MOOSEY LAKES, A REINCARNATION

The local ridge where I flew in New England runs ten miles, barely high enough to matter at the near end and twice as big further south. Lower slopes are covered with second growth hardwoods, easy tramping, but the ridge top itself is a densely tangled thicket of ancient vegetation, living and dead, impenetrable ten feet deep. No trails anywhere, except of the game variety.

Halfway between the low end and high end, a little rill of folded bedrock crosses a saddle on the ridge, adorned with a chain of four jewel-like beaver ponds set within low trees and high brush. Sometimes they reflect the sky’s blue, sometimes its gray, but more often their aquatic green is only a shade lighter than than the olive drab camo of the forest itself. Hiding in plane sight.

One day three of the ponds were placid, but the widest one looked like a minuscule phonograph record, concentric circles vibrating sunlight. That called for a closer look. (Blowing off altitude is so much more more fun when you have a real excuse, but that’s another yarn altogether!) Down on the treetops I did a double take… Really? Yup, two huge moose straight ahead, up to their knees in the drink.

Surprised them like they’ll never forget, then pulled quick and hard back around to see more. But they’d already galoshed their way to shore and ducked under cover, leaving the water a roiled and muddy brown.

No doubt the moose visited there more often than I did, but that’s the only time I saw them in sixteen seasons and who knows how many flybys. Yeah, so, because the ponds had no official name (who else even knew about them?) I christened them Moosey Lakes and promised myself to bushwhack up there someday for a respectful look around. What I didn’t know was, they too were in the process of disappearing.

Not long after my moose sighting, one of the beaver dams collapsed, leaving three green eyes to stare at the sky. Then a couple years later, my last there, another dam failed. Only two left. Sad to think I never did get up there on foot.

When I reconnoitered in 2010 via GoogleEarth, only one pond remained, and then in ‘13 nothing but a grassy bog. End of an era. Had the beavers just gone away, or been wasted by a rabid Second Amendment enthusiast? Who knows. Whatever else you say about life, it does go on.

Chasing that stream all the way up a mountainside to its very source before getting down to business must have required extraordinary eagerness, even for beavers. Yet eventually all their work was washed away. Would they ever return?

 

Well, in 2016 GoogleEarth revealed that a new dam had been erected at the lower end and a new pond was filling up again. The first of several? We may suppose that beavers (like the moose) have come and gone from this tiny corner of Paradise unnumbered times over millennia, and will continue to until we render them extinct.

Now it’s 2018, and wouldn’t you know, another new dam seems to be in place, collecting water to restore that wider pond where two moose once had a UFO sighting. After nearly forty years this current cycle is not quite complete, but looks like it won’t be much longer. Nice to know it can still happen. Not like I need an excuse to go there and soar that ridge again, but celebrating one full and prosperous cycle would surely qualify. And in the process why not finally make that ceremonial bushwhack up to Moosey Lakes!

THE GOLDILOCKS APPROACH

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.

BIG SKY THEORY REVISITED

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHrTWih0rnE  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…

WINDJAMMING 101

 

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.