Where I flew in northern Vermont we soared with red-tail hawks daily, but for some reason eagles were exceedingly rare.  Once though, I came upon a sovereign golden in a blue thermal at the edge of our local area and decided to follow along and see what I could learn.  Several times the instructor left good lift sooner than I expected and moved on, quickly finding better nearby.  We meandered miles beyond my usual haunts before I lost courage and turned for home, forever transformed by the lesson.  I’d love to have had that exemplar endorse an hour in my log, but who knows if it had current certification — or could even hold a pen. 

At a different locale where eagles appear almost every flight, I’d watched two fledglings soaring together for weeks, and on a day off brought my camera hunting in the mountains.  It took longer to catch them than to find them, and that seemed the fun part until – I couldn’t believe it either – they widened out and allowed me to ease the 1-26  between them.  Imagine, climbing to 12,000 feet with a baby eagle off each wingtip!  Downright glorious.

If their mother were watching would she have been horrified?  Or aggravated.  I’ve been attacked by mature eagles three times after getting too cozy, and each of them flew away first, almost out of sight, then homed straight back in nose to nose.  One came so close I could see its eyes from the back seat as it passed under!  We had a video cam mounted forward and held position long as I dared before pulling up, already fantasizing about that most unlikely inch of footage.  Naturally (amazing how often things happen this way), that frontal assault began mere seconds after our film ran out.


And in another millennium, as the only glider guy in a ride operation at a summer resort I had the rare liberty of flying approaches any way I chose.  Just my luck, a pair of bald eagles had their nest in the broken top of the tallest pine around, perfectly positioned for us to dive from downwind leg, cut a 2G turn around them and pull up into normal base.  When no chicks were in the nest Mom and Dad often perched on a shaded branch below, so it paid to look close, and passengers squoze in back always loved seeing them turn their heads to watch us sweep by.  

Often they were away of course, doing what eagles do.  And sad to say, in two full seasons flying there, not once did I sight either of those baldies on the wing!  Does that mean their range was a whole lot bigger than mine?  Or maybe I just didn’t fly enough…   


One rainy day sixty-five years ago I was flying a plane that felt so real it seemed to be flying me.  Up and down and back around, it would land on my bed and take off again, dash over to strafe the sock monkey and arc away in triumph.  Going straight and level wasn’t half as inspiring.  The toy happened to be a warbird of course, and my child mind brooded that pilots flew in such thrilling ways only to kill or be killed.  Sad, knowing no other rationale for forms of flight so fanciful.  

Twenty-five years later this memory came rushing back while up with a new student (they were all new to me in those days).  He’d flown Hueys in Viet Nam, and suddenly laughed, “God it’s fun to fly without being shot at!”  

Ain’t that the truth.  

Somewhere between those distant afternoons, on the last day of seventh grade they freed us early — in time to discover where my deepest curiosity lay.  Tipsy at the precipice of a three-month eternity, I sank into soft grass and admired a rampart of towering cumulus chasing each other across the horizon.  Scarcely knowing what they were or why, I ached to float there among them.  “Those are real places,” I told myself, wondering how things would look from so high up.  What gripping regret that I could never go there and explore!  

Not many months later I learned otherwise.  The January, 1967 issue of National Geographic (you can still find it in garage sales for a quarter) features a definitive article about soaring that put me on this circuitous path.  Along with enticing photographs, its centerfold is an artist’s conception of some ordinary fellow in a tiny cockpit, smiling out at the endless landscape while gliding from one form of rising air to another.  I supposed such flight would be very dangerous – with no engine – but knew that to experience it even once would be worth any risk.  

Then when I finally got to try soaring myself, EUREKA!  Turns out dancing across the sky is amazingly easy when conditions are good, and safer than any highway if you fly right.  (Especially when I’m on the road!)  So, was safety the reason I devoted my life to soaring?  Not even close.  

Many times through intervening decades I re-read that article, and studied every illustration.  There’s a wide angle photo of sailplanes, hang gliders and RC craft all in one frame, dodging each other on the sea breeze at Torrey Pines.  Another shows an athlete on a unicycle directing the start line at that year’s National Championships, himself a storied pilot I would later meet and fly with when he was 80.  A somewhat less seductive picture is of Boy Scouts in uniform participating in the construction of a 2-32 at the Schweizer factory in Elmira, NY…  

Now remember our Huey pilot who enjoyed not being shot at?  Even further up this winding trail he bought a well-worn ‘32 in need of TLC and leased it to our operation.  One-six Juliet flew great but looked awful, and some years later we restored her.  Chipping and grinding down through multiple layers of paint and bondo, at the very bottom we found the same shade of blue as in that photo with the Boy Scouts.  On a hunch I dug out the old magazine again, and sure enough our N-number matched that picture.  I’d flown beloved Juliet hundreds of hours by then, without knowing!  Small world, big sky.  

When the brightest thing you can see is streaks of rain on a grey window, remember:  high above us this same primordial Elysium continues arching over all as it has forever, through every weather, world without end.  To go there is a challenge worthy of infinite effort, and living there for even snippets of time imparts a special kind of grace.  After all, it’s what turned one dour little cynic into a patient optimist bound to the proposition that this bottomless sky we breathe is indeed our only limit.  

