Ever notice how the more interesting and memorable stuff is seldom scripted? Prepare all you can, but whether you’re doing it or it’s doing you, how the unforeseen gets handled is your story. That’s why defensive teams win championships, because they react correctly when it counts.

First season as a commercial glider pilot, I thought I was a better stick then than I wished I were thirty-five years later. Learning curve? Mine was more of a learning spike and remained so for much of the way since. Even now I’m afraid if I blink I’ll slide out of whack like Wile E. Coyote on ice. Teaching myself to soar was what I imagine a space walk feels like, except astronauts usually know what they’re doing. And learning to teach, well we should all be glad most of that’s behind me.

Also, many of my richest errors in the early daze amounted to foolishly going along with (and in some cases advancing) others’ bad ideas. Not an excuse, just a fact.

We were booked to hop rides at a summer festival on Nantucket, twenty miles out in the Atlantic. The island’s one airport was towered so we didn’t go there, until after. Our ‘strip’ would be a golf course fairway aimed east at the ocean. Looking down today from GoogleEarth, we had a thousand feet of open turf uphill to a couple hundred yards of brushy dunes, the beach and the sea. We’d be landing the opposite way, downwind into a milling crowd. Launching uphill’s creepy enough, but landing downhill to a short porch would be complicated by a pulse of lift where the trailing sea breeze rose over those dunes on mid final. Which landing would be most educational, the first or the last?

Before all that however, the towplane’s engine was spanking new and not yet fully broken in. If you don’t know what that signifies, ask around. It’s serious. Without this process completed the aircraft was unfit for service. Rudy the operator knew of the restraint, but either didn’t understand its importance or thought this occasion somehow worth the risk. Otto the tow pilot knew better and said so, but it was Rudy’s plane and his call so Otto and I shrugged our shoulders. More flying on someone else’s dime was all we wanted. By evening Rudy’s towplane would be too crippled to fly back to the mainland, but that’s a separate bucket of clams.

Commencing the new engine’s final hours, we towed a 2-32 sixty-five miles into the rising sun from one place I’d never seen to another, the last third of it over open ocean. Otto was new to towing gliders and had very little actual experience by any measure. I had less. He had a radio and I had…. less. If any flotation device were aboard the Bird Dog other than a foam seat cushion, the same would be true again. ELT in the glider? Guess. On the way over, my mind drifted to how long a Schweizer might float… Judging from the white noise they make in flight, you may as well start swimming now.

The engine was grumbling before we got there and Otto was too, soon as his feet touched the ground. When he slowed down ten knots halfway across, I began to worry. You can bet if he waved me off out there I’d have squeezed the stick, among other things, gritted my teeth and dared him to cut me loose! Otto was cool, though.

On the island he pulled the first few rides, but as the engine faltered so did his nerve. The poor guy had his eye on an airline career and rightfully feared ruining that with nonsense like this. By midday he’d apologized and quit, a spooked college kid backing out of a tight spot despite needing the man he put on that spot to get him back across the water. That’s not cowardice, it’s the courage of common sense. But it left only Rudy (whose commercial certificate did not extend to powered airplanes) and me.

Rudy had to decide, either tow the rest of the day himself, illegally, or give this up. And? He was not as young as me, or nearly as inexperienced, and had more at stake, including kids, yet was every bit as foolish.

His first taste of dragging potential victims from soft grass over rising ground behind an engine that didn’t want to run sobered him. Like he’d seen a ghost? No, he looked like a ghost. But this was his show and more rides were waiting.

So now it’s mid-afternoon, humid and hot, each launch consuming more fairway before liftoff. Even I can feel the engine failing, and wish Rudy would seize the valor part and scrub this clown show before somebody has to call an ambulance. Then climbing through 400 feet well out beyond the surf, the Bird Dog… vanishes.

A gauzy deck of sea fog has drifted over, invisible against the haze until we’re in it. I can see enough bluish light overhead to think we might soon be above it, so stay on tow to learn what the next step should be. Soon we’re out the top, but cannot see an edge to the layer. I release and pull spoilers to hurry down while still somewhere near the LZ. Jab a quick right in the fog and roll out before disorientation can set in, then retract spoilers when the surf reappears.

No setting up an approach; we’re already on a flat final, about to hit that lift off the dunes. Over my right shoulder I see Rudy emerge, closing. The fairway’s wide enough for both wingspans and we have right-of-way of course — with a whirling cleaver bearing down on our six! There’s a wide stretch on the right where I’d rather land and give Rudy a straight lane, but I’m coming in from the left… Time seems to accelerate.

Rather than confuse him by being less than obvious I crank a sharp little turn across his nose, praying he’s further back than it feels, then go full steep and plunk down before the fairway narrows. As we slow, he trundles by on our left, bye bye new engine.

Those last passengers were glad to settle for that, given the circumstances, and so was I. Who knows, the fog may have saved us from landing in the surf on our next launch…

Aftermath? It was 1980, with everyone quick to move on. We left Rudy’s birds tied to trees for the night, hopefully beyond reach of dawn golf balls, and grabbed a mercy flight (IFR) to find a better party somewhere on the mainland.

Tomorrow would come when it came.


