Mesmerized by autumn in New England, I played too low too long one evening and looked up to find the glide from miles downwind sketchier than I’d ever seen. Landmarks more than five miles away were creeping higher in the canopy and the airport was right there at the cusp, so if anything happened that wasn’t good I’d be coming down short. I knew to pitch over for a flatter glide into the headwind, but that scootched the airport higher and I couldn’t make myself do it.
Halfway back lay a perfect grass strip I’d never landed at… Should I? The tow pilot had gone home after towing me two hours ago, so no retrieve until tomorrow. Would there be tie down provisions? What if the owner’s a crotchety old goat? No matter, I needed to land. So…
Soon the strip was behind me anyway, almost further than the airport ahead. Then one last cluster of fields. Remember to check for obscure hazards before deciding exactly where to touch down. Seeing no ditches, bumps or boulders in high grass does not mean they aren’t there… WIRES, same thing. Also, a farm boy in camo might never hear me coming.
The first pasture looked long enough even to launch from but too rough to land in (any texture visible from aloft will be raggedy at best). The second was smoother but sloping, and the next looked fine except for hay bales scattered like booby traps. The furthest might have been best if not for a row of poplar trees at the approach end. No good choices, but I had to decide…
Though time seemed to pass slowly I failed to keep pace. Eventually those fields were under me and I still hadn’t picked one. Then I felt a soft swell of lift and slowed up, holding my breath for a few seconds and wondering if I should turn into it. That little boost made me think of reaching the airport – as those last fields slid behind.
The brief fit of optimism leaves me in sink beyond a dying thermal and now I must nose over for speed. Loss of even more height makes me squirm. Those final options are fading like everything else while my glide angle to the airport still looks hopeless. Go back? Too late, I start to but can’t clear those damned poplars, so turn again toward home (wasting more energy with two one-eighties than if I’d completed a fool circle).
Landing is imminent, but there’s no place left. In the wrong spot even a perfect landing can have horrible results. And squirming doesn’t help.
Now less than a mile away, the airport disappears behind a low hill. Naked branches make my toes curl. Following contour, I head for the hill’s low end, dropping through 200 feet above runway elevation. The trees taper off just in time, granting a few more feet of vertical. I skid an ugly turn to keep the lower wingtip arm’s length above a fence, consuming the last of useful height, down off the hill and onto flats a quarter-mile short. Screwed.
Farmers in Vermont grow corn for cattle feed and leave it standing after ripe, to dry for winter fodder. It amounts to a crop of woody sticks standing head-high between me and the end of the runway.
At the corn field’s near end I’m down to fifty feet, fearfully visualizing the wreckage soon to occur. The 2-33’s high wing might escape with scratches, but its fabric fuselage will be shredded and fragile tail surfaces beaten to a tangled mess. I’ll probly live of course… will I wish I hadn’t? Free rental and tows were my only pay with this outfit. Now there’ll be no glider to fly and I’ll be responsible for the damage to aircraft and crop. Time for a miracle.
Those dry cornstalks so late in the day are warmer than mossy forest, and air trapped between them continues to expand while the surrounding evening cools. As if by magic, the glider stops coming down! It floats half a wingspan above the surface, dreamily clear across that cornfield and beyond, main wheel finally settling to mere inches over a long grassy verge before the pavement. If there were a fence at the airport perimeter I’d have had to plunk down short.
From there the 2-33 trundles slowly up the runway with barely enough inertia to taxi off at the tie-downs, ship and my dubious reputation saved by stupid, undeserved LUCK. Luckier still there are no witnesses, apparently. I sit there, unready to leave the cockpit until a distorted sense of time returns to normal. Don’t mention this episode to a soul, I tell myself, at least until some moral statute of limitations has expired in your mind.
Alone on the field, I humped the bird into position and tied it down, then walked across the wide ramp to our little A-frame office feeling a peculiar lightness tinged with inescapable guilt. Nagging thoughts of what almost happened, I pushed away for later.
All the airport people had gone home, but a farmer leapt from his muddy pick-up to meet me at the front door, his son (in camo) at heel.
“Thought you were gonna land at our place!” They’d watched me pass over, jumped in their truck and followed on dirt roads. For them it was ordinary curiosity at first, but at the cornfield it became something more – and less. Prior to that, the son had almost convinced his dad to let him have a glider ride. Now I was reason number one why not.
The small traditional communities of rural New England remain close-knit as they were a hundred years ago. Within days what those two saw, no doubt embellished for dramatic effect, had been fully circulated. A year later I was still hearing about it from one or another local source. Yet several years later that same farm boy, now grown, drove his own pick-up down the same dirt road for flight lessons – usually wearing camo. The dad, then retired, would not fly with the instructor (me), but insisted on being his son’s proud first passenger. Turns out he’s a grand old woodchuck, far more proud of his wife’s farm cooking than even that beautiful grass strip.
From then on we had every student land on that strip as I should have done, and fly the ensuing aeroretrieve. And the same with standard checkouts for renters too. On occasions when we had to wait very long for our retrieve, I’d warn each companion that our farmer’s “permanent invitation” to land there came with a catch. If supper was on, or about to be, and it wasn’t too close to sundown, we might not escape short of a huge country meal and too much apple pie…