TIME RAN OUT

Soaring seasons always end too soon, and my first one ended before I found a way to destroy myself.  For the next year I had a flaming arrow in my quiver that was sure to do the trick.  By then I’d relocated, accepting a demotion at work expressly to live near a more aggressive soaring site (one at much higher elevation, which can really make a difference…) and with nearly fifty flight hours logged I felt ready to show my stuff.  I’d envied pilots who released their tows low near the airport and quickly climbed away while those in my class paid for a three or four thousand-foot tow, sometimes gliding all the way down again without doing any real soaring.  So one gusty spring day I decided ahead of time to release at the first hint of lift and save a couple bucks.  It nearly cost me everything.

The runway there is twenty feet lower at one end so they always took off downhill (usually downwind), landing the other way, uphill and into the wind.  On this particular day however the wind was reversed, and accelerating downhill into it we lifted off almost immediately.

Swinging back to stay nearby at first, we drifted past the airfield in seconds.  Then sooner than expected I felt the bump I wanted and hopped off.  The first circle was a loser, but I’d seen that before and it didn’t worry me.  Try the other way?  Worse.  Then I peeked at the altimeter and got the hot rush that always precedes cold sweat.

I’d released 700 feet above ground and much of that was gone already.  The field lay right there in front of me offering a direct straight-in emergency approach, landing downhill but into the wind.  Instead I stuck with the standard script, gliding all the way back around the airport in an extremely low version of a ‘normal’ pattern, hoping to find lift.  That whole time, I was hemorrhaging altitude, flying way too slow into the wind on ‘downwind’ leg like only a beginner as average as me would do, all to set up a tailwind on final!  At any point during that leg I could and should have turned in mid-field, where landing either direction would be vastly safer than what I did do.  But I bore on, beyond the airport, trying to reach an arbitrary landmark for the usual base leg.

But didn’t get that far.  Soon no kind of safe approach was possible, as between me and the strip stood two tall pines too wide to fly around.  The only choice was to slip my final(?!) turn and squeak between those trees, rolling level just in time to plop to a stop at the end of pavement. 

A moment before impact I was still moving at a thirty-degree angle to the strip.  First the left wing kissed and then the nose, both unbelievably soft, before the mainwheel took a tremendous vertical WHUMP, tail slamming down last followed by one tiny spasm of a bounce.  (Thank those zany Czech designers for the Blanik’s noseover skid and weird oleo strut!)  It amounted to a spin entry beginning somewhere around head height, which explains how I came to a stop not just on the actual numbers, but perfectly in line with the runway.  Oh yes, stranger than fiction.  I would have made more mistakes, but time ran out. 

That was also the only time I’ll ever fly barefoot…  Had to pull the glider by myself the full length of a rough macadam runway, up from the low end with one wingtip dragging on its little tiedown bracket.  Halfway there I stopped to rest and cool my feet while the aircraft’s owner stood with arms crossed, content to glare at me rather than come and help.  When I finally heaved up to the launch line with soles afire, he shook his head slowly and spoke words I can still hear verbatim, “I’ve never seen anybody come so close to killing himself.”

He should have demanded another check flight right then and climbed in back to see if I had any idea what I was doing, but he was too upset for dialogue.  Growling, he looked his glider over, astonished to find no apparent damage at all, though pulling that clump of pine needles from an inboard aileron hinge did precipitate a string of oaths.

I was too mortified to do more than pay up and make a hobbling getaway.  He probably vowed to himself he’d never let me fly there again – but we’ll never know.  At home there was much to think about.  Obviously I lacked judgment.  The cure for that is training and experience, but I could scarcely afford tows and rental, much less more instruction.  Days went by, then weeks and months procrastinating that bike ride to the airport until finally the season was over.  Haven’t flown there since.

The end?      

HADN’T THE FOGGIEST

Ever been out on the dance floor cutting a rug and have the fiddlers suddenly change their tune?  It can be awkward, especially in the midst of a do-si-do.

We were in wave about a mile above cloud when we noticed the cloud thickening and the good lift weakening even as it crept forward, upwind…  That didn’t seem to make sense. Clouds ordinarily shrink when lift weakens, and waves that migrate almost always move downwind.  These anomalies made us look closer and think more carefully, which is when it got interesting.

