MEEP BEEP!

Ever been part of a mass landing? Not something we train for, but like every other unwelcome surprise, it could happen. Mine took place at the annual Vintage Sailplane Regatta in Tehachapi, the weekend when ordinary traffic mixes with a delightful array of rare gliders from earlier generations. It’s especially nice to see colored wings adorn the all-white uniformity of our modern soaring fleet, even while wondering about the proficiency of pilots older than their antique craft. I was quite current of course, but this also happened to be my very first day at that operation… Hence the mandatory attendance of Barrister Murphy, formidable aviation lawyer.

Birds of all feathers were languishing in one slow gaggle near the field, almost too many to count, when a deck of cirrus drifted over and the lift abruptly died. First to enter downwind was a venerable Slingsby T-31, whimsically suggestive from above and behind of a gaily decorated B-17. A Libelle went second, and me third in a Blanik with a student I’d never met before. From our downwind leg we watched the Libelle run under the Slingsby as they both turned base, moving ahead to land first. When my student asked why, the only reason I could think of was maybe the Libelle driver could not fly slow enough to stay behind. No doubt some announcement was made, but you can bet the open cockpit T-31, like our Blanik and who knows how many others, had no radio.

Number one stopped short on the right side of the runway and number two stopped close behind it on the left, effectively blocking the road for us. Though getting down even shorter was well within my capability, this student’s skill and confidence were unknown. Landing over the obstacles would be an easier and more practical option, but there’s a strong taboo about that because it’s so scary for everyone watching. If I had a student do it my first day on the job, I’d expect to get canned. Meanwhile several more ships were coming in behind us…
I politely took control with full spoilers and a huge slip, landing very short but intentionally a little fast. To make a point, I taxied off the runway around the obstructions, our inboard wing banked nearly to the ground, then back on the pavement and hundreds of feet further to the proper stopping place. So there. When we climbed out and looked back, there were three birds on the ground behind us and one on final — plus number six, a blisteringly slick ASW-12 approaching on a parallel runway. My student was awestruck, naturally, but that doesn’t mean much. Remember when you were a newbie? You were awestruck half the time because you didn’t know any better!

My cute taxiing exhibition may have made an impression, but was not the smartest choice, if for no other reason than its unpredictability. Had someone behind us already committed to where we swerved, or tried to over-fly and land long, my action could have deepened the complications for them — and those next in line. But more to the point of this confession is that parallel runway.

Mountain Valley Airport has not one adjacent strip, but two available for exactly this scenario. That very morning, I’d been briefed to divert to either of them any time things got tight. It’s something I’d normally do anyway without being told, but the press of unfamiliarity and first day jitters got to me. Not that I quit thinking, I simply narrowed my focus too much and quit thinking big.

Only when number six landed on its own strip beside us did I realize we could/should have sidled over there ourselves, safe and easy. But watching numbers two and one swap places at their base turn flipped the stoopid switch in my brain, snapping into tunnel vision, blanking out awareness of alternatives and ignoring vital info that was obvious with or without a brief. So we’re back again to the issue of cognitive bandwidth, a finite capacity in which that particular mass landing found me deficient. Mea culpa.

Regarding my ageist skepticism of visiting geezers’ proficiency: looking up from the flight line, among those still there scratching at that same gray thermal we’d fallen from were a TG-4 (WWII trainer) and another antique some grizzled aficionado claimed was the last flying Schweizer 1-19. Something more than local knowledge was keeping them aloft in that zero sink; wonder what it was.