The airport I flew from in Vermont lay silver distance up the road from Sugarbush, where Region One’s soaring competition was held every year. Beyond our end of that valley, Jay Peak near the Canadian border was a traditional turn point, putting us on the course line for at least one leg of many tasks. During contest week I liked to perch with students wherever we had dependable lift and watch the race flow through, seeing what worked and what didn’t. And as with field trips back in school, often the teacher learned the most.
One time it was so windy we assumed the contest day would be scrubbed, but our local ridge was roaring strong as ever. A run to the far end was rough as the proverbial dickens but quick and easy, then while turning back we spotted two sailplanes about to land in a field below. We watched one follow the other around into the wind, slo-mo, until they stopped eerily side by side. Like some kind of illusion.
Then eerier still, they both began to move again, almost in unison. Yes, eyes that lie can also tell the truth. The field they were over was shaded, so no gauging their height above ground, but its windward slope is what arrested their descent. If they did land there, could they keep their birds down?
We loitered to see what might happen next. Moments later one crept sideways across a fence line tacking up onto the foot of our ridge, and then the other followed. They nibbled further toward us, rising, while another bird sidled in low over the same field to commence its own save. We still had a big height advantage over all of them, but that would soon vanish. Could we hump our grizzled old ‘33 back to the north end before those race cats caught us?
Another year, the pack had already flown by, visible now as occasional glints of gaggle twenty miles north. We were over flattish country barely in range of home and looking to maximize any lift we found. Rolling into a serendipitous two-knotter, I looked straight down for position and drift plus maybe some idea of the thermal’s source (all along, one of my few good habits). What twirled the eyes this time was our shadow being rammed by another from behind!
No really, that happened. Eyes that lie… Mine snapped straight ahead where a flesh and blood sailplane materialized scary close, rolling into our turn.
Stunned, I knew from many photographs the tail number of one of America’s great soaring champions. He had rounded Jay Peak miles ahead of the pack, running hard as always, but gotten low in our neighborhood, and when we marked this thermal he attacked. Shooting under us with double our speed, he pulled up and settled in on the opposite side for what was probably a lot less than he wanted. Welcome to the boonies Ace.
After three circles nobody’d gained much, so he left us the moment he had glide to the bottom of the nearest hill — which happened to be the very monadnock where I had come to think of myself as a makeshift empresario. We’d be going there too, I told my student, but not before climbing a sensible ‘nother minute or so.
Couple of circles later we followed. He looked way too low to dig this one out and I supposed he’d retreat to our airport where we’d finally get to shake the champion’s hand. Yeah, keep dreaming. He swept in lower at that hill than its ‘empresario’ ever dared, with juice aplenty to zoom upslope and turn south along the top, gone from sight before we got there. Boonies indeed.
On the phone with him years later I recalled the day, wondering what he might say of our shared moment that became for me a lifelong memory. He heard my version with what may have been feigned patience, then asked: “Where was this again?”
Yup, that’s the way it is.