Time to celebrate the end of punishing heat! The coming week will remain sunny, but with highs not much above 80 and light breezes each day. Convective numbers this past midweek were very flat, but that seldom lasts forever. Given a light northerly breeze, the next few afternoons might offer surprisingly good lift, especially near the mountains.
Only one way to find out…
We’re cruising in wanton luxury, up against class A airspace with two hundred mile viz in all directions, what they used to call ‘severe clear’. I loosen my shoulder straps to lean forward and look behind, awed as ever by the sky’s empty vastness. Wondering idly at the actual number of molecules we’ve pushed out of our way since takeoff, I mumble, “How many zeros.”
“Zero what?” asks my companion.
“…Uh, disregard.” I check the O2. It seems OK. “Zero worries, I guess.”
When soaring is this easy I get sleepy. Sunlight trapped in the canopy keeps us cozy but outside it’s frigid, so I poke two fingers through the inch-square vent until they’re numb and press them on my eyelids. Pulsing tie-dye sunburst gets them optic nerves acookin’. Oh yeah, now I’m awake. Back to bizness. Then as eyes refocus…
JET FIGHTERS HEAD-ON STREAK PAST BLURRY CLOSE. Gone so fast I doubt they’re real.
A time warp vacuum grabs us a quarter second before the tremendous all enveloping wallop and shattering BOOM of those zillion-pound tailpipes now pointed directly at us. Their roar fades almost as quickly, leaving our own bird’s normal whisper still vacuous though now somehow more penetrating.
Reflexively I pull up to dodge their explosive wakes, already too late of course. In unison we both squawk, “WHAT the…”, and after a quick stammering conference agree we’d seen four bogies, two on each side. Yes, for one appalling moment we were inside their formation! And they were very nearly inside ours. If we or they had been a wingspan to either side, scratch millions in hardware and pilot training, and scrub our day too. They had to have seen us – though not until waay too late.
“Weren’t they too low to be going that fast?”
“Maybe…” There is a speed limit of 250 knots, but only below 10,000 feet. (At that altitude 250 indicated is 300 true.) But we’re a mile and a half higher than that and those jets were moving much faster than 300 knots, true or otherwise. Realistically, our closing speed was more like 1000 feet per second, or about the pace of a .22 caliber bullet. And those bogies carry a lot more slug than a .22.
My ears start to burn as the bone between them yields another oily nugget. When it’s hot altimeters read lower than true, and the higher you fly the greater the difference. Only now do I realize that on this August day above the Black Rock Desert our cruising altitude of 17-something – indicated – might easily exceed 17,999 true. The rule is, above 18,000 feet you adjust the Kolzman window to 29.92, a simple procedure I’ve never actually had occasion to do (before or since as a matter of fact). Just curious, I twirl the little knob… and it’s amazing how quickly such an effortless an act can cause one to break a cold sweat.
For Capt. Dustoff and his posse galloping along at mach or so in their airspace, we’re no doubt a hot topic about now on at least one discrete frequency. Supposing they’ll swing back and check us out, my next belated reflex is to evade them, but there’s absolutely nothing to hide behind and we can hardly run away. Should we sit like a frightened rabbit and hope they can’t find us?
If our only sin is being too high, going straight down can fix that. Still trembling, I pull full spoilers and nose into a steep high-G spiral.
Our ceiling, however, is not their floor…
One morning near the end of my rookie season I noticed a tow pilot kneeling beside the cockpit of our single seater. Until then I’d never seen him fly anything but the tug, and supposed that like many tow pilots, sadly, he had little interest in gliders. Walking closer, I found him disconnecting the instruments and asked why.
“First chance in weeks to go soaring,” he said, “and might be my last for the whole year. I fly better with no temptation to look inside.” He eyed me like a big brother when Mom and Dad did not need to know about this. “Don’t tell, okay?” He was actually two or three years younger than me, but like any loyal little bro I shrugged Okay.
To me as a beginner the idea of flying without instruments was intriguing. Aesthetically, it appealed at a visceral level, but the filters of cultural bias made it sound wild (even for 1975), possibly felonious… and more importantly, reckless. But what did I know? One thing I did know, I knew I was reckless enough already.
I tried to observe each moment of his flight while waiting my turn for launch, but that didn’t last long. He hopped off tow below others in a house thermal, promptly out-climbed them all, and was first to leave the area – for the whole day as it turned out.
My flight amounted to forty minutes of mostly coming down. There was a lot of that that day, and well before five o’clock the whole fleet had returned – except you know who, whom nobody’d seen for hours. While helping the handful of regular crew perform their end-of-day routines, I dared not mention our little secret, not yet anyway, but really wasn’t thinking about much else. When someone finally expressed concern, his dad filling in for him shrugged it off. “He’ll be back when he gets hungry. Lunatic did call for a fifty mile retrieve last year just before sundown, but he won’t make that mistake again.”
I was hungry already and decided to head for home. Before climbing into my pickup though, I stared up into the empty sky and vowed I’d someday learn to fly like that guy!
Then twenty minutes up the road I glimpsed a flash in the air, identified the missing bird and pulled over to watch. He was low, and it being so late the climb was slow, but eventually he rolled out on final glide. Hungry at last.
I almost hurried back right then to pick his brain when he landed, and should have, but put it off for the next weekend. Of course he missed the next weekend, and I missed the one after that. Then he went back to college and we never met again.
But that’s how I got this way. Blame him, whatever his name was. His clarion example just that once imparted a unique trajectory to my own soaring career, and I’ve flown his way ever since, relying on sight and sound and feel in favor of expensive, complex and distracting gizmos. It wasn’t easy at first, as with so many rewarding challenges, but honestly, other than checking the altimeter every minute or so (the one instrument that always works whether it’s properly connected or not), I’m usually too busy gleaning reams of actual information from the real world to waste brain time inside the cockpit. When I do check the panel against perception it’s seldom more than confirmation of the obvious.
And audio? What an annoyance! It masks the non-virtual acoustic I’m listening for, obnoxious as those awful PA systems at ball games these days. If a phone refused to stop ringing I’d either unplug the thing or stuff it in a sock. Much more informative, and satisfying, is the gentle real-time song of the actual wind. No batteries required.
While most folks deplore such heresy, occasionally I persuade someone to join in a demonstration. We leave the panel intact to be legal of course, but no regulation says we can’t tuck a dark rag over it and go soar with our feathers out like the Almighty intended. A return to roots, like swimming in the buff or… well, you know. Companions on such flights are always surprised to find it easier than expected, and more fun as well. Imagine that.
YOU, however, can never learn to fly with such freedom – unless you try.
Well it’s officially autumn now, but summer-like conditions will remain in the desert for probably another month or more to come. This weekend we can expect partly cloudy skies, light wind and temps topping up around 90 degrees. Even a very slight chance of showers, ‘they’ say, but we say there’s still no harm in praying for more…