EVENING ENTERTAINMENT

Years before I would hear about the statistical bullseye of a few hundred hours for fledgling pilots becoming reckless, I passed dead center through the target unawares.  Like so many things, it did’t feel dangerous beforehand  In fact my first season as a commercial pilot had been more uneventful than educational and I was getting itchy.  All morning hardly a thing had happened at the airport, then suddenly I was given a choice:  go home early, maybe do some laundry and spend another gorgeous autumn evening watching reruns with roommates, or hop over to New Hampshire and ferry a glider back…  Duh!  

But you gotta go NOW,” they said, “Time’s short.”  

“Oh come on, it’s barely noon and Franconia’s less than a hundred miles.  There and back in airplanes shouldn’t take long.  We’ll be towing back straight into the sun though, and I broke my shades this morning.  Let me drive the loaner into town for another pair.”  

The sunglasses in the office junk drawer were like unmatched kaleidoscopes and my other vehicle in those days was a Schwinn, so I got clearance for a dash to the village, pronto.  

Bad angel smirked but said nothing, good angel turned away and sighed.  Naturally, I got a flat tire.  And the !&@# jack had no handle.  This was long before cellphones, by the way.  With no other choice I started hitching, and eventually a ski bum buddy happened by to get me moving again.  

In my hurry I’d forgotten we were always supposed to squirt some avgas into the loaner before taking it anywhere, then on the way back glanced at the fuel gauge and realized I might not make it without returning first to the nearest gas station.  Having spent my lunch money on cheap sunglasses, I only had a couple bucks left, and for neither the first time nor the last, dribbled what amounted to my life savings into a gas tank and hoped for the best.     

Back at the airport nearly two hours later I was in everyone’s dog house, but with now even more reason to hurry we clamored aboard the Birddog and got underway.  

Airborne at last, we were thrumming eastward over miles of rolling canopy forest that I’d peered across in low performance gliders, but never had the guts to explore.  Now that cowardice was vindicated.  Thermals there were few and feeble, and not a single clearing to land in anywhere.  

A strong tailwind did get us there quick, but the paperwork took longer than it should (a certainty one learns to expect in these situations), and finally even I began to sweat the time.  Five thirty precedes three more hours of legal daylight in midsummer, but this was September twenty-something.  

Then the glider’s tire needed air — saw that coming, didn’t you?  At this pace, having no chuck for the air hose should have been predictable.  The hardware store was closed by then, and it seemed I might be in for a long cash-free night in a strange town when the A and P grabbing his keys to drive home found the !&@# chuck in his pocket.  ‘Coises,’ grumbled the bad angel, ‘furled again.’  

So by sunset we were back in the air, towing straight west and peering hard for eastbound traffic.  But remember that tailwind we had earlier?  We reversed directions, but it not.  And why didn’t I step away and water a bush somewhere while we were killing all that time on the ground? 

Ahead stood our local mountain silhouetted on the skyline, perfectly familiar but far smaller than usual, growing oh so slowly for the first half hour as its rosy backdrop faded.  Next came that awful stretch of seamless hardwoods and my youthful bravado got swallowed by the night.  

Eventually distant towns began to rise from behind hills and I dropped into low tow position to keep the Birddog’s nav lights above the horizon.  From headlights on the scatter of roads spreading in all directions I could tell which way was up, but which way was which?  It seemed the airport should be in sight by now, but all I could see in that direction was a big inky blank.  With no one to talk to about this, I started feeling kinda sick.  

Staring numbly into that void where the field ought to be, I was trying hard not to panic, when suddenly the whole layout flashed into blazing glory!  The tow pilot had activated those lights remotely of course, by clicking his radio mic, a technological wrinkle new to me at the time and a very welcome surprise.  Prior to that, I’d never had reason to loiter at any airport after dark, and thoughtlessly assumed even the small ones stayed lit all night.  

Then time came to face the unavoidable, my first night landing.  Oh, nothing to it really, just release a mile or so out and follow the tow plane in… hoping those lights stay on long enough.  Spooky but easy.  Most fun I had all day, to be honest.  

