The day looked quite promising. The sky was blue but the forecast called for a storm that evening – these are usually signs of soarable conditions. My only concern was a layer of high clouds that threatened to block the sun and shut down the thermals. The best way to deal with these was to wait, so I set down my harness to serve as a pillow, then stretched out beneath my wing to watch the sky. This kind of waiting is as old as aviation. Richthofen’s men must have waited the same way, leaning against the wheels of their Fokker DR.Is until the call came to go aloft. Centuries from now, combat cyborgs may wait for deployment, flight software paused in their ready buffers, until the call comes to make the jump to hyperspace.
Today the call was subtle. Pilots who’d launched before me and been struggling to stay up were finally beginning to climb. I watched for several minutes to make sure these conditions would last, then shouldered my glider, carried it up to launch, and hooked in. The launch itself was unremarkable. I’d been working on my technique, paying more than usual attention to speed awareness and pitch attitude, and the run off the hill went without a hitch.
As soon as I was airborne, I wondered if I’d punched off too soon. The lift seemed elusive. I’d try one of the usual places, my variometer would beep to show I was going up, then it would fall silent and I’d lose another hundred feet. Soon I was well below the peak, out in front of the 1500’ hill, feeling disgusted with myself. How annoying, to sink out so ignominiously when others were getting up!
My vario beeped. I turned. It kept on beeping. Could this be the one? My glider seemed reluctant to climb, but as I kept on fighting, the ground began to fall away. A timeless struggle brought me even with launch. Then I was above it… far above it… approaching 4000’. I gave a shout of delight. Perhaps this would be one of those rare magic days that happens once in a decade when the lift builds and spreads until you’re a mile above the mountains!
The air at 4000’ felt weird. Every now and then, my nose would fall and the glider would go into a steep dive. This was more than the usual drop that happens when you fly out of a thermal: it was something disturbing and savage, as if some invisible monster was stalking me, waiting to pounce. I flew west, trying to find smoother air, but this didn’t seem to make things better. Annoyed, I decided to burn off some altitude and wait for conditions to improve.
To my perplexity, things grew worse as I descended. One moment, I’d be climbing in weak lift. The next, I’d be falling out of the sky for long unnerving seconds as the control bar swung back to my waist. Could something be wrong with my glider? This seemed unlikely. I’d preflighted it carefully, the way I’d done for years. But why hadn’t anyone else remarked on these conditions.
I keyed my radio. “KC6PKT here. This air seems weird. Has anyone else been getting pitched down in long dives that last for several seconds.”
“No, the air feels great where I am.”
“Darn. It looks like there’s a problem with my glider.”
I wasn’t afraid… exactly. But I did feel a sense of concern. Could I keep on flying? A few more nerve-wracking plunges convinced me that this might not be wise. But could I land the glider? What would I do if it tried to dive on final – or worse, went unstable in roll? There weren’t many alternatives. I could throw my parachute, but this would mean coming down in a pile of wreckage. And I was a pilot, dammit, not a parachutist! It made more sense to try to get down in one piece.
So thinking, I headed out over the landing zone. As often happens in situations like these, it proved hard to get down. The usual method – burning off altitude in a steep-banked turn – could be just asking for trouble if there was something wrong with the wing, so I cruised in wide circles, looking for sink. A dozen minutes, during which the glider switched unpredictably between normal and strange, got me down to 1000’. Once there, I unzipped my harness and went to landing configuration to see how the glider would behave. A few practice approaches convinced me that I could reach the ground with the wings level. I might not be able to flare, so that I piled in and broke some aluminum, but aluminum is cheap.
The world seemed unusually bright as I began my landing approach. The air felt fresh, and I found myself smiling. This might not have been one of those great triumphs over mortal fear that forges men’s souls, for I was hardly in any real danger, but we must take our victories where we can. Fly a base leg. We’re getting popped up by a thermal, be ready to throw in a shallow s-turn to get down. It looks like we can turn on final here. Roll out, keep the wings level, and be ready to catch the nose if it drops. Hey, what do you know, we got down into ground effect without hitting anything! Bleed off speed… shall I try to flare… why not? Push out a bit late, drop to my knees, but hey, I’ll take it!
Subsequent inspection showed that I’d managed to dislodge the upper velcros on my nose cone so that the top came loose in flight. This must have happened while I was fiddling with the glider after I’d finished my preflight inspection. Is there a lesson here? I’ll leave that for you to decide. As for me, I’d faced a minor non-life-threatening emergency, kept my head, and was happy with the way I’d acquitted myself. This left me with a strange feeling of glee.
A Concluding Note: In his brief but remarkable book, Bone Games, Rob Schultheis noted that fear can freeze us in our tracks, make us loopy, or become a catalyst for superhuman clarity and performance. He suspected that the latter state has something to do with the correct balance of adrenaline, nor-adrenaline, and endorphins, and that it can be encouraged by training. I am certain he’s right. As a confirmed slacker… and coward… I will never pursue the necessary training or reach this state myself. But on days like this one, I’ve glimpsed it from afar.