When initiating aero-tow, many pilots pull back stick at some point to get airborne. Not me. Here’s what works better, and why.
Any time you’re near the ground it’s safest to have both fuselage and wings level with the surface (yes windward wing low in a crosswind, but more than slightly low creates other problems). Tailwheels tend to come up automatically during acceleration, and skids and nose wheels do too, after which there’s still that sensitive phase of building speed for liftoff.
Impatiently trying to pull the glider up trades the most efficient attitude for a higher angle of attack, adding drag to both aircraft at the most critical point while also sacrificing some degree of control. Instead, try doing nothing except holding level a few seconds longer. If your bird has a nose wheel and you feel it softly bouncing, nudge back only enough to keep it up and wait for the miracle of flight to happen by itself. That way you’ll enter the sky in a stable attitude with minimal drag and maximum control.
Then occasionally you’ll be a couple feet up and something atmospheric puts you back down momentarily. Trying to hold it off with elevator may work, but why bother? The risk of overreacting is unnecessary. Doing nothing allows you to bounce right back up still in the same efficient attitude.
Keep It Simple, Sweetie.
However… say it’s really hot and there’s no headwind (think density altitude). The takeoff roll may last an uncomfortably long time, but here too patience remains a virtue. Execute your liftoff the same way, but then hold the glider low with steadily increasing forward pressure even as the towplane begins to climb. By staying in ground effect a few seconds longer before transitioning to high tow position you further reduce drag the tug must overcome, which ultimately gets both birds higher sooner.
Note: If you intend to use this last technique, be smart and mention it to tow pilots beforehand so they won’t think you’re unable to climb and cut you loose…


Remember when Mt. St. Helens blew up? If younger than forty-something you don’t. It was May of 1980. The following day, in my home town 250 miles downwind, absolutely everything was buried under inches of ash. Birds were unable to fly, and had nowhere to land if they tried. I’d moved away by then, but pictures of the yard where I grew up were hard to believe. In fact a year and a half later the folks said crusts of ash were still drifted like snow in the lee of large obstructions, a foot deep.
I was in Vermont at the time, 2300 miles further downwind, where the pall arrived three days later on its way to Europe. After an ominous copper sunrise the day seemed hazy with the usual thin overcast, but something smelled different. This was early in my first season of daily soaring activity, which by itself doesn’t mean much, but as the first of thirty-five it implies volumes. I’d logged a total of 200 hours at that point, and was only beginning to realize how little I knew.
A stiff west wind was blowing, that site’s main currency, so when things on the ground got slow I went for a hop in the 1-34. Releasing low on the ridge, I climbed from a surprise thermal up through rotor right into 6-knot wave. That was a hat trick I’d never before accomplished without any clouds to mark the way, and it seemed to happen as if by magic. Suddenly overconfident, I decided to favor intuition over strict logic the rest of the flight and see what else might happen.
At twelve thousand feet that peculiar metallic odor intensified, and the world grew strangely darker. Then soon it brightened to a painful glare, softening gradually as I climbed on up. At fourteen thousand lay the same Elysian firmament that always awaits if you go high enough, world without end… but the earth had disappeared! Nothing down there but the wave-ribbed surface of a planet-size silver ball. Not white or blue, green or grey. Gleaming, screaming chrome.
Yikes. And me with no supplemental oxygen.
Volcanic ash is rare as a soaring environment, thank Gaia. But I’ve since learned that in dry snow or even light rain you can sometimes ride wave straight out the top without ever seeing an actual cloud. Up there it’s perfect as ever, but you’re officially caught on top.
Those few brief moments above the big silver ball were the most majestic of my life up to that time, a unique experience that will never come again. Grave was the temptation to hang out up there forever, but truth is I started to get scared. The longer I stayed the further I’d be from my last known position, more blinded by the enveloping light, and stupefied by hypoxia. My supposed mission was to trust instinct! So with excruciating reluctance I pulled full spoilers and scuttled back down while still fairly sure where I was.
I’ve regretted that decision ever since, naturally, as everyone mourns our unexploited opportunities. Nothing lost, though. Did get a peek after all. Who knows, could I be the only soaring pilot ever to witness such scene?
Sure hope not.


‌Suppose you’re looking up and see vague milky blotches in an otherwise empty sky. Unlike clouds in clear air, patterns and depth perception are indistinct, but they could represent significant information. You can’t tell if you’re looking at fog nearby, smoke atop the convective layer, or who knows what between.

There’s a trick for situations like this, that’s so simple it sounds dumb. All you do is put a finger up there and draw a line slowly across the scene, following the finger with your eyes. You’ll see surprising patterns emerge from the background, and a second swipe some other direction will reveal even more. Cool, huh? That’s it, now the secret’s out.

Surely recon experts know about this kind of thing, and perhaps many of our readers as well, but I’ve never heard anyone mention it, or seen another pilot pointing at the sky and watching their finger like a lunatic.

Of course, to those looking on it does appear standard issue crazy, so it’s okay to peek around beforehand, just in case. You know, like you do before uh…

Anyway, when someone finally does catch you, may as well try to explain yourself, not only to seem sane, but hopefully share some enlightenment as well. If that makes them think you’re nuts and a pompous know-it-all, it’ll be their problem, not yours.




Check out our friend Chuck Fulton’s podcast where he features stories of glider pilots from all over the world.

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