DON’T BACK DOWN, BACK UP!

 

This one’s reprinted from about three years ago, and yes, it’s a true story.

One breezy winter day we had no chance of any usable thermal activity and the only slope angled suitably for ridge lift seemed too far up a narrow canyon to safely approach nose first. Time to improvise.

First we flew across the canyon’s mouth, drifting sideways. When we reached the opposite wall we turned back out and began a series of long crabbing figure-eights at minimum sink speed, recrossing the canyon each way and turning slowly into the wind at either side. It took a while (most things do, don’t they?) but gradually we drifted backward, downwind, up the canyon to its head without ever pointing our nose in that direction.

Common ridge lift in moderate wind seldom carries more than a thousand feet above high ground, but this venturi stuff tossed us almost twice that. High enough for courage to dive over the top and down the other side, through wicked sink into well marked wave miles downwind of home. From there we concocted a neat little cross-country, joining other wave elsewhere and returning to our local area from the north after departing to the south – on a winter day that was otherwise ‘unsoarable’.

Unless you fly right.

 

DON’T MAKE ME GAULPH

 

There are similarities between soaring and golf that reveal as much about us as the activities themselves. (Full disclosure, I don’t golf a bit, but know some folks who do, whatever that’s worth.) Among the more maddening parallels, whether out on there on the course or up here a mile, on course, the sporting day begins and ends knowing however well you do, you could have done better. Time and again your deficiencies are exposed for all to see, as others of apparently the same species make it look so easy! Always short of some high ideal, you involuntarily torture yourself every time you think of it while waiting another week. Drives ya nuts, don’t it?

Here’s guessing it wasn’t always so easy for those you envy, either. No doubt they tortured themselves plenty in the past. Maybe that helps and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe they still torture themselves. Either way, none of it’s worth getting out of bed for unless you truly enjoy the process. If not, why bother? When the game becomes a source of anguish, you’re torturing yourself for the wrong reasons.

I’m glad we don’t have to play in the shade.

Bobby Jones, on being told it was 105 in the shade

As a kid I lived to play ball. Not to win anything, just to play. In high school sports I preferred practice over the official games, because we got to play more. When a coach started teaching us how to hurt opponents without being caught I decided to quit and take up romance instead. To play more, without being caught.

In soaring, when the ‘big boys’ are chasing each other through the sky hoping to reach some arbitrary goal before their friends do, I’m inclined to probe my limits somewhere near the ground (higher ground the better) looking to learn the heretofore unimagined. That for me is the point of going in the first place. If score is kept I’m sure to be the loser, but who’s keeping score, and why? It’s me who’s s’posed to be enjoying this after all, and finishing last means I get to play longer, more time in the gym. So there.

This is why you don’t want me in your foursome on the links. Where ‘serious’ players start by launching straight down a fairway to get as close to the flag as possible, I’m apt to try for that sand trap almost out of range on the long side, even if it takes an extra stroke or two. And if I wind up in the woods over there, better yet. Why? Keeps things interesting, and sets up more hard shots instead of fewer easy ones. If hitting that ball is integral to the fun, and challenge makes everything more fun, why swing as few times as possible? I’d rather hazard the wrong end of a driving range and tee peoples’ shots accurately back to them, like shagging flies in the outfield. Honestly, how could that not be more fun? Think of dodging the incoming as a bonus (helmets for wimps only). Goethe would understand.

Do you? If floating in heaven is something you really do enjoy, why hurry through it as if you’re running from the cops? Wherever you are, in the air or on the ground, this moment here and now is the only one you get. The sages say slow down and savor it while you still can.

ACCELERATED STALL (PRIOR ARRANGEMENT ONLY)

 

We’ve all heard many times that you can stall in any attitude and at any speed. What’s seldom mentioned, however, you can recover from a stall in any attitude too — given sufficient speed. If this seems either immaterial or outright dubious, read on.

I was up once with a video camera on the instrument panel pointed forward, looking for action. Suddenly here came another glider, crossing paths some hundreds of feet below, near enough for an interesting shot if I could reposition in time. I swung away in a sharp spilt-S, intentionally falling behind and below the bogey, then zoomed up on its six with energy to burn.

Though fully capable of this maneuver, I had never practiced with a ‘live’ target. Turned out I dove a bit too far and gathered more speed than necessary, so had to pull up hard to not pass under it. And that’s a textbook prescription for an accelerated stall.