…as on we sail for far Aeolia.    


Every week, power pilots who otherwise seem to take aviation seriously inquire how quickly or how cheaply they can get their glider ‘add-on’ rating.  Failing to appreciate the profound virtues and benefits of flight without artificial thrust, some even say, facetiously, ‘punch the ticket’.  They see gliders as only a trivial novelty or a way to avoid more expensive biennial Flight Reviews.  Even sadder are those who have no real interest at all, but can no longer pass a medical…  

The common denominator:  for one reason or another they’re convinced it’s terribly important to get past that check ride ASAP!  And too many do.  This is one more variant of get-there-itis, yet another dread disease in which the infected risk making victims of more than just themselves.  Hide out by the runway some Sunday afternoon and watch; these ‘ad-on’ jockeys are also the ones who’ll try to land their bird as if it had… horsepower, and PIO. Statistics prove that you don’t have to blow yourself up or die of smoke inhalation to get hurt.  

The minimum requirement for previously licensed SELs to get a glider rating is ten solos for a private, and twenty for a commercial.  That’s nuts.  I should know, because I played this minimal game myself – and demonstrated how little any ‘ticket’ is worth without practical understanding and genuine skill.  

Next, there are those who’ve done exactly this, and after a few months on their own cannot wait to become instructors.  As if!  What they really need is to gain some actual experience, not be in a rush to expose how little they know.  But try telling them that.  

To teach anything, shouldn’t you want to know more than the allowable minimum about it?  True, the regs allow anybody to be a CFIG with no requirement for even some ability to keep the aircraft aloft, and that too is nuts.  Folks can spend all their precious time and money collecting ratings in short order, but without a little background each one has increasing potential to embarrass them (or worse) when they eventually try to apply it.  

Instead, why not take your time, indulge in some humility for once and enjoy learning a splendid new art?  Otherwise you’re fooling only yourself and going nowhere faster than need be, certificate or no. 

You, on the other hand, could do better…  


Sixty miles from Crystal, a friend and I were stuck near low hills at a height where any further loss would mean landing at the nearest alternate and a spendy retrieve.  We happened to be flying his personal sailplane and newest prize possession, and this was also the first time he’d ever soared out of sight from home.  He so loved flying his new bird, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a turn when it might have been better if I had.   

We’d gotten a hot start back home, but in this neighborhood there seemed no lift anywhere.  Ahead on a north-south ridge stood a miles-long line of giant wind turbines that swivel individually to always face the localized flow.  We could observe their rotation from miles away to determine in advance the direction and strength of wind there, and maybe deduce where convergence might be found as well.  

We saw right away that all the turbines on the south end of the line were facing southeast while those to the north faced northwest, but the air was so light the entire line appeared motionless.  Gliding closer, we found the only two that were actually rotating stood adjacent – facing away from each other back to back.  This meant currents from canyons on opposite sides of the ridge were colliding in the saddle between those two turbines. 

“Bingo!” I crowed, “Double fudge sundae.  That’s where we make our save.”  

“You sure?”  

“Well nothing’s ever a hundred percent, but with no other lift for the last thirty minutes, we’re only a few more from landing unless we seize this opportunity.”  I was starting to squirm.  “Just head straight between those two live ones and cash in.”  

“And if it’s not there?”  

“We go on.  Glide around the spur at the end of that canyon and back to Cal City.  If we don’t grab this now it’s what we’ll be doing anyway.”  

His response was eloquent but unspellable, a sad falsetto moan of pointless worry, futile as it was honest.  

“Just do it,” I urged, “We have this if you commit right now and don’t squander any more altitude.”  

I could hear him thinking:  he’d put himself in this joker’s hands (mine) and now had no choice but to go along.  Yet while that was true, he also knew it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  After brief deliberation with his imaginary accountant he murmured, “Okay, but you better fly it.”    

Exactly what I hoped to hear!  Nose down, directly between those turbines, each blade longer than our 20-meter wingspan.  Watch to see which one’s turning fastest, slide in over the slower one and turn into the stronger of the two winds.   Then WHAM.  

Uneventful as our prior leg had been, this boomer’s core was hellfire save the brimstone.  We tilted 2 Gs at those enchanted windmills from what seemed arm’s length over their blades’ slashing apogee to a 7000-foot gain all in one quick chunk.  Topped out in the big Sierra shearline, we were back on the road northbound.  Magical as usual.   

There are times you make an aggressive decision, not because you know it will work, but it’s the best option even if it doesn’t.  And that’s okay so long as you KNOW beforehand that the worst-case outcome will guarantee at least a safe landing.  If you put yourself in any kind of other situation, may your higher power show mercy, for our hallowed sky in its grand dispassion might not.   

Hours later we approached this same area on the way home and could see from far off the turbines all facing west, and all spinning fast.  Cool stable coastal air had moved through and was now feeding the good stuff somewhere downwind in the desert – which in our case led closer to home.  

Did someone mention magic?  Information that would have signaled defeat on the way out enabled us to eliminate a dogleg and cut miles off our final glide!  

Just remember, it can as easily go the other way…