November in Vermont, the season’s last flight, just for fun. A low overcast was spitting dry snow in, truthfully, a light blizzard. (Wet snow will build up on an airplane’s surface, altering its aerodynamics, fouling the controls, add weight and ultimately bring it down. Dry snow tends to simply bounce off…) Visibility was about five miles, but close to minimum at times. According to regulation, standard procedure and common sense it would have been smart to not fly, but all we needed to see was that ridge, which I knew like the inside of my pocket. Traffic? There was zero possibility of another glider in this sky, and any other aircraft that could possibly collide with us would smack the hill a second later anyway, so I felt no responsibility for those fools’ fates.
Problem is, in marginal visibility what you can see may not be as important to your future existence as what you think you see. When driving a car in this kind of weather the streaks of falling snow come in at odd angles (the relative wind), but a plane is always drifting in the actual wind (crabbing), and those streaks come from straight ahead. This visual perception may obscure or even conceal constant sidewise wind drift that would be apparent in clear air. At the same time, if snow is falling thick enough its hypnotic visual effect can distract a pilot from accurately conning the ground track… This is like closing not one eye, but both.
I knew that ridge intimately alright, but it seemed a different place in the flat gray light. From the very first I was fooled by the relative wind illusion and veered closer to trees than intended. Soon as I sorted that out we flew into wind from a slightly different direction and… fooled again. After more hair-raising gotchas I gradually learned to ignore those numbing streaks and watch only the ground beside us and whatever we could see ahead.
The best slope lift is generated by stronger wind, which typically means high on the hill. But cloud base that day was below the ridge top so we found ourselves at the ceiling, tucked up against the hillside in a sharp gray cornice – flying fast to stay below cloud base. (Being so near the hill, we were in G airspace and therefore legal while far less than 500 feet below cloud.)
Now though, our most solid reference was that small oval of visible forest right beside us, itself also rendered by speed into undulating streaks. Exciting and very demanding of one’s attention, but exhausting and not really much fun. It was oddly claustrophobic, like peeking out of a bathysphere doing a hundred across the ocean floor, except we weren’t breathing helium and talking funny.
For how long? At times on that flight it felt like forever, yet later, after my feet warmed the whole affair seemed a snapshot blip. The timelessness that blankets a landscape on any snowy afternoon falls only from a timeless sky. Same for the cold. And speed intensifies these. We were content to suffer our due for a lengthy flight on the season’s last day, but it grew tedious after a while, and then kinda sad. Enough’s enough eventually, even for this.
Dusk came early thankfully, and we left the ridge at its closest point from the airport to quarter blindly into the wind. It’s only a three-mile glide, yet without any horizontal reference that same misperception quickly resumed. The whole landscape was camouflaged in white and gray, farms below that should have looked familiar didn’t. As a summer-only flyer I was instantly lost. This was the one time ever that I needed to use a compass but, having never used one before, it didn’t cross my mind until the student mentioned it (how embarrassing is that?), and by then it was too late to be of use. When I finally identified one end of the runway it was nearly forty degrees off our heading…
Sure, we got down okay – and then learned that while we were up a Bonanza pilot had filed an instrument flight plan, waited hours unable to take off in the blowing snow and eventually scrubbed his flight. He also made very clear how little he approved of our being aloft that whole time in a glider, over mountains.
So he’d have all winter to get over it.
Or file a complaint…