AND ALL HECK BROKE LOOSE

One day I was asked to take our Baby Grob up on a quick return-to-service hop. Nothing special, just once around and back down so a renter could have the bird for the afternoon. It had been a calmish morning, but by noon the air was rustling more each minute. Situation normal.

The takeoff started sleepy, then by mid-field was barely manageable. During liftoff I noticed a sudden dustup a couple hundred yards to the immediate right — keeping pace with us! What? That by itself seemed worthy of analysis, but things were changing so fast I had no time to think. It would have been wise to release right then, less than fifty feet up, but in fact I welcomed the unique experience.

After two recoveries from slack I knew more was coming, so when another devil bloomed on the right I released and rolled toward it, not 800 feet up. Just then one more sprang from below on the left. Seconds off tow I was diving through sink between two whirlies with zero altitude to spare. No problem, still essentially over the runway with no traffic, I could land whenever necessary. Yet, hazardous and challenging as the launch was, why go back down in the same chaos if I could stay up and avoid it?

A tight turn in just the right spot regained more height than I’d lost, and for half a circle it felt like the real thing. Then came that sucking feeling as my parcel of air was overpowered by a bundle of other pressures and pulled into a sharply different wind direction. Devils were forming and dissipating everywhere, moving opposite directions and changing directions so quickly, there was no keeping track of them.

I watched the towplane disappear moments before touchdown as a jack-in-the-box plume of dust exploded in its path, and sighed relief when it emerged in full climb. A minute later someone came on the Unicom to announce flight operations temporarily suspended. Good, the pilot waiting to use this bird wouldn’t be needing it right away.

For what felt like an hour I darted from one plume to the next, seldom more than a thousand feet above ground while this hyperactive interface between hot air masses swirled across the field. Flying continually from one rotational wind into another, and then another – low – was dizzying. At any point I could have climbed quickly and soared away, but that was not the point. I needed to know more about what was happening here and now, for next time.

As the storm moved on and abated I began to comprehend a bigger picture. This was one of those huge megadevils, the kind you normally see only in the middle of wide lake beds, a rotating ring of ordinary whirlies a half mile across.

Why did it boil up right at Crystal airport, and seemingly out of nowhere? Got me. But since you asked, discrete shear lines intersect often in these parts, quite benignly. On rare occasion though, they powerfully collide in a kind of atmospheric triple whammy. When I’ve been already aloft and that happened, the causes were obvious. Prior to this freak show however, I was on the ground and there were no clouds anywhere until…

Things settled out for a routine landing as the day’s only cumulus formed not far downwind, thank you very much. The flight was brief, never got a mile from the field, but I learned more in those twenty minutes than many whole days sailing high and dry in ‘ideal’ conditions. What more could anyone want?

THEN WHAT?

Way back in the early Eighties my eagerness for any chance to fly any glider got me involved in several long aero tows ferrying planes I’d never flown before from one unfamiliar place to another. Predictably, those summer days got bumpier by the hour, and one time, about halfway along I noticed the port wing of that particular 2-33 flexing much more than its equally well beaten counterpart. That kind of observation, mid-flight, has a way of making you think.

About lots of things. First, pique at the seller for pawning off junk on an unsuspecting colleague. And if the buyer knew, fair enough, but then what about me? The more I thought about that, the less ‘pique’ seemed the right word. But who was at fault, or even at risk, was less important than having the aircraft hold together for just couple more hours.

That’s what I thought about most.

The wing was flexing right where that big aluminum strut attaches, no surprise. Inboard of there it’s stiff as a bridge. Rivets at that seam appeared the same as their counterparts under the other wing, but I watched them close during and after hefty bumps trying to detect any change… Like proving a negative.

Okay, so maybe it’s not an acute problem. But even if it’s been this way for years it’s still critical, isn’t it? Shouldn’t someone know about this? Never have I been so impatient to get back on the ground.

After finally landing I tried to keep personal feelings to myself while making a big deal about the floppy wing. The guy who took the paperwork didn’t seem concerned, so I grabbed the tip and shook it up and down, boing boing boing. Made me queasy, but impressed no one else…

Okay, caveat emptor. I wouldn’t be flying it again, that’s what mattered most. Then we climbed into the Bird Dog and headed home.

I never saw or heard of that glider again, knew nothing of its obviously long history beforehand, and to this day know almost nothing of its perhaps more important history since. I could have tried to keep track of how the floppy-winged bird and her new owner fared, but this was before the internet and I had no clue how to gather such information.

That’s easy these days, and when ultimately I did look up the N-number it had been deregistered… Had they decided it wasn’t worth fixing and declared it a wreck — or did they fly it broken until it came apart and was destroyed, along with maybe a victim or two?

No, a little more research revealed the aircraft was sold to someone in Canada in 1989, several years after the day I flew it. Had it been fixed? One would hope so, but given what we’d seen before, who knows.
Then, of course, it would have been reregistered Canadian style (all letters, no numbers). Does it still fly? And if so, how ‘bout that wing? All such information is available these days, somewhere…

Uh oh, now you’ve got me pawing through dusty old logbooks, wondering about any number of other heavily weathered beaters I toiled in back when, and what they’re up to now. Looks like this could take some time. Cancel all my appointments.

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.