RABBIT HOPS

It was scheduled to be a fine soaring day so Anton and I launched early, intending to stay up forever and soar as far as possible.  There were no clouds anywhere and according to the forecast it might stay blue all day, but a quick climb in our local mountains gave us altitude for a forty-mile glide to the next hills so why wait?  “It’ll be booming everywhere soon enough and any clouds we do see will mark the best lift around, so let’s go!”

We reached the hills east of Apple Valley plenty high, but found nothing at first.  “No sweat.  Lift hasn’t developed here yet, but we shouldn’t have long to wait.”  Scratching among more than fifteen miles of rocky peaks, we found tantalizing hints almost everywhere but never could establish our second climb.

Meanwhile our teenage line boy Zeke launched thirty minutes behind us, a brilliant talent with almost no experience but crammed to the top with confidence.  Starting exactly where we did, he climbed fifteen hundred feet higher and therefore approached these same hills in better shape – timed perfectly to catch big lift only then blossoming above us.

While the kid settled into his second climb and we inched gradually lower, one teensy cloud began forming high overhead, now far beyond our reach.  Craning our necks, we saw Zeke silhouetted against it, a nat on the ceiling.  My smile was grudging but proud when he broke squelch to note how small we looked from two miles up.  He was bound for glory that day, and we were landing at Rabbit Dry Lake.

After rolling to a stop we called up to have Zeke to relay a message for the retrieve tow ASAP.  With lots of day still left, we didn’t need a ride home, just a relight to get us back in the game.  “Shouldn’t take too long Anton,” I enthused.  “Glad we brought extra water?”

The tug was delayed first by flurries of unscheduled activity on the flight line, then an intractable tow pilot demanding his lunch break, et cetera.  All through the heart (read heat) of that ideal soaring day we stood on the dusty lake bed, close together in our wing’s scant shade trying not to irritate each other.

It was after three when we finally got our relight.  Being midsummer, time did remain for brief exploration of bigger mountains nearby before an easy flight back home – but Barrister Murphy had other ideas.

I learned a lesson about haste that morning, but Anton apparently had not.  He did okay with the temporary blindness of aero-towing from a sandy surface, and a minute later we crossed back over our launch point where the dust we kicked up was almost as high as we were.  Thinking that marked lift, with no warning Anton released the tow.

So unexpected and sudden, for one long moment I tried to not believe he’d done it.  He had, though.

You see, Anton is a first generation hang glider pilot, still renowned from the earliest days.  To him 500 feet seemed high enough for almost anything, but it leaves a sailplane no margin, even if flown perfectly.  It’s possible to work a lively dust devil from that height, depending on a zillion variables, maybe.  But this was not that.  It was only sand roiled by the propeller and already settling back to the surface.  As were we.

Our tow pilot was headed home by then, straight away, and not responding on radio.  If he gave a *#?! about us (or soaring) he’d turn back at least once to see how things looked…  But nah.

So after a supremely unrefreshing four-hour break on hot sand we were right back where we came in, below pattern height fifty miles out, with the nearest little peak a thousand feet higher, miles away.  And now shadows were starting to creep across the lake bed.

Oh, it worked out all right.  In some ways low saves are all alike.  Same proximity to earth and hazard, same uncertainty, same daunting certainties, same dodge and duck, thrust and cut, same dancing on the pedals with your heels off the floor.  Each save is different too, whether time of day, location, level of desperation, or lessons learned.  And unlike most aspects of soaring, saves are always subject to a binary verdict, yea or nay.  This jury took another sweaty hour to decide our case as we clawed our way up in the day’s last lift, once Aton let me fly again, eventually high enough to stumble on home.  

Altogether our adventure amounted to fifty miles out and then barely back along the same route — in two flights.  (Don’t look Ma, hands!)

And remember our line boy Zeke?  He was making the final turn of his first 200-mile triangle as we commenced our relight, and ambled in from another direction to beat us back by half an hour.  Later, he could not help repeating, “You guys sure looked small down there.”

Yeah Zeke, and you look a bit smaller too, every time you mention it…