We were ferrying a 2-32 north to south over rural New England on what turned out to be one of the few truly booming thermal days that season. (McMurphy’s law of McMeteorology: take what you get.) The tow pilot, Digby, would go on to become a career flight instructor, but at this point was a fresh college dropout still logging his hours every evening with a decimal point. He’d flown this route already, but I wouldn’t know within fifty-miles where we were.
Strong widespread convection stirred by lively wind meant growing turbulence, which chased us gradually higher until by mid-afternoon we were cruising above 6000 feet, level with the tops of popcorn cumulus. As the landscape morphed incrementally from forest and farm to suburb and city, clouds were growing closer together, so Digby climbed even higher to scout for open areas and maintain ground reference. On our left the Atlantic coastline lay completely hidden. Ahead, jets descending into undercast at one place and rising from it elsewhere bracketed Logan Airport, Boston. A few degrees to our right, the last large opening came into view, and as we turned that way I looked back to see the one behind us receding out of range. Our options now totaled one.
The gap in cloud was less than a mile wide and closing like time lapse of a healing wound, above a large lake whose shores were concealed in deep shadow beyond. Digby cut power back and nosed over to 90, rolling slowly into a bank as we neared the opening. What more perfect setup for slack line than a steep diving spiral? If I overran it, the Schweizer hook could release by itself and leave me on my own. In this landscape my best hope for a safe landing might be a ball field if I could find one – in late afternoon, the very time when kids would be out there playing. Worst case of course there was the lake itself, but mercifully I had no time to think about that.
At 95 knots I began to creep outside the turn, like a water skier gaining even more speed. That drove me instantly higher, pulling up and out on the tug’s tail, pointing it down and in, aggravating everything. Belatedly I cracked spoilers, not braced for the impulse, and they slammed full open, shocking the line so hard I thought it broke. For seconds that seemed an hour, seeing no towrope, I cavitated mentally, caught between comprehending what I wasn’t ready for and improvising a solution. That’s when my left hand, disconnected from my brain, involuntarily closed the spoilers…
Then a bow of slack appeared on the low side, looking longer than the whole line does on the ground. I had never imagined such extreme slack. Anywhere near home I’d have immediately released and either gone soaring or landed — but not here!
The conventional cure is to cross controls and reduce airspeed by slipping. I gave that a try but slowed too much, stretched the line again to its elastic limit and BOINGed faster in rebound, generating even more slack. Each of the next three recoveries was awkward – and educational – in a different way, until I was so high on the towplane I could no longer see it. Lacking any other idea, I tried one more MONSTER slip with full spoilers, expecting to either lose the line if I hadn’t already or snap it for sure – but that’s what made the difference! It also improved downward visibility, which helped in eventually reestablishing proper position. Whattaya know.
By then we were below cloudbase again, peering through murky shade at some alarmingly tall radio towers. Street grids tangled everywhere beneath the dark, busy little sky, aircraft in all directions too many to count, mostly lit up but some not, and one must assume others unseen. Digby knew the way, fortunately, and would also win our little wager about having enough fuel. Never been so happy to lose a bet!
So this flight too was anticlimactic in the end, as all should be. But holy smokes, how hard do a couple young fellows have to try to get into trouble? Harmless outcomes like ours that day send a false message to the foolish, encouraging eagerness next time, when wise reluctance should weigh the call.
In that decade the only person with a mobile phone was a TV character named Maxwell Smart (no relation obviously). But even these days, cell service can hardly be counted on if you’re treading water far from shore.