When I took primary glider training 47 years ago we discussed emergency procedures once, briefly, but that was it. From there forward, while occasionally wondering what might really happen when ‘it’ hit the fan, I never did get around to procuring more dual… (Still haven’t, truth be known.)

As time goes on without an actual emergency a peculiar thing happens. One part of the brain begins to assume it may never occur, gradually diminishing its perceived importance, while another part periodically reminds you that something bad will eventually happen. And each additional safe passage only brings that fateful reckoning closer.

My introduction to actual emergencies (like all my training beyond the absolute minimum) amounted to self-training. OJT, for better or worse. I was already a low-time instructor, with two passengers in back of a 2-32 when I went to open spoilers and the handle wouldn’t budge. Turned out that guy on the port side was so big his leg prohibited even rotating the brake handle to unlock it.

Suddenly it was time to try something I’d heard of but never witnessed, the infamous no-spoiler landing. Fortunately ’32s are plenty draggy and easy to land in any case, but they also happen to be very reluctant slippers. Having no choice, I mixed full left pedal with a little right stick to see how it would work. The airspeed indicator was rendered useless by sidewise airflow, but I just pushed over until it felt a bit too fast, then backed off slightly.

Steady steady steady, and sure, it worked out fine. Surprisingly easy in fact, but in a slicker ship I might still be floating up the runway in ground effect, even now…

So from that day on I always emphasized preparing (myself and students) for what could happen, because chances are it eventually will. At this point I’ve experienced so many takeoff and landing emergencies that, though they’re never quite welcome, I have to admit they’re usually kind of fun!

Uh oh, now I’ll spend the rest of my life worrying that I’ve just conjured some kind of jinx…


We’ve all heard many times that aircraft can stall in any attitude and at any speed.  What’s seldom mentioned, however, you can recover from a stall in any attitude too — given enough airspeed.  If this seems immaterial, or even dubious, read on.  

I was up once with a video camera on the instrument panel pointed forward, looking for action.  Suddenly here came another glider crossing paths some hundreds of feet below, near enough for an interesting shot if I could reposition in time.  I swung away in a sharp spilt-S, intentionally falling behind and below the bogey, then zoomed up on its six with energy to burn.  

Though fully capable of this maneuver, I had never practiced with a ‘live’ target.  Turned out I dove a bit too far and gathered more speed than necessary, so had to pull up hard to not pass under it.  And that’s a textbook prescription for an accelerated stall.    

Every pilot knows what ordinary stalls feel like, and we don’t normally associate them with high speeds and heavy Gs, but the camera doesn’t lie.  Video shows my bogey coming into view from above, appearing to shudder as it falls off the bottom of the screen during the stall like the old combat footage, then smoothly back to center screen after recovery.  

Keep in mind, the other aircraft was operating smoothly, straight and level the whole time; it’s my ship that shuddered.  When the stall began I was pitched up 35 degrees or more at about a hundred knots, and remained well above level (still climbing) afterward.  The stall scrubbed just the right amount of excess energy, enabling a momentary pause to paint that rapidly growing target with imaginary tracers before lofting above it again.  Kaboom.  

Now think what might have happened if I had not recognized the stall and recovered from it.  Impossible to know with any precision, but my glider would have continued upward toward the victim several seconds longer, slowing but effectively out of control, and…  

The ugly truth is, that other pilot was entirely oblivious of peril in which further misjudgment on my part, or a botched recovery, could have risked deadly collision…  And there’s no stenciling a kill on your nose cone if it is what makes the kill.  

This is exactly why FAR 91.111 requires PRIOR ARRANGEMENT before flying near any other aircraft!!  Say what you will, some rules make pretty good sense.    


On my very first flight lesson I got a half hour of solo time before receiving any dual… honest!  It was too windy at first so my instructor settled me in the front seat and showed what the stick and pedals do, then said, “Don’t take off without me,” and walked away.  In those precious minutes of ‘wind jamming’, I gained valuable experience before ever leaving the ground.  

The idea was to ‘fly’ that wing into the wind and keep it level, which is surprisingly easy given sufficient air flow.  At first I moved the stick too much, naturally, and pedals too little, like everyone else in the known universe.  Once I gave my feet a chance, the Blanik’s castering tailwheel allowed exploration of yaw as well as roll, but that complicated things.  I would turn too far and immediately ‘crash’, after which the bird would weathervane into the next gust and we could start over.  

