Soaring Is Learning
Soaring is about learning all the time. Here are some tips on becoming a better soaring pilot. Brought to you by Southern California Soaring Academy.
Soaring is about learning all the time. Here are some tips on becoming a better soaring pilot. Brought to you by Southern California Soaring Academy.
Tibor arrived in North America penniless and unfamiliar with the language, but well before I met him he’d established a chain of studios specializing in child photography and become modestly wealthy. This despite the fact that he was a terrible photographer who tended to frighten children and even small dogs. He’s the best example I’ve ever met of someone you have to love, even while they fill you with dread of what might happen next.
He was an adolescent in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded, bless his heart. With hoards of others, he ran for his life into Russia and ended up a cadet flying Yaks. Before long, the way he told it, all the ‘real’ pilots from that base had either moved up to combat assignments or… when some general demanded a demonstration. Tibor, still in training, happened to be the most experienced pilot available, and was called on to exhibit skills the command wished he already possessed. He did okay until the landing part.
By way of remediation, he was given thirty days in the brig before climbing back in the cockpit. That, presumably, would teach him not to make any more bad landings!
Tibor was telling this story the day we met, while getting us stuck in traffic – sideways. In a town so small there was controversy about whether to install the county’s first traffic light, Tibor had accomplished the seemingly impossible, pulling out of a parking lot and somehow blocking both lanes of the main drag. Horns were honking from left and right and I was trying to crawl under the seat, as he finished his story with the triumphant words, “I should have been dead fifty years ago, I don’t give a s- -t.”
My dentist in that small town was Tibor’s back-to-back neighbor, and enjoyed regaling me with stories about him whenever I was in the chair. One winter morning the dentist looked out his bathroom window and saw Tibor in his undies, shoveling snow into a wheelbarrow and hauling it inside the house… Crazy? Oh sure, but even for guys like Tibor there’s always a reason. He could easily afford an indoor swimming pool, but was too cheap to buy a thermostat for the pool’s heater, and had inadvertently left it turned up while away for a couple weeks. When he returned the whole house was a steam bath, wallpaper peeling and all the rest.
Tibor flew from our field for several years, always displaying the most abysmal judgment. He took a friend up once, a power pilot who’d never been in a glider. Tibor got them out of range and was gliding back too slow in sink, when (really, I ain’t making this up) the guest realized they’d never make it and took over. Speeding way the heck up was all it took, and they did reach the field. He consistently landed his Cessna like a glider, but his glider like a Cessna. One day he stalled his glider so high and so short that pieces flew off from the impact before he coasted through those blue lights onto the end of the runway.
Then came the time Tibor wanted to see an airshow a few miles down the road and went there in his Cessna. He arrived a little late and the event had already begun, so of course the airport was officially closed, but he just flew in anyway. Representatives of the FAA were in attendance, no surprise, and that’s when Tibor was found to have never held an actual pilot certificate!
Just when we all were sighing relief that he’d not be terrorizing us anymore, we got a call — from Tibor. Seems he was ready now to throw down for some flight instruction, and I would have the honor of being his instructor. Oh joy.
It’s been a popular ruse since the onset of vehicular transportation, gussy up a weary old vessel worthy of more and sell the paint job to someone who doesn’t know better. So it was with Hotel Bravo. She came to us with a fresh coat of red white and blue — whose nose cone peeled the first year. Brand new main tire — with a 3/4-inch chip out of the rim on one side. New skid too — softwood, which broke before we could replace it. Ah but to be fair, I had to admit she flew okay. Not as nice as Juliet, but then…
Days later I was up in HB, wing to wing with Juliet more or less and, just for effect, popped spoilers. No big deal — until they locked full open. And if you know anything about 2-32s, that’s a one-way ticket on the gravity express.
Hotel Bravo’s saving feature, no tidy partition behind the aft seat, leaving all those mechanical innards between the wings exposed. While setting up an off-field landing I flew the stick with my knees, right hand jiggling the spoiler handle, and reached back with my left hand to fumble around until… whatta ya know, something got the spoilers unstuck and I closed them without losing any fingers.
That evening with the two birds nose to nose and their turtle decks off, the problem was obvious. 2-32s’ brake assembly includes a strange triangular linkage that in HB had been installed backwards, allowing full extension to go over center and jam, unclosable. What I did in flight to trick it, no idea. Just so glad I happened to be in the back seat! (Imagine though, what it would have been like to land off-field with full spoilers, one-handed, while your other hand is caught in a metal pincer behind you!)
