My first in-flight brush with mental fatigue happened quick as a big league fastball. While finishing up another long day of soaring rides and lessons, thoughts of iced tea and warm food on that last flight were distractions I’d successfully set aside. Then rolling to the tie downs I dragged a wingtip before full stop, something I always try to never do. Aw heck, glad this one’s finally over.
Just as I was reaching to turn off the radio they called from the office to ask if I’d be okay with just one more double deluxe ride. That may have been the first time I felt less than entirely eager for any excuse to get back up in the air, but it wasn’t the first time I told a fib.
“Sure,” I replied. They were newlyweds after all, so there wasn’t much choice.
On breathless summer evenings in Vermont, the only way to keep a loaded 2-32 in the air more than a few minutes is to stay on tow forever, so that’s what we did. Ten miles out, over Mt. Mansfield, the state’s highest peak, I released and turned straight into what little wind there was, even at that height. A slanted shadow of broad stratus we’d seen approaching for hours was just then reaching us and I privately welcomed the shade. Then two beats into our separation turn we entered smooth clammy sink and began to fall.
Swing and a miss.
We were angling away from the most formidable obstacle for seventy miles, with it between us and our airport. I could/should have immediately fixed that with a quick reversal and dive back across the ridge while still high enough, but declined, to avoid startling the honeymooners. (Though they may have loved such a surprise, no one wished them to lose their champagne…)
Strike two, called.
A simple 270 at 30 degree bank, but completing it seemed to take several minutes. By the time we faced the mountain again it stood well above us. Only eleven air miles from home and a minute off tow, we’d sunk below line of sight and out of radio range! There would be no more direct sunlight until tomorrow, and even here 4000 feet up, zero ridge lift. Green fields were everywhere, lumpy but landable, while typical of New England geography, the only real airport within glide range lay two counties removed from our own. I fully expected things would turn out fine one way or another but chose to come clean ahead of time just in case, said I’d made a mistake and might have to land somewhere other than where we started.
No. Actually it was one of the few smart things I did on that flight. Faced with an unhittable pitch, all I could do was foul it off and wait for the next one.
It’s terribly important for passengers in any aircraft to have genuine confidence in their pilot. Even where a situation is perfectly safe and aircraft in good order, doubts about the pilot can make anything – everything – scary. My knowing the newlyweds were safe didn’t help them feel better. They needed more. Would their lasting memories of this day be marred by a fool who frightened them crazy and blew their reservations for a honeymoon suite, or enriched by the crafty captain who saved their wedding night with steady proficiency? Besides, if we did have to land off base, declaring that possibility well beforehand should seem less inept than doing so only after it became obvious even to them… right? And even if their certainty of my incompetence was terminal they still had no one else to get them back on the ground, and needed to at least hope I could accomplish that task safely!
The bride screamed a little, but her doughty groom soothed and assured as if he’d already mastered the art. My gratitude for that was immense as my embarrassment, and I tried to express both with some kind of jovial quip. Whatever I said seemed innocuous enough — until we all heard it. Then something about its content or tone plopped in the back like a P-bomb jettisoned from wave sink. The silence back there was so powerful it seemed to absorb even the infernal white noise of our 2-32’s canopy. Censury depredation.
“Wow,” I croaked, “bad humor as a noise suppressant, who knew?”
Foul Tip, off the very end of the bat, and still stings even today.
More silence. Shut up and fly, I told myself. No one was listening anyway, least of all me. My voice, however, spewed on undeterred like air from a leaky valve stem into the nuptial vacuum behind. For me a coping mechanism, for them a lunatic ranting to himself on the subway. Except this particular loony happened to be driving it and seemed waaay off the tracks.
I almost tried the one about me up front being the first to die, but that never goes over well, so I decided to improvise. “Which would you rather have, a good pilot who’s a lousy comic or a bad pilot who can make even that hilarious?” Sure, it bombed too, but stack of Talmuds, years later I heard the same line get laughs on TV! (You don’t need to believe that part, but it’s true anyway.)
