Soaring seasons always end too soon, and my first one ended before I found a way to destroy myself. For the next year I had a flaming arrow in my quiver that was sure to do the trick. By then I’d relocated, accepting a demotion at work expressly to live near a more aggressive soaring site (one at much higher elevation, which can really make a difference…) and with nearly fifty flight hours logged I felt ready to show my stuff. I’d envied pilots who released their tows low near the airport and quickly climbed away while those in my class paid for a three or four thousand-foot tow, sometimes gliding all the way down again without doing any real soaring. So one gusty spring day I decided ahead of time to release at the first hint of lift and save a couple bucks. It nearly cost me everything.
The runway there is twenty feet lower at one end so they always took off downhill (usually downwind), landing the other way, uphill and into the wind. On this particular day however the wind was reversed, and accelerating downhill into it we lifted off almost immediately.
Swinging back to stay nearby at first, we drifted past the airfield in seconds. Then sooner than expected I felt the bump I wanted and hopped off. The first circle was a loser, but I’d seen that before and it didn’t worry me. Try the other way? Worse. Then I peeked at the altimeter and got the hot rush that always precedes cold sweat.
I’d released 700 feet above ground and much of that was gone already. The field lay right there in front of me offering a direct straight-in emergency approach, landing downhill but into the wind. Instead I stuck with the standard script, gliding all the way back around the airport in an extremely low version of a ‘normal’ pattern, hoping to find lift. That whole time, I was hemorrhaging altitude, flying way too slow into the wind on ‘downwind’ leg like only a beginner as average as me would do, all to set up a tailwind on final! At any point during that leg I could and should have turned in mid-field, where landing either direction would be vastly safer than what I did do. But I bore on, beyond the airport, trying to reach an arbitrary landmark for the usual base leg.
But didn’t get that far. Soon no kind of safe approach was possible, as between me and the strip stood two tall pines too wide to fly around. The only choice was to slip my final(?!) turn and squeak between those trees, rolling level just in time to plop to a stop at the end of pavement.
A moment before impact I was still moving at a thirty-degree angle to the strip. First the left wing kissed and then the nose, both unbelievably soft, before the mainwheel took a tremendous vertical WHUMP, tail slamming down last followed by one tiny spasm of a bounce. (Thank those zany Czech designers for the Blanik’s noseover skid and weird oleo strut!) It amounted to a spin entry beginning somewhere around head height, which explains how I came to a stop not just on the actual numbers, but perfectly in line with the runway. Oh yes, stranger than fiction. I would have made more mistakes, but time ran out.
That was also the only time I’ll ever fly barefoot… Had to pull the glider by myself the full length of a rough macadam runway, up from the low end with one wingtip dragging on its little tiedown bracket. Halfway there I stopped to rest and cool my feet while the aircraft’s owner stood with arms crossed, content to glare at me rather than come and help. When I finally heaved up to the launch line with soles afire, he shook his head slowly and spoke words I can still hear verbatim, “I’ve never seen anybody come so close to killing himself.”
He should have demanded another check flight right then and climbed in back to see if I had any idea what I was doing, but he was too upset for dialogue. Growling, he looked his glider over, astonished to find no apparent damage at all, though pulling that clump of pine needles from an inboard aileron hinge did precipitate a string of oaths.
I was too mortified to do more than pay up and make a hobbling getaway. He probably vowed to himself he’d never let me fly there again – but we’ll never know. At home there was much to think about. Obviously I lacked judgment. The cure for that is training and experience, but I could scarcely afford tows and rental, much less more instruction. Days went by, then weeks and months procrastinating that bike ride to the airport until finally the season was over. Haven’t flown there since.