SPACEWALK

My first unsupervised solo was also the perfect occasion for a premature display of the arrogant conceit that tempts all pilots, and has shortened more than a few careers. It would be inaccurate to say I failed to secure the rear cockpit, because I did start to do exactly that, but was so anxious to get going I consciously chose to not bother. After all, there’d be nobody dying there anyway.

Once aloft and drunk on adrenalin, I got into fooling with something I’d not yet experienced to any satisfaction, zero G. What unmitigated fun! Zooming up and over, floating like an astronaut, then diving for speed to pull up again, to the left, to the right, time after time, transformed me into a giggling kid jumping on his bed with no one there to yell, “Stop that!”

Then when it came time to reestablish full control the rudder pedals were mysteriously jammed. Whoooda thunkit? Well, only one pedal was stuck, but that’s like saying you have only one flat tire on your bike. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed the rear cushions were no longer where I saw them last. One or both had found their way to the worst possible place, and someone had to do something about it.

After unbuckling and twisting around to reach back, I had to reverse my shoulders and scrunch between a crosswise middle bar of the canopy’s frame and the canopy itself, squirming to grasp that cushion and knock it clear. Meanwhile, what little contact I had with the controls became more random than effectual. What could be worse?

It was while I was laid out with my chest on the aft panel, facing backward and down, that the unpiloted vessel decided to hit turbulence, inducing an open-ended episode of what could most generously be called ‘unstable’ flight. Oh yeah. Whaatta ride. Each time it got too spooky I’d absently kick the stick some opposite way, obsessed far more with grabbing at that obstruction. But abrupt movements of the stick caused rapid reorientation of the cockpit — while within that same small space my spacewalker’s inertia remained independent… caroming off of basically everything. All this spawned a very rational terror of clumsily knocking the canopy open from either side and being sucked away by its frame engirdling my torso!

What would you do in that situation? (Saying you’d never allow it to happen doesn’t help, BTW.) It’s no trifling boast to suggest I may be the only fool ever to smack a canopy with his back in flight and live to describe what that’s like. Spoiler, it sucks if you really wanna know.

I did manage to put a fingertip on the cushion, but couldn’t knock it free. Then craning my neck to get an eye on it – and God this is the most embarrassing – I saw what I’d known all along but stupidly ‘overlooked’ in the heat of fluster: a Blanik’s cockpit is entirely open down there, front to back! I could/should have freed that obstruction with a flick of the wrist right at first, so easy even an idiot can do it.

Sheesh! All I’d accomplished so far were horrific cramps in my neck and shoulder, some well deserved bruises, and a mysterious laceration on my pinky. But smearing blood everywhere was the least of worries.

This poor bird had been out of control now for approximately ever, don’t forget… and still was. Long past time for somebody to reclaim the driver’s seat. In a surprisingly few fierce seconds I somehow unwound my feats of contortionism without further injury, eventually coming to rest on my belts, pulling a whole lot more than zero G in a steepening bank and feeling quite naked.

It still took both hands to fish those harnesses out from under and properly secure them, so this struggle was not yet won, but the irrepressible vigor of youth again prevailed and I had things relatively under control in time for a normal landing. Imagine though, if I’d been even more foolish and crawled even further aft of my station. I was barely heavy enough to fly solo without ballast as it was, and climbing halfway into the back, in a glider that spins aggressively when it’s told to… could have made news in more than the local paper.

I’ve flown solo only rarely over the last few decades, but usually in two-seaters on return-to-service flights, et cetera, and not one single time since that undocumented spacewalk have I been even tempted to fly without securing everything in the aft cockpit beforehand. And it seems to be working too, ‘cause I’m still alive!