Birds in flight possess flawless instinct. I don’t believe that – after thirty years of daily soaring activity and twice that many on the ground looking up, I know it.  What vultures do best is a glorious airborne form of languor. These avians know how to fly S L O W. They commonly glide to windward in search of carrion, inching along very low at hardly more than a walking pace, oddly rocking their wings in frequent stall recovery. No one would attribute that to lousy flying skills. It’s simply the way to fly As Slow As Possible. That’s how the experts do it. They know all this aerodynamic stuff at birth, and in every circumstance the brilliance of instinct is central to their behavior. I’ve seen too many examples to even remember, so let’s settle for the latest.

Two vultures gliding slowly by displayed a subtlety they surely mastered a million years ago, that I’d just never happened to see before.  Their staggered formation was loose by airmen’s standards, but the longer I watched the more it seemed ideal for their purpose – they are birds, after all.

The bigger one, older and more experienced, was flying ‘lead’ while the ‘wing’ held position at eight o’clock a few yards back. Mother and son perhaps? Doubt it matters. They were a couple hundred feet up, creeping into a stiff breeze and using periodic boundary layer turbulence for lift. Their ground speed was close to zero when pulling up in it, and maybe double that while ‘diving’ through the associated sink.

In a straight glide, number 2 could not keep up with number 1, who held advantages in wing loading and general proficiency. But as number 1 bore on into the headwind scarcely moving a feather, its ups and downs gave evidence of lift and sink before number 2 entered that same air. Genius lay in what 2 did with this information.

Each time 1 entered lift, 2 would edge toward it and pull up when it reached the lift. Once that was behind them, 2 would slide back to its prior separation. When 1 hit sink, 2 would immediately veer away, and avoid at least some of it. In this way a bird who was demonstrably less efficient managed to keep pace despite flying a longer path.

And all the while, neither of those two avatars once flapped a wing, and altogether expended less energy than you do simply holding your head up to read these words. If people could fly like that without being tongue lashed, CFIGs would be out of work.


Why not execute your checklist well before initiating a landing pattern? Too many pilots wait until after entering downwind, when it may be already too late for timely response to developments such as a change in surface wind, mechanical failure, HEAVY SINK, or unexpected traffic…
There are numerous reasons for not entering the pattern from higher than standard altitude. First, starting with excess height demands that you alter normal methodology, and can lead to unnecessary difficulties. If you lack inexperience or currency what you need is practice, and entering the pattern unnecessarily high denies an opportunity to reinforce and refine ordinary procedure. Perhaps someone else is in a BLIND SPOT, intending to land and assuming you’re not. If they’re directly below they may never see you, and innocently cut you off. No fooling: I’ve seen this happen twice in one landing! Or another pilot may be soaring nearby, lower but still above pattern height, and trying to stay aloft. By entering too soon you could oblige them to give up and land first, before they otherwise would.
If you’ve arrived lower than standard pattern entry height, flying a full pattern would only squander precious energy and lengthen the period of increased hazard. Instead (being very careful not to interrupt ordinary traffic!) fly to the point where you can intercept standard procedure as high and as soon as possible. The objective is to make a safe landing in a safe place. You and them! Nothing else matters.


You might fly hundreds of launches without needing to abort for some atmospheric reason, but have no doubt, eventually it will happen. One condition that multiplies the probability is a strong direct crosswind. Aside from the usual problems of ordinary quartering crosswinds, a ninety-degree cross raises the possibility of sudden tailwind component, and that’s not all. Enter a specter normally associated only with landing, the slowing of wind near the surface, called wind gradient. In this case it’s the increase in wind with height that becomes a problem.
Say you begin with a crosswind near the limit, fifteen knots or more depending on many variables. Halfway up the strip both aircraft have lifted off when, about twenty feet high the wind abruptly doubles. If the tow pilot responds properly your crab angle also may double, which is okay so long as you swing out downwind to stay in good tow position. Trouble comes when that stronger wind blows both birds sideways, off the runway and low over ground that may not be entirely clear. If the increase in ambient wind is 10 knots, five seconds later you’re a couple wingspans from the centerline! This can wake you right up. It happened to me once long ago in jolly old New England, then again here at Crystal, and then became part of my usual spiel for Flight Reviews.
In the first mindbender we were swept sideways over deep grass rolling downhill into a swale. As good a place as any for a crash landing except for the pesky cattle fence and a clan of darling frogs. Beyond that fence and lower than the runway is where the tug’s wheels started nicking brush. Expecting to be cut loose, I reached to release, thinking better to crash without the tug than into it. Exactly then we started pulling away from the ground, and climbed on up normally, as if…
But that’s not the point. Stack of bubbles, this very thing occurred again in the exact same place with someone else not long after.
The second time it happened to me was here at Crystal, where we have no handy swale. I could have aborted even as we skimmed over the fuel truck, but every moment of indecision made that less feasible. If a double-wide mobile home had not been recently removed, into it is where we might have crashed. On we drifted in ground effect, sidewise across the entrance road and past the hangers — on the wrong side! By then it was too late to do anything but hang in and pray we hit no sink.
Getting away with such a thing doesn’t mean we deserved to. What I should have done in each case was RELEASE IMMEDIATELY and land while we still had half the airport right there ahead, upwind of us.
Nutshell: with direct crosswinds be more than ever ready to abort NOW and get safely back on the ground while you still can. Otherwise… here at Crystal we have only Joshuas, not frogs to cushion your impact.