Hauling a downed wing up off the ground was hardest, and quite by accident I discovered that cross control, or ‘bottom’ rudder helps — a trick which only works on the ground believe it or not.  It’s so simple, I’m ashamed to admit several seasons passed before I finally paused a moment and thought this through.  Say you’re on the ground, parked into the wind with the left wing down.  You’ll need right stick of course, but odd as it sounds, a secondary effect of left rudder imparts a torsion that twists the fuselage clockwise and adds to the rolling force of the right-deflected ailerons.  (In the air it’s a slip, as you know.)  

Gradually I learned to avoid that crash by feathering the controls and swinging back the other way.  My conceptual grasp was near zero, but I began to anticipate what would happen and articulate my influence on the result like a toddler learning to walk.  

When my instructor returned I proudly rocked the wings, then froze them neat and level.  Unimpressed, she stepped upwind of one wing and with a cynical smirk stretched out her arms along the leading edge, stalling it to the ground without touching it.   

After that we went up to see how different everything feels when the wheel is not on the ground…  

I’ve done this same exercise with many first-timers over the decades since, and recommend it.  Always makes everyone smile.  There’s more to say however, before we put this topic to rest.  

One thing, where possible, leave the tow hook secured to the ground, especially if your solo artist is light of weight!  In a two-seater, start by demonstrating from the back seat, and have first timers cycle spoilers, making sure they’re ready to use them if a rogue gust makes that necessary.  (When the wind is strong, leave spoilers out for the whole drill.)  

And what about the canopy?  In hot sun you may need to keep it securely open, somehow, and if closed it’s gotta be locked.  Any first timer alone in the cockpit should understand this — and it wouldn’t hurt to hover nearby just in case…  

Now just for poops and piddles, consider this.  In actual flight that secondary effect acts against the other forces generating a turn.  It must be very minor but it’s there.  (Adverse roll?)  So, what if we had the rudder below the fuselage, like on boats, duh?  Wouldn’t that put its twisting force in service of the roll rather than against it, requiring less aileron and improving efficiency?  

Perhaps, but then every landing would bust the rudder again, and that could get old.  Maybe those original designers had it right after all.   


Ever since the popular advent of bungee jumping, many who inquire about gliders seem to equate these entirely unrelated activities as similar ways to fling themselves into space and take their chances.  Some also needlessly fear both games, exposing fundamental misunderstanding of each.  Hair-raising as bungee jumping might be, it’s safe enough provided certain conditions are met.  After the jumper decides to GO, little more is required but some degree of, shall we say, personal fortitude.  Soaring demands fortitude as well, and can reward it royally, yet involves so much more!  It’s a process where seas of challenge and dilemma open out in every dimension, expanding beyond your personal event horizon – potentially all day long – until quickly narrowing to zero just before the end.  Like life itself. 

Soaring pilots set our own agendas, choosing what to do and where and how to do it, consciously accepting or rejecting various kinds of risk, and defining for ourselves the meanings of failure and success.  Each tick of the wristwatch renews an intensely mental creative venture, all outcomes affected by deliberate yet tentative decision making, or a lack of it, in evolving circumstances which are never entirely understood.  And never knowing quite how any of this will work out — that’s much of why we love it.  

Every moment of every flight is unique, and in many ways self-determined.  With thermals, we float in unseen bubbles of gas that only try to eject us (always resist).  Running a ridge can be like cruise control on the freeway (stay in your lane), or depending where your are, scrambling through the woods naked (watch for snakes).  Riding shearline is like following a foot trail that’s not always marked (don’t get lost).  Soaring in wave?  It’s surfing in heaven, slo-mo, on breakers ten thousand times larger than those at the beach (do remember Icarus).  And the most important part of any flight, landing, can never happen until all other options are exhausted.  (In the sweetest of finales, you feel grass drag your wheel into motion two heartbeats before touchdown, but now I’m getting unnecessarily personal.)  

All of soaring’s many forms bear a deep vein of Zen.  In this sense it’s more akin to rock climbing than the bungee thing.  Scaling stone barriers, whether with fingers and toes or prosthetic wings, can be unspeakably satisfying, and perfectly safe if sound choices are made – then executed.  In either of these two proactive sports, you should be always able to withdraw from even the most imposing difficulty to the safety of level ground, but that part will be up to you.  

Otherwise, one infinitesimal moment of human stoopitude can lead abruptly to grave consequences.  Those prone to getting trapped where they can neither go safely back nor forward may jeopardize more than just themselves…  They should stick to bungee jumping.