Before, there’d been just one layer of broken cloud between us and the earth, and ample avenues for descent.  But while pointing out that a second layer had formed above it I spied a third layer hiding under… a more greenish shade, the signature of GROUND FOG!

At once the sole mission was to find how quickly we could get DOWN.  Even diving with full spoilers, we had several huge spirals to better observe and understand what was happening.  Our wave wind had been from the south, but while we faced mostly that direction very different weather was encroaching from behind us.  As our local wave flattened, converging winds on a larger scale generated broad uplift almost everywhere, clouds growing into a thickened mass.  Safe escape routes were vanishing by the moment.

We had to fly away some distance for a neat passage back to the airport, and got there barely in time.  Fog was rolling up the the runway before we finished securing our bird.

I’ve now experienced this same kind of rapid sea change at three different soaring sites, so the question is not if, but where and when it will occur again .…

YOUR CALL

Say you’re up soaring locally, with no special plan except to have fun and stay safe. That’s cool, but whether you like it or not, soaring always requires decisions. Even deciding not to decide is…  you get it.  One big choice that’s yours to make at any point is, would you rather have an excellent flight or a mediocre one?  It’s your call!

For a mediocre flight just keep doing what you always do, and maybe bring music or some of your favorite food.  It’s easy, but much less satisfying and in many ways less safe than pursuing excellence.

The more you demand of yourself the more you’ll enjoy it. If you prefer improvement over the status quo, simply challenge yourself, in any way you like.  No need to go for the world record every flight, especially this time of year, but pick some uncertain goal like connecting the farthest corners of your neighborhood, or if that’s too easy, doing so more quickly.  Not something certain, but something with a fifty-fifty chance of failure.  If success were defined by avoiding failure, playing checkers with two-year olds would demonstrate your presumed eminence. The point is not to chalk up vain victories, it’s to try hard, learn a lot, and obtain more than a mere minimum of satisfaction.

Those who soar in weak or difficult conditions or in low performance craft need not feel deprived or deficient. And the same for those who are just starting out! Better to enjoy making the most of what is NOW, and lay an essential foundation for terrific adventures still to come. Success that comes from pursuing excellence is at your fingertips every moment, and leads to greater pleasures (and safety) on every subsequent flight.   No one can ask for more.

THE ONE THAT WOULDN’T DIE

After decades of daily commercial soaring activity including twenty years in the Mojave Desert, my short list of most bodacious thermals had grown long. Values more dear than mere strength and height could put a thermal on that list, such as timeliness, strategic location, degree of serendipity (luck), or plain old majestic grandeur. This one’s a contender on several counts, but wins top honors for… longevity?

Normally, it’s only beginners who stay with the same thermal for an hour or more, and they’re to be excused.For a thermal to stick around you need lots of energy focused in one spot the entire time, a condition that itself is observably rare. The thermal directly over a smokestack could work hypothetically until the smokestack falls down, but don’t expect me to try and prove it!

That day featured something rare around Crystal in July, anemic lift. While we were loitering near the airport a dust devil sprang up over farm fields east of Gray Butte, and quickly grew tall. Nothing was happening anywhere else, so, expecting it to be gone before we got there, we went anyway. And bingo, it kept growing as we approached. You gotta love when that happens.

To describe this thermal, ordinary adjectives scarcely apply. Our bird carried front seat weight right at the upper limit and me in the back wondering about gravitational anomalies as we rose a steady two thousand feet per minute. Ooh yeah.

At 14,000 we were still climbing 20 knots! But having no supplemental oxygen and already height enough for anything, we chose to glide away and find where in plain sight this monster’s cousins were hiding.

Twenty-five miles later, nothing but nibbles.

Looking back, imagine our surprise in seeing that same devil churning the whole square mile around its base into a wooly mound of floating dust. Despite some unknown factor suppressing ordinary convection across the entire valley, all that solar heat needed a release somewhere, and our one giant devil seemed the only vent around. We’d lost several thousand feet by then, but had enough left to head right back there and start again.

The devil’s central column was looming higher than before as we glided onto the top of its lower dust cloud and our long descent finally ended. The energy was actually greater believe it or not, but (after a 50-mile out and return, from and to the very same thermal!) our second climb to 14,000 took somewhat longer – because we topped out that time with FULL SPOILERS, just to say so.