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.



Be honest. Whatever your level of skill or experience, wouldn’t you love to fly with at least a bit more finesse? Don’t you wish there were some eclectic disciplines to sharpen technique, extend your limits and augment control? Well there are! And you don’t need to go out of your way or spring for any specialized equipment to take advantage. Say you’re fiddling around locally and there’s more lift than you know what to do with, or maybe you can’t handle any more ecstasy and just wanna get down. Any time you have nothing more ‘important’ to do is the right time for some glider calisthenics.

First of course, find a quiet corner of airspace clear of traffic, runways and airways, because some of these drills can be considered aerobatic. An established practice area might be perfect, especially if it comes with convenient lift. Also, don’t forget to announce your intentions on the appropriate frequency, then go have fun.

  • A good way to start is by turning continuously from side to side like a skier on a slalom run. The moment you enter each turn, begin rolling the other way, and make a point of keeping the yaw string centered and airspeed constant!
  • Leading right into the venerable dutch roll, where you bank from 45 to 45 and back as snappy as possible without yawing while also keeping the string straight. This exposes the languid response of that long wing, where trying to roll any quicker results only in more drag and less control. (Shh: the trick is to lead with aileron ahead of rudder by about half a cycle. Don’t tell anybody.)
  • Now see how absolutely slow you can fly while rolling into and out of coordinated turns, ickier the better. This can amount to a continuous stall recovery never quite begun. Hint: bring your feet!
  • Next, level up and stay in the incipient stall, then see how efficiently you can execute a sharp 180 from there. Caveat: turning too far before recovery doesn’t count (it’s a spin recovery, stupid)!
  • Or practice slipping at extreme angles and various speeds while holding a straight ground track — both directions naturally. And always try to roll out on a precise heading! (BTW, for power pilots new to gliders, there’s no need to slip with a nose low attitude. Keep pitch about level to limit lateral stress on your precious tail.)
  • Ready for a real challenge? Try working a thermal with stick only – hee hee hee – and then with rudder only. It can be terribly awkward, but usually possible, and like all these drills, more fun and more truly elevating than so many of the standard procedures we wade through every flight.

That last one give you the willies? If not, these next two might, but folks I’ve shared them with over the years have enjoyed them plenty. See what you think.

  • Dive to about the yellow arc, then smoothly and firmly pull up and up — and UP until you’re very nearly out of gas. Object being to go forward stick at just the right time and follow your nose over the top in zero-G. Well timed, you can get airspeed down to ten knots or less without ever stalling! (The first few tries you’ll likely get some kind of half-arsed hammerhead complete with gravel in the eyes as inertia swaps ends, but that’s okay so long as you and all the gear were quite secure beforehand…) Speed builds very quickly when you’re pointed down again, so recovery can bring you back to the yellow arc in a blink, but no further — if you do it right.
  • Any left? Add one more dimension. Let the bird adopt whichever attitude she wishes, with your input or without. Three-G, negative-G, thirty-degree pitch, eighty-degree bank, whatever she likes, with two restraints familiar by now: keep the yaw string straight and respect that yellow arc. What you’ll learn from this ride is that even more rudder is needed at extreemely slow speeds, and changes in pitch profoundly influence coordination.

And on it goes.
Done properly, such exercises are quite safe and tons of fun. They promote mastery of your craft at the edges of its envelope — where mastery is most important. Imagine a world of ways to loosen your bounds and up your game, with many yet undiscovered. See if you can develop some of your own, and if they work great, pass ‘em on! What better way to spend all that excess energy?


In the summer of ’93, one day each week we ferried a 2-32 for glider rides at a sleepy country club on the shore of Lake Champlain. This gig was such a kick that 45-mile aerotows there and back were usually the most interesting part. Even so, there was nowhere else I’d rather have been. Why? Unless you like enigmatic answers, don’t ask.

Headed home one time, we were skirting class C airspace when suddenly, despite our being painted on radar, here came a Cessna departing BTV and intersecting our course from 90 degrees left — behind Tug the tow pilot’s peripheral vision.

He was on tower frequency but we had no radio in the glider, de rigueur. My steering either way would make things even more hazardous; turn left and hike our closing speed for a three-way head-on, or turn right to put the bogey directly behind. This was someone already failing to see us crossing directly ahead in broadside position.

Obvious choice, release and turn away. But then what? Beyond glide range from any proper airstrip, we’d just spent the whole day proving there was zero lift of any kind. No chance of gliding home in free flight.

