Saturday morning is the worst time for line kids to fly, but that’s typically when they get their chance. Tough life. Randy was reaching that delicate breakthrough we’ve all had where towing goes from seemingly impossible to surprisingly easy. The whole point of our flight was to cement this progress.
Then after takeoff Bomber didn’t fly the usual wide 270 around the field to gather height, but went straight and stopped climbing. (Yes the tow pilot was called Bomber, because of how he used to ski back before that awful limp.) We were already more than a mile out over rising ground at less than pattern height, and now… descending? No, this wasn’t loss of power, Bomber was accelerating!
“I got this!” I shouted, “But stay on it with me and watch close, whatever it is I do.” Wondering if Bomber was okay and what the response should be, I cracked spoilers on principle, then needed hefty pressure to hold them only half open. Suddenly this was a barnstorm pass down a small green vale by a farmhouse between big elms, up a road lined with parked cars toward a crowd beside a bell tower that never looked so tall before — before slowing at last into a proper climb.
Randy turned around to look back at me, speechless.
“No idea, sport.” (What would you have said?)
Randy finished the tow normally, but was too discombobulated to accomplish much else and we soon landed. Next lesson: dealing with distractions in flight.
Not surprisingly, I had questions for Bomber. Turns out his stunt was planned. We were the unwitting kickoff for a country wedding of a couple pilot friends. The whole crowd was there, even us! The only people who didn’t know about our appearance were Randy, the parents who entrusted me with her life, and her hapless instructor, your humble scribe.
The video was crude and shaky but here we came, two airplanes one second apart, horrid blast of engine and prop tips, blurred streaks a hundred feet up, then whoops, cheering and applause. Of shrieked epithets or snarled profanities aboard the glider, no forensic evidence exists.
Later I got Bomber to agree, when he stopped laughing, that any such performances in the future should include also apprising the talent beforehand.
On a dusty stack of all holy books I avow this freak show did occur! Only once after all, but that’s enough. Many times though, I’ve had seasoned pilots who believed they knew what they were doing try to drag me and those in my care unto certain sink and grave danger. Honestly, up narrowing canyons against the wind, or lee of high peaks in a gale, to reach what anyone should know could only be invisible Niagara. When the single goal in every case was maximum rate of climb. Strangest of all, the tow pilots’ chances after power failure in such a hellhole are vastly worse than ours in the glider. Don’t get me started.
Most glider pilots will never have a tow pilot stray off on some unspecified mission so hazardous as buzzing a wedding beneath a church steeple. But tow pilots are human too, and even the very best are subject to the same, ahem, imperfections that beset us all. If you take enough tows, eventually you’ll get one where those at either end of your rope have entirely different views of what’s up. Or what’s going down, which might be most important.
All can agree that Bomber’s stunt was bonehead, for scads of reasons. What could be dumber, right? Well, one thing we could have done to make everything worse is panic and release the tow. I knew someone who did exactly that, under normal conditions, only because an unfamiliar tow pilot turned in an unusual place. What followed was the needless destruction of a glider.
We’ve all been conditioned to release quickly in awkward situations – during takeoff. But this was not that. There may be no better time than screaming down the aisle of a wedding not your own (or slogging through nasty sink soon after departure) to preserve the only resource you’re sure of and stay on tow at least until you’re high enough to land. Got a better idea?