Soaring Is Learning
Soaring is about learning all the time. Here are some tips on becoming a better soaring pilot. Brought to you by Southern California Soaring Academy.
Soaring is about learning all the time. Here are some tips on becoming a better soaring pilot. Brought to you by Southern California Soaring Academy.
Among the more peculiar of my many defects is willingness to admit mistakes as if unabashed by them — just imagine the faux I’ve pas’d that even I’m too vain to reveal! One fiasco I always mention to student pilots is my worst landing ever, though usually in fleeting reference only.
It was a post-solo student’s first taste of soaring cross-country, and we elected to go without a ground crew. That’s two reasons why the weather should be expected to turn against us. We tried to force a flight on the only day available when the very wind itself warned to stay home, only to flirt with ‘GetThereItis’ for a tensive hour until I finally relented, succumbing to that ailment’s exact reciprocal, ‘GetHomeItis’.
After crawling beyond Mojave with little hope of remaining airborne, as we passed by the other way sinking fast toward pattern height, all hands knew we should concede defeat and land there. But another of my defects is an aversion to big airports, and I was determined to press on for the next alternate, a private field where I felt more comfortable.
You won’t see it on aviation charts but ordinary maps show Pontious Airport. Big block letters painted on the runway midfield spell ANCIENT VALLEY, readable from three thousand feet up. Wouldn’t you know, soaring pilots call it Backus, for the country road that wanders by. It’s my kind of place, nice and friendly with no traffic or radio or other hassles. A lady there once brought iced tea out, then invited us in to enjoy some air conditioning while we waited for our retrieve.
This time though, the wind was throwing us down faster each moment even as it tried to blow us away from the field. From several miles off I was already planning a straight-in approach, and caught myself darting glances for where to turn in case of a shortfall. It would be long, low and fast, with a trailing crosswind of twenty plus, but I was sure of handling that, if only we GotThere. Then, passing through the lee of one last hill, we needed ninety knots just for the sink…
Still had it made though, and that should have been enough for a twenty-year instructor who’d already gotten away with a passel of dim judgements and was halfway through a sweaty landing. But no, my bad angel wasn’t finished. As we dropped below a hundred feet, the corner of my eye spied what seemed another strip, closer and aligned into the wind… One long second after that glimpse I went full boat, trading everything we had for a lapful of new troubles.
For this landing we’re now too high and too fast. We need full spoilers and a mega slip to enforce descent while dumping thirty knots steep around a power pole, then level out to find… just a small construction site beside the road, no path through a mess of obstacles and not a moment to think. All that matters is saving this noble soul up front!
Like when you’ve stumbled and your body reacts before your mind knows what’s happened, down over a phone line between guy wires, stacks of lumber and a backhoe, raise one wing over a big steel post during flare, then shove it down, kick opposite rudder and skid sideways as if sliding into third base. The headwind powers one more slew each direction, scrubbing the last of energy in a hideous grounded version of a dutch roll, stopping yards short of a dirt pile, main wheel adjacent to a drainage ditch and one whole wing out over desert brush. If an old wire fence had not been only recently knocked down we’d have eaten it broadside.
Daylight becomes dusk as a heavy shower of sand settles on the canopy. Once the wind blows that off we emerge sneezing, and a frightened neighbor runs up preparing to witness the aftermath of a grisly crash. When I ask how he so quickly found us he shouts, “A giant cloud of dust!” Then in a calmer tone wonders why we didn’t land at the airport next door.
Oh I nailed the ‘landing’ alright, but that’s not the point. I was supposed to after all. The bird could/should have been demolished, yet we only scratched a wingtip. It’s true that taxiing savvy from thousands of landings is what saved her (and the soul up front), but none of that would have been necessary if I had done anything else right.
So now everyone knows. This much, anyway, only the part that’s fun to hear someone else admit. I could testify all night about sorrier, more lasting ramifications of my worst landing ever, like its effect on that student for example. The whole story so sorely indicts its teller that even now it still aches. I keep most of that to myself.
Way back in the early Eighties my eagerness for any chance to fly any glider got me involved in several lengthy aero tows ferrying planes I’d never seen before from one unfamiliar place to another. Those summer afternoons trended bumpier by the hour, predictably, and one time about halfway along I noticed the port wing of that particular 2-33 flexing much more than its equally loaded counterpart. This kind of observation, mid-flight, has a way of making you think.
About lots of things. First, pique at the seller for pawning off junk on an unsuspecting colleague. Or if the buyer knew about it, fair enough, but then what about… me? The more I ponder this decades later, the less ‘pique’ seems a strong enough term. But who was at fault, or even at risk right then, was less important than having the aircraft hold together for at least a couple more hours.
That’s what I thought about most.
No surprise, the elbow was right where that big aluminum strut attaches. Inboard of there even a busted wing is stiff as a bridge. Rivets at that seam appeared the same as their equivalents under the other wing, but the light being so different on either side, they were nearly impossible to compare. Like proving a negative.
Suppose the damage is not acute, I mused hopefully; even if it’s been this way for years, it’s still critical isn’t it? Shouldn’t someone know about this? Never have I been so impatient to get back on the ground.
Finally, at some sweet grass strip adjacent to a country club, I tried to put personal feelings aside while making a righteous fuss over that floppy wing. The guy handling paperwork seemed unconcerned, so I grabbed the tip and shook it up and down, boing boing boing. You could even hear something going on in there! Made me queasy, and caused even Easy Ed the tow pilot (who usually shrugged off any thing about gliders) to wince. But apparently it impressed no one else…
Okay then, I told myself, caveat emptor! I wouldn’t be flying it again, anyway. Time to hop behind Ed in the Bird Dog and race the sunset home.
