The airport I flew from in Vermont lay silver distance up the road from Sugarbush, where Region One’s soaring competition was usually held each year. North beyond our end of that valley, the highest mountain is Jay Peak, a traditional turn point near the Canadian border, putting us on the course line for at least one leg of many declared tasks. During contest week I liked to perch with students wherever we had dependable lift and watch the race flow through, noting what worked and what didn’t. And as with field trips back in school, it was often the teacher who learned the most.
One time it was so windy we supposed the contest day would be scrubbed, but our local ridge was roaring stronger than ever. First run to the far end was rough enough to shake most of the fun out, but quick and easy with straps cinched tight. Then just before turning back we spotted two gliders about to land in a field below. We hovered high on the hill and watched as one followed the other around into the wind, slo-mo, until they both stopped eerily side by side, like some kind of illusion.
But they couldn’t have stopped; they’re pointed downhill. Grass can’t be that high! Yet there they sit. If they have landed, can they stay down?
Then eerier still, they both began to move again, almost in unison, sideways. Eyes that lie can also tell the truth. Yes, they’d been hovering too, but with that field in cloud shadow we couldn’t gauge their distance above it. Eventually one crept across a fence line, tacking up onto the lowest toe of our ridge, and the other followed. They were still dirt low, but at that point their save was in the bag.
While they nibbled further toward us, rising faster each moment, another ship sidled in low over the same field to commence its own save. We still held a big height advantage over all three, but that was about to vanish. Could we hump our grizzled old ‘33 back to the north end before those race cats caught us? Dream on. And what did the teacher learn? When one after another passed us, each was running less than half our distance from the hill…
Another year, the pack had already flown by, seen now as occasional glints of gaggle twenty miles north, and we were grubbing around flattish farm country hoping to still be up if they came back our way. Rolling into a lucky two-knotter, I looked straight down for position and drift plus indications of the thermal’s source (one of my few good habits), and what twirled the eyes was our shadow being rammed at that moment by a similar one from behind!
No, really. Eyes that lie… Mine snapped straight ahead, where a flesh and blood sailplane materialized scary close, rolling into our turn.
Stunned as I was, I instantly recognized from many photographs the tail number of one of America’s great soaring champions. He had rounded Jay Peak miles ahead of the pack running hard as always, but gotten low, and when we marked this thermal he attacked. Shooting under us with double our speed, he pulled up and settled in on the opposite side, for probably a lot less lift than he expected. Welcome to the boonies, Ace.
After three circles nobody’d gained much, so he left us the moment he had glide to the bottom of the nearest hill — which happened to be the local monadnock where I had come to think of myself as a makeshift impresario. We’d be going there too, I assured my student, but not before climbing a just a liittle longer.
When we did follow a minute later the champ was already miles ahead, but looked too low to dig this one out. If he retreated to our airport we might get a chance to shake his hand! Yeah, keep dreaming. He swept in far lower at that hill than its ‘impresario’ ever dared, with juice aplenty to zoom all the way upslope and turn south along the top, gone from sight before we got there. Boonies indeed.
Years afterward, on a business call that happened to include the champ himself I recalled that day, wondering what he might say of our one shared moment (which will remain for me a lifelong memory). He heard my version with what may have been feigned patience, then asked: “Where was this again?”