Most folks these days are familiar with the word TOTEM but know only enough about the topic to disclose their ignorance. Well I read a book about it, so now you’ll soon know everything, like me. Put simply, totems are ‘tutelary’ spirits, the perceived essence of an animal, plant or element of nature with which individuals and groups identify. Specific traits and capabilities, life purpose and even fate are seen as received from totems, or shared with them. Such animistic beliefs have been universal in native cultures and primitive civilizations around the world forever, and can still teach us plenty about our not-really-so-modern selves.

The book’s final chapter tells how to find one’s totem, and after reading that far I thought why not give it a try. At least the process isn’t complicated or expensive. All you do is clear your mind and simply walk out somewhere, anywhere, with no specific goal or intent other than discovery. If you do it right, your totem will manifest.

Following instructions, I wandered toward a single live oak on an open hillside at the base of a mountain backlit beyond. (Don’t know if it mattered, but I intentionally chose the evening of summer solstice just before sundown for my experiment.) As I approached, three birds flew from that tree directly at me to orbit close at eye level in a blurred 3G turn. One was inching closer every time around. Spontaneously, I extended arms as in supplication while it whisked between my hands and face. I steeled myself to not flinch, then just when it couldn’t veer any closer without flicking my nose they all sped as quickly away, straight toward the silhouetted mountain exactly as the sun dipped from sight.

Only minutes after I’d started out, deep shadow swallowed those birds and they were gone. Stack of Bibles dang it, that’s exactly how it happened. I walked on up to the tree, climbed it, and found no nest or other sign of the birds there. Then dusk began, and after that came summer.

Though not so pompous as to expect an eagle as my totem, I confess presuming it would be the red tailed hawk. Not quite. These little zoomers were sparrow hawks, more precisely known as kestrels, and sure enough, my general manner of flight does resemble theirs more than those larger raptors who claim all the gravitas. According to this protocol it was official, the sparrow hawk is my totem.

A few years later I got involved in promoting and demo-ing the first production sailplane for decades built in America, an innovative ultralight design that happened to be named SPARROWHAWK. (Compared to more conventional sailplanes, its manner of flight also resembles the kestrel’s. Surprised?)

Then a few more years later, hundreds of miles away, guess what. At that ride operation we kept our 2-32 tied down near the end of the prevailing runway, and one morning heading out to preflight I was assailed again by… sparrowhawks. After wheeling around my head as before, this time they flew not into a sunset, but straight down the taxiway to the glider, and frolicked over it too, waiting for me. When I got there they repeated the performance one more time before rushing away to bless whomever’s lucky soul was next on their busy schedule.

That’s all the evidence I have for now, and you could say it’s merely circumstantial. But be honest, aren’t most of the moment-to-moment decisions we make each day based on little else? It’s also worth noting that in all this time evidence to the contrary, circumstantial or otherwise, remains zero. And ultimately, even if it’s all a load of nonsense, do you suppose the kestrel minds?


The history of human flight is a long procession of ideas considered heretical at first, that were eventually adopted when their functionality left no choice, and to heck with old ways of thinking. Wacky stuff like mounting pitch control on the tail of an aeroplane rather than the nose, articulated ailerons instead of wing warping, and who’d be dumb enough to build a flying machine with metal wings… or even glass? Ridiculous!

Well at this age I can afford scorning repudiation, so here’s where I stick my wrinkled neck out and propose a novel method for something pretty much everyone reading this supposes they already know how to do: thermaling. I’ve had seasoned pilots declare my idea wouldn’t work, and might even be dangerous… until they try it. Then they say wow. Direct your opprobrium to them, please.

This discussion is based on two separate concepts, the second of which serves the first:

* Flying in or near a prescribed core of lift requires perfectly round circles, which are only possible with ATTITUDE absolutely CONSTANT in pitch, roll, and yaw. It’s a must!
* While circling, rudder can be used in part to control all three axes at once (whereas stick movement of any kind tends to disrupt attitude, not stabilize it).

If the air were rising uniformly, perfect circles would be easy, but thermals are mildly (or not so mildly) explosive currents who only want to eject us. Resisting that is exactly what we must do to stay in them despite all kinds of sporadic fluctuations, whether bundles of stronger lift boiling up and outward, or weaker voids between. The challenge of maintaining CONSTANT ATTITUDE intensifies as thermals grow more dynamic, and that’s where this emphasis on rudder proves its value.

