It was windy yesterday—blowing hard out of the south and gusting to near 40 knots, according to the anemometer mounted on the top of the FBO building that sits midfield at our little airport tucked into the Mad River Valley, near Warren, Vermont. Weather was inbound. But for the day conditions were still high overcast, with just a few scattered, scraggly cumulous. Nothing towering. Maybe some wave action from the wind flowing over the undulating Green Mountains and White Mountains to the south and east.
Definitely some turbulence.
All that, and I wanted to fly. No, seriously, I was aching to fly. Just two days before I’d had the opportunity to get back into a Schleicher ASK-21 two-place fiberglass sailplane. A sexy ship if there ever was one, with an excellent 40:1 glide ratio and plenty of capability (even for aerobatics, if you are skilled in that realm).
Sunday’s flight with Rick Hanson (who has been with Sugarbush Soaring so long no one I know can remember the place without him and his wife, Ginny) was all about re-familiarization. I’d flown a ship just like her the year before, in Minden, Nevada. Vermont’s conditions, on that Sunday, at least, were tame compared to the way I’d gotten my butt kicked by rising thermals and developing dust devils in the high Nevada desert. This year staying behind the tow plane, even boxing its wake was just an exercise, not a wrestling match.
Thermaling came back to me pretty quickly, too. Last year the thermals were leaning towers, tilting with the afternoon valley winds. This year, though they moved with the prevailing flow, they seemed a little wider. Finding that ball of rising air in the middle seemed easier, more intuitive. Maybe it is just that I’ve only let a year go by. Before Minden I’d had a two year hiatus from soaring. It could be that two years is just too long, leaving me just too rusty and out of practice.
In any case, by Monday’s flight I was feeling competent. My instructors that day were John and Jen, and they were a dream to fly with (as they all have been, really). It was an excellent day for soaring, with light winds and towering cumulous streets of clouds that did not over develop. One expert soaring pilot riding a capable steed made his way to Stowe, Vermont, and back. And yes, someone else called (actually he had his wife call for him, hmmm…) to ask for an aero-retrieve from 40 miles east. The good news was that he’d landed at an airport.
Landing out. That’s soaring-speak for not making it back to your point of origin. An aero-retrieve means you pay the tow plane to fly to you, and then give you a tow home. Some pilots combat this problem by flying a motor glider, firing up the engine when they get to the point where they are too low to return to their home base, perhaps because they misjudged the lift conditions, or how long the lift would hold out at the end of the day. Other pilots use better judgment to make sure they get back to home base every time.
My instructors on Monday spent plenty of time helping me “see” all of the possible acceptable off-airport landing sites in the valley, and just beyond. We were high enough to see the Adirondacks looming over Lake Champlain, and hear the Québécois’ French chatter in Canada, which I could see clearly to the north with every circle as I climbed to cloud base, rolled out, pushed over for speed, and commenced to glide to the next decent thermal.
We crossed the valley practicing wing-overs, crazy-eights, stalls and steep turns, until they felt I knew all the possible quirks of the fine machine I’d chosen to master. Landings required another skill—understanding that I was much closer to the ground at flare than in my usual ride, the RV-10. That took a bit of coaching, too, but ultimately I got the visual picture and our touchdowns were smooth and on the mark. The thing about sailplanes: though you can control your trajectory to landing nicely with dive brakes, you don’t get to go around if you come up short or long. Making it back to home base from altitude is all about calculating your inertia, choosing your descent speed, setting your trajectory with your dive brakes, and making your initial pattern entry point, downwind, base, final and landing spots on speed and on altitude. Add airport traffic into the mix and you’ve got a great scenario for teaching any pilot great judgment skills.
By day’s end on Monday I’d thermaled, reviewed primary skills, proven my pattern, landing, and even emergency landing prowess, and received my sign-off for solo in the ASK-21. Tuesday’s conditions, however, were nowhere near what I’d proved myself in, and I knew it. The sailplane sat ready for me at the end of the runway, and the tow plane pilot, Steve, eyed me, waiting to know what I wanted to do. The wind was whistling through the gaps in the window frame of the not-ready-for-winter FBO. Sure, I’d flown in some gnarly winds in Minden. But not solo. In fact the last time I’d soloed a glider was in benign conditions over flat land.
“Um…no. I’m not going up today,” I said definitively.
Steve smiled. Good call.
That afternoon I hiked up a cliffside to sit on a sheltered hunk of granite that provided me a view of half the Champlain Valley. It wasn’t quite as splendid as my perch in the sailplane, but it did sooth. The clouds streamed by, harbingers of the rain that would follow. I was happy to be on terra firma, and ready to fly another day.