FROM THE FIRE TO THE PAN

My first off-field landing came minutes after my first ever low save. Cosmic justice? Through a lens of decades, karmic justice would have left me crawling from a bent plane, or perhaps not.

This was the mid-70s, a high tide of interest in soaring that America has not seen since. Enthusiasts of all age and rank were everywhere around our little gravel strip yet most, even our gurus, were new to powerless fight. My instructor, who for her own sake I’ll rename Eve, was a schoolteacher with summers off, and bless her heart, this was her ‘vacation’. The structure of operations, though adequate to place and time, would today be deemed loosey-goosey. They had a radio in the tow plane and one in their shiny new Pilatus B4, plus a hand-held on the ground. But if my use of such equipment was ever addressed in training, no memory of that exists… Aborted takeoffs? We discussed it once.

A week beyond what amounted to an emasculating private pilot check ride (details on request) sobriety had worn off and I was once again a hotshot in the making. It felt great, being no longer a lowly student pilot. After all, by then I’d amassed a grand total of well over twenty hours!

Stumbling across lift at the base turn (imagine!), I willfully flaunted school rules and thermaled up from 600 AGL. That rare success emboldened my inner fool, such that swaggering toward the nearest cloud seemed almost a duty. There’s nothing in all the world like that lucky feeling!

The cumulus disappeared as quickly as my altitude, calling to mind something Eve had said about chasing clouds that are higher above you than the distance to ground below. Maybe this was what she meant…

Instead of snapping a one-eighty toward home I loitered over two huge open fields, feeling a thermal and knowing another save was possible, if only I weren’t too low and too green to pull it off. Circle after artless circle I dug my way down, now below any chance of gliding three miles back to the airport. Cars and pickups pulled over on the nearest dirt road, a small crowd of upturned faces gathering to see what might happen. Clumsy but determined, I delayed the inevitable for what seemed a torturous hour (maybe a dozen circles, five minutes tops).

Meanwhile someone else was watching too. Lee, Eve’s husband and chief everything at our gliderport slid overhead in the Pilatus, maybe twice as high, hung there a few moments and climbed away. I felt like a sad comedian bombing before a tough room while the heckler, Lee, got all the laughs. If they started chucking rotten fruit I’d soon be low enough to hit!

At 300 feet even I had to face facts and make an important decision. The fields below were each perfectly flat with easy access from the road. One was recently burned off and almost black, the other freshly plowed. (Which of these was the source of my lost thermal? Thinking back forty-four years, I’d guess both, but at the time I was busy deciding where to land.) And of course I chose the wrong one!

I thought I flew the landing about right, still do honestly, but the slowdown was a terrific shock. FAPPALLUMP. The main wheel smacked a couple big upturned chunks of dirt and then instantly STOPPED, the Blanik’s reinforced nose pounding ground before I could begin a useless yank back on the stick. Choking dust settled over everything a quarter inch thick as I stepped from the cockpit, sneezed, and bowed to the gallery. Then all heads turned to where Eve was landing in the tow plane, straight toward us.

Evidently she’d seen this movie before. From the back seat she withdrew a broom. There’d be plenty of time while I was sweeping a truckload of dirt off the glider for Eve to make something positive of all this. With such a wealth of material, where to begin?

She didn’t ask “Why did you circle out of the pattern?” or “Why’d you go beyond range from the airport?” or even “Why get so low before committing to land?” Surely she’d have been watching as she made her own approach, and knew the answer to those questions anyway. What baffled her was my choice of a soft lumpy plowed field rather than the smoother, firmer burnt one next to it!

I picked that field because I was an idiot, though even we idiots have our reasons. I wanted to avoid getting ash all over the Blanik, so instead got dirt all over it. (Ash blows off quick and clean, dirt sticks and turns to gooey mud.) Far more importantly in this context, what should have been obvious but obviously wasn’t: the spongy loam, ideal for stopping short, would slow our initial roll and lengthen the takeoff run enormously.

Eve also brought a different towline, much shorter, made for retrieves like this. She briefed me to start with flaps to lift off sooner, which was fine advice but scarcely enough for an idiot who’d never done this before. She should must have briefed me also that towing from any dusty surface is utterly blinding for the glider pilot until both aircraft rise above twenty or thirty feet… but if she mentioned that it didn’t reach my brain until I saw it for real. The towline disappeared a few yards ahead into a pulsing brown fog, instead of silky ash, zillions of microscopic rocks were peppering the canopy’s soft plastic. I’d left my sunglasses on the wing, naturally, and fistfuls of grit now flowed from the air vent straight into my eyes.

Eve’s idea was to let the glider lift off by itself rather than slow both planes and degrade control pulling up prematurely, but I couldn’t resist. The towline angled suddenly down. Fearing a full power crash for her, I pushed over – too much of course, and the line moved upward. She was finally aloft just as I banged back down. That slowed her, so by the time I lifted off again, she was down again. We hopped like this once again with me quite blind as a fence somewhere ahead drew closer. Eve could see it, but if she rocked wings for me to release I wouldn’t see even that! I had to trust she’d cut me loose in time to blindly stop before the fence… right? Dreading the worst, I was reaching for the tow release as we both rose together and she finally appeared above the dust.

Everything else came later.

 

It must be said at this point that if anyone, solo student or rated pilot, flew that way at our flight school these days, even in their own aircraft, they would be GROUNDED, forbidden to fly here, maybe permanently. For lots of reasons.

Most accidents grow from chains of errors or technical problems compounded upon each other by faulty awareness and decision making – or a compete lack of either. The particular sequence above should sound ridiculous today, but that’s exactly how it happened. I didn’t deserve to escape unscathed, it was a classic prescription for disaster.

It started with improperly thermaling up out of the landing pattern. Oozing overconfidence, I immediately flew too far away and stayed there until too low to glide back. At this breakneck pace, choosing the wrong field for my first out-landing you could pretty much make book on. In retrospect, Eve’s decision to attempt a relight from there – or even let me fly alone again, ever – could have been the single biggest mistake. And for the final straw I forgot my eye protection. Only one piece missing: the obligatory crash.

Oh well, there’s always next time.