I picked a couple potentially landable fields and waited while the Cessna bore on in. It was exactly at our altitude and moments from cutting the line when someone finally awoke and banked hard over to starboard, behind us by the grace of Gaia. (Oh to be a fly on the wall of that debrief!)

Though I came about point nine seconds from pulling up thirty feet and releasing, actually I did nothing, and Tug was unaware of the whole episode until after we landed. He heard a lot about it then of course, and laughed so hard he sharted. No really, but we needn’t go into that.

All done and said, watchful inaction averted a late-night retrieve, and the Cessna’s propeller possibly gnarling our line and steel ring!

…given my heart a change of mood,
and saved some part of a day I’d rued.

Robert Frost

Another week, same setup only closer to the end of the season, and therefore to dark, wouldn’t you know, halfway home we stumbled into wave. Tug nosed down to hold altitude and soon we were over eighty. “Screw this,” said I, cutting loose to rise away and sail home in ironic style.

While Tug circled below searching for me I smiled inside, thinking, ‘If I had a radio you’d be glancing up about now. C’est la vie.’

Ahh, first time in daze with no reason to land except impending darkness. Most fun of the whole week! My soul begged to stay up all night, but it grew chillier by the minute and nature was calling too. So that day would end as anticlimactically as a thousand others. Vie la c’est?

When I rolled to a stop at dusk, there stood Rave, the boss, arms folded and slowly shaking his head. I had taught him to fly, then worked with him daily for years, poor guy. He never could stay mad at me for long.

I got away with so much whateverwecalledit back then! And have ever since, come to think about it. That’s why I try so hard these daze to think of ‘other’ things.


Some of us think soaring at Crystal is more interesting and more downright fun in winter. It’s never too hot, seldom too cold, windy no more often than summer, and unlike summer, each day’s soaring is apt to be very different.

During the ‘off’ season, most soarable lift near Crystal is a function of wind interacting with hills. Westerlies are most common, flowing parallel with our ‘second ridge’ where wind often rises along both sides, creating a line of convergence and maybe even some modest thermals off the ridge top as well.

Behind this ridge lies Fenner Canyon, its upper end gathering wind right where steep sandy slopes face the sun and warm the air as it rises. That’s also where the ridge top’s narrowest saddle collects air from both sides atop those sandy slopes. Triple whammy! On winter days with little or no thermal activity anywhere else, this corner we call ‘the work camp’ might work all day.

Once up above 8000 feet over the second ridge, one good choice is to hop across to Mt. Lewis. A west wind can also create slope lift on the big ridge that runs south from there to Throop Peak. Lift near the hill may be treacherous, but up around 9000 feet it can turn into wave generated by Mt. Williamson, offering spectacular views of low clouds over the LA basin. (If you’re high there and lift turns suddenly to sink, that’s an indication of rotor coming your way, and a dive to windward might restore the lift and carry you up into the wave itself.)

Southerly wind brings classic wave with the best lift typically above a rock formation known as the Devil’s Punchbowl. When that’s happening we usually have a harmonic somewhere near the airport – plus who knows how many more downwind into the desert. Often it’s possible to climb up into wave from thermals or rotor, or some combination of both, and the best place for this is the west end of that same second ridge. (Spoiler alert: when rain is forecast in LA, with a ‘chance’ of rain in the desert, we expect conventional wave activity both the day before the rain and the day of it, so drizzle near the coast is no reason to cancel your appointment!)

When the forecast calls for ‘Santa Ana’ winds in LA, that north-to-south flow can provide not only good ridge soaring on our north-facing slopes, but also ‘bow’ waves upwind of the Mountains. Bow waves are weaker than the classic variety and won’t carry you very high, but are a fun challenge to explore. They’re seldom marked by cloud and tend to drift downwind toward the mountains like a surf, growing as they approach and then collapsing as waves do on the beach. (Here too, if you’re in lift near the hill and it quits, flying straight upwind may put you in the next approaching wave…)

Also, in light northeast winds we have a predictable, if sometimes subtle source of lift very near the airport, a wide pattern of dune-like ripples that act as a thermal trigger. These ripples lie right where you go to prepare for landing on Runway 7, and drifting as you climb carries you toward the field — a pleasant convenience when scratching in weak winter thermals.

These are only a few of the local treasures that can make soaring in winter actually more interesting (and educational) than the booming days of summer. Add to this the sheer beauty of snow on the mountains and you have ample excuse for maintaining currency all year long!