Gliding along beside one forested hill after another provided trivial subject matter to sustain and pasteurize my habitual flow of BS. At that point the honeymooners saw themselves as hostages, resigned to waiting this out.
We still had miles to go, out of the way around yet another range, for a straight shot at our airport. I almost started crooning the old tune “Silence Is Golden”, but knew better by then and held it in. That was the other smart thing.
Ball three, full count.
When eventually we rounded the end of a long low spur into our home valley I feigned astonishment, “Hey, we found it!” pointing, “Right there, straight ahead.” From aft came the faintest, slowest applause, painfully, picturesquely sarcastic.
As it worked out, they’d already gotten the longest possible tour of our local hills, from an unusual perspective, and somewhat more than the 45 minutes they paid for. Yet as we glided lower across the valley, faint vestiges of buoyancy, plus a yearning for some form of vindication, caused me to suggest that all we’d need was one little stroke of luck to keep us aloft until the sun dropped below cloudbase for a rosy finale. (I knew there was no chance this late, but they didn’t.) They were sure to decline…
And did, thank Gaia, opting instead to be down and away from me as soon as humanly possible. My sentiments were similar at that point, except perhaps in degree of intensity. I was too tired to care anymore and they, we should hope, were not.
Ball four. Take your base, lucky putz.
All to illustrate that mental fatigue is a hazard insidious as any other. This whole episode hinged on a single too-casual preflight decision followed by failure to respond to sink aggressively and soon. Fact is, I was slower-witted and less imaginative before takeoff than I’d been before the prior landing… That’s not something you can make up in flight; once you’re committed you have to perform despite the handicap.
Most student pilots, and many rookies too, have about an hour of quality brain time before soaring’s complex and disorienting environment exhausts them mentally. More experienced pilots may take that long just settling in for an all-day flight. But even marathoners are subject to fatigue, and marathoner or not, so are YOU.
The solution to mental fatigue is simple, if not always convenient: take a nap. Just be sure you land first.
Forecast for last Saturday was promising by all popular weather forecasting sites, although they all suggested a later start than normal as the desert
floor not lifting much until about 1pm. Karl (C3) and I were the only two participants willing to give it a try and we did launch around 11:30 as planned, once again
thank you Chris for your consideration!
I took my usual higher/conservative tow to the Labor Camp where I released under a good-looking cu and by 12 o’clock I arrived under cloud base at
Baden-Powell, a little over 13k. Hung around for about 15 minutes knowing that I need to be patient but never the less my impatience got the better of me and I was
on my way to Backus.
After a long but uneventful glide I finally connected with a bug-fart thermal at the Silver Queen at 7000′ but I could only squeeze a couple of
hundred feet before it pooped out. Moving forward to Mojave- another 2kt average got me to 8k and onto the races to the Three Sisters where I did
spot a cu. Of course, by the time I got there it did cycle out, but fortunately left a pretty good thermal behind which took me to 12.5k and I was able to call
The Sierras worked fairly well with some cloud markers and had a good run all the way to Olancha Peak, arriving about 14k. After that point the clouds
started closing up, killing the thermals, and I was forced to cross over just south of the Switchbacks toward the Inyo’s. I arrived just below 10k and had to work hard
to get on top of the Inyo’s where I topped out above 11k. The winds were more or less south-westerly around 10kn. There was a nice shear line on the east side of the
ridge but being a live chicken, I would not dare going on the lee side of the ridge even with a good-looking sheer line as the terrain below is extremely hostile.
So, I just flew along west of the ridge line, eventually falling off to about 9k abeam Independence. The soaring Gods were with me once again and I did step into a
nice thermal and back up to 15k, life was good once again!
