QUIXOTIC GAMBIT

Sixty miles from Crystal, a friend and I were stuck near low hills at a height where any further loss would mean landing at the nearest alternate and a spendy retrieve.  We happened to be flying his personal sailplane and newest prize possession, and this was also the first time he’d ever soared out of sight from home.  He so loved flying his new bird, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a turn when it might have been better if I had.   

We’d gotten a hot start back home, but in this neighborhood there seemed no lift anywhere.  Ahead on a north-south ridge stood a miles-long line of giant wind turbines that swivel individually to always face the localized flow.  We could observe their rotation from miles away to determine in advance the direction and strength of wind there, and maybe deduce where convergence might be found as well.  

We saw right away that all the turbines on the south end of the line were facing southeast while those to the north faced northwest, but the air was so light the entire line appeared motionless.  Gliding closer, we found the only two that were actually rotating stood adjacent – facing away from each other back to back.  This meant currents from canyons on opposite sides of the ridge were colliding in the saddle between those two turbines. 

“Bingo!” I crowed, “Double fudge sundae.  That’s where we make our save.”  

“You sure?”  

“Well nothing’s ever a hundred percent, but with no other lift for the last thirty minutes, we’re only a few more from landing unless we seize this opportunity.”  I was starting to squirm.  “Just head straight between those two live ones and cash in.”  

“And if it’s not there?”  

“We go on.  Glide around the spur at the end of that canyon and back to Cal City.  If we don’t grab this now it’s what we’ll be doing anyway.”  

His response was eloquent but unspellable, a sad falsetto moan of pointless worry, futile as it was honest.  

“Just do it,” I urged, “We have this if you commit right now and don’t squander any more altitude.”  

I could hear him thinking:  he’d put himself in this joker’s hands (mine) and now had no choice but to go along.  Yet while that was true, he also knew it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  After brief deliberation with his imaginary accountant he murmured, “Okay, but you better fly it.”    

Exactly what I hoped to hear!  Nose down, directly between those turbines, each blade longer than our 20-meter wingspan.  Watch to see which one’s turning fastest, slide in over the slower one and turn into the stronger of the two winds.   Then WHAM.  

Uneventful as our prior leg had been, this boomer’s core was hellfire save the brimstone.  We tilted 2 Gs at those enchanted windmills from what seemed arm’s length over their blades’ slashing apogee to a 7000-foot gain all in one quick chunk.  Topped out in the big Sierra shearline, we were back on the road northbound.  Magical as usual.   

There are times you make an aggressive decision, not because you know it will work, but it’s the best option even if it doesn’t.  And that’s okay so long as you KNOW beforehand that the worst-case outcome will guarantee at least a safe landing.  If you put yourself in any kind of other situation, may your higher power show mercy, for our hallowed sky in its grand dispassion might not.   

Hours later we approached this same area on the way home and could see from far off the turbines all facing west, and all spinning fast.  Cool stable coastal air had moved through and was now feeding the good stuff somewhere downwind in the desert – which in our case led closer to home.  

Did someone mention magic?  Information that would have signaled defeat on the way out enabled us to eliminate a dogleg and cut miles off our final glide!  

Just remember, it can as easily go the other way…    

HI ALL

Well it’s not summer anymore. The coming weekend will be partly cloudy, cool, and breezy (good reason for more tows to the trusty work camp!). We may also see the approach of a little answered prayer: there’s a chance of showers late Sunday – and then almost certain rain on Monday, if we live that long.

HI ALL

Our weather will be transitional this weekend (Oct. 15-17).  Call it ‘mixed’, there’s a good scientific word. Gone are hot temps and tall thermals, but there should still be plenty of lift around Crystal. Just guessing here, but looks like a chance of our old local favorite, bow wave if the NE wind on Friday is strong enough. Saturday, expect bright sun and weak thermals, and on Sunday a possible opening of wave season – again, if the SW wind is strong enough.
And it’s never too late to keep praying for rain…

TWO DUMB TOO LOOSE

We were ferrying a 2-32 north to south over rural New England on what turned out to be one of the few truly booming thermal days that season.  (McMurphy’s law of McMeteorology:  take what you get.)  The tow pilot, Digby, would go on to become a career flight instructor, but at this point was a fresh college dropout still logging his hours every evening with a decimal point.  He’d flown this route already, but I wouldn’t know within fifty-miles where we were.  

Strong widespread convection stirred by lively wind meant growing turbulence, which chased us gradually higher until by mid-afternoon we were cruising above 6000 feet, level with the tops of popcorn cumulus.  As the landscape morphed incrementally from forest and farm to suburb and city, clouds were growing closer together, so Digby climbed even higher to scout for open areas and maintain ground reference.  On our left the Atlantic coastline lay completely hidden.  Ahead, jets descending into undercast at one place and rising from it elsewhere bracketed Logan Airport, Boston.  A few degrees to our right, the last large opening came into view, and as we turned that way I looked back to see the one behind us receding out of range.  Our options now totaled one.  

The gap in cloud was less than a mile wide and closing like time lapse of a healing wound, above a large lake whose shores were concealed in deep shadow beyond.  Digby cut power back and nosed over to 90, rolling slowly into a bank as we neared the opening.  What more perfect setup for slack line than a steep diving spiral?  If I overran it, the Schweizer hook could release by itself and leave me on my own.  In this landscape my best hope for a safe landing might be a ball field if I could find one – in late afternoon, the very time when kids would be out there playing.  Worst case of course there was the lake itself, but mercifully I had no time to think about that.   

At 95 knots I began to creep outside the turn, like a water skier gaining even more speed.  That drove me instantly higher, pulling up and out on the tug’s tail, pointing it down and in, aggravating everything.  Belatedly I cracked spoilers, not braced for the impulse, and they slammed full open, shocking the line so hard I thought it broke.  For seconds that seemed an hour, seeing no towrope, I cavitated mentally, caught between comprehending what I wasn’t ready for and improvising a solution.  That’s when my left hand, disconnected from my brain, involuntarily closed the spoilers…  

Then a bow of slack appeared on the low side, looking longer than the whole line does on the ground.  I had never imagined such extreme slack.  Anywhere near home I’d have immediately released and either gone soaring or landed — but not here!  

The conventional cure is to cross controls and reduce airspeed by slipping.  I gave that a try but slowed too much, stretched the line again to its elastic limit and BOINGed faster in rebound, generating even more slack.  Each of the next three recoveries was awkward – and educational – in a different way, until I was so high on the towplane I could no longer see it.  Lacking any other idea, I tried one more MONSTER slip with full spoilers, expecting to either lose the line if I hadn’t already or snap it for sure – but that’s what made the difference!  It also improved downward visibility, which helped in eventually reestablishing proper position.  Whattaya know.  

By then we were below cloudbase again, peering through murky shade at some alarmingly tall radio towers.  Street grids tangled everywhere beneath the dark, busy little sky, aircraft in all directions too many to count, mostly lit up but some not, and one must assume others unseen.  Digby knew the way, fortunately, and would also win our little wager about having enough fuel.  Never been so happy to lose a bet!   

So this flight too was anticlimactic in the end, as all should be.  But holy smokes, how hard do a couple young fellows have to try to get into trouble?  Harmless outcomes like ours that day send a false message to the foolish, encouraging eagerness next time, when wise reluctance should weigh the call.  

      

In that decade the only person with a mobile phone was a TV character named Maxwell Smart (no relation obviously).  But even these days, cell service can hardly be counted on if you’re treading water far from shore.