After decades of thermaling with hundreds of glider pilots from the entire spectrum of experience and skill, I have to say that very few, even among the greats, employ their rudder enough, or as efficiently as they could. When a pulse of stronger lift raises the nose and inboard wing, pushing the glider away, too many respond with only stick. Or if they do move a pedal it’s often too late, and too little to prevent a self-defeating adverse yaw away from the thermal’s core …for only a moment, but wasting one such second with every correction adds up to many many during a single thermal climb – and entire minutes over a long flight – time wasted pointing out of stronger lift instead of into it.

But what if you’re turning a smidge too tight already, or lift weakens, bank steepens and the nose drops? That calls for rudder the other way. Instead of stick to the outside (yawing adversely toward the turn), a savvy touch of top rudder will nose you out and restrain the bank, while also preventing an undue gain of airspeed. It really is this simple if you act immediately and don’t overdo it, and is guaranteed to increase the amount of precious time spent in optimal lift.

Quick reaction is crucial for boisterous thermals, and expedient rudder applied in measured pace can fix attitude and direction instantly, with no adverse yaw and zero interruption of uniform flow over the entire wingspan. Think about that! We’re not saying never move the stick. Move it whenever you really need to, but not as a thoughtless reflex! Consciously limit aileron inputs to those that actually produce positive results, and FLY WITH YOUR FEET.

One proviso: the more aggressive an input for any reason, the more you might need a snappy reciprocal to reestablish coordination, same as you unwind the steering wheel in your car after a turn. In other words, a stamp of rudder in one direction followed closely by a corresponding stamp the opposite way, to set you back in the groove. Kinda like the fabled Ali Shuffle, but almost no chance of getting punched in the face.

Don’t think of this as inimical to coordination; if timed and executed properly it’s a nifty supplement. Sure, coordination is better than uncoordination, but momentary skids or slips that restore and refine attitude to keep your glider in the best lift can be worth any small amount of extra drag. Quick and dirty? If you must. (Everyone should know of course that skidding can be overdone and induce a spin, but what we’re suggesting here are isolated short-term inputs specifically to stabilize attitude and/or redirect the flight path.)

Full disclosure, in wide, smooth lift this method is not particularly more effective than conventional technique, nor is it needed. For narrow feisty thermals, however, eliminating unnecessary stick movement with vigorous use of rudder can keep you in the strongest stuff more of the time, providing steadier, quicker climbs… and isn’t that the point?

Still, as with all other kinds of information, this will never do you any good until you’re willing to try it!


We’re coming to the time when thermals begin to reappear, though weak and short-lived at first, same as very early on a summer day. And it should be no surprise that they usually rise first above the hills. Often, we see fine local soaring in thermals that wouldn’t even exist without sloping ground of one kind or another.

Slopes can be significant factors for thermal production in lots of ways, even when they’re not facing the sun.  Wind-facing slopes often act as ‘triggers’ for incipient thermals that have yet to leave the ground, and tend also to detain those that have already done so, allowing them more time to gather strength.  As a result, large slopes – whether high or wide – tend to organize convection into predictable patterns.  This can be useful even if the prediction is sink, for recognizing and avoiding sink sources is every bit as important as finding lift!

The endless variety of landforms generates many different kinds of slope-related thermals.  In the most general terms let’s distinguish between those spawned by bowls, isolated peaks, or continuous ridges.

Bowl thermals are often large and consistent, and though their lift at any given moment may not be as strong as on some surrounding hills, it might be wider and more reliable.  If a bowl is large enough it may gather together nearly continuous clusters of thermals that are easier to locate and work than individual ones.  By carefully using only the best lift in such a cluster, it may be possible to climb higher than elsewhere nearby.  (In flat country a quarry or other large hole in the ground with steep sides facing the sun also can produce thermals, regardless of wind direction.)

Peak thermals are easy to find and they can be extremely powerful.  A large, isolated cone like Mt. Lewis here at Crystal can pull strong thermals together from all sides to meet at the summit where, either right above the peak or just downwind of it, the energy of all those thermals combine into one certifiable boomer.  However, if they rise only a short distance into stronger winds aloft and drift downwind of the crest, peak thermals tend to be short-lived.  When those break off they might leave you in the strongest of sink, very near and downwind of unlandable high terrain.

