I’d worked a couple years with Pop and come to trust him like a father, but we were so busy there was never time to fly with each other. Then one day we both had the afternoon free and I said, “Let’s go up together, Pop. Just you and me.”

“Nah,” was all he said.

I wandered next door to neaten the clubhouse, something I’d never do if there were any excuse. Ten minutes later a knock came. No one ever knocks on that door. Folks barge in as if it’s their place, because it is. There stood Pop. Looking downcast, he said, “Let’s go.” I wanted to know what was troubling him, but if he didn’t mention it neither would I.

Finally to share a cockpit with the maestro! My anticipation was lifting his spirits before our wheel began to roll. Or was it simply being back in stride rather than moping on the ground?

Sweet timeless hours we soared around the local area, observing each other’s methods and comparing notes on how to teach. Each felt challenged to fly as precisely and creatively as the other. He had nothing to prove of course, but his easy smoothness bore a thin strain of self-conscious care to epitomize his highest personal standard. Same for me, and I was glad to see how similar our methods were. “Seems we fly more alike than different, Pop.”

“Uh huh.”

Even passive assent from someone I so admired felt like praise. The biggest difference was our choice of speed between climbs. He said I flew faster than necessary, and I thought he flew too slow.

“Don’t you agree it’s better to err on the fast side?”

“I guess. But if you’re too fast you shoot through lift before you can slow up and use it.”

“Not if you sense it and respond in time.” His silence said I’d too much so I fudged, “You cut your teeth in earlier, slower gliders and I learned in these with wider speed range.”

He thought awhile, then sighed, “Maybe.”

To change the subject I brought up the certification process, always sore point for me. The previous examiner in our region was Pop’s oldest and closest friend Race, whom Pop had given his first airplane ride decades earlier. In his place there were now two designated examiners and no one liked either of them. Our entire time together, Pop and I boycotted both, recommending our students drive hundreds of miles to other jurisdictions rather than submit to what we believed would be an unfair test.

“Race was the best examiner I’ve seen,” I said. “When I first moved to this area he did my CFI renewal, and we met in his kitchen of all places. What impressed me was his practicality. He threw a copy of the Test Standards on the table, slapped it with his hand and said, “Go through this and tell me everything that gives you heartburn.’”

Pop chuckled, “Sounds like Race, alright.”

“I confessed what I really thought, even about some things he could’ve held against me, and turned out we agreed on nearly everything. Kinda like you and me.”

“Yeah, Race got no time for BS. That’s why he was a good DE.”

“Why isn’t he still one?”

“Feds didn’t like the way he bent the test to common sense.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”

“And his health ain’t so good.” Pop sighed again. “Not feelin’ too chipper myself come to think of it.” I had the stick but he yanked spoilers full open and grunted, “That’s enough, let’s take ’er in.”

Was Pop okay? I quizzed him delicately on the way down but couldn’t tell. Either way, our flight had been therapeutic for him and I was honored to study at the master’s hand. Back on the ground, I thanked him formally and hugged him same as the second time we met. Eerie sadness in his eye, he thanked me.

The phone was ringing as we entered the office. Pop took it and listened, turning his back. Then without a word he hung up and slumped slowly into his chair.

“What is it?” I asked.

He cleared his throat and murmured, “Race is down. Half hour ago.”

Synchronicity? Of course. Of course! No one knows what’s really going on here, but those who don’t see that we’re all in it together must not be looking.


The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh.

Chief Seattle


Race’s funeral was attended by dozens of glider pilots, naturally. Concluding the service, pallbearers placed their boutonnières on his casket, and Pop’s was last. As he stood back to watch his lifelong best friend lowered into the ground, a sudden gust whirled around the assembly, raising dresses, mussing hairdos, and drawing all those flowers right up into the air. Spontaneous applause broke out, even sentimental laughter, and reverential shouts of, “There goes Race,” and “One last thermal!”

The end?



The sky attracts individuals of every kind, and not all are pilots. Take Jack, freshly retired from Great Britain’s Royal Marines and tough as a steel-toed boot. After live-fire experience as a paratrooper with UN ‘peacekeeping’ forces, Jack was now braving married life in yet another foreign country, California. So impatient was he to find gainful employment involving his specialty – leaping from planes with nearly his own weight in gear – that he asked the likes of me what one had to do to become a smoke jumper. I almost said, “First you gotta be nuts,” but for once the Great Spirit stayed my tongue.

Jack had come not to ask for a job, but to redeem a gift certificate. Unduly embarrassed, he opened the envelope and said, “Wife got me this.” Dismissively apologetic or apologetically dismissive? Hard to tell.

Usually wives are there shooting pictures when Dad takes his ride, but on this day Mrs. Jack was absent. “Should be her doing this,” he muttered as if to himself. “I’m used to a bit more excitement.”