Never saw nor heard of that broke-winged bird again, knew nothing of its troubled story beforehand, and only a tidbit of its more uncertain history since. I could have tried to keep track of how its new owner(s) fared, but this was before the internet and I had no idea where to start.
That stuff’s easy these days. When ultimately I did look up the N-number from an old logbook, it had been deregistered… Did they decide it wasn’t worth fixing and declare it totaled, or fly it until it came apart and was destroyed, along with maybe a victim or two? No, a little more research revealed that a couple years after my day with it the aircraft was reregistered in Canada, so its ident is now some jumble of letters, no numbers. Did it ever get fixed? One would hope so, but given what we’d seen already, who knows.
Uh oh, now you’ve got me pawing through those dusty old logs for any number of other grizzled jalopies I toiled in back when, wondering what they’re up to now. Looks like this could take some time. Cancel all my appointments.
Like most primary students I was in a hurry to get past the private pilot check ride ASAP. Summer was almost over, and after all the yakking I’d done at work, a long winter without that paper in my wallet would have been unbearable.
Was I ready? Well, I’ve already admitted to zero emergency training, and what little I’d read on slips and skids left me uncertain which was which. When I asked about it the answer was, “Eh, the Blanik doesn’t slip well.” So much for that then. All I wanted was a sign-off, and that’s all I got.
On the big day, if there was an oral evaluation it was too short to remember. No mention of communication, navigation, or a multitude of other basics. It was 1975 you know.
In the air, when the examiner called for a slip I glibly repeated, “The Blanik doesn’t slip well,” causing him to bark, “BS!” or words to that effect. And then, bless his eternal soul, quite contrary to the Practical Test Standards, he taught me slips so we could finish the check ride.
Back on the ground, he made an obvious point of deliberating whether to pass me or break my heart, and when he did hand over the white slip, said sternly, “Now I want you to get more instruction… soon!” Hardly a backslapping attaboy.
Truth was, I had already planned to take a lesson from my instructor’s instructor that very afternoon, and it was he, on that only flight I ever had with him, who instilled the singular wisdom I’ve preached to this day. I was unconsciously moving the stick far more than necessary (which I soon learned nearly everyone does nearly all the time) as if it had some positive effect on control. “Hold the stick still,” he pled, “and let the bird fly!” Bless his soul, too.
The next weekend, on my first flight with a passenger, I managed to both terrify and nauseate a personal friend — then early the next season scared even myself so badly I decided to outright quit. No really, I was that bad. But in daydreams I still fondled soaring’s unknown joys and possibilities, and then in night dreams too. Even two years later and thousands of miles away, first thing each morning I’d compulsively peek out the nearest window to see what the soaring might be like. There was no choice, I had to come back.
Naturally, I fell into the same rush for a commercial rating before taking time to learn some things first. My excuse was I’d wandered into a lovely soaring hinterland, with no one around to learn from, meaning no one to tell me I was over my head. And boy was I.
Hook and crook, I wrangled an endorsement for the commercial written, and showed up after a 150-mile drive in a borrowed car not knowing I’d need proper ID… Somehow they let me take the test anyway, which I promptly flunked. It is only high school level material after all, but there’s so much of it!
On the eventual commercial ride, still knowing next to zilch, I actually made the DE scream at my landing and laugh at my ignorance, yet passed anyway because he had a hand in the outfit I worked for. That same afternoon, I sat in the shade and watched him fail a more capable candidate from a competing operation up the road. Nuff Sed.
CFI? Oh sure.
Still no one around to learn from, so this check ride became a sweaty nightmare without ever leaving the ground. The examiner, a nationally known contest pilot, saw right away that I was unprepared and spent the entire day, indoors, proving it. He was also a contributing author of that era’s principle text, the SOARING FLIGHT MANUAL, which of course I had never seen. Kindly, he lent his personal copy full of scrawled notations, and gave me five days to memorize it before we met again.
Our continuance started hours later than the marathon first day, and we still had to finish the oral. At least this time I had some come clues what we’d be talking about, and by then he was as eager as I to be done with it. The flight portion began with his grounding our glider because of a bad Dzus fastener on the instrument panel, something I wouldn’t have noticed in a year of preflights. By the time we procured another ship and went through its paper work, evening had come again.
He gave me fifteen minutes (till sunset) to teach him towing and all basic maneuvers, plus the landing. That actually went smoother than expected, or seemed to, and I climbed from the cockpit feeling pretty good about myself.
But no. He said he’d made clear an hour beforehand that the one thing he would not tolerate was any skidded turn, no excuses. I must have been distracted; maybe he should have said it twice, or louder. Anyway, while acting as student he intentionally skidded his turn to final and I failed to call him on it, ordaining another bust.
Time wounds, ALL heals. Expect delays, however. Who knows, that one disappointment may have saved a life or two. Yes, bless even his ostentatiously mustachioed soul.
Ultimately, clearing the CFI hurdle became little more than a hasty formality on another kind of late afternoon embroiled by altogether different tangles of yarn we needn’t go into (not sure how much I remember). One more bullet dodged, justly or otherwise, a battlefield commission you might say.
And the rest is mystery. If nothing else, I’m a living example of the ‘Peter Principle’: we all rise one way or another to where we’re perfectly incompetent, there to wallow in formal validation until succeeded by someone even more so.
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?