Long, continuous ridges may offer a beneficial compromise between the types of thermal sources mentioned above.  Their thermals may be smaller and short-lived, but many more might exist, often occurring with convenient regularity.  Also, they’re already aligned such that each one leads on to another with relatively little sink between.  In conditions where the flat valley is entirely unsoarable, a uniform slope of only a few hundred feet can provide thermals with amazing regularity.

Topography often features also in countless hybrid conditions where it’s possible to transition from one kind of lift to another, such as ridge lift into thermal into rotor into wave… These myriad combinations of effects are much of what makes soaring such a fascinating sport!


My first unsupervised solo was also the perfect occasion for a premature display of the arrogant conceit that tempts all pilots, and has shortened more than a few careers. It would be inaccurate to say I failed to secure the rear cockpit, because I did start to do exactly that, but was so anxious to get going I consciously chose to not bother. After all, there’d be nobody dying there anyway.

Once aloft and drunk on adrenalin, I got into fooling with something I’d not yet experienced to any satisfaction, zero G. What unmitigated fun! Zooming up and over, floating like an astronaut, then diving for speed to pull up again, to the left, to the right, time after time, transformed me into a giggling kid jumping on his bed with no one there to yell, “Stop that!”

Then when it came time to reestablish full control the rudder pedals were mysteriously jammed. Whoooda thunkit? Well, only one pedal was stuck, but that’s like saying you have only one flat tire on your bike. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed the rear cushions were no longer where I saw them last. One or both had found their way to the worst possible place, and someone had to do something about it.

After unbuckling and twisting around to reach back, I had to reverse my shoulders and scrunch between a crosswise middle bar of the canopy’s frame and the canopy itself, squirming to grasp that cushion and knock it clear. Meanwhile, what little contact I had with the controls became more random than effectual. What could be worse?

It was while I was laid out with my chest on the aft panel, facing backward and down, that the unpiloted vessel decided to hit turbulence, inducing an open-ended episode of what could most generously be called ‘unstable’ flight. Oh yeah. Whaatta ride. Each time it got too spooky I’d absently kick the stick some opposite way, obsessed far more with grabbing at that obstruction. But abrupt movements of the stick caused rapid reorientation of the cockpit — while within that same small space my spacewalker’s inertia remained independent… caroming off of basically everything. All this spawned a very rational terror of clumsily knocking the canopy open from either side and being sucked away by its frame engirdling my torso!

What would you do in that situation? (Saying you’d never allow it to happen doesn’t help, BTW.) It’s no trifling boast to suggest I may be the only fool ever to smack a canopy with his back in flight and live to describe what that’s like. Spoiler, it sucks if you really wanna know.

I did manage to put a fingertip on the cushion, but couldn’t knock it free. Then craning my neck to get an eye on it – and God this is the most embarrassing – I saw what I’d known all along but stupidly ‘overlooked’ in the heat of fluster: a Blanik’s cockpit is entirely open down there, front to back! I could/should have freed that obstruction with a flick of the wrist right at first, so easy even an idiot can do it.

Sheesh! All I’d accomplished so far were horrific cramps in my neck and shoulder, some well deserved bruises, and a mysterious laceration on my pinky. But smearing blood everywhere was the least of worries.

This poor bird had been out of control now for approximately ever, don’t forget… and still was. Long past time for somebody to reclaim the driver’s seat. In a surprisingly few fierce seconds I somehow unwound my feats of contortionism without further injury, eventually coming to rest on my belts, pulling a whole lot more than zero G in a steepening bank and feeling quite naked.

It still took both hands to fish those harnesses out from under and properly secure them, so this struggle was not yet won, but the irrepressible vigor of youth again prevailed and I had things relatively under control in time for a normal landing. Imagine though, if I’d been even more foolish and crawled even further aft of my station. I was barely heavy enough to fly solo without ballast as it was, and climbing halfway into the back, in a glider that spins aggressively when it’s told to… could have made news in more than the local paper.

I’ve flown solo only rarely over the last few decades, but usually in two-seaters on return-to-service flights, et cetera, and not one single time since that undocumented spacewalk have I been even tempted to fly without securing everything in the aft cockpit beforehand. And it seems to be working too, ‘cause I’m still alive!