TERRIFIC, TOM

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!

FOLKS BEING FOLKS

Now that it’s too late I realize I should have kept a journal all these years, on the nameless legion of ‘interesting’ individuals I’ve been blessed to fly with. Often such blessings are a cocktail mixed, if you know what I’m trying to not quite say, always worth any passing discomfiture if for educational value alone. Whether one-time passengers or serious students, people new to the soaring environment are in some sense patients, vulnerable and fragile, deserving our most empathetic bedside manner.

Nearly all companions in the cockpit are estimable fellow citizens, most more accomplished than myself, many quite rich and a few famous. But that’s not what this is about. I’ve found that special status by itself is not necessarily what makes people or their responses interesting. Those mentioned here emerge from the mass because, for whatever reason, they made my mind’s eye blink…

I always tell student pilots the only stupid question is the one they don’t ask, but first-time passengers frequently disprove that assertion. Even intelligent, successful beings who’ve gotten around without supervision for years sometimes utter things so stunningly thoughtless you struggle to not laugh. We’ve seen people ask, before their first glider flight, if they could have one of our staff come with them just in case — and others express surprise when they learn a pilot will be going along. I’ve had more than one passenger, midway through the tow, ask if the plane pulling us was a glider too. Or wonder, after the tow plane flew away, how we were supposed to get down without it. These were adults… eligible voters!

Not to imply everyone’s clueless. I had the honor of soaring with Sabrina Jackintell, who, some years after her passing still holds the women’s world altitude record set in 1979. She confessed that in her heyday, before she could join the guys swapping lies after a great day in the sky, she always needed to sneak off somewhere first, for a good cry. Sadly, few pilots of any persuasion are women and unaccompanied female passengers are the rarest category of all, but lately that seems to be changing. One stipulated beforehand that she was reluctant because in her prior career as a TV news reporter she’d spent a lot of time in helicopters and “seen too many close calls.” But she was still curious and had the guts to give us a try, so all I needed was one good thermal to vanquish her reluctance forever.

The con artist who always arrived in a Beemer driven by his stylish girlfriend was one of a kind, thank goodness. During our first conversation he claimed to have been a designated examiner for some type of biz jet, then unknowingly gave himself away. Said he already had the glider rating, but no recent experience, and just wanted to get current so could take his lady up with a nice bottle of wine for an afternoon in the mountains… Wine, huh? Said he forgot his logbook, but would be sure to bring it when he came back. And he did — come back. Driven each time by the fox in the gleaming Beemer… but always forgot to bring that logbook.

One balmy weekend two lovers came out hoping to go up together, but our operation had only Blaniks so they’d have to fly separately. Their thing was they really wanted to go in the nude… Okay, so while they donned their birthday suits we all stood around awkwardly looking at each other, to see who might get caught looking at them. Only has to happen once.

A couple of working class cockneys eloped from England and came straight from their wedding to the glider port, almost. The groom had already returned his rented his tux and wore shorts and a T-shirt, while she, expecting to own that dress for the rest of her life but never wear it again, was keeping it on till bedtime. Before we could get the canopy closed the whole aft cockpit was stuffed with yards and yards of white crepe taffeta, right up to their grinning chins.

Another brave fellow warned me in advance that he was going to propose during the flight, and proudly showed the ring. For the next half hour I lived in dread that she’d decline his offer. When the time came they were so quiet I wasn’t sure what happened, so I devised an excuse for a steep turn and nearly broke the corner of my eye appearing to clear for traffic. They were back there necking.

The following didn’t happen to me, but to my friend Rave (whom I taught to fly, so it was like having one of your favorite kids run over by the ice cream truck). His newlyweds had been married most of two days, and as a recent newlywed himself Rave could sense the honeymoon was going poorly. But the ride had already been paid for and they were determined to “go through with it”. The change of perspective put her back in a good mood, but he got sick, and before they landed she was muttering aloud about having married the wrong guy. Ouch! Sorry Rave, Papa should have told you there’d be days like this.

Most soaring pilots who’ve given thousands of rides have a collection of colorful anecdotes around the use of barf bags, or what can happen when none are available, and I’m no exception. We won’t go there just now, but I will say I’m convinced that women in general have stronger stomachs than men. Probably because they spend their whole lives putting up with men! That said, my nominee for the one species of human most impervious to motion sickness is anyone who’s survived horrible injury or illness. Those patients have seen real trouble, and something like a little turbulence is not apt to bother them.

The ‘interesting’ individuals described here are only the first that came to mind. The list could go on forever. And some are uniquely inspiring. More than once I’ve had a teenager fly the tow just fine, intuitively, after less than a minute — on their first ride! Ah, but I dare not say too much about individual students, bad or good, for thankfully, many are still around. They know who they are.

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.