So yes, aero towing cross-country at night without a radio is definitely more ‘interesting’ than reruns with roommates, but once was enough for me.  You get the next trip, okay?  

RABBIT HOPS

It was scheduled to be a fine soaring day so Anton and I launched early, intending to stay up forever and soar as far as possible.  There were no clouds anywhere and according to the forecast it might stay blue all day, but a quick climb in our local mountains gave us altitude for a forty-mile glide to the next hills so why wait?  “It’ll be booming everywhere soon enough and any clouds we do see will mark the best lift around, so let’s go!”

We reached the hills east of Apple Valley plenty high, but found nothing at first.  “No sweat.  Lift hasn’t developed here yet, but we shouldn’t have long to wait.”  Scratching among more than fifteen miles of rocky peaks, we found tantalizing hints almost everywhere but never could establish our second climb.

Meanwhile our teenage line boy Zeke launched thirty minutes behind us, a brilliant talent with almost no experience but crammed to the top with confidence.  Starting exactly where we did, he climbed fifteen hundred feet higher and therefore approached these same hills in better shape – timed perfectly to catch big lift only then blossoming above us.

While the kid settled into his second climb and we inched gradually lower, one teensy cloud began forming high overhead, now far beyond our reach.  Craning our necks, we saw Zeke silhouetted against it, a nat on the ceiling.  My smile was grudging but proud when he broke squelch to note how small we looked from two miles up.  He was bound for glory that day, and we were landing at Rabbit Dry Lake.

After rolling to a stop we called up to have Zeke to relay a message for the retrieve tow ASAP.  With lots of day still left, we didn’t need a ride home, just a relight to get us back in the game.  “Shouldn’t take too long Anton,” I enthused.  “Glad we brought extra water?”

The tug was delayed first by flurries of unscheduled activity on the flight line, then an intractable tow pilot demanding his lunch break, et cetera.  All through the heart (read heat) of that ideal soaring day we stood on the dusty lake bed, close together in our wing’s scant shade trying not to irritate each other.

It was after three when we finally got our relight.  Being midsummer, time did remain for brief exploration of bigger mountains nearby before an easy flight back home – but Barrister Murphy had other ideas.

I learned a lesson about haste that morning, but Anton apparently had not.  He did okay with the temporary blindness of aero-towing from a sandy surface, and a minute later we crossed back over our launch point where the dust we kicked up was almost as high as we were.  Thinking that marked lift, with no warning Anton released the tow.

So unexpected and sudden, for one long moment I tried to not believe he’d done it.  He had, though.

You see, Anton is a first generation hang glider pilot, still renowned from the earliest days.  To him 500 feet seemed high enough for almost anything, but it leaves a sailplane no margin, even if flown perfectly.  It’s possible to work a lively dust devil from that height, depending on a zillion variables, maybe.  But this was not that.  It was only sand roiled by the propeller and already settling back to the surface.  As were we.

Our tow pilot was headed home by then, straight away, and not responding on radio.  If he gave a *#?! about us (or soaring) he’d turn back at least once to see how things looked…  But nah.

So after a supremely unrefreshing four-hour break on hot sand we were right back where we came in, below pattern height fifty miles out, with the nearest little peak a thousand feet higher, miles away.  And now shadows were starting to creep across the lake bed.

Oh, it worked out all right.  In some ways low saves are all alike.  Same proximity to earth and hazard, same uncertainty, same daunting certainties, same dodge and duck, thrust and cut, same dancing on the pedals with your heels off the floor.  Each save is different too, whether time of day, location, level of desperation, or lessons learned.  And unlike most aspects of soaring, saves are always subject to a binary verdict, yea or nay.  This jury took another sweaty hour to decide our case as we clawed our way up in the day’s last lift, once Aton let me fly again, eventually high enough to stumble on home.  

Altogether our adventure amounted to fifty miles out and then barely back along the same route — in two flights.  (Don’t look Ma, hands!)