Ever notice how the more interesting and memorable stuff is seldom scripted? Prepare all you can, but whether you’re doing it or it’s doing you, how the unforeseen gets handled is your story. That’s why defensive teams win championships, because they react correctly when it counts.

First season as a commercial glider pilot, I thought I was a better stick then than I wished I were thirty-five years later. Learning curve? Mine was more of a learning spike and remained so for much of the way since. Even now I’m afraid if I blink I’ll slide out of whack like Wile E. Coyote on ice. Teaching myself to soar was what I imagine a space walk feels like, except astronauts usually know what they’re doing. And learning to teach, well we should all be glad most of that’s behind me.

Also, many of my richest errors in the early daze amounted to foolishly going along with (and in some cases advancing) others’ bad ideas. Not an excuse, just a fact.

We were booked to hop rides at a summer festival on Nantucket, twenty miles out in the Atlantic. The island’s one airport was towered so we didn’t go there, until after. Our ‘strip’ would be a golf course fairway aimed east at the ocean. Looking down today from GoogleEarth, we had a thousand feet of open turf uphill to a couple hundred yards of brushy dunes, the beach and the sea. We’d be landing the opposite way, downwind into a milling crowd. Launching uphill’s creepy enough, but landing downhill to a short porch would be complicated by a pulse of lift where the trailing sea breeze rose over those dunes on mid final. Which landing would be most educational, the first or the last?

Before all that however, the towplane’s engine was spanking new and not yet fully broken in. If you don’t know what that signifies, ask around. It’s serious. Without this process completed the aircraft was unfit for service. Rudy the operator knew of the restraint, but either didn’t understand its importance or thought this occasion somehow worth the risk. Otto the tow pilot knew better and said so, but it was Rudy’s plane and his call so Otto and I shrugged our shoulders. More flying on someone else’s dime was all we wanted. By evening Rudy’s towplane would be too crippled to fly back to the mainland, but that’s a separate bucket of clams.

Commencing the new engine’s final hours, we towed a 2-32 sixty-five miles into the rising sun from one place I’d never seen to another, the last third of it over open ocean. Otto was new to towing gliders and had very little actual experience by any measure. I had less. He had a radio and I had…. less. If any flotation device were aboard the Bird Dog other than a foam seat cushion, the same would be true again. ELT in the glider? Guess. On the way over, my mind drifted to how long a Schweizer might float… Judging from the white noise they make in flight, you may as well start swimming now.

The engine was grumbling before we got there and Otto was too, soon as his feet touched the ground. When he slowed down ten knots halfway across, I began to worry. You can bet if he waved me off out there I’d have squeezed the stick, among other things, gritted my teeth and dared him to cut me loose! Otto was cool, though.

On the island he pulled the first few rides, but as the engine faltered so did his nerve. The poor guy had his eye on an airline career and rightfully feared ruining that with nonsense like this. By midday he’d apologized and quit, a spooked college kid backing out of a tight spot despite needing the man he put on that spot to get him back across the water. That’s not cowardice, it’s the courage of common sense. But it left only Rudy (whose commercial certificate did not extend to powered airplanes) and me.

Rudy had to decide, either tow the rest of the day himself, illegally, or give this up. And? He was not as young as me, or nearly as inexperienced, and had more at stake, including kids, yet was every bit as foolish.

His first taste of dragging potential victims from soft grass over rising ground behind an engine that didn’t want to run sobered him. Like he’d seen a ghost? No, he looked like a ghost. But this was his show and more rides were waiting.

So now it’s mid-afternoon, humid and hot, each launch consuming more fairway before liftoff. Even I can feel the engine failing, and wish Rudy would seize the valor part and scrub this clown show before somebody has to call an ambulance. Then climbing through 400 feet well out beyond the surf, the Bird Dog… vanishes.

A gauzy deck of sea fog has drifted over, invisible against the haze until we’re in it. I can see enough bluish light overhead to think we might soon be above it, so stay on tow to learn what the next step should be. Soon we’re out the top, but cannot see an edge to the layer. I release and pull spoilers to hurry down while still somewhere near the LZ. Jab a quick right in the fog and roll out before disorientation can set in, then retract spoilers when the surf reappears.

No setting up an approach; we’re already on a flat final, about to hit that lift off the dunes. Over my right shoulder I see Rudy emerge, closing. The fairway’s wide enough for both wingspans and we have right-of-way of course — with a whirling cleaver bearing down on our six! There’s a wide stretch on the right where I’d rather land and give Rudy a straight lane, but I’m coming in from the left… Time seems to accelerate.

Rather than confuse him by being less than obvious I crank a sharp little turn across his nose, praying he’s further back than it feels, then go full steep and plunk down before the fairway narrows. As we slow, he trundles by on our left, bye bye new engine.

Those last passengers were glad to settle for that, given the circumstances, and so was I. Who knows, the fog may have saved us from landing in the surf on our next launch…

Aftermath? It was 1980, with everyone quick to move on. We left Rudy’s birds tied to trees for the night, hopefully beyond reach of dawn golf balls, and grabbed a mercy flight (IFR) to find a better party somewhere on the mainland.

Tomorrow would come when it came.