is being transferred frequently. But communication of any kind requires agreement on what things mean, or don’t mean.

Also, someone should be already in control…

Many seasoned pilots can tell of similar embarrassments and most of their stories seem to end well. Maybe that’s because those that didn’t end well don’t get told. Nothing is more important at any time of flight than knowing who actually has the con, and no time is more critical than launch! Otherwise it’s Russian roulette with no empty chambers.

SOMETHING WE ALL HAVE IN COMMON

Like most non-aviators I didn’t know one aircraft from another, but while driving in the country I saw one swoop low overhead that looked unlike any other. It moved slower than I thought planes could fly, and seemed to make no sound! ‘Is that what they call a glider?’ I wondered, pulling over to watch as its long wings slid low over treetops, down out of sight.

Did it CRASH? There was no explosion…

I bounced up a dirt road through those trees until they opened on a private airstrip and there lay that strange metal bird, one wingtip resting on the grass. Was it busted? As I drove up it’s canopy opened and two people clamored out, smiling… An hour later that would be me.

Fascination hardly bearable, I stood at the periphery to listen and look, and gather the courage to part with twenty bucks. It was reassuring to learn that the pilot, Ed, was a math teacher and family man, a far more responsible citizen than I. Others in that loose and chatty group exemplified what’s true of soaring people everywhere: a tribe of boggling diversity, from Girl Scouts to diplomats, bound by a sense of aesthetic and childlike curiosity. Among the peculiar blend of artistic types and engineers are many practical salt-of-the-earth folk (heavy equipment operators make fine soaring pilots). And of course some of us even our mothers would classify as flakes. Hi Mom!

So alien was that first experience, and so long ago, I recall few details. The bustle of new information was not so much disorienting as stimulating. I only hoped these people knew what they were doing! Our craft was hitched to the tail of an old Cessna by what looked like ordinary ski rope and pulled up the runway on its one wheel, wobbly at first like starting out on a bike.

I was 24 at the time, and had been on airliners, but never seen out the front before. Tailing another plane in flight from close behind was the first in what became a flood of novelties. Soon it peeled away, leaving us enthroned above a lush crazy quilt of farms and forest, floating in silence. Already I was caught in a current of destiny, and then the pace quickened.

Responding to the faintest bump, Ed sighed gleefully and rolled into a sensuous turn. Instinct pulled my eyes that direction and down, as it does for almost everyone. “The wing’s moving backwards!” I laughed. “We’re spinning around like a top.”

“Spin’s a four-letter word,” he chided. “That wingtip’s moving forward about fifty, believe it or not. And of course the other one’s going faster…” I understood that, basically, but my eyes still said otherwise!

Ed narrated the entire performance as we rose, pointing out details while I strained to absorb all aspects of a spellbinding moment. It seemed dreamily unreal, yet more natural than the drive out there! My strongest impressions were a euphoric, fleeting kind of peace — and nearly limitless potential.

“So this is what you’ve been missing,” he concluded. “And we could easily stay up here the rest of the day, but now we should hurry down to give my next victim a chance.”

He had me pull back on the big blue handle (ever drive off a cliff?) and suddenly it was over. Our landing on the grass felt like easing into a feather bed, and when feet again touched the ground my spontaneous delight only fed the others’ contagion. Dazed, I must have asked the same predictable questions I would later answer for countless other first-timers in all the seasons since — something we all have in common.

Someone clapped Ed on the back, “Seems you’ve hooked another one,” and they all chuckled, looking fondly at me. Nothing was the same, ever again.

My second flight would be my first lesson and the beginning of a long career. But in more than forty years since, I have yet to take a second ‘ride’…