And remember our line boy Zeke?  He was making the final turn of his first 200-mile triangle as we commenced our relight, and ambled in from another direction to beat us back by half an hour.  Later, he could not help repeating, “You guys sure looked small down there.”

Yeah Zeke, and you look a bit smaller too, every time you mention it… 

KARMIC DO

A modern sailplane can glide more efficiently than any raptor, but that’s our only advantage.  All birds’ instincts are essentially flawless, and we can assume that a circling hawk marks the best lift around.  Seemingly never intimidated, they tolerate us in their airspace, making it our privilege to soar with them as with each other.  Except they always out-fly us of course, being far more maneuverable and shameless about using auxiliary power whenever it suits their purpose.

Possibility of collision with most birds would be near zero even if we tried to hit them, because they’re too quick for our moderate speeds and slower response.  Like everything else in the sky however, it can happen, so eventually it will.  In countless hours of soaring with birds, my one strike seemed itself a matter of heartrending kismet, some karmic due to be fulfilled whether we chose to participate or not.  We were ridge soaring forth and back on a small hill, occasionally passing the doomed red-tail from ahead or behind, either direction.  It glanced over each time, but otherwise ignored us like always.  Then an eagle joined in and we had three splendid shows for the price of none.  

Soon it developed that we were overtaking them both at once, so to preclude any conflict I pitched over and swerved between them and the ridge.  As we rolled level, the hawk dove crazily from behind on our left to ahead on our right – and got smacked by the wing full on!  I happened to be looking two o’clock, at the nearest ground ahead, and witnessed the impact.  Broken in half and held together by its skin, the carcass spun straight down like a maple seed.  

While we were still catching our breath the eagle dove to that spot, collected its lunch, and perched in a treetop to eat.  Afterward it came back up to soar with us again, all well in the world.  

I’ll always wonder what impelled the hawk to do something so unpredictable and self-destructive.  Could it have been fleeing an attack?  Eagles don’t typically hunt hawks, with so much other game that’s easier to acquire, but nearly everyone appreciates a free meal.  

In any case, what could we do but solemnly exult in being part of a timeless natural process?  Back on earth, I touched the finite nicks from broken bones in our leading edge, as scars on my own astral body, caressing them with the fleshy claw of fingertips to absorb what I could of a fallen fellow avian’s spirit and magic.  Nothing else to due.  

HAVE IT YOUR WAY

One of my longest flights ever was so easy I’m almost embarrassed to claim it, especially as I didn’t do much of the actual stick and rudder.  It was Abe’s first cross-country, with me smoothing scratchy spots, taking pictures and having a grand time.  

We turned two hundred miles out laughably quick, then halfway home our one speed bump summoned the flight’s only crucial decision.  We had to climb before going on, but options nearby weren’t good.  When I suggested tentative retreat Abe said why not try one last puny wisp another mile ahead.  

I had already considered that but discarded the idea.  The cloud we were under looked better, and it wasn’t working.  My retreat might cost an hour as it is, and failing under his little cu could only further jeopardize the finish.  

One angel lobbied hard for ignoring input from any first timer.  The other asked what if Abe’s right?  He is a friggin’ scientist after all, and twice as smart as me in general!  Dismissing his initiative without at least a nod could be real dumb.  So…  

“Okay, let’s give it a try.”  

Not exactly a boomer, but it kept us moving in the right direction, and that’s what mattered!   One angel smirked, the other smiled.  Soon we were topped out and highballing again, home so early we could have blown right on by under a perfect cloud street another fifty miles.  Gliding back from there would make Abe’s first cross-country a 500-miler!  But achieving our stated goal had rendered him numb from the neck down already, and he was anxious to put feet on the ground again.  

Privately thinking, ‘Suck it up Perfesser’, I discreetly urged we roar on for another half hour anyway just ‘cause the lift was so stupid good… but he wasn’t buying.  He had pre-paid for the whole day however, and should have what he wanted and so well deserved.          

Honors for the right idea at the perfect time go to the estimable Dr. A. himself.  Credit me for simply respecting his opinion.  That extra hundred miles wasn’t lost, by the way.  It never existed except as something more to do next time.