I’d never actually seen a Diamant for real. In photos it was the hottest sailplane of that era, bullet-nosed outline easy to recognize even a thousand feet up and a mile away. Everyone else gone for the evening, perfect time to observe a tenacious struggle, edging ever closer to the airport as the sexy bird surrendered height. If it lands I’ll get a peek in the cockpit, but I’d rather watch it disappear!

Must have come from brand-X, silver distance to the south — or perhaps somewhere in Canada? Lift at our place was so weak, on three different rides hours apart I never maintained an inch of altitude and spent most of the day mowing ten acres of grass.

Then from down around five hundred feet off the north end it began to creep higher… Twice in fact, with the same result. Third time was only half an hour before sunset, leaving no choice but to come on in.

I ran alongside, proudly caught a wingtip and helped the pilot push off. Peeved at coming down so far from home, he was in no mood to chat. That’s alright, but he also made it obvious he was too superior to be chumming up with a grimy lowbrow like me.

Though still new to soaring, this was not the first time I’d encountered a pilot more full of himself than necessary. Don’t they realize it diminishes only them? The way I saw it, someone had just finished TLC’ing the beautiful strip he landed on, someone was handy to help him pull clear without a tail dolly, and soon he’d be wishing someone would let him in the already locked office to call home (this was long before cell phones). In each case that someone happened to be me, and unless he wished to wait outside until next morning he’d do well to tolerate some respectful dialogue.

All I wanted was to know how he got there, but first I extended a smiling hand, “Hi, I’m Dale.”

That’s when he chose to remove his parachute, staring beyond my ear for signs of human activity at our little terminal building. Crickets, as they say.

Big letters on his tail declared who he was, a household name in that soaring region that if I were anybody I’d know already. And I did, but his manner made the name irrelevant. While he’d had the fortune to squeeze more goodies from that day’s sky, I at least understood how to enjoy soaring — and share it. Maybe Mr. Fabulous could learn something from me.

While he was busy watering a stray bush I trotted quietly over to my bike and saddled for home. Pedaling down the driveway I heard him over my shoulder, finally finding voice, “Hey! Hey uhh, Dale!”

Sorry pal, maybe next life.


Dear soaring friends, please don’t do this to yourself. No matter how slick your ride or the number of badges on your hat, there’s never any point in going all Fabulous. Hail the schmuck who helps you as a welcome ally, not an odious minion. Especially if you’ll be needing things and there’s no one else around.

Full disclosure, the office key was in my pocket. Don’t tell, okay?


Where I flew in Vermont the mountains are smaller than these in our desert west, but plenty big enough for starters. A perfect little ridge lay three miles away, linked to another one only ten miles long reaching well beyond sight from the airport. In New England’s cool cloudy weather many summer days offer no thermals at all, but ample slope lift might be available if one hugs those hills close enough.
Having no one to learn from, I explored that new environment with obsessive passion, timid at first, yet eager to find my way. While subject to the same fears and missteps everyone should have when new to mountain soaring, I was determined to learn the game without killing myself — or anyone else. On the ground after flights my hands often shook from surging adrenaline, but each increment of progress felt more natural, and despite all kinds of personal shortcomings I knew I’d found my calling.
Tip-toeing near any hillside amplifies all of flying’s pleasures. Visual, physical and mental sensations are fused in vivid detail as your shadow leaps across trees and boulders, shrinking into hollows and JUMPing out between them. You scatter swallows and startle sunning squirrels, maybe even a hiker or two. But the combination of low airspeed and proximity to the surface also amplifies the hazards of flying. You must maintain a minimum of speed for safety, and when the earth is too close adding more becomes impossible.
A further peril occurs when you’re already on a ridge that has been working, but it weakens. A slackening of wind, a change in direction, or change in the slope itself, any of these can ambush the unwary – from below!

