GHOULS NEED LOVE TOO

Birds in flight possess flawless instinct.  I don’t believe this; after thirty-five years of soaring daily and twice as many on the ground looking up, I know it.  Not to say they’re incapable of error, but next time one does something that appears counterproductive or graceless, keep an eye.  Was it a fledgling’s ungainly first attempt at what will become its specialty for as long as that keeps it alive?  Even nimble Bambi stumbled a bit her first day.  I watched!  

Or might it be an avian of any species, sex, or age indulging in idle playfulness?  We see that a lot too.  Go to a park and feed the birds until they don’t want any more, then sit back and observe.  Once they’re bored some get grumpy and quarrel, but smart ones continue to indulge the curiosity that got them there.

Vultures, despite a grotesque boot leather face designed for goring rotted flesh, hardly deserve their odious reputation.  It is they after all who remove the nastiest messes that no other carnivore will touch.  And say what you will of their diet and personal appearance, they are consummate sailors of the sky!  Seen from below, their planform can be mistaken for that of an eagle, but in lieu of strength and ferocity, vultures resort to physical exertion only when there’s no other choice (like me, but with telescopic vision).  

Lethargy in wild animals does not warrant the same negative connotation we apply to people.  Your house pet probably spends more time sleeping than not, though maybe it’s more lazy human than torpid beast (again, like me).   Twice, years apart, I saw a vulture circle slowly down to within fifty feet of the same runway, never once flapping, while a thermal gathered strength to carry it back up.  It could have pumped those huge broad wings a few strokes and climbed away, but chose to wait like a patient commuter at a bus stop, wings locked at the joints for effortless flight.  Same bird each time?  Gotta wonder.  

Anyway, like many ‘higher’ animals, vultures occasionally exhibit what seems a playful aspect unrelated to their grisly business of feasting on carrion.  I sat one day in the shade of a stone pinnacle admiring how a dozen vultures soared over and around it.  Their movements marked clearly where the lift was, and also the sink.  Each bird turned, lofted, or dove exactly in the right place as if choreographed — except one individual who repeatedly made an obvious wrong turn, falling out time and again in the same predictable downdraft.  

Youthful inexperience, I thought at first.  Then the third time I muttered, “Dumb bird, even some humans learn to not make the same mistake more than twice.”  Yet, induced by some personal incentive missed or dismissed by the others, it continued to practice (and perhaps even perfect) that same ‘erroneous’ behavior every chance it got until airflow around the pinnacle changed and the whole group moved on.  

Oh, our red-faced ghoul knew what was up, and for some ‘reason’ preferred down.  This implies intelligence beyond the demands of survival or procreation, which if indulged becomes the superpower of curiosity.  What nonconformists do with this resource is where the story lies.  If you could read its mind, don’t you suppose the thoughts of that contrarian buzzard would be the most interesting?   

A STITCH IN TIME

Same time each year my dear mother would always ask what I wanted for my birthday, and I always had the same answer:  a clock that runs slower.  If she ever found one, she never let on.  We’re all familiar with how perception of time accelerates as we age.  A month in our forties seems to take no longer than a week in our teens.  I recognized this mental foreshortening as a child, when I first heard it described.  Now, with even those forties a receding memory, time feels like wind flowing through what’s left of my hair.  Even while landing a glider.  

When groundlubbers contemplate flying a plane with no engine they say, “You only get one chance to land.”  It’s true of course, but that’s all any able pilot should need.  The critical parameter is TIME.  Powered aircraft have the luxury of delay, postponing the inevitable until fuel runs out, but gliders are committed to a process that will be finished in a minute or two, ready or not.  The groundlubber could more precisely say, “You have only seconds to avoid a wreck.”  Therein lies the rub.

When you’re tardy preparing to land, all sorts of garbazhe can begin to pile up, quicker each moment.  Delay your checklist a few seconds, then have unexpected difficulty lowering the gear.  Futz with that a few seconds and realize you’re out of position to mix with some interloper horning in ahead of you!  Hang back a few seconds for safe separation and now you’re low.  Fail to push over in sink only a few more seconds, & U. R. DESPERATE, still unsure if the gear is locked and starting to think about those bushes short of the runway.  That, naturally, is when you’ll discover a sticky brake handle…  

You had X amount of time, which should have been enough, but you squandered it several times under, stumbling further behind with each distraction.  Permutations of this debacle are infinite and none work to your advantage.  Bet on it.      

Any airfield suitable for takeoff is also easy to land on — once you reach it.  There should be room to coarsely misjudge your touchdown (near end first, please) and still walk away from nothing worse than deserved embarrassment.  That’s if you kept up with the pace of events before, during, and after touchdown.  Otherwise reach for your wallet.  Or for that hidden handle, if there is one, on the inside of your coffin.  

Proficient control of time-limited operations requires being ahead of what happens — and staying there.  Anybody should know that.  But hear this please so I can quit scratching the scab:  having landed now with many hundreds of glider guiders from a wide weird world of divergent backgrounds, I’d say no more than half find time for their landing checklist before they’re already on downwind leg…  That’s about as smart as signaling for takeoff before you get around to strapping in.  

What is that in your wallet?  

PERSPECTIVE

The airport I flew from in Vermont lay silver distance up the road from Sugarbush, where Region One’s soaring competition was usually held each year. North beyond our end of that valley, the highest mountain is Jay Peak, a traditional turn point near the Canadian border, putting us on the course line for at least one leg of many declared tasks. During contest week I liked to perch with students wherever we had dependable lift and watch the race flow through, noting what worked and what didn’t. And as with field trips back in school, it was often the teacher who learned the most.

