NANTUCKET HAYRIDE

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.