Have you ever tried to swim in water too shallow for stroking arms and kicking legs? Instead, you have to pull yourself along the bottom hand over hand. Well, one summer a period of calm, flat weather had gone on for weeks, and in trying to stay aloft when that wasn’t really possible I fell into a habit of crawling even slower and closer. Then one night I dreamt I was pulling myself by hand from tree to tree – and sat up in bed with clarion realization that the safety margin had been rubbed too thin. It was time to back away.
Every few years a similar wakeup call would come, another instinctive warning to recalibrate. Each was timely in its own way, and I believe that heeding them is why I’m still around. On my very first flight here at Crystal, after one close look at these mountains I vowed to quadruple my minimum safe distance from the surface until I grew more familiar. No way to prove it, but that might have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
And twenty-some years later? Such wakeup calls have become only more frequent, the way power poles squeeze together like fence posts as you accelerate up a highway. Now entering my final chapter, they’ve blurred into what I suppose they should have been in the beginning — a continuous dialogue with the silent voice inside. Yes it’s taken this long, but I may have finally reached something equivalent to what should have been in the first place: uninterrupted vigilance.
Really, you ask? Ah, time will tell.


When summer comes this column will again feature reports from individuals in the Crystal Squadron on their weekly straight-out cross-country flights, but that probably won’t be happening for another month or so. Meanwhile we welcome any of you, our readers, to contribute stories or other useful information that the rest of us might enjoy. Bottom line, it’s all about learning.

You don’t have to be a high time aviator for your thoughts and words to be of value; newbies and even first-timers may have something to offer that the rest of us should think about. Whether it’s cautionary, technical, critical, inspirational, if there’s something we’d all like to see, please email it to:

Of course we may not publish everything you send us, and we’ll retain the privilege of editing it as necessary, but if you’re a reader you’re a member of this forum. Again, send any comments about today’s e-mail and your future stories/articles to:


Ground effect, huh? Well if you’ve read this far you asked for it.

We hear of ground effect most often as the excuse for pilots landing long. That’s their problem; it is predictable after all. Yet beyond this aspect there seems an unofficial a taboo against even discussing ground effect. One reason, zero margin. Another, in gliders it leads to an immediate dead end and we can’t have that kind of dynamite around sensible traffic. Bottom line, fooling with ground effect is something responsible pilots just don’t do.

In our predicament however, nothing else in all the world will work, so we get to bite the silver bullet.

And who’da thunk it, more of my young adulthood was misspent in ground effect than anyone but a crop duster should ever experience. Countless times in the early years I ‘experimented’, always over quiet runways or somewhere off the downwind end. Time was, I got away with monkey business like dipping out of sight beyond a neighbor’s pasture, reappearing to zoom up over an abandoned barn, then down below runway level again before pulling full spoilers to dump speed at the numbers.

I choreographed those hot dog approaches because people were watching — and ultimately STOPPED for that very same reason. The door slammed when some rambunctious power jockey tried to mimic my stunt and bricked his pull up… No more for me please.

Point is though, in all the hijinks I never did max out my credit. How much more was really in reserve? Here at last a reason to pull that string and see.

As many lines close in the dial’s center;
so may a thousand actions end in one purpose,
and be all well borne without defeat.


For best results you gotta get really LOW, and it helps to be FAST. Diving from a few hundred feet to as close as we dare accomplishes both in seconds while consuming much of the distance. Mile and a half to go. Everything’s blurred at two hundred feet a second, but hugging brush after hopping Joshuas grows easier as speed bleeds away…

Turns out the nearest corner of our airport is where the little crosswind strip begins so we’re already lined up on it! No power line to worry about, but as a gesture to Homeland Security (no seriously!) one stupid strand of rusty barbed wire does wait unseen to decapitate anyone sneaking in too low.

Under eighty now, we’re almost there. Glance around and both angels are cheering like proud parents in the bleachers — until they both begin to cringe… WTF?

Oh yes, gear down FOOL!

The live or die threshold rises to meet us but no need to pull up, clearing one last Joshua took care of that. Our problem here is excess speed. Once over the airport we raise only our left wing, crack spoilers and turn onto the main runway… eventually touching down well beyond where I normally do.

After decades begging everyone to land at the numbers, now I can’t eventually do it myself! Ah well.

“Here, take over,” I sigh, “I got sump’n to do.” Accomplice is still rolling off the runway as I open the aft canopy and begin creaking out. Our wheel hasn’t been stopped two seconds before I’m kneeling to kiss the Fat Lady’s dusty face, because on this day only now can she begin to sing.

Burnt lips are a price gladly paid for blessings such as these. And guess what, we got our trailer tires aired up in the bargain! Securing the bird, we look northwest where we came from and see our great glowing source settle itself into the darkened skyline just above where trusty Silver Queen lies hidden in deepening dusk.