One time it was so windy we supposed the contest day would be scrubbed, but our local ridge was roaring stronger than ever. First run to the far end was rough enough to shake most of the fun out, but quick and easy with straps cinched tight. Then just before turning back we spotted two gliders about to land in a field below. We hovered high on the hill and watched as one followed the other around into the wind, slo-mo, until they both stopped eerily side by side, like some kind of illusion.

But they couldn’t have stopped; they’re pointed downhill. Grass can’t be that high! Yet there they sit. If they have landed, can they stay down?

Then eerier still, they both began to move again, almost in unison, sideways. Eyes that lie can also tell the truth. Yes, they’d been hovering too, but with that field in cloud shadow we couldn’t gauge their distance above it. Eventually one crept across a fence line, tacking up onto the lowest toe of our ridge, and the other followed. They were still dirt low, but at that point their save was in the bag.

While they nibbled further toward us, rising faster each moment, another ship sidled in low over the same field to commence its own save. We still held a big height advantage over all three, but that was about to vanish. Could we hump our grizzled old ‘33 back to the north end before those race cats caught us? Dream on. And what did the teacher learn? When one after another passed us, each was running less than half our distance from the hill

Another year, the pack had already flown by, seen now as occasional glints of gaggle twenty miles north, and we were grubbing around flattish farm country hoping to still be up if they came back our way. Rolling into a lucky two-knotter, I looked straight down for position and drift plus indications of the thermal’s source (one of my few good habits), and what twirled the eyes was our shadow being rammed at that moment by a similar one from behind!

No, really. Eyes that lie… Mine snapped straight ahead, where a flesh and blood sailplane materialized scary close, rolling into our turn.

Stunned as I was, I instantly recognized from many photographs the tail number of one of America’s great soaring champions. He had rounded Jay Peak miles ahead of the pack running hard as always, but gotten low, and when we marked this thermal he attacked.  Shooting under us with double our speed, he pulled up and settled in on the opposite side, for probably a lot less lift than he expected. Welcome to the boonies, Ace.

After three circles nobody’d gained much, so he left us the moment he had glide to the bottom of the nearest hill — which happened to be the local monadnock where I had come to think of myself as a makeshift impresario. We’d be going there too, I assured my student, but not before climbing a just a liittle longer.

When we did follow a minute later the champ was already miles ahead, but looked too low to dig this one out. If he retreated to our airport we might get a chance to shake his hand! Yeah, keep dreaming. He swept in far lower at that hill than its ‘impresario’ ever dared, with juice aplenty to zoom all the way upslope and turn south along the top, gone from sight before we got there. Boonies indeed.

Years afterward, on a business call that happened to include the champ himself I recalled that day, wondering what he might say of our one shared moment (which will remain for me a lifelong memory). He heard my version with what may have been feigned patience, then asked: “Where was this again?”

Perspective…

CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE VERY FIRST KIND

It was pre-solo, thankfully, and I learned not only what to do during that encounter, but also how to proceed later with others under my care.  We were under a couple hundred feet on final approach and I was staring at my aim point with the tunnel vision typical of student pilots when abruptly my instructor Eve said, “Look up.”  I did, and froze.  There was a Cessna dead ahead, at our height, landing the opposite direction on that same half-mile runway!  If neither vessel changed course we were seconds from a head-on collision near ground level, and squeezing the stick harder didn’t help.

With deliberate calm, Eve barely more than murmured, “Slide to the right.”  Her normal voice returned after the bogie roared past, but with unusual gravity, “Now get back over the runway while you still can.”  We landed moments later, long but normally, and the other pilot landed… somewhere else I guess. 

You can be doing everything right, or think so, and suddenly your fat’s in a fire you didn’t know existed.  According to the fine print in Murphy’s law, eventually everything will tumble into that fire, if you let it.  The only certainty, it always happens at exactly the same time:  NOW.  To pilots who’ve seen enough stuff already, something as ‘straightforward’ as a friendly little unscheduled joust on final should present only an interesting, if inconvenient challenge, more a call for courage than fear (and virgin wool for yarns spun later).  But what about the newbie?  You, that is, for whom among us will live long enough to train for every possible one-of-a-kind predicament?  

Advanced courses in this field are always available at the world wide campus of my alma mater, Hardknocks U, where the tuition is high but payable in currency that even can afford:  time and sweat.  In decades of study at this prestigious institution (I’m slow, but I stick with it!) there’ve now been too many landing emergencies to recall, though none more salient than that first one.  The lesson was about more than standard collision avoidance.  What stood out was not just Eve’s unshaken poise, but her conscious effort to instill that in me.  I saw the need to always maintain two essentials without which flying is among the more deadly things you can do:  practical ALTERNATIVES and rock-solid SELF-CONTROL.  When you have both of these they enhance and support each other.  Lacking either makes you an accident – not waiting to happen, soon to happen!  Only question, how soon. 

This is also one more example of the single most profound maxim in aviation.  Superficially it sounds too obvious to repeat, but for me the phrase always conjures an image of some rosy-cheeked kid retreating across the English Channel at the yoke of a B-17.  Smoke in the cockpit, shrapnel in the gut, one engine aflame and another faltering, tail shot up by fighters attacking from all sides.  What should one do in such circumstances?  Observe this priority over all others, for if you fail to, nothing else will matter:  FLY THE AIRCRAFT!