We all know what ordinary stalls feel like, and don’t normally associate them with heavy Gs, but the camera doesn’t lie. Video shows the bogey coming into view from above, appearing to shudder as it falls off the bottom of the screen during the stall, then smoothly back to center screen during recovery.

Keep in mind, the other aircraft was straight and level the whole time; it’s my ship that shuddered. When the stall began I was pitched up 35 degrees or more at about a hundred knots, and remained well above level (still climbing) afterward. Stalling scrubbed just the right amount of excess energy, enabling a momentary pause to paint the rapidly growing target with imaginary tracers before lofting above it again. Kaboom.

 

Now think what might have happened if I had not recovered from the stall. Impossible to know with any precision, but the glider would have continued upward toward the victim for several seconds, slowing but effectively out of control. And…

The ugly truth is, that other pilot was oblivious of peril in which further misjudgment on my part, or a botched recovery, could have risked collision… There’s no stenciling a kill on your nose cone if your nose cone is what makes the kill.

And THIS is exactly why the FARs require PRIOR ARRANGEMENT!!

SAY CHEEZE

I learned to fly as many have, with money from an insurance settlement. That same windfall also paid for a used camera and three lenses. The two arts seemed made for each other and I was eager to combine them, but it didn’t take long to find that being unskilled at both disciplines and barely familiar with either kind of equipment guaranteed poor results all around. My first flight with the camera was embarrassingly short and not especially safe, the few pictures I took amounting to blurry fuzz. Both flight and film cost more than I could frugally afford, illustrating the need to develop these skills separately, at least a little, before trying to combine them.

Results did improve as years passed until neither passion interfered terribly with the other, but of course there’s always more to learn. Then that first camera died weirdly, as so many things do, and I could only afford to replace it with what was then called an instamatic. Surprisingly, this technical step ‘down’ brought unexpected breakthroughs! The simpler device enabled more consistent, if lower resolution images, and strapping it to my wrist while holding it outside the canopy window eliminated those pesky reflections that spoil so many otherwise wonderful aerial photos. More importantly, ease of handling saved brain space, always a limited commodity, and led to more artful flying, thus more and better pics.

 

The most challenging subject for aerial photography might be other aircraft, and not for technical reasons alone. Catching moving targets from a moving platform has its difficulties, but often the worst problem is psychological. It’s impossible to get a good picture of a plane that’s always running away, which is what amateur air-to-air becomes in many cases. All pilots should understand that formation flight must be by prior arrangement, but briefing beforehand won’t help much if the pilot you’re trying to shoot won’t let you come within a half mile. It’s even more frustrating when, for whatever reason, the glider you’re in sinks below and the other pilot climbs unthinkingly away. Sad truth is, some of my best air-to-air trophies have come by way of subterfuge, sneaking up on the ‘victim’ before they knew it.

 

Then I got lost and ended up in California where bigger, more spectacular landscapes provided richer visuals, and outcomes improved proportionally. Costs, however, also continued to rise. During one season of collecting panoramic mosaics, I joked that I was single-handedly supporting the Kodak Corporation. (Didn’t help; they were about to go belly up anyway.)

Eventually my trusty little SureShot got so full of desert dust it was beyond repair — just as digital cameras came available at a comparable price. This though, exposed the awkward fact that I did not have or even want a computer, without which digital photos hide forever in the camera. But it was the nineties, and things were changing fast. Not even a luddite can evade the neutering allure of technological advancement, Lord knows I’ve tried.

So I gritted my teeth and bought a low-end PC that I scarcely knew how to operate. (Two things to say about that travail: curse whoever invented the invisible WRONG button, and thank Heaven for CONTROL ALT DELETE! The rest remains an ongoing ordeal.) Good news? Profligate shooting sprees cost nothing, plus it’s now possible to quickly crop, enlarge, enhance or otherwise alter images, and never regret the wasted ones.

Nowadays everybody has a camera in their pocket whether they know how to use it or not. Stills, video, and practically infinite rolls of ‘film’, so it’s a very different game. But from my vantage in the rear seat, I still see people doing all sorts of things to sabotage their own work. So here’s the simplest of advice for anyone shooting digital in the air. Unless you really know your stuff, don’t bother trying to compose a perfect frame, don’t even use the viewing screen. Just square your camera with the horizon and take twice as many shots as necessary. You can shamelessly dump the skeezy ones later.

Also, if someone else is trying to capture you for posterity, stay within radar range!