Some other year, again wing to wing, this time I was in Juliet and saw what looked like a big bundle of cellophane tumbling behind Hotel Bravo. It was her canopy. Presumably somebody in back let his fingers do the walking and the rest was… his story.
The pilot of HB, Tim knew to immediately turn straight for the airport, flying very slowly to limit parasite drag. Not much standard procedure involved, but they did make it.
Assured of that, I turned back to follow the canopy’s descent. It would be demolished of course, but maybe we could untwist the metal frame and use it as a pattern to make a new one. Wishful thinking? By the time I looked again the falling canopy had vanished. I knew only that it was on the side of a certain nameless hill.
Next morning the tow pilot took me there in back of the Bird Dog so I could pitch out a bag of flour somewhere near the place — but all we accomplished was having borrowed ear muffs blown off my head into the air. Over the next week, the Tim and I each made three trips into the woods searching, with no success. On one of my hunts (after I’d replaced those lost ear muffs with new ones) I found not the mangled canopy or any hint of flour, but the stupid muffs, hiding under a boulder. Was someone up there was just plain messing with us?
Finally, last try, we went back together, and what Tim found is still hard to believe twenty five years later. That big one-piece canopy flew open, snapped its little lanyard chain and rolled off the wing into space, tumbling three thousand feet down, through treetops to land upright in soft fiddlehead ferns… virtually intact! Delirious, we carried it over our heads like a canoe en portage, down through the woods, washed a little mud off the hinges and put it right back on the bird.
Ah Hotel Bravo, we knew ye well.
Editor’s note: Tim, my partner in crime for this adventure, was the first student I ever had who became an instructor. We hadn’t flown together, or even seen each other in about twenty years, regrettably, but after writing this piece I emailed him to see if his memory of events matched mine. His response was lengthy and lots of fun to read, though not 100% appropriate for this venue. Here’s some of the G-rated part.
“The left side canopy hinge was not safetied and it was wicked loose. I knew that, but would just push it forward before we flew and told passengers no to touch it. On this flight, either it was pulled or came loose on its own. The speed at which the canopy departed was pretty amazing. It swung up on the right, closed latches and just ripped off backwards. Glad it didn’t whack the tail anywhere.”
“And finding that Canopy! Like King Arthur’s Sword in the ferns with sun shining down on it through the trees, it had to have been set down there by the Angels. Couldn’t believe it, that was quite a sight.”
It may stand forever atop my dishonorable mention list, never stupid enough to contend for absolute dumbest (no one died, after all), but always bad enough for second worst. Best thing about this debacle, the only damage was to me, thank goodness.
The scene was Sunriver, Oregon, a year-round resort of more than 4000 bungalows, condos and luxury palaces with five golf courses threaded by miles of meandering river run, all beneath the forever crown of ponderosa pines. Hard on the north, a lava flow only a few hundred thousand years old surrounds aptly named Pilot Butte. A volcanic cone amid ten square miles of lumpy dark brown rock, absolutely naked. How’s that for a thermal source?
I glided there eagerly off the tow, wondering only how high we might climb before required to hurry down. Uh huh… Back of mind the whole time lurked a specter: moving straight away from the airport meant we’d have to wade through every foot of sink twice if I failed. Which I did, naturally.
One of my mottos has always been, ‘plan for the worst, play for the best’, but this time I planned for the best and just got played. Almost instantly our angle back to the runway was flat as the air. Stretching, stretching, at ?00 AGL still way too far… and here ground effect was not an option. Hundred-foot pines thinned by developers and supplanted by rooftops made it impossible to get within half a wingspan of either the surface or a less efficient and even creepier forest canopy. One grassy little wetland lay a quarter mile short, but I’d rather almost anything than scar that lovely meadow with wheel marks. No, this golf course below suddenly looked like the finest landing site on earth, offering a wide, if weird choice of strips from which to quickly (and pray wisely) choose.
I’ve put myself in pecks of pickles before and since, but this was the only time I’ve eyed an 18-hole golf course knowing I would land on one of those fairways in mere seconds, without time to pick the right one. While all were inviting, each offered reasons to choose another. None quite straight, nor flat, several with people in the way — fancy that. And what about access? Assuming an aero retrieve was off the table, from where could the trailer pull in?
Every question a good one, all too late to ask. Rarely in these decades of unforced errors have I felt less lucky, and had to pull that danged lever anyway. With most of a minute to fill while extemporizing an approach, I scrabbled through my bag of verbal acrobatics (BS) to delay these folks’ turning on me until afterward. One nugget of good luck, they were in such a yee-haw mood, an unscheduled landing came as some kind of bonus and the fools were back there yukking it up!
