WITHOUT A NET

If not for the last moment, think of all that wouldn’t get done! Or found.

They say lift is where you find it, but it’s a good bet more occurs where you never look. Nor does any law guarantee you’ll ever find it. Sometimes there ain’t any. Still, one certainty underlies a world of others: when you do find lift it’s always in the last place you look.

One summer I had to ferry a sailplane from Bishop to Tehachapi, a 160-mile trip that on any normal day should be easy and fun. And yes it was fun, in retrospect, but would not be easy until that last…

Willis, a friend’s friend, drove me to where the ship waited, but his car wasn’t up to pulling the trailer. No biggie said I, we shouldn’t need it.

Surprise! Aeolus served blue headwinds all the way, nary a single cu to mark lift anywhere. Struggling on blue days can induce a special kind of mental torture. You know you’re gliding right past many fine thermals, but can hardly justify turning off course to chase ghosts that may not be there. It’s easy to end up lower than you like, wasting time in weak lift you can’t afford to leave — knowing all the while there’s better stuff booming silently somewhere nearby.

After a slow start, the first of several hangups came on lowly Mazourka Peak thirty miles downrange. Normally you’d soar by there high and fast, cross the valley two miles up, and glide grandly into the Sierras where the Golden Trout Wilderness teases timberline… Not that day. Multiple paved alternates were still available, but no possibility of a second tow. Getting home meant remaining aloft, and that demanded staying over high ground. Many times in most of an hour sniffing around Mazourka, I had occasion to closely examine the one-lane work road across it’s broad summit, fantasizing how easy it would be to just open brakes and land right there at 9400 MSL. But never did get high enough to more than give up and trudge on.

Slow climbs led to slow glides as the sun lowered and shadows deepened, meaning fewer thermals found. Grinding fifteen miles into the wind across the valley threw me down again, now miles off course just to regain high ground within range of the last remaining airport.

Scrambling briefly northward along echelons of steep foothills, inching further from home for purchase on the highest terrain in fifteen hundred miles, I started to wonder if I’d need knee pads. Tried to follow a hawk, but it landed on a pinnacle and turned around to stare at me. So now what? My next stymie came beside the half-mile granite cliff below Lone Pine Peak. Cool wind off the crest high up out of sight was sinking everywhere except this one colossal wall, and zero sink, when it’s all you got, can be pure manna.

Willis, monitoring 123.5 in his car below and jacked on free coffee from the Frontier Deli, tried to sound peppy, but was OUT OF SMOKES and manifestly bored. Me too by now. Zeal wanes when new adventures morph into dull movies. Fifth time past that same gnarled snag growing from a crack, I’d have loved a cuppa J. Fifteenth time, I craved one.

Chances of a miracle were feeling slimmer each pass, so I risked landing at Cinder Cone dry lake to just get moving again before too late. Fall out there and all of tomorrow would be consumed by a spendy retrieve, but if I ever caught this day’s first sliver of luck we could still be home by sunset.

After five hours aloft I’d come only a hundred miles and was scrubbing rocks again when the first cloud all day started forming maybe within reach, not much further ahead. One brave little wisp in an otherwise clear sky is probably a bold statement… of something. Might our elusive brass ring hang somewhere between that cu and the peak below it? Was it the near edge of a more convective airmass beyond? Only one way to find out…

Another thing about blue thermal soaring. In a sky completely devoid of cumulus reasonable hope can gradually fade into pessimism, where the very sight of distant markers, even beyond reach, can provide a desperate soul with vital encouragement. And sometimes that’s all it takes to improve one’s luck. I was already headed toward the cloud before it formed, intending to fly right through that airspace if I could get that far, but honestly doubting I would. No proof of course, but I believe having visual confirmation helped make it happen…

In any case, sure enough, WHOOSH! At last, lift so strong and sure, well before leaving the day’s only bodacious climb I radioed Willis to hightail for home.

Altogether it was a hundred and sixty miles into the wind, with a grand total of one truly generous thermal. What more can a lucky pilot say? Or do. First, thank your stars for that hallowed last moment and bear witness that refusing to quit is what got you there. Then celebrate the possibility of doing better next week, and reward Willis with a year’s supply of Nicorette before eventually going back to retrieve the trailer.