“Well,” I said, “for us the point is staying up, not coming down.” Just when I thought I could trust the Great Spirit.
Joyless growl, “All I need’s a briefing, sir.”

“Briefing? Hmm, lessee… this is one of the few activities that have no purpose except pleasure. Your orders are to enjoy it and ask every question that comes to mind. There’s your briefing. Oh and we do have one rule. If you’re not having fun you’re fired.”

That line I use routinely with students when they need loosening up, because usually it works. Jack’s response, “Fun? Well I must have some then, mustn’t I?”

Yee ha!

Then seconds after liftoff Jack the intrepid suffered a full-on panic attack. Not ordinary anxiousness but a phobic petit mal, acute irrational and uncontrollable. It started with erratic movements, rapid breathing and…

“You alright Jack?”

“Gotta get out!”

If he bailed from the front we’d both be toast. Maybe two hundred feet up I snapped a diving about face (2 Gs pulling him into his seat) and we were down before he could get his canopy open.

Jack was shaken, and dreadfully chagrined. I wondered aloud if he’d been claustrophobic, stuffed into the nose cone of an aircraft strange to him – without a parachute. “No, no,” he said too quickly to sound convincing. But we’d breached a seal somewhere in his private mind and for half an hour he went on to spontaneously spill more beans than maybe even he knew were there. He told, among other things, of being haunted by “a bit of barbarity” in Bosnia, and more recently losing his mother in 9-11!

Divulgence apparently therapeutic, for Jack returned the very next day and this time brought his wife. We offered to comp a second hop but he fiercely threw down cash. His eyes were resolute, though without the boilerplate confidence he’d had before. That’s what he was here to reestablish. Determination? Jack had that to burn.

Of course he still manifested a coiled potency that I could never physically overpower in the cockpit, and I was pins and needles worrying what might trigger him. Attempts at delicacy were artless even for me and he grumbled, “I’m not a child sir. Just let’s bloody do this!”

Launch 2.0 went okay, and I had every intention of keeping it a granny ride. Soon though, his self-consciousness yielded to pleasing sensations and a lilt of ease crept into his voice. After a placid few minutes I asked if he might like a steeper turn.

“Why of course,” he nearly shouted.

Where many passengers would lean away, he looked boldly straight down inside the turn, that familiar view evoking a fond sigh. I asked if he’d like a steeper one the other way. “Oh yeah!” he laughed, and loved it. We finished that flight doing only steep maneuvers, dives, pull-ups and whoop-de-dos.

Back on the ground Jack was giddy with recovery, and his wife, nervous as I beforehand, trembled tearful relief. Such an honor to help the happy warrior heal.

That was the last we saw of Jack, in person. Then some weeks later we got a DVD in the mail, of wackiness that would seem normal today on Youtube, but back then was a chintwisting cipher. There were several sequences, all alike, featuring Jack in a number of sporty skydiving suits standing on the edge of one or another roof, dancing to screechy music and acting as if about to jump. Over and over. And that was it. No audio except the music, no accompanying note. The package was addressed by a female hand.

Supposing Jack made this video for the same reason we fly gliders (FUN), I wonder if it were shot many eventful years earlier, before the war when Jack may have been an altogether different person…

If he comes again will I have the courage to ask?



It was my final solo flight after sixteen seasons soaring daily in jolly old New England. Several friends were up chasing each other around the local wave, three had been my students at different times and there really was the feel of a going-away party. That was our excuse anyway for more chatter than usual, but as evening approached even 123.5 went quiet.

The wave was itself ho-hum, such that no one ever got much above six thousand AGL. Operating in a slim band of altitude only makes things more interesting — if you can see well. It’s too interesting when you can’t and there’s traffic, and pointing straight at a hazy sunset to maintain position in the wind doesn’t help.

We all knew the regs about flying after dark of course, and eventually that topic bubbled up on frequency. What followed became an impromptu game of slo-mo chicken (“No, you go first”), but with six players instead of two, each coyly daring another to be last to land.

This kind of stupid game gets more stupider the longer you play it. Soon no one could see traffic more than half a mile away and we all wanted to land immediately, but that would never work. Next came the clumsy sorting out process that should have begun much earlier, who’s where, how high, and who’s not. Who should go in first while others wait. And where’s the guy we’re not hearing from?

Found out later he’d already landed, our resident genius.

One by one the gang spontaneously regrouped after landing to watch their next incoming bird appear on mid-final. When all were down it was so COLD our feet were numb, and everybody had to pee. And there was only one toilet.

What you would have seen through growing dusk was several middle-aged guys bent at the waste from compressed bladder syndrome racing each other on stiff ankles, hoping to not be last to reach that door!

Too much competition for me. I pulled to a stop and let them all hobble ahead. Alone again, I looked around and decided what the hey, it’s a perk of grass airports after dark… As some might say, ‘Ahh p-ss on it!’


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?