Down over an elliptical green, between amoebic sand traps and by a small duck pond, I eased soft as possible onto the turf, aerobraking with the skid up while taxiing tippy toe across the rough, to stop gently in a shaded wide spot as far as could be from action behind us. While the victims celebrated I got busy on my newfangled cellphone and walked our path back to the touchdown point, finding no divot and only a faint track that would disappear after the next morning’s dew. Mad as I was at myself, I had to be happy with that.
As embarrassments go this could have turned out much much worse, so why might such a comparatively innocuous screwup rise sink to the level of my second dumbest ever?
Well, only that week had I hauled myself and all my stuff 800 miles north to join a new friend in a glider ride outfit he was starting from scratch. It would be the two of us, him in the tow plane and me in the 2-32. I’d been flying mostly Grobs and DG-500s recently, and not a ’32 for several years, but knew well to account for the difference in performance — and then failed to actually do so. Can’t deny it, I screwed the epigrammatic pooch. And here’s what’ll raise a brow for anyone who doesn’t know me. Not only was this our first day of operation ending on the tenth fairway, it was in fact our inaugural flight! Numero uno. Shoot, I was so new there I couldn’t even say which golf course we were on the tenth fairway of!
My new friend was furious before he hung up the phone, fuming dread of costly repairs or even reparations, plus having to cancel the rest of our debut, while he hooked up his glider’s trailer and wound slowly through the maze of residential roads to find us. What may have saved me from public strangulation was the relief he felt when he rounded a turn and saw his new investment parked sexily in the shade, center of attention, with folks partying beside it like in a TV ad.
And yes, as already confessed, there was damage… In haste to secure the bird and get us out of there, I managed to pinch my forearm between a wing root and some very sharp part of the trailer, drawing enough blood to ruin my brand new company shirt. As it should be, don’t you think?
Dumbest thing I’ve ever done? From dozens of dishonorable mentions from over the years, it’s hard to choose. Here’s a sample. See, a few days earlier I had landed off-field on a commercial glider ride, which was no crime, just another opportunity to recalibrate my limits. But being me, I turned the dial the wrong way, which seldom seems to work.
In most of a decade of daily rides and lessons over that New England valley, I had messed up and landed out only twice, both times surrounded by so many farm fields the hard part was choosing which one to grace with our presence. Embarrassing and rightfully so, but good experience nevertheless. Then this most recent time, the best available spot was the driving range at a local golf course, where I’d long pined for an excuse to land, ‘cause it would be so easy — and looked like a tow out would be too.
Of course a line of geezers stood down there hitting drives, and we’d be landing into their teeth, so first I did a low pass from behind to capture everyone’s attention. From there a teensy pull up and zestful one-eighty over some two-story condos bled the speed and put us on late final for a long taxi all the way up to that line of applauding geezers. (Last thing I wanted was to stop short where they might be tempted to resume launching drives over us!)
A good time was soon had by all, hands shaken, backs slapped, and get this: when I apologized to my passenger that for safety reasons he’d have to wait for a car back to the airport, he laughed, “No sweat,” pointing at the condos, “there’s where we’re staying.” How’s that for convenience? His wife though, was still at the airport and kinda miffed, ‘cause my friend here had the keys in his pocket. So I would deliver the keys to her so she could return them here and let them both into their vacation paradise.
When the tow plane maneuvered into position, some fellows even lined up on my trailing edge to boost a faster start down that not-very-long slope toward the condos… The end.
Now this, you might agree, is by itself hardly worthy of dishonorable mention. No, it’s only an appetizer. For the entree, I let that episode’s relative ease and ironic humor lure me into a fresh round of idiotic overconfidence. After too many trouble-free seasons I re-calibrated the wrong way, and to say it was unintentional also suggests it was that much more dangerous.
Three days later I had two airline flight attendants up on a twenty minute slide ride, knowing there would be zero lift and I should stay near home. Got towed straight out, through sink the whole way, thoughtlessly released at the prescribed altitude and knew immediately there was no way back.
These passengers knew a lot more than nothing about aviation, and about professionalism as well. They were distinctly unimpressed watching me pace that pasture to find a landing run for the tow plane. Imagine what they thought when one wheel hit a gopher hole and blew a brake line. And imagine what the tow pilot had to say.
So yeah, a second boner like that in less than one week merits dishonorable mention for sure. Best thing I can say for myself, that was thirty years ago and hasn’t happened again.