TIME AND PLACE

It’s always unwise to chase migrating birds, as they’re on a tight budget and can’t afford to waste time or energy breaking formation to run from us. Far better from every perspective to simply follow along at a respectful distance, let them navigate, and enjoy the show. Also, pilots should know to never fly directly under birds of any species, because their first defensive instinct is to dive.  While these courtesies are easy enough to observe in most cases, sometimes it’s tempting to rationalize an exception…

I was giving a double ride here at Crystal one day, happy couple squoze in back, when we sighted a squadron of pelicans soaring along their migratory route. (Yes, squadron is the collective noun for pelicans.) These huge water birds soar across our section of the Mojave each year, heading NW in spring and SE in autumn, seldom flapping a wing as they mark lines of lift along the way.  Glistening white with black tips, they have a span of nearly 10 feet, and can weigh over 20 pounds. Of all the marvels I’ve witnessed in the sky, soaring near a hundred of these creatures may be the most entrancing.

Off to the side of this group we found one individual pelican flying alone, and wanted a better look. I tried to overtake it but was unable to stay up level, so as we drew close I cracked spoilers to allow plenty of room below. Twenty feet ought to be enough, I thought.

White feathers seemed to fill the sky ahead – and then we saw just how maneuverable even a giant bird can be. In half a second the pelican folded its wings, rolled inverted, and then spread them again as it dove toward us. It seemed for a moment we’d have pelican draped all over our nose and leading edges, but before I could respond in any way it had shot from above to below, so viscerally close we actually felt its tail brush our wheel!

Horrified that the bird may have been injured, I snapped a turn to see. Apparently it learned something from this episode too, as we next saw it flapping hard to form back up with its mates and regain the security of numbers. If I knew how to squawk pelican I’d have begged forgiveness, instead felt blessed just to fall away in shame.

Soaring with birds is a sacred privilege and we need to remember that it’s their sky, not ours. To them we’re an anomaly, intruders at best. We must be careful not to act as invaders.

ALL, OR NOTHING. EITHER WAY IT’S IN YOUR HEAD

We were eighty miles from home, Pedro at the controls and me doing something in the aft cockpit, eyes down. He’d been running straight along a shearline for several minutes and then abruptly began to circle. I knew where we were within a few miles without looking, but hadn’t expected him to stop until we reached Boomer Ridge. It was unusually hazy that day with tall clouds casting wide shadows on a landscape I’d always seen brightly lit. Nothing was recognizable! Turning my head against the direction of our circle intensified disorientation, and unreasoned anxiety prompted a sudden wave of nausea.

Eventually there’s a first time, pardon the cliché, for even this.

I drew one deep breath and asked Pedro to go straight for a moment, on any heading. Soon, through beads of perspiration I found a familiar crossroads and CLICK, like the turning of a lock, simple recognition transformed cold sweat into cool refreshment, and all was well again.

What amazed me was how quickly poking only one toe through the fragile deck of a mental footbridge felt like I was falling into the river – and then how little it took to restore a vital confidence that was so easily challenged.

So… Ever notice how right it feels to keep your off hand on some firm point in the cockpit, especially when you turn your head? We all do it unconsciously. It’s a natural instinct to maintain orientation, like our cousins do in trees. Same thing at the other end of the arm too, up here where converging strands of nerve tissue form a giant fatty cyst that expands to fill the cranium. Without some known reference to proceed from and potentially retreat to, rational faith in our own knowledge and perception can instantly vanish exactly when we need it most. And that must tell us something…

What does it tell us?  We may about to find out…

 

SMART CIRCLES and DUMB CIRCLES

A smart circle is one where, for example, you gain enough height in thirty seconds to glide for several minutes.  Another is the mile-wide exploratory turn in wave, drifting downwind into stronger lift while exploring laterally for even more.  Or how about a quick circle just before entering the landing pattern to check for unannounced traffic?  That’s pretty smart too.

Dumb circles?  We see them all the time.  Such as circling where you thought there might be lift even when there’s no actual evidence;  circling where there was lift, long after either you lost it or it climbed away and left you; circling in wave when that’s certain to drift you downwind of the good stuff into certain trouble.  And oh yes, circling and staring at your panel while other pilots are flying by you on their downwind legs.

Fact is, there are zillions more dumb things we can do than smart things, in the air as on the ground.  Our job is to sort out these options and leave at least some of the dumb ones undone!