I continued all the way up to White Mountain Peak fairly uneventfully under nice cloud streets. Even through the winds slightly favored the usual Gabbs, Austin
route, I wanted to fly toward a different scenery and had Yerington in my mind. Unfortunately, there was a tremendous amount of smoke in that direction due
to the fires so once again I headed for Austin. I did have some really good climbs on the way, mainly in the Gabbs area, one of which took me to 17.8k and could
have gone much higher with 11 kn average but being a good citizen, I bailed just below the class “A”!
I was still above 17k just south of Austin and both Battle Mountain and Eureka looked doable with cloud markers. However, it was now 6pm and since
Battle Mountain is 79 miles and Eureka is 64 miles, and I’m no spring chicken no-mo, not wishing for an off field landing, I opted to call it a day at Austin.
I think a 5pm arrival would have enticed me to continue,.. maybe next time!
Forecasts looked promising except some stronger wind than preferred and a start at noon. Peter PK and I decided to try.
After PK, I got my tow at 11:37 to 3.3K, worked myself up to cloud base and left the Mtn at 12:10. PK already covered a bunch of miles.
Crossing the desert was kind and I arrived at Silver Queen at around 6K, working a few weak ones with leg cramps to Cache Creek, got to 7.6K while adjusting seat cushion to get rid of the cramp. Cache Peak here we go, 13K to Boomer at 14:00, 13.3K up to Sacatar 14.2K, Olancha 14K wind 21Kts 234 deg ?
Switchbacks 13.8K, time to cross to the Inyos abeam Independence 16K, still nice clouds up ahead, short of White Mtn 17.4K my highest, left after the Peak toward Mina at 16:00.
Forecast had headwind at Hawthorne and the clouds looked better towards Austin, PK still ahead. Several miles short of Gabbs is a Mine with a dark blue pond, (need to find out what comes out of there) for me a nice thermal to 16.8K enough to make Austin, happy C3. PK was further E looking for better lift, offsetting to the W he found a good one and reported a bit later 14K near Austin. I arrived 11K, relayed to the crews “we will land at Austin”. While I was trying to unwind relaxing over the town enjoying the scenery and cloudscape, PK asked “who is 1st” ? I was still 11K, so he landed 1st , 1st time I saw him, on the downwind leg. My touchdown 16:20, 6.41 hrs, 351M.
Peter came to help pushing C3 to the transient parking, Brian Neff with wife showed up, staying overnight on their soaring safari. Minden had too much smoke for taking off.
While we waited for the crews we got treated to nice cold water melon by Brian. C3 team finished putting the Libelle in the trailer with the help of everybody and flashlights, shortly after dark.
PK team went for overnight to Hawthorne. Gus and me got busy getting set up for dinner, Rose prepared German Bratwurst with Onion, I heated on the stove and Potato Salad with a Sierra Nevada cool one, Poppy seed roll for desert. Took a hot shower compliments of Austin Airport and turned in.
Up short of 6 AM, Brewed fresh Coffee, cooked eggs, as Henry would say, “looking at you” went well with bacon and German Bread.
Filled up the tank in town and decided to take the back route via the dry lake, lot more scenic and even lonelier than Hwy 50, did see a bunch of Pronghorns, a lot of cows along the road, well behaved ones.
Hwy 6, the weather started to look menacing, dark clouds and gusty winds, at Chalfant we got into a micro burst dust flying and low visibility. Bishop some rain than more further down sometime pretty heavy, got out of it after Independence, Haystack was not visible in a dark rainsquall, Sun came out after Olancha and an interesting cloudscape all the way to Crystal.
This coming week will feature fine soaring of course, even if unexceptional by local standards. With mild southwesterlies and temps not much higher than 90, the most unusual weather might be widespread cloud cover in the flat desert, not the mountains, plus humidity as high as 30%! The best lift this time around may be convergence related, particularly along the (mostly windward) edge of large shadows.
In SOARING IS LEARNING this week, we have two wonderful accounts of flights last Saturday by Peter Kovari and Karl Sommer, who both